Syria - Off the beaten track
Bosra sits on a fertile plain littered with black basalt about 140km (87mi) south of Damascus. It once held pride of place on local trade and pilgrimage routes, but it has now sunk into obscurity. Despite this, it's a weird and wonderful place, built in, over and around old Roman buildings, like some sort of architectural strangler vine. The city is made almost entirely from black basalt, most of which has been filched from older buildings. It is also has one of the best preserved Roman theatres in the world.
The theatre is particularly unusual in that it was fortified and turned into a citadel. Nine towers were raised around the building and a deep moat dug to further protect it. Inside the citadel, you can still see the magnificent 15,000-seat theatre. When it was in use, the theatre was faced with marble and draped in silk, and during performances a fine mist of perfumed water was sprayed over the patrons to keep them cool.
In amongst Bosra's shops and houses, you can also see the ruins of a nymphaeum, some baths, one of the world's oldest mosques, a 4th-century monastery and a Nabatean gate. There's only one hotel in Bosra, and it's darn pricey, but you can get a direct microbus from Damascus or Der'a.
This quiet town between Aleppo and Damascus is one of the most attractive in Syria, and makes a good base for exploring nearby ruins. Much of the town's charm comes from the Orontes River, which flows through Hama - its banks are lined with trees and gardens and ancient, groaning water wheels known as norias, which measure up to 20m (66ft) in diameter. The wheels were built centuries ago to provide water for the town and for irrigation. The wheels and blocks on which they're mounted are wooden, and the friction between the two produces a moaning noise which pervades the air of central Hama. The norias in the middle of town are set in a lovely park, where children swim between the wheels.
Other things to see in Hama include the Grand Mosque, which was destroyed during a 1982 uprising. The uprising was started by the Muslim Brotherhood and quashed by 8000 troops, supported by air force and tank assaults. Up to 25,000 people died in the fighting and in following executions and atrocities. Evidence of the uprising has been hidden by widespread restoration - the mosque is among the buildings that have had a facelift. The Azem Palace & Museum dates from the 18th century, with some interesting artefacts and a pleasant shady courtyard. To really soak up Hama's atmosphere, try the outdoor cafe on the banks of the river - it's a great spot for a coffee, a nargileh (water pipe) and a game of backgammon. Buses run between Hama and Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.
The Basilica of St Simeon is more interesting for its history than anything you'll actually see here. St Simeon was a 5th-century shepherd who, after having a visionary dream, joined a monastery to suffer for Christ. But monastery life just wasn't hard enough for St Simeon, so he took to the hills, where he built himself a 3m (10ft) pillar to perch atop. For the next 36 years he built himself taller and taller pillars, eventually getting up to 15m (49ft). The saint chained himself by the neck to his pillar in case he fell off during the night, adding potential strangulation to his list of crosses to be borne. Pilgrims came from all over Europe and Asia in the hope of spotting a miracle, but mostly they saw an old guy ranting on top of a pillar.
In 459 St Simeon kicked the bucket, and an enormous church was built around his pillar. The unique church had four basilicas arranged in the shape of a cross, each opening onto a central octagonal yard covered by a dome. When it was finished in 490, this was the largest church in the world. A monastery was also built, and a town sprang up to cater to the needs of pilgrims. The church is remarkably well preserved, but the pillar has deteriorated dramatically - it's really just a boulder on a platform. Qala'at Samaan is about 40km (25mi) west of Aleppo, and a microbus runs between the two.
This startling walled city lies in the middle of nowhere, about 160km (99mi) north of Palmyra, and rises up out of the featureless desert as you approach it. The area was possibly inhabited in Assyrian times, and Diocletian established a fort here as part of a defensive line against the Sassanids late in the 3rd century. The fort was expanded in the 5th and 6th centuries, but in the 7th century it was taken over by the confident Omayyads, who refurbished it as a summer palace. The Omayyads realised the error of their ways in 743 when the Abbasids strolled in and levelled the palace.
The city walls, enclosing a quadrangle 550m (1804ft) by 400m (1312ft), are almost intact. As you enter, you're confronted by an immense emptiness: there's been very little restoration or excavation here, and the quadrangle is bare apart from three churches. The grandest of these is the partially restored St Sergius basilica, with its two aisles and sweeping arches. The basilica, and the two other churches, were built in the 6th century. There's nothing to eat or drink here, and it's quite difficult to get to - you can catch a microbus from Raqqa to Al-Mansura, and you'll then have to wait for a pick-up to take you to your final destination.