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Fruitcake of antiquity, studded with treasures

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Syria is welcoming tourists back after years of isolation. Gareth was intrigued. He joined a tour through this wide land of ancient cities, deserts and mountains, oases and fertile valleys. His list of six includes the greatest Crusader castle, some fabulous desert ruins, a magnificent mosque and tables spread for a feast. Picture: Crac des Chevaliers, by Gareth Huw Davies

Ancient Daze

Damascus, one of the world's most ancient cities, is one great fruitcake of antiquity, studded with treasures. They range from Roman arches, through Ottoman palaces to the splendidly ornate old railway station. And they are all the more exciting by being so unfamiliar to us. The standout building is the enormous 8th Century Umayyad Mosque, one of the marvels of the world when it was finished in 715 AD. We padded around in our socks over a vast marble courtyard under towering minarets. The walls contain gigantic limestone blocks from the original Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. Inside we walked on a sumptuous ocean of carpet, under fine mosaics, and windows in vivid primary colours. In an admirable example of religious tolerance, the mosque contains a Christian holy place, the Shrine of the Head of St John Baptist. Outside, in a small garden next to the mosque, is the tomb of Islamic warrior Saladin.

King of the castles

We stood on the windswept ramparts at the top of Crac des Chevaliers, the greatest of the Crusader castles, where long years ago Richard the Lionheart, and the other adventurer monarchs from Europe surveyed the Holy Land, and understood why they felt so superior. From up here they knew they couldn't lose. Built up to its full strength by the Knights Hospitaller, this model for the classic mediaeval castles could withstand a five-year long siege. In the end it took treachery to conquer this castle, which was never taken in battle. 800 years on, the castle T. E. Lawrence described as “perhaps the most wholly admirable in the world” is still powerfully intact, behind thunderous, 9 feet thick walls. We wandered at will inside, down dark corridors and into vaulted stone stables with space for a thousand horses.

Queen of the Desert

After our long drive over the desert, the golden stones of Palmyra burst suddenly into view, etched against a cold, cobalt sky. 2000 years ago this oasis city at the crossroads of several civilizations grew fabulously rich, commanding the caravan routes to all points of the compass. Palmyrans were a distinct and very handsome people, if we are to believe the many funeral effigies displayed in the museum. The last ruler, the fiery and dazzling Queen Zenobia, is a movie subject in waiting. When she fell, the city went into a decline. They've been piecing it together since it was rediscovered in the 1800s, and the digging goes on.
You need a full day to do justice to the impressively restored Temple of Bel, the Valley of the Tombs and the vast sweep of ruins.

Seek the Souk

High praise for the Middle Eastern souk, the globalisation-free zone. And in the city of Homs, two hours north of Damascus, we found one of the very best examples. We wandered for ages down the indoor market' s labyrinthine alleyways, past stalls and shops selling spices, nuts, wooden spoons, gold, organic honey, olive soap, meat, perfume and a very Syrian specialty, racy ladies' underwear. Every single sign was in Arabic, nobody tried to sell us carpets or T-shirts. It was a totally authentic traveler’s experience. I recommend a visit to any souk, for the unique mix of commerce and entertainment. Damascus has the enormous Hamadiyeh Souk. We bought the famous Syrian saffron, under a 500 yard long arching metal roof pockmarked with bullets from a 1920s gunfight in the French mandate. Directly outside is Straight Street, the Roman road mentioned in the Bible where Ananias baptised St Paul after his vision of Christ. There is now a string of smart boutique hotels in restored 18th and 19th-century houses.

Old stones

Around Aleppo, the map is crammed with over 700 'forgotten' towns and villages. They went into a fairytale slumber about 1300 years ago, when their inhabitants left to find a better life. Spared earthquakes and invasions, the settlements, built from the local stone, survived remarkably well, a jumble of basilicas, monasteries, villas and baths. Serjilla is the one to see, with its eerie scatter of still-robust stone structures from around 500 AD, including a tavern, bathhouse, church and houses, all linked by narrow lanes. You would need weeks to see the full list of settlements. Another famous survivor from the early Christian era is the Church of St Simeon Stylites, near Aleppo. Simeon dodged the common throng by living 32 years atop a 60 feet high column. The bottom 6 feet of his much truncated perch survives.

Table Hot

Our most memorable meal in Syria was in the wonderful Restaurant Al-Kala'a. It also happens to be the very best place to photograph Crac des Chevaliers, i on the same level only a few hundred yards away. But this place would hold its own for its food alone in the middle of the desert, with nothing to see in any direction. On our visit they combined the warmest of welcomes with irresistible orders to take seconds of the main course, local chicken cooked in lemon and garlic. But you could just as easily turn into a vegetarian without noticing it, by staying on the endless first courses, creative combinations of beans and lentils, cucumber and yogurt, aubergine, zucchini and beetroot, served with spices mint, olive oil and cumin. We finished with something totally familiar, the dishes the Crusaders brought back - rice pudding and semolina. I also recommend the Al Shami House Restaurant (Madhat Basha St) in Damascus.

GHD travelled with Saga, who run an eight-day tour of Syria, flying to
Damascus with BMI direct from London Heathrow. Prices from £1399.
www.saga.co.uk. bmi, the second largest airline operating from London Heathrow, offers daily flights from London Heathrow Airport (LHR) to Damascus (DAM). Return flights start from £360 in Economy and £1,179 in Business, including taxes.

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