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.


Rocher said...

This is wonderful…magnifique!!
Call me when you get back.

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

Thank you Charles. A bientot jespere.

gaggle of fans said...

Thank you for your historic insight into a country the average citizen knows very little here in the United States.

Anonymous said...

off-line mostly & mostly off-line too!!!
great post