Nearby Qanawat is home to a Roman pagan basilica that was transformed into a church, and in Bosra I was the only visitor to a vast moat-enclosed citadel built around an ancient Roman theatre that could seat 6,000 people. You can still see patrons' names carved into their stone seats. "It was like seasons' passes, " the local guide said.
As I traversed the 45-meter-long stage, a group of Syrian teens and their uncle Yusuf surrounded me. "Let's dance," they said. Howling with laughter, we boogied together for an imaginary audience. Then they hugged me goodbye.
In Homs, the mosque houses the tomb of Khaled, a prominent 7th century Islamic military leader whom Mohammed described as being like a sword. He never lost a battle and his tomb is ornamented with green fabric covered with gold embossed writing and a golden sword. Homs was once a hub of the sun cult.
"Are you sensitive about the origins of Christianity?" my guide asked me.
"Okay, then I can tell you this. In order to diminish the sun cult's hold on people, the church adopted December 25th, the birthday of the sun, as the birthday of Christ. Have I offended you?"
Have You Met Johnny Depp?
About 60 kilometers from Homs, the huge limestone walls and semicircular towers of Crac des Chevaliers suddenly appear on a distant mountaintop. It's one of the most impressive of the Crusader castles and resembles a small city--replete with a windmill, gothic meeting hall, storage area designed to hold five years' worth of provisions, command tower, loggia with floral motifs carved into stone, oil press, huge circular oven, sleeping rooms, and a row of latrines.
As I was staring at the latter, wondering how it felt to have no privacy in what we consider to be private moments, a young Syrian woman came up to me. She asked if I had ever met Johnny Depp. I said no. She inquired if I know Leonardo Di Caprio. I shook my head. "I'd like to be a movie star," she said. "I know it's a dream, but in Syria there isn't much to dream about. We have enough to eat, but no dreams."
Apamea has a seemingly-endless, colonnaded street, still standing from the 2nd century, with the remnants of Roman chariot wheel marks in the paving stones. It was the Fifth Avenue of its day and includes rows of shops protected under porticos. Nearby, I saw the open flaps of a Bedouin tent, and a man, dressed in a long, gray robe and sporting a red and white kaffia, grinned and waved for me to enter.
"Where are you from?" he inquired, as his family gathered around him.
"Ahlan wasahlan, welcome!" the family called out after I answered. And they meant it. They ushered me into their desert abode, the father ground coffee for me, I drank, leaned like a pasha on overstuffed pillows, and was then served tea.
In Hama, the main attractions are the huge, wooden waterwheels that date from the Mamluks in the l5th century. It's the most conservative city in Syria, and many of the women have their faces completely covered by black cloth. I was told that they shunned contact with foreigners, but it proved not to be true; they said "Marhabah," or "hello," when I walked by and when I stopped to say hello, they gripped my hands in friendship.
Aleppo has now become synonymous with civil war. But when I visited it was a large, noisy city with a charming Christian quarter and an impressive Islamic-style citadel. There a vendor amused me by telling me the English proverbs he's memorized with dubious accuracy. "Don't put all your testicles in one basket," he admonished me.
In Palymra, the only city where I encountered tour buses and European tourists, the cella or sacred area of the magnificent temple of Bel (Baal) is so magnificently carved that, when Robert Wood recorded the architecture and design in the l8th century, it helped to launch the classical revival in England and America. I huddled next to a tour group and listened to what their animated Syrian guide was telling them: "The Valley of Tombs shows us an unusual commercial venture from 1900 years ago. Bodies were stacked, one over the other, so 300 people could be buried inside one tower. Good business, no? But who would want to do such a business?"
Back in Damascus, my guide said he knew I was overloaded with history and sites, but he had one more to show me. "It's about a Jewish man who changed his mind and heart," he said with a wink. We walked down the old Roman Straight Street and came to the Church of St. Ananais at the end. When Saul, the Jew who later became Saint Paul, had his dramatic and blinding conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus, he was taken in, cared for, baptized and had his sight restored in this very house. I felt as though I were standing inside the pages of the New Testament.
"We have so many amazing things in our country," my guide said, feeding off my enthusiasm. "Tourism will soon boom in Syria. I just know it."
There is no tourism in Syria now. Hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of people are fleeing the country or relocating to escape violence. But, ultimately, my guide was right. When Assad is finally overthrown and stability comes to Syria, tourism will boom. I know it.
Judith Fein is a multiple-award winning travel writer who has contributed to more than 100 publications and is the author of Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us
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