The Judgment of Solomon is one of hundreds of wall paintings covering the interior of a third-century synagogue originally from Douros that was transferred intact to the Syrian national museum in Damascus.
Photos courtesy Warren and Stuart Grover
February 12, 2009
We have taken a trip together every year for the past two decades. For the past several years it has been to places ending in the letters ‘ia,’ starting with Patagonia and progressing through Albania, Bulgaria, Austria, Rumania, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, all the way to Estonia.
This year, we looked for someplace different. Warren saw an article in the Forward about a New York Jew traveling in Syria and brought it to Stuart’s attention. Stuart referred Warren to a similar article in The New York Times. After reading both articles, we determined that Syria was interesting, safe for Americans, and offered enough tourist amenities to allow two middle-aged brothers to travel in comfort.
We applied for visas. Fortunately our passports had recently been renewed and neither had an Israeli stamp, which under Syrian regulations would have disqualified us from entering the country. The visa application asked if we had ever been in “Occupied Palestine.” We were able to answer that question easily, with no sense that we were being deceptive. After all, we had never been in a country that we call Occupied Palestine.
After receiving the visas in about a week, we booked a nine-day tour that included hotels, an English-speaking driver with car, and local guides in the major cities. No airline flies directly from the United States to Syria, and American travel agencies cannot legally sell tickets on Syrian Airlines (which flies to Damascus from most European capitals). We overcame this by a variety of stratagems and set off in mid-October.
To say that we were astonished would be understating the case. We arrived in Damascus, one of the world’s oldest cities, early in the evening. The drive in from the airport followed a modern highway. Once we reached the city, we found a metropolis teeming with life, the downtown streets crowded with restaurants, theaters, and food stands. Pedestrians were engaged in animated conversation. The social atmosphere compared favorably with many of the Eastern European capitals we’ve visited. The temperature hovered in the 70s; it was dry and calm. Our hotel, only a year old and part of the Four Seasons chain, was sophisticated, attractive, and efficient. It was filled with Arab businessmen. The late unlamented oil boom produced a spate of investment in Syria, which is considered more stable than most countries in the region.
A Bedouin group celebrates in a tent in Palmyra, the center of Bedouin culture and an oasis in the desert for many millennia.
For the next eight days we traveled through much of the country, often in the company of our driver, but also frequently on our own. We wandered the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, shopped the souks, visited the ancient mosques and Roman ruins, and talked to people without restraint. In addition to about 10 busloads of French, German, and Italian tourists, there were two small busses (about 15 seats) of Americans, all in Syria mainly to see the Christian religious sites. We were among the very few Westerners, and the only Americans, traveling alone.
Our presence caused no heads to turn; whenever we conversed with Syrians — most knew English, as it is taught in schools — they always asked our nationality, although never our religion. When we said we were Americans, they smiled spontaneously. Among dozens of men and women encountered throughout our stay, no one had a bad word to say about America — only about George Bush.
We were surprised at how secular Syria is. Most people, including women, wear jeans, sports coats, blouses and other clothing you’d see anywhere in the Western world. About 15 percent of the population in Baghdad and Damascus are in non-Western garb, while about 5 percent of the women wear burkas. In the smaller cities and towns, non-Western garb is more common. When the muezzins made the call to prayer, few people seemed to stop and pray. Theaters display posters of attractive, albeit fully clothed, women.
Another surprise is the lack of police and military presence. Banks and other important commercial locations may have guards, but no weapons are in view. During many hundreds of miles of travel, the only road block we encountered was at a highway junction where the main supply route to Iraq intersects. The only major visible military presence was on the outskirts of Damascus where about 500,000 Palestinians live in refugee camps, segregated from the rest of the population.
Not quite as big a surprise is the plethora of posters, statues, banners, and billboards of the president, Bashar Assad, who is always portrayed with a jacket and usually with a tie. About a third of these likenesses are accompanied by those of his late father, Hafez Assad. The Alawi sect of Islam, to which the Assads belong, is highly Westernized and well represented in government and business.
Syria’s Muslim population is mainly Sunni, with minorities of Alawites and Druze. The few Shiites in Syria fled from Iraq. We briefly visited the Druze community of Suweida, one of the wealthiest towns in the country. Our driver was ambivalent about the town and its Druze inhabitants, whose comfortable life-style was obvious. He complained about their secrecy and clannishness as well as their obscurantist religious practices.
Christians make up about 10 percent of the population and, like the Druze, have their own communities and neighborhoods. On the way to Aleppo, we stopped at Maaloul, a Christian village that is the only place in the world where Aramaic, the language of the New Testament, is spoken. A fourth-century monastery built on the ruins of a pagan temple is an obligatory tourist stop.
Our government-licensed guides and driver, all nationalist and pro-Assad, spoke the party line. They stressed that Syria is a tolerant country where religions coexist and that the country is only intolerant when it comes to extremism. These fine words were belied by posters on display in the souks of Damascus featuring Hizbullah leader Sheik Nasrallah and former Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini. The most jarring and most common one is of Nasrallah surrounded by fighters shooting their rifles at falling Israeli soldiers, each enemy identified by a star of David on his helmet.
We told no one we were Jewish, and no one asked, and it probably wouldn’t have changed the way people interacted with us, but it would have prompted questions about our views on Israel. Several of our guides gave their opinions on the Golan Heights, presumably a topic they raise with all Americans traveling in Syria. They claim that peace with Israel is possible if it returns the Golan to Syria so it can build hotels there and make tourism more attractive to the West. We never commented, assuming there would be little patience with any pro-Israeli or evenhanded discussions of the Golan or Middle Eastern politics.
We visited the national museum in Damascus, where a highlight was a fully preserved third-century synagogue. The wall paintings it contained were stunning, telling most of the familiar biblical stories in vibrant drawings and brilliant colors.
After the museum, we visited the nation’s largest and oldest mosque, which dates to 611. Its outer courtyard holds 100,000 people, while the inner area, meant for prayer, holds 20,000. On a weekday morning, people were spread throughout the mosque, reading, napping, chatting, and contemplating. It was as much a social gathering place as a house of worship.
On to Aleppo
After three days in Damascus, we headed for the other great Syrian city, Aleppo, which has an estimated population of 1,750,000 (the same as Damascus). The countryside was dry and brown, with occasional oases with palm trees or other vegetation. We saw olive groves, cabbage fields, tomato patches, and other agriculture (Syria’s main industry). Sheep were the dominant farm animal, which reflected the Syrian diet, gravitating strongly toward lamb and mutton.
Known as the Krak des Chevaliers, the 16th-century Qalaat Ibn Maan Castle on a hill above Palmyra, was built 1,000 years after the town itself was created.
Aleppo, the center of Syrian-Jewish life until 1948, is graced with elegant residential sections, a modern downtown, and a quaint and lovely Old City. The historic souks in Aleppo have labyrinth-like tiny streets filled with donkey carts, bicycles, peddlers with goods piled high on their backs, and tiny trucks carrying dizzying loads of food and wares. Each section features a different commodity, including spices, candy, meat, fabric, furniture, and jewelry.
In Aleppo we visited an enormous citadel that featured huge crenellated walls and a central “keep” with meters- thick walls. The national museum in Aleppo offers room after room of ancient jewelry, statuary, ceramics, official seals, and other historical materials. What was apparent after two hours of browsing was that Syrian history paralleled Western civilization until the advent of Islam, when it diverged.
We ate well in Aleppo, in fact better than in the much more expensive Damascus. A standout was El Kammeh, a shish kebab palace that caters to the local populace. We enjoyed kebabs in cherry sauce, twisted kibbeh, falafel, and other delicacies while watching scores of locals smoke water pipes and consume vast quantities of food.
From Aleppo, we made day trips to surrounding sites. We visited a number of dead cities, Roman ruins dating to before the Common Era. We saw residential areas with contemporary houses incorporated into structures thousands of years old.
Syria is in some respects a victim of geography, surrounded by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. It fears extremism, but aids it politically and militarily more out of weakness than ideology. If the zealots in Iran and in Hizbullah were successful against Israel and the United States, they would make short work of Assad and his secular Baath Party.
As a tourist destination, Syria is lovely, offering sites that are just as interesting as Petra in Jordan and hotels that permit comfortable stays. However, because of its politics, these sites and facilities are grossly underutilized. Many educated Syrians long to be readmitted to the society of the West, where they feel more comfortable, especially after their country’s long association with French culture and education.
Our final tourist experience in Syria was a visit to Palmyra, an ancient site that dates back 4,000 years. Palmyra is an oasis of date palms and other vegetation. A Roman citadel surmounted the town, with a 2,000-year-old Roman ruin making up most of the area below.
We returned to Damascus the following day and departed early the next morning, using different airlines to return to our respective sides of the country.
Warren Grover is a Jewish historian and author of Nazis in Newark (Transaction). His brother, Stuart Grover, is a graduate of Weequahic High School, a former university history professor, and a recently retired owner of a nonprofit fund-raising corporation in the Pacific Northwest.