One of the journeys that marked my life was a 2004 three week holiday to the Middle East. It was my first time outside of Europe, and it turned out to be an amazing journey full of adventures. The fact that most places I visited do not exist anymore, makes me value my experience even more. Today Syria is facing one of its most difficult times, and perhaps this story can give some insight into the background of the current conflict.
The day I entered Syria I noticed its distinct vibe. I did expect it to be culturally different from the places I had visited before, but not to such an extent. The border post, a large concrete building, was crowded with people without no order whatsoever, you literally had to fight your way to get the entry stamp. When I finally got it, I had to go back to the vast improvised parking lot where I realized my bus was not there anymore, it didn’t go through. All of us foreigners, a small group of 8 or so, were placed into one bus that went all the way to Aleppo. I realized we had a special status, locals were checked and supervised while we were not. Even at that time there were almost no tourists, which made me feel special.
My first stop was Aleppo. The spectacular citadel on top of a hill, considered one of the oldest in the world, made a huge impression on me. It looked like a giant stone spaceship that landed on top of a round hill. Through an enormous stone gate, I had to walk on a monumental staircase above a former canal now with no water to go inside the citadel. Out of the Citadel, numerous curvy streets formed a large labyrinth resulting in a pretty dark covered Souk (market), with a rectangular patio, that of the Central Mosque. Picturesque villages and ancient ruins, such as beautiful Mesopotamian sculptures and elegant old Greek and Roman temples surrounded the city. There were so many impressive sites that it was difficult to choose which ones to visit.
I remember really well an authentic village close to Aleppo where people still lived like in the old times. Hundreds of mud houses stood in the middle of the dessert, inhabited by lively people and their animals. I was invited inside to chat while enjoying some tea. People were extremely friendly and polite, I was happy and impressed. Their houses had no furniture whatsoever, only colorful carpets on which they worked, ate and slept.
On my last day in Aleppo I met a young Syrian art historian and postgraduate researcher working in the Netherlands. He offered to guide me through the dessert in exchange for the ride to Palmyra. He talked about the country’s rich heritage and of the cruelness of the regime. According to him, in Syria any kind of political protest was forbidden and participants would mysteriously disappear.
The road to Palmyra went through a beautiful dessert crossed by the Euphrates River, with oasis and abandoned ancient fortresses. Near the road I could see groups of tents, where modern day nomads lived. Located in the middle of the dessert Palmyra itself had a very special isolated feel, hours away from any urban area. The ruins were huge, impressive and in great shape, giving you a sense of the importance of the place through the Centuries. What bewildered me the most were the vertical roman tombs, which according to my friend guide were unique in the world.
The last stop of my Syrian journey, the oldest city in the world, Damascus, didn’t disappoint me either. My hotel was a small palace in an authentic street set around a charming patio with fountains and plants. The city boosted several of this magnificent palaces leading to the Old Town. This complex structure consisted of the beautiful Souk, churches, mosques, a hammam, palaces and courtyards. The crown jewel of Islamic art sat majestically above it all: Omayyad Mosque. Inside people were praying in rows, sitting on the floor, resting, chatting, or simply contemplating its beauty. At the same time kids were running all around while pigeons were flying above them. Spectacular ornamental decorations covered the building complemented by a magnificent peristyle courtyard. It was the perfect place to relax, rest and take in such an atmospheric place, far from the hustle and bustle of the city.
I had never been in a country with such chaotic traffic, where car accidents were part of everyday life. Also, I had never seen such a dirty and smelly city, but so full of life, colors, scents and sounds. Some people were incredibly hospitable, offering tea with a smile, not wanting anything back while others where rude constantly pushing to sell anything they could. I had no interaction with women, they seemed to be completely excluded from public life. I could’ve had a better impression if it were not for the way they treated animals. I couldn’t help to think that maybe that’s how they actually treated each other. In several occasions I witnessed owners beating their animals. Using a stick they would hit their camels and donkeys on the back, legs and even face, the poor animal screaming and shouting. I simply couldn’t take the abuse and when I told them, they shrugged and ignored me or gave me unfriendly looks.
What fascinated me the most was the authenticity of Syrians, I could sense who was a genuine kind person and who was not. To me, looks, gestures, voices and body language expressed a lot, I felt I was part of that life by just being there. Sadly, I have written this text in the past tense because most of the heritage is now gone, destroyed by the very people that once I met, both victims and perpetrators of their own misfortune. I hope this text together with a few photos illustrate the beauty of this fascinating country and perhaps you feel what I felt. I also hope the current violence will soon come to an end, and maybe, just maybe we will all learn a lesson out of it.