Travel Long Haul: Where the World Awoke Conquered by Many and Adored by All, Syria's Mighty Beauty Reflects Its War-Torn Past
Hamilton, Adrian, The Independent (London, England)
It may not have been the precise spot where Alexander crossed the Tigris before sweeping down to the final defeat of the Persian emperor Darius. The river has changed course too often to know. But Ain Divar, at the northern tip of Syria, was right on the Turkish border, at an ancient crossing site with the single arch of a long- destroyed bridge.
Alexander broke the flow of the river by standing his cavalry in lines in the water while his infantry waded through with their weapons and baggage held high. We didn't try to get across. The Tigris at this point forms the border with a Turkey bristling with more gun emplacements than the Maginot Line and an army that tends to take pot-shots at anyone straying across the river. Only the intervention of our host of the previous evening, the Armenian bishop of Qamishli, and a call between generals on the two sides, ensured that we could go down from the teahouse that looks over the river and examine the arch to the bemusement of the Kurdish girls working the bank.
His Grace was no ordinary bishop, I should add: a worldly prelate in his purple-lined robes, and a passionate one. Speeding about in the largest Mercedes ("a gift from the President"), he has bent himself both to community centres and the erection of monuments to the Armenian massacres of 1915- 22 (his father had been sold into an Arab family as a small child, the rest of his family were wiped out). Recommended to us as a power in the land and a gourmet to boot, he proved to be both. We stayed overnight in his convent (fresh "buffalo butter" with apricot jam for breakfast) and ate, at his youth centre in Qamishli, a dinner the like of which I have barely experienced. The tradition of Armenian cooking (and it is a great tradition) is alive and well and can be tasted in Qamishli. It's not the only thing alive and well in Syria. For bad reasons as much as good, 30 years of Alouite rule has preserved a stability of minorities that has quite simply been wiped out by war and the tyranny of majorities elsewhere in the Levant. Relative isolation has also preserved from development and destruction an amazing array of monuments. The Tigris itself sweeps on into Iraq soon after entering Syria, the "King's Way" of Darius and Xerxes now taking caravans of articulated Turkish trucks to Baghdad with food and supplies and returning - it is said - with half the antiquities of Baghdad. But the Euphrates continues south- east through north-eastern Syria, with the area known as al-gezira, "the land between rivers", to the right and the Syrian desert on its left. Here is truly the cradle of civilisation, even more than the Mesopotamia of Iraq, where wild wheat and barley grew and inspired the first domestication of plant and animal. Thirty miles to the south of Qamishli is Tell Brak, where Max Mallowan dug while his wife, Agatha Christie, wrote. The Americans are there now, and if there is not much to see of their digging, the sheer size of the place and its walls and gates gives reality to what was once the centre of one of the world's earliest empires. There are literally hundreds of "tells", or mounds, dotting the plains along the Euphrates and, across the deserts towards Homs and Hama, nearly all of them are signals of ancient towns. The great majority are still to be excavated. The itch to see what's in them, the sense of a 5,000- year past that has still to reveal so much, is overwhelming. Those that have been dug have yielded great archives of trade and personal life (you can read them with translations in the museums at Deir ez-Zor and Damascus, with their talk of health advice, the makings of a good dancer and the apologies of a governor accused of sending second-rate mushrooms to his king). …