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Sizing Up Syria

It seems as if nothing is unattainable here. There are small "neighborhoods" entirely devoted to sequined wedding dresses or ornamental fountains or bedouin weaponry—new and old. There are streets with nothing but coffee sellers and tea merchants. There is a long avenue of spice stores displaying henna and galingale and aniseed.

Many of the souks are located exactly where they have been for hundreds of years, with the same family of store owners often serving the same family of customers they have served for generations. Tea shops and barber shops, carpet weavers and tile makers occupy storefronts near pocket-sized mosques and trim Greek Orthodox churches, all still in use. Every so often you glimpse the secret life of Damascus through an open doorway: women in long dresses laughing around a fountain; kids playing ball in a sunlit courtyard. These sudden images are like snapshots of another world. Here, in the blank-walled alleys, Damascenes seem to look away from the often harsh public sphere, to lead their lives in private, as they always have.

AGAIN AND AGAIN I'M TOLD THAT TO "understand" Syria, I must visit the desert. One glance at a map confirms the logic of that advice. Damascus sits in the far southwest of the country, turned toward the Mediterranean just 50 miles away. Behind it, for hundreds of miles, is desert. Even on my detailed map, the rest of the country appears almost blindingly empty, though right in the middle is the ancient city of Palmyra and, farther north, the Euphrates. Across the endless rocky plains are communities barely affected by the political shifts in Damascus. The allure of this wilderness lies not only in the remnants of Syria's rich past, but also in the part of Syria that is less drawn to the West, more deeply linked to its Eastern roots.

From Homs, about 100 miles north of Damascus, the desert road runs straight east. There is little to break the monotony other than the occasional herd of sheep, or a bedouin emerging from his hide tent. Every so often I pass a cluster of traditional beehive houses and once, suddenly in the lee of a hill, a neat row of six tanks crouched like beetles in the sand.

Palmyra, which the Arabs call Tadmor, is a broad green swath. These days it makes a living from the tourists drawn to its Roman-era ruins and the little museum in the nondescript new town. It is also known as the site of Syria's most notorious jail, where countless political dissidents were imprisoned under Assad. Since his election, Bashar has released a few, though many see this merely as a token gesture.

Two thousand years ago, Palmyra was a boomtown. Caravans came from all over the East and took off again to Antioch, Damascus, and the Mediterranean. With their cut, Palmyrene traders built a city in their own image—one as flamboyant as Las Vegas.

If the bones of Palmyra are Roman, its essence is Persian. There are colonnaded streets here that once housed Eastern-style bazaars. Every column is fitted with brackets that hold the busts of local notables. The decorative floral motifs and bulging bunches of grapes testify to Palmyra's triumph over the desert.

Syrian pride in Palmyra appears to stem from more than the simple fact of its wondrous preservation. This is a country, after all, that is almost drowning in the leavings of past civilizations, from Bronze Age cities to Byzantine ghost towns. But Palmyra, despite its Roman influences, is Syrian through and through, right down to the faces of the dead in the Valley of the Tombs, just outside the city.

The tower tomb of a noble Palmyrene family may be as many as four stories high; each level is studded floor-to-ceiling with burial niches, some decorated with eerily lifelike busts of their occupants. Most of these likenesses have been removed to museums in Tadmor and Damascus. The remaining ones seem to suggest that if you are rich enough, you really can cheat death.

From Palmyra it's 150 more miles of desert to the next town, Dayr az Zawr. I drive the last half of the journey through a howling sandstorm that is still raging when I arrive. The few townspeople on the streets are hugging the buildings, mouths covered.

Once the fog clears, people reemerge to congregate by the immense, slow-moving Euphrates. Men stand knee-deep in the water holding fishing rods or sit in small boats, their lines hanging over the edge; boys take turns diving from a high bridge; and women in black chadors gaze silently over the emerald river as it steamrolls its way southward.

In the early morning I set out for Aleppo, 200 miles away. Everywhere, women in buttercup-yellow and bright-red dresses are making for the fields. Men follow in pickup trucks. The road runs for miles along the wide, fertile farmland by the Euphrates' banks. The desert lies just over the ridge.

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