Syria’s window into the past

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.

Syrian tour officials who have been to Malaysia sing praises of our modern buildings and ecotourism but say, with a smirk on their faces, that we lack history. “Syria has lots of historical sites.

You must visit our country to understand mankind,’’ they say. True, but Syria is not just about ruins, ruins and more ruins. It is a country that offers sights, smells and sounds that all can enjoy, and not just the history buffs.

Syria is also a place where one can truly appreciate the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians. The country is dotted with historical mosques and churches.

Some 6,000 Malaysians visited Syria, with the majority of them being Muslims on a tour of historical and magnificent mosques. According to a Syrian Tourism official, many had enquired about security in the country. Malaysians don’t need visas to visit.

The fact that Syria is in the Middle East might invoke fears of gun battles and bloody clashes, but in fact, the country is as peaceful. One can go walk the streets and alleys at all hours without having to look over one’s shoulder.

The moment you step out of the Damascus airport, you might be greeted by sandstorms. They are said to hit the country now and again.

Don’t leave home without your shades, the bigger the better, for aside from the sandstorms, the sun can be overpowering. The chaotic traffic does take a little getting used to. There is a constant blaring of horns in all Syrian cities.

Syria is a liberal country where the women are free to dress as they like. While there are those who are fully covered in black burqas, there are also many who catwalk the streets in daring attire. And they’re chatty too.

Now, on to the fabled Silk Road, what the Arabs used to call Caravan Routes. The Silk Road, in short, is an ancient route that formed a bridge between East and West, passing through Syria. If you starting point is Damascus, there is the old town and the new town. Aside from the former being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, it is a living museum with many wonders to marvel at.

The sites to visit in old Damascus are Damascus Citadel and Omayyad Mosque and the museum. Damascus Citadel, built in 1078 AD, was used as a residence for the sultans of Egypt and Syria during the height of the Crusade.

The Omayyad Mosque is a sight to behold and is filled with pilgrims throughout the day. There are strict rules to be followed here; women, for example, must be covered up.

The national museum in new Damascus houses artifacts from Syria. A must-see here is the tablet where the first alphabet known to mankind was engraved.

The key sites in Syria are outside Damascus. If you are tight for time, you can skip most of the sites and head straight for Aleppo. It is the second capital of Syria and is 350km north of Damascus. It is about four hours’ drive from Damascus. The landscape along the highway is quite barren and provides the best time to catch up on your sleep.

Aleppo is a quaint city. The Citadel of Aleppo is one of the most famous castles in the Arab world. The citadel resembles a huge maze and is easy to get lost in. Sadly, modern-day vandals have also left their mark with love messages here.

The Citadel of Saladin in Ugarit is a must-see. This breathtaking castle of a bygone era is the best preserved medieval fortress in the land and is located on a huge cliff.

For ancient churches, you’ll have to head to Maaloula. The people here still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus is said to have spoken. But if there is one place that embodies Syria as a historical treasure trove, it has to be Palmyra. Referred to as the Pride of the Desert, it is one of the most important archeological sites in the world.

You can spend the whole day marveling at the ruins which is spread over a huge area. And don’t forget to take the camel ride, the Bedouin way. Pamphlets are available at all the sites and you can tour them on your own. The guides are fantastic but do be patient as they pepper every sentence with BC and AC. Such is their history.

History aside, the Syrians also pride themselves in having the “best cuisine” in the world. The food is good but if you are going to be there for more than a week, it can be a monotonous affair. Be it lunch or dinner, the leading hotels and restaurants all offer a huge but similar variety of appetizers. The spread of vegetables and herbs dipped in traditional sauce is tasty and nourishing. They are also heavy on olives and olive oil.

The Syrians love their lamb, and the main dish is usually just that. It is served in various ways and tastes great. Occasionally chicken is also on the menu.

The food tastes nearly the same in all the cities and towns except in Palmyra. Dinner in a Bedouin tent is an experience not to be missed. The whole lamb cooked in rice and the chicken BBQ we had were mouth-watering. If you are tired of hotel food, try the kebabs sold on the street. For a mere 50 Syrian pounds (about RM5), you can sample them. And don’t forget to take a sip of the fabulous coffee sold by the foot peddlers.

Accommodation throughout Syria ranges from luxury hotels to ancient building turned into boutique hotels, to budget hotels. Shopping can be a long and tiring affair.

The souk (bazaars) in Damascus and Aleppo sell just about everything. The souks are gigantic mazes which can be overwhelming at times with the din and crowd. Get your bearings right, otherwise, you might be walking around in circles.

Among the most sought after items are silk ware, hand-woven rugs and soaps. The fragrance of the Aleppo soap made of olive and laurel oil will hang in the air for a long time. But beware of the imitation stuff. You can also get very good carpets and shawls at a bargain if you buy them directly from the Bedouins in Palmyra. US dollars are most welcome but don’t bring back any Syrian pound for our money changers don’t deal in them.

All said, Syria may not be big in rest and recreation but it does offer you something different — something from the past. Head there if you wish to take a peek into the treasure trove.


Haifaa Mafalani