The broken road to Damascus

By Simon Day

In 2008 aspiring Kiwi journalist Simon Day visited Syria as a tourist. Today he works for World Vision, which is working inside Syria and with refugees in the Middle East and Europe. He wrote this piece to mark the fifth anniversary of the civil war in Syria.
Children walk in a street in Damascus, Syria. Photo / AP
Children walk in a street in Damascus, Syria. Photo / AP

At the desert border crossing from Turkey into Syria, president Bashar al-Assad waved down at me from a billboard, welcoming me into his country. It was 2008, the middle of summer, hot and dusty, and I was entering a country George Bush labelled evil, and my mum said was too dangerous for me to visit.

I clenched my passport as a fat moustachioed guard took me into a small hut for what I assumed would be an interrogation. Instead it was for a friendly chat, a cup of tea, and a visa stamp. His excitement to have a New Zealander visiting Syria was greater than my initial fear of entering this apparently notorious Middle Eastern country.

It was also my first introduction to the supreme hospitality of Syrians and the first in many encounters that unveiled a beautiful people, and a stunning country. I discovered a place that was a microcosmic mosaic of thousands of years of history and culture. Syria was a romantic vision of the orient, where I could reach out and touch its past.

But next week marks five years of civil war in Syria, a conflict that ripped out the heart of its historic cities and destroyed its ancient monuments. The hope of Syria proud people is slowing decaying in refugee camps. To know what Syria looked like, to have felt the generosity of its people and witnessed the pride they had in their country, it breaks my heart to see the country destroyed, its people killed and cast out.

When I visited Syria was relatively advanced compared to many other developing countries. Literacy was high, nearly 90 per cent of children attended school. Many young people who approached me spoke English well, and were highly engaged with the world. Young women in head scarves would stop me in the streets; young men knew where New Zealand was, (and admired Angelina Jolie's beauty).

But in 2008, the year I visited Syria, a four year drought was at its peak. In rural areas crop failures reached 75 per cent. Around 800,000 farmers lost their livelihoods. The UN estimates 2 to 3 million rural Syrians were left in extreme poverty by the drought and 200,000 farmers walked off their land and migrated to the cities. But there was not nearly enough jobs for them.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

You could feel the tension that would eventually spark the uprising. Wealth had become more concentrated in the hands of a few, and the poor were struggling. Young people wanted more freedom and say over their country.

The Assad family watched down on me everywhere I went. Bashar al-Assad's portrait stared down from murals across the country. The artist had tried to paint his eyes in the piercing Syrian blue, instead they looked cold and clouded. His father, the founder of the family's 40 year dictatorship, looked on from golden framed paintings in restaurants.

From the Turkish border we drove through the desert where Aleppo, Syria's largest city, rose out of the sand. The streets were a chaotic symphony or yellow cabs, old VW Beetles, overloaded motorbikes, palm trees and animals. We stepped out into the heat that crawled over our bodies with our backpacks and were lost in the chaos and dust. Immediately we were approached by Syrians who wanted to help us find our hotel. As a Western tourist in a developing country I had sadly trained myself to trust no one and treat any offer of help as transaction. But in Syria, there was a genuine kindness to the people. They were so excited to have you in their country, fascinated about why you were visiting, desperate that you return with kind words about their home, a place they had much pride in.

Lonely Planet provided unfathomable facts on Aleppo's history: it is one one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, occupied for the last 8000 years. The boulevards of the new city were lined with palm trees; in the old city the wooden shuttered facades, ornate rusted street lamps and cobbled streets reminded me of a Paris in the desert.

At the heart of Aleppo is the towering citadel that rises high above the city. The beautiful crumbling medieval fortress was first built in the 3rd century BC. From the walls of the citadel Aleppo's dusty brick buildings stretched until the desert met the horizon. The heat hovered about the city, a brown haze that became a burning cloudless blue sky. Gazing across the rooftops clustered with rusty satellite dishes from the stone fortress high above the city I could feel it's history.

The facade of a hotel bears the signs of fighting in Maaloula, Syria, an ancient Christian town 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus. Photo / AP
The facade of a hotel bears the signs of fighting in Maaloula, Syria, an ancient Christian town 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus. Photo / AP

But today, snipers hide in Aleppo's citadel, shooting from the slits designed for archers. The ancient walls and ramparts of a castle that once repelled the Crusades are in ruins at the hands of the war. That same border crossing I used just north of the city, is now a perilous passage for refugees desperate to escape to Turkey.

Inside the maze of the Aleppo's covered souqs I was transported back into the 13th century. Tiny alleyways tunnel underground for over 1.5km into rows of shops that run beneath the stone ceiling. The cobbled streets bustled with foot traffic, donkeys and minivans in the tiny streets selling carpets and kebabs. Men congregated at cafe's to smoke waterpipes and drink tea. The women in Aleppo are more conservative and many wore black chadors. But everywhere I went I was welcomed. An old man gifted me his keffiyeh, the red and white cotton head scarf, straight off his head and showed me how to tie it properly.

A Syrian national flag waves as vehicles move slowly on a bridge during rush hour, in Damascus, Syria. Photo / AP
A Syrian national flag waves as vehicles move slowly on a bridge during rush hour, in Damascus, Syria. Photo / AP

It was lost deep in the souq that I first discovered Syria's delicious food. Sitting on a stool in the corner of dark restaurant I had smoky lamb kebab cooked over hot coals, filled with fresh herbs. All over the country tiny corner shops dropped miniature tyres of falafel into gleaming oil, then wrapped them in soft pita bread with a handful of mint and a spicy pickled chilli. On the streets of Damascus a man in a woven white skull cap folded spiced minced meat inside dough and then blasted it in an woodfired oven.

I ate hills of hummus. Each morning we would find the local juice stand with oranges piled in pyramids and bananas hanging from the roof. We dined at restaurants set in the courtyards of traditional Syrian homes, with plants climbing down the wall and a balding man sitting on the stairs playing the lute.

The Lonely Planet's introduction to Damascus told a wonderful myth of the city's supreme beauty: "on a journey from Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed cast his gaze upon Damascus but refused to enter the city because he wanted to enter paradise only once - when he died". I'm not sure where I will end up when I die, so I feel privileged to have visited one of the world's spectacular cities before it became a victim of the war.

In the stone streets of Damascus's old city I sat at low tables and drank coffee from patterned miniature cups. I ate bread straight out of fired ovens, the dough stretched over a stone before being tossed into the fire. Green vines hung across the streets. Our hotel was an old Syrian home that opened out onto a traditional courtyard where guests smoked water pipes. As you passed homes you would be invited off the street for a tea.

A view of the Greek Orthodox Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula, Syria. Photo / AP
A view of the Greek Orthodox Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula, Syria. Photo / AP

In Damascus Syria's multi-ethnic population and sectarian diversity is most obvious. While the majority of Syria is Sunni muslim, Alawite muslim, Druze, Christians, and Kurds all make up significant portions of the population. There is even a Jewish community. For thousands of years Christians and Muslims shared places of worship in the city.

But the central emblem of Damascus was Muslim, the Umayyad Mosque. The golden mosaics on the arched roofs of the shrines were blinding. It's three minarets towered above the old city. But the mosque was not just a place to pray, it was an essential social institution. Outside we sat on the cool stones of the marble floors and watched Syrian society at work. The men leant against the walls of the mosque, hidden from the heat of the sun, and laughed and gossiped all afternoon.

Young girls in head scarves careered around the courtyard and the prayer rooms. A pair of sisters, no older than six approached us for a photo. Their clear blue eyes are my lasting memory of the Syrian people, and it is those eyes that still grab me in photos and news footage of the refugees families.

Now this priceless symbol of Damascus's history and culture is mostly destroyed. Rubble layers the floors where families once prayed. It's distinctive minarets levelled. Its history lost to the war; thousands of years of beauty destroyed in the five years of conflict.

Over many millennia dozens of civilisations left their mark on Syria and created an extraordinary fusion of cultures. At the oasis of Palmyra the ruins an ancient city rose up out of the sand like a mirage. This once great metropolis was the crossroads of civilisations, the Greco-Roman-Persian architecture of its temples, amphitheatre, and columned avenues a product of its cross cultural marriage. I clambered around this perfectly preserved ruins, taking a seat at the top of the stone steps of theatre to admire this vignette of history. Caravans of camels would arrive with spices from India and silk from China. On this day camels and motorbikes weaved amongst the archeological site, offering rides to tourists.

Across the desert to the west, the Krak des Chevaliers is the most perfect vision of a castle I have ever seen. This fortress built by the Crusaders is an epic testimony to European imperialism. It sits on a hill high above the desert and I was free to roam the castle's well preserved ruins with very little supervision.

But in one of the most senseless acts of vandalism in a senseless war huge parts of Palmyra were destroyed for sport. And the Krak des Chevaliers has been hit by shells from jets and artillery leaving the castle in ruins. Thousands of years of cultural texture is being destroyed.

Syrian refugees don't want to go to Germany, they don't want to live in a camp in Jordan, or tents in Lebanon. They want to go home to Syria. They love Syria. They are proud to be Syrian. But by the time they get to go home I don't know what will be left of a once stunning country, that these proud people adored. Syrians welcomed me into their homes and their country, and until they can return home, the world must do the same.

- NZ Herald

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