The Road To Damascus Part Two – Travel In Southern Syria Before The War
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
– St. Augustine
If the world were a book, it would be a history book. And travel, to a large extent, is a trip through the past – an experience we hope will help us understand the present, and imagine the future. So, in our continued effort to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites (ie. history) as practical, we head to the oasis town of Tudmur to see yet another pile of rocks.
Travel in Southern Syria
On an ancient trading route for Egyptian caravans bound for the Silk Road, Palmyra’s location made it an important crossover of eastern and western culture for thousands of years, long before the Romans annexed it in the first century. Soon afterwards, Palmyra joined Jerusalem on the list of Roman colonies sacked to quell rebellions and uprisings. Since then, the statues, towers and temples of past civilizations remained amazingly intact.
Not too long ago, many people in Tudmur relied on tourism for a living, and we are the only tourists in town. We choose one restaurant for dinner, resulting in a competing restauranteur taking objection with the owner of the one we’re in. The ensuing exchange, the only conflict we witness in Syria, is as comical as it is tragic. After dinner, our host doesn’t have enough change for our 500 pound note, so he kindly decides that we were good for it and could leave without paying, provided we returned for breakfast.
A Walk Through Time
People have lived in Damascus longer than anywhere else. And wandering its ancient alleyways – lined with ornate doorways and door-knockers – is a walk through time. Although its counterpart in Aleppo is the world’s largest historic covered market, Al-Hamidiyah Souq is, of course, the world’s oldest. The bullet holes that riddle its roof have been there for a hundred years.
The market stretches 500m from the city’s citadel to the Umayyad Mosque, one of the three holiest mosques in Islam. It is also the only one in Syria where non-Muslims are permitted entry. A shrine inside, allegedly, houses John the Baptist’s head. Despite visiting his tomb in Seljuk, we found his hand in Istanbul, and now this. The Middle East has a thing about scattering its saintly relics.
Another superlative to which Damascus can lay claim is the world’s worst drivers. Running the gauntlet of downtown Damascus traffic circles, and dodging oncoming vehicles in general, is more challenging there than anywhere else we have been. It seems as if the traffic police would wave us across the street, only to wave the traffic through as we reach midway, leaving us worse off than we would have been without them.
Before the Jordanian border is Bosra, where we find one of the most unique castles in the world. The site is a massive Roman amphitheater with a citadel built around it. The Roman ruins we find here are among the best preserved we found anywhere, and the least crowded. As usual, apart from the guard, we are the only ones here.
Stop Making Sense
“It has nothing to do with making sense.” This is the explanation from the Visa representative in Damascus explaining why our Canadian credit card is being charged in US dollars for something priced in Syrian pounds. He is right. Because much of the world, and traveling through it, is based on what works and not what makes sense. Our trip through Syria didn’t make sense, as we didn’t plan (or necessarily want) to go, but it worked.
It certainly worked for us. We visited a beautiful country rich in culture and history, and had the place to ourselves – the perfect travel destination. But, what stood out most was the welcoming and generous people and their hospitality. We were hesitant to go to Syria, expecting to be hassled, hustled and otherwise targeted. We experienced quite the opposite and, once we actually met them, our opinion of the country’s people was quickly converted. .