AT SUNSET, the Roman columns of Palmyra – lost in the desert, a five-hour drive from Damascus – look very romantic, the golden light highlighting the sandstone from which most of it is built. The main colonnade, lined with massive columns, stretches into the distance, its roadway unpaved so as to provide better footing for the endless camel caravans that once arrived here from the edges of empire.
The site is vast, littered with carved blocks and sections of pillars, like some classical building site. But, having seen Pompeii and the remarkable ruins of Leptis Magna in Libya, Palmyra suffered in my mind by comparison. All of them do beg the question of why the Romans seem to have left all their big cities unfinished.
On first impression, parts of Syria’s more modern cities are little better: sprawling mazes of low-rise, anonymous buildings, blocks of flats hanging off ramshackle scaffolding, whether still under construction or falling down, it’s sometimes hard to tell under the anonymous dust. There seem few landmark structures, other than the mosques, or Aleppo’s Citadel. Fortunately, those landmarks are pretty special.
In Damascus, you wander the endless dark warren of the Hamidiye souk – the normal fascinating clichés of rich fabrics, Chinese-made tat (towels, plastic toys and rayon-rich clothes), spices brassware and tea-sellers – to emerge, blinking in the sunlight, before the wall of The Ummayad (Great) Mosque. In fact, you’ve just walked along a Roman road and the columns in front of the mosque are the (again, unfinished) Temple of Jupiter.
Women – and men – not already properly attired have to don an unflattering beige robe in the ‘Putting On Special Clothes Room’. (Beside it is the tomb of the mighty Kurdish-born Saladin, warrior and diplomat, who finally defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century.) Then you have to take off your shoes, but you do get to carry them with you as there are several exits. Be careful not to drop them when your jaw falls in awe as you first enter one of the great – and oldest – mosques of Islam. It dates to 715, only 83 years after the death of Mohammed (BBHN), when Damascus was the capital of the fast-growing Arab Empire.
Built on a site where people have worshipped for at least 3,000 years, the prophet Yahya (John the Baptist) is buried here and a minaret on one side is where Muslims believe Jesus is due to appear at the End of the World and put an end to evil and suffering. The vast Medieval piazza inside oozes an air of peace and beauty. Families stroll, snapping each other on phone cameras, the kids running around playing, sliding on the polished stone and kicking balls. If Jesus has peeped down around already, his overall impression may be that all’s very well with the world – which might explain why he seems in no rush to end it.
As a visitor, you are approached shyly by children and adults, tentatively trying out their English language skills. I was asked to coffee by a young lady and her two friends. Three Palestinian women, currently living in Saudi Arabia but originally from Damascus, they were showing traditional Arab hospitality, while quietly demolishing stereotypes about Muslim women. One was an electrical engineer (though she is not allowed to work in Saudi), all were computer literate (‘Are you on FaceBook?’ ‘Do you Twitter?’ they asked.) and entertaining company.
But they were also very proper, carefully adjusting head scarves to make sure no stray hair or flesh was showing before posing for a group photo. What their husbands might think of our encounter, I have no idea but, since their children were running around at our feet, it will be no secret. From everyone who has been to Syria I have heard similar tales of the welcome you can expect.
The drive to Palmyra took me past the Krak de Chevalier which dates to the Crusades and is considered a classic of medieval fortification. The headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, it was the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land and later described by Lawrence of Arabia as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world’. It takes several hours to visit it properly, to see the stables that could hold 1,000 horses, the kitchens and ovens that catered for thousands of soldiers and the storage jars that held enough wine and food for a five-year siege.
The Citadel at Aleppo is simpler but still awesome, a Muslim fortress that helped beat off the two unsuccessful Crusaders sieges on Aleppo in 1098 and in 1124. Personally, I would have taken one look at this massive castle on its smooth stone hill and gone straight home. It’s a perfect cliché of intimidation, towering over every viewpoint in the old city. The Romans could have taken a few tips from it on building something properly.