By Steven Shalowitz

Several years ago, while traipsing through the ruins at Cyrene, Libya, the skies unexpectedly opened and my traveling companions and I took cover from the downpour under a beautifully preserved portal.

Our guide, Maan, a Damascus native, quickly pulled Styrofoam cups and a thermos full of hot tea from his backpack to warm his dripping charges.  As a further lift, he passed around a marquetry-inspired tin filled with tiny squares of baklava — “I brought these from home” he smiled. The taste and texture of tender phyllo pastry with a mixed-nutty center and just the right amount of honey, was a completely transformational experience.

That encounter lifted my soggy spirits, and as I schlepped through Libya over the next few weeks, I couldn’t help but think that truly, one of the highlights of the trip came out of a decorative box all the way from Damascus.

I reckoned, if that’s what Syria tasted like, I needed to go.

Ignoring warnings from people who thought I was either brave or crazy, I rattled off a list of sights to them I genuinely wanted to see in Syria. Naturally, I didn’t make known I was also going to satisfy my sweet tooth.

After my late-night Royal Jordanian flight landed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Maan greeted me with his signature smile beaming from his round face.

While he knew my love of history and archaeology, which we covered during my two and a half week visit, he also knew that a key reason for the trip had to do with what I discovered inside a box one rainy day in Libya.

And so the next morning, after meeting me at my hotel, Maan drove me to a nearby bakery for the trip’s raison d’etre.

I walked in and was captivated by a countertop filled with round tray after tray of sweets. As is the custom, the shopkeeper offered me a sample from the array of goodies spread out between us.  The morning light streamed in, illuminating each tray as if it were a work of art. While I couldn’t decipher the Arabic on each of the sweet’s descriptions, it took me no time to find the baklava.

I pointed to the appropriate tray and with years of anticipation, carefully took the wax paper cradling the tiny piece of baklava from the shopkeeper, as if it were as precious as any ancient artifact.

I held it to my nose and breathed in deeply, reveling in its fresh-baked sweetness.


Then, the moment of truth…

I bit into the rectangular sweet, and slowly chewed it, uncovering just the right proportion of a flaky top, nutty yet slightly soft center, and a moist bottom. Like that first morsel of Syrian baklava I encountered in Libya, I was sent into sugary nirvana.  I hate to think of the carbon footprint created just for that one moment, but let me tell you Al Gore, it was worth it.

Sensing I didn’t want to leave the bakery, Maan motioned for the shopkeeper to pack up a few pieces of baklava for me to take away.  The rest of the shop’s sweets I simply had to taste with my eyes.


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