Three days in Syria
“Where are you from?” This question was put to us again and again during our three days in Syria in 2007. It finally got a little wearing but we couldn’t get annoyed as it was asked by people in a spirit appreciation that we had visited their country mixed with national pride. Three women over a certain age traveling alone did elicit curiosity. Were we teachers or nurses? Where were we from? – that question again! We did get a sense that our journey was being monitored through odd things that happened; our hotel booking was denied completely in Palmyra and then after rapid phone calls and shifty looks we were suddenly whisked off to rooms that had never been used before; I was detained in a back room at the airport for in-depth passport inspection; sometimes you couldn’t put your finger on it but the sense of authority was there. But throughout our time the warmth of the welcome was genuine from the people on the street and we felt safe at all times, even when walking late at night through small unlit lanes in old Damascus and encountering large groups of young men.
We had arrived on a Friday afternoon and drove from the airport past ramshackle modern buildings, crumbling French period architecture and finally into dark narrow lanes, barely wide enough for a car, to the restored old Damascene house, Dar al-Yasmin, now a boutique hotel, which was our resting place for the night.
As we stumbled out into the old city, the sun was lowering, the narrow streets thronging with people all intent on visiting the souk on a Friday night – its busiest evening. Power cables, like vines in the jungle, drooped in twisted arcs above our heads; apart from these and the electric light it felt like little had changed since Medieval times. I had an attack of the giggles as instructed to don shapeless brown robes with hoods before entering the Umayyad mosque, I thought of the mad monk from the Da Vinci Code. On our return to the souk we had glimpses into steamy tiled hammams and ducked into courtyards at random, exploring a wood-paneled library and getting a fantastic view of the illuminated mosque. Back to the market – an area for wooden kitchen implements gave way to shops with piles of knobbly hand-made soaps, then a street entirely devoted to perfume. Dried fruit, wedding attire, a lane of bras and masses of jewellery – we lost all sense of direction and wandered with the crowd through tiny alleyways until stalls packed up, shops closed their shutters and the streets became dark and still.
After a breakfast of labneh, olives, fruit and bread in the tiled courtyard of our hotel we met our driver. A trip to Palmyra had been a dream ever since reading A Scandalous Life: the biography of Jane Digby by Mary Lovell. As the only car for miles on a lonely road through barren desert fringed with hills, the vulnerability of people taking the journey of old became vividly clear. The courage and endurance needed by Lady Jane Digby was incredible as she led caravans of camels and travellers for seven days through this bleak landscape where marauding bandits were both real and probable. Luckily for us, it took just over two hours by car and, bypassing the huge tourist hotel on the outskirts, and negotiating the slightly strange reception at our the Hotel Villa Palmyra (including someone using a pneumatic drill in the middle of the foyer floor) we set off for the Roman ruins. The desert haze could not mar the beauty of these golden stones and splendour of the extensive site - one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world during the 1st and 2nd centuries.
Leaving the heat of the desert the next day, we drove through miles of fields and small holdings, every inch planted with fruit and vegetables. The road climbed, the clouds drew in and we were nearly knocked off our feet by the strong, cold wind as we entered Krak des Chevaliers, a crusader fort overlooking the border into Lebanon. A large party of school children and women plus the odd camel were milling around the entrance and they seemed to find our appearance incredibly amusing indicated by much pointing and laughing. It’s extraordinary how this vast medieval castle is so well-preserved as it dates from around 1140 and has survived a succession of different occupiers and an earthquake. As I admired the framed view across into Northern Lebanon through a Medieval window frame, I didn’t imagine that a few years later I would be gazing in the other direction while on my charity trek.
My traveling companions both started dozing during the next leg of the journey and I was tempted to shake them awake as the modern highway flanked mountains that a geologist would have loved, barren, layered and multi-coloured. Maalula was nestled on a high plateau between two peaks, a small town with a monastery where the inhabitants still speak Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke). The church of St Sergius was a small, still, peaceful jewel filled with very old icons (and thought to be the oldest chapel in the world).
Completing the triangle we drove back to Damascus and luxuriated in the crisp, white sheets and the most comfortable beds in the world at the Four Seasons (not budget but a considerably lower rate than in other cities) before flying home the next day. Syrian currency is not allowed out of the country so I suggested that we make the taxi driver’s day by giving him a huge tip with the rest of our money. The unexpected departure tax was therefore a very annoying thing to encounter!
Piecing this trip together from my memory and recording it after five years has been motivated by recent shocking and heart-rending events in Syria.