The Cradle of Civilization

Much has been written about Syria and its history. But it’s the ever-present Syrian smiles that light up the country’s historical sites that make the experience especially memorable.If your wish is to travel back in time to the “Cradle of Civilization”, then take the Syrian time capsule à la the Silk Road. It’s simply magical.

The country’s countless ruins, some of which date back 5,000 years, are bound to mesmerize. Syria’s role in history is vast as it houses the imprints of some of the world’s oldest civilizations.

 The fact that Syria is in theMiddle East might invokefears of gun battles andbloody clashes, but in fact, thecountry is as peaceful as ours.

 

One can go walk the streetsand alleys at all hours withouthaving to look over one’s shoulder.The moment you step outof the Damascus airport,you might be greeted bysandstorms. They are said tohit the country now and again.Don’t leave home withoutyour shades, the bigger thebetter, for aside from thesandstorms, the sun can beoverpowering.

If you starting point isDamascus, there is the oldtown and the new town. Asidefrom the former being theoldest continuously inhabitedcity in the world, it is a living museum with many wondersto marvel at.

The sites to visit in oldDamascus are DamascusCitadel and Omayyad Mosqueand the museum.Damascus Citadel, builtin 1078 AD, was used as aresidence for the sultans ofEgypt and Syria during theheight of the Crusade. Thecitadel is now undergoingextensive restoration works  the time being.

The Omayyad Mosque is asight to behold and is filledwith pilgrims throughout theday. There are strict rules tobe followed here; women, forexample, must be covered up.

The national museum in newDamascus houses artifactsfrom Syria. A must-see hereis the tablet where the firstalphabet known to mankindwas engraved.

The key sites in Syria areoutside Damascus. If you aretight for time, you can skipmost of the sites and headstraight for Aleppo. It is thesecond capital of Syria and is350km north of Damascus.It is about four hours’drive from Damascus.

Thelandscape along the highwayis quite barren and providesthe best time to catch up onyour sleep.Aleppo is a quaint city. TheCitadel of Aleppo is one ofthe most famous castles inthe Arab world. The citadelresembles a huge maze and is easy to get lost in. Sadly,modern-day vandals havealso left their mark with lovemessages here.

The Citadel of Saladinin Ugarit is a must-see.This breathtaking castleof a bygone era is the bestpreserved medieval fortressin the land and is located on ahuge cliff.

For ancient churches, you’llhave to head to Maaloula.The people here still speakAramaic, the language Jesusis said to have spoken.But if there is one place thatembodies Syria as a historicaltreasure trove, it has to bePalmyra. Referred to as thePride of the Desert, it isone of the most importantarcheological sites in theworld.You can spend the whole daymarveling at the ruins whichis spread over a huge area.

And don’t forget to take thecamel ride, the Bedouin way.Pamphlets are available atall the sites and you cantour them on your own. Theguides are fantastic but do bepatient as they pepper everysentence with BC and AC.Such is their history.History aside, the Syrians alsopride themselves in havingthe “best cuisine” in theworld.

The food is good but ifyou are going to be there formore than a week, it can be amonotonous affair.Be it lunch or dinner, theleading hotels and restaurantsall offer a huge but similarvariety of appetizers. Thespread of vegetables and herbs dipped in traditionalsauce is tasty and nourishing.They are also heavy on olivesand olive oil.The Syrians love their lamb,and the main dish is usuallyjust that. It is served invarious ways and tastes great.Occasionally chicken is alsoon the menu.

The food tastes nearly thesame in all the cities andtowns except in Palmyra.Dinner in a Bedouin tent is anexperience not to be missed.

The whole lamb cooked inrice and the chicken BBQ wehad were mouth-watering.If you are tired of hotelfood, try the kebabs soldon the street. For a mere 50Syrian pounds (about RM5),you can sample them. Anddon’t forget to take a sip of the fabulous coffee sold by the footpeddlers.

Accommodation throughout Syriaranges from luxury hotels to ancientbuilding turned into boutique hotels, tobudget hotels.

Shopping can be a long and tiring affair.The souk (bazaars) in Damascus andAleppo sell just about everything. Thesouks are gigantic mazes which canbe overwhelming at times with the dinand crowd. Get your bearings right,otherwise, you might be walking aroundin circles.Among the most sought after items aresilk ware, hand-woven rugs and soaps.

The fragrance of the Aleppo soapmade of olive and laurel oil will hangin the air for a long time.

 

Haifaa Mafalani

 

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