Roman columns and other ruins
History,  Syria

Once upon a time in Syria: part two

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.

Desert roads

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!

Petrol pump by a desert road
Crossing the Syrian desert, 1996

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.

  • Small mud brick houses
  • White-washed adobe house
  • Adobe walls, woman pushing a wheelbarrow
  • Girl in a yellow dress with toddler
  • Girl in a red dress
  • Mother holding baby in front of red blanket
  • Donkey standing by a wall

Rasafa

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.

Doura Europos

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

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.

Roman columns against a sunset sky
Palmyra sunset, 1996

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.

  • Man on bike passing souvenir shop
  • Woman washing clothes under a street fountain
  • Decorated tricycle
  • Restaurant sign
  • Colourful supermarket sign

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.

Bosra

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.

Dusty street with broken columns
Street in Bosra, 1996

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

19 Comments

  • TheRamblingWombat

    It upsets me greatly that many of the sites here and elsewhere have been destroyed, totally unnecessarily. I like your comment ‘sit and look out of the window quite happily for hours!’ – since coming to Australia I have become very accustomed to it so luckily I enjoy it and think nothing of it any more.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it’s so sad to think of all that has been lost 🙁 I have never travelled in the Australian Outback but I can well imagine that it helps to have the same fascination with big empty spaces!

  • Easymalc

    It’s such a shame what happened at Palmyra. Yet another example of people trying to erase history. At least you’ve got some great pictures for posterity, let alone your own memories

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it’s good to have these photos, and there are plenty more around on the web. Hopefully some at least of the buildings and monuments at Palmyra, and elsewhere, can be restored. Check out the link in my reply to Don to see one example of what they are already doing. It will never be the same however.

  • starship VT

    Wonderful account of your time in Syria, Sarah. Your visit there must have been early on in terms of Syria being a tourist destination. The ancient Roman ruins there are such a treasure, and like you, I think it’s sad to think of what has happened there to these and of course to the people, particularly the children. I took special notice of the facial tattoos of the woman who sold you bread. I had done some earlier reading on the history and meaning of Berber women’s tattoos (across northern Africa) when we were planning our visit to Morocco; but, didn’t know the tradition was so widely spread as to include Bedouin women in Syria. Very interesting! Enjoyed all your photos.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Sylvia! I’m not sure our tour was that pioneering actually – I know Lesley (see below) went about ten years before we did so they were certainly receiving tourists in the 1980s 🙂 That’s really interesting about the tattoos – I hadn’t really considered that they would have a meaning beyond being decorative.

      • Lesley Russell

        You got there before us, Sarah. Our first visit was in ‘98, not an organised tour though – we drove ourselves around on each of the first three trips we made. Our last visit, in 2004, was with a group but I organised it all over the internet with a Syrian tourist company, choosing our itinerary and hotels myself based on past experiences and places we hadn’t been to. They did a fantastic job for us. Each time we went we noticed changes in the tourism infrastructure, numbers increasing in the main spots, but still very low and so often we were the only visitors at a site. The future seemed so promising. One change we regretted was in Palmyra where we stayed at the Zenobia Hotel. The first time we were there , the terrace tables were the capitals of Roman columns – on our last visit they had been replaced by modern plastic garden furniture – nothing like as romantic!

      • starship VT

        As I understood it, tattoos actually have, in some cases, little to do with adornment. They most often convey tribal identification, marital status, symbols for protection from evil spirits, etc.,. The most interesting info. I read indicated that during the French Protectorate era in Morocco, parents would have their young daughters tattooed because they were often kidnapped and the tattoos were sort of like a road map of identification so that would tell someone where the girl was from/should be returned to. Now tattoos are much less common as in Islam it is considered unacceptable to mar the body. I think there is a woman who has done an in-depth study of women’s facial tattoos.

  • Lesleyx

    I can never get enough of other people’s view of Syria, and I have yet to find anyone who hasn’t come away with the most positive memories. I actually think the iffy quality of the reproduction of old photos adds an extra dimension to these memories. You have added to that store. Have you read “From the Holy Mountain” by William Dalrymple? That was the book that set me off wanting to go there.

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

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