A Syrian Treasure in the Golden Hawran

Busra–Once Sham 1972

From Suweida on the western side of the Jebel Druze the black asphalt road from Damascus heads due south along the slope line of the mountain and then slowly descends back onto the plain at the southwest corner of the Jebel. The plain, like the mountain behind us, was now black, but here and there clusters of lights gleamed through the darkness, as from a great distance.

“There seem to be a lot of large villages here.”

I was on the road again with Heinz Kessler, the German archeological Wunderkind who first took me wondering by the hand and led me out of the library and into the ruins. I had been sitting all my life, if you forget the earlier prolonged bouts of kneeling, which I certainly had, and now I was spending my summers leaping from one black rock to another in the Lava Lands of southern Syria. But Kessler was about to reward my painful apprenticeship by taking me to the crown jewel of his trove of Syrian treasures, Busra, the once metropolis that the Romans had called Bostra and the Bible Bozrah.

“No, they are very small. Just a couple of houses,” Kessler replied. “The air is so clear and the night so black that small bulbs look like searchlights in the dark. Each one of those lights is probably a single naked bulb burning is somebody’s one- room house.”

Finally, as we curved further and further to the west, a large cluster of lights came up on the horizon.


“It looks like New York.”

“You wish! Not even close. Two, three thousand people maybe.”

We turned off the main road and drove directly up to a large structure looming in the darkness. It appeared to be a castle and a single stone causeway led across a dry and empty moat to its gate. It was just wide enough for a VW and Kessler drove across it and up to the immense closed wooden gate with iron studs. There was a small open doorway let into it. We ducked our heads and entered. There was a kind of porter’s lodge within. A cloaked figure came out and held whispered conversation with Kessler.


We walked through a half-curve of high vaulted passages lit only by what must have been thrifty French 20 watt bulbs every fifty feet or so.

“Are there rats in here?”

“Not since the Crusades,” Kessler laughed, “and they all went back to Normandy.”

We turned right out of the passageway and began to climb stone steps designed for notables at least three times our size. Twenty-five gigantic hauls upward in the darkness. On the landing a door opened onto a room at our right, and to our left I could look out onto an open courtyard and see the stars shining brightly overhead. Kessler turned right into the room and shouted out a greeting.

“Ya Abu Husayn!”

We were standing in the center of some kind of medieval refectory. No, it was not a refectory. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that the stuffed chairs and long tables were a recent addition. It was the vaulted and plastered audience hall of whoever first built and lived in this place.

Abu Husayn approached, not from across the room but behind us, up the same steps we had mounted with such difficulty. At first I thought it was a child: Abu Husayn was a dwarf with a large hump upon his back and wearing a smile that illuminated that entire great hall.

“Greetings and welcome, Ustaz Kessler. Ahlan wasahlan. A thousand welcomes. How are you?”

“Al-hamdu lillah.” Well, praise be to God. “And you?”

“Al-hamdu lillah. You stay for the night?”

“Yes, if we may.”

“Of course. Naturally. Have you eaten?”

“Have no care, O Abu Husayn. We are not hungry.”

Oh no? Either Kessler had been munching Kleenex on the sly or else his German asceticism surpassed human understanding. I had not eaten since breakfast.

Fortunately the canny Abu Husayn knew the difference between politeness and starvation. After I was introduced, he literally disappeared behind a counter at the far end of the room and soon the sounds and smells of cooking filled the hall.

“And Monsieur Moughdad, he is also well, O Abu Husayn?’

“Al-hamdu lillah.” A powerful, six-foot voice from the invisible Abu Husayn behind the counter. “He will come in the morning as usual.”

Later, when I understood such things better, I would realize that a message had already been dispatched to the absent M. Moughdad informing him of the number and quality of his visitors. Our quality did not merit his leaving his home in the middle of the night and climbing the giants’ stairway. A government minister, yes, or a general, but not a German Research Fellow and an as yet uncalculated American wearing a brown alligator shirt.

In what seemed like a miraculously short space of time we were seated at one end of a long, oilcloth covered table, and before us a plate piled high with rice and a tomato and beef stew rested on a plastic place-mat showing lower Manhattan Island. Abu Husayn obviously had a nice touch with guests. There were olives on the table and cheese and Syrian bread
“I am sorry I have no beer, Ustaz Kessler.”

“It is nothing, O Abu Husayn. We will drink tea with great pleasure.”

Tea was brought. I had thought I was hungry, but it was really thirst that was gnawing at my insides. The sweet, hot tea went down quickly, cup after cup, while Kessler fell directly upon the food, all asceticism banished from his lying tongue.

“Heinz, what is this place? Who is Abu Husayn? And who is Moughdad?”

“M. Moughdad is the Director of Antiquities in Busra and this is his museum and Abu Husayn is his factotum.” A large slab of bread disappeared into his mouth. “Though many people suspect that it is Abu Husayn who runs the entire show and in his spare time writes articles for the Orientalische Literaturzeitung under the name of Moughdad . Do you know this whole meal was cooked on a single gas burner?”

“This is a museum?”

“Well, perhaps. And this is the dining room to entertain guests who never come. It is actually a castle, a kind of citadel built by the Arabs in the thirteenth century to protect themselves and the town from the European Crusaders.”

“But that is not the half of it,” Kessler continued. “Go outside, across the landing and out into the courtyard, and then look over the edge.”

The moon had come up as we ate and the courtyard was now bathed in its light. Around me I could see dark shapes, the same basalt forms I had seen in the garden of the Damascus Museum, but here they wore a mantle of silver. I peered over the parapet of the courtyard. Slightly below me and surrounded on all sides by the Arab citadel was a perfectly preserved Roman theater, its stage to my left and row upon countless row of stone seats rising darkly in a circle to my right. The stage was a baroque facade of pillars and pilasters, entablatures and pediments, doors and decorated windows spread riotously over three storeys. But unlike the rest of the theater, which was fashioned from the same smoothly finished basalt I had seen in every village we had visited that day, the stage was carved from a pink limestone that gleamed as brightly in the Busra moonlight as if it were illumined by the hand of man.

Kessler stood next to me at the parapet.

“In the second century twenty thousand people sat on their pillows in those seats and watched provincial touring companies play mime and slapstick.”

“No Euripides? No Seneca?” protested the romantic.

“It would be nice to think so,” replied the realist, “but I fear the building is more noble than what went on within it. Times do not change. I sat here last year in the sun –the Romans had the good sense to put up awnings; you can still see the ring-holes near the upper tier of seats– and watched a third-rate troupe of Chinese acrobats do their interminable gymnastics. Cultural exchange between the People’s Republic of China and the Syrian Arab Republic.”

“Is that all this was built for, vaudeville?”

“No, I don’t think so. It is too grand, too monumental. I think the Romans must have done their public and political business in this theater. This was, after all, a provincial capital.”

We stood a little while longer and looked down in silence on the Roman theater encased like a jewel within the more common circle of the medieval citadel.

“Heinz, if I don’t get some sleep, I will be of no use tomorrow.”

“Good.” We went inside. Abu Husayn had already cleared up and silently disappeared to wherever he lived in that dark village. “We sleep in there,” pointing to a small room off the dining hall. “There are rugs and cushions and probably mosquitoes.”

“And you?”

“I must do some work first.”

Of course. He took a graph-ruled notebook from his bag, sat himself at one of the tables in the dining room and set to describing and drawing every building we had seen that day. What was a lark for me was work for Heinz Kessler, and neither fatiguing sunshine nor romantic moonlight stayed him from bringing his field journal up to date. I never did discover how long it took. I was deeply asleep well before lintel touched jamb in his finely executed drawings.

M. Moughdad was seated ceremoniously at one of the dining tables when I staggered blear-eyed into the hall the next morning. I could hear Kessler gurgling, spitting and coughing in the washroom. I was headed in the same direction, but Moughdad arose and I had no choice but to step forward and greet our host.

Moughdad was a large, composed man dressed in a dark blue suit which owed not a thread or a stitch to the tailors of Busra nor, I suspect, to any craftsman in the entire Syrian Arab Republic. He smiled a small introductory smile and introduced himself in sonorous French. I smiled my broad American smile and responded in my pinched French. I immediately discovered that it was far easier to lie in French where anything I said was rendered at least ambivalent by reason of my extraordinary syntax and startling pronunciation.

Yes, I patiently explained as M. Moughdad began to furrow his brow at the strange sounds coming from my mouth and nose, I was in train to performing several, or rather certain, recherches scientifiques in la Syrie, and more precisely, or less precisely, to be more exact, on the cité ou ville, si vous préferez, médiévale. And how do you like those apples?

“Eh, bien,” M. Moughdad groaned, whether in perfect comprehension or because he had been smitten by the Holy Ghost for his complete loss of hope, I could not tell.

Kessler emerged shaved and glistening from the washroom and with a single Teutonic toss of his head ordered me to get the hell out of there while he picked up the pieces of la langue des anges. Kessler, like everyone except myself in that land, was perfectly polyglot. He could fire up six cylinders in Arabic, Spanish and Russian and go on all eight in English, French and Italian. There was no point using the supercharger: no one spoke German except the Germans, ja?

My turn in the washroom. It does not take long to wash in Syria, nor indeed to perform any of the basic functions associated with the lowering of one’s trousers or raising one’s skirt. Hunkering over a traditional toilet, maliciously called “Turkish” by foreigners, which is in fact nothing more than a hole in the ground, wasn’t really too bad, except possibly for reading. It required a nice balance, of course, particularly from peoples unused to squatting on their heels, and most foreigners cheated by bracing a trembling hand on a wall or, far less desirably, on the floor. But this washroom had been built by the French during the Mandate and so was possessed of actual toilets, in shape, if not in function. Syrian toilets had in fact no function at all save to collect excrement: the French, you see, introduced the porcelain bowl but had neglected to explain the more subtle metaphysics of the flush. Even if they had, it is safe to think that no Syrian would have understood or accepted the notion of sending huge volumes of water plunging into a hole in the ground. Yes, it was in and out fast, or vite, as I found myself saying to no one in particular in the Busra washroom, très, très vite.

When I emerged M. Moughdad had reseated himself and was chatting in a quite composed fashion with Kessler.

“‘Bu ‘sayn!” Moughdad telescoped it into two syllables but Abu Husayn emerged nonetheless from his invisible labors behind the counter, dressed, I thought, somewhat more formally this morning. He was bearing our breakfast on a tin tray the size of a bridge table: yoghurt, bread, jam, cheese, olives, tea.

“This jam is delicious,” I offered. “What is it, apricot?”

“Yes, mishmish. It is fortunate you like it.”

It was fortunate indeed since every morning of every day I spent in the Middle East there was mishmish on the table for breakfast.

M. Moughdad carefully placed a Marlboro cigarette in his ebony holder and observed me closely through the curling smoke.

“And your friend, Herr Kessler, is precisely engaged in…what type of researches?”

“The Doctor Professor …” Moughdad’s left eyebrow slipped unconsciously upward at the rattle of titles. “…is from an American center…”

Blessed word! Center! Why didn’t I think of it? Make a note.

“…and is elaborating certain studies on the traditional cities of the Middle East. I have brought him here to observe the plan and functions of the ancient Bostra.”

I had every word of it down pat, especially the part about “plan and functions”. And in French. Moughdad nodded in appropriate if not total comprehension of what I was up to. And the “Doctor Professor” had penetrated into his marrow.

“‘Bu ‘sayn, the Doctor might be amused to take his breakfast on one of our New York City place-mats.”

Abu Husayn nodded at the sagacity of his boss’s suggestion and went to fetch one of last night’s place-mat.

“Très amusant, vraiement,” I lisped. If Abu Husayn could fake it, so could I.

When M. Moughdad had satisfied himself that we were capable of putting food in our mouths with our own hands, he rose, shook hands with a slight but elegant inclination of his head and strolled off to the labors of his day.

A few minutes later a girl of about six came shyly into the room, face shining and with a scholar’s smock over her white dress. Her shoes were new and a sparkling white ribbon was pinned to her dark hair. She stood near the doorway.

“My God! Of course!” Kessler shouted. “That’s why he’s dressed up. This is fantastic! That’s Abu Husayn’s daughter and do you know what this is? It’s her first day in school. In her whole life!”

Abu Husayn emerged once again from behind the counter, his eyes glowing as brightly as his daughter’s. He took the little girl’s hand –she was in fact nearly as tall as he–and headed for the door. On the threshold Abu Husayn’s Syrian dignity finally deserted him. He turned and winked at us an immense, paternal wink. No father in the world would have failed to understand.

“It’s like an archeologist’s dream, the skeleton of an ancient city laid bare, with just enough life in the body to give you an idea of the nervous system.”

We were standing on the roof of the citadel, the Roman theater at our backs and ahead of us, due north, the village of Busra, a sprawl of black houses set down in golden fields of wheat.

“Look,” Kessler continued, “There is the mountain, there to the northeast. That’s where we were yesterday.”

The Jebel Druze was visible in the morning haze, green and grey and remote in contrast to the brilliant fields that lay at its feet. But Kessler had a limited interest in spectacles of nature. He was studying the village exposed beneath us, a couple of hundred flat-roofed houses. Three or four minarets lifted their squat black bodies heavily into the air, but what was more arresting was another kind of structure, graceful columns rising in elegant isolation out of the blackness that surrounded them. They were, there was no doubt, the work of other hands.

“Who has been digging here?” I asked.

“Everybody. The Americans did some at the beginning of the century, somebody named Butler from Princeton, then the French during the Mandate, and since then the Italians, Germans and Poles have all had a go at it. And Moughdad keeps picking away every year with local people.”

“Are they any good?”

“Moughdad probably knows what he’s doing, but he takes the long view. What he doesn’t do this year, he might do the next. It is not what you would call intense.”

No, but it was what I would call polite. I had the very strong feeling that if Heinz Kessler were sitting in the German Institute in Beirut and had a few scotches in him, he might just put it in a very different way.

“This must have been some place,” I said in what I thought was a tactful change of subject. “Maybe an archeologist can put together the pieces in his mind, but for someone untrained in imagining a few bones as a body, it isn’t so easy.”

“But some of those bones look very large and imposing, true? You’re right; there was once something rather grand and important here. You know why? That there,” pointing to the wheat fields which stretched all around us as far as the eye could reach, “and that,” turning around and pointing over the Roman theater to the south. “Five miles, no more, from where we’re standing begins the steppe.”

“And what was out there?”

“A lot of extremely nasty Bedouin, which is why the place once had thick walls, and more important, the main caravan routes over to Iraq and south down into the heart of Arabia.”

“Arabia? How far away is Arabia?”

I tried to be cool with this cool German, but I did not quite succeed on this occasion.

“My friend,” he laughed, “you are standing in Arabia. The map says Syria, but that was decided in Geneva or someplace not so very long ago. This little village was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia. Except they called it “Trajan’s New Bostra,” which is not so very egotistical for a Roman emperor. And besides, it’s a hell of a lot better than what the Turks called it.”

“Which was?”

“Busra eski Sham. Busra, once Damascus. I guess it had so many ruins that they thought it must once have been Damascus. Kinder, the Turks.” Yes indeed, thought Lawrence’s disciple, the Turks were not exactly the brightest and the best. “Come, let us look at Old Damascus.”

“Heinz, does Moughdad live in the village or the castle?”

“Somewhere in the village, but exactly where is the great mystery of Busra eski Sham. Everybody in this damned country invites you into their house, but nobody knows where Moughdad’s is, much less being invited into it.”

“Have you ever visited Abu Husayn’s home?”

“No, but I know where it is. I think it’s a matter of protocol. It would be indelicate for him to invite anyone before his boss does. And that will never happen.”

We went round to some of the mosques. Most of them were locked; they too had become antiquities. One was still functioning, however, a tiny basalt building with a fig tree in its equally miniature courtyard. There were three or four greybeards who had gathered there for the noon prayer. They prayed with the usual Muslim concentration inside the building, but this was a social as well as a liturgical occasion. Oddly, there was no cafe visible in Busra and so these elderly gentlemen came together and exchanged their gossip and news after prayer, smoking quietly and thoughtfully under the fig tree.

We sat down in their midst and our presence seemed neither to disturb nor to excite them. Kessler asked them about the mosque and the village. Their tales were nothing more, I guessed, than could be invented or imagined, but there was pleasure in the telling and they did not grudge us.

“Heinz?” I was not entirely certain what I wanted to say, nor whether it was Heinz Kessler I wanted to say it to. “Do you ever feel that you’ve reached a moment which is perfect, that you don’t want it to pass but to last forever?”

Kessler looked down at the ground between his hiking boots.

“Ja. Sometimes in the villages, sometimes in the desert. I don’t know what it is, but I know about your perfect moment.”

It must be the repose, I thought, human repose, half solitary and half social, a small circle of men talking quietly under a fig tree in the courtyard of a ruined mosque, the moment startlingly present, held in, fortified, by the black and weathered stones of an eternal past.

Kessler was too restless for this kind of perfection. We rose at last, bade our companions farewell –marratayn, inshallah, “Another time, God willing” –and returned to the village streets. They were empty at this hour. The youngest children were in school and their fathers and older brothers and sisters were in the fields just outside the village. There was only silence in the deserted streets and in the dark lanes between the poor black houses.

“You know, this place still feeds Damascus,” he said quietly. We were standing now on the northern rim of the village, on the edge of the threshing floors. “Just like in Roman times. The Damascus oasis grows the pomegranates and melons and oranges, but the Hawran grows the wheat. Without Hawran wheat there is no Damascus bread. And without bread there is no Damascus. There is no Middle East. There’s no protein in petroleum.”

Horses turned slowly around the circular threshing grounds, each dragging an iron-studded wooden sled and guided by a small boy who stood upon the sled and pressed it deep into the rubble of stalks beneath. Off to the side men and boys tossed the golden mix into the air. The chaff floated idly off in the breeze and the heavier kernels descended like a priceless rain back to the earth.

“They do not mill the grain here any longer. There are Roman and medieval grindstones scattered through all of these villages, but now the grinding down of the kernels goes on in Deraa or even Damascus.”

“And the baking?”

“No, that is still done where the bread is eaten. Every day. That’s the first job every kid gets in the Middle East. When he’s eight or nine he’s introduced into the working world by being sent to the bakery in the morning to get the family’s daily bread. By ten or eleven he’s running a cement mixer.”

“And it’s all downhill from there.”

“No, not exactly,” Kessler laughed. “Here by the time you’re thirty you’re half-retired because your younger brothers have taken over most of the hard stuff and you’re already thinking of sending your own son to the bakery for the first time.”

Darkness had already descended as we approached the Busra citadel. Kessler drove carefully over the causeway and we caught in our headlights the vision of M. Moughdad seated at ease in an armchair before the massive door of his medieval redoubt. He rose quickly to greet us.

“Welcome. You had a pleasant and instructive day, I hope?”

Most pleasant. Most instructive. Or, to answer his unasked question, nothing had gone wrong.

“I have planned a small and poor entertainment for you after dinner. After you have dined, please be so good as to come to the theater.”

I had already explored the theater. There was not a single light in it. What entertainment could Moughdad have possibly planned?

Even as M. Moughdad was making his self-effacing announcement, Abu Husayn was effortlessly mounting the giants’ staircase once again, and by the time we entered the dining hall, another Syrian feast had come off the Busra bunsen burner onto the Lower Manhattan placemat. I would not have easily guessed that someday, any day, I would throw myself upon a meal of chicken, stewed okra, baked macaroni, rawpeppers and sliced tomatoes, but I threw, no, I hurled myself on what that master chef of the Hawran had prepared in the shadows behind his counter.

“Heinz, I don’t understand how this works. Does one just show up here and lay claim to room and board as a matter of course? Can anyone stay here? Do we pay for this?”

“It is not so much of a problem as you imagine.” Christ, that German madman actually liked okra. “There are very few visitors here in the first place and most of the ones who do show up are people of some importance down from Damascus for the day only. Embassy and U.N. types mostly; very very few Syrians. Room is not a problem obviously, if you’re willing to rough it a little. I once stayed here for a month working on Busra. I let Moughdad know in advance, of course, and at the end I paid only for my meals –Abu Husayn keeps the accounts– and for a man to come, strip down to his shorts on the roof and do some laundry.”

“Not bad.”

“No, not so bad at all. Syria is like a beautiful and sex-starved woman who has no suitors because she lives in a remote place in the forest. So let us keep the willing lady’s address a little private, ja, Doctor Frank?”

We descended the stairs once again and stumbled uncertainly into the dark and cavernously empty theater. The moon was up and illumined the tiers of seats, but the stage was at this hour impenetrable.

“Where would you like to sit, Frank?”

Who said the Germans have no sense of humor? Unless, of course, he meant it. Seats 32 G and H seemed to be unoccupied for the moment, so we sat ourselves high up front and center on the still warm stones. There was something going on on the stage, an occasional flicker of a match, some fumbling and crackling.

Suddenly it began.

The glorious strains of “Aida” poured out into the Roman theater, over our seats, up to the incredulous stars. Or rather, one act of “Aida,” followed by excerpts from the “Land of Smiles” and concluded with a medley of “continental melodies” in French, German and Italian.

We sat for a long time in silence. It was comic, surely, but it was also oddly moving.

“Heinz, what was that all about?” I said at last.

“Well, we are Europeans, or rather, I am a European and you are almost a European, and Moughdad is sophisticated enough to offer us European-style entertainment. Neither of us came to Syria to hear “Aida,” I’m sure; we would probably prefer something more traditional, something baladi, local. But from Moughdad’s point of view, this is what we should like and so more appropriate. It is a courageous thing for him to do, and not many Syrians who would have the balls to do anything more dangerous than offer us a glass of scotch.”

Moughdad greeted us in the passageway wrapped in smiles.

“You enjoyed the concert?” he inquired with a perfect assurance about the answer.

Kessler did not disappoint him.

“Magnificent. It was like being at home.”

“Ah! Be assured it was nothing. A thousand welcomes.”

And that, I reflected, is how it works in the Syrian Arab Republic.

We slowly made our way together through the curved passage-ways and went out to the place before the castle where Moughdad had been sitting earlier in the evening. Chairs were produced from the porter’s lodge and we sat down in the darkness.

” ‘Bu ‘sayn!”

Overhead the sky was a carpet of stars, each gleaming brightly and distinctly in the crystal night air.

Abu Husayn, the former acoustics and electronic engineer, came quickly out through his tiny postern gate bearing an immense tray of the coldest and reddest and wettest watermelon grown on this planet. The liquid and cold fruit tumbled down my throat in such a harmony of taste and pure sensation that it banished at last every hot and dusty minute of that long day.

Abu Husayn sat perched atop one of the stone sarcophagi which adorned the entrance area. I could barely make out his small and shapeless body in the darkness, but I could see the glowing radiance of his smile. There was a deep and satisfying silence. Slowly Abu Husayn raised his eyes to the stars above us, and with his head resting back against the stone wall of that medieval fortress, he murmured softly.

“Ya latif!”

Ya latif. God is gracious, abundant. It is a prayer and a psalm, an exaltation of this place, this moment in whatever plan God has contrived for His creation. Ya latif. Only God was capable of bestowing such bliss. Abu Husayn too knew the perfect moment, and being a larger man than his guests, he could celebrate it on their behalf.

One Comment

  • “on the road to Damascus”. Your writing gives one a way of seeing the men of the scripture and the way of the people with another perspective. As we’ve lived in times so busy and full of people so we read with the same vision, we travel with groups and never visualize the simplicity. I do enjoy your wonderful sense of humor and sense of humanity. Okra is delicious and i learned to love it from my German-“American” ;~) grandmother.

Leave a Reply