'Welcome to Syria' banner
History,  Syria

Once upon a time in Syria: part one

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.

Men in the courtyard of a mosque
Chris with our new friend at the mosque in Damascus, 1996

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.

Damascus

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.

Ugarit

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.

Apamea

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.

Ruined church
Remains of the pillar, Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, 1996

Aleppo

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.

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

21 Comments

  • frejatravels

    You did manage to get to a lot of places around Syria – more than me. I wanted to get back on a spring break to avoid the heat I had during the summer. but then things changed before I made it back there. Now it seems like a long time into the future before heading back.

  • TheRamblingWombat

    I am glad you have preserved your memories and photos in this way. I have not visited this part of the world at all, not because I didn’t want to but rather I went elsewhere planning to go here later. Well later hasn’t happened to a large degree due to events in the Middle East. I still hope to go at some point but know it will not be the same. I regret not going earlier now but doing so would have been at the expense of not visiting other wonderful places.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know exactly what you mean about going elsewhere at the expense of this region – I feel the same way about Libya. I always wanted to go, didn’t get around to it, and now even if it becomes possible again it won’t be quite the same. Nevertheless if you should ever get the chance to visit Syria in the future, do!

  • thebeerwanderer

    Echoing many thoughts that you were lucky (and smart) to go when you did. We often thought about it but it never came to pass. Great to see some shots of what it was like.

  • Ali Zingstra

    Great story and pictures. Those days look so far away. So sad what happens to the country. I visited Syria in 1984.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Ali and thank you for reading 🙂 Yes, I would have expected that you would have visited and liked Syria. I’ll have more about the desert regions in part two – I imagine that like me you loved that part as I know you share my fondness for deserts!

  • Lesley Russell

    I’m sure doing this aroused the emotions in you that I felt as I sorted and scanned the photos I had taken on my Syrian travels and set them into photo books where every page tells a story and holds a memory of this wonderful land and its beautiful people. Sharing your memories adds another dimension to the story of Syria beyond the headlines and images of war and tragedy that have filled the last decade and become just about the only thing so many people know about the country. Waiting now for the next chapter!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Lesley – I know you share many similar memories of Syria as it was then. And yes, it was very much my aim to show that there is much more to the country than the fighting that we have heard about in recent years. I hope one day in the future people will again be able to see it as we saw it. Part two to follow in a couple of days I hope!

  • Anna

    It saddens me so much that the Syria I always dreamt of visiting is not the one I will get to see. Even though time is on my side all the amazing historical things I wanted to see are lost. Thanks for sharing your photos and thoughts with us. X

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Nevertheless I hope you get to go one day Anna. While much has been destroyed, I understand much remains to be seen and there is work already started to restore parts of Palmyra, for instance. I have read a blog on TravellersPoint from one traveller who has visited quite recently despite the challenges of doing so.

      • Anna

        Yes.. We visit countries that only 25 years ago were in wars, so maybe when I’m an oldie there will be the chance of doing a bus tour of Syria! 😂

  • Nemorino

    It’s heartbreaking to read about how Syria used to be, knowing the state it is in now. Good that you saw it then, and kept your photos.

  • Sami

    Thank you for the beautiful description and exceptionally artistic photos, I come from Syria (Aleppo). Unfortunately a lot of the beautiful places you’ve mentioned are ruined now during the crazy aforementioned war including Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, old City Bazars in Aleppo and important sections of Palmyra.
    waiting for part 2.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for those kind compliments Sami. It’s been a pleasure to dust off those old photos and revisit Syria in my memories. What has happened there since then is so sad. I hope the country can rebuild one day.

      Palmyra will feature in part two, as will Bosra and elsewhere.

  • Easymalc

    I think you’ve given a perfect example here of why you need a personal website. All those old slides gathering dust have now been put to good use – for you, even they don’t reach out to a wider audience – but I’m sure they will in time. It’s surprising how many hits you’ll get without even realising it.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for all the encouragement Malcolm. I enjoyed pulling this post together and reflecting on this long-ago trip. Part two will follow in a few days if you’re interested.

  • starship VT

    Sarah, thanks for posting this interesting retrospective of Syria. There certainly is a lot of history here and I think seeing the Krak des Chevaliers, and St. Simeon’s would be fascinating. To know that you stayed in the same hotel as T. E. Lawrence would really be quite a thrill! I think your photos from the scanned slides turned out fine!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      HI Sylvia, I’m so pleased you enjoyed this 🙂 If only travel to Syria were possible nowadays I think from your writing about Morocco that it would really appeal to you. And thanks for the nice words about the slides. I did spend quite some time cleaning up the scans so hopefully they do look OK – certainly enough so to give a good idea of all the places we saw.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

%d bloggers like this: