I went to Syria in 1996, when it was a very different country. The ruins I saw have since been devastated by acts of war and terror, and its people have suffered. I wonder what happened to the Bedouin woman who sold us bread by the side of the road; or to the village children who excitedly 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 quality I would normally consider sharing, but I hope the interest-level overrides any concerns on that front. I have tried my best to identify the locations correctly but will almost certainly have got some wrong – please contact me if you spot any errors. In addition, some were taken by my husband and are shared with his permission.
Leaving Aleppo we drove west across a barren desert. I think it was in Syria that I first fell in love with the huge open skies of desert landscapes. Some of our travelling companions were bored by these long drives in the ‘middle of nowhere’ but I felt I could sit and look out of the window quite happily for hours!
We stopped in a small village and wandered around taking photos, welcomed to do so by the local families who were happy to pose for my camera. I don’t recall seeing any men around – they must have been working elsewhere, maybe farming (we saw a lot of dried sunflowers). One little girl literally dragged me off to meet her mother who insisted I came inside to see their home. It was simply furnished, as you can imagine, apart from a large well-polished wooden wardrobe. A few photos, some torn out of newspapers and including one of President Assad, were stuck on the walls. The postcard of London that I had given the girl was proudly added to the display. Who knows what will have happened to that family in the 24 years since I met them.
We visited the ruins at Rasafa, considered to be among the most beautiful in the country. Built largely in white gypsum, many of the structures date back to Roman times, while others are of more recent Christian and later Islamic periods. The city was abandoned in the 13th century when the Mongols and Turks invaded the region.
There was more desert to cross the following day. We stopped by a Bedouin camp, where children posed shyly for photos and their mother sold us traditional bread to sample, flat and thin like a tortilla.
And there were more ruins to visit, at Doura Europos, built on an escarpment 90 metres above the Euphrates river. I looked down at the river below and had one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m actually here’ travel moments, recalling long ago history lessons about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the Fertile Crescent. Here civilisation first emerged, as nomadic early man learned to farm and settle in one place.
Palmyra has been in the news in recent years for all the wrong reasons, and I have been so sad to watch what has happened to what was my favourite by far of the ancient ruins we visited in Syria. And favourite with good reason, as Palmyra was the most extensive and among the best preserved of ancient Syrian cities. I say ‘was’; so much of the site was destroyed by ISIS during two occupations in 2015 and 2017, and its beautiful theatre used as a place of public execution. Recently however the Syrian government has been working with UNESCO to restore what can be restored and rebuild what can be rebuilt. The hope is that eventually Palmyra will recover much of its former glory.
We got our first glimpse of the ruins at sunset.
We then had a full day here, with a comprehensive tour of the site.
I was amazed that we could walk almost seamlessly from the modern city into the ruins, with no walls or entrance gates, no fees to pay. Chris and I went back later to take some more photos. We also visited the museum and took some photos on the streets of the town, marvelling that its residents lived so casually side by side with the past.
On our second morning I was up very early and returned to the ruins with some of the group to photograph the sunrise. The weather was hazy and the sunrise very brief, but no matter, it was so atmospheric to have the ruins almost completely to ourselves.
The final stop on our tour of Syria was in the Roman city of Bosra, most famous for its impressive theatre, dating from the second century AD. According to Wikipedia, this is ‘the only monument of this type with its upper gallery in the form of a covered portico which has been integrally preserved’. It was damaged during the civil war but fortunately not destroyed.
As much as the theatre I remember Bosra for the way its people lived among the Roman remains, scattered around the town – the top of a column lying casually by the roadside, or even incorporated into the walls of a simple home.
From Bosra we continued south into Jordan, but for now at least I will finish my account at the border. As will be clear from all the above, my memories of this trip are hazy in places. But I recall enough to be very sad about what has happened subsequently to this beautiful country with its friendly people, cities full of history, and sweeping desert landscapes. One day I hope to be able to return …
I travelled to Syria in 1996