Syrian Surprises

Jean and I had long wanted to visit the wonders of the rediscovered city of Petra which had been carved out of sandstone cliffs in the Jordanian desert.  Our friend and travel agent, Jane Austin, recommended that we take a trip that would first take us into Syria.

At that time, the year 2000, the news we heard from Syria was rather low key.  Remembering the story of Paul’s trip to Damascus, and the friendship of the two Syrian families living in my hometown caused me to decide that we should include Syria on our trip to Jordan.

Unlike Paul, our trip to Damascus was uneventful but we were in for ten days of surprises.  Surprises are inevitable in a country that claims ten thousand years of civilization during which there were twenty diverse cultural eras.

On our trip to Damascus from the airport, we found the countryside to be rather bleak.  Our first impression of the city was that it was without personality and unusually quiet.  The men we saw on the street were unsmiling and the few women we viewed were a walking blur.  They were wearing burkas, which are the most concealing of all Islamic veils.  Their whole bodies were covered in black cloth.

Our downtown hotel was not elaborate but comfortable.  The dining room was on the ground floor and was beautifully decorated in Arabian style.  The tables and chairs were inlayed with colorful tiles.  The food was acceptable.

Soon after dinner, we were relaxing in our room when the doorbell rang.  I opened the door and was greeted by a beautiful dark haired young lady dressed in western attire. She pleasantly asked if I would like company for the evening. Before I could come to my senses to answer, a resounding “No” came from Jean seated in a chair behind me.  I will never know if the invitation was meant for both of us or just me.

The following day we were taken back across the deserted countryside to a rocky, mountainous area to Ma’aloula, a town inhabited largely by Christians.  We were surprised to be told that ten percent of Syrians are Christians.  The people of this community speak Aramaic, the unwritten language spoken by Christ.  It was a thrill to hear the Lord’s Prayer repeated in Christ’s own language.

While there, we visited the Shrine and tomb of St. Teklas.  Teklas was a teenage girl who became a Christian after learning about Christ from St. Paul.  Her father ordered her to be killed by his soldiers.  She fled from home and hid in these mountains, where she spent the rest of her life as a Christian.

Our tour of Damascus first took us to a tremendous museum packed with statues, partial columns and other artifacts representing human activity during the thousands of years of  Syrian history.  I was most impressed by a mud tablet which contained the world’s first known alphabet.  It had been uncovered in the no longer existing town of Urgant.

As usual, we found time to shop at the souk.  In much of the Mid-East, this is their shopping center where merchants were offering for sale everything imaginable in small shops and stalls.  We were enthralled by the strong aroma coming from stalls with open bins of spices from all over the world.  Immediately, Jean’s eyes were entranced by the many small shops which displayed extremely bright, glittering twenty-one carat gold jewelry in their windows.  Of course, Jean found a bracelet that she absolutely could not live without.  She made her purchase and we quickly rejoined the group.

In the late morning, we found ourselves walking down the street referred in the bible as “The Street called Straight.”  In the United States, it would probably be called Broadway or Main since the other streets take off from it.

Syria 1By the old city wall on Straight Street we entered the Chapel of Ananias which had been the home of Ananias where Paul recovered his sight and learned about Christianity.

We felt that the Holy Spirit certainly had joined us there.  We went through a gate in the nearby old city wall and saw the window where Paul was lowered out and down the wall to escape his enemies.

We were still on a high when we entered the Omayyad Mosque  which Syria 2claims to be the largest and oldest mosque in Damascus.  It appeared to me to be almost as large as a  football stadium.  It was decorated with amazing grandeur but my attention was drawn to two large tombs inside the mosque with several women clad in burkas gathered around the columned structures.

We were told that one was the tomb of John the Baptist and the other was that of John’s father, Zechariah.  I could not believe that these Christian saints could be buried in a mosque.  Sometime later I found that most Muslims believe that Jesus, John the Baptist and Zechariah are their prophets.  Some also believe that Zechariah was the guardian of Virgin Mary.  Apparently, they acquired the heads of the two and placed them in tombs in this mosque.

A short while after leaving Damascus, we traveled over a long winding road to the top of a mountain which was completely covered by a huge castle.  This tremendous edifice was the Crac des Chevaliers built by the Arabian military in 626 AD.  It was the largest of the several castles occupied by the Crusaders during their time in the Mid-East.

From this edifice, we could see the countryside for miles in every direction.  The first level was underground and had been devoted to the horses and equipment for the two thousand occupants.  It appeared that the quarters for the soldiers were as stark as those for their horses.  Even though the Crusaders occupied several similar fortresses, it is hard to imagine how this vast land of unfriendly people could have been controlled by the Crusaders for so many years.

The next day, we found ourselves in Aleppo, the second largest city in the country.  There we visited the Citadel, a great mosque and more historical sights left by the various invaders for thousands of years.

What I remember most in Aleppo was Jean’s account of her shopping trip with our guide, Elba, while the rest of us were resting.  Jean had proudly displayed her new piece of jewelry to Elba.  She agreed that it was beautiful but remarked that the current style for bracelets demands that a minimum of three of them be worn together.  The two gals immediately left for a shop in the souk where Elba knew the owner. She could speak their language and began to bargain for Jean.

While shopping, Elba began a conversation with the three other women in the shop who were covered completely by their burkas.  Jean was surprised when she heard giggles coming from the burkas, proving that there are certain characteristics common to all women throughout the world.  Jean and Elba completed the transaction and returned to the hotel where Jean walked around proudly displaying her three bracelets.

On our way to Palmyra, we passed a site where history notes that once a trading post existed and that Anthony and Cleopatra had been visitors.

We arrived in Palmyra, an actual oasis in the dessertSyria 3 that was a crossroad for several civilizations.  It had been an important stopping point on the Silk Road and was first mentioned in archives two thousand years BC.  We were told that the city had been rebuilt by King Solomon of Judea during his reign.  He was the king of the Jews from 970 to 931 BC.  I found the ruins of this city to be the most massive and magnificent of any I had ever seen.  The rows of columns and other ruins were unbelievable.

We were taken to the Citadel atop he highest mountain in the area where we ended our day with a “Sundowner.”  We sat on the rocks and enjoyed drinks and snacks in silence and watched the sun go down over the Syrian Desert.

The following day, we found ourselves crossing the border into Lebanon.  There, a new passenger joined us.  He was a uniformed Lebanese soldier who sat at the front of the bus and accompanied us the entire day. We soon began to see large yellow flags along the highway.  We were told that they belonged to the terrorist organization Hezbollah.  We were told that this army had been formed to help prevent another invasion of Lebanon by the Israelites.

Along the road, we went by several possible checkpoints with flags, tanks weapons and uniformed men.  At one such point, two of their soldiers stopped our bus, boarded and requested to inspect our passports.  We were allowed to continue our trip and were not stopped again.

We knew of at least one Jewish couple in our group but the passports do not contain such information.  If our passports had indicated that we had ever visited Israel, we would not have been allowed join the group in many of the Mid-Eastern countries.

We soon settled down and had a delightful ride through the beautiful valley with its fertile land and smiling and amiable people.  As in Syria, Lebanon has its many ancient ruins.  We spent part of our day wandering around the ruins of the monstrous Baalbek fortification which contained several large temples.

We left Lebanon and returned to our hotel in Damascus for our last night in Syria.  A couple from Hawaii and Jean and I accepted Elba’s invitation for a night on the town at a nightclub.  The crowd was not large but appeared to be mostly locals but we did not see a single burka.  The music was recognizable and Elba helped us order food that she thought we would enjoy.  We sat uncomfortably on stools around a low table but had a delightful evening exchanging stories with the Hawaiian couple and Elba.

Early the next morning, we soon crossed the border into Jordan.

Currently, there is much turmoil in Syria.  Some of the forces fighting there have been known to destroy monuments and relics left by cultures and religions they fear or do not like.  I pray that these relics not be destroyed so that we might ponder and appreciate the lives and plight of our ancestors.

JIM PERSHALL

APRIL 2015