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When will I Syria again?

Blast from the past: Palmyra rises from the sand in the heart of the desert. It was constructed 2,000 years ago by Arab Queen Zenobia.

MANILA, Philippines - See you soon, Syria, I chirp as I scan an invite from the Department of Tourism to visit Syria, which happily just fell into my lap.

“You’re going to Syria? Isn’t there a war there?” my concerned friends ask me.

Unperturbed, I reply, “Why would Syria’s Ministry of Tourism be inviting journalists from all over the world to its Silk Road Festival that has been going on for eight years now if there’s trouble there?”

As I’d find out soon, there’s no war in Syria. There’s only a time-cherished civilization that harks back to 45 centuries ago and continues to flourish today. There are ancient mosques and churches that peacefully co-exist. There are deserts, fertile valleys, lush forests, powder blue skies and seas as far as the eye can see. Gleaming like a gem is Syria’s 180-kilometer coastline overlooking the Mediterranean sea. There are medieval castles, citadels, palaces, ancient houses, modern homes, old Arab souks (markets), bazaars and commercial centers (yes, you can shop till you drop), and five-star hotels. There are the basalt and limestone ruins that reveal fragments of history. There are museums and libraries to satisfy one’s thirst for knowledge and appetite for history. Fact is, Syria is one humongous museum housing more than 20 civilizations. But of course, there’s a hearty selection of restaurants, too, to cater to assorted food cravings.

And there are only a warm and hospitable people and the most good-looking kids who are ready to make friends and smile for your digicam.

A Land Of Many Firsts

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As first-time visitors to this ancient alien land, we unearth a wealth of historical info: For instance, did you know that Syria produced the first alphabet, the first language, the first written musical note, the first small tablet for a commercial text that’s 4,000 years old? That it had the first human settlement some 12,000 years ago?

So, here we are from far and wide, coming together to trace the unforgettable trail that the silk merchants took eons ago, covering the Syrian cities where the ancient caravans used to meet: Palmyra, Aleppo, Damascus, Bosra, Tartus, Latakia, etc. Smooth as silk, the Silk Road Festival started in Syria in 2002. It aims “to revive the traditions of the caravans coming from East and West to Syria highlighting the importance of interaction and dialogue between the peoples through diversified wonderful shows and events.”

Tourism Minister Dr. Sa’ad Alaah Aga Alkal’ah keynotes the opening of the Silk Road Festival “Damascus 2009”: “The Festival, through its journey, was able to suggest to the world through the caravans of media representatives coming to attend its activities the method in which the old world was able to bypass its conflicts — through creative interaction between civilizations, in which Syria was its heart and center due to its geographical location in the heart of the old world. Since the sights of world trade turned to Syria, caravans had come from the four corners of the world, settled in Syria’s khans and shady markets, carrying their heritage, civilization, productions, and the essence of their thoughts and traditions … to exchange goods and merchandise … cultures, music, poetry, traditions, folklore, and food.”

Tourism, Not Terrorism

The Tourism Minister notes that attracted by a Syrian tourism product over the past years, more than six million tourists are expected by the end of 2009, a 10-percent increase over last year despite the global financial crisis.

And honeymooners, take note: Syria ranked fifth in a questionnaire conducted on the Internet by a honeymoon site for the top 10 most romantic honeymoon destinations in the world.

The Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of the Philippines are signatories to a memorandum of understanding on tourism cooperation — to deepen the cooperation between the two countries and pay special attention to cultural and historical tourism. Tourism Secretary Ace Durano signed for the Philippines. The memo of understanding states, among other things, that “the parties shall exchange and disseminate each other’s promo materials; conduct familiarization trips for their tour operators, travel agents, and members of media; and participate in their national tourism fairs to promote greater awareness of each other’s destinations and products.”

“The days of the ‘If you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy’ are over,” Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Abdullah al-Dardari tells journalists during an open forum. “Amid the crises in the modern world, we must push for peace and understanding … The only way to fight instability and terror is through cooperation, development, prosperity, equity, and equality in international relations. Despite the recent disturbances regarding relations between Syria and Iraq, there’s no doubt in our minds that Syria-Iraqi relationship must move forward. It is in the interest of both countries and in the interest of stability and prosperity in the region — in fact, it is an important part of the prosperity of the Silk Road — that Syria-Iraqi relationship should be positive and constructive. We will continue to work towards this objective and I’m glad to see that the international community did not fall into any attempts to disturb the trend towards better Syrian-Iraqi relations, and we are committed to work towards this.”

The Deputy Prime Minister rattles off some figures: “So far, until the first half of 2009, we have exceeded the total of $20 billion in private investments and we project to exceed the $20B in public investments by the end of 2010. We are moving in the right direction when it comes to the volume of private and public investments in Syria.”

Al-Dardari stresses, “We want good relations with all countries, including the United States.”

Once a journalist himself who worked with American newsmen, Al-Dardari robustly declares, “What you hear about Syria in the western media is totally false. You journalists should be able to transmit who we are, what we are, how we live in this country, the openness people in Syria enjoy, the warmth they have for foreigners and, most importantly, the culture and the co-existence that Syrians demonstrate. It think it’s a unique situation. In a troubled world, Syria is an example of how people can co-exist very peacefully under one roof.”

That the journalists attending this year’s Silk Road Festival would come back in one piece to their respective countries is proof positive that there’s peace in Syria.

The Road To Damascus

But that’s getting ahead of our long journey on the Silk Road, including the road to Damascus where the conversion of St. Paul took place after he had a vision of the resurrected Christ and was temporarily blinded.

“He was fleeing on this street carrying this basket,” our 22-year-old part-Lebanese, part-Syrian guide Maya tells us, pointing at a basket hanging in a souk.

In the next six days, we would take a trip back to the past with Syrian driver Halil who made sure we made it to our appointments on time, no matter what. A daredevil behind the wheel, he’d also bring us closer to God — we would mumble a little prayer every time he’d negotiate a hairpin turn.

Our itinerary included, among others, old Damascus, Palmyra’s ruins rising in the heart of the desert, Hama with its gigantic water wheels, Crac de Chevaliers (fortress of the knights) in all its medieval splendor, Aleppo with its Al Ma’ara museum and citadel where the closing rites of this year’s Silk Road Festival were held, and Maalula with its monasteries and houses perched on towering rocks and where people still speak the Aramaean tongue, the language of Jesus Christ.

There’s something old (make that age-old) and something new in Syria. Today, you’ll see in the streets of Syria men and women toting mobile phones, laptops, and MP3 players. The Internet cafes are packed. There are pirated American blockbuster movies everywhere. And while you see fully veiled women, you will also come across Syrians in jeans and mini-skirts.

Food For The Soul

Just as there’s so much in Syria to nourish the soul, there’s a lot to fill the stomach, too. Yes, food! In Damascus alone, there are over 100 restos tucked in the old alleys of the city — these are 300-year-old houses converted into restaurants. I personally recommend Haretna, where I had the best tabbouleh I had ever tasted during my stay in Syria eating nothing but Syrian food twice a day for almost a week.

For one glorious week, our taste buds would be treated to the best the Syrian table could offer: tabbouleh (a Lebanese salad made of chopped parsley, bulgur wheat, mint, tomato, spring onion, and other herbs with lemon juice, olive oil, and various seasonings); hummus (a Levantine Arab dip or spread made of cooked mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini or sesame paste, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic); baba ghanoush (an Arabic dish of eggplant or aubergine mashed and mixed with various seasonings); fetouche or fattouch salad (crisp lettuce mixed with toasted pita croutons, tomato, cucumber, mint parsley, chopped onions in a Greek dressing); falafel (deep-fried ball or patty made of spiced chickpeas and/or fava beans); freeke or frike (roasted wheat with either chicken, lamb or meatballs). Of course, an important part of the meze is the pita (khubz), a flat round bread that goes well with most anything.

But we leave Syria with both our stomachs and hearts full. For once the sand of Syria touches the soles of your feet, it will never leave your soul.

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