In early 2012, I read a report about fighting in the Syrian city of Homs. I caught myself wondering if I had been there. I thought I had, but couldn’t really remember for sure. This made me wonder if in my old age, I would even remember wether or not I had been to Syria! This was one of the reasons that led me to start writing these travel stories. Less than two years after starting, I already enjoy reading about anecdotes I had almost forgotten.
As I spend a few weeks relaxing in Canada, I thought I might write about my trip to Syria in 2006, right in the middle of the Lebanon – Israel conflict. I picked Syria because very few people travel there since the onset of their civil war, and also because I found some travel notes I had written at the time. In fact, it was supposed to be a Syria-Lebanon-Jordan trip, but one country was obviously dropped from the itinerary. I only have some limited pictures I took at the time with a little point-and-shoot camera, but this will have to do until I resume my travels in 10 days.
The war broke out when I was in London, a day before my planned departure. I witnessed the effect firsthand, running into a Palestinian demonstration blasting the Saudi Government (they had condemned Hezbollah’s actions), and a Lebanese demonstration, with 8 year old boys waving Hezbollah flags. I then walked through a gay pride event!
I flew into Aleppo at night and stood in front of the immigration agent, as he asked me a long series of questions with his very limited English. I answered when I could, but often said I didn’t understand. Amusingly, he didn’t seem to care and would just move on to the next question, while puffing away at his cigarette! My travel buddy picked me up at the airport, having arrived from a different destination the day before. He had found the city’s hotels packed full of Lebanese refugees and somehow managed to find a room in a place the average traveller could never have identified as being a hotel!
This resulted in perhaps my greatest accommodation contrast in a 24h period, as I went from my suite at the Savoy in London.
To this room, much smaller than the bathroom at the previous hotel. Notice the powder on the floor; I had never seen this before, or since. Of course, the price was also quite different, $6 a night vs over $1,000 a night. In fact, the hotel in Aleppo, the taxi from the airport and all my meals the next day cost less, combined, than I had paid for a gin and tonic at the Savoy’s famed American Bar! (Note: of course I didn’t pay $1,000 for a hotel room. Because of work, I was a very frequent guest in Fairmont hotels at the time, so I used a free night and a suite upgrade voucher).
I don’t know about now, but at the time Syria could be a very inexpensive destination. Hungry and unsure what Syrians ate for breakfast, we went into a bakery and pointed at some sweets. I handed the man a small bill and he sighted, annoyed at having to give me back so much change. As I counted the bills and coins he had given me back, I realized the plate of sweet had cost 15 cents! A one hour bus ride cost me 60 cents.
The most impressive sight in Aleppo, the Citadel, renovated at great cost by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
I took this picture of downtown Aleppo from inside the Citadel. To put some perspective on history, the Citadel protecting Aleppo was about 2,000 years old when Rome was founded.
Built and re-built for thousands of years, there are unconfirmed reports the 13th Century gate was damaged by artillery fire in 2012. To think that those very same gates were once attacked by armies led by Kublai, the grandson of Genghis Khan. If you want an idea of the ingenuity of the people who built this gate, just look at where the door is located. Instead of being on the facade itself, it is recessed in a small entrance, to the right. This makes it impossible to use a battering ram on it.
Today, a great deal of the city lays in ruins. I can only wish its welcoming people a peaceful future, as soon as possible.
Syrians were indeed very welcoming and hospitable. Like in many places that see few tourists, they seemed genuinely happy people had the interest to visit their country. This also means that touts who aggressively try to sell things to tourists in souks were non-existent. To be fair, they did have a certain amount of Arab tourists, but very few westerners.
Like in many police states, the place was also extremely safe. In this country with an under-developed banking industry, transactions are conducted in cash. While changing money at a bank, I saw a man withdraw the equivalent of about $25,000 in Syrian Pounds, which produced an enormous pile of money. He simply left it on the counter, unattended, exited the bank, and returned with two plastic grocery bags, which he filled before walking out in the street. The police, while unarmed, clearly had a very tight grip on public order.
Going way off the beaten path, we visited the Dead Cities of Northern Syria. Here, Fred walks alone in the former public baths of Serjilla, a 5th century city abandoned after the Arab invasions of the 7th century.
Tombs in the more important city of Al-Barra, established in the 4th century, occupied by countless empires and abandoned in the 12th century, possibly after an earthquake. As you can imagine, we were the only people there. It was probably like visiting the ruins of Egypt in the early 19th century. No signs, no tickets, no staff, no rules, no people and no roads. We got there by giving some money to a bus driver at the end of his line, asking him to drive us a little further.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he ended up inviting us for dinner so we could meet the whole family and half the village (I’m taking the photo).
I am often asked if I get sick while travelling and my answer is generally “no”. If local residents who are not living in poverty eat it, I’ll generally eat it. However, despite the fact I was in a fancy French restaurant in Aleppo’s Christian neighbourhood, dining with wealthy Canadians living in Dubai, eating steak tartar in Syria proved to be a very bad idea. Feeling horrible, I took the train for Latakia, Syria’s only coastal resort, and booked myself in the best hotel, where I spend 2 days recovering in my air conditioned room, watching movies, and occasionally wandering out on the beach. I only met 2 or 3 other westerners, but the contrast of various Arab cultures was quite interesting. In the lobby, I saw Arab women walking past each other, one dressed in a black abaya and niqab, and the other, in a pareo and a small bikini top. Life is always more complicated than it seems from the outside.
Although I almost certainly went through Homs, I am not sure if I stayed there. But it would be the logical base from which to visit the Krak des Chevaliers, a 12th century castle built by European Crusaders. The site of many important medieval battles, it was recently recaptured by the Syrian Army, and is believed to have been damaged both in 2012 and 2013, when the rebels held it.
Strangely, I seem to have no pictures of my next stop, Damascus, the capital. Lost or never taken, I don’t know. But I did take some travel notes. I remembered going to a traditional hamman and getting a “massage” from a burly Syrian man. I left feeling not relaxed, but more like I had been in a fight and lost. However, my travel notes corrected my memory; this actually happened in Aleppo. I do, however, remember visiting the war museum. At the time, I wrote how sinister I had found it. Displaying an enemy aircraft you shot down or a ship you captured is a rather normal thing to do, even if the process of capturing it involved the death of some people. But here the museum actually focused on the unavoidable but unfortunate side of war, displaying entire walls of pictures of grieving Israelis burying their dead. Extremely morbid.
And that’s all I have or remember about Syria, apart from the best falafel sandwich I ever had, but I don’t remember in which city! And the fact that in Damascus, people were selling Hezbollah flags, t-shirts and everything else on nearly every street corner. At the time, there was possibly a little risk of the conflict spilling into Syria, but I figured in case of danger, I could throw a few hundred dollars at the problem and get someone to drive me to the Jordanian or Turkish border. Or even the very safe Iraqi Kurdistan. Needless to say, I don’t recommend doing the trip today.
Since my full-time travels never took me to South-America, maybe I’ll post some pictures and stories of my 2008 trip to Peru in the next few days. Or maybe Bolivia.