The bus from Palmyra to Homs cost US$2 for a two-hour journey. It had tasselled curtains and glittery fringes stuck around the windscreen, as well as dangling evil eyes bouncing up and down - all guaranteed, so you'd think, to cause an inauspicious distraction. But the most memorable part of the journey was reserved for when the driver put on a Cantonese video starring Michael Wong and the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen. Beyond the curtains lay the Syrian desert - harshly sunlit, flat, enlivened by occasional lumpy Bedouin camps - while Wong silently (the sound was switched off) ran around Hong Kong, getting into, and out of, triad fishiness. In its unexpectedness, skewed familiarity and proof of high audience tolerance, it was a defining SAR moment - SAR in this case standing for the Syrian Arab Republic, that country's official designation. People drew their breaths in a cartoonish, axis-of-evil fashion when they heard we were going (and, it's true, Israel's bombing raid outside Damascus in October, a few weeks before our visit, probably lowered the already severely depressed tourist market) but even that exaggerated response felt appropriate because it is a land of superlatives. If you want to see the most spectacular Roman ruins you'll ever have the good fortune to wander through alone, if you want to admire one of the world's most beautiful mosques and visit one of Christianity's most revered churches, if you want to walk through the world's oldest continuously inhabited city and know that if you kept walking for 1,001 days you'd have 1,001 stories to tell... then it's worth over-riding Syria's terrible publicity. It often feels familiar: that is part of what makes it strange. In the space of five minutes you might see a blue- eyed man, a red-haired child, a darkly swathed woman, a 1950s Chevy or a Lincoln Continental and a vast billboard advertising Romeo Must Die starring, as the poster had it, Get Li. Some of the older people speak French as a result of the post-Ottoman French mandate, which ended in 1946; the younger people speak English. Meanwhile, the cityscapes - Damascus and Aleppo - speak an architectural language so engaged with foreign influences that you're constantly reminded of other unexpected places (Seville, Macau, Venice) even as you hear the Islamic call to prayer and see the sky- line spiked with minarets. Perhaps it's something to do with Damascus and Aleppo being cities for thousands of years, setting the standard for metropolitan behaviour, attracting traders, story-tellers, prophets and travellers and cultivating outside experiences within their walled and gated communities. One morning, in the souk in Damascus, we came across a historical television drama being filmed in a caravanserai, one of the old hostelries where traders used to stable their animals and themselves. The director is positioning merchants and horses; turbaned actors stand around in picturesque attitudes. A fountain splashes, daintily. But two minutes after we leave - creeping back through a hobbit- sized hole in the vast gate that leads into the souk, squeezing past the donkeys and the sacks of rice from Australia, coffee from Brazil, sultanas from Iran, desiccated Ceylon coconut, and towers of local honeycombs that look like the curved, golden-pitted ceiling of the bazaar itself, as if the roof has dripped down onto the pavements - it is the contemporary streets that feel like a play. They conjure up every fantasy of what the words 'trade' and 'orient' should mean. A child runs home with fresh bread piled on his head; a man with a fantastically plumed horse sells stove-oil. Meanwhile, you find yourself planning a trip to a 12th-century Crusader castle, thinking of contemporary crusades and grimacing at a restaurant sign in Damascus that refers to the Meddle East. If Syria is part of any axis, to a mesmerised outsider it can now seem like one on which the Middle East and the rest of the world, apart from the United States and Israel, turns. It is full of Iranian tourists coming to visit Iranian shrines such as the renovated Rouqayya mosque in Damascus - every stone and mirror of which was imported from Iran in 1993. There, clumps of shrouded women gather inside to wail and hurl toy dolls into the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's great-granddaughter who died 1,300 years ago, aged four. It teems with Beirut babes who have crossed the border from Lebanon for the weekend, who evidently haven't read the guidebooks ('Tight, revealing tops should be avoided') and who prance about in tight, revealing tops, plus lipliner, inspecting the lingerie shops of which, in both Damascus and Aleppo, there seems to be a staggering number. You can, if you wish, buy rubber bras or transparent plastic bras or thongs with mobile phones, thongs with bird's nests on the front and even - seeing as this is the Christmas issue - thongs with Santa Claus leering spookily out of the crotch. (Meanwhile, the Iranian money-changers sell Playboy after- shave but absolutely no one sells Coca-Cola - it's banned.) It is the most Christian country in the region. 'Did you see the beatification of Mother Teresa on television?' ask three Armenian traders, eagerly, over trays of gold in the souk in Aleppo. And 'I've been watching the beatification of Mother Teresa in Rome,' announces a resident Irish-American priest at the house of St Ananias in the street called Straight in Damascus, where St Paul - blinded on his way to the city - miraculously regained his vision. (Damascus is so visual an experience that your eyes can feel like twin exclamation marks. Blindness would be such a torment in this city that one quickly grasps the aptness of the miracle.) Just a stroll away is the Umayyad mosque, completed in 715 AD and one of the great centres of Islam. It was the first mosque ever visited by a pope when John Paul II popped in on his Syrian visit a few years ago. Being male, His Holiness was not required to go to a Special Clothes Room, pay US$1 and don a dark-brown druid's smock. But for a Western female, it's undeniably bonding to add one layer, remove another (shoes), go tip-toeing in socks across the beautiful marble courtyard and sit inside the mosque with the other women. Everyone stares in a companionable way, sidling up alongside to have a good look. They ask, 'Which country?' Then say - and not once did anyone fail in this courteous exchange - 'You are welcome.' The children come to stand in front of you and if you murmur, 'Salaam alaikoum, habibi', which means 'Hello, dearest one', they laugh and some of them do somersaults on the carpets. Then they dash outside, and skid exuberantly across the slippery courtyard, running after the pigeons wheeling in pale circles in the late afternoon light. One of the guides watches them and says, gravely joking, 'They are chasing eternity.' The next morning, the mosque is closed. 'The Spanish guy,' shrugs another guide by which he means King Juan Carlos of Spain, who is also touring the country (you wonder how many of his friends gasped, 'Syria? Don't go there!'). The Spanish guy is on his way to Palmyra, which means that when we get there by bus (two hours, US$2, Baby's Day Out on screen - not an althogether predictable choice but the Syrians seem to like it) instead of having the first- and second-century ruins to ourselves, we share them with the Syrian police force, all of whom are dressed up as giggly Roman centurions. The ruins, especially from its nearby citadel, look like the bones of a lost civilisation, rising from the desert sand. Apart from the skittish gladiators, there are only a handful of visitors, none of whom can quite believe the gap between Syria-the-news-story and Syria-the-travel-destina- tion. You see them trying to download what they've experienced. Maybe the Spanish guy, too, was overwhelmed, picking through the visual snapshots of his Syrian memories but ultimately realising that it is like the layered summons from a mosque at dawn, echoing off the walls and landscapes until it becomes one blended sound, both ancient and contemporary.