I went to Syria in 1996, when it was a very different country. Today I can’t help wondering about the fate of the people I met there. Everywhere we went we found locals happy to be photographed and to share some time with us. A man in a Damascus mosque stopped to chat about his time living in Liverpool. A Bedouin woman sold us bread by the side of the road. Young children in a village dragged me off to meet their mother.
Having recently unearthed and scanned the old slides from that half-forgotten trip, the memories came flooding back and I felt the need to capture them before they fly away again. In addition, I thought these old images and an account of our visit would be of interest. Syria is in the news these days for all the wrong reasons; here is the old Syria that I experienced – warm, friendly and with a fascinating history, full of wonderful sights and captivating desert landscapes.
Notes about the photography in this post: our slide scanner is not one of the best, which combined with some deterioration in the original colours etc. means that the images aren’t of the standard I would normally consider sharing, but I hope the interest level overrides any quality concerns. I have tried to identify the locations correctly but will almost certainly have got some wrong – please contact me if you spot any errors. In addition, some photos were taken by my husband Chris, and are shared with his permission.
We started our holiday in the capital, where we walked the ‘street that was straight’, visited the Omayyad Mosque and enjoyed our first taste of the delicious cuisine. Its streets were lively, its people friendly and the city was easy to love.
In the mosque we met a local man who told us he had lived for a while in Liverpool, after WW2. He had worked as a tailor there and still had fond memories of the city. He was keen to practice his rusty English and invited us to visit him the next day for tea – an offer we sadly couldn’t accept as we were leaving then on our tour of the rest of the country.
Krak des Chevaliers
From Damascus we travelled north via Maaloula, a small village where the Aramaic language of the Bible is (or at least was at that time) still spoken, and visited the Saint Sarkis Monastery there.
Then it was on to the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, perched on a hill not far from the coast. We stopped briefly for some photos at an excellent viewpoint.
Our bus then made the rather tortuous, winding climb to the top of the hill where we explored the still substantial remains of this medieval castle. T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) said of it that it was ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world’, and certainly its location and setting would be hard to beat. Thankfully, I have read that it suffered only minimal damage from the recent fighting in the country.
Marqab and Sahyun
The following day there was another impressive castle to visit, further along the coast. Marqab was also a Crusader fortress but less well-preserved than Krak des Chevaliers, although the views were if anything more spectacular.
From there we continued to the even more ruined Sahyun Castle, also known as Qal’at Salah El-Din – Saladin’s Castle. Like Krak des Chevaliers it is UNESCO listed. All three of these impressive castles seem to have come through the wars so far relatively unscathed.
View of Sahyun Castle, 1996 Sahyun Castle, 1996
Among the ruins of Ugarit we learned about one of the world’s first alphabet systems – terracotta tablets found on this site were inscribed in the 30 cuneiform letters of the Ugarit alphabet which originated around 1400 BC. Unlike hieroglyphs, these letters corresponded to sounds, not words. There is some debate though as to whether the Phoenician or Ugaritic alphabets were invented first, although it was the Phoenician that spread on trade routes throughout the Mediterranean and became the basis for first Greek and later Roman alphabets.
In Apamea we saw the Great Colonnade, nearly two kilometres in length, making it among the longest in the Roman world.
Church of Saint Simeon Stylites
This was one of my favourite sights in Syria – a beautiful ruined church surrounded by fragrant pine trees. The church dates back to the 5th century AD and was constructed on the site of the pillar of Saint Simeon Stylites. He was a fierce ascetic who found his efforts to live the reclusive life he craved thwarted by pilgrims and would-be followers. So to escape them he decided to live on a small platform atop a three-metre-high column, which was raised to 18 metres over time. From here he preached twice daily to the crowds who gathered at its foot. After his death a monastery was founded here in his name, with the column preserved at the heart of its church. When we visited, the remains of the column could still be seen, but I have read that it was lost in Russian airstrikes during the fighting here.
In Aleppo we stayed at the historic Baron’s Hotel which has been here since the early 20th century. It has had many well-known guests over the years – most famously T.E. Lawrence . We saw a copy of his unpaid bar bill displayed in the hotel and enjoyed soaking up the historical atmosphere over a drink in the bar. According to Wikipedia, the hotel has suffered damage during the civil war but is still standing.
Chris in Baron’s Hotel, 1996 Chris in the bar at Baron’s Hotel, 1996
We explored the city, and visited the citadel, a huge castle dating mainly from the medieval period, although there has been a fortification on this hill since the third century BC. The ruins are impressive, but I remember most the views of the city below us.
From Aleppo we headed east across the desert. Our adventures there must wait until my next post however …
I travelled to Syria in 1996