There was no mistaking who was in charge. The benign face of President Assad was all encompassing. A vast portrait curtained an entire building. A larger than life bust centred a square. Rows of photographs hung like washing on a line. That smiling reassuring face, moustache neatly trimmed, looked benevolently down on his people wherever they went about their daily tasks.

When I returned from Syria, my friends regarded me as a cat in its tenth life. This desert nation of some 17 million souls, long under the hand of Assad and the watchful eye of Moscow, conjures up all thoughts evil and oppressive. I had left Amman in Jordan aboard the historic little train that runs weekly to Damascus. The grandiose size and ornate detailing of the Hejaz railway station underscored it’s historical past as a gathering place for Muslims leaving on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Damascus vies with Aleppo, its fascinating neighbor to the North. as the longest occupied city in the world, some 5000 years. Little in the old quarter with its labyrinth of covered souqs and narrow winding alleyways has changed. The smell of camel is almost perceptible in the small caravanseries squeezed behind razor thin stalls piled high with exotic spices herbs and teas. Bedouins plying the Silk Route would rest their camels here, trade Myrrh, Frankincense, carpets silks and exotic jewelry and share a nargileh, a water pipe, grateful for company away from the desert sun.

I descended into the Hammam Nureddin, a 750 year old Turkish bath oddly sandwiched between two shops, the one peddling Christmas decorations and the other risqué underwear. A gruff man sat behind the ancient cash register and pointed to a badly translated menu of services. For a miserly $8 I bought the full offering and emptied my valuables into the proffered deposit box in return for the key and a bunch of colored wristbands as proof of payment. Shoes immediately shelved, I disrobed and donned the long towel discreetly held high by the balloon-panted guardian of clothes.

I lurched on newly acquired clogs towards the archway from which steam ominously poured. Jolly Damascene men helped me laughingly through the routine which saw me sauna’d steamed, soaked and scraped until my suntan paled. This, while lying prostrate before a loofah wielding evil eyed ample chap, cross legged in a Buddah pose – one hefty thump in mid spine was a sign to turn over. I was finally pounded by a masseur who worked part time as a security guard at the Canadian Embassy.

An hour later I emerged, numb and disorientated, to be swathed in towels and rewarded with a glass of tea. Several of my fellow bathers delivered fervent hugs and kisses as they exited, perhaps out of respect for my survival.

Damascus is a walking city filled with life. Vast ancient Mosques. Coptic Christian Churches. Enticing crumbling alleys. Tiny staircases leading to mysterious doors. Overhead storeys tilting inwards precariously. Sidewalk cafes fussed over by efficient white shirted black panted waiters. Pungent aromas emanate from  teashops where a nargileh filled with honey or apple shag, perfectly soothes away a hot afternoon. Palatial bakeries display delicious syruppy offerings piled high in enticing pyramids to compete for the sweet Arab tooth. Juice bars canopied by fresh fruit awaiting the blender. Damascenes are justly proud of their city and their friendly smiling ways enticed me back for a second visit.

Syrians are helpful people and a loud “do you speak English?” in a crowded shop or bus always produced an eager companion to take a proprietary interest in my wellbeing without reward. I swapped a balloon for a sticky handful of peanuts with the small boy beside me on the bus, first, with due Western paranoia, gauging his mother’s approval. I taught him how to make rude noises by deflating it through the stretched neck then was severely chastised by the interfering Australian behind me. “They’ll all want something”

.I arrived in Hama to the creaking and groaning of giant norias, waterwheels which once supplied the city’s aquaducts. This pretty traditional riverside town was an ideal base for visiting nearby ruins and Crusader Castles including the huge remarkably preserved Crac des Chevaliers. I shared an immaculate 1953 Pontiac with the girl from the BBC. Her tonnage of facial rings was of equal fascination to the local ladies, occupants of beehive style adobe houses, as their facial tattoos were to us

.An easy bus ride, marred only by the high pitched Arab tenor blasting forth from the overhead video, took me to Palmyra, a colonnaded Roman ruin presided over by a more recent Crusader Castle perched on the hilltop. Funerary towers rose high from the desert hillside between. The Sergeant-Major relentlessly drilled the military band in full battle dress under the midday sun, provocatively pulling and pushing his hapless victims in the Amphitheatre which had doubtless seen more sartorial performances. The backpacking American artist sketching in the Temple of Bel under a vast Julie Andrews hat, was celebrating her 75th birthday.

I traveled North to ancient Aleppo and became well and truly lost in the more than nine kilometer maze of souqs which surround The Citadel. Donkeys are still hired as beasts of burden for restocking and deliveries. Signs posted in both Arabic and Russian, a reminder of the proximity and trade between the two countries, were of little help.

I took the spectacular train trip, zigzagging over the more than 1000 meter high mountain range that separates the coastal strip, then dropped down through the heavily cultivated alluvial plain to Lattakia, Syria’s main port on The Mediterranean. Filled with anticipation I headed for the beach in Tartus a short minibus ride away. Sadly garbage and raw sewage littered every square inch and the Promenade was lined with abandoned hotels. The beaches were the only disappointment to an otherwise wonderfully rewarding trip in a friendly safe and  fabulously interesting country where a Dollar still goes a long way.

Life after Assad
What a difference a year makes. I visited Syria in November 1998. At this time the much revered King Hussein was ruling Jordan as Hafez Al Assad ruled neighboring Syria. These two wily leaders were lionised by their supporters and feared by their detractors. Each had a loyal military and a vast secret service network. The world viewed the ascension of inexperienced young Abdullah to the Jordanian Monarchy as much as it fears the promotion of inexperienced young Bashar to the Syrian Presidency. Hopefully youthful minds can improve the lot of their people.

Since the collapse of the Russian economy, Syria has been slowly opening it’s doors to the West. I’m sure that no matter who is in power, any tourist will be treated with the same Middle Eastern courtesy kindness and honesty as I was. It is endemic in the people as well as being politically expedient. They need the money.


USEFUL NOTES: Visas are generally not available at the border. Nearest Syrian Embassy, 2215 Wyoming Ave NW, Washington DC 2008, Tel (202) 232 6313. Obtain a multi – entry if you wish to visit Lebanon. Any sign of an Israeli visit on your Passport will negate a Syrian Visa. Women Travelers will be lent a chador to visit religious sites and should generally refrain from wearing brief clothing. There is a good tourist infrastructure for accommodation, restaurants and comfortable transportation.


Copyright © 2000 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.