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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.