Syria

Syria’s recent history has not been kind; in its fourth year of a savage civil war, its hard to imagine a less desirable holiday destination at the moment.  Things weren’t always so. Despite the repressive Assad government, when I visited in 2004 Syria was most certainly open for tourists’ business. In a series recounting my first overseas trip, here is the email I sent from Syria, where I was travelling ten years ago this week. The light-hearted content of the correspondence reflects the difference that ten years has made in Syria, and some names have been altered to protect people’s identities.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

After my jaunt around Lebanon, I arrived by bus in Aleppo, Syria. The bus ride from Tripoli was five hours long, and two hours into it I felt nature calling. I mentioned to the bus driver that I needed a quick break and he assured me through a gaggle of Arabic that it would happen soon. In the ensuing three hours I squirmed in my seat, and once came very close to using an empty Coke bottle on one of the spare rows at the back of the bus. Through some superhuman effort I managed to hold on until we stooped at a service station about ten minutes out of Aleppo, which begs the question – what really was the point in breaking the journey?

Aleppo citadel

Aleppo citadel

In Aleppo an old family friend Albert welcomed me into his house for the weekend. His family fed and showed me around around the city of Aleppo in northern Syria for two days, in which time I visited the citadel, the new city with its luxurious homes, and the souq (covered market). We also visited the Christian quarter of Aleppo, populated by a large number of Armenian Syrians. Albert’s son Michael let me use his computer to fire off a couple of emails before taking me out for nargileh (sheesha pipe). On a Sunday morning I waved goodbye to Aleppo where it had begun raining, and struck out for the capital, Damascus.

Armenian quarter of Aleppo

Armenian quarter of Aleppo

Monday in Damascus I woke up at 5am and headed out to the ruined city at Palmyra, three hours away. The cold snap which I had narrowly avoided at Aleppo the day before struck Palmyra that morning; the mercury plunged from 24 degrees to 7 degrees, the wind picked up and it began to rain. This was the first real bad weather of my holiday, except for Singapore where it rains all the time anyway. The entire township of Palmyra looked like a scene from the movie Ice Age, and after struggling through the ruins I was soon on a bus back to Damascus via the Iraqi border. And yeah, that came as a surprise to me too! With all quiet on the western front (at least where we were), I was once again holding my bladder on the bus as we trundled towards Damascus. To make things worse Damascus was sitting on about 4 degrees Celsius.

Monumental Arch, Palmyra

Monumental Arch, Palmyra

Great Colonnade, Palmyra

Great Colonnade, Palmyra

On Tuesday I had my first hammam, or Turkish bath, experience. My guidebook suggested Hammam el-Noureddine as a “must-see” of Syria. On entering the building (which was quite beautiful), you could tell that the place reeked of unfulfilled desires, and the scrubber-guy was visibly disappointed when I was not as excited as he was about sharing the bath. Two hours of hedging my bets later, I was cleaner than I had ever felt before, and all for $8! The hammam experience also took my mind off the other event which has dominated this week; losing my bank card in Damascus. In hindsight it was probably not such a catastrophe, especially since no money went missing, but at the time it nearly ruined my holiday. It was more frustrating that it went missing in Syria which, let’s face it, is in the middle of diplomatic nowhere. I will tell you the full story when I get back, but thank you to my parents Fay and Chris, and Abdullah at my hotel for their help and support.

Hejaz Railway Station

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

In these emails I have been reporting on some of the negative points of my trip, but they have often also been the funniest parts. However I don’t know that I would return to Syria – I have found travelling here a bit frustrating for several reasons. I visited the Umayyad Mosque, which is one of Islam’s most historic sites, where non-Arabs must pay for entry because only Arabs seems to count as Muslims. The guy in front of me at the entrance was a Malaysian Muslim called Yusuf, but the ticket collector considered him a tourist rather than a Muslim (apparently you can’t be both), and charged him the entry fee. Another interesting thing about Damascus is that the traffic lights go to green/walk when the traffic is still getting their green light. Thankfully I didn’t see any fatalities. So Syria has been an interesting place; it feels like stepping into what I imagine the old Soviet Union would have been like – very bleak. The government control of public life here seems to be much tighter and much more noticeable than anywhere else I have been. In conclusion I would say that my time in Syria has been one big learning curve, and I continue in search of Shangri-La.

Downtown Damascus

Downtown Damascus

Friendly: Yes

Stange: Very

Enjoyable: Occasionally

Regrets: Never!

 

Dedicated to the memory of the up to 74,000 civilians who have been killed in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

 

The reality of the Syrian civil war

Great Mosque of Aleppo when I visited in 2004 (left), and in 2013 (right), after its destruction during the war (Image: Demotix.com)

Great Mosque of Aleppo when I visited in 2004 (left), and in 2013 (right), after its destruction during the war (Image: Demotix.com)

Nearly four years of fighting has resulted in three million refugees, people who have had to flee Syria to save their lives. Around another five million are displaced within Syria, having fled their homes but not their country. This equates to around half of the national population who are living away from their homes due to the conflict. In some refuge countries like Lebanon, up to three quarters of the refugees are women and children.

Human rights violations have been perpetrated in many parts of the country; one report alleges at least 6,000 women have been raped (including gang-rape), while another report claims 11,000 young men in detention had been systematically tortured to death, with methods ranging from strangulation to electrocution and eye-plucking. Unverified videos have emerged of men being restrained then repeatedly stabbed until they collapse, after which large slabs of concrete are used to crush their mutilated bodies. Medical supplies are restricted in many parts of the country, either due to security issues, or in order to pressure the surrender of entire cities. Syrian doctors have reported using crowbars to render surgery patients unconscious in the absence of anaesthetic.

My intention in reporting these facts is indeed to shock and to repulse; too often our news is sanitised and allows us to ignore the horror of what refugees are actually fleeing from. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is currently collecting donations to provide blankets, mattresses, tents, stoves and heaters for Syrian refugees this winter.

If you would like to donate to this worthy cause, please click here.

Comments (14)

  • jameela deen Reply

    Your post stopped me in my tracks and reminds me what I like so much about your blog your truthful and humanistic approach to travel and blogging. You’ve got loads to show us through your blog and I’ll be following. I hope we can work together one day.

    December 1, 2014 at 10:01 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      Awww thank you Jameela – very kind words from you!!! Don’t worry, we’ll be working together soon – I’m just about to fire off an email to you! Looking forward to it – and thanks for reading 🙂

      December 1, 2014 at 2:14 pm
  • Andrew Reply

    as a traveller you are so fortunate to have visited Syria when you did. It sadly will be a long time before people can visit like this again 🙁 I planned to possibly visit in 2004, but I changed plans. Now I’ve missed out. My heart goes out to the Syrian people, mere pawns between corruption and the west, ISIS and all in between.

    December 1, 2014 at 9:13 pm
  • Elena@Elena's Travelgram Reply

    Your photos of Syria are incredible. So tranquil and surreal, comparing to pictures we all have been seeing on the media lately.

    I can closely relate to the situation in Syria as there’s been a revolution and a Civil war going back in my country…and I’m so grateful my family and friends live far from where the shooting’s going on. Still, there are a lot of refugees too and it’s the volunteers and common people who support the army and give homes to those who lost them. Sometimes, I wish I could have the power to stop such terrible things from happening anywhere in the world, but unfortunately I don’t have.

    Thank you, Tim. For bringing up such an important topic!

    December 2, 2014 at 5:25 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      Thanks for reading Elena, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have my country torn apart by civil war – thank God your family and friends are safe. Thoughts and prayers with those who are suffering :/

      December 3, 2014 at 9:13 am
  • Shikha (whywasteannualleave) Reply

    Such a moving read Tim. It’s so sad to think how different it is now and how many lives have been needlessly lost since your visits. The mosques and ruins all look so beautiful.

    December 3, 2014 at 12:35 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      Thanks for reading Shikha. To look at these pictures again, ten years on, and knowing what is happening, is just so sad 🙁

      December 3, 2014 at 9:14 am
  • Emily Reply

    The photo of the mosque before and now is so heartbreaking. I hope your family friends in Aleppo are okay.

    December 3, 2014 at 6:17 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      I hope they’re ok too – I lost touch with them years ago, and tried searching them on Facebook but to no avail. I hope they had the means to escape before things got nasty :'(

      And the mosque – it is just so sad, isn’t it? There are lots of before and after shots out there, but that one, in my opinion, just sums it up. So futile :'( Thanks for reading, Emily.

      December 3, 2014 at 9:15 am
  • Catherine Reply

    Wow, how lucky you are that you got to experience Syria before the current problems started. I’d imagine you’re one of a very limited number of travel bloggers who have stepped foot in the country. Thanks for sharing such an interesting insight into the country with us 🙂

    December 3, 2014 at 7:40 am
    • Tim Blight Reply

      I feel very lucky to have seen it when I did, and even more fortunate to not be caught up in such a horrible conflict myself. Thank you for reading, Catherine.

      December 3, 2014 at 9:16 am
  • The Guy Reply

    What is happening today is beyond tragic and horrifying. We can only hope that some peace and civil life can be found soon for the many who have suffered.

    It is interesting to read of when you visited and I’m happy for you that you did.

    When I lived in Saudi Arabia in 2000 – 2001 I foolishly passed up the opportunity to visit these nearby country. I fear the chance to safely visit this country may not rise again in my life time? I do remember colleagues of the time who did visit and spoke so highly of how friendly, welcoming and kind the local people were. It sounded like it used to be a great place to visit.

    December 4, 2014 at 11:34 pm
    • Tim Blight Reply

      It’s unbelievable what is happening now :'(
      Thanks for commenting… I hope things improve to a point where you will be able to visit one day – if only for what that will mean for the Syrian people.

      December 5, 2014 at 10:02 pm

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