BACK TO THE BE­GIN­NING

Michael Ge­bicki jour­neys through Syria, from Da­m­as­cus to Aleppo and be­yond

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AUSTRALIA -

IAM stand­ing in a tiny, chill stone church at the monastery of St Serge in west­ern Syria, sur­rounded by Byzan­tine icons that would take all my at­ten­tion but for a wo­man trussed in scarfs who is pray­ing aloud. The al­tar where she wor­ships is a semi­cir­cu­lar slab of mar­ble, a rem­nant from the sac­ri­fi­cial al­tars of the pre-Chris­tian world, and she is recit­ing in Ara­maic, the an­cient Semitic lan­guage of the Mid­dle East, which al­most dis­ap­peared dur­ing the Arab con­quests. Al­most, but not quite.

Se­questered in th­ese stony hills in the Qualam­oun Moun­tains, a pocket of Ara­maic speak­ers re­mains, a link with the an­cient world of the Old Tes­ta­ment. If Je­sus Christ were alive to­day, he could have held a con­ver­sa­tion with this wo­man.

Al­though it is more of­ten in the news for other rea­sons th­ese days, Syria is as­ton­ish­ing, an open-air mu­seum of hu­man his­tory that con­stantly stops you dead in your tracks. Many of the prime movers of world his­tory have swept through here at one time or an­other, in­clud­ing Alexan­der the Great, the em­peror Hadrian, Sal­adin, Ta­murlane and Richard the Lion­heart.

Saul of Tar­sus fell off his horse on his way to rout the Chris­tians from Da­m­as­cus, changed sides and, as his al­ter ego St Paul, helped change the course of the Ro­man em­pire. Peel back the lay­ers and you will find your­self at the very dawn of civil­i­sa­tion.

To get to the 8th-cen­tury Umayyad Mosque in Da­m­as­cus, you must pass through a fortress that was be­gun by Sal­adin, walk along a cov­ered bazaar built by the Ot­tomans, pass through a Ro­man gate­way along­side the re­main­ing col­umns of the Tem­ple of Jupiter and fi­nally ar­rive at the mosque, which was con­structed on the foun­da­tions of an Ortho­dox basil­ica. And by the stan­dards of Da­m­as­cus, the Umayyad Mosque is a new­comer. As far back as the sec­ond mil­len­nium BC this was the site of a tem­ple ded­i­cated to Hadad, the Aramean god of rain and fer­til­ity.

Da­m­as­cus is the old­est con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited city on earth. When the Ro­mans built their tem­ple here, a half dozen ear­lier civil­i­sa­tions had al­ready left their mark.

Da­m­as­cus’s set­ting is mod­estly dra­matic. It sits on a large and fer­tile oa­sis on the Ghouta plain, wa­tered by the Barada River. To the east is desert, and show­ing their teeth to the west are the peaks of the Anti-Le­banon Moun­tains, which are still cov­ered with snow even when the al­mond trees are ex­plod­ing into spring blos­som on the plain be­low. For the trav­eller, whether the desert is be­hind you or be­fore you, this is a nat­u­ral rest­ing place.

Da­m­as­cus grew fat on the car­goes that passed along the Silk Road, and there are still shops in the souk that can sell you carved ivory from China or camel bags and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.

To the south­west of the Umayyad Mosque, sev­eral khans, the old walled car­a­vanserais that were used as ho­tels by trav­el­ling mer­chants, sur­vive as re­minders of the city’s mer­can­tile days. Its epi­cen­tre, both spir­i­tu­ally and so­cially, is the Umayyad Mosque. En­ter­ing from the sur­round­ing labyrinth, the court­yard of the mosque stretches be­fore you in a yawn­ing apron of white mar­ble that is pol­ished daily by thou­sands of stockinged feet, with a log­gia on three sides and, on the fourth, the mo­saic fa­cade of the cen­tral transept, cast­ing a wavy re­flec­tion across the mar­ble.

The ef­fect is daz­zling, as it is meant to be. Af­ter Mecca, Me­d­ina and the Dome of the Rock, this is the holi­est site in Is­lam, al­though this is only a shadow of the orig­i­nal, which was al­most to­tally de­stroyed by fire in 1893.

But for all its en­crus­ta­tion of aged majesty, Da­m­as­cus does not ful­fil the ro­mance promised by its name. For the most part, the mod­ern city is a study in so­cial­ist drab: grey, con­crete, util­i­tar­ian, the fall­ing-apart look that is the Soviet gift to world ar­chi­tec­ture.

But this is only the ex­te­rior. Un­like the West­ern house, which looks out­side to the view, the Arab house turns its back to the world and looks in­ward for beauty, con­tent­ment and seren­ity. Close to the Umayyad Mosque, the Azem Palace was the home of an 18th-cen­tury Ot­toman gov­er­nor. Here a se­ries of lav­ishly dec­o­rated rooms with painted ceil­ings and pan­elled walls were built around a cen­tral court­yard with foun­tains and trees. Just off Straight St is an­other jewel box of a house, Beit Aqqad, which now serves as the Dan­ish In­sti­tute. Its court­yard is paved in a geo­met­ric de­sign in ochre, grey, white and honey-coloured tiles and over­look­ing it are rooms richly fur­nished with car­pets and cush­ions, wa­ter pipes, spin­ning wheels and all the other ap­pa­ra­tus of con­tented fam­ily life.

Syria is com­monly di­vided, at least for most vis­i­tors, into three main sites that form a tri­an­gle: Da­m­as­cus, Aleppo and Palmyra. Known as the Bride of the Desert, Palmyra is a beauty, and the most fab­u­lous of all Syria’s many ru­ined cities. Its colon­nades grope to­ward the sky like bleached whale­bones, sug­gest­ing the splen­dour that once was, its tem­ples stand serene and cu­ri­ously naked amid a vast ex­panse of noth­ing and over­looked by an Arab fort that glow­ers men­ac­ingly from its hill­top.

De­rived from the Greek word for the date palm, Palmyra is res­cued from the desert by a spring that feeds an oa­sis dat­ing back to Pa­le­olithic times. Its glory days came dur­ing the 2nd and 3rd cen­turies AD, when Palmyra flour­ished as the most im­por­tant of all Syria’s car­a­van cities. Po­lit­i­cally, it main­tained a nervy in­de­pen­dence from the pow­er­ful em­pires around it, a buf­fer state be­tween the Parthi­ans and the Ro­man Em­pire, un­til its am­bi­tious queen, Zeno­bia, fi­nally chal­lenged Rome it­self and was brought to heel by the em­peror Aure­lian.

As a Ro­man out­post it never re­gained its for­mer wealth and im­por­tance, and over the fol­low­ing cen­turies Palmyra was swal­lowed up by the desert sands. Not un­til the late 17th cen­tury was it dis­cov­ered by the wider world, and not un­til the 20th cen­tury did Ger­man, and later French, sur­veys re­veal its riches.

Es­sen­tially Palmyra is a long, nar­row site with the sanc­tu­ary of Bel at one end, Dio­cle­tian’s camp a kilo­me­tre away and, be­tween, a colon­naded street with ru­ins scat­tered on ei­ther side. What re­mains is a skele­ton. It takes real imag­i­na­tion to add flesh and blood to the foun­da­tions that were once the baths of Zeno­bia or the tem­ple of Nebo (al­though the theatre is a small jewel).

Th­ese days the Be­douin have in­her­ited the site, some of whom will give you their busi­ness card, com­plete with email ad­dress should you care to ar­range a camel sa­fari in the Syr­ian desert.

An es­sen­tial de­tour on the road be­tween Palmyra and Aleppo is the fortress of Krak des Che­va­liers, or Qalat al-Huan in Ara­bic, Cas­tle of the Ci­tadel. Krak is the per­fect post­card fortress, the best pre­served ex­am­ple of a cru­sader fort any­where in the Mid­dle East. In its sheer mus­cu­lar­ity, Krak un­der­lines the pow­er­ful forces that have played out their set pieces against this back­drop. Built as an Arab fort on a much lesser scale, dur­ing the cru­sades Krak fell into the hands of the Hospi­tallers, the knights of St John of Jerusalem. Re­cruited from the flower of Euro­pean no­bil­ity, the knights evolved from a nurs­ing fra­ter­nity min­is­ter­ing to Chris­tian pil­grims en route to the Holy Land into an elite corps of pro­fes­sional war­riors.

They were the Chris­tian samu­rai in the holy war with Is­lam. Wealthy, ed­u­cated, ar­ro­gant and de­vout, the knights trans­formed Krak into a model of the mil­i­tary ar­chi­tects’ science. On a spur jut­ting from the moun­tains to the south­west, they built walls many me­tres thick, sta­bles for sev­eral hun­dred horses and slot­ted ceil­ings where fire and boil­ing oil could be rained down upon the heads of an ad­vanc­ing en­emy.

Sal­adin aban­doned his siege of Krak af­ter one day, but ul­ti­mately the Hospi­tallers were stretched too thin in this hos­tile ter­ri­tory and af­ter lit­tle more than a cen­tury of oc­cu­pa­tion, Krak fell to the Marmelukes, an­other caste of mil­i­tary, land­hold­ing, aris­to­crats.

Tucked into north­west­ern Syria close to the Turk­ish border, Aleppo is in­stantly like­able, and when a taxi driver re­fuses to ac­cept my fare from the old souk back to my ho­tel, I de­cide I like it even bet­ter. Since time im­memo­rial Aleppo has been a trad­ing city, amenable to cul­tural in­flu­ences from East and West, and a cos­mopoli­tan flavour pre­vails, from its bou­tiques to its taste in out­door cafes, to the more lib­eral dress of its women.

Aleppo’s his­toric flavour sur­vives most vividly in the great bazaar, Souk al-At­tarin, and you sim­ply must take your heart in your hands and plunge into its dark cav­erns. It is an Aladdin’s cave sell­ing ev­ery con­ceiv­able cre­ation from the cop­per­smith, the butcher, the baker and the car­pet weaver. One of the spe­cial­ties is soap made from olive oil and sold in chunky brown blocks, and there are still func­tion­ing soap fac­to­ries within the souk as well as an an­cient Jewish syn­a­gogue.

The pro­duce is ar­ranged gener­i­cally along nar­row pas­sage­ways. There’s an al­ley full of twinkly gold ban­gles, a street of car­pets and curved daggers, one ded­i­cated ex­clu­sively to Be­douin tents, and a cof­fee and a spice bazaar, where aniseed, paprika, figs, al­monds and rose­hip are raked into aro­matic pyra­mids.

Just north of Aleppo, where the land­scape wa­vers be­tween lime­stone and green pas­tures, there oc­curred one of the great flow­er­ings of the Byzan­tine church. Scat­tered across th­ese rolling hills lie hun­dreds of what the Syr­i­ans call lost cities. Th­ese are ex­tinct set­tle­ments that arose around churches and monas­ter­ies and the most com­pelling of the lot is Qalat Samaan, St Sime­ons, a 5th-cen­tury church that even in its ru­ined state rep­re­sents one of the ar­chi­tec­tural high-wa­ter marks of the Byzan­tine style.

St Simeon Stylites was a 4th-cen­tury monk who gained a rep­u­ta­tion for ex­treme piety and as­ceti­cism. As his fame spread he re­moved him­self from the world and spent the last 42 years of his life perched on a se­ries of stone pil­lars, which grad­u­ally grew to the 18m pil­lar on this site. From here he would pray and preach, at­tract­ing crowds of devo­tees and a cult of im­i­ta­tors, qual­i­fy­ing him, I guess, as the world’s first rock star.

It is a melan­choly place, this hol­lowed-out church, frisked by a cold wind that comes straight off the peaks of the Kurd Dag across the Turk­ish border. If there is a les­son in th­ese tum­bled stones, it’s the im­per­ma­nence of things. Stone foun­da­tions have been torn apart by tree roots, arches frame empty blue sky, the carv­ings on the stonework have been soft­ened by the el­e­ments and even St Simeon’s pil­lar has been whit­tled down to a stump by sou­venir col­lec­tors.

But some­thing does sur­vive. Echo­ing in my head is the me­mory of the Ara­maic prayer from the Qualam­oun Moun­tains. ‘‘ And in the be­gin­ning was the Word . . .’’

So hav­ing grabbed some­thing worth hang­ing on to, I climb into the bus and re­turn to the souk to com­plete my pur­chase of an Is­fa­han rug. Michael Ge­bicki was a guest of Pere­grine Ad­ven­tures.

Check­list

Pere­grine Ad­ven­tures has var­i­ous fully es­corted pro­grams in Syria. Longer trips also in­clude Egypt, Le­banon and Jor­dan. Some tours are avail­able on an in­de­pen­dent or group ba­sis. More: www.pere­grinead­ven­tures.com.

Pic­tures: Michael Ge­bicki

Open-air mu­seum: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, a ride awaits at Palmyra; ex­otic trans­port; Da­m­as­cus’s Souk al-Hamideyeh; Qalat Samaan; vis­i­tors at Qalat Samaan

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