On our descent into Aleppo airport, the Syrian landscape was a mosaic of sparkling green mosque lights. Ibrahim, a proud Syrian Kurd and my companion on the journey from London via Beirut, was looking forward to a long-overdue reunion with his family and his fiancée. It had been six years since he had been home, and he had invited me to visit his village and offered me a bed in the family flat in Aleppo.
This was the first taste of the typical hospitality and kindness I experienced whilst travelling around Syria in October 2007. Before the start of the uprising in March 2011, on the surface at least, Syria was a peaceful country and tourism was slowly growing. Fast forward to 2019, and although visitors are slowly returning, most of these are from neighbouring Arab countries.
Visiting Syria as a solo traveller was an extraordinary experience. The country was rich in history and blessed with the warmest people that I have come across in my many years of travelling. In stark contrast to its recent history, this the Syria I want to remember and share.
Meeting Lawrence of Arabia’s barman in Aleppo
On my first day in Aleppo, I walked to a nearby hostel to arrange a day trip to the Dead Cities. Usama, the hostel’s amiable owner, was a mine of information, local and otherwise. Sharing an elaborate silver pot of tea, and speaking in hushed tones, he shared his views about Assad, an ominous keyhole view of the discontent and oppression within the country.
Killing time before the tour, I checked out the neighbouring Baron Hotel. Over its 110-year history, notable guests have included T.E. Lawrence and Agatha Christie, who wrote the first part of Murder on the Orient Express in room 203. The epitome of faded grandeur, the creaky leather sofa in its small bar had been there since the time of Lawrence. I’m not entirely unconvinced that the wizened barman that poured me my Pepsi hadn’t also added ice to Lawrence’s whiskey.
St Simeon Stylites: A Byzantine trendsetter
Joining four Russian guys, two of whom were tour guides in St. Petersburg, and one comically grumpy driver, we set off for Saint Simeon Stylites.
Saint Simeon Stylites, or Simeon the Stylite, was a 5th Century trendsetter. In an attempt to escape from his devoted followers, he lived in prayer on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years, sparking a trend amongst hermits to do likewise. These imitators became known as Stylites, from the Greek word for pillar.
Sadly, the remains of the original pillar and the adjacent church were destroyed in a Russian airstrike in 2016.
Sprawled in the hills to the south and west of Aleppo, the Dead Cities are lesser-known reminders of Syria’s past turmoil and upheaval. One of the world’s great archaeological puzzles, these comprise 780 abandoned settlements with over 2,000 churches.
In a cruel irony, these ruined cities have become home to thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war.
Aleppo’s Citadel and souk
Although Aleppo’s mighty Citadel sustained damage from airstrikes, it continues to loom defiantly over the devastated city, a testament to Arab military architecture.
The same cannot be said for the city’s souk, ravaged by fire in 2012, and the minaret of the Aleppo Great Mosque.
Sunflower seeds and water wheels: Aleppo to Hama
Relaxing with a coffee outside Al Mashrabia in Aleppo’s Christian Quarter, two young lads stopped to present me with a handful of sunflower seeds. A simple gesture without guile. I smiled and thanked them.
As enjoyable as Aleppo had been, it was time to move on and I hailed a taxi to take me to Aleppo’s bus station. With my backpack balanced precariously on his head, the taxi driver abandoned his car and escorted me across six lanes of traffic to the bus station. Spotting the Hama bus pulling out, he rushed me into the vehicle, declining payment.
Hama’s most famous sight is its creaky water wheels or Norias. These 17 wooden water wheels lining the Orontes River are believed to date back to the 4th Century BC. Built to channel water, they had gone out of use by 2009 but continued to channel tourists. Although one of these wheels was burnt down in 2014, it appears the remainder are still intact.
Apamea & Crac des Chevaliers
How often do you have an archaeological site almost to yourself? This was the case at Apamea, a Greco-Roman site 60km northwest of Hama.
Archaeological sites have been systematically looted in Syria, their treasures sold to the highest bidder on the black market. Although Isis is to blame for much looting and destruction, they are not the only perpetrators. Evidence suggests that looting at Apamea was carried out whilst it was occupied by Syrian regime forces.
Crowning a hilltop and dominating the surrounding landscape of green rolling hills, Crac des Chevaliers was an extraordinary sight. Boasting imposing turrets and towers, this was straight out of casting central for a Disney castle.
Built in the 12th Century by the Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Crac des Chevaliers was one of the best-preserved Crusader castles. Famously never conquered, the Crusaders were tricked into surrendering to Baibars Mamluk, Sultan of Egypt, in 1271.
Due to its strategic position, Crac des Chevaliers was a prize that was also fiercely fought over during the Syrian civil war. Pictures posted by the BBC show rubble-strewn courtyards, fire damage and crumbling stonework.
The ancient city of Palmyra
The ancient city of Palmyra was one of the world’s greatest historic sites. Although the ruins of this Ancient Roman trading post, spread over a 50-hectare area, had been extensively excavated and restored, it was felt Palmyra was still to give up many of her treasures.
The fate of Palmyra has been widely reported. Captured by Isis, the damage has been devastating. The famed Temple of Bel has been desecrated, the carved façade of its theatre destroyed.
But the physical damage inflicted on Palmyra has been eclipsed by the human toll. The site has been the scene of public executions and the beheading of Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old director of the Palmyra Museum. His crime? Refusing to tell Isis where the site’s artefacts had been moved to.
Damascus: The cradle of civilisation
In 2007, there was a feeling of optimism in Damascus. Culture and tourism were high on the agenda, and behind the solid high walls and heavy doors of the old Damascene properties, there was a slow-growing hotel revolution.
Beit-al-Malmlouka, the love child of May Mamarbachi was leading the charge. Over a cup of sweet, pungent coffee May told me that the hotel was the tangible product of her PhD in Islamic Architecture. Over a three-year period, she had painstakingly restored this 17th Century townhouse into a boutique hotel.
The timelessness and harmony of Damascus were reflected in its Old City, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side, and in the Umayyad Mosque at its heart. Second only to the mosques at Mecca and Medina in sanctity, worship at this site dates back almost 3,000 years. Originally a Roman temple, it was then a cathedral dedicated to St John the Baptist before conversion into a mosque in 636. But in the spirit of religious harmony, the Muslim conquerors allowed Christians to continue to worship there for 70 years.
As it was held by the government throughout the war, central Damascus has been able to retain a semblance of normality. I was delighted to learn that Beit-al-Malmlouka is still welcoming guests.
Can you travel to Syria as a tourist now?
The official line first. As of August 2019, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to Syria. The US Department of State (Bureau of Consular Affairs) has issued similar warnings.
Having said that, although not easy, it is possible to travel to some areas of Syria. However, I would consider carefully the ethics of doing so. The country has been the stage for human suffering on an almost unimaginable scale, and the oppressive forces that its people rose up against remain in power.
Visiting Syria was an enormous privilege. Given time and in a spirit of optimism, I’d like to think that the country will reform and heal and will be open to visitors. And when that time comes, I hope that you will discover for yourself the warmth and hospitality that Syrians are known for.