A Quick Tour of Syria
Okay, here we go: a quick clockwise trip round Syria! Let's start with the 'Street Called Straight' in Damascus, the shafts of light coming from the holes in the corrugated iron roof made by rifle bullets (an unfortunate result of the locals' former fondness for celebrating by shooting in the air). On the line of the original Roman street (and retaining two slight deviations from a truly straight line), Mark Twain said of it
'St Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is a street which is straight, but the "street which is called Straight". It is a fine piece of irony; it is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe'.
This quote, and much more about
Damascus (and Syria in general) can be
in Ross Burns' excellent book, Monuments of Syria.
Now to Krak des Chevalliers or Qalaat al-Husn, the 12th-century crusader fortress overlooking the Homs Gap. Held by the Knights Hospitaller until taken (by deception, supposedly) by the Mameluke Sultan Baibars. The Mamelukes enhanced the crusader fortifications, but left the original Frankish masonry intact beneath their modifications.
is a Bronze Age, stone-built city near
had an important role as a port, which is why this stone anchor (the
were of wood and fitted through the holes on the broad side; the cable
fastened through the single hole at the narrow end), originally just lying on the
surface (but now removed by the excavators),
is such an interesting object (the site is now some way inland). One of
earliest alphabets was used at Ugarit.
In the northern limestone region, the complex at Qalaat Semaan grew up in the 5th and 6th centuries AD around the column upon which Simeon Stylites squatted for several years. He attracted a number of followers, wannabee Simeons, who likewise squatted on lesser columns (Simeon enlarged his several times - genuine upward mobility). He did everything up on top of his column... absolutely everything.
rebel 3rd-century AD queen of the same
who led a breakaway empire rivalling the troubled Roman one, supposedly
this site, which is mainly Byzantine in the surviving structures. The
Euphrates passes beneath the eastern defences of the city. A good place
visit at sundown (which is when the tours usually take you
Well, others may
better, but this city
captured by the Romans from the Parthians in the 2nd century AD, taken
the Sassanid Persians from the Romans in the middle of the 3rd century,
is my favourite. When the Romans took it, they punched a
the gypsum walls and later repaired it with mud brick (and this is what
can see in the graphic: note how the mud brick is weathering). The
siege ramp survives, and in the 1930s excavators found the remains of a
underground between Roman defenders and Persian attackers, fought out
a cramped mine. One of the few Roman cities where you can walk along
of the original rampart-walk. Renowned for many things, not least its
painted synagogue (now in Damascus Museum), where biblical events are
in contemporary costume; the papyrus records of the Roman unit based
and some spectacular finds of pieces of Roman military equipment,
horse armour. By the 4th century AD, it was deserted when the Emperor
passed by with his army, home only to heards of deer (the Romans shot
and knocked others down with oars; not surprisingly, the deer ran
An oasis with a lot of date palms. Quite a few ruins, too, of this Parthian cum Roman caravan city, exploiting the importance of its location to the trade routes of the east. It became rich and powerful (Zenobia came from here - her name is on one of the columns) and many of the tombs of the wealthy contain silk garments (silk, of course, had to be imported from China).
Palmyra may be a cliché, but it is one well worth visiting.
This Roman period dam at Harbaqa (probably built by the Palmyrenes) still stands 20m high and 345m long, although it has long ago silted right up to its rim. Not many visitors get to see this monument. It continued in use into the Byzantine and Umayyad times, supplying the gardens of the desert fort of Qasr al-Heir al-Gharbi.