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article imageBazaars And Bathhouses - Syria Can Be Seductive

By Gregor Garbassen     Jan 31, 2002 in Lifestyle
DAMASCUS (dpa) - Syria may not be top of every western tourist's holiday wish-list following the September 11 terror attacks - but its allure remains.

Cultural tourists who do decide to visit Syria will not be disappointed.

Thirty-three different civilisations have left their mark on the country in the last 6,500 years, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, the Crusaders and the Osmans.

But as well as Hellenic columns and biblical scenes, travellers here will find a modern Islamic-Arabic culture with grandiose bath houses and the largest bazaar in the Middle East.

Islamic fundamentalists have not made a big impression on Syria. Islam is not the only religion here, there are also two million Christians, comprising 13 per cent of the population.

Many women walk the streets without veils. Alcohol and mini-skirts are not forbidden here. Pictures of presidents, rather than Koran calligraphy, adorn the walls of homes.

Yet Syria is not a western society. You do not see couples kissing in public here. And traffic follows its own idiosyncratic rules: mule-drawn carts are not an unusual sight on the motorways, and red lights are seen as an invitation to blow one' car horn rather than to stop.

A visit to one of the old bath houses is a favourite Syrian leisure pastime. Many tourists are also drawn to the Nuraddin-Hammam baths, an 800-year-old complex with glorious domes and tiles in the old bazaar quarter of Damascus. The staff here are used to curious Europeans, and even speak a little English and French. You can enjoy a hot steam bath and a massage while admiring the large dome above you.

The bazaar quarter is the heart of old town Damascus, which is divided into east and west by the narrow "Via Recta". There are 12 Christian churches nearby, two of which should not be missed: Ananias Church and the Church of St. Paul at Bab Kaisan city gate.

According to the Bible, the apostle was lowered from the city walls in a basket here by his supporters so he could flee his persecutors. The Ananias Church, nearly 2,000 years old, is buried six metres deep in the ground and is one of the oldest Christian sacred buildings in the world.

Not far away, is the Omajjaden Mosque, dating from the eighth century A.D. The mosaics portraying paradise in its arcade corridors are particularly splendid. In the centre of the praying room is a shrine decorated with plastic flowers that is said to cover the buried head of John the Baptist.

Directly at the eastern portal of the mosque is Al Nawfara coffee house, perhaps the most attractive cafe in the eastern world. Guests here sit on wooden chairs, sip mocha or suck on a water pipe.

There are many more Christian sites to visit in Syria beyond Damascus. Around 20,000 people in the village of Maloula, in the mountains north of Damascus, and two nearby settlements, speak West Aramaic, the language Jesus also spoke. The Crusader castle "Krak des Chevaliers", also attracts many visitors. It was from here that the Crusaders ruled the region between 1110 and 1271.

In northern Syria is the Simeon Monastery, famous for housing the first stylite in history. For 30 years, Simeon lived perched on a 19- metre high pillar, praying, fasting and sleeping. After his death in 459, a church was built around the column. All that remains of it today is a stump around one metre high. The rest has disappeared bit by bit over the centuries as souvenirs in pilgrims' pockets.

Palmyra, an oasis town in the desert, is breathtakingly beautiful. In the years beginning in 266 A.D., Queen Zenobia made it one of the most splendid towns in the known world. But the power-hungry queen came into conflict with the Roman Empire, and in 271 Emperor Aurelian had the town destroyed.

Aleppo is Syria's second largest city. The citadel at its centre is the largest castle in the Arab world. Alongside it, is the orient's largest bazaar. The Aleppo Souk consists of 12 kilometres of roofed shopping streets. It is full of the scents of cardamom and olive soap, of mutton fat and moth baths. Amid bleating goats and the sound of a muezzin calling the people to prayer, the colours, sounds and smells swamp the senses.
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