In the cradle of civilisation, visitors can walk unhindered in the footsteps of the Crusaders, writes Dennis Schulz.
He is easily the most contented person I've ever met. He relies on nothing but his desert environment, his family, his experience and his God. Reclining on Persian rugs inside his family's Bedouin tent, Abu Mohammed speaks enthusiastically about the freedom that life as a nomad affords him, and about his reverential adherence to the traditions of the desert.
His wife, Mamfia, delivers a pot of sweet tea to serve the visitors who, according to the Bedouin code, must be afforded every hospitality. "Guests," he says, touching his heart, "are gifts from God."
Abu Mohammed and his family have camped here in the Syrian Desert outside the ancient oasis town of
since 20 straight hours of rain fell the previous week. By this time next week he knows a sea of grass will carpet the desert floor, fattening his herd of 200 sheep and dozens of newborn lambs, before the dry weather sets in again. But the hills that shelter his long tent from the wind also have a downside: they provide the habitat for a pack of wolves that took two lambs last night.
In a few weeks his wife and four children will pack their tent and belongings and move to new grass, possibly in
. They will not use camels to haul their loads, as Bedouins did during his father's time. While recalling those days with wistful regard, Mohammed transports his tents and his herd on a battered Chevy truck. Camels break down and die; trucks are cheaper and more reliable, he says.
Mamfia enters again, this time bearing a tray of cabbage, fresh sheep's yoghurt and thin, flat bread finely barbecued over hot coals.
It's superb. Desert hospitality is the stuff of legends and its ethic permeates Syrian society. Even those whose command of English is slight always seem to know just one word: "Welcome."
Warm hospitality is not the image most foreigners would associate with
. In the centre of the world's most strife-prone region, the country is often lumped in with its crisis-laden neighbours,
. To complicate the issue, governments such as those of the
issue dire travel advisories. "Syria is included on the Department of State's list of state sponsors of terrorism," warns the
. "Australians in Syria should exercise extreme caution and maintain a high level of personal security awareness," echoes the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Such cautions have all but demolished
's tourism industry. Which seems unfair because, in reality, it is a destination where crime is rare compared with either the
The rewards for a visit to
are profound, especially for those besotted with the history of human civilisation. It's a region rightly labelled the cradle of civilisation. Evidence of the human (and Neanderthal) occupation of Syria dates back nearly 100,000 years; the country boasts more than 5000 archaeological sites, ranging from prehistoric Bronze Age communities to Roman cities and medieval castles.
There are believed to be at least five cities lying in successive levels beneath 21st-century
, the Syrian capital. Road construction in the old city, in preparation for the Pope's visit in 2001, uncovered the tops of pillars a few metres below the surface. Work near the spectacular Umayyad mosque discovered similar antiquities, possibly remnants of the 2000-year-old Roman
, whose exposed pillars are already visible outside the mosque.
You can sense the ages in the
marketplace, or souq. Looking like a still from 1001 Arabian Nights, the souq dates back 2000 years to an era when markets were built to empty into the mosque - the idea being that the market looks after worldly needs, while the mosque takes care of the spiritual. Its broad and splashy cobblestone entrance and high ceilings give way to dark, crowded laneways of tiny, bulb-lit shops filled with a stupefying array of goods, including fabrics, spices, carpets and jewellery.
's most remarkable antiquities lie further afield, at
. The desert oasis, three hours by bus from
, is the site of what was once the most prominent Roman trading city between
and the capitals of the
. Ruins of what must have been a massive city spill from the outlying hills down to a forest of date palms that frames the imposing ruins of the
Dominating the ancient city from above is the Qala'at ibn Maan, a 17th-century Arab castle and one of many seen on hilltops around
. The most famous of these is the Krak de Chevalier, possibly the world's finest example of medieval fortress design. Located just outside the city of
, the Krak was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century, after they had slaughtered the entire population of a nearby town. The fortress's metre-thick walls and towers were never scaled; even if they had been, a second, higher wall awaited the challengers.
Today visitors have the castle to themselves. The Krak and a multitude of early Christian sites near the ancient city of
lie virtually vacant. Tourists can walk among the ruins of
with only the odd passing camel and rider to disturb them. They can climb the same stairs as did the chainmail-clad knights who used to man the battle towers of the Krak, untroubled by touts trying to sell them postcards or trinkets.
And they can enjoy a country defined by its hospitality, and which wants nothing more than to demonstrate to the world that its reputation as a troublespot is undeserved.
The author flew to
on a round-the-world ticket with Qantas. It is also possible to fly direct with Emirates to
, from where there are daily flights to
. See travel agents for fares and flights or phone Emirates on 1300 303 777.
Public buses, which are dependable and clean, are the easiest way to travel in
. Internal flights on Syria Air are cheap.
Australian travellers require a visa to visit