I had somebody to find in the warren of streets and alleyways in the old walled city of Damascus. There is no mention of him in the guidebooks, but I’d heard the rumours more than once. Would he still be there? There were many twists and turns. Through the soukh, skirting the Great Mosque, along Straight Street and Ananias’s house where the scales fell from St Paul’s eyes, jostled by small boys selling mint tea and old men pushing carts, and the waft of perfume and spices on the breeze, I finally discover what I’m looking for. By the gate of the ‘Azem Palace, is a shop, selling traditional blue tiles, marquetry boxes, Armenian filigree, Iranian carpets and the elaborate brocade work so typical of Damascus. But one thing sets this shop, under the sign of “George Dabdoub”, apart from all the others – it is the last Jewish business left in Syria.
Selim and David Hamadami’s family are among the final five Jewish families remaining in the country – just 19 people, all aged over 40 and none with any children. In 1948 there were 30,000 Jews in Damascus, but most departed in the 1990s when President Assad granted exit visas. There is a single working synagogue but the “Jewish quarter” remains only in name. David lives in Brooklyn, but comes to Damascus sometimes to help his brother in the shop. So why does Selim stay on this country, which Israel accuses of arming its great enemy Hizbollah? There is a simple answer. Because his family have been here for 600 years. His father Joseph ran the family business before him. And he gets no trouble in this most multicultural and tolerant of middle eastern cities. Besides business is good, so why go?
I had arrived in Syria’s capital city the weekend after the Israelis had claimed last month to have bombed what they said was a Syrian nuclear site. George Bush had already struck fear into the heart of any potential tourist to the country by proclaiming it part of his “axis of evil”. There were the predictable gags from friends. “Well, at least it’ll be a cheap trip, said one. “You won’t have to pay your air fare back.” In fact, my journey it turned out to be a serene journey of discovery into the heart of one of the most misrepresented countries on the planet.
Untouched by mass tourism (particularly now timid Americans no longer come), and with courteous and hospitable people, Syria is one of the world’s best-kept secrets, with a heritage that could hardly be richer or more diverse. In the fertile Euphrates valley, civilisation itself was born. The early days of Christianity were nurtured in the Syrian cities of Antioch and Damascus, and Islam was moulded in the Umayyad court of Damascus, the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. When the Prophet Mohammed first viewed the city, he would not pass through the gates because, he said: “Man could only enter paradise once.”
By Mohammed’s time, the Hittites and Hurrians, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Egyptians, Canaanites, Persians, Nabateans, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines had already passed through, leaving behind castles, churches, temples, mosques and deserted cities – a wealth of almost unrivalled historical grandeur. Not to mention the Crusaders, Ottomans and French who came later.
Today’s Syria is a place of many paradoxes. Nowhere is it ever quite what it seems and defies almost every kind of stereotype. Contrary to popular opinion, it is a secular society and not an Islamic state, with 15 per cent of the population Christian. Many Syrians will talk openly about politics, whether the inbuilt corruption of their own system or the desirability of electing Hillary Clinton. You are just as likely to encounter women wearing a burkha in parts of Derby as in central Damascus, where young women are happy to wear jeans and t-shirts. (One of the most bizarre sights in the cities are street stalls festooned with women’s underwear – mostly extra large size.)
Nor is it primarily a desert country – much of the population lives in the green fruit-filled land bordering the Mediterranean, and parts of Syria have more rain than the UK. Alcohol is openly permitted and many of the wines are delicious, including world-famous vintages from Lebanon’s Beqa’a Valley. Outside military sites there are few restrictions on foreigners, who will find the country refreshingly crime free. No westerner has ever been kidnapped or harmed in Syria.
So casting aside White House paranoia, I chase the ghosts of kings and queens, gods and goddesses, warriors and traders across thousands of kilometres and 5,000 years of history. At Mari on the Iraq border, it is humbling to stand in the mud where civilisation began on the site of the vast Bronze Age city where the mighty King Zimri-Lim ruled from a 300-room palace built entirely from clay and straw. I travel as far back into antiquity as it is possible to go at the remains of the vast city state of Ebla dating from the fourth century BC. Below your feet are the shards of a civilisation so old that it was already far off in the dimmest recesses of history when Mark Antony was governor of Syria 2,000 years ago.
In the richness of the ruins of ancient Syria, it is possible to stumble across both the superlative and the bizarre. In the great Hellenistic city of Douros Europa is the earliest Christian church dating from 231. At the Mediterranean city of Ugarit, the world’s first alphabet was discovered on clay tablets in the palace archives in the 14th century BC. One tablet reads: “Do not tell your wife where you have hidden your money.” On a magnificent site across the mountains, is the world’s best-preserved Crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers. At the shrine of St Simeon Stylites, there are still the remains of the 64ft pillar on top of which this most bizarre of ascetics stayed perched, rain and shine, for the last 30 years of his life with an iron and chain round his neck.
Most evocative of all is the mighty oasis city of Palmyra – the “Venice of the Sands”, where the ghosts of traders of silks, spices and ebony from the east still seem to stalk the ruined streets. I stay in a hotel set amid the ruins and watch the shadow of the moon flit over the ghostly classical remains of the Temple of Baal Shemin and think of the beautiful warrior queen Zenobia after whom the hotel is named. As great in her day as Cleopatra, she conquered Egypt from her desert HQ with an army of 70,000, before being defeated by the Emperor Aurelian and carried off to Rome in chains of gold At dawn I watch the sun rise as a camel train lopes slowly through the great Roman colonnade – a sight unchanged in millennia.
There are modern ghosts, too. At my hotel in Palmyra, one of the staff whispers that Mata Hari once stayed here. And sure enough, in her suite, there is the still the ancient bakelite phone on which she would call her spymasters. In the now down-at-heel Hotel Baron in the red light district of Aleppo, Agatha Christie wrote most of Murder on the Orient Express (in the days when the famous train used to run to such exotic destinations) while her archaeologist husband was out on digs. I have a Campari on the terrace where T. E. Lawrence used to shoot ducks. Unlike him, I pay my bar bill – his unpaid one from 1914 is still framed in the foyer.
A few days later, I have my own Lawrence of Arabia moment, when I take one of the now very rare services on the famous Hejaz Railway south from Damascus to Amman, where a train is famously derailed in David Lean’s epic film. As our ancient steam loco with its three century-old wooden coaches wheezes through the desert, there is a sudden slam of brakes and a whoosh of steam. Dozens of figures in military gear are racing towards us. Surely not Peter O’ Toole, Omar Sharif and their band of Arab warriors? More mundanely, it is a bunch of Syrian soldiers whose electricity supply we have snagged. But the picture of them waving, smiling and cheering us on our way after clearing the tracks would have made a wonderful postcard to the White House. Dear George, wish you were here…
Michael Williams went to Syria with Andante Travels. Trips for 2008 depart on 6 April, 12 October and 28 December. Cost for 11 days is £1,785 (single supp £155), all meals included. (www.andantetravels.co.uk) or phone 01722 713800).