Travel: In an antique land

For modern travellers, Syria is a relatively undiscovered country. Behi nd the concrete blocks of the capital Brigid Keenan found the footprints of man y civilisations
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WHEN MY diplomat husband was posted to Syria last year, I telephoned a friend (the only person I knew who had been there) to ask what the place was like. "Damascus," he began, "reminded me of ..." He paused, and I waited for him to say "Paradise" - but he said "East Berlin". It's true; the 20th century has added 2m inhabitants and concrete apartment blocks galore to this legendary oasis town. Only the glittery green and gold mosaic pictures on the walls of the Great Mosque show how it looked before.

People have been praying on the site of this mosque for thousands of years. It was a Christian cathedral before it was a mosque, before that a Roman temple. We like to go there and sit at the back, feeling that all these centuries of prayer make us calm.(Actually, the last time my husband went there he didn't feel calm at all, because somebody stole his shoes and he had to steal someone else's just to get home.)

The mosque is the heart of the Old City - and this is the good part. Damascus may have acquired acres of grim suburbs, but the Old City with its crooked medieval houses and narrow alleys and Roman pillars sticking up out of the pavements unexpectedly, ismore or less intact. It is a secretive kind of place; you have to peer and poke around to discover that behind all the blank white walls are ravishing courtyards and exquisitely painted houses.

One of them, Azem Palace, is a museum; another, Beit Nizam, which used to be the British consulate in the glamorous old days when Richard Burton went there, can be visited if the guard is in a good mood. The magnificent domed Khan (merchant's warehouse)

of Assad Pasha is being restored in the Spice Souk, and male visitors can really enter into the spirit of the place by taking a "Turkish" bath in the old tiled and vaulted Hamman Nur al-Din (near Azem Palace).

Old Damascus must be one of the world's unspoilt and unexploited treasures, but it is at a crucial turning point. Some houses are in such disrepair that they are on the verge of collapse. The owners have fallen on hard times, or moved into modern apartments at a loss to know how to live, these days, in a crumbling house with an open courtyard and no heating. As yet, no one has turned an old palace into a hotel, but there are schemes afoot. When that eventually happens it will give the Old City a shot inthe arm.

In the meantime, walking there will restore the romantic picture of Damascus you had before arrival. You can stroll down The Street Called Straight, past the Spice Souk, past the medicine shops where they can make a tisane to cure a headache, or supply powdered baby crocodile to help with a virility problem. Continue on, through the Jewish quarter, into the Christian quarter, past shops selling mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, and you will find yourself at one of the great Roman gates into the city.

On the way you will see old Druze men from the country on donkeys; tattooed ladies in wimples from Hauran, south of Damascus; women pilgrims from Iran, shrouded from head to foot in black, who have come to pray at the tomb of Mohammed's granddaughter; glitzy Syrian girls with big hair and stiletto heels; modest Muslim women wearing scarves to hide their hair and fawn raincoats to hide their bodies. You might also glimpse a Mother Theresa nun in her blue-banded white sari. Syria is a secular state whereeveryone can practise their own religion.

The greatest danger to a Westerner in Syria is probably cardiac arrest brought on by over-eating. "If you love me, eat," is an Arab saying, and it's ordeal by food almost daily. If you are invited to a Damascene house, the table will be groaning and so, shortly, will you.

There are not enough hours in the day, either, to have coffee with everyone who invites you. We have drunk coffee in Bedouin tents; in a soldier's bivouac; with beaming Druze families living in original Roman and Byzantine houses; and in shops in the Damascus souk, cosy and soundproofed by the layers of rugs hanging on the walls.

My last birthday "tea" was coffee by a camp-fire among the grand Roman ruins of Apamea, 250km north of Damascus, with the guardian of the site and my husband. Everyone there, we noticed, was walking bent over, staring at the ground. Was this some geneticfault in the population? No, they were searching for Roman coins. It had rained the night before, and artefacts are exposed in newly washed earth.

People are fond of telling you that if 12 full-time archaeologists dug the site at Apamea, it would take 200 years to complete the excavation. It was here that one of the many tourist "guides" attached himself to me; he let out a cry and picked a tiny carved gemstone out of the mud at our feet. "Oh lady, how lucky you are!" My heart did a little flip before I realised he had, of course, dropped it himself and was going to try and sell it to me.

But it could have been there; in Syria, things are always turning up. At an exhibition of Syrian treasures held in Paris last year, the most priceless object was a gold coin bearing the head of the legendary queen, Zenobia. It was found only a couple of months before the exhibition opened.

Wherever you go in Syria, archaeologists are hard at work. The Japanese, digging in the desert around Palmyra - a romantic Roman city 220km north-east of Damascus - found two new tombs last year. Syrian archaeologists have recently revealed a whole Roman street and a temple in Bosra, one and a half hours' drive south of Damascus.

In Syria, though tourists are becoming more common, you can still find yourself alone at a famous site. You could have the surreal experience of being all alone among the golden pillars of Palmyra; or in the great hilltop Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers; or at the Byzantine monastery of St Simeon (where the saint sat on top of a pillar for 40 years). We once found ourselves alone in Saone, another Crusader castle, on a blustery day with clouds scudding across the sky; we could almost smell the fear of the European knights as they huddled in the keep and listened to Saladin's army smash its way through to them.

You are very likely, too, to be the only Westerner in the famous covered souk of Aleppo - Syria's second city, once a great trading post on the Silk Route. You feel you ought to be dropping breadcrumbs, like Hansel and Gretel, so you can find the way out. There, you risk death by cucumber or onion as handcarts loaded with them (or bread, or cheese that looks like skeins of wet white knitting wool) hurtle along the narrow paths.

We did a sightseeing swoop on the north-east of Syria last Easter, starting in Aleppo with the souks and the Arab citadel which dominates the town. We moved on to Resafe, a ruined Byzantine city, then to Halibiyye, a Roman/ Palmyran border castle on a beautiful site overlooking the Euphrates. Then on to 4,000-year-old Mari, where the crumbled mud walls of the ancient palace make an effective maze (which I got lost in). We ended up in Palmyra, staying at the little Zenobia hotel - built right among the ruins by the French years ago, a must if you can arrange it.

Part of the charm of Syria is that there is an element of real adventure in the sightseeing - even danger. The sites are not sign-posted and sanitised for tourists. A Roman wall could fall on you somewhere, or you could drop through a hole in the ground into some vast cellar or cistern that nobody knew existed.

Syria may be unpredictable and harsh to look at - the discarded plastic bags and unfinished buildings are ugly. But there are so many moments when you catch your breath at the beauty or drama of the country, or the kindness of its people. There are many surprises. In the Meridien hotel in Damascus, for example, we once bumped into a group of Arabs with hooded falcons on their wrists. In the hills in springtime, we heard the Bedouin shepherd boys playing their flutes as they led the flocks home in the setting sun. Is it any wonder that we like to call Syria the Last Secret?

SITE-SEEING IN SYRIA Syria is crammed with archaeological sites, from the prehistoric and pre-Christian eras to Hellenistic, Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine, Arab/Islamic, Crusader and Ottoman. These are the principle ones to visit: In Damascus: Azem Palace (Ottoman); Tekkiye Suleimaniye mosque and handicrafts market (Ottoman); Umayyad Mosque (Arab/Islamic), also called the Great Mosque. The National Museum in Damascus is fairly unsophisticated, but a treasure-house nonetheless.

Elsewhere: Mari, Ugarit and Ebla (1000-3000 BC); Apamea (Hellenistic/Roman); Bosra (Nabatean/Roman); Palmyra (Palmyran/Roman/; St Simeon's monastery and the Dead Cities (Byzantine); Dead Cities (Byzantine); Aleppo, the Citadel (Arab); Saone, Krak des Chevaliers (also called Saladdin's castle); Tartus, the cathedral (Crusader). The museums in Aleppo, Palmyra and Suweida are also well worth visiting.

Recommended reading: There is no better guide to the sites than Ross Burns's The Monuments of Syria (IB Tauris, £18.95 in paperback). Burns was the Australian ambassador to Syria, and his book is packed with good advice. To resident Damascenes, Burns is a challenge. Can they possibly discover anything in Syria that he didn't find first? Also recommended is Warwick Ball's Syria (Scorpion Publishing Ltd, £14.95).