Under the Middle Eastern sun

BACKPACKERS always know best, so on their recommendation I went to Syria in 1999. I landed in its northern city, Aleppo, vaguely connecting it with the French Foreign Legion.

Aleppo is one of the oldest cities on earth and has been continually inhabited for 5000 years.

I was fascinated from the moment I arrived in the Old City in a street lined with clamouring spare part car shops, all owned by Christian Armenians, I was told.

I explored the ancient twisting stone alleys and peeped into small boutique hotels in former Aleppine mansions, complete with fountains and rose trees in open courtyards.

In the Old City you are never far from the great Citadel on a huge, man-made mound rising high up above you – with its moat spanned by a long bridge on high arches and gigantic medieval gate, it's easy to imagine it's a movie set.

The most colourful sight in Aleppo by far has always been the vaulted Al Medina souq, said to be 2500 years old.

It's a maze of narrow stone alleys, shining brass and copper, huge blocks of olive oil soap – said to be the best in the world, loaded donkeys, aromatic spices, rolls of beautiful materials – brocade, silk and of course the damask fabric from Damascus we know so well.

It's like a scene from the Arabian nights – and just so much more authentic than it's touristy counterparts in Cairo and Istanbul.

Southwards, the capitol Damascus is equally old, but has a different feel – gigantic pictures of President Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bassel (with wrap-around sunglasses) look down on you from just about everywhere.

Bassel was meant to be the next leader – handsome, a great sportsman, a brilliant scholar.

But Bassel was killed, driving at 180km an hour to Damascus Airport, and that's how the mild-looking Bashar, doing post graduate studies in Opthalmology in London, became president when his father died.

The number one sight in Damascus is definitely the great Omayyad Mosque, third most important mosque in the world. It's lovely, more like a Byzantine cathedral – which it once was – than a mosque, with a vast, brightly painted ceiling. Loveliest of all is the open courtyard surrounded by glittering mosaic panels.

Christians have been living in Syria for a long time and have been well treated by the Assads' party, the Baathists.

There are no less than six churches in the Christian quarter near the tiny domed Ananias chapel where St Paul arrived after his great Damascene revelation which set Christianity off on its course. Even the biblical street called Straight is still there.

On Sunday, the Christian area is packed with people of all ages going to church in their Sunday best.

Travelling outside the cities you see Roman and Byzantine ruins, dark, crumbling castles, beehive houses, and on the Orontes River in the city of Hama the world's largest waterwheels, the Nurias. Towards the Mediterranean you come to one of Syria's top sights – a gigantic, double-walled fortress high on a hilltop – Crac des Chevaliers, built for the Knights of St John and the best preserved crusader castle in the world. With its double walls, projecting round towers and graceful arches, it's easy to imagine jousting knights, lovely ladies and flying pennants.

A few hours drive eastward on the desert road that eventually leads to Baghdad, you reach an oasis and the ancient Roman city of Palmyra – it's where Queen Zenobia ruled, and much, much later a remarkable British woman, Lady Hester Stanhope.

The ruins stretch on and on with lots of standing Roman columns blending softly into the desert sand, and you can wander around for hours. As the sun grew hot, I was invited to a picnic lunch on the sand and later given a bunch of sweet dates right off the tree.

After my return from Syria, I was keen for others to share my enjoyment. I was told that only one South African tour group had ever been there.

And so, just nine months after my return, I was there again with 27 adventurous tourists.

The Syrians pulled out all the stops and spoiled us – there was a wonderful Bedouin evening in the desert with dancing girls, a gift for every tourist – and more.

The tour ended with a few days in nearby Jordan, seeing Petra, "The Rose Red City Half as Old as Time" and Wadi Rum in the desert – Lawrence of Arabia country.

I was determined to do it again. But in 2003 the menacing clouds of the Iraq war got darker and darker and I cancelled the tour which was to take place soon.

However, as I had already bought my own air ticket to Damascus, I went nevertheless, arriving just before the war ended – an adventure of a slightly different kind.

Now, the bitter war between the Assad regime and a hugely divided opposition seems endless – and when life counts so little, who will care about the past?

All six Syrian World Heritage and many other sites have been put on the Unesco List of Endangered Places. All six have been damaged in some way.

Heartbreakingly, one of them, the Aleppo Al Madina souq, was destroyed by bombing and shelling in September last year.

Shelling, bombing, looting, and occupation are damaging or destroying these sites and priceless historical treasures.

Good news: On Facebook, I recently managed to reach the owners of Beit Wakil, a lovely, restored mansion in Aleppo, now a boutique hotel which I visited, and was delighted to receive an answer right away: the hotel is closed but undamaged and everyone there is OK.