Guide: Glenn Schwartz, professor of archaeology, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
Glenn Schwartz knew he wanted to become an archaeologist when he was 8 years old. “I saw a Hollywood movie about ancient Egypt called The Egyptian, and I fell in love with the idea of old civilizations that were so exotic and like us at the same time,” Schwartz recalls. Not long after, Schwartz borrowed a history text from his older brother and read about ancient Syrian culture. He was hooked.
His first archaeological trip to Syria came in 1978, when he was a graduate student. He’s been traveling to the country ever since, studying, among other things, the emergence of urban life and societies in early history. In 1986, he joined the Johns Hopkins faculty and soon partnered with a colleague at the University of Amsterdam on an excavation of a Syrian site. That collaboration continues today in western Syria, with field research at Tell Umm el-Marra. Though the area was once a center of Bronze Age activity, it has been the subject of little focused excavation. “Until recently, Near East archaeologists interested in the birth of urbanization have focused on Mesopotamia, but we discovered that Syria also had early urban sites,” Schwartz says.
Tell Umm el-Marra, occupied primarily between 2700 and 1200 B.C., has yielded exceptional finds, including an intact royal tomb from about 2300 B.C. with three layers of bodies and gold and silver objects (discovered first in June 2000 by Schwartz’s graduate student Alice Petty). Initially, Schwartz was disappointed with the discovery. “The structure we were exposing was not what I expected,” he says. “I had anticipated a different kind of building from a later period to answer some research questions I had. A tomb from 2300 B.C. confounded my plans. However, when I realized that this tomb was undisturbed and contained a wealth of information about mortuary practices and elite ideologies, I was happy to change my research plans. It was a good lesson on the need to be flexible and not to be too wedded to one’s expectations.”
Schwartz calls Syria a “hidden gem” and suspects most Americans avoid traveling there because of safety concerns. He says those fears are mostly unfounded (though he does acknowledge that, given current political events in the Near East, the situation may be tense and uncertain for travel right now). “In reality, it’s extremely safe and wonderful to travel as an American in Syria.” Tourism infrastructure is bountiful, with hotels for every budget and many fine restaurants and historic sites, he adds. “Hospitality is important and Syrians are friendly, welcoming people.”
Schwartz’s Guide to Syria
Best time of year to go: Fall or early spring. It’s rainy and chilly during the winter and very hot in summer and late spring.
Before you go, be sure to read: Ross Burns’ Monuments of Syria, an excellent guide to the historic and archaeological sites of the country.
Don’t forget to pack: A hat and layers of clothing to protect against the sun.
Getting around: The buses are efficient, inexpensive, and relatively comfortable if you can endure the crazy scene of porters trying to apprehend your luggage and bus company representatives feverishly trying to get you into their buses when you arrive at the station.
One phrase to know in the native language: Shukran or “thank you.” There’s also maalesh, which means “It doesn’t matter, never mind, don’t worry about it.”
Best places to stay: There are wonderful boutique hotels in the larger cities that are situated in renovated antique houses, full of charm and historical interest.
Best places to eat: The Old City of Damascus really comes alive at night, with lots of interesting spots to eat, drink, and have a good time in the warren of ancient passageways and old buildings. Aleppo’s similarly picturesque Jdeideh quarter is also great, as are the restaurants around the Aleppo Citadel (if you don’t mind a “dry” locale). The outdoor cafes in front of the gate of the Aleppo Citadel have a boisterous and fun atmosphere, crowded with people having a good time, in the evenings.
Try the: Muhammara, a piquant paste made from local red peppers and onions, crushed walnuts, and cumin (a popular spice in Syrian cuisine). Schwartz’s favorite beverage is the local brand of beer called al-Sharq (“the East”). “You never know what you’re going to get from one bottle to the next,” he says, “which is part of the adventure.”
Remember that: Modest dress is appreciated. Don’t wear shorts in public, whether you are male or female. Also, Friday is a Muslim day off.
Nightlife: When they dine out, Syrians eat very late, so the restaurants and cafes are hopping well into the evening.
Be sure to visit: Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra (Roman period ruins in a desert oasis), and Krak des Chevaliers (a very well-preserved Crusader castle).
And don’t miss: The “Dead Cities” in the rocky area west of Aleppo, which are the remains of hundreds of villages from the late Roman period. The most famous is the church of St. Simeon Stylites. Simeon was a monk who lived on top of a pillar for 40 years in the sixth century A.D.; after he died, a huge church was built around the pillar. The remains of the building are located on top of a hill, with a dramatic view, and the ruins themselves are strikingly beautiful. (Schwartz says to pack a picnic, since Syria is no Disneyland and concessions don’t exist in the Dead Cities.)
Read the complete article on the Johns Hopkins Magazine website.