Syria's spicy mixture of ancient and modern
ROUGH GUIDE; After roaming a volcanic Roman ruin, and braving a fierce Bedouin hound, Tim Pepper and Andrew Beattie, authors of 'The Rough Guide to Syria', give their personal observations
Sunday 23 August 1998
Though worrying from the point of view of preservation, the city's wonderfully indifferent attitude to its monumental history is one of the things that makes Damascus so special.
Walking down The Street Called Straight (where Saul was led to the house of Ananias) you pass Ottoman khans still being used today, a Roman arch conveniently used to hang telephone cables upon, and small shops selling much the same produce as they did a thousand years ago - and all this while dodging classic American cars that wheeze and rattle around the Old City with the sound of Posh, Scary, Sporty, Baby (and Ginger) blaring from the stereo.
Most memorable journey
It was probably the dodgy kebab I'd had the night before that caused me to feel ill on the busride down from Baniyas to Tartous. As we were travelling at some speed and I was tightly wedged into the wrong side of the minibus it seemed easiest to simply throw up out the window and on to the road.
Regrettably, however, the airflow carried my vomit straight back inside the bus and all over the elderly gentleman sitting directly behind me - something I only realised when a number of paper tissues began to be passed back to him over my head (he took it all with admirable good humour).
The next three days were spent in my hotel room wrapped in wet towels, sweating heavily and periodically wretching up a black, very bitter tasting liquid, last seen during my first term at college.
Cockroaches are hard things to get used to, and even harder to like; many's the time I've sat on a toilet with a shoe in my hand ready to pounce on these unwanted bathroom visitors. But it wasn't just the armour-plated guests that distinguished the Touristic Hotel in Sweida.
The whole place had a forlorn air of incompetence about it; door handles came off in your hand, light bulbs died with an emphatic bang rather than a whimper and the shower taps unscrewed completely - luckily there was no hot water or I would have been scalded.
Still, the room had a balcony, with a nice view over the army barracks next door.
Favourite ancient ruin
The Roman town of Bosra was built out of the local dense, black volcanic rock giving the place not only a unique visual quality, but ensuring it has survived remarkably well.
The bath complex still boasts its roof, shops on the main thoroughfare are capable of being used today and the first jolting sight of the huge black theatre, brilliantly preserved within an Arab fortification, is simply one of the most memorable in Syria.
Bosra is also unusual in that it is still lived in today.
Many of the shapeless modern dwellings have been made from the ruins of ancient Roman or even Nabatean ones, so as you take a stroll down the cardo maximus you may encounter gaggles of schoolchildren on their way home from school or eager young antique sellers keen to invite you for a cup of tea in their premises off the main street.
Favourite modern ruin
The "razing of a city" is a phrase common to history books, and even travel guides, but it gains a startling immediacy when viewed face to face.
Thirty-seven thousand people once lived in Quneitra, the former provincial capital of the Golan, now only UN personnel patrol these very modern ruins, evacuated by the Israelis after the 1973 peace, but not before they had destroyed the place.
The UN "tour" usually begins at the hospital, littered with broken tiles and riddled with bullet holes - similar scenes of destruction are repeated at the desecrated church and mosque, at the broken husk of the local cinema and in the empty cells along the main shopping street.
You don't have to be a nihilist to enjoy the visit, but it helps.
Best improvised meal
One of the more disappointing aspects of travelling in Syria is the lack of variety of food on offer; a daily selection of either boiled chicken or lamb kebab in the evening pales after the first month or so, so when the Karnak Hotel in Raqqa offered spaghetti bolognese on its menu, there was no way to refuse.
After a half-hour wait my reverie was finally disturbed by the arrival of a plate of pasta, a separate plate of dried-up lamb pieces and a bottle of squeezy ketchup. I ordered the same next day.
Most unusual souvenir
Probably the scar left on the back of my thigh by the teeth of a Bedouin dog while researching the desert ruins of Bamuqqa.
It prompted an extra week's stay in Aleppo while undergoing a series of injections and ruined a very good pair of trousers.
It also inspired a certain nervousness of researching desert sites, though the health section in the introduction undoubtedly benefited from the experience.
British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Syrian Arab Airlines (tel: 0171- 493 2851) fly three times a week between Heathrow and Damascus. Syrian Arab Air operates internal flights between Damascus and Aleppo, Deir ez- Zur, Latakia and Qamishli and charge pounds 311 in low season and pounds 351 in high season. British Airways charges an all-year-round price of pounds 402.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotels are the only real option - from the dirt-cheap and horrendously filthy to huge five-star luxury places, including the Meridien and Sheraton chains.
WHAT TO SEE
Both Bosra and Quneitra are easy day-trips from Damascus. Bosra is open every day and you only pay to enter the theatre (pounds 3). Likewise, you can visit Quneitra any day, though you will have to get a free permit, valid for one day, from the Ministry of Interior in Damascus.
The Syrian government does not maintain tourist offices abroad but the embassy at 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1 (tel: 0171-245 9012) should be able to provide a brochure, and visa details (pounds 31 for British citizens for a single entry visa, valid for three months).
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