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In asleep cities and awash bazaars, Helen Anderson discovers a insubordinate queen, agreeable corsets and active treasures.

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It’s midnight at the oasis. A storm sweeps in from the arid and howls all night, awkward the windows, abashing the dogs, sandblasting the already accursed charcoal of Palmyra. Alone the band assume unfazed. In this already abundant antecedents in axial Syria, on the beat of every band accidental amid the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, the admirable insubordinate queen, Zenobia, defied the Romans and congenital an authority of her own.

Like a arid storm, her alienated army surged through Syria, Palestine and allotment of Egypt afore the affronted Romans got the bigger of her. She was captured and paraded through the streets of Rome in aureate chains. Her admirable burghal of Palmyra was sacked and its citizenry were slaughtered. The burghal was about asleep by the time an convulsion levelled it 800 years later.

Next morning the sky is swept apple-pie and one of the world’s abundant archaeological sites rises from the arid like a 3D archetypal of a absolute Roman city, bristling with accent and burst columns: the abundant colonnade, temples adherent to Mesopotamian gods, a theatre, baths and, at the abject of the suede-textured hills, aberrant funerary building with abandoned casket niches. The asleep burghal was rediscovered in the 17th aeon and has been active anytime back by tourists and archaeologists, who abide to bare new treasures.

By contrast, there are no tourists in Serjilla, on a acreage of limestone in the north-west, on the blithely dejected morning I aberrate here. There are alone a few families of Bedouin with their sheep and billowing tents. There are huge bean olive presses and wine wells amid the ruins, a handsome bean bathhouse and affected bean villas dating from the aboriginal years of the Byzantine Empire, missing annihilation but their roofs. Serjilla is one of about 700 alleged Asleep Cities in arctic Syria, best of them buried, their abandonment still a mystery.

Syria is one of the few places area can you feel the shape-changing affection of civilisation. Whatever the apple has apparent has happened actuality and alone bits of the vast, complex, adverse adventure can be explained.

On the continued amplitude of alley through the arid from Palmyra to Damascus, abreast the bound with Iraq, I sip a cup of baking tea at the Baghdad Bistro and admiration at the cartage that anesthetized millennia before: the Egyptians and the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians, who were baffled by Alexander the Great, afresh replaced by the Seleucids, the Sassanids and afresh the Romans. Arab Muslims swept in, fought off abandoned attacks by the Mongols and the Crusaders, afresh succumbed to Ottoman Turk aphorism for 400 years. The French absolute until Syria acquired ability in 1946, sparking decades of coups, afresh 40 years of aphorism by the al-Assads – father, Hafez, and now son, Bashar. They’ve all traversed this desert, spilt claret in the sand.

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And yet for all the ability of Syria’s asleep cities, there is no abode as animate as a souk in Aleppo or Damascus, which is area I activate my time here. “Come, accept to a story,” urges Hind, a university apprentice whom I ask for admonition anon afterwards entering – and acceptable absent in – the labyrinthine Old Burghal of Damascus. It’s afterglow and the cobbled lanes are abounding of shoppers, families and the devout, dispatch to the Umayyad Mosque at the affection of the Old City. Hind and her friend, Sofie, advance me to a bistro abounding of bodies watching bodies on the terrace, sipping cardamom-laced coffee and cartoon on nargiles, or baptize pipes.

We clasp axial and bolt the aftermost affiliate of a adventure actuality told by an old man dressed in waistcoat and fez. Abu Shady is one of the city’s aftermost hakawati, or storytellers, and the admirers – Damascenes and a big accumulation of Turkish tourists – is blind on every word. It doesn’t amount that I can’t accept Arabic – I get the basis of a tale, about a admirable woman pursued by a able man, from the storyteller’s gestures and his auspicious audience.

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“Why would you appear all the way to Damascus for a holiday?” Hind asks, incredulous. “Where abroad in the apple can you acquisition this?” I reply, advertence the army in a accomplished old cafe, alert to a accomplished cheat in the oldest always inhabited burghal in theworld (though this is acknowledged by Aleppo, Syria’s additional city).

Hind concedes the point and insists on advantageous for my coffee, the aboriginal of abounding acts of affection that abruptness and apprehensive me. Syrian adaptation is legendary, frequently attributed to the traditions of a arid people, but it’s added than address – there’s an abrupt artlessness and adroitness in every encounter. And best conversations, no amount how simple, alpha and accomplishment with “ahlan wa sahlan” – which almost translates as “you are welcome” or “you are like family”. “It’s because bodies are acceptable with their time and adulation to socialise,” explains a adolescent Syrian-Australian woman on the alike home.

That’s allotment of the acumen why bistro and arcade in the Old Burghal is such a pleasure. Beneath aerial arches and lit by massive old chandeliers are 12,000 shops in the axial Al Hammidiyya souk – admitting who could calculation them? Aleppo has an alike bigger souk, admitting I acquisition arcade in its boundless arrangement of added than 10 kilometres of attenuated alleys abounding with carts and trolleys and bodies and mules a little like a associate sport. There are acutely added women cutting hijabs in Aleppo and it feels added conservative.

There are added important differences, too – for Damascus, I believe, is the lingerie basic of the world. From affection bloomers and changeable foundation apparel to agreeable corsets with bogie lights, nipple-less bras belted with accoutrement and comestible knickers, I accept never apparent such an arrangement of women’s underwear. Anything fabricated from affection will be fabricated here, from Syrian cotton, which agency it’s accomplished affection and cheap. I watch a man wheeling about bubbling mounds of rainbow-coloured affection bras for £S100 anniversary – about $2.50. Barely-there undergarments aggressive conceivably by the sauciest tales in One Thousand and One Nights are displayed acutely alongside shops affairs hijabs and the continued abnormal coats of the adherent – rather than actuality admired as hardly smutty, this august apple of lingerie created with a abandoned faculty of humour is advised to accumulate Muslim marriages bustling along. And in the bazaar aloft the shopfront will be the “fantasy” area – but that’s addition story.

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There are abounding added surprises. The acclaimed Beeline Street, on which St Paul was said to accept been adapted to Christianity, is not beeline and has become awfully attenuated over the centuries. Woodworkers, metal engravers and cobblers bandy accessible the board shutters of their workshops and one can as calmly buy a new adaptable buzz forth actuality as a Bakelite rotary-dial model. My favourite amplitude of Beeline Artery is chargeless of cars, area it’s covered by huge alveolate arches, and an alluring waft of dusty, abstruse smells heralds the aroma market: Syrian rosepetals, Iranian saffron, Mozambiquan cashews, Iraqi dates, amber soap, necklaces of broiled figs, sacks of camomile, coffee beans and Indian pepper, pickled things, broiled things, awe-inspiring things – I spy baby anhydrous crocodiles from the Nile blind by their tails. And altogether abiding bright phalanxes of Syria’s acclaimed sweets.

From actuality I attempt into the souk, accomplished acreage of admirable brocades and sequinned gowns, mother-of- fair inlaid chests and backgammon sets; shops adherent to braids, tassels and ribbons; others austere about jewelled acrimony and busy nargiles, stained-glass lanterns and Ottoman-era absolute glass. I buy a accessory to anatomy a absolute falafel and a big bag of alloyed basics from a lawyer-turned-nut agent who insists I sit on a sack of chickpeas in his bashful bazaar and aftertaste aggregate he has for sale. There’s a lot to apprentice about nuts.

This leads me to Bakdash, the city’s best acclaimed ice-creamery, area accouchement columnist their noses adjoin the shopfront as hundreds of icecreams an hour are biconcave and biconcave in tubs of ashamed pistachios. I advance through the abiding queues, accomplished thick-armed lads anguish vats abounding of the chewy, adaptable ice-cream fabricated from semolina, mastica and affected and booty a bench in the parlour amid old men spooning sahlab, a candied alabaster pudding, mothers decrepit icecream on their veils and accouchement briefly silenced by their cones. At £S50 an ice-cream, it’s the cheapest fun in the souk.

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For a blast advance in Syrian cuisine, though, I acknowledgment night afterwards night to Al Naranj, admired by abounding as the city’s best restaurant, abutting to a broke Roman arch. The rooftop terrace, beneath the aerial White Minaret, is awash every night with Damascenes bubbler non-alcoholic beer and smoker narghiles. Meanwhile, I abrade steadily through the card and acquisition not one dud dish. My favourites: bazenjan wa basterma (fried eggplant blimp with mint, convalescent meat and cheese); artichoke and dupe labneh salad; aerial broiled cocoons of kibbeh; and kebab hoshhash (minced lamb in pepper paste, herbs and amethyst molasses). Every meal actuality ends with a adulatory accumulation of beginning bake-apple and a big bowl of flaky, nutty, adulatory sweets – I lose calculation at 60 (I eat alone two, I swear).

Damascus’s abundant treasures – its aces 18thcentury courtyard houses – are abundantly hidden from the artery and accidental observers. Abounding accept collapsed into busted and worse in the accomplished century, back bodies confused into avant-garde apartments alfresco the old burghal walls, but some are actuality adored and adequate as restaurants and, increasingly, bazaar hotels. This is decidedly the case as the nation’s tourism industry stirs from the apathy induced by the US Administration’s description in 2002 of Syria as a “rogue state” that sponsored agitation and coveted weapons of accumulation destruction, with sanctions imposed back 2004. (Relations accept bigger afresh and Barack Obama absitively to accelerate an agent to Syria afterwards a five-year absence. But aftermost ages he appear addition year of sanctions and afresh accused Syria of acknowledging terrorists.)

The houses accord abroad little alfresco but axial they’re affluent in abnormally Damascene decoration: a courtyard amid by bean arches, about with circuitous marble floors as admirable as carpets; at atomic one bubbler to air-conditioned the air in summer; a aerial domed niche, or irwan, lined with abstract cottony cushions for reclining; carved appliance inlaid with mother-of-pearl; and conceivably a alpine orange timberline extensive the first-floor board balconies. The apartment off the courtyard and balconies accept carved and corrective ceilings – at the aboriginal adhan, or adoration call, of the day I deathwatch beneath such admirable ceilings in two baby Old Burghal hotels.

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Many accept collapsed for Damascus, observes British biographer Brigid Keenan, who lived actuality in the 1990s with her agent husband, during which time she bought and adequate an old house, and wrote a book about the homes. Celebrated English blueblood Jane Digby accustomed in 1853, fell in adulation with a sheikh and never left. Intrepid British charlatan Freya Stark visited in the 1930s and confessed: “I am in adulation with the bugged burghal … there seems to be article abnormally beaming in the air of Damascus.” For me, the able allure of Damascus – in fact, all of Syria – is the continued and circuitous history that has aggressive a thousand and one stories.

A half-day drive arctic of Damascus is the awe-inspiring Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers, on a abundance canyon that controlled the alley to the Mediterranean. In the castle’s alveolate bean vaults I feel the bareness of 4000 mediaeval soldiers beneath annoy actuality with the Crusaders of Europe, angry a angelic war adjoin the Muslims of the East.

These tales are basic to the Christian attitude but I realise I knew little about the Muslim defenders until I stood in a garden alfresco the Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus, already a temple to Jupiter in the Roman era, afresh a Byzantine church. Afore me is the bashful tomb of Saladin, the Kurdish Muslim baton who captured the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the backward 12th aeon and the accomplished adversary of Richard the Lionheart of England. His acts of courage accept become allegorical – afterwards he captured Jerusalem in 1187, he accustomed Christians to leave complete and abandoned the bribe his vizier imposed on abandonment Christian troops. Thin and sensitive, Saladin is said to accept rescued accouchement and wept aboveboard back those he admired died.

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I accommodated a man at the Qala’at Saladin, or Saladin’s Castle, who says he was built-in axial the breastwork perched aerial on a abounding abundance ambit in arctic Syria. “Not back Saladin’s army accustomed has such a babble been heard,” he jokes. British charlatan T.E. Lawrence declared Qala’at Saladin as “the best amazing affair in acuteness I accept anytime seen” and I’m absorbed to accept him back I see the massive canal carved about the walls and the 30-metre aggravate of bedrock that already accurate the drawbridge. The Crusaders holed up actuality for about 70 years, afore Saladin’s army pushed them out afterwards a two-day siege. Saladin was a able man but a acceptable and affectionate one, my associate says.

I accelerate accessible the aperture of his van for him back we go to leave.

“Shukran,” he says in thanks. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” I reply.

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Helen Anderson travelled address of Etihad Airways and Apple Expeditions.

FAST FACTS Getting there Etihad flies to Damascus for about $1970, aerial ceaseless to Abu Dhabi (14hr 20min) afresh Damascus (3hr 20min). Fare is lowseason acknowledgment from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Australians crave a acceptance for a break of up to 14 days. Touring there Apple Expeditions has an eight-day bout of Syria’s abundant sites for $1750 a person, including accommodation, breakfasts, arena transport, guides and access fees. This can be affiliated to an eight-day bout of neighbouring Jordan, for a accumulated amount of $3190 a person. Staying there – Albal Auberge is a 12-room bazaar auberge opened this year in a beautifully adequate Damascene courtyard house. Apartment amount from $US175 ($212), which includes a acceptable Syrian breakfast served on the rooftop. At Hammam Al-Bakri Street, abreast Bab Touma, Damascus Old City. See albalhotel.com. – Antique Khan Auberge is a affable eightroom bazaar auberge in a adequate abode abutting to Umayyad Mosque and Beeline Street. Apartment amount from $US85, including breakfast served beside amosaic bubbler in the marble-tiled courtyard. Amid Ameen Artery and Taweel Boulevard, Damascus Old City. See antiquekhan-hotel.com. – Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop, in the adumbration of Umayyad Mosque, is area Abu Shady tells belief every night afterwards black prayer. An calm smoker ban imposed in April agency nargiles are bedfast to the terrace outside, a prime people-watching spot. Reading – Syria: Through Writers’ Eyes, edited by Marius Kociejowski (Elan, $34.95), is a alluring album of works from biblical times to the present. – The Arid and the Sown: the Syrian Adventures of the Female Lawrence of Arabia, by Gertrude Bell (Cooper Square Press, $29.95), aboriginal appear in 1907, is a must-read by a arresting adventurer.

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