This Is What It Was Like To Visit Syria Before The War
We had our visas but we were nervous. We had not yet been okayed to enter Syria and our Turkish van and driver had returned to Turkey. The minutes dragged as we tried to glimpse Meli, our Turkish guide, through gaps in the shaded windows of the Syrian border station. Would they be more responsive to a Muslim guide from Turkey than to American heathens? Might they send us back? Jail us? We hovered in the sunny, treeless parking lot, trying not to look too American.
It was April of 2011 and our group had shrunk from 12 to 8 as people canceled out of this tour after the State Department issued a warning that they could no longer guarantee our safety in a country on the verge of war. But the trip was on. If Meli, forceful in spite of her almost 5′ 0″ height, was willing to take us, we were willing to go.
We watched a gardener ineptly pruning roses outside the customs building. “Think of the shape of a chalice,” I recalled from learning to prune my own roses at home in Seattle. Finally, Meli came out of the building with our passports stamped for entry.
I had chosen Syria for several reasons. Going back years, I read Freya Stark’s books describing her trips through Syria while working for the British government during WWII. Her depictions in Letters from Syria fueled my enthusiasm. Also, I have always been drawn to deserts and hot sun where the past is alive.
The trip was organized by Turkish citizen and guide Meli Seval, and I would follow her anywhere to learn about culture and history of the countries of the Fertile Crescent. She has an impressive knowledge of Muslim and Christian religions and had shepherded us on four trips since we met in 1994 when she led a Rick Steves’ tour of Western Turkey.
The advent of the “Arab Spring” of 2011, when a series of uprisings brought the possibility of change in Middle Eastern and North African undemocratic governments, gave us the chance to see part of this world. We booked the eight-day trip to Syria with extensions to Jordan and Egypt. We would see the ancient sites and meet their inheritors. As we explored these countries, we would be transformed as we are by all of our journeys with Meli as to how small the world is and how much we share with those who live in places where we see history reflected every day.
Once we cleared customs, Meli introduced us to our Syrian guide, Aiman, and our driver, Mohammed. Aiman had a broad, clean-shaven chin, short, dark hair and a serious countenance hiding his good sense of humor. He spoke English well despite never having visited the West. Of medium height and stocky, he dressed in dark slacks and a white long-sleeved shirt. He was gracious and serene, protective of us. Each time we arrived at a new site, Aiman would get our attention by prefacing his words: “This is important.”
We piled into Mohammed’s van and headed for Aleppo, stopping at the nearby Bab al-Hawa (Gate of the Winds) which lies between Turkey and Syria, an archway over the old Roman road that led to the ancient capital of Antakya where we’d spent the previous night. We marveled that the archway was still standing after millennia. We strolled along the weathered, dust-colored stone blocks as though we were pilgrims from 2,000 years ago making our way through the Roman province or, more recently, walking with another intrepid British author and archeologist of the Near East, Gertrude Bell, who was here in 1905 and wrote The Desert and the Sown.
Our next stop, surprisingly, was a cathedral less than an hour northwest of Aleppo dedicated to Saint Simon. A devout Muslim country and here we were at an Orthodox Christian church. Churches are not so unusual in Syria: Once we reached Aleppo, we saw active Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches — over 40 listed at the time we were there. But the focus on the next day in Syria was a trip to the 14th-century Great Mosque of Aleppo with its ivory enriched, wooden pulpit in the Prayer Hall. The minaret tower survived an earlier fire so it is older, dating from the 11th century. Each of its five tiers was incised with script from the Koran.
When we toured the Great Mosque in Aleppo, the women in our group were required to dress in full abaya, head to toe, in skirts and long head coverings exposing only our faces. These sweetly-flowered cotton nightie-like garments were available at the entrance and we made a fetching picture, like a slumber party of nuns. The Central Courtyard resembled an amusement park; we saw women washing and children playing ball while the men chatted and smoked the narghile or hookah.
“Let’s get going,” Aiman said, herding us back to the van through the narrow alleys for our last night in Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and rife with medieval Islamic atmosphere. Our tiled 15th-century house in the old quarter of the city was marked by giant bronze doors. The bathroom had a tub carved of marble, as comfortable now as when originally installed. I drew a steamy bath. Although short in length, its pleasing curves fitted the human body like a marble Tempurpedic.
Everywhere we went in Syria in 2011, from the smallest café to the fanciest restaurant, from kitchen supply store to scarf shop, we saw prominently displayed photos of the weak-chinned ophthalmologist president, Bashar el-Assad. I didn’t know if this was a politically savvy decision or a mark of respect, or both. It was particularly disconcerting to see his face stuck up in a tree at the tea stand in Palmyra where we stopped for refreshments.
I remember trying to avoid the tout on the motorbike at the expansive site of Palmyra who finally caught up with me and sold me a silver necklace. It cost about $6 but, at the time, I just wanted to drink in my surroundings without being hounded to shop. He had maybe three or four pieces of jewelry on offer hidden in the pockets of his baggy djellaba. Once I bought the necklace, other motorbikes appeared out of nowhere with offers of matching earrings and bracelets. I resisted and continued my trek through the ruins.
Palmyra was ruled by Zenobia in the 3rd Century and we toasted her at the site. According to Edward Gibbon in his 18th Century classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Queen “Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness . . .”
The sun was setting and the rays caught on the golden limestone Tower of Bel as it slipped behind the horizon. The magical structures seem to glow impossibly bright in the waning light. Dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel in 32 A.D., the temple was one of the best preserved structures at Palmyra.
We only saw few other tourists on this trip. Occasionally, we would encounter a local family on a picnic or a few Europeans, but we did not see any other Western visitors during our time in the country. Basking in our good fortune to have these spectacular sites to ourselves, we did not dwell on why this was so until the sixth day of our trip. Departing in the morning, Aiman, whose cell phone number had been given by tour members registering with the State Department, received a text message from the IRC Damascus (International Red Cross): “Independence Day rally currently in Ummawiyeen Circle. Even peaceful rallies may be unpredictable. Be aware of surroundings.” We would be in the heart of the city for our final night in Syria.
Later on, as we traveled north, we noticed Aiman continuously on the phone. We watched without understanding as he took calls and murmured to Meli. We were planning to spend the night in Hama just north of the city of Homs. The area is surrounded by vast, lush fields of wheat, potatoes, and nut and olive trees as it has been for millennia. The noria, or water wheels, of Hama have been used for 600 years to lift the water from the River Orontes up to aqueducts to irrigate these fields and provide drinking water. Only 13 of the 30 original water wheels, each about 30 to 40 feet in diameter, remained at the time of our visit. When we drove into town to see them, we were forced to turn back by police barricades.
“No photos,” ordered Aiman when he saw some of our photographers trying to snap surreptitious shots of the riot-gear clad police through the windows. After awkward U-turns in the narrow streets of Hama, our driver Mohammed took us back to the highway. We found a roadside hotel in Maraat al Numan for the night and attempted to see the water wheels the next morning. The streets were quiet and we made our way without incident to the river.
“Look at the size of them!” I said. Although the wheels were not turning with their characteristic moaning sound, we were awed by their girth and width as the River Orontes flowed along its northbound course toward Turkey.
We continued on to Damascus where our State Department messages and concerned phone calls from home multiplied. Reassuring anxious family by email and telephone, we persevered, enjoying our final days with steam baths at the hammam and shopping before leaving Syria, driving south to Jordan.
As Mark Twain said in The Innocents Abroad in 1869, “To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality . . .”
We travel to connect with other cultures, to view history first-hand and sometimes see it in the making as we did in Syria. We recall Palmyra from the road above the now-bombed site where we toasted past civilizations. The Tower of Bel, along with a number of other structures, is gone, blown up and shattered leaving only our photos, our memories.
The UNESCO world heritage site of the Great Mosque no longer has its beautiful minaret. I feel sad as I read about its destruction in the news.
President Bashar Assad’s government and the rebels trying to overthrow him accused each other of being to blame for the destruction to the Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site and centerpiece of Aleppo’s walled Old City.
“This is like blowing up the Taj Mahal or destroying the Acropolis in Athens. This mosque is a living sanctuary,” said Helga Seeden, a professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut. “This is a disaster. In terms of heritage, this is the worst I’ve seen in Syria. I’m horrified.”
The border crossing at which we waited while the man pruned roses near the Bab al-Hawa gate is now closed on the Turkish side.
Often I think of drinking juice and eating cookies with Aiman and his family in their home in Aleppo, an apartment now probably rubble. We could see ourselves in them: the gentle joking between the two brothers, the fondness of his daughter for her dad, his wife Safa’s gentle smile and hug for me when we left. As they brought us into their circle, they broadened our own.
Throughout our travels in Syria, I was struck by the generosity of the people in the brief conversations we shared in markets or restaurants where we heard various Syrians express the same sentiment.
“We welcome you as American people although we may not like what your government does,” a scarf vendor explained to us.
When I started writing this piece last fall, the number of Syrians killed was said by the United Nations to be about 125,000 people; now it is closer to 500,000 with 4,000,000 displaced in Turkey or Europe while 6.36 million people have no home within the country. The life expectancy has dropped from 70 in 2010 to 55.4 in 2015, according to The Guardian.
“Exhausted Syrian refugees swim ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos,” droned the television news reporter as we watch in our Seattle living room recently. The refugee crisis for Syrians trying to enter Europe sounds a personal note as we learn of Aiman and his family progressing from the refugee camp in Turkey to an apartment in Izmir and finally on to transient quarters in Holland.
His Facebook update reads: “I lived in the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. But now I’m lost in no where.“
We are rooting for him and for all of those fleeing the violence of war.
[Image #1 and #3 via Mike Dedrick, and Image #2 via Mark Lammers]
Mary Kay Feather is a Seattle native who has one foot in the jetway bridge. A retired reference librarian, she is a graduate of Martha Gies’s Traveler’s Mind Workshop and studies at Richard Hugo House. Her occasional writing can be found on Featherbooks.net.