A little over a year ago, I spent a week in Syria. The country was as gentle and beguiling as I’d been told, but the whole trip now feels more significant than it did at the time. Travel is an ongoing process of discovery, so when lanes along which we’ve browsed bazaars and idly shelled pistachios fall under the grimmest of state suppressions, it gives more than just pause for reflection, particularly when our memories of the place are still so fresh.
In Syria as elsewhere, the effects of the Arab Spring look set to be played out for years, likely decades. The country’s short-term future is unfathomable – certainly to me – and its current struggles have cast my experiences there, however fleeting, into a nervy new dimension. The two old brothers who sat with me in a Damascus cafe one evening, talking football in pidgin English and puffing shisha – how had their lives been affected? The teenager who insisted on buying me cups of cardamom coffee on the train out of Aleppo – what did he think of the situation? Had he seen this coming? And the toll of bodies rising weekly on the news – where did that fit into my £12.99 sightseeing guidebook?
The day I arrived in Damascus, I wrote in my notepad “Bashar everywhere”, in reference to the Mao-like omnipresence of posters and images of the president. The features of the London-educated, ramrod-straight leader gazed down from lampposts, shopfronts, restaurant walls and billboards. If this seemed telling at the time, it seems downright eerie now. Early the next morning, I pulled back my hotel curtains to see a group of government army cadets exercising on a parade ground. They were being instructed to forward roll through ankle-deep puddles. The group body language wasn’t wildly enthusiastic.
But if these were signs of somewhere under stern rule, life at street-level seemed anything but severe. Central Damascus thrummed with colour and commerce: rainbow-hued headscarves, packed ice-cream parlours and exotically garbed tea-sellers proffering cups in the souk sunbeams. Shoeshine boys and pavement entrepreneurs marked the way through the crowds onto Straight Street, along which St Paul, it’s said, first saw the holy light. Today the way was lined with shops selling mounds of warm falafels, dates and plump olives. I had an appetite and a pocket of small change. It took a long time to walk its length.
By the next evening I’d been dunked into the city’s Silk Road past at the national museum, scrubbed pink at a thick-steam hammam and wet-shaved at a backlane barbershop, where a tiny chin-nick led to a thousand apologies. I got my kicks from just strolling the spice-laden lanes of the souks. The part of the city I found most remarkable, however – and I suspect that I speak for a large number of visitors to Damascus – was the Umayyad Mosque.
Located on the site of what was formerly both a pagan temple and a Christian church, the complex today stands as one of the holiest, and most magnificent, mosques in the Muslim world. For me, its beauty lay not just in the vast dome-dotted courtyard or the 8th-century minarets but in the entrance policy – unlike any major mosque I’d previously visited, I was free to enter, wander and absorb at will, prayer hour or no prayer hour.
I sat to one side of the enormous ornate hall inside and listened as an imam addressed the cross-legged devotees next to me. I understood nothing, of course – or maybe a little something. Beaming kids charged up and down the carpets. Across a loose rope barrier, women strolled with linked arms. Hundreds of people were present, sitting in loose groups or sharing conversation. It was as much a community centre as anything else, and the hour I spent there gave me as valuable an insight into the ‘hidden’ nature of Islam as anything else I can bring to mind. I returned the next morning to the same warm corner, and soaked it all up again.
As a city, I found it intoxicating. Both Damascus and Aleppo have good claim to being the oldest urban settlements in the world, but Aleppo – with its central fort, hospitable locals and donkey-jammed souks – has the more hugger-mugger atmosphere.
Those first few days set the tone for a slow week that led me north to the city of Aleppo. The route took me via Krak des Chevaliers, a stupendous 1000-year-old crusader castle sitting high above the plains and olive groves of the Homs Valley. At the height of the European invasions, the fortress had been home to 5000 soldiers. History hangs heavy in this region. From the valley, meanwhile, it was a short bus journey to Hama, a small, likeable city with a ready smile and a river full of ancient wooden waterwheels. For the day I was there, the town centre was calm and deeply unhurried.
A matter of months later, in May 2011, the Syrian army laid siege to Hama. There have been reports of significant loss of life. In the same city, back in 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father was at the helm of a crackdown centred on Sunni Muslims that reportedly took the lives of more than 10,000 people. When I visited, this fact had been almost impossible to register. I’d found myself unable to connect such a horrific massacre with the families and whistling drink-sellers on the waterside. But how much can really be forgiven in three decades? I was seeing Syria, but in many ways not seeing it at all.
I kept heading north. At the time of writing in early June, Aleppo itself has played a relatively subdued role in the troubles, but the consensus appears to be that if its residents rise up, the country will have reached a critical tipping point. As a city, I found it intoxicating. Both Damascus and Aleppo have good claim to being the oldest urban settlements in the world, but Aleppo – with its central fort, hospitable locals and donkey-jammed souks – has the more hugger-mugger atmosphere. Its backstreets reveal traditional flatbread bakers and Armenian churches, its most famous hotel is a dusty old pile that once hosted Agatha Christie and TE Lawrence, and while it’s not without its litter-strewn eyesores, it offers a glittering trove of historical sights. In short, it was almost exactly what I’d hoped it would be. When it came time to catch the train back down south, I left reluctantly.
Syria has infinitely more pressing matters at hand than its tourist industry. The history currently being played out becomes more tragic and unsettling by the week. But the 2011 uprising is, for now, closing the book on visitors fairly firmly. Those locals I met in the tourism sector had told me of their delight at being able to remodel the country’s reputation since George W Bush had left office, and spoke passionately about wanting to promote Syria as the cradle of civilisation. I departed Damascus Airport knowing I’d barely scraped the surface – a week is just a week, after all – and vowed to return as soon as the opportunity arose again. I wanted to see Palmyra, the fabled Roman ruins. I wanted to return to Damascus and Aleppo and share more time with the people I’d meet. I wanted to head over to the coast, and venture down into the south. I still very much do. I just hope I don’t have to wait too long.