www.nadfas.org.ukSands 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,
www.nadfas.org.ukNADFAS REVIEW / SUMMER 2010 47TRAVEL/TOURSthe refreshingly uncrowded Palmyra.Located on the edge of the country'slargest oasis, the scale of the ruins andthe incomparable desert setting makethis place unmissable. Wanderingaround the remains of sandstonetemples, markets and theatre makesZenobia, the rebellious third-centurylocal queen who usurped most of theEast (together with Egypt) before beingcaptured and taken to Rome) comealive, while the odd tourist camelplodding along reminds us of theancient desert caravans that once madethis city, a hybrid of Roman and Persianculture, so wealthy. Explore the outskirtsand the unique tower tombs andexquisitely painted undergroundhypogea, displaying Hellenistic influence,await, with other treasures on show atthe impressive local museum.I'll never forget my first impressionof the Euphrates river, a life-giving streakof blue cutting across the arid plains ofEastern Syria; herons stalking thereedbeds, and eagles hunting overhead.Forming the western boundary ofMesopotamia, long known as 'thecradle of civilisation', it is intimatelyconnected with Sumerian legends likeGilgamesh. Along its banks are stillpreserved ancient remains, like thepalace of the third millennium BC in themud brick city of Mari and the Greektrading outpost of Dura-Europos,famous for the Roman-era synagoguefrescoes that are now preserved inDamascus. Simply journeying to thisremote region is half the fun, catching aglimpse of the Bedouin tribes and thecolourful dress of the Fellaheen (farmers)at their roadside markets on the way.This is a country of diverselandscapes, however, and its charming,yet little explored, Mediterranean coastand nearby mountains are reminiscent ofCyprus, just a short distance across thewater. Of interest in this region of orangegroves and small fishing communitiesare the ruins of Ugarit, a port that tradedwith the ancient Egyptians and hasyielded many treasures, including finegold work and evidence of the world'sfirst syllabic alphabet. Up at higher altitude, meanwhile, arethe magnificent Crusader castles thatmoved the likes of TE Lawrence tosuperlatives. Saone (now known asSaladin's castle) with its stunningmountain setting and the famous Krakdes Chevaliers, a formidable structurethat guaranteed the Crusaders'supremacy of the region through itsguarding of the principal trade routeinland.Syria is rich in remains from manyphases of her history, from the Byzantine'Dead Cities', deserted yet amazinglywell preserved fifth- and sixth-centuryrural settlements of honey-colouredstone, to elegant Ottoman buildings likeDamascus' Takiyya complex and thecharming, bijou Hejaz railway station.And who would forget Bosra'sbreathtaking Roman theatre, built fromthe local black basalt and probably thefinest surviving example anywhere. Thedecorative arts are richly representedalso, with the Damascene tradition ofinlaid furniture, the technique of mosaicand fascinating examples of Bedouinjewellery featuring in the souks andsmall craft shops that abound. A time-honoured ceramic tradition is alsopresent, perhaps inspired by theexamples of Al Raqqa and Resafe,whose potters were famous throughoutthe Islamic world in the MiddleAges.Indeed, this amazing land ofcontrasts is now increasingly popular asa travel destination as its beauty, historyand warm local smiles continue to drawtravellers back again, much as it did the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines,Arabs, Mongols and Turks. JOURNEY THROUGH SYRIA WITHKIRKER HOLIDAYSAndrew Allen will leadKirker's Journeythrough Syria with avisit to Baalbeck. The tour departs on25 October 2010 and 25 April & 24October in 2011. The cost is from£2,795 and the price includes all meals.Please telephone Lucy Ayling at KirkerHolidays on 020 7593 2286 to bookyour place or firstname.lastname@example.orgOr see pages 30 and 49 for moreLeft: The souks ofthe Old City arethe place tobargain for spicesBelow:Intertwinedsnakes guard thethe main gate ofthe citadel ofAleppoWe are not endorsing any product in this section. Adverts are published for members' convenience. Normalterms and conditions apply (see page 3). Any traveladvertisement carrying the Tour NADFAS logo means acommission payment is made to NADFAS on the productor trip advertised. Those that continue to support usthrough advertising only will not use the Tour NADFASname and logo.