The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, June 18, 1995                  TAG: 9506160060
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  222 lines


AS WE APPROACHED the mud-brick village of Ignaya, Syria, in a humpbacked yellow Checker cab limousine outfitted with a tractor motor, I got my first glimpse of the legendary Euphrates River.

Archaeologist Anne Porter, preparing to resume an archaeological dig in Ignaya, sat in front of me surrounded by water jugs, boxes of kitchen utensils, luggage, pita bread and a bag of six piping hot roast chickens.

The Euphrates, a serpentine blue-green ribbon, cut through a desolate, shard-strewn desert landscape, framed by a narrow band of wheat fields. Although waters appeared calm and glassy, surrounding canyons and bluffs bore witness to the river's age and powerful current.

This was the river on whose banks human civilization arose; whose waters nourished the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; whose navigation Mesopotamians, Romans and Hittites sought to control.

When the Euphrates changed course, kingdoms were born or abandoned.

For decades now, the only westerners who've seen this stretch of the Euphrates were archaeologists like Porter and her husband, Tom McClellan.

Under the leadership of president Hafez al-Assad, Syria has maintained rocky relations with the United States. Syria allied itself with the Soviet Union and declared war on Israel. As recently as 1990, no more than a few dozen American tourists visited Syria each year. If there's an Israeli stamp in your passport, you can't get into Syria, regardless of your nationality.

In the last few years, political tensions have begun to ease. With the Soviet Union's disintegration, Syria's socialist regime has launched experiments in free enterprise. Now, Syria and Israel are taking the first shaky steps toward peace.

Meantime, westerners have begun to venture to Syria. Almost 30,000 French tourists visited Syria last year, followed by about 20,000 each from Italy and Germany. American tourists now number in the thousands, many lured by reasonable luxury hotel package tours.

Syria's biggest draw is its history. Remnants of civilizations that flourished 5,000 years ago have been uncovered by American, British, German, French and Italian archaeologists. Because of its dry climate, Syria's antiquities are among the world's best preserved.

Bosra, south of Damascus, has an intact 15,000-seat Roman amphitheater made of black volcanic stone. In the ancient oasis kingdom of Palmyra in central Syria, camel races are held amid a collection of Roman-era ruins including colonaded thoroughfares, temples, baths and elaborate tower tombs.

Syrian history goes back not just centuries, but millennia, to the dawn of civilization. Syria's capital, Damascus, vies with its second-largest city, Aleppo, for the title of the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Both can demonstrate occupation for more than 8,000 years.

Still, Syria offers more than history. Syria offers spectacular desert landscapes, cosmopolitan cities, Mediterranean beaches and bargains in traditional markets. Restaurants throughout Syria serve exquisite Mediterranean food - eggplant dip, hommos, parsley and tomato salad, fried lamb and abundant sweets. Syrian men linger in taverns smoking 4-foot-tall water pipes and sipping strong Syrian coffee spiced with cardamon.

When Syria makes its peace with Israel, which even Syrians consider inevitable, it's likely to become one of the Middle East's top tourist draws.

Wedged among Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, with Lebanon scooped from its western flank, Syria has an astonishingly varied landscape, more like California than Saudi Arabia. Beaches give way to coastal mountains. Olive orchards cling to rocky hillsides that roll into plains rich with wheat and parsley.

At first glance, modern Damascus has little of the charm of cities like Paris or Istanbul. A bustling, cosmopolitan city, Damascus is crowded with boxy gray concrete buildings and apartment blocks.

Still, remnants of its ancient past are studded throughout.

After Mark Twain visited Damascus, he wrote in his book ``Innocents Abroad'': ``She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. . . . Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth and still she lives.''

Old Damascus, located in the center of modern Damascus, is an ancient walled city crammed with medieval markets, called ``souks,'' constructed along the original Roman thoroughfares. Guarding the walled city is a gray-stone citadel first occupied by the Romans, largely reconstructed during the 13th century to repel marauding Crusaders.

In Old Damascus, narrow passages wind between whitewashed homes with thatched roofs extending over alleyways.

Near the center of Old Damascus rises the 8th century Omayad Mosque. The cavernous mosque, almost a quarter of a mile long, dwarfs shoeless old men praying on worn hand-woven rugs. At one time, all walls were decorated with rich mosaics of marble, gold and painted ceramic. Today, some of the mosaics and woodwork are in the process of being restored.

Even in modern Damascus, evenings have their own charm. Although Damascus has over a million inhabitants, crime is virtually non-existent.

Arabian nights are glorious. Warm evening breezes carry the scent of jasmine and orange blossom. Strings of colored lights sway over streets. Men sharpen long knives and slice ribbons of meat from hydrant-sized plugs of sizzling lamb and chicken. With the meat, tomato, parsley, yogurt and pita bread, they make delicious sandwiches they sell for about 50 cents.

Syrians, who tend to nap in the afternoon, often stroll until midnight munching on falafel and kabab, washing them down with fresh cherry juice.

Traveling outside Damascus is easy. By European standards, trains are aging, dusty and battered. But they are inexpensive and run on time. I took a first-class train from Aleppo to the coastal city of Latakia. The price was $1.40. There are also dirt-cheap service taxis and buses that run to even the tiniest hamlets in Syria.

Renting a car is more expensive and also requires nerves of steel. In Syria, white lines may be painted on highways but drivers don't seem to have grasped the concept of lanes. At times, highways seem a ramshackle parade of vintage buses, DeSotos, Vauxhauls and Checker yellow cabs three abreast in what should be two lanes. Horns honk so often that it seems almost recreational.

Outside Damascus one encounters hospitality unimaginable in the west. At one small village, we stopped to ask directions to a restaurant. A shop owner, wearing traditional Arabic head scarf and full-length white gauze djellaba, invited us into his home's courtyard and, before we knew what was happening, served us a home-cooked feast of tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, eggs, pita bread and yogurt.

Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo, lies less than 200 miles north of Damascus. It, too, is large, just under a million residents. Still, even die-hard Damascans concede that Aleppo has more charm than the capital. Even Aleppo's modern apartment blocks are made of elaborately cut limestone.

At the center of the Aleppo rises its citadel, a masterpiece of Arabian architecture. Perched on a 150-foot mound, the citadel has been occupied since the fourth century B.C., but most of the present-day citadel was constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries.

From any angle, the citadel looks like a fairy-tale fortress. In the afternoons, stones take on a warm hue under torn wisps of clouds. A massive stone bridge leads to ramparts whose windows are accented in black and white.

Even outside Aleppo's citadel, the Middle Ages don't seem at all remote. Donkey cars clatter alongside Fiats. Colorfully dressed Bedouin women, with distinctive tattoos on their faces, mingle amid Kurds, Turks, Armenians.

Although most Syrian cities have souks, Aleppo's have retained much more of their traditional flavor. The souks, with closet-sized shops and vaulted ceilings, have remained largely untouched since the 13th century.

A labyrinth totaling more than three miles, Aleppo's souks are a riot of colors, sounds and aromas. Lemons and oranges swing from net sacks over trays brimming with pistachios and almonds. Thousands of shops bulge with hand-painted silk scarves, tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Persian carpets, hookahs and samovars fashioned in brass.

Merchants, customers and donkeys jockey between spices, nuts, candies, pastries and mounds of fresh dates.

In one section, sock-footed customers linger while cobblers, using pyramid-shaped anvils, repair worn shoes.

One public restroom, last spruced up in 1357, provides an unforgettably pungent example of medieval sanitation.

Aleppo is a good launching point for trips to dozens of archaeological wonders nearby. The archaeological sites of Syria are probably unsurpassed. There are palaces, castles, fortresses, walled cities and ruins from almost every period in human history.

Still, just as astonishing is what is being discovered today. Each year, about 60 archaeological teams from around the world are licensed to excavate in Syria.

It was in Aleppo that I hooked up with Porter and McClellan.

As we rode toward their excavation along the Euphrates, Porter pointed out mounds rising from the plains. Underneath each mound, Porter explained, lay the ruins of an ancient city or temple. Mounds were scattered all around us. To excavate them all would take the lifetimes of hundreds of archaeologists.

About two hours outside of Aleppo, we reached Ignaya, the village where Porter and McClellan live while they excavate.

Ignaya, home to a few hundred families, is built entirely of tan-colored mud-brick and thatch, with no running water. Ignaya looks like an ancient Pueblo village along the Rio Grande.

``This really is Fred Flintstone country,'' Porter said. ``Sometimes at night, I expect someone to shout, `Wilma!' ''

In Ignaya, men cover their head with scarves and wear traditional black full-length djellabas. The faces of most women bear tribal tattoos. Although the villagers don't speak English, that doesn't stop them from repeatedly inviting me for tea, bread and candy.

Some of McClellan and Porter's excavations are smack in the middle of the village.

``As they see it, our excavations lie under the village,'' Porter said. ``They way we see it, their village is on top of our excavation.''

Still, Porter and McClellan have worked out a cordial arrangement with the villagers. The archaeologists have dug trenches between homes, alongside the mosque and near the graveyard.

Near the mosque, they uncovered a floor of baked tiles, each tile about a foot square. The tile floor even had grout made of a black, tarry substance called bitumen. The floor clearly belonged to an enormous building, perhaps a palace. The tiles, Porter and McClellan calculate, were laid more than 4,000 years ago.

A few minutes' walk toward the Euphrates, underneath another mound, Porter discovered a structure, possibly a temple, with 6-foot-thick walls. Above the ruins of the temple, she unearthed a Bronze Age home so well preserved that she could distinguish hand-painted designs on the plaster walls.

Most intriguing is what Porter and McClellan have dubbed the ``White Monument,'' a pyramid-like mound that rises from a wheat field. The mound, they believe, was constructed about 2,400 B.C., with an even older mound underneath.

Some Syrian villagers are initially mystified by all the foreigners who come to dig holes.

Sometimes, discoveries leave them confused, too. One villager in Ignaya appeared dumbfounded as Porter and McClellan excavated walls constructed with boulders weighing hundreds of pounds.

``Were the people who lived here really big?'' he asked Porter. ``Were they as tall as the speaker on that mosque?'' He held his palms about three feet apart. ``Did they have heads like this?''

``No,'' Porter answered. ``They were normal size, just like us.''

``But they had to be big to move all these rocks.''

``No,'' Porter explained. ``They understood levers and pulleys.''

One man in the Ignaya griped that trenches forced him to detour around his usual walking path. After archaeologists uncovered the tile floor of the ``palace,'' the old man's tune changed. He began conducting his own guided tours.

``This is where the king lived,'' he would tell visitors to Ignaya. ``Look at that floor. We don't make floors like that any more. Look at the quality.''

In Syria, such discoveries have become almost routine. For tourists even remotely interested in history, Syria offers unparalleled lessons about early civilization. In Syria, thanks to the work of archaeologists, cities once regarded as myth and legend rise from the plains in stones and pillars, testament to humankind's ancient heritage. ILLUSTRATION: COLOR PHOTOS BY GREG RAVER-LAMPMAN

ABOVE: The ruins at Apamea are being restored by Syria's Department

of Antiquities.

FAR LEFT: A man smokes a water pipe in a Syrian tavern.

NEAR LEFT: The Krak de Chevalier is one of a string of castles built

by crusaders.


A Syrian merchant displays his beans in a traditional marketplace

known as a souk.

by CNB