I rolled into Damascus in style in the back of a huge Sixties Dodge; plum-coloured leather inside, chrome and yellow paint on the outside. We had been whisked through the controls at the Jordanian border: it seemed the taxi driver knew the border guard. He spirited us through customs and then climbed into the front of the car for a lift to his home town. We pulled away, our boot bursting with watermelons, leaving groups of Daghestanis returning from Mecca praying in the dirt behind us. In the dusk all you could discern was the white cape of the haj fitting snugly over their heads, all touching the ground in unison.

The next morning the same pilgrims were to be encountered forming an encampment in the central car park of Damascus, their caravans constructed from old Soviet trucks with square wooden huts shackled on to them. Around the pilgrims were the carpets they had slept on, prayed on and kept themselves warm with for the last three months, now, rather unappetisingly, for sale. The scene resembled something from Gulliver's Travels, as most of the better-value Soviet items they could sell to finance their return journey were forms of optical equipment. Every evening crowds of Syrians, some in Western dress and others in the jellaba and red-and-white headdress, stood with telescopes and opera glasses, peering into the heavens.

If you have biblical images of Damascus fixed in your mind, your initial impression of the city may be disappointing. The walls from which St Paul was lowered in a laundry basket to escape persecution now have quite extensive suburbs around them. But the old city remains intact and is composed of hundreds of tiny, twisting streets whose archways are so low as to enable you to examine the structure of the ancient houses above them.

One of the most exhilarating experiences in Damascus is to walk under the flimsy corrugated-iron roof of the ancient Souq Al Hamadiyyeh (the main market), past Persian pilgrims clad in the long billowing chador, past scouts trying to lure you into tourist shops and boys selling one Marlboro at a time. You pull up with a jolt, for looming before you are six great pillars with Corinthian capitals, the remains of a triangular lintel precariously balanced across them. This is what is left of the Temple of Jupiter, a third-century Roman temple built on a pagan holy site. Each day the columns are draped by stall-holders selling Islamic mementos beneath them; bold banners of gold on black proclaiming (in defiance of the site's religious history): 'There is one God but God.'

The souvenir stalls are here because on the other side of these remains stretches the mighty enclosure of the Omayyad Mosque, built AD 705. It consists of three minarets and a huge central courtyard of smooth marble, cool beneath the feet. At night, floodlit, you can see the Minaret of the Bride, in the Roman colonnades, and you cannot help but admire the organic quality of the old city, one period rising from the ruins of another.

Today, however, what clamours for attention more insistently than the monuments, are the gigantic portraits of a twinkling Mr Chips character with which the capital is draped. This benign-looking grey-haired man is, of course, President Assad, for the past 23 years dictator of Syria and against whom it would be extremely ill-advised to utter one word. His regime, according to Amnesty International, relies on a ruthless intelligence system.

So there would seem to be plenty of reasons to display a picture of the President in your shop. Indeed, while waiting in shops, offices or visa queues it became an interesting pastime to see how many presidential icons you could count - from brass plates to I Love President Assad stickers. A police motorbike windshield - three; a tea booth - six; a museum curator's office - 14.

The Syrians are anxious to lay claim to being the fount of all civilisation, which is ironic given the country's poor human rights record. In the sleepy town of Hama, on the Orontes river, the full force of oppression was felt 12 years ago when 30,000 people were killed in a revolt against the regime. Today a conspiracy of silence seems to reign there. The medieval centre, flattened during the uprising, has been almost completely rebuilt, much of it in the old style, so that a visitor strolling along the riverbank would have little inkling of its past.

Arriving at midnight I found the town deserted - the burghers of Hama asleep in their beds, or at least safely at home at this hour. Two sounds permeated the darkness: the groaning of an ancient and colossal water wheel, and a strange quacking noise, which I subsequently learnt was produced by frogs.

By day Hama proved to be a beautiful town, planted with tall green trees whose roots sank deep into the Orontes. The waterwheels are a medieval device once used to distribute water to the outlying fields along ancient aqueducts. The moaning effect is a result of the wet wheels turning on a wooden pins. I asked my student guide why the aqueducts, and buildings such as the Azem Palace, were in such a ruinous condition. He replied with great diplomacy: 'Carelessness. Carelessness. People are very careless with old buildings here.'

People (even the old who spoke no English) were glad to see a European visitor and urged me to visit the Grand Mosque, dating from the Omayyad period. The mosque is not indicated on the tourist map but a kind man eagerly wrote down the directions in Arabic. The mosque is now about three-quarters rebuilt after its complete destruction in the uprising, and there has been a painstaking attempt to reproduce its exquisite predecessor brick by brick. I could not, however, unlock my companion's lips on the subject of how the mosque had come to be in this condition. As we strolled along the river, he linked arms with me, as is the custom between Arab male friends, and said kindly: 'My dear, I counsel you. Do not ask about such things. There is danger. You must know that things are different here in the Third World.'

At this point on the Orontes, the Apamee Cham Palace Hotel sprang into view, usurping a site that once had been a warren of old residential streets. Modern, squat, domineering, was it really, for the people of Hama, more of a monumental tombstone, I wondered.

Ruins ancient and modern: the next day I set off for Palmyra by bus - the most inexpensive and efficient means of travel around Syria. The choice ranged from luxurious Pullmans to old local buses which are often masterpieces of kitsch iconography, decorated with plastic fruit, flowers, fairy lights and pictures of the bellies of belly dancers or the proudly flaunted boobs of Samantha Fox. The dashboards are upholstered in leopard skin or fluffy carpet while from the mirrors there hang strings of worry beads, an evil eye and maybe a couple of pictures of the President.

Palmyra is an oasis desert ruin, formerly an important link in the silk route. After the failed rebellion of the half-Arab, half-Greek Queen Zenobia against the Romans, the town was sacked and went into a steady decline. Excavations only began in 1924 and now more than 300 columns are standing again, with a beautiful theatre (designed to resemble a palace) and a vast temple. It is an enormous site whose honey-coloured marble columns came so close to being reunited with the desert that if you brush them, fragments flake away in your hand.

Most memorable for me was a ramble round the funerary towers that peer at the town from a slight incline. These formerly contained floor upon floor of earthenware sarcophagi sealed in stone niches. A sweep with a flashlight still reveals piles of 2,000-year- old human bones heaped into corners. Probably only the wealthy were buried here. You can see what they looked like from their funeral sculptures (some still in situ, others in the museums of Palmyra, Damascus and the Louvre). What is particularly moving is the worldliness of the images: women drawing back their veils to display earrings and tiaras; a paterfamilias for ever holding a goblet at a tantalisingly slanting angle.

Grave robbing is still a common occurrence. Clearly 70 years of excavation has not been enough to drain Palmyra of its secrets. I myself, while climbing one of the towers, trod on a rebarbative-looking brown substance and didn't care to examine it too closely, thinking perhaps I had discovered a Bedouin's lavatory. But the next day, wandering around the museum looking at the haunting funeral reliefs, I came across a case displaying the identical substance: 3,000-year- old mummy rags, mostly of cotton but some of Chinese silk.

The young curator to whom I delivered my news was used to picking up odd bits and pieces from the site and urged me to ride postillion on his motorbike across the ruins to collect more mummys' cast-offs. 'We have too many shrouds, too many,' he said as we phutted-phutted over the rocky terrain, a plume of desert dust in our wake. 'They are left by thieves who go through the towers looking for bodies. They think they will find on them a ring or a jewel. And I have guards. But what to do with them all, what to do with them?' he asked rhetorically, it being unclear whether he was referring to the grave robbers, the guards, the mummy rags or the jewels. 'For us it is a daily problem.'

FACTFILE

Getting there: Major Travel (071-485 7017) has a London-Damascus fare of pounds 339 on Olympic Airways via Athens. Until 30 November, however, Syrian Arab Airways (071-493 2851) is offering a fare of only pounds 300 return for its twice-weekly flights from Heathrow to Damascus via Munich. Anyone wanting to drive to Damascus from Amman can travel to the Jordanian capital for pounds 372 on Air France (through STA Travel, 071-937 9962).

Visas: all foreigners must have a visa, which should be obtained from the Syrian Embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH (071-245 9012). You can call in between 10am and noon, Monday to Friday, or send in an sae for an application form, which you return with one photo, pounds 35 and a letter from your employer. Visas are issued in three days.

Recommended reading: Jordan & Syria: a Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 8.95).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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