In the footsteps of ancients

Modern history ... a tea seller in the Armenian quarter of Aleppo.
Modern history ... a tea seller in the Armenian quarter of Aleppo. Photo: AFP

The well-preserved remains of Byzantine-era villages and monastic settlements contain a wealth of artefacts from long-dead cultures.

THE stone window ledge has two rows of seven shallow depressions cut into it. I am sitting next to them, trying to remember where on earth I've seen this pattern before. Far away, beyond the massive fortifications and the moat, are the white-capped mountains of Lebanon. I had not expected to see so much snow around but Syria throws up surprises all the time.

Even this 12th-century crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers, a fabulous place long picked over by archaeologists and historians, is full of mysteries. Like the time-worn inscription I found tucked away in a corner: "Ceso: LT:Bor ..." What did it mean? A cryptic message from one of the Knights Hospitallers during the final Muslim siege of 1271, perhaps? My otherwise excellent guidebook to the monuments of the country, written by Ross Burns, makes no mention of it.

Then more surprises: a local youth who has been watching me examine the ledge interrupts. "It's a game," he says, walking his fingers up and down the 14 hollows. "Mancala."

I remember the African pastime, a bit like backgammon. "But how did it get here, carved into the window ledge of the highest tower in a crusader castle?"

He shrugs and stands in the window, arms outstretched to hold the view. "I don't know but isn't this great? I'm chuffed to bits to be here."

I leave him there and walk back to the entrance via the battlements, noticing the villages scattered below, some with mosques, others with churches. I've been in Syria only a couple of days but the staggering complexities of history and culture are already clear. The previous afternoon it took me about three hours to walk a couple of hundred metres through old Damascus. Roman columns were tucked into mediaeval walls, the street itself following a route laid down by Alexander the Great and the shops were bursting out on passers-by with the commonplace - carpets, cucumbers, Kurdish harem pants - and the rare - scarves made from the throat hair of Chinese deer, carnelian rings from Yemen and lapis lazuli from Badakhshan.

From Damascus I had travelled north to Krak des Chevaliers, making one stop at the village of Ma'alula, a cluster of houses at the foot of a cliff and home to another surprise: it's the last place on earth where Aramaic, Jesus's mother tongue, is spoken. In the Greek Orthodox church of St Sergius, Iranian tourists sat listening to the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic. The guide was not hopeful for the survival of her native language. "If you come here in five or six years," she said sadly, "it will be a dead language. There are now only about 50 families who speak it at home in Ma'alula."

Ma'alula and Krak des Chevaliers, however, were interesting stopping-off points on my way to my real objective and a genuine mystery of Syrian history: the Dead Cities. These are 780 abandoned settlements dating back to between the fifth and eighth centuries, scattered across a vast swathe of northern Syria.

At Serjilla, an hour's drive south of Aleppo, I found one of the best-preserved sites dotted across a rolling upland area of treeless, jagged limestone - at first glance, an impossibly inhospitable landscape. In fact, it was here that olive oil and wine manufacture made the inhabitants rich in the early years of Byzantium. The huge stone presses for oil and wine lie at the side of magnificent porticoed villas as though their owners had only recently stepped away.

I wandered through the grand old villas, exploring the town baths and church, admiring the bold Hellenistic architecture with its rich red stone. The late sun raked across pitted walls, revealing ornamental crosses and ancient inscriptions. This was an eerie and magical place, especially late in the day when there were no other foreign visitors, just a couple of local families enjoying picnics and football matches - eighth-century columns doubling as goal posts.

Adnan al-Hamwi, my guide and a published and respected historian, admitted there was no proven explanation of why these cities were abandoned. "Maybe the economics changed; olive oil prices fell. Maybe a sequence of earthquakes discouraged them. The truth is, we don't know - it is a mystery."

Several of the Dead Cities have been dug by archaeologists and are laid out for visitors with useful signs and information; others lie within modern villages: strange stone towers sprouting from gardens, fragments of carved lintels lying under the pistachio trees. At one place, Qatura, we stepped through a sheep pen to reach a tomb entrance carved into the rock beneath a family house. Inside the entrance vestibule there were traces of Greek inscriptions; beyond, just a darkened sepulchre with stone benches where sacks of fertiliser were stored.

I spent the night in Aleppo at one of the many boutique hotels in the Jdeida quarter, eating at the best restaurant in town, Beit Sissi, where black-clad waiters served excellent Syrian wine at very reasonable prices. In the gallery, musicians played the oud, the Arab lute, with the violin - a tribute to the mixed nature of this diverse and colourful city, once a major caravanserai on the Silk Road.

Next morning, I drove with al-Hamwi to the northern Dead Cities. At Ain Dara, we climbed a low hill overlooking the valley of Afrin, where vast pomegranate and pistachio orchards spread all around. On the summit were the ruins of an Iron Age temple dating from 1200BC: two large enclosures, one surrounded by basalt-carved figures of mythical lions.

"The dead would be brought here to the first room," al-Hamwi said, "and the lions would judge them and decide if they could pass to the second room - heaven."

"Judgment Day."

"Exactly. We think the idea came from Persia. The goddess worshipped here was the fertility deity, Ishtar. She is remembered in the English girl's name Esther."

We walked back down the hill and set off for the region's most famous historical site, the shrine of St Simeon Stylites. The vast, ruined church, the most ambitious structure in the world in the late fifth century, contains the stump of the pillar where St Simeon supposedly spent the last 36 years of his life until his death in AD459. He was said to eat once a week; frugally, of course.

"The locals say he never spoke to a woman in his life, not even his mother," al-Hamwi explained. "I don't believe it myself."

St Simeon's attempt to withdraw from the world up an 18-metre-tall pillar had one major effect: people flocked to see him. And when he died there was no respite: his body became a pawn in a power game between Byzantium and its distant, heresy-prone province. The church was abandoned in the 12th century and is now an atmospheric ruin where the wind moans in the pine trees and courting couples explore the further-flung ruins of the settlement.

Next day being Sunday, I decided to tour Aleppo's churches and see for myself the toleration that al-Hamwi claimed for Syria. He agreed to come along. "Why not? We Muslims have nothing to fear. Jesus is our prophet, too."

First was the Armenian Cathedral of the Forty Martyrs, where a grand spectacle of theatre was in progress for a rather small congregation. Under the watchful gaze of a large icon representing Judgment Day, the priests were chanting and counter-chanting across the nave. Robes were donned and changed. Incense swung. Holy texts uncovered and covered. The Armenian church's rites date from the fourth century; this was like a glimpse of Byzantium in its glorious heyday.

The Maronite, Syriac and Latin churches passed less memorably and al-Hamwi fell asleep. I roused him for a coffee and shisha pipe in one of the wonderful old-fashioned cafes where old men while away the hours with card games and dominoes. Then we set out for the Shia shrine of Mashhad al-Hussein, where the severed head of Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, is supposed to have been brought after his martyrdom in 680AD.

We found it with some difficulty, despite its important status in the Shia world. Pilgrims were praying, tapping their foreheads on tiny tablets of baked earth from Karbala in Iraq, scene of the martyrdom. Behind an ornate screen hung with green banners was the small stone on which the holy head rested for a night, leaving a bloody trace of its passage to Damascus. The Umayyad caliph, hoping to end this annoying succession dispute once and for all, had ordered the head to be brought to his capital for the purposes of humiliation. As so often happens in religious matters, however, violence only strengthened his enemies.

Over the city the sound of church bells could be heard in the distance, mingling with the cry of the muezzin at the Great Mosque.

The Monuments of Syria, by Ross Burns, published by I. B. Tauris, is considered an essential companion for visiting Syria's historical sites.

Trip notes
Getting there Emirates flies from Sydney to Damascus via Dubai, priced from $2784.26. 1300 303 777, emirates.com.
Touring there A seven-day Highlights of Syria tour, beginning and ending in Damascus, includes travelling to Krak des Chevaliers, Hama, Apamea, Aleppo, Ebla, Serjilla and Palmyra. Priced from $1870 a person, twin share, land only. Small-group tours take place on selected dates from October to December, as well as next year. 1300 667 277, www.kumuka.com.au.
The Damascus-based Ancient World Tours has a six-night Syria In a Week tour starting in Damascus that includes Ma'alula, Krak des Chevaliers, Apamea, Aleppo and Serjilla, priced from $US1350 ($1520) a person, twin share, land only. +963 11 232 3449, ancientworldtours.com.
Further information syriatourism.org.

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