From the Euphrates to the Mediterranean, from Zenobia to the Crusaders, there is not an inch of land in Syria that history and men have left untouched. A veritable open-air museum, with deserts and oases, blue beaches and valleys dotted with olive trees, the earth itself in this cradle of humanity is steeped in an Oriental perfume. A land of biblical tribes, its most beautiful legends are born there where the sand has turned to stone.
Sumerian in the 5th century BC, Canaanite in the, 3rd century BC, then Amorite, Aramaean, Hellenic, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine and Arab, pagan, then Christian and Muslim, Syria is a place where religions and civilizations have always converged without ever crowding each other. For proof, one need only look at Damascus, the oldest capital in the world still inhabited today. Nested like a jewel in its ancient walls, the old city unfolds its ancestral charms between minarets and church steeples.
While exuberant and business-minded, this city, whose beauty won it the nickname "Halo of the moon on earth" and "Beauty mark of the world" delights in linyering over the ritual of tea-drinking. With smiles all around, friends and foreigners alike are invited to sit back and join in the tradition.
And where better to start than in the Souk al Hamidiyeh, a must for every tourist on his or her way to the Omayyed Mosque. Elegant women with veiled silhouettes rub shoulders with porters in djellabas and sundry smooth talkers urging you to step into their boutiques for "the pleasure of the eye" and the dismay of your wallet!
One of the most beautiful holy places in all of Islam, the Omayyad Mosque is also a symbol of religious syncretism. Built in the 7th century, it encompasses an earlier Aramaean structure, a Roman temple to Jupiter and a Byzantine church. Dedicated to Allah in 636, this sanctuary is home to many sumptuous Oriental rugs as well as an impressive reliquary bearing the head of Saint John the Baptist.
Close by, the 18th-century Azem palace looks like it comes straight out of a tale in the Thousand and One Nights. The inner courtyards, with their multi-colored basalts, limestone and marble walls bespeak the refinements of the Ottoman empire, which ruled the city for more than four centuries. The arch on Madhat Pasha street marks the boundary of the former Christian quarter, where all communities have been living together for centuries in perfect harmony. Wandering haphazardly through the narrow, winding alleys where craftsmen of every origin, including Armenian, are carving away on pieces of gold and silver, you might stumble across the moving little chapel dedicated to Ananias. A contemporary and disciple of Christ, Ananias had a vision sending him to Paul, whom a heavenly Light had blinded; when Ananias laid his hands on him, Paul was cured and began his life as apostle to the Gentiles.
On Friday, the Muslim sabbath day, the city center is deserted as the Damascenes flock to the banks of the Barada, where families gather to picnic, puff on their hookah pipes or take a snooze while the children play at being crocodiles in the rough-flowing river. The smell of smoking kebabs combines with the syrupy music screaming out of' the transistor radios to lend a most picturesque color to the whole scene. In Damascus, an evening not to be missed on any account is dinner at the panoramic, revolving restaurant at the Cham Palace hotel.
While reveling in the refined atmosphere and sampling the best Oriental specialties of the capital, one can in a single glance take in the flickering electrical garlands of Damascus, the jewel at the desert's gate, the place known as the "lily among all flowers."
Bosra: the charm of a dark city. Located in the fertile Nukra plain at the country's southern limits. Bosra is one of those magical places that was long ago plunged into the oblivion of history, only to reemerge for the eye's pleasure thanks to the generosity of several enlightened patrons. An old trading city dating back more than 2000 years, this Nabataean town was made capital of the Arabian province when the Romans annexed the region in the early years of the modern era. Later, it became one of the key cities of Islam representing tolerance, for it is said that this is where the young Mohammed met the monk Bouheira, who foretold his vocation as the Prophet. Among the vestiges of the ancient city, the most stunning are those of' the Roman theater. Considered as the very symbol of Bosra, the theater has been admirably preserved thanks to the construction of the Ayyubid citadel, built by Saladin in the 12th century. It is among the biggest and most beautiful amphitheaters in the world, and in its black basalt walls the entire history of the city can be retraced. The sobriety of its lines and harmony of its proportions enhance the natural brilliance of the black stone facade ennobled with touches of' white limestone. As a consummate refinement, during the hot season the theater used to be covered with a silk canopy, which was sprayed with perfumed water in order to refresh the fifteen thousand spectators in the audience. A veritable museum-city, Bosra is still inhabited today, its population gathered around the vestiges of the old city, perpetuating the centuries-old tradition of one of the most captivating sites in the country. The city's only hotel is located near the theater. Practical and luxurious, a night in the Bosra Cham Palace provides a welcome relief from fatigue before the next day of touring. With its little terraces opening on to the swimming pool and the antique theater, it is the perfect complement to the grandeur of Bosra. Heading north, one comes to the rich valley of the Orontes. Nicknamed the Rebel1ious River, its banks have been lined with waterwheels since the dawn of time, drawing water in buckets to irrigate the orchards and supply the towns. In the picturesque city of Hama, they like to say that if the squeaking of the "norias" stopped for a night, the entire town would suffer from insomnia. The only hotel in the region" the Apamea Cham Palace, is ideally situated to allow you to explore all the local splendors while sejourning in the exquisite comfort of an international-class Oriental palace.
As in all countries of sand, wherever water is to be found, you can be sure that men have followed. Continuing along the Orontes to the north, one comes to Qalaat al-Mudiq and the site of Apamea, sister-city to Palmyra.
This stopover site along the caravan route was founded by one of Alexander's lieutenants, who named it in homage to his Persian wife, Apamea.
In the time of the Seleucids, it was second largest city in Syria after Antioch.
It was surrounded by a fortified wa11 8.5 kilometers long and had roughly a million inhabitants, including 120,000 nobles.
From its bygone days of glory, the city has preserved the smooth and cabled columns lining the interminable "cardo," the monumental avenue 1,850 meters long and 37,5 meters wide running across the center of the city, while the ruins of the governor's house still evoke the visit of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The site is full of mosaics, some of which can be, seen at the neighboring museum. One cannot stroll through Apamea without stumbling across untold numbers of pilasters, basins and friezes. To walk here is to walk on whole stratums of civilizations past, perfumed with the humus of the centuries and the magic of stones spattered in gold and honey. Here, just as in Palmyra, "the desert wife, "the eye is irresistibly drawn in search of the invisible silk route, and one turns to the silent gaze of the statues hoping to discover in the end the secret of the legendary beauty of queen Zenobia. Sometimes we tend to forget that places of worship are as much gifts of God as they are monuments to human achievement. What better reason, then to make a visit to the basilica of Saint Simeon.
It was here on this mystery-filled hillside, where only the cypress trees interrupt the solitude of one's thoughts, that the Byzantinc emperor Zenon had a basilica built in the 5th century in honor of Simeon Stylites. Nothing but a shred of stone is now left of the enormous pillar on which the ascetic monk lived for 42 years, and the deserted sanctuary is inhabited by the wind alone, still echoing with the singsong of fervent prayer. For centuries, pilgrims from around the world couldn't resist the pagan gesture of carrying off with them a tiny fragment of the column as a reminder of this site, so vibrant with an invisible faith. Pilgrims from Europe and elsewhere continue to come here to visit the sanctuary and pay homage to the monk's memory.
Next stop, Aleppo, where the noonday sun beats down on the cracked walls of the imposing citadel, hunched up on its centuries old foundations. To find a bit of fresh air, the best place to head is the souk, like so many caverns of Ali Baba, the souks of Aleppo extend for more than ten kilometers and are by far the most fascinating in the entire Middle East. Souks for woo1, gold, Turkish slippers, Kaffiyehs... A fragrance of cardamom and musk fills the air, as the senses are dazzled by this farandole of colors, movements and sounds. The souk can be a pleasure for sight and touch, or it can be the pleasure of bargaining or just enjoying a hit of conversation over a Turkish coffee.
The secular magic of the Orient and its bazaars will always fascinate us. Second-largest Syrian city, Aleppo has always rivaled Damascus.
A temple of gastronomy, Aleppo boasts the best restaurant in the country. Perched on the heights of the Chahba Cham Palace hotel, the restaurant offers candlelight dining against the backdrop of an unbeatable view of city and citadel. You can have excellent Russian caviar and an exceptional shrimp ramekin, ending with a divinely delicious fresh apricot tart that would melt the resolve of the most steadfast of dieters. And all of this will cost you less than $20!
Far from the desert, but still close to the sand, the beaches of Lattakia on the Syrian coast are a family experience. Grandmothers peek out of their chadors to watch over their grandchildren, splashing gaily in the warm, blue water, while the women tend to their shopping and the men play backgammon. This is the Oriental Riviera., and the same elegance and savoir faire is to be found when dining on the terrace of the Côte d'Azur de Cham hotel, where people are sure to dress for the occasion. Close by, the setting sun lends its golden glow to the Crusaders' mighty fortress. Begun in 1170 by Tancred, prince of Antioch, the Crac des Chevaliers is the most famous medieva1 fortress in the world. The massive Qalaoun tower stands over 650 meters high and commands a view of the peaceful Boukeia valley. On a clear day, it is just possible to make out the first range of mountains in Lebanon. To the north, one can see the Safita Tower, which served as a beacon to the Crusaders' ships. The Safita Cham Palace hotel stands at the foot of this monument, dominating the surrounding valley, the stage setting for many of the battles fought during the Crusades. Inside this fortified dream, which the Crusaders ringed with ramparts to ensure its protection, the shadows of va1iant knights still slip silently along the gothic arcades as if they had only just deserted the place. While you are still shivering off this strange sensation, you can't help but feel reassured by the singular discovery that in this land of solitude and history, the mortal hourglass is not filled with the sands of this desert. In Syria, time cannot be measured, it is neither wasted nor won, it simply glides over the stones like a smile crossing the face of the Middle East.