Taking the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus converted to Christianity, was given the name Paul, and later became a saint. I took the same road to Damascus and found myself also converted - to a vision of Syria opposed to the one I had prior to my arrival.
Instead of hostility, I encountered friendliness and hospitality. Safety was a non-issue. I never felt threatened - be it wandering in the alleys of Old Damascus late at night or walking alone in the deserted streets of Palmyra to the edge of town to catch the sunrise amid spectacular Roman ruins.
But its location in the volatile Middle East and the fact that Syria has been labelled a 'rogue nation' by the United States have largely kept travellers away.
Which means that hotel rooms are easy to come by at reasonable charges. And it makes for a more pleasant shopping experience, especially in the souks (covered markets) where shopkeepers offer you tea.
Shopper's paradise: Expect personalised services from shopkeepers at the souks (above), or covered markets - they are friendly and would invite you to have tea.
In Damascus' main souk, an elderly owner reopened his shop, after he had closed it, when he saw me wandering around with my camera. He asked me to go up to his shop's rooftop terrace for the 'best view' of the city's 8th-century Umayyad Mosque.
Indeed, it was: I could see the courtyard where worshippers were milling about and, rising above them, one of the mosque's three minarets - the Minaret of Jesus, where local tradition has it that Christ will appear on Earth on Judgment Day.
Though fewer travellers may make it harder to form a group to visit places not served by public transport, the inconvenience is minor, as it is relatively inexpensive (US$40 or S$61) to hire a car and driver for a day.
Syrian hospitality is legendary. Once, teaming up with a fellow traveller at a hotel in Hama, a town known for its towering irrigation water-wheels, for a trip to Sarouj to visit beehive house-dwellings and to Qasr ibn Wardan to explore a 6th-century Byzantine palace and church, we stumbled across a Bedouin tent in the barren surrounds and were invited to tea.
In Damascus, it is also not uncommon to be invited to the homes of people you have just met at a restaurant or bar.
In Maalulah (above), people speak Aramaic, the language in the time of Jesus
Syria is steeped in antiquity, with myriad crusaders' castles, well-preserved Roman ruins and the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (Damascus and Aleppo).
It has villages where people still speak Aramaic, the language in the time of Jesus.
Travelling in Syria is essentially taking a step back in time to unwrap its many layers of history. The Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians, Byzantines, Greeks, Assyrians, Persians, Ottomans and numerous others have all been there.
Ancient Syria, which once encompassed Lebanon, parts of present-day Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, is literally the cradle of civilisation as many achievements, such as agriculture and metallurgy, had beginnings there.
Though most travellers fly into the Syrian capital, I decided to take the road to Damascus, following in the footsteps of St Paul by travelling overland from Turkey, starting from Antakya, capital of ancient Syria.
Crossing the border two hours after Antakya was a painless, if slow, affair. It would be another two hours before I reached Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and commercial capital
Aleppo is a bit of a contradiction. Outwardly, it appears conservative, with many women in long cloaks and wearing the hijab (head scarf), yet it boasts a chic quarter, Al-Jedeida, home to a number of boutique hotels with stylish restaurants.
Aleppo's Old City, a World Heritage Site, has a 16km covered souk housing some 1,500 shops.
Beyond the souk lies Aleppo's citadel, which guarded the city from the time of the Crusades in the 12th century. The magnificent circular fortress sits atop a hill; beneath it are remnants of tunnels that once linked houses to the citadel.
Around Aleppo lie the 'dead cities' - the ruins of some 700 towns that once thrived in this hinterland of Antioch, when it was the Byzantine hub.
It was this region's peacefulness that attracted a young monk, Simeon, to live as a hermit in a cave in the 4th century. But when his fame as an ascetic spread and visitors came to seek his blessings, he retreated to live atop a pillar - for some 40 years - to avoid being touched and to get closer to God.
As more people came, the higher he went and the last pillar on which he had perched was 18m high. His act prompted others to imitate him, sparking the movement known as stylites (from the Greek word for pillar, stylos).
After St Simeon's death in the 5th century, a Byzantine church was built around the pillar to commemorate him. The church at Qala'at Samaan still stands, although all that remains of the pillar is a boulder, after centuries of hacking by pilgrims to take home a holy souvenir.
The road south from here to Damascus is easily covered by rail or more quickly by bus within a day, but it is far more rewarding to stop and explore sights along the way.
Colourful nomads: A Bedouin woman with a tattooed face
Deep in the Orontes Valley, Apamea appears like a mirage in the middle of nowhere, with rows of splendid colonnades shimmering in the morning sun.
Stretching beyond Apamea to Syria's coast is a land once dominated by Crusader knights, who held fort in a number of castles on mountain tops. Perhaps the most impressive is Krak des Chevaliers, proclaimed by Lawrence of Arabia as the 'finest castle in the world'.
Even more precipitously perched is Sa�ne, renamed Qala'at Salah ad-Din, after Saladin, the Crusaders' nemesis, who wrestled control of the castle from the latter in 1188.
Much of Syria is desert, home to the semi-nomadic Bedouin and dotted with archaeological sites. And none can match the splendour of Palmyra, considered the jewel in the nation's tourism crown.
Palmyra is to Syria what Petra is to neighbouring Jordan and comparisons were often made between the two ancient cities as they vied to become the trading outpost along the caravan trail between the East and the Mediterranean.
While Petra is carved out of the rock of a narrow canyon, Palmyra sprawls out in an open expanse. Its rose-tinted colonnaded streets, best viewed at sunrise, imposing temples and magnificent amphitheatre hint of its grand history.
From Palmyra, the road to Damascus entails a three-hour journey. The capital is noisy and crowded but you can still savour the magic of the Middle East in its Old City.
The covered Souq al-Hamidiyya boasts shops selling textiles, household goods and souvenirs. Vendors dispense rose tea.
The covered souk leads shoppers out into the open under the arch of a Roman forum to the high walls of the Umayyad Mosque, considered the fourth holiest site in the Islamic world. Donning a hooded robe, I joined the crowds to admire the rich mosaics adorning the walls of the mosque.
Beyond the mosque are more souks. At the edge of the souks, I found Straight Street which leads to the Christian quarter, where a number of old churches stand.
The Christian quarter is a delight to stroll at night, being packed with trendy restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Next to it is the Jewish quarter, silent in contrast, with only 25 families left as most had migrated to Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War.
At this point, Kinda and Yola, two young Christian girls who were showing me around the quarter when I got lost, met a group of friends, with whom they exchanged kisses. One of the girls in the group was a young Muslim, wearing a hijab.
The warmth with which the youngsters greeted one another was testimony of the harmony that has endured between the Christians and Muslims in Syria over the past 1,200 years.
And long may it remain that way.
Mosaic magic: The impressive mosaic-panelled prayer hall in Umayyad Mosque in Damascus
5 things to do
1 Make sure you do not have an Israeli stamp in your passport if you want to gain entry to Syria.
2 Be careful when crossing roads, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo. Follow the locals, who know how to dodge the traffic and avoid being run over.
3 Take your footwear off when entering homes, Bedouin tents and mosques.
4 Try the local cuisine. Dining, especially in the courtyard restaurants of the chic Al-Jedeida district of Aleppo and the Christian quarter of Damascus, is pure pleasure. The food and wines are excellent and the service impeccable.
Try the mezzes (appetisers), which are among the best in the Middle East. Specialities include the hot but delectable mouhamarra (red peppers with walnut dip), babaganoosh (eggplant dip) and hummus (chickpeas and tahini). You can eat well for as little as US$10 (S$15) per person, including a glass of wine.
5 Visit Bosra, near the Jordanian border, two hours by bus from Damascus. It has a 2nd-century Roman theatre that hosts the biennial Bosra Festival in September.
1 Don't show affection publicly. Syrian society - comprising 90 per cent Muslims and 10 per cent Christians - is conservative and show of affection between men and women in public is frowned upon.
2 Women travellers should avoid wearing skimpy tops and shorts. Even though foreign women are not expected to cover up as in Iran, a sense of decorum is recommended. At attractions where covering up is required, such as the Umayyad Mosque, a robe will be provided.
Emirates flies to Damascus via Dubai. A 30-day return ticket costs $1,450, while airport tax is about $301. (Price is valid from now till June 30)
Qatar Airways flies there via Doha. A 30-day return ticket costs $1,337, while airport tax is about $301. (Price valid till Sept 29)
Air France flies via Paris, but travellers need to buy two tickets: one to Paris for $1,200, plus $300 airport tax; and one from Paris to Damascus, of which the price is unavailable.
Source: Misa Travel