On the road to Damascus, the piercing blue eyes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stare from kitschy signs everywhere: Mosaic Bashar with Roman ruins; Farmer Bashar with olives; Sporty Bashar suspended over a soccer stadium.
My two-week visit to Syria isn’t long enough for a place where history dates back almost 10,000 years while Westernizing reforms, like Dunkin’ Donuts, are increasingly common along the historic road where St. Paul had his blinding conversion.
Syria, which leaned to the Soviets in the Cold War and has long been blamed for unrest in Lebanon, Israel and Iraq, is experiencing its own conversion. Al-Assad has pointed westward since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. He made diplomatic overtures to the U.S. in recent months but seems to be wavering lately.
Still, Damascus opens itself slowly, with locals wary of Westerners. One wrong turn and you don’t know where you stand -- with people and with geography.
In the capital’s partially walled Old City, one twisting street lined with half-timbered houses looks more central England than Middle East. Another road offers black-and-white stone dwellings with worm-worn arabesque doors of wood held together by rust-pitted bolts. Scattered Roman arches, remnants of grand buildings, delineate borders among the medieval Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters.
And all roads lead to the Umayyad Mosque, a former Byzantine church built over a Roman temple. Talk about recycling.
Fronds Like These
I meet a friend, a local journalist who writes on culture and prefers to be known only as Mohammed. We remove our shoes at the mosque’s entry. The quiet intensity of the site strikes me.
“Sometimes I come to sit here in the courtyard and watch people when I need to think for a while,” says Mohammed. “It’s very peaceful. You don’t hear the Damascus traffic.”
Byzantine columns rise around us, supporting walls adorned with forests of gold and green mosaic palm fronds. I could lose my head pondering the serene beauty, but somebody may have beaten me to it. St. John the Baptist is supposedly entombed at Umayyad.
“Whether it’s really him or not, who knows for sure,” Mohammed says, adding that other shrines make the same claim.
In the saint’s separate wing, worshippers touch his tomb’s white marble structure and peer through silver grates at a coffin inscribed with Arabic writing. The domed shrine reminds me of a miniature Vatican minus Bernini’s colonnade.
Beyond the Old City, Damascus resembles a Soviet-inspired architectural wasteland, and this is where most locals live, work and play. One evening Mohammed takes me to the 24-hour Hijaz Cafe, a place popular with working-class men who play cards, smoke water pipes and drink tea while windows offer a view of a mosque under construction.
The cafe’s yellow walls are dulled by decades of smoke. On one hangs an enormous, faded portrait of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled with an iron fist for 30 years before his son took over. The latter appears in a small adjacent image that looks like an afterthought.
Another night, we head to the Algora Cafe, also open 24 hours, but as a chic, parallel world. Dark art adorns walls and moody lighting accents well-to-do young Damascene couples in designer clothes. The menu has an array of flavored coffees and espressos, which are served by waiters in black uniforms who practice their English.
One night I meet Simona Sikimic, a young London writer who has lived in Syria for eight months. I’m curious about her perceptions of life for women in Syria. I haven’t seen many working in shops, yet plenty drive and head coverings aren’t anywhere near as common as in other parts of the region.
“It is and it isn’t sexist,” Sikimic says, referring to the way women are treated “in everyday things like queuing or getting served. A 13-year-old boy can walk into a shop and get served before you even if you are midway through an expensive purchase.”
Yet only 1,800 years ago, the ancient city of Palmyra, 150 miles from Damascus, was the capital of an empire overseen by Queen Zenobia. She challenged Rome, snatching Egypt from its clutches in A.D. 269. Rome got the upper hand in A.D. 274, parading Zenobia through the Eternal City in golden chains.
Today, Palmyra is Syria’s most important archaeological site, a sprawl of ruined honey-colored marble tombs, temples and arches, crisscrossed by colonnaded causeways once part of the ancient Silk Road from which the oasis city drew wealth.
A guide named Najib Mahmoud meets me at the Temple of Bel, which dates from A.D. 32. He tells me Queen Zenobia “represents nothing to contemporary women,” adding that “some people do call their daughters Zenobia. It’s a popular name here.”
Mahmoud notes that a house where archaeologists stay near the temple resembles one his grandparents lived in until 1929, when the French, who ruled Syria after the Ottoman Empire’s breakup, relocated the nearly 4,000 families living within the ruins.
“They missed it every day,” he says.
As I wander around to take photographs, Mahmoud is the only other person across the expanse, more than a mile square, of Palmyra’s ruins. Later on, Australian and Spanish couples and a single Japanese tourist appear. Syrian tourism is so underdeveloped that I visited eight Damascus travel agencies before finding one offering tours. Ultimately, I hired a private driver and found Mahmoud.
Much archaeological work still needs to be done. I show Mahmoud a pristine Greek-lettered stone plaque jutting from the soil begging to be excavated.
Toilet for Travelers
“What can we do?” he says, moving to stone slabs with holes and declaring, “In old Palmyra, every 40 meters, a toilet for travelers.”
Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, is different. Long used to tourism -- the city was a haunt of T.E. Lawrence of Arabia -- its locals approach and welcome foreigners.
I am out one night with friends in a cafe overlooking the Citadel, the massive fortress looming above the city, when a man in a leather jacket sits at a table next to us. The waiters ignore him.
My Syrian hosts’ sudden silence forces me to notice.
“Secret police,” one announces and then we continued gabbing away in English, the stranger’s presence not even an issue for them, though to me it seems a little odd.
The mystery man soon leaves to continue his rounds watching other tourists, while I became more aware of the portrait of al-Assad above the register.
I can still see his blue eyes staring at me.
(Michael Luongo is a travel writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)