When Americans hear about the tragic violence in Syria, the reactions of many are probably like the ones my wife and I received when we went to Syria just before the “Arab Spring” – “They hate Americans, right?” and “Did you lose the bet?” Actually, Syria is home to millions of friendly people, one of whom gave my wife a free cab ride just because she was American. Surprising to those who imagine Syria as a dull and dreary place, it contains dozens of interesting and colorful places to visit, so many of them tied to the earliest history of Christianity that some people call Syria “the other Holy Land.”
Straight Street in modern Damascus is the heart of the vibrant “Christian Quarter”, where residents take visitors into what many claim is the very house in which the Apostle Paul was baptized by Ananias before beginning his missionary journeys. Nearby, not far from a large statue of a blinded Paul falling from his horse, is a window that tradition says is the one from which Paul was lowered in a basket to escape those trying to kill him. A few miles away is Ma’aloula, a picturesque little hillside town, where the priest of an ancient church will gladly recite the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the nearly extinct language of Jesus still spoken by the local residents. Embracing this early Christian history, the tallest minaret in the main mosque in Damascus is named for Jesus and the mosque itself includes a shrine holding what is said to be the severed head of John the Baptist.
On firmer historical ground is a cave high above the formerly important Syrian city of Antioch, now just across the border in Turkey, where Paul met secretly with the people first called “Christians” and argued with Peter about whether the followers of Jesus had to be circumcised. Paul won the argument, facilitating the acceptance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. On a broad hilltop a few miles east of Antioch, back in Syria, is the now-broken column atop which Simeon, a Christian ascetic, sat for 37 straight years trying to keep people from interrupting his meditation. His extraordinary dedication was honored in 475 by a massive church, rivaling in size and prestige the one honoring Peter in Rome, built around the column. Simeon’s pole sitting record was recognized in 2010 by The Guinness Book of Records.
Syrians today, like Simeon, take a long and patient view of history. Because of that, the Syrian people will survive their current crisis and will again welcome people seeking a most memorable and pleasant travel experience. When they do, you might want to consider adding Syria to your list.