I knew Syria was on the U.S. State Department’s list of Top 10 Least Favorite Regimes, but so was Colombia and I had a great time there.
Naturally, I had a few concerns, such as: “Are you constantly ducking stray surface-to-surface missiles?”
“Are there any land mines at the archeological sites?” and “Are there any archeological sites?” But none of these seemed a valid reason not to go.
Getting a Syrian visa in Istanbul was a chore. Syrian officials required a letter from the U.S. embassy, in addition to my passport, stating that I was a U.S. citizen. I hiked over to the U.S. Embassy and paid $10 for the letter, wherein they looked at my passport and typed: “Doug Lansky is a U.S. citizen.”
Back at the Syrian embassy, they asked if I’d ever visited occupied Palestine. I wrote “no.” I was also asked my religion. I wrote “none.” This seemed to do the trick. I picked up my visas the next day and took a 30-hour bus ride across Turkey to the Syrian border.
My first stop was the town of Aleppo, in northwest Syria, where the most popular sight is the Baron Hotel. In the early 1900s, it was once one of the top hotels in the Middle East, which doesn’t say much for Middle Eastern hotels during this period. It’s fair to say the Baron has clung tightly to it’s former glory; the owners hadn’t changed a thing (from the wallpaper to the toilet paper) since Teddy Roosevelt, T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” and Agatha Christie stayed here.
Allepo also sports the largest market in the Arab World - 10 kilometers of colorful, exotic shops selling almost nothing you’d ever want to buy.
I met a nice couple from New Zealand and we chartered a taxi for the day to see some sights around Aleppo. We visited many empty ruins, including those of St. Simeon. Legend has it that Mr. Simeon started preaching on a pedestal in 423 A.D. and continued preaching on progressively higher pedestals as - I can only assume - his body odor grew worse. He stayed on the various pedestals, the tallest of which rose 30 feet, for the next 42 years, using a chain and iron neck collar to keep from tumbling off in his sleep.
In Syria, shorts don’t go over well for either sex. It’s a bit like walking around the U.S. in a G-string. Better to wear conservative clothing (especially for women). However, you don’t need to go overboard.
Most Syrian women wore clothing that covers their bodies from the top of their heads to the street - five layers thick in some places - and tend to look like a cross between a walking tent and one of Christo’s smaller “wrapped” art projects.
The men were split, half wearing jeans with a button-down shirt and half in “disdashas,” an Arabic word meaning “my grandmother’s nightgown.” Of course, given the desert heat, the disdashas make much more sense, and if I didn’t look like such a tourist hose-head, I’d have worn one myself.
My Western clothing made me stand out just enough to get knocked over by Syrian generosity. I was approached by total strangers in restaurants and on the street and offered gifts. Really.
Me: “Why do you want to give me a gift?”
Syrian: “Because you are guest in my country and it is my duty.”
From Allepo, I made my way south to Palmyra, 300 kilometers east of a town called Hama, where in 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood rose up against the current Syrian dictator, Hafez alHassad, who, not known for his tolerance for uprisings, killed, according to my guidebook, between “10,000 and 25,000 people.” Which may explain why his approval rating is lower than his hat size.
An oasis in the middle of the country, Palmyra was once a powerful trading city along the Silk Route. It’s now a partially excavated archaeological site with a four-star hotel, several no-star hotels, and a bunch of souvenir shops where you can buy fake artifacts. Or you can follow a salesman into a secret back room, open an ancient treasure chest, and buy the same fake artifacts at much higher prices.
On the road south to Damascus, I met some travelers planning a short detour to Maalula, a small town where, according to the guidebook, the people still speak Aramaic, “THE LANGUAGE THAT JESUS SPOKE!” This, of course, is a fat lie. In every movie I’ve ever seen, Jesus was speaking perfect English. He didn’t even have an Aramaic accent.
I eventually made it to Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, boasting more owners than the Rams football organization. Since the third millennium B.C., the city has been ruled by the Egyptians, the Israelites, the Assyrians, the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Nabataeans, the Romans, the Christian Church, Islamics, the Seljuq Turks, the Mongols, the Mamelukes of Egypt, the Ottoman Turks, Turk and German forces, the Syrians, the French and British, and as of 1946, the Syrians are having their second go at it. With a little historical background, it’s not difficult to understand the instability of the Middle East.
The Omayyed Mosque is the focal point of Damascus. A minaret atop the southeastern corner still stands as a perch for Jesus to reappear on Judgment Day. And the mosque’s sanctuary holds a glass-enclosed tomb containing the head of St. John the Baptist. Tourists are allowed to visit between official prayer times, provided they remove their shoes. Men wearing shorts and all women are required to don a black, hooded prayer robe before entering the mosque. The effect can be comical with a large tour group - 20 barefoot Obi Wan Kenobis quick-stepping around pigeon droppings while crossing the marble courtyard.
All in all, I was impressed by Syria and the Syrians. We met numerous university-educated Syrians who spoke English, and not one carried a rocket launcher, despite what you may have heard from Dan Rather. In fact, religion and politics were never discussed and I found Syrians to be the friendliest people I’d visited since the Colombians, who - when they’re not knocking off star soccer players or judges - are, I swear, extremely hospitable.