Barreling near the Jebel Ansariyya that separate Syria’s coast from its rich interior, we stopped to ask for directions.
“Peace be upon you! Sir, is this the road to al-Ghab, to Apamea?” The man on the motorcycle stopped, shook his head, but said to follow him. “Up this mountain, my friends, is the shrine of Job.”
Being lost in a rental car in Syria has its benefits. Hours earlier, we were driving beside olive and almond groves that grew over beds of magenta wild flowers. Days before that we pulled into the Sumerian ruins of Mari, the site of a vast and preserved mud-brick pleasure palace of a ruler named Zimri-Lim, circa 1700 BC. Just upstream on the Euphrates is the Greek-Roman garrison town of Dura Europos, whose high ramparts look down on the river as it flows south to Iraq.
Such a miscellany of sights, among them pushing into a carnival Palm Sunday service at a Syriac church in the Kurdish northeast, is the gift of car travel – and of an odometer clocking two thousand kilometers over four days.
In a counterclockwise loop mimicking the shape of Syria, our Kia began by speeding to and from the Euphrates and the desert that creeps around it. From the Kurdish northeast we drove west to the yawning cisterns below Rasafa, a walled, mud-brick desert community where they worshipped St. Sergius, with enough time to see the sun set on the artificial lake of Hafez al-Assad. The watery mass was made in the 1970s by damming the fabled Furat.
The next day, after visits to the abandoned Byzantine towns of Serjilla and al-Bara, we stumbled upon Job’s shrine thanks to our motorcycle guide. He introduced himself at the top of Jebel Zawiyya as the local imam, though we could have guessed from his faultless fusha. Job’s shrine was a simple stone structure topped with tilting dome painted green. An olive tree grew behind it and next door was an unfortunate military building, large antennas shooting into the sky and casting shadows over the sanctum.
We descended into the Ghab, a rich valley that was a swamp before IMF money restored irrigation canals from the Orontes River and produced a lake.
We stopped to buy olive oil, hoping to find a man who would sell us anything less than a barrel. Lingering for tea with two plastic bottles of zeit zeitun, we drew a crowd of fifteen – mostly bright-eyed kids – as we talked with the local imam, Mohammed Ali. We asked him the name of his village.
“Qalat ad-Deen,” he smiled to us. Fortress of Faith.
“What benefit do you get from visiting ancient ruins?” he asked in return. Two of us cited our university studies in Middle Eastern history and classical Arabic literature and their connection to Syria’s richness of archaeological sites. Mohammed Ali nodded, and insisted we stay for the night.
More and more tourists are coming to Syria to see a country beyond the headlines and a camp Axis of Evil tag. Its richness of history, food and hospitality are quickly apparent on the limited visitors’ route: a few days in Damascus’ Old City; time in Aleppo’s covered Suq; the sunset and sunrise over the colonnades and temples at the ancient desert city of Palmyra.
A rental car is more promising. It allows you to speed to corners of the country that see less visitors and to talk to people along the way, even if those conversations involve flat tires and a stream of police questions at the hostel desk about where you’re coming from and where you’re going next.
In Hassakeh in the Kurdish northeast, the interrogation at the Ugarit Hotel went like this:
“Where are you coming from? Damascus? Deir az-Zur? When did you leave? But it’s a three hours drive here. You drove south first? To ruins? But there are ruins in Tadmur, you know? So what time did you leave Deir again? And you live in Damascus? How many days do you have the car for? When are you going back? What time are you leaving tomorrow? Going where? Aleppo? And then where? Welcome. How are you?”
An old white Peugot 504 followed us out of Hassakeh after our visit to the town’s Syriac church – a sign of the government’s tight monitoring of Kurds, a majority of whom cannot vote in Syria, and of foreigners who decide to visit their corner of the country.
The police did a bad job of hiding surveillance, but they pulled away when we took the turn for Aleppo and not for Qamishle, a Kurdish town on the Turkish border. Sure enough down the highway, at the only checkpoint we passed through in all of Syria, a man with a Kalashnikov was smiling knowingly, waiting to check our passports.
On the desert road to Deir az-Zur beyond Palymra the Kia got a flat tire that wouldn’t bulge from the wheel. A packed motorcycle approached, putting down the highway. We flagged it and when it stopped, a man in a red headscarf hopped off, walked past us without a word and started off into the desert. The bike’s driver responded to our greetings and deftly detached the wheel, screwed on the spare, and left without saying much. We saw him a hundred meters down off the highway after picking up his friend walking in the hard sand.
A party of Iraqis from Mosul helped us next. Their stone house on the side of the highway was not a proper garage stocking new tires, as hoped. They suggested we rotate the tires, putting the spare at the rear. The oldest man among them, Ghazzi, with fair skin, a thick moustache and a worn jalabiyya, said we shouldn’t pay more than a 1000 Syrian pounds (about 21 dollars) for a new one in Deir az-Zur. We had tea, as usual, and they asked what we doing out in the desert.