Syria August 2010

It is difficult to reconcile the hideous news coverage of Bashar al-Assad turning the troops on his own people with the apparently quiet and somewhat backward country that I visited last year. Certainly, statues and billboards of the man and his father seemed to be everywhere, sometimes displaying his young family with a quasi-royal demeanour. I don’t think it is possible at this stage to see how the rebellious citizens will fare in the conflict and I can’t say that I made any particular friends in Syria but, nevertheless, I do wish them well.

Recent commentators have stated that the most important sources of income for the country are oil and tourism. Well, if tourism is the second industry then agriculture and manufacturing must be in the Dark Ages. Visas are difficult to get (impossible if you have ever been to Israel), many sites were almost deserted and Syria is on very few people’s “must see” list. It definitely wasn’t on mine, although that was before I realised quite what a treasure trove of history and archaeology it can be.

Damascus is no Isfahan. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it is sprawling and unattractive, its famous souk full of plastic and polyester. It is fair to say that in the time I had I saw only some of the main sights but even the civic centrepiece, an imposing statue of Saladin the Great, turned out to be concrete painted a dull green in an attempt to resemble bronze. However, the Umayyad Mosque, fourth holiest place in Islam*, is exquisite. Beautiful, restful and so old it is built partly out of Roman pillars, here it is at least possible to experience some of the of the weight of antiquity.

Not so beautiful though, are the peculiar brown sacks that infidel visitors are required to wear in order to be permitted entry. Considering that men were lying asleep all around the prayer halls and the things that some of Muslim women were buying in the market outside, this seemed rather insulting. For, as well as lots of plastic tat, the souq does a roaring trade in cheap, saucy underwear. The sight of chador-clad women buying this travesty of sexuality from all-male stallholders was a piece of cross-cultural education that I could have done without. The Abbasid poets, who knew a thing or two about earthly love, would be turning in their graves. Ladies, leave those nasty, uncomfortable garments alone. You will find more eroticism in the Old Testament if you know where to look.

The history of Syria goes back more than four thousand years and, while there are some absolutely splendid Roman remains and Crusader castles, caravans crossed from Mesopotamia to the Levant during the time of the Pharaohs. There are unexcavated tels (hills that are all that remain of ancient cities) dotting the horizon, mysterious tombs where wealthy merchants are depicted wearing clothing from the Far East, as yet undeciphered inscriptions and whole Byzantine cities abandoned as if the inhabitants just got up one day and walked off. In places like Bosra (not to be confused with Basra in Iraq) the contemporary dwellings have yet to approach the sophistication of their historical counterparts and hang against the ancient walls like shacks.

Amongst the many superlatives, Palmyra and Krac de Chevalier stand out for sheer jaw-dropping magnificence. There are no words to do justice to these fabulous places except perhaps to say that to go there is to feel the spirit of history standing all around you. Unfortunately, very few people will be going there for some time to come so I hope that my photographs can do justice to this fascinating but sadly abused country.

* (1) Mecca, (2) Medina, (3) Jerusalem. Since I am an infidel (and a female one at that) I will probably never get to Mecca or Medina but I was lucky enough to visit Jerusalem as a child. Oh dear, I must have forgotten about that when applying for my Syrian visa.   

Categories: Middle East

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