July 24, 2011

Dearest Lady (a cyber letter).

For the polite reason that dictates life, you asking permission to join my table, I shared lunches with you. I said nothing while you explained, very much unprompted, the make-over you had in store for me - because I have such a pretty face.

You suggest a diet, a trope that is recurring in your discourse. In fact, you have followed my weight fluctuations with greater ardour than I ever could muster. Yesterday, you insisted several times, that – grey hair makes me look old and dreary.

My dear lady, you have the spirit of an old aunt, and I was taught to respect my elders.

I have subtly tried to indicate to you that you are being beyond inappropriate, and what is the greater offence, deadly boring. Changed the subject, smiled feebly, and vehemently explained that I like how I am, to no avail.

So, dear lady, and others in this category, I do have something to say to you.

I have lived in different countries, speak their languages, and have managed to learn good lessons from all these places. I travel to countries you do not know exist. I feel passionate about what I do, grateful that people recommend me as a knowledgeable and reliable professional. I am lucky to have access to a wealth of untapped information that reveal individuals struggling with their creative process, their place in the world, the righteousness of their quests – showing me that these essential questions are truly timeless. How comforting to know we are not alone.

I have had the pleasure of being told that I made a difference in the way people see the world. But more importantly, I have had the true delight of telling people that they have changed the way that I see the world, in the way that I love, and work. I work sufficiently hard to ensure that the only reason I will ever need a man is to love and encourage me, not to pay for my face lifts.

I have had the great luck of meeting people with extraordinary stories – some were accidental encounters, all were engaged with the world around them. I also was able to meet and, in some cases, befriend, writers, poets, academics, community leaders, in museums, at university, at friends’ houses, on the street. These were people who took time out of their lives to show me other ways to live, other ways to think, who inspired me by their own willingness to risk the opprobrium of people like you, by exposing themselves, their doubts and their quests, to the world.

I crossed paths with people who are authorities in their fields – most of them true humanists, completely unpretentious; generous with the information they had, absolutely aware that the only knowledge worth having is the one that you share. From meeting them I carry the responsibility of passing on not only their information, but their way of treating it, to others.

The people who truly enrich us are Linux, not Vista. Which one do you think you are?!

I have been flirted with, desired, loved, and made love to by men who were taken by who I am. I can't tell you what their feelings were about my hair, or my weight, as we had other things to talk about. If life only were that simple.

And let me tell you about the women I admire – they are of varying ages, from many places, some are in relationships, some aren’t, some are incredibly stylish, some make me look like Coco Chanel in comparison, some have high power jobs, some just have jobs. Some of them don’t even get along with each other. In common they share a joy for life, creativity for what life throws at them, thirst for new experiences, a sense of loyalty and propriety towards, and unconditional love for, their friends. These women inspire me in the way they live their lives, not in the awesome way in which they coordinate a $500 belt and shoes.

Do you realize how silly your views on my hard earned grey strands of hair sound just about now?

Oh, make no mistake, I love clothes, shoes, and fashion magazines. Although the time I spend on these issues accounts for very little of my time. And never would I dream of, unprompted, informing others of the makeover plans I have for them.

And, what shocks me more, is the waste of time - why don't you tell me about a film, book, documentary, or exhibition that has touched you, changed you, inspired you? I am yet to have a good conversation about the Great Meaulnes, Lady Chatterley, or Glee!

Well then, what I really want to ask is, who the %#@* do you think you are?  I will not.  This being a polite blog, my words would have meant that I was being rude, an occurrence which, by the laws of this blog, void any just claim I would have.

Besides a taste for coffee we have nothing in common. None of your core values correspond to mine. For some hidden reason or insecurity, you have been rude, disrespectful, and insensitive. And, in another demonstration of how truly different we are, you took my polite silence as agreement with your ‘wisdom’.

Unbelievable as it may seem to you, I am well-rounded in more ways than one. I am proud of what I have achieved, relieved that I rely on no man to pay my way, beyond grateful for my friends and mentors, and I look forward excitedly to what lies ahead. Being grey haired doesn’t even compute (go figure! no pun intented).

So, dearest lady, should you be willing to listen to one of the lessons I have learned from others at such a late stage in your life, here goes: if you have nothing pleasant to say, say nothing at all.

à votre santé

July 21, 2011

Chasing Rainbows

Airfare = $xxx 
Excess Baggage Fee = $xx 
Chasing Rainbows = PRICELESS

Rainbows have not only inspired poets through the centuries. They have also fostered legends and beliefs: that pots of gold can be found at the ends ... that rainbows at night mean good sailing, rainbows in morning mean dangerous conditions for sailing ... that a very greenish rainbow means continuation of rain. 

Despite the fallaciousness of such beliefs, everyone would surely agree with William Wordsworth, who wrote: My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.
Marvelous, yes, and mysterious, rainbows are truly one of nature's most splendorous creations. Elusive. Fleeting.  And surprisingly varied: sometimes double, sometimes partial, sometimes completely semicircular. 

But if you look carefully at rainbows, you'll discover some things that are invariable. For example: the color red always appears at the top of the primary arc, and blue at the bottom.   Why? Because rainbows result from splitting sunlight into its component colors when it passes through a water droplet. And the longer wavelengths, red and yellow, get bent less than the shorter wavelengths, blue and violet. 

From the ground, you see only the lower half of the reflected component colors. So you see only the effect of an arc, not the whole circle. You see the refracted light in millions of droplets, each at a different distance above the ground. The bow results from the cooperative effort of all the droplets, which refract for an instant, in a constantly shifting mix.  Since the sun's angle remains constant, the arc remains constant too, while it lasts. 

Where do you see rainbows? Where the sun is behind you, shining into droplets in clouds or mist in front of you. The sun's altitude determines how much of the arc is visible.  In early morning or late day, the rainbows appear as half circles. The radius of the primary arc will always be 42 degrees. If the sun is higher, you'll see less of the arc; at midday, you won't see any. 

Another curious thing about rainbows: they can have either one arc ... or more. If there's a single reflection inside the droplet, the result is a primary arc. If the reflection bounces back, you'll see a secondary rainbow-with colors in reverse order: red on bottom, blue on top. That's because the droplet's interior acts as a mirror, reversing the refraction and scattering. 

Several more points: the bigger the droplets, the more scattering of color and the wider the band. Very tiny droplets produce only thin, nearly white bows. There are fog bows ... dew bows ...and steam bows (thank you Charles for the input).

Look and admire.

Je sais les cieux crevant en éclairs, et les trombes
Et les ressacs et les courants :  je sais le soir,
L'Aube exaltée ainsi qu'un peuple de colombes,
Et j'ai vu quelque fois ce que l'homme a cru voir !

I know the lightning-opened skies, waterspouts,
Eddies and surfs; I know the night,
And dawn arisen like a colony of doves,
And sometimes I have seen what men have thought they saw!

-Arthur Rimbaud, Le Bateau Ivre

July 13, 2011

Make the rest...silence.

I am a lover of silence. It is this same love that is bound up with my passion for books. The writer Stefan Zweig once defined a book as a “handful of silence that assuages torment and unrest.”

While the world teems about me, drowning out the sounds of stillness with incessant noise, there is a notion of displacement, as though I wasn’t meant for these times of television sets, ipods, car alarms, cell phones, all day-every day music in stores, restaurants, office buildings, malls, and elevators. Why is it, I wondered, that silence is a diminishing natural resource, so alien to our way of life that its very existence seems to threaten the fabric of our culture? Why is it that we love noise, fear silence and evade a stillness that puts us in closer connection with things that give us happiness if we let them?

It is a strange and intoxicating premise: to investigate the obscure root causes of our inability to be quiet. Like a form of narcissism, are we becoming consumed with a self-saturation of our own largely uninteresting cacophony? I believe that we are, and as we become noisier, we also lose touch with the many dimensions of silence itself, a silence that research suggests is as therapeutic–as essential–to the human animal as antibiotics or uncontaminated food.

We suffer from noise pollution; insomnia, aggression, heart disease, even decreased longevity…the side-effects of enduring noise. It’s almost as if noise itself is a disease, a pathogen. And because of it, silence has become the most precious—and dwindling—commodity of our modern world, more than money, power, even happiness.

It doesn’t take a sage to understand that those who have grasped solitude are the special emissaries to the tranquility of silence.

Henry David Thoreau for one: “Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.”

July 07, 2011

For once, old hat is just perfect.

In a box in a closet is an umbrella stand from Portugal. Also, there is a Barcelona bullfight poster, carefully furled, two Chianti bottles, and a papier-mache mask from Carnevale in Venice with the nose broken, a silver bracelet from Greece, and a cuckoo clock without a cuckoo. Assorted dolls in national dress have sustained near-fatal injuries in the box as it has been shifted from one address to another over the years-in one case, a Swiss peasant dolly, like Anne Boleyn, clutches her head-and there's a Beatles wig from Carnaby Street which something unmentionable has made its nest.

More carefully curated, wrapped in tissue paper, it is a beautiful straw hat. It was given to me more than fifty years ago in Copenhagen by a mysterious woman who said she was a spy.

For most of the week in Denmark, grandpa dutifully visited Tivoli Gardens, again and again. It was my first theme park, and the best, a child's paradise, a set of brilliant pop-up illustrations, with rides and cafes, music and dancing, all lighted by skeins of fairy lights. One night, however, we were having a grown-up dinner on the roof of some hotel with a panoramic view of the Danish capital. Grandpa began conversing with a gaunt woman in dark glasses at the next table who spoke perfect German.

The next day, a letter arrived: We were invited to visit the Danish woman, whose name I can't remember or perhaps never knew. Her flat was small and dark and creepy; it had Turkish carpets and large velvet lampshades with heavy fringes. She offered me my choice of mementos-did I remind her of someone? But the hat was clearly the one I was meant to choose, and so I did, and then she opened her scrapbooks, where her past was laid out in sepia on crackling yellow news-print. She had been an agent, subverted the Nazis. The Allied’s woman in Copenhagen, and who knew what else? Heady stuff for a young girl with an active imagination like rising yeast.

After the coffee and the pastries and the schnapps we left. Halfway back to the hotel, the lights went out all over town-a power cut, we learned later, but we were spooked anyhow and found a bar that was packed with sailors all dressed in costumes left over from Anna Christie. Wary at first of these odd foreigners clutching an old hat, the sailors rallied and called for a taxi. For a minute in the blacked-out city it seemed to be wartime, and our friend, the glamorous European spy, plotting against the enemy, would put on a slinky evening dress and beard some German in his lair.

The hat and the story - securely part of family legend that glows in the distance - are now suspended inside the glistening emulsion of memory, like the objects inside those little plastic domes filled with fake snowflake the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Pisa, the Statue of Liberty - that are universal souvenirs. It is no wonder the great lasting cinematic image for memory is one of these plastic gewgaws with snow inside and a child's sled named "Rosebud."

Old travel was best in the anticipation, or the remembering; the reality had more to do with losing your luggage. You spent whole evenings at home with a lapful of books, brochures, street guides, clippings, atlases, conjuring up the perfect trip in which nothing could go wrong, every bottle well chilled, every sunset dazzling. Coming home, you could not wait to show off: snapshots, slides, videos, brass rubbings from Bray, wine labels from Bordeaux, linen and lace from Belgium and Brittany, and a model of Cologne Cathedral made from matchsticks. Everyone else would doze off while you remained enchanted, shaking up the memories one more time.

The best souvenirs had a slightly illicit origin, the tang of vice, the freedom of abroad-ashtrays and menus swiped from restaurants, a bracelet offered by a bespectacled Lebanese gent on an outing into the French countryside, an antique inkwell that might be worth the pound I paid, or maybe a couple of hundred because I got it one wet dawn at Bermondsey Market, courtesy of a friendly dealer who had it hidden underneath his dirty raincoat. Souvenirs enshrined, encapsulated, carried home, elicit memories of a journey, good, bad, indifferent, with which to scare the godkids - Americans on the grand tour of Europe purchased entire palazzi, nineteenth-century travelers to exotic parts doted on shrunken heads.

And, like a scientist working over the Shroud of Turin or an archaeologist in a mummy's tomb, I can date various events on various trips by the charms on my charm bracelet-the strings on the Spanish guitar are gone-or the condition of the items in the box in the closet. The ashtrays, for example, are variously scarred with nicotine or in pristine condition, depending on whether I acquired them when friends were still smoking; the period the Beatles wig belongs to is self-evident.

Ashtrays were marvelous publicity of a trip; they did not necessarily brag, but, casually deposited on a shelf next to the telephone or in the bathroom, they let on you'd been to…

My best heist was at a pub in Denham. During lunch I spotted a great square cream-colored ashtray-from a cheese manufacturer, I think.

Soon after, I found myself in the local church, accosted by a vicar who was eager to describe the architecture and, perhaps, snare a contribution for the restoration of the roof, and all the time the stolen good burned in my bag.

My career ended in Florence, however, at the Excelsior Hotel, where I was defeated by an elephantine green marble ashtray that must have weighed thirty pounds; in any case, what with the taking of credit card imprints on arrival, there's been a decline in the art of stealing ashtrays. The management discreetly puts the goods on your bill.

I have paid overweight for Venetian glass from Venice, delft from Delft, Peter Rabbit baby plates from Harrods, have carried worn espadrilles from France and unworn clogs from Holland, stuffed my suitcase with stuffed bears from Berlin, not to mention cans of Berlinluft, the local air said to be beneficial to your health, all because, somehow, souvenirs are more particular than snapshots, mine at least, where there always seems to be a crowd of strangers in the background, extras from someone else's movie, who've wandered onto my set.

Still, regular shopping, as distinct from barter or theft, is a lot less interesting now that the world has shrunk to the size of a packet of in-flight peanuts, and you can get Armani everywhere and Burberry at Bloomingdale's.

It used to be different. Until the day before yesterday, the world was exotic; we used to hit the ground running-duty-frees alone offered up unspeakably glamorous goodies-pursuing its splendors like some Henry James heroine, finding treasure in an antique stall, shopping Bond Street, Jermyn Street, the Ponte Vecchio, the Via Condotti, or the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore, which was always my mother's street because there she had discovered Hermes.

My mother, like the good French bourgeois who, God knows, my mother in no other way resembled, she understood the culture of the one great handbag and was befriended by an august salesperson at Hermes who saved choice items for her. These days, when Hermes boutiques are common as McDonald's and the bags expensive as nuclear weapons, my mother's bags are not the least diminished; they sit on my top shelf and remind me of her.

When I began traveling in the late 1950s I had an idea of the world that, over the years, resulted in: crates of sticky liqueurs, including one we insisted on calling Cherry Herring; a rose colored silk frock handmade for me at La Grande Maison de Blanc; my father's posh car. It had a curvaceous body, pale gray leather and a burled walnut dashboard. It felt, smelled, drove, and looked like old times for him, but unfortunately this capitalist driving tool appeared during my hippie period (this was, after all, the '60s).

Not that he cared. He proudly arrived in it to visit me at college where he and another father, not the least bit interested in pandering to their daughters' casual politics, raced it across campus. In the box in the closet, I still have the key ring.

Reading this over, I see that most everything here is connected with my childhood, maybe because the evocation of the past is the very nature of souvenirs, or maybe because I travel too much now, or am surfeited with shopping, jaded by objects, defeated by luggage carousels.

O my, and the trips in the ‘70s to the former Soviet Union. Here are the "pregnant" dollies made of painted wood, nesting inside each other, fur hats, and vodka from Tbilisi. With so little to buy then, every purchase gained status as a souvenir: a tube of toothpaste with Cyrillic writing, and the brooms my friend Larissa insisted on hauling home from the Moscow Central Market; cheap buttons stamped out of tin with Lenin's face on them and the "Baby Lenins" -with the face of little Vladimir Ilich.

In a Moscow deprived of the goodies of a consumer society, the hip, the trendy, the angry, the seditious had re-dedicated the commonplace as kitsch; rockers wore chestfuls of Lenin badges in parody of the military; students carried Soviet army officers' brief-cases; and I hankered after a red plastic telephone I had seen at a dacha in the country.

I had to barter for my little treasures. Beatles cassettes changed hands. But before I could move on to the bar at the hotel, we had to leave town. Just as well, Larissa said, conjecturing that if I had stayed any longer, the bartender would have found his bar stripped bare, found himself, like some character from a Beckett play, sans everything, but up to his neck in a pile of Beatles cassettes.

Well, I have my hat, so I am ready for my little weekend trip. Later…

July 05, 2011

Vestiges of the past.

Many peoples have marched into and out of Syria during its 10,000 year existence.  You can see fascinating signs of its long, volatile history - in both still-standing splendors and monumental ruins.

YOU MIGHT SAY that Syria is the largest small country on the map. Certainly a lot of history has been packed into its predominantly bleak and uninviting confines. For 10 millennia, Syria has been something of a way station for many of the world's great civilizations. Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, early Christians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Crusaders, and European traders-they all came, conquered, then retreated. And they left their mark on this centrally located Near Eastern country. A tour through today's Syria reveals a microcosm of the history of several civilizations. Like all historical sites, some of it can be found splendid and intact, while some lie in ruins.

If you want to explore this cultural and historical meld, start at Damascus, Syria's capital. Historians think it's the world's oldest inhabited city. Nearby at Tell Ramad stand remnants of an Oriental settlement started about the eighth millennium B.C. Its people were hunters and gatherers who buried their dead under their hearths. Skulls found there were once curiously plastered over and decorated with eerie depictions of the dead person's imagined features.

Then, at the Damascus Museum, you can advance 6,000 years to the civilization of Mari on the Euphrates, where archaeologists discovered 20,000 cuneiform tablets telling the story of the Amorites.

These were the first historically significant Semitic people to settle in Syria. The tablets relate the reign of Zimrilin (ca. 1730-1700 B.C.), the last great Amorite ruler. His reign was ended by the great Babylonian Hammurabi, who gave us the famed legal code. Among the museum's Mari artifacts are figurines of bronze lions and worshipers clad in curly sheepskin. A jar discovered in 1965 contained statuettes of ivory, bronze, and gold; an eagle; ornaments of gold and lapis lazuli; pins and engraved cylinders. An inscription notes that the jar was a present for the king of Mari from the king of Masannipadda- a gift that survived 5,000 years.

Christians, of course, best know Damascus from the story of St. Paul, whose fabled revelation occurred "on the road to Damascus." At a Byzantine site near Qatana, Russians have built an attractive modern church to commemorate the event. In response to an angel's order, the blinded St. Paul had headed for the Via Recta (Straight Street) and the house of Ananias, which has been preserved. When Paul was later forced to flee the city, he was lowered from the city wall in a basket. Today, as in Paul's day, houses have been built into the thick wall, and their wooden balconies hang on the outer side facing open country.

Other Christian sites abound in the region.

In the snow of Mount Hermon above Damascus, the abandoned Byzantine citadel of Burgush overlooks the border of Arab Palestine. This fortress defended Christians long before the Crusades.

St. Helena (back from her fifth century pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she found the True Cross) established several churches in the area. And the picturesque villages in the arid hills of the Anti-Lebanon range northwest of Damascus are still inhabited almost exclusively by Christians, who comprise about 15 percent of Syria's population. These towns originally provided refuge for their Christian inhabitants.

An earthly paradise.


But to the Arab world, Damascus commemorates a high point of Islamic history-the Umayyad Dynasty (A.D. 660-750). Radiating from Damascus, the Umayyad Empire stretched from the shores of the Atlantic and the Pyrenees to the Indus and the confines of China. This expanse was greater than the Roman Empire's at its height. And Damascus itself was, as historian Philip K. Hitti wrote, "set like a pearl in an emerald girdle of gardens"-the green valleys called the Ghuta. Today, these are still fed by the Barada River, whose water at its source is 99.98 percent chemically pure. The prophet Muhammad reportedly hesitated before crossing the Damascus city limits because, said Hitti, "he wished to enter paradise but once."

Today, the most important symbol of this great dynasty is the Umayyad mosque-the fourth holiest place in the Muslim world after the mosques at Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

Originally, it was the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist; St. John's head still rests within, under a richly gilded dome.

For half a century after they conquered Syria, Muslims worshiped in converted Christian churches. In Damascus, members of the two faiths entered the same door, but Christians turned left and Muslims right. During 7 years of construction, the Umayyad mosque was decorated with multicolored mosaics, rare marbles along its walls and ceilings, and murals of gold plus precious stones. With mosaics in the grand courtyard, Byzantine-Syrian craftsmen created scenes of life along the Barada: arched bridges and cottages in the shade of trees that lean out over the running water.

The mosque's most striking feature: a minaret on its north side. It is said that Hitti is the oldest purely Muslim minaret still standing, and it became a model for similar structures in Syria, Spain, and North Africa.

Muslim influence in Damascus art and architecture persisted for centuries. The sumptuous Azem Palace there, built in 1749 during Ottoman rule, was considered the finest Muslim monument of the 18th century. It has a maze of interior courtyards with pools, fountains, and a profusion of jasmine and roses.

The Turks, who reigned over Syria for 400 years beginning in the 16th century, also left a splendid monument in Damascus - the Tekkyeh mosque of the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. With its graceful minarets, this mosque is surrounded by arcades, each with a room and a kitchen. It once served to accommodate pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Palmyra: Zenobia's grand empire

To see Roman ruins, go 140 miles east of Damascus. There, in the desert, sits the town of Palmyra. It flourished in the 3rd century A.D., near the end of Roman rule in Syria. The Romans conquered terrains with more than armies: wherever they went, they built roads, and Syria was no exception. Syrian roads were policed, and they had wells every 17.5 miles. Today you can see random sections of stone roads looking like they were built yesterday.

During Roman times, Palmyra sat on the main east-west road across Syria. It lay 125 miles from both the Euphrates to the east and the Mediterranean to the west. It thus became one of the great trading centers in the Roman Empire. And under the legendary Queen Zenobia, Palmyra became imperial in its own right, even attacking Egypt. The Palmyrenes established their garrisons along the Euphrates at Resapha and Dura Europus, where frescoes have been found with likenesses of Palmyrene soldiers. Resapha was later named Sergiopolis in honor of its native St. Sergius; still later it was called El Ruseifa and became a summer home of the Umayyad caliphs.

Zenobia's armies eventually surrendered to the Roman emperor Aurelian. She herself was captured by the Romans and paraded through Rome. But she charmed her captors and was pensioned off to a Roman villa.

You can still see the grandeur that was Palmyra in the remains of its colonnaded main street. It originally was 1,240 yards long and had 375 or more towers, each 55 feet high; fewer than half remain now. Some once had consoles supporting statues of honored Palmyrenes. The street led to and from the Temple of Bel (a Palmyrene god) and its famous arch.

Palmyra has many memorials to Palmyrene civilization-tombs both above and under the ground. Over 150 so-called "tower tombs" reach up to 70 feet high. Subterranean tombs have long passages and colonnaded halls. Some can hold up to 400 bodies. In these tombs, the Palmyrenes left effigies in "banquets of the dead." Whole families are represented, seated at a table by order of rank. The more important the person, the bigger his or her effigy. Women are decked out in jewels, diadems, necklaces, pendants, and earrings, and they display rings on every finger. Men, looking well fed, are garbed in Roman togas or broad Parthian bouffant trousers gathered at the ankle. Thus did Palmyrenes attempt to guarantee their immortality.

Today, inhabitants of the region live in beehive-shaped clay houses surrounding the monumental ruins-all that's left of the fascinating though short-lived Palmyrene Empire.

Besides Palmyra, other traces of Roman rule remain in once-great cities that are now poor villages in desolate terrain. Busra, in the south, was a trade and military metropolis; it contains one of the biggest and best preserved theaters of Roman times.

And in the Bellus Range region in northern Syria are 100 "dead towns," where prosperous farmers once lived in Roman villas notable for their impeccable masonry.

Also in this area: ruins at Kalat commemorating the vigil of St. Simeon the Stylite. There, during Byzantine rule of Syria, the famed ascetic St. Simeon stood on a 60-foot high pillar 3 feet in diameter for 37 years until his death at age 69 in A.D. 459. According to contemporary accounts, St. Simeon had room to kneel but never to lie down. All night he prayed, and at 9 o'clock in the morning "he began to address the admiring crowd 60 feet below, to send messages, write letters, and so forth." He ate but once a week. Pilgrims to the pillar did not include women-"not even his own mother," the legend goes, "till after her death, when he consented to see her corpse and restored her to life for a short time, that she might see him and converse with him a little before she ascended to heaven." St. Simeon inspired a host of imitators, called the Stylites, but none equaled his obsessive performance.

The base of St. Simeon's pillar, marked by a large stone. is today surrounded by the ruins of a church built after his death. The pillar is enclosed by four naves with vaulted apses. Three of these were never used as places of worship but as gathering places for pilgrims to gaze upon the pillar.

Northern Syria's main city today is Aleppo.

You'll find that, like Damascus, its past is culturally checkered.  Minarets of the city's ancient mosques-including the Great Mosque (A.D. 715)-point skyward, as if to draw attention from the city's secular role: it was the principal trade link between Europe and the Middle East during Ottoman rule.

As many as 200 Europeans inhabited the Christian quarter, which had iron gates that got padlocked at night. When travelers spoke or wrote of the Orient's wealth, their information was based on goods flowing into the Aleppo bazaar, or souk.

Aleppo's former fortress-warehouses still serve as thriving bazaars. You'll see goods scattered everywhere; each alley has its specialty. Rope and hampers are heaped to the ceilings; slippers hang by the hundreds on awnings. Everywhere are piles of rugs, cloths, gaudy scarves, fruit, and bags of spice. Shops sell drugs, gold and silver jewelry, copper pans and pitchers, roast meat, and pastry. The scene could be out of the 17th century - except for plastic kitsch scattered here and there.


On a hill protecting the city stands Aleppo's famed Citadel. Built in the 12th century by Arabs, it's one of many fortresses constructed during the centuries in war-torn Syria, Another Arab fort, Sheizar Castle, lies south of Aleppo, down the Orontes River.

But the greatest strongholds were those of the Crusaders, which dominate every strategic mountain in the area. And the mightiest among these, commanding a view 2,200 feet above the Orontes, is the Krak des Chevaliers. Its walls are 80 feet thick, and the fort could house as many as 2,000 men. For 150 years in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Krak des Chevaliers served as a base-first for the Crusaders, then for the Knights Hospitalers.


The Orontes Valley also contains colonnaded ruins of Apamea. It was one of the great Syrian cities of the Seleucid Empire - the Hellenic civilization founded by Alexander the Great. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C., Apamea housed part of the Seleucid army and a national stud farm with 30,000 mares and 300 stallions; it was also a training ground for war elephants.

Farther down the Orontes lies Hama, a Muslim city with its own Azem Palace resembling the one in Damascus.

What most travelers remember of the city, though, are the river's great creaking waterwheels, called noria. “Some despairing spirits," wrote historian Sacheverell Sitwell, "seem imprisoned in those waterwheels, condemned to labor much of the day without intermission, and spilling almost as much as they lift."

So it was, too, with the many civilizations that tried to master the ancient land of Syria. They never really quite succeeded.