In looking for winners in the war in Iraq, a good place to start is the Damascus real estate market, which went from being a subprime, Axis-Of-Evil neighborhood to one where Iraqis with flight capital could stash their money.
I had not connected the cost of a Syrian two-bedroom with those Iraqis who are losing hearts, minds, and subsidiaries, until I traveled with my teenaged son on the Ottoman and Crusader roads from Istanbul to Damascus… and heard of apartments selling for $2 million.
In headlines about the Middle East, Syria is a front-line state, a radical Arab nation that is sworn to Israel’s destruction, and, more recently, an ally of Iran that will envelope the infidels running Iraq and agitate terror along the Lebanese-Israeli border.
On the ground, however, Syria has softer edges than most rogue states. It has a nascent tourist industry, built around Roman ruins and Crusader fortresses. The populace is friendly, and largely indifferent to the protectionist rackets of the ruling al-Assad family. There is perhaps enough secularism to bridge east and west, if not Israel and the Arab world.
Getting to Syria isn’t easy. The trip from Istanbul’s glorious Haydarpasha Station was a forty-hour excursion, including a train ride across Anatolian Turkey and the Taurus Mountains. Highlight: the kabuki theatre at the Turkish-Syrian border crossing, an Arabian Checkpoint Charlie. (Our taxi driver distributed duty-free cigarettes to each of the passengers and, between the borders, filled up the tank of his car with gas from a Pepsi bottle.)
The places between Istanbul and Aleppo — Syria's second largest city — included Tsarus, the hometown of St. Paul; Ceyhan, terminus of the geopolitical Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey oil pipeline; and ancient Antioch, now Hatay, where the word “Christian” first circulated in caves beyond the city.
We spent the night in the port of Iskenderum in the province of Hatay, which remains a sore point in the often troubled foreign relations between Turkey and Syria. To keep Turkey away from an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1939, the French government, which had a League of Nations mandate over Greater Syria, gave the Arabic province to the Turks.
Syria claims the region, which may explain why, in happier days, Turkey was friendly with Israel. When that relationship cooled, irredentism in Hatay was forgotten, and now trade is booming between Syria and Turkey.
The Iskenderum waterfront feels like a Black Sea resort. Most importantly, it has backgammon and strong coffee. The town was contemplated as the terminus of a Persian Gulf railway, to speed British troops to India. In 1917, after his ignominious defeat at Gallipoli, Winston Churchill wanted to stage yet another amphibious assault behind the Ottoman lines, this time from Alexandretta (now Iskenderum). Britain’s war cabinet ignored him.
Aleppo is a traveler’s dream, and far from the raw emotions of Middle East politics. We stayed at the Hotel Baron in the Agatha Christie room (I checked the armoire for a body), and wandered around the souk, the Crusader citadel, and the mosque, which has more little boys with soccer balls than it does angry Muslims.
In the Armenian genocides of 1915, the few survivors walked to Aleppo. I met an older woman at the hotel whose father, at age ten, was the only member of a large family to survive the forced march. As she told the story of their fate, she wept.
T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) also stayed at the Baron. We inspected his hotel bill, saved in a musty cabinet. In 1909, to research his Oxford thesis on Crusader fortresses, Lawrence walked across Syria, at that time just an Ottoman province.
We did his trip in reverse—not on foot but in a rental car—and ended up at Krak des Chevaliers, which he called the “finest castle in the world.” Imagine the roundtable of King Arthur on a Syrian mountain.
The Crusaders lost their foothold in the Near East, in part because they failed to form a lasting alliance with their logical protector in Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire. Even now, the Christian enclaves in Lebanon and Syria, not to mention those in Israel, feel adrift from history. Diplomatically, Syria is largely alienated from its neighbors.
For its patchy tourist industry — a few more road signs would be nice — Syria can build upon the soaring columns of its Roman ruins, which can be found near the Mediterranean coast and in the remote eastern desert.
We walked the imperial miles at Apamea and in Palmyra, where many columns are intact. Hadrian and other emperors turned these distant watering holes into cities that resemble the Parthenon in Athens. Palmyra feels like a Greek mirage.
I didn’t linger over the tourist kitsch of Old Damascus or the city's charming alleys. Instead, I found a cafe overlooking the Umayyad mosque and read David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace, a book that tries to lay the blame for current Middle East instabilities on the British decision in World War I to break up the Ottoman Empire.
The 1919 Peace of Paris (for Turkey, it was the Treaty of Sèvres) left the Middle East with national borders drawn haphazardly around tribal clans. Of the partitioning, Fromkin writes: “It was the Liberal dream of triumphant Hellenism and Christianity, promoted by Gladstone’s political heir, David Lloyd George.”
Lawrence dreamed of independence for the Arabs, only to see them subjugated to the British and French empires. He observed: “Our government is worse than the old Turkish system.” He might well have said the same about the United States, which has taken up the Ottoman’s burden in the Middle East.
The modern nations of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan were originally figments in the imaginations of Paris mapmakers. Arabs complain about Israel’s artificial borders, but the same can be said of all its neighbors.
Few people I met in Syria ever mentioned Israel, the Golan Heights, or the Arab-Israeli conflict. The border wars seemed more symbolic than real, a looming menace that allows the al-Assad family to prove its bona fides with Arab nationalists (few of whom have a voice in the Syrian government). Syrian diplomacy is generally cynical: Syria talks tough against Israel, funds Hezbollah, and rails against the Americans… so that the Syrian government can then lord over the local economy as if it were a family business.
As a train man, I spent much of the trip searching for the Hejaz Railway, which Lawrence devoted his time in the desert to blowing up. The railway brought pilgrims, not to mention janissaries, from Damascus to Medina, now in Saudi Arabia, and it had a branch line to Haifa. Since the lines were cut, the Middle East has been fractured.
To further the cause of peace in the Middle East, I am for its revival. The narrow gauge engines are still in working condition, and much of the track bed remains. Call it the Peace Train or the Freedom Express, but have rail service from Beirut to Damascus, and a connection to Haifa. Rail buffs and tourists would love it, but so would Syrian merchants and Israeli trading companies.
The line might not connect Berlin to Baghdad, or even Alexandretta to the Persian Gulf. But it would be a better use of Middle East reconstruction money than what’s now disappearing into Damascus apartments.
Photo by Steven Damron; Damascus apartments.
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, winner of Foreword’s bronze award for best travel essays at this year's BEA. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland.