Ancient Syria's New Welcome

I am standing on the stony ramparts of the Krak des Chevaliers, a vast Crusader castle built in the early 1200s atop a Syrian mountain. To the south is Lebanon's Beka Valley and then Israel. To the north, Turkey, and to the west, between the mountains, is a shimmering glimpse of the Mediterranean. Amid the castle's towers, Gothic church, and elaborate moat, I can almost hear the clang of armor and the cries of horsemen setting out in search of the Holy Grail.

If you harbor a Raiders of the Lost Ark passion for ancient cities and exotic bazaars, Syria may be for you. Once a formidable place for all but the most intrepid Westerners, Syria is becoming tourist-friendly for the first time, thanks to a variety of geopolitical factors. The Soviet Union, the country's traditional political patron, is no more, and the Syrians have relaxed their anti-Israeli stance. One restriction: As with all Arab countries except Egypt, entry is barred if your passport shows you've been to Israel.

Syria is packed with historical sites, ranging from ruined Ugarit, where a clever scribe thought up the first alphabet 3,000 years ago, to some of the most impressive Roman ruins outside Italy. You can get a good sense of this from what is arguably the country's most spectacular site: Palmyra. A palm-studded oasis sitting astride the trade routes that once connected the Roman Empire with India, Arabia, and China, Palmyra became synonymous with wealth and luxury. But its fate was sealed when it revolted against Rome in the 3rd century. Defeated, Palmyra became a deserted city, its magnificent temples, colonnades, and palaces lost in the sands until recently. Because few Europeans and Americans visit Syria, you can have ruins, such as the 1st century Temple of Bel, pretty much to yourself.

It's the same story at innumerable other places. In the country's north are scores of "dead cities," early Christian and Byzantine hilltop settlements abandoned when Moslems overran the country in the 7th century. One of the most beautiful is Qal'at Saman, a massive 5th century sanctuary built to commemorate Saint Simeon the Stylite. Simeon is said to have spent the last decades of his life perched on a marble column, the remains of which can still be seen.

Although such ancient sites are the country's strong point, do not overlook the Syria of more recent times. The capital, Damascus, is blighted by the usual urban problems, such as overcrowding, smog, and traffic. (Here, however, the huge numbers of U.S. cars from the 1950s make gridlock a pleasure to watch.)

COLORS, SMELLS. Aleppo, 220 miles north of Damascus, offers more for the tourist. For one, it retains a feel of the traditional Middle East that is fast disappearing from Cairo, Jerusalem, and Istanbul. The walled old city, with its covered markets, stunning 15th and 16th century palaces, 72 mosques, and seven churches, is a real treat of colors, noises, and smells. Its best restaurant is an elegant Armenian eatery, Vannis, where a huge meal for two with Lebanese wine runs $20.

Traveling around Syria is not without its problems. Although the roads are smooth, signs aren't common and tend to be only in Arabic. One solution: a car and driver, which can be arranged in Damascus or Aleppo for less than $100 a day.

The round-trip airfare from New York to Damascus will set you back $900 to $1,400, according to American Travel in Washington, D.C., which specializes in the Middle East (202 835-0099). Hotels can cost $150 and up for a double room. Even though there are Sheraton and Meridien hotels in Damascus, a Syrian luxury chain called Cham Palace is the only one that offers comfortable accommodation throughout the country. Cham is the brainchild of local tourism tycoon Osmane Adi. "With the cultural richness we have, we should be able to have many, many more tourists," he says. So you might think about going to Syria before everyone else does.

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