Syria: Never Judge a Country by its State Department Warning
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

* EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was posted in January of 2010, before all hell broke loose when the Syrian regime began its brutal crackdown. With a full-on rebellion in progress, obviously a State Department warning is justified and nobody can or should visit. Consider this piece a moment in time when the rage was still contained...

I'm friends with guys like Robert Pelton who make their living testing dangerous places. That's not my gig, but recently I've been drawn to zones with foreboding State Dept Warnings (Zimbabwe, Honduras, southern and northern Philippines, Kenya, Cuba, Nicaragua, pretty much every country in S.E. Asia) and have been consistently pleasantly surprised by their inaccuracies.

Excepting a permanent wandering expat friend (Dave from Jersey) who's so adapted to S.E. Asian thrift he thrives for a year on what typical NYC women spend on three haircuts, as I rotate through my quest to visit and storytell every country I still have no "expert" to resource for definitive danger intelligence. Even the FBI guy I know in DC swears that I'm foolish to visit Haiti without an armed bodyguard. And now that I'm also conspicuously shooting video, any shot at subtlety has evaporated.

Krac des Chevaliers

Just before flying to Syria, I was in a Houston St. bar—en route to a Joe's Pub concert— where I met Hillary Clinton's (Department of State appointed) bodyguard. I ended up taking him to the concert and finally got to rant about State Department–sponsored paranoid disillusion tourism killers to one of their own. He was unable to enlighten or scare me. So despite data about Al Qaeda terrorist training camps, hardcore anti–American loathing, and journalists routinely being tailed in Syria, away I went…

Syria woman

Greetings from the Axis of Evil, wish you were here
Hello once again U.S. State Department travel warning advisors…best wishes from Syria. Refuting your global tourism–crippling admonitions is a distraction made easier by sampling Syria's halawat al jibin dessert while peering at mesmeric Crusader ruins. Smiles and greeting nods abound, not danger.

The easternmost point on the Mediterranean shoreline, Syria huddles with Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. Interesting neighborhood. True, there are human rights disgraces here, including Facebook and YouTube internet blockades, immodest indoor chain–smoking, and (did I hear this right?) some rape convictions being overturned if the rapist marries his victim. Every country has festering sores that don't represent its entire reality—in the U.S., news of school shootings trumps the work of angels volunteering in homeless shelters.

Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site playground, bleeds history, not American tourists. The highlight of Syria's ruin hall of fame is The Krak of the Knights: the prevailing French translation, Le Krac des Chevaliers, hisses a feminine ring that castrates the most famous crusader castle in the world. The regional epicenter of several Christian crusade missions, the Castle of Horsemen's dozens of 200–foot overlooks are without pedestrian railings—you can roam anywhere in the same multilevel mazes once trudged by 4000 soldiers.

Surrounded by the olive tree version of Napa Valley, semi–forested terraced mountains showcase this implausible muscular goliath. From the forts wholly preserved towering gothic ramparts, hot oil was poured over would–be attackers to help them rethink their battle plan. In peacetime the castle housed over 2,500 people; it was inhabited until 1934 via onsite shanties.

Aleppo and the Silk Road crossroads
A few hours away, Aleppo's majestic 200–foot high Citadel gets all the attention, probably because unlike the Christian nerve center, the Krak, it was an enduring Muslim stronghold. Construction of this headquarters of the war against the crusades was initiated by 1000BC Aramics and completed by 15th Century Islamic warriors. Construction surrounding the citadel continues: the city of Aleppo, a maze of timeless cobbled streets and unexpected alleyways, is also a World Heritage prize. In 1138, an earthquake killed 230,000 people here, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes on record. They've managed to pick up the pieces.

Before the crusaders battled Islam, Romans ran things here. Bosra's Roman amphitheater, uncannily preserved by recently dismantled structural add–ons, was designed for 15,000 spectators. Strategically placed exits still allow the arena, if sold out, to be cleared in 15 minutes; an amazing feat by architects born in the 200s. Syrians lived continuously in Bosra's two–Palmyrasquare–kilometer walled city until 1980 when UNESCO tapped their conservation wand.

The Roman ruins in Palmyra—an underground spring nourishes palm trees in this otherwise desert zone—show the historic importance of this oasis area. Property brought via the Silk Road caravan trade was reflected in the importation of marble sculptures to Palmyra. As marble is not to be found in the Near East, these imports were extremely costly. They also demonstrated the prestige of Classical Art in Palmyra. Nearly all ancient quarries were close to the sea or on a river. Stone were transported on ships carrying 200 tons or more from the coast to Palmyra. Blocks of stone had to be carried on carts drawn by oxen. An average daily stage was about 10 miles and animals had to be changed frequently.

I attended a U.N.–style tourism conference in Aleppo. After an inquiry about the Facebook block, after some deliberation, Minister of Tourism Dr. Saadallah Agha Alqalah cited a study declaring that people spending six hours or more a day on Facebook are unable to do their jobs. That's the only propaganda I'll deliver.

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