Waypoint on the old Silk Road
If the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is the city’s beating heart, then the Al-Hamidiyeh souk is its coronary artery. Leading from the Roman arch by the mosque, you can find everything here from the exotic to the kitsch: narghile water pipes, gold jewellery, rugs, saucy underwear, stuffed birds of prey, inlaid wood, glitzy gowns and, everywhere, silk.
And among the piles of scarves for sale to tourists you can still see bolts of the damask cloth that gave this city fame throughout the world, echoing its former importance on the Silk Road: a trade route that began with the discovery some 5,000 years ago in China that the excretions of a humble little caterpillar could be transformed into the planet’s most durable, desirable and luxurious fabric.
Soon the whole civilised world wanted silk, and to meet the demand a network of routes developed that spanned three millennia and 12,000km to Rome, where it was highly prized among the glitterati of the Empire. Along the way the route passed through the lands we now know as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, with subsidiary routes joining from Central Asia and even as far as India before reaching the Mediterranean coast from where goods were shipped to Rome. It was the single most enduring and important trading route in history.
Merchandise travelling on the Silk Road from the Chinese city of X’ian to Rome could take months or even years to reach its final destination; I had only one week and my own journey began not among the walls and pagodas of X’ian but amid the minarets and domes of Damascus, where I had been invited to attend Syria’s annual Silk Road Festival. Running since 2002, the festival seeks to remind the world of Syria’s key role on the Silk Road, and its unique place on the crossroads between East and West.
Now, the crumbling palaces, winding alleys and historic churches and mosques of old Damascus are increasingly squeezed by the traffic-choked highways and high-rise sprawl of the modern city, and smoke-filled cafes jostle with designer bars populated by both Damascenes and foreigners, language students, employees of non-governmental organisations, writers and artists: the usual driftwood of a global city.
Almost within living memory, however, Damascus was surrounded by orchards that acted as the city’s lungs, keeping the air cool and fresh even in the heat of summer. Everywhere the heady fragrance of jasmine drifted on the breezes. So lovely was Damascus that, according to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed, as a young merchant on a trip to Syria, refused to enter the gates after spying the city from afar, declaring that he only wished to enter Paradise once.
When he travelled to Syria in the 6th century the Silk Road was reaching its apogee, and Damascus was already a great city, reaching its peak as capital of the Umayyad caliphate after the Islamic conquests of 634.
The orchards are gone now, and jasmine struggles with toxic traffic fumes, though you can still feel a glimmer of wonder as you look down upon Damascus from Jebel Kassioun at sunset, as the muezzins proclaim the Maghreb prayers from green-glowing minarets and the city is spread before you in all her faded splendour, an ancient countess decked out in the family heirlooms.
Heading east out of Damascus towards the Silk Road city of Palmyra, the ambience of the ancient route is hard to recapture as you first pass a huge cement factory, setting the scene for the next few kilometres before you enter the badia, or steppe. Eventually the half-built breeze-block villages die away as the road pierces a barren landscape of yellow hills and arid plains, shrouded with a haze of heat and dust. This, at last, is the landscape that would have greeted the caravans of traders on the Silk Road who for centuries traversed the desert from east to west, carrying not only silk but spices and perfume, ebony and slaves, arts and science, languages and ideas, philosophies and faiths, diseases and their cures.
How welcome would have been the sight of a caravanserai emerging on the horizon, indistinguishable at first from the rock and rubble of the steppe. And how refreshing the cool, shaded interior where exhausted travellers and their camels could be fed, watered and rested.
Near Palmyra we stopped at the caravanserai’s modern equivalent, the Baghdad Cafe on the main road to Iraq. In the days of the Silk Road this was Mesopotamia, and although the caravans have today been replaced by the garishly painted lorries plying the route between Iraq and the Mediterranean, their cargo of oil is just as precious as the treasures of the Silk Road’s heyday, and our cafe stopover just as welcome.
Back on the road, the ruined city of Palmyra emerges as a dark stain on the monochrome desert like spilt tea, which soon becomes identifiable as the vast palm oasis that gives the city its name and where the ruins now lie scattered. Lying halfway between the old Silk Road city of Dura Europos on the Euphrates (now on the border with Iraq) and the Mediterranean coast, Palmyra, the “Queen of the Desert” was the most significant stop on the Silk Road in Syria and is now one of the grandest archaeological sites of the Middle East.
Palmyra existed as an oasis settlement from 2,000BC but flourished as the Silk Road traders passed through, reaching its zenith in the first century AD. It is estimated that the price of merchandise increased a hundred fold between its place of origin and Rome, where there was enormous demand for these exotic eastern goods. This is how Palmyra made her fortune. By charging levies on the goods that passed through the city (you can still see the tariffs charged on an inscribed stone, now displayed at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg), she was able to splash out on magnificent temples, streets, villas, baths and theatres. All was going swimmingly until Zenobia, Palmyra’s 3rd-century warrior queen, launched a series of assaults on the Roman Empire, leading to the city being sacked. Zenobia was ultimately captured and taken to Rome in chains, and Palmyra’s fortunes never recovered.
The aridity of the desert climate, and the happy fact that the modern town of Tadmor developed well away from the ruins, has preserved Palmyra’s deeply romantic atmosphere. The centrepiece of the city is the Sanctuary of Bel, a monumental temple built between the second and third centuries AD and dedicated to the same pagan god worshipped at Baalbek, in present-day Lebanon. In the late afternoon I wandered among the tumbled columns and massive blocks of the ruined temple, still lying just where they’d fallen, their decorations still as crisp as the day they were carved. This seems a city built by giants for giants on a scale that still impresses us humans even in our age of skyscrapers and jumbo jets.
As the sun set, and the stones of the ruins glowed pink with the day’s stored heat, I climbed to the Qal’at Ibn Ma’an, the medieval fortress perched on a hill overlooking the Valley of the Tombs. These funerary towers were usually built for many generations of one family whose members were buried in niches, the mummies wrapped in silks carried from China and now displayed in Palmyra’s museum. Looking down at the city below, I could almost see the merchants in their colourful dress, haggling, swapping stories and exchanging views; I could almost hear the indignant snorts of camels as they were being loaded, and smell the spices mixed with dung and dust. Almost.
But Palmyra was more than a centre where money changed hands and the caravans recuperated on their long journey west. Palmyra, like the entire Silk Road, was the original global village. It was a meeting place where ideas were exchanged, cultures mixed and artistic influences spread, though what we now call the Silk Road was only named as such in the 19th century.
Nor was the Silk Road even one highway, but a series of routes with many branches and deviations, like a river with numerous tributaries that ebbed and flowed with the tides of history, or shifting like the desert dunes according to the political and security circumstances of the time. From Dura Europos an early tributary travelled from Palmyra south-west towards the commercial centre of Damascus, where the goods were worked and locally sold, or to Homs and the Mediterranean.
But after the fall of Palmyra, when the desert crossing became impossible, the Silk Road traders found a more northerly tributary from Dura Europos following the course of the Euphrates towards Aleppo, from where the route led to the Mediterranean at Antioch (modern Antakya), or continued overland to Constantinople (Istanbul) before crossing the sea. And Aleppo – via Homs – was my next destination in pursuit of the silk caravans.
The road from Palmyra towards Homs quickly enters open badia, and we passed low mud-brick settlements alongside their modern breeze-block counterparts and scattered Bedouin encampments, a remnant of a way of life fast dying out. The occasional goatherd with his flock, seeking sustenance in the sparse vegetation, drifted across the landscape, and I saw one huge herd of camels numbering perhaps one hundred, their unhurried, aristocratic gait perfectly adapted to their desert environment. Stopping by a Bedouin tent, we were invited in for tea and were able to admire close-up the traditional tattoo decoration on the old matriarch’s face.
As the route nears Homs the landscape transforms, the featureless badia giving way to low hills planted with olives, pines, vines and orchards growing in rich, red soil – an almost Mediterranean scene. The city of Homs grew where the route crossed the Orontes river which, along with the Euphrates and Tigris, formed the heart of the Fertile Crescent, where civilisation began. After Dura Europos and Palmyra, Homs was the next major stop on the Silk Road and the last before reaching the Mediterranean at Lattakia. Known then as Emessa, the city’s modern claim to fame is as Syria’s foremost industrial centre and it’s hard to recapture the romance of the Silk Road here today.
From Homs the ancient route passed through the Homs Gap, dominated by the immense Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, described by TE Lawrence as “the best-preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. Built on the site of an earlier Islamic “Castle of the Kurds”, most of the current fabric of the castle dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, when the traffic on the Silk Road was waning.
As we neared the fortress, roosted high on a spur of the Jebel Alawi, we contoured steep hillsides, still green in October, where terraces of fruit trees rose above valleys strewn with Christian churches. The castle, though now surrounded by the modern town, does not disappoint, and I lost myself for hours among the curtain walls, ramparts and towers that make up this most evocative of medieval fortresses.
From Krak des Chevaliers we swung north to Aleppo. Vying with Damascus as the world’s oldest city – in Arabic its name is Halab, derived from the word for milk as the Prophet Abraham is said to have milked his cow on the Citadel here – it has long been Syria’s prime commercial centre, a major axis on the northerly route of the Silk Road in Syria. Aleppo remained an important metropolis even when, by the 16th century, the opening of new maritime routes between Europe and the Far East saw the eventual decline of the overland Silk Road.
Even today Aleppo has a cosmopolitan feel, a city where Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Albanians, Circassians and many other ethnic groups live and trade together. The Silk Road may be no more, but everywhere I found reminders of its past commercial and military glories, not least in the labyrinthine souk – the longest covered market in the Middle East – and in the Citadel, from which I watched the sun set as the call to prayer vibrated over the domes and towers of the city. From Aleppo the Silk Road flowed on towards the sea, but I was at my journey’s end.
If I had more time I’d have headed further east to Dura Europos on the Iraqi border and further west to Lattakia and Antakya on the Mediterranean, traversing the Silk Road in Syria from end to end. No doubt these places will still be here next time I visit. But ultimately Syria for me is more than the sum of its monuments and archaeological sites, the remains of its 30 consecutive civilisations. Syria’s key position on the Silk Road has seen it welcome strangers from all corners of Europe and Asia, and the hospitality and kindness of the Syrian people is renowned the world over.
The Silk Road Festival might showcase the best of Syria’s heritage, the cities and cultures that grew around the trade in silk. But the true spirit of the country is captured in the fact that for over 2,000 years, Syria has prided itself as a place where people willingly share their heritage and their homes with passing strangers – whether these be caravans of silk and other treasures, or modern travellers on the Silk Road trail.