Jenny W-Peacock reflects on a holiday to Syria in 2007, and laments the destruction of a beautiful, ancient country
Ted and I visited Syria in 2007, four years before the destruction of the country and the genocide of its citizens by the Assad family. At that time, it was rarely visited by non-Arab tourists – a secular society, whose people were mainly middle class, educated and interested in the outside world. Despite its ancient history, the infrastructure was modern – excellent motorways and a hydro-electric dam on the River Euphrates.
Our tour started in Damascus, with its mixed Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. We visited the Roman Forum, where Saul was the Governor-in-Charge – subsequently his conversion to Christianity on “The Road to Damascus” and new name of Paul has coined the phrase “A Damascene moment”. We saw the magnificent Umayyad Mosque containing the grave of John the Baptist (I was totally robed in black as a mark of respect). Muslim history is also represented in the city, with the tomb of Saladin (a hero to the Arabs through forcing the Crusaders out of the Holy Land). The Railway Station and Souk reminded us of Lawrence of Arabia – the roof of the Souk is peppered with bullet holes sustained in WWI when the Arab and British armies entered Damascus. During our stay we had a most interesting conversation with an Arab lawyer from Iraq, who explained the difference between our cultures vis a vis loyalties. The Arab puts his family first, his tribe second and his nation third. In the West our loyalty is first to our nation, we have no tribes (except, he understood, the Scottish clans!) and third to our families. We rarely care for the elderly in our own homes as part of the extended family.
We continued towards Aleppo, the second city of Syria, stopping at the huge Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, restored by the French in the 1920’s (imagine Windsor Castle on top of a mountain!) and also saw the city of Homs, known for its water wheels. We stopped by the sea at Ugarit, an ancient site famous for being the first place where alphabetic and musical notations were found on clay tablets dating from 4,000 B.C. In Aleppo we went to Barons Hotel, the headquarters of T.E. Lawrence, who forgot to pay his bar bill – £72 in 1919 – he must have had numerous drinking companions! The bill is framed and hangs on the wall awaiting payment.
Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Nile” whilst staying at Barons Hotel with her husband, an eminent archaeologist. On the outskirts of Aleppo is the pilgrimage centre of St. Simeon – a Christian ascetic. He lived on top of a 60ft high pillar for the last 30 years of his life to prevent people from touching him – he was a cult figure during his lifetime. One wonders if cult figures nowadays would go to such extremes! The Aleppo Souk is the biggest in the Middle East and famous for its carpets – the Armenian salesmen were in a class of their own! A not-to-be-repeated experience was a visit to the Hamam (Turkish steam bath and massage). Lying on a marble slab we were subjected to an extremely vigorous massage and scrub with a none too clean brush!
We travelled east towards the sealed Iraqi border alongside the River Euphrates. Being a Muslim Holy Day, families were picnicking by the river and, according to tradition, we (as strangers) were invited to join them and share their mint tea and sweet biscuits. We often wonder what has happened to them and the other kind people we met. It is worth reflecting that this typical Arab hospitality is often forgotten when our news is dominated by the actions of ISIS fanatics.
Our final stop, and the most impressive of the ancient places we visited, was Palmyra – an enormous Roman city in the heart of the desert with huge, virtually complete temples and columns. These were destroyed and the innocent archaeologists working on site executed by ISIS.
Sadly, it will be years before tourists can return to Syria and enjoy the friendliness of the people, the magnificence of its buildings and its remarkable history.