Syria Today, by Jean Hureau; translated by Philip Parks and Melissa Thackway. 3rd edition. Paris: Les Editions du Jaguar, 1995. 247 pages.
The appearance in affordable paperback of The Monuments of Syria is welcome news indeed to all travelers to the Levant, whether first- or old-timers. When it appeared in l 992 in hardcover the cost was an inhibiting factor to all but dedicated visitors to Syria's long list of archaeological and architectural treasures. But for anyone with a serious intent to familiarize himself with these wonders encompassing the entire known age of man from pre-history to the present, it soon becomes an essential guide.
This is not your usual tourist handbook. It tells you nothing about hotels, restaurants, night life or local customs. It is, however, the most accurate, thorough and best organized survey of what one ought to see in Syria, provided one has weeks at one's disposal. If one does not, a list of fourteen regional itineraries and four thematic maps (Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Crusader) help one make best use of the time available. The author is a trained archaeologist and historian who also happened to be the Australian ambassador to Damascus at some time in the recent past. Obviously his country's interests in Syria were sufficiently limited that Bums was able to spend a great deal of time exploring the country in depth.
There is nothing of consequence he has overlooked. In all, 116 individual sites are listed alphabetically in the Gazetteer (section three of the book), each with a description as well as variant names or spellings, the historical period, the rating (0 to 3 stars) and cross references to the itineraries and maps. Of the latter there are 61 town maps and site plans, 14 regional and 4 thematic maps (complementing the itineraries), all of them very clearly designed and with few exceptions extremely accurate (two exceptions being the mislocating of the town of Safita, and the placing of the Krak des Chevaliers right on the Homs-Latakia motorway, when in fact it is several kilometers to the north, in both cases on the main country map at the very beginning of the book).
The more stars a site is accorded, the larger the entry. The cities of Aleppo and Damascus with their great number of interesting sites are awarded 16 and 36 pages respectively. Other three star sites like Apamea, Bosra, Krak des Chevaliers, Marqab, Palmyra, Sahyoun (since 1957 called Saladin castle by the Syrian government, though, as the author points out, he had nothing to do with its construction) and Saint Simeon are likewise given considerable coverage, as are two-star sites like Dura Europos, Ezraa, Husn Suleiman, Qalb Lozeh, Qanawat, Safita, Tartous and Ugarit. Even those entries not accorded stars are, however, well worth visiting, particularly if one has special interests. For example, neither the Greek Orthodox convent of Saidnaya near Damascus nor the monastery of St. George in the shadow of the Krak rates stars by the author, yet both were founded in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian, continue to function today as thriving testimonies to the continued Byzantine presence in Syria, and contain wonderful collections of icons and other treasures.
The amount of information which has been collected, analyzed, organized and compressed is indicative of Herculean labors (though clearly labors of love). Inevitably, errors, mostly minor ones, have crept in and no doubt will be corrected in later editions. On page 139 he describes the Madrasa Farad is as "truly one of the most beautiful of the mosques of Aleppo" when in fact a madrasa, as he says earlier, is a school. The distinction is important. A mosque can never be anything else so long as a Muslim authority is in charge. A school can. This is why the Church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem was permitted to become a church once again in the nineteenth century since the twelfth-century conqueror Saladin turned it into a madrasa. Had he made it a mosque, it could never have been restored to its original religious purpose.
One of the features of the book which could be improved, as the above reference to St. George indicates, is the directions. Roads in Syria, once one is off the excellent main motorway system, are badly marked, if marked at all. What signs do exist are often only in Arabic. Asking directions requires knowledge of Arabic as well. Therefore directions to the more out-of-the-way sites (like those in the Jebel al-Aala, for example) need clarification.
On a scale of ten, however, the book rates a nine-plus. No traveler to Syria should be without it, and even if he does nothing else with his life, Ambassador Bums has carved a niche for himself as the man who made the monuments of Syria readily accessible to English-speaking visitors in brightly written and eminently intelligible fashion, and that is no mean achievement.
Syria Today by Jean Hureau is not in the same league with Ambassador Burns's comprehensive tome, nor was it meant to be. As a useful guide for the traveler who wants to hit the main points of interest, however, it is as good as they come, and the 73 pages of color photographs, 17 maps and plans are first rate. Like the Burns guide, the entries (only 38} are listed alphabetically, and there are introductory historical and some more practical touristic notes, plus lists of hotels and restaurants. It should be noted that the book obviously received some funding by the Osmane Aidi Foundation and that Mr. Aidi, in addition to being the very civic minded Syrian who financed the restoration of Apamea, is also the owner of the Cham Palaces Hotel chain, which, needless to say, is given prime coverage in the book.
For the most part the information is accurate, though, like Burns's, this guide gives faulty directions to the monastery of St. George, insisting it is "20 kilometers east of the Krak" when in fact it is only a couple of kilometers to the west. It does, however, note the Feast which is celebrated on September 14, as well as that of the patron of the monastery on May 6. Originally written in French, it has been translated into very readable English, though one wonders if the Syrian Arabic vocabulary section on page 232 contains the same errors in the original. There are several, the most potentially damaging one being the Arabic given for the English "a thousand" which is alfain, or "two-thousand." I wonder if this is one of the ways Mr. Aidi made his hotel fortune.