The tapestry that is modern-day Syria

My dad had a 1948 Studebaker. I remember when he bought it used in the early 1950s to replace our 1942 model. It was black (like all cars at the time) and looked sleek and modern to my young eyes. It even had a radio. Alas, Studebakers have gone the way of the Kaiser-Frazers, Hudsons and Packards. Except in Syria. Because of immense taxes on new automobiles, cars are used and reused. On the streets it is common to see models of cars that would have "Antique" license plates in the States. Vintage cars are not the only antiquated mode of transport, however; steam locomotives are still in use.

Every summer morning at 9 a.m., a train leaves the Hejaz Station near the center of Damascus. From this exquisite Arabesque building, a train of only a few cars puffs and strains up to the mountains pulled by a steam locomotive. According to the manufacturer's plate on the hissing monster, the engine was made in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, in 1898. The engine and cars have a toy-like quality about them, enhanced by the sight of children hanging out of the open cars. In the evening, passengers return from the cool of the mountains to Damascus, the oldest city in the world and capital of Syria.

Syria is a charming, beautiful country encompassing the northern part of the Fertile Crescent and the western part of Mesopotamia, with high mountains, Mediterranean beaches and vast steppes. Despite its image, Syria is populated with genuinely friendly people imbued with a larger than usual dose of Arab hospitality. And they love Americans.

My wife, Libby, and daughter Sarah "discovered" Syria when they traveled all over the country by public transport. Their treatment as unescorted women differed sharply from other places in this part of the world.

One night, Libby and Sarah were stranded near the spectacular ruins of Palmyra, once home of Queen Zenobia, nemesis of the Romans. A total stranger gave them a ride in a pickup truck. Laughing as they bounced in the back, they questioned if there were places in the United States where two women could do this and feel safe. We love Syria, but our American friends keep expressing concern about our safety in the Middle East.

Is Syria safe? Hardly. Crossing a street in Damascus or Aleppo can be a harrowing experience as Studebakers, De Sotos with grotesque tail fins, old Buicks smiling their monstrous chrome grin and newer cars all strive to come as close as possible to the pedestrians, push carts and occasional horse-drawn wagons that crowd the streets. Highways are no better. On the narrow mountain roads petroleum tankers try to overtake one another while a car or mini-bus tries to pass both.

Another danger for me is gustatory. The food is fantastic and diverse. Don't come here if you want to diet! Walking to the university each day, I pass shop windows loaded with typical Aleppine delicacies, like marzipan (almond paste) stuffed with pistachios and coated with chocolate; candied green walnuts in the husk; dried apricots stuffed with nuts; and bourma, a sausage-shaped pastry stuffed with pistachios, enveloped in angel-hair pastry, fried and then coated with honey. Frikeh (green wheat) and cubeh (wheat mixed with lamb meat, then stuffed with savory meat and nuts) are standard dishes. Excellent restaurants abound. Outstanding coffee is everywhere without a single Starbucks in sight. A visitor seldom eats out, however, because of the pervasive hospitality of the Syrians. Fending off meal invitations requires persistent tact.

Apricots and other fruits abound in the ancient soq, or market. It is May and cherries are ripe. The variety is staggering - yellow, white, white with red stripes, red, black, sour and sweet. My friend haggled with a roadside cherry vendor over a difference of 10 cents a kilo. Cherries, like other prices, are almost embarrassingly low - the Old World at ancient prices.

I am working in Aleppo, the second largest city of Syria, located just south of the Turkish border. In the center of the city is a huge fortress on a steep hill, the famed Citadel of Saladin built in the 12th century on foundations already ancient. Not far from here are the so-called "Dead Cities" - Idlib, Ifamia and others - former metropolises, now a tumble of carved pillars, capitols and building stones all ravished by time and earthquakes. On the coast is Ugarit, home of the world's oldest alphabet.

Like a glacier, history moved across Syria, inexorably destroying, moving and depositing cultures. Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, including the Alawites; Druze; some Jews; Kurds; descendants of Crusaders; Circassians; Gypsies; Satan worshippers (vestiges of the ancient Paulicians who harassed the Byzantines); and many kinds of Christians live here. I am intrigued by the diversity of Christian groups - Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox (with the majority of adherents in southern India where tradition states the Apostle Thomas took Christianity from Syria), Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenians and more. Western Christians seem to have little appreciation of this continuum of the first churches into the third millennium.

The physical landscape is no less diverse than the religions. Near the border of Jordan is Jebel Druze, known more recently as Jebel Arab, a politically correct appellation. In ancient times it was named Jebel Hauran, after the fertile plain that stretches from the bases of the extinct volcanoes to the Golan Heights. The old cones and craters have a haunting, moon-like appearance. Now cold and impotent, the volcanic eruptions gave birth to the good soil of the Hauran Plain, noted in both the Bible and "Lawrence of Arabia." From Jebel Druze came Philip the Arab, the first Christian Roman emperor. All of the buildings, from humble shelters in vineyards to Roman temples, are built of hard, brown-black basalt stones. The amphitheater at Bosra (arguably the best preserved in the Middle East) and associated water works (still in use) are solid testaments of Roman engineering skill.

Near the northern end of the country the town of Slenfeh clings to a steep slope at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. A short drive east - and up - is the preserve where the cedars of Lebanon grow. As a student of plants of the Bible, I was eager to see the cedars and the plant community associated with them. The cedars are on a steep slope overlooking the valley of the Orontes River, once a series of wetlands and now a rich agricultural area. The cedars appear ancient; others of comparable size are three centuries old. Flashy, large purple-red flowers of wild peony grace sunny openings, contrasting with the sedate grey-green of the cedar foliage. I was glad to find cedar seedlings, some only a few weeks old, indicating that conditions are suitable for reproduction. This and other natural areas, desperately in need of study and preservation, reflect or, perhaps more correctly, help shape the diversity of Syria.

I have lived in both Jordan and Syria, so it is natural for me to compare these contiguous countries - same neighborhood but different histories. Modern Jordan was designed by the British, carved from territory to make a buffer for their interests in the "Great Game." Amman is a modern city with gleaming white stone buildings and ancient ruins - but little in between. Damascus and Aleppo display the threads of history in torturous market streets, Umayid buildings and remnants of French colonial architecture. Jordan is known for its fabled mosaics. Syria is a mosaic.

Lytton John Musselman was a visiting professor at Aleppo University during the summer of 2000. TOP