These days, when we think of Syria the first things that spring to mind are TV images of a country destroyed by civil war, a humanitarian ‘ground zero’ and a place to avoid at all costs. But, decade ago Syria was all so different. Bay’s Nick Smith takes a trip back in time to a one of the treasures of the Middle East…
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start. These days, it’s not a very good idea to go to Syria unless you have to. In fact, the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against ‘all travel to Syria’, while British nationals already there ‘should leave by any practical means.’ This is, of course, because Syria is a highly unstable place these days. Civil war has been raging in Syria for more than eight years now, creating one of the most urgent humanitarian crises of the 21st century. Although there are reports starting to circulate that some of the bigger cities, such as the capital Damascus, are relatively calm, you really don’t want to take any bets on that. Throughout millennia of history Damascus has never been particularly safe, and for the moment at least, even if you are the most risk-taking of sightseers, the wisest course of action is to stay away.
I say ‘for the moment’ because things change. When I first started roaming the planet, China and Russia were shrouded in mystery and distinctly closed books to tourists, while foreign nationals dispatched to these lands for business or diplomatic reasons were routinely imprisoned as spies, or worse. Today, you will be welcomed as a guest in both of these countries, though whether you will actually want to go to either of them is another matter entirely. When it comes to Syria, if you want to see the ruins of Palmyra, the ancient city of Aleppo, the crusader citadels such as the Krak des Chevaliers, or photograph the fabled Pillar of Simeon Stylites, you’ll have to wait. Even when the country’s doors are flung open to tourists again, be prepared for the possibility that much of its heritage will have been destroyed by the war. Because even the ruins are now in ruins.
But a decade ago it was all so different. Going to Syria, though never for the faint-hearted, was an enter-prise you could undertake with a degree of confidence that you would return in one piece, especially if you had a local guide. And so, it was with an air of excitement rather than caution that I boarded my British Airways flight out of Heathrow for my five-hour flight that would take me to another world entirely. My first port of call was Damascus itself that, like so many of these ancient middle eastern cities – and Damascus has a claim to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world – has a fascinating and labyrinthine ‘old town’ dating back to biblical times. In fact, in the whole of the three-quarters of a million words in the Bible, there is only one road mentioned by name. If you think this could be the ‘Road to Damascus’, that’s a pretty good guess. But it is, in fact, a road in Damascus that the Romans called the Via Recta or ‘Straight Street’.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the disciple Ananias has a vision in which he is told to ‘go to the street which is called Straight and, enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus.’ Saul is the original Roman name of St Paul, one-time persecutor of Christians, whose conversion is one of the key moments in the history of the Christian Church. If you turn off Straight Strreet, at the end of a small lane, you’ll find the House of Saint Ananias, the chapel where St Paul is thought to have been baptised. It’s best not to get too excited about this as there are many sites pressing the same claim. But it’s nice to get out of the fierce sun and spend a moment or two in the cool of an underground chapel that was once at street level, but which has been slowly buried under thousands of years of rock and rubbish that goes hand-in-hand with repeatably rebuilding a city.
The Street Called Straight runs east-west from the Suq-el-Kumeleh to Bab Charki, or the Gate of the Sun, dividing the Christian and Jewish quarters of the old town, and there, as you might expect, you’ll find churches, synagogues and mosques on every corner. But during my stay it was also a fashionable promenade where, in amongst the multitudes of pilgrims, there were also trendy young Damascenes in Levi’s and Ray-Bans, with iPods and mopeds, drinking coffee and watching the world go by. Outside every café were old men playing backgammon, smoking apple-scented sheesha. Perhaps these are the
same cafés that the legendary travel writer Colin Thubron hung out in when he lived in
Straight Street with a poor Arab family. In his book Mirror to Damascus – the best ever written about the city and published more than half a century ago – Thubron describes his visits to many of the thousands of mosques and public baths. He witnessed dervish dances and paid homage at the resting place of John the Baptist’s head in the Umayyad Mosque. Perhaps this last point needs to be taken with a pinch of salt because there are plenty of places to see Salome’s gift for her Dance of the Seven Veils. My first edition of Mirror to Damascus is quite special, as the author signed it when I called on him at his London home before setting off for Syria. When I wrote to Thubron I hadn’t expected a reply and, was greatly surprised when he invited me around for tea, over which he told me many stories, including that of the stuffed eagle owl perched on his desk, smuggled back from Spain “in the days when you could do that sort of thing and get away with it.”
After a few days I say good-bye to metropolitan bustle of this ancient city and embark on a clock-wise tour of Syria that was to first take me north to the Krak des Chevaliers, through Apamea and to the fabled city of Aleppo (that, believe it or not, is mentioned twice in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello). From Aleppo, I sailed east along the river Euphrates that eventually joins the Tigris and flows through what was once Mesopotamia and into modern Iraq. Running down from the Taurus mountains in Turkey, the Euphrates gets its name from the Greek meaning ‘sweet water’. And it was from here that I drove south, through the vineyards and orchards of the great riverbanks, towards the mighty ruins of Palmyra, where at the Zenobia Hotel (that is located within the ruins). I stayed in the room where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express, and whose memoir Come, Tell Me how You Live describes her life in the Syrian desert on expedition with archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan. (As an aside, once, when asked by a friend how she coped with being and archaeologist’s wife, she is said to have replied that there was nothing to it, because “the older I get, the more interested in me he becomes.”) From Palmyra, I turned south to the classical Roman remains at the wealthy city of Bosra that was part of Antioch.
I have no idea how many, if any at all, of these wonderful sites and sights remain intact. There was a time a few years ago when the British national newspapers got very worked up about the destruction of Syria’s archaeological heritage brought about by the competing militias of the civil war. Outraged letters were dispatched to the broadsheets by academics and experts wringing their hands over this loss to civilisation, and the editors lapped it up. That was until they realised that the reading public didn’t care two hoots about a load of ruins in a country so far beyond our imagination that it might as well have been in outer space. But it provided a distraction from the real, uncomfortable reports of human suffering in Syria, creating the impres-sion that in the west we cared more about a few old rocks in the desert than we did about starving children, bombed-out hospitals and civilian casualties. It became a propaganda victory of sorts to anyone wanting to seize it. And so, without a second thought for the implications of how they had reported on the civil war, or the dam-age they had done to the humanitarian efforts going on in the region, the newspapers dropped the story as though it were radioactive, and we all went back to reading drivel about B-list celebrities, footballers and royal scandals.
Of course, when I did my tour of Syria this was all in the future, and so I could hardly have known, as I walked though Palmyra, that my photographs might one day have some sort of significance as a historical record. An innocent abroad, unaware of the undercurrents of turmoil that were about to ensnare the country, I just wandered around at every sunrise and sunset, capturing the peaceful golden glow on these extraordinary ruins, scrawling page after page of notes in my leather-bound travel journal, enjoying meeting the people of a faraway land. One evening I bumped into some photographers at the Zenobia lobby bar and we walked together to the vast Tetrapylon of Palmyra, where we drank whisky and talked until dawn. At which point we set up our tripods and shot landscapes of the Valley of the
Tombs. At the Baron Hotel in Aleppo I spent an evening listening to the barman’s account of how it was in this very room that during the Second World War, Lawrence of Arabia would sit with his campaign maps, writing letters home under the same brass ceiling fan. T. E. Lawrence famously left the Baron with his bill unpaid – now proudly on display in a glass case – while the hotel itself was infamously bombed during the civil war but is said to be still standing.
As my time in Syria came to an end I returned to Damascus, back to the Street Called Straight, the roof-top restaurants and the late-night bars. With a few hours to spare before the flight back to London, I decided to pay a final visit to the House of Saint Ananias. But while walking down the lane I’m stopped by a man who invites me into his trinket shop. As I still have a few Syrian pounds left, I decide to humour him. Over sweet mint tea he tells me that he bought the shop with the money he earned as an actor. Apparently, he’d played the part of Paul in a German movie of the saint’s life, and he shows me a photograph to prove it. He rattles off a list of all the places I should have gone to, if only I’d had more time: the Armenian Church, the Jewish Quarter, the Shrine of Saint George. Eventually, after much good-natured bartering, he sells me a ‘rare Damascene dagger’ for a hundred pounds, which seemed to be far too much for something I’d probably never get past the airport security checks. But I did somehow get through Heathrow with my dagger, and it’s on my desk to this day as a reminder of a trip to a country that, for the moment, I have no realistic prospect of ever visiting again.