By Don Knebel
When Americans hear about the violence in Syria, the reactions of many are like the ones my wife and I received when traveled there 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 Christianity, some call Syria “the other Holy Land.”
Straight Street in modern Damascus is the heart of the “Christian Quarter,” where residents take visitors into what many claim is the house in which the Apostle Paul was baptized by Ananias before beginning his journeys. Nearby, not far from a statue of a blinded Paul falling from his horse, is a window 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, 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 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.
There is a cave high above the city of Antioch, just across the border in Turkey, where Paul met secretly with the first “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 hilltop a few miles east is the column atop which Simeon, a Christian ascetic, sat for 37 years trying to keep people from interrupting his meditation. His dedication was honored in 475 by a massive church, rivaling in size and prestige the one honoring Peter in Rome.
Syrians today, like Simeon, take a long and patient view of history. Because of that, the Syrian people will survive their crisis and will again welcome people seeking a memorable travel experience.