Recently I was lucky enough to travel through Syria for a week or so, taking in ancient sites I’d wanted to visit since childhood and taking a Land Rover through the Syrian desert.
Syria, as you might expect, currently shows examples of both the best and worst of humanity. A beautiful and varied landscape holds fantastic remains of ancient civilisations and a very warm and welcoming population whilst simultaneously showing scars of a terrible, long-lasting and ongoing war and its attendant economic crisis.
My first port of call was the capital, Damascus. I’d intended to fly in, but the Israelis rather inconveniently bombed the airport a couple of days beforehand, so in the end I finally drove from Beirut. I stayed at an old caravanserai in the Old City, a part of Damascus that reminded me a lot of Cairo, especially Heliopolis, with 1970s, Ottoman and Belle Epoque architecture packed side by side. Pottering round the Old City was very enjoyable and the Biblical “Street that is called Straight” took me to the soukh where I haggled for Roman and Crusader coins as a gift for my Dad.
The Grand Mosque with its attendant Roman remains and Tomb of Saladin (from which my guide indignantly claimed Lawrence of Arabia stole a golden ornament) were well worth seeing, though damage from mortar fire was obvious even here.
I also spent a couple of days in the desert south of Damascus with some of the guys from the local Land Rover Club (yes, I know, surprising or what). As you might expect, they were as welcoming, free-spirited and adventurous as Land Rover owners are worldwide, though they are really feeling the bite of international sanctions which are in place against Syria. Land Rover parts are very hard to obtain and they make do with what’s available.
It was also clear as I travelled round Syria how hard life is for everyday folk at the mo. Great crowds gathered at the local bakery near my Damascus lodgings every morning for handouts of government-subsidised bread, and whereas I’ve seen queues for black market fuel in several countries (and been in a few myself) the ones in Syria were some of the most extreme – some were several kilometres long, with folk sleeping in their cars day after day, and pushing them forward by hand as they advanced forward, having empty tanks and so being unable to drive. I felt guilty for swanning about like a tourist when folk were finding it very hard to make ends meet and put food on the table, but as locals assured me, if I could help bring tourism back to Syria by writing about it, I was helping everyone.
My route then took me across Syria towards other towns and locations – one of which I’d wanted to visit since I was wowed by it in a childhood book of castles – Krak Des Chevaliers, the Crusader fortress near Homs, described by Middle Eastern scholar T E Lawrence (who later became Lawrence of Arabia) as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”
I also passed through Aleppo and Hamra, and close by Idlib, still a stronghold of the Al Nusra Front, before returning to Damascus
Impressions of Syria? Greatly impressed by landscapes and the antiquities, but also sadness and frustration really – frustration that human politics can cause so much destruction and suffering, but throughout my travels in Syria I never met anything but friendliness and kindness (albeit mixed with puzzlement at the random appearance of this Brit in some fairly bizarre places). Definitely planning to return – I do want to see the Roman ruins at Palmyra
And from Syria I headed back to Lebanon – but that’s another story and another entry!