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page 68 of timeTRAVEL/TOURSsands of timeRich history amidst desertlandscapes -Syria exploredburiedtreasuresClose encounters withancient RomethisissueSyria has a rich history thatstretches back for millennia,yet still offers much for themodern visitor. AndrewAllenoutlines some of thebest sights in this fascinatingand friendly desert countrySyria. The name conjures upimages of desert, easternexoticism and all the complexitiesof the modern Middle East. This land ofstupendous Roman ruins, mightyCrusader castles and graceful Islamicbuildings is fast emerging as the newtravel destination par excellence in aregion full of historical splendour; its lackof commercialism and air of authenticitycontrasting sharply with some of hermuch visited neighbours.Arriving in the capital Damascus, thevisitor is instantly impressed by the sightof the bone-dry hills that seem toencircle the place, "like a scene from anillustrated children's bible" as I onceheard it described. The Old City, insideits sturdy medieval walls, is home tocolourful souks and an array of differentpeoples -from young westernised menbuying spices to older veiled womeninspecting fruit and black-clad Iranianpilgrims accompanied by their white-turbaned mullah searching out theUmayyad Mosque. One feels the spirit ofthe East, the old, pre-colonial East, herein a manner long departed from the likesof Cairo and Marrakech. And what asight the Umayyad Mosque is: a hugeeighth-century edifice decorated withmagnificent mosaics and capitals andfeaturing three splendid minarets. In thewarm sunny afternoons, visitors canoften be found taking a break from themuseums and madrassas in thecourtyards of some of those famous oldDamascene houses, fountains gurglingin the background amid the shimmer ofglazed Ottoman tiles. Equally fascinatingare the early Christian sites that arepreserved, the city of course inextricablylinked to St Paul's celebrated conversionon the road to here. Three hours away to the east liesSyria's most famous archaeological site,