“Welcome to Zingcreed, the only religious blog in the world that has more questions than answers! As I muse aloud about religion and the world, feel free to eavesdrop – I hope you get something out of it!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.
I love the middle east, Syria and Lebanon in particular. I was so impressed by Aleppo that I wanted to stay there forever! The cool evenings, the high citadel on a mountain looking down on the city, the people in the markets, the bread rolls bought from street vendors, the kebabs served in a wrap with yogurt, the coffee…..
Now they’re at war – tens of thousands killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, in such a beautiful vibrant country – it’s so awful .
In this blog I just want to recall the Syria I visited before the conflict began and briefly describe some of the major archaeological features that I saw, and which may not even be standing any more.
Syria has been at the crossroads of trade routes for thousands of years. It holds the two oldest continuously occupied cities in the world (Aleppo and Damascus) and some of Islam’s most important mosques. Modern thought is that the gospels (or at least some of them) were written here.
Damascus‘ Old City, surrounded by its city wall, is bisected by Straight Street (mentioned in Acts 9:11). On either side are labyrinthine narrow lanes , some cul-de-sacs, leading to fountain courtyards, mosques, old houses and shops. Souq Medhat Pasha is on Straight Street, but I preferred Souq el-Hamidiyya, the longest covered market in the world. In this bazaar you will find silks, handicrafts, clothes, toys and much more.
The Umayyad mosque is Islam’s first great mosque; it is second only to the mosques of Mecca and Medina. It is decorated in a splendid manner that has to be seen to be believed. It has been said of it that “as soon as you enter, a wave of timelessness engulfs you.” (i)
Aleppo is less tidy than the capital and more relaxed (which may explain why I liked it so much!) Its Old City is a Unesco World Heritage Site. I loved it for its mezze and shwarmas, its scented spices and its coffee. I enjoyed buying sesame-coated bread rings off street vendors here.
Passing irrigation ditches with live terrapins a foot big swimming in them, I came to Hama. Hama is noted for its enormous wooden water wheels which scoop water up onto high aqueducts from the river to carry it to gardens for irrigation. These 20 metre diameter monsters appear on the country’s bank notes and were originally built in the fifth century. The town has a lot of gardens and a peaceful atmosphere.
Homs is reputed to be Syria’s most friendly place: indeed I bumped into the Chief of Police there and he took me to a kiosk where we ate the most splendid kebab with salad and yogurt in a chappati that I have ever eaten. Would an english police officer treat a foreign tourist so hospitably? The parks with their alfresco coffee stands give the town a relaxed atmosphere.
Last but not least is the best preserved crusader castle in the world Krak des Chevaliers. It lies on a hilltop, unchanged since the 12th century. It was deserted when I walked round. You could almost hear the sounds of battle! I picked up an old coin off the floor: the french archaeologists missed that one!
People come first, but if this archaeological heritage is destroyed too that would also be an irreplaceable loss to the whole of humanity.
In the unlikely event that any old Syrian friends of mine read this “A salaamu aleikum, Zafar and Ridwan. I hope you and your families are safe.”
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(i) Bradt guide to Syria p.57