To write about visiting Syria before the war is a little like writing a eulogy for a funeral.
Trite sentences are trotted out to describe what a lovely place the country once was, how much the past will be missed and how hard the future now seems.
I visited a year or so before the start of the war. I flew to Damascus alone in preparation to meet my friend who had travelled up from Lebanon and I could see him waving at me as I retrieved my dust-soaked luggage from the carousel.
“There are some incredible restaurants here,” were his first words to me. “And the people! They are so friendly!”
I need to be honest now. I was slightly apprehensive about the welcome I would receive. If someone said the words “pasty”, “freckled” and “has an almost translucent skin tone but at times goes an alarming shade of red much like a blood clot” my face would immediately appear in one’s mind. My friend, however, could pass for Syrian and I wasn’t sure if people would assume we were a couple and, if so, how they would take it.
In the event, I didn’t have to worry. Tourists – particularly blonde ones – were few and far between but didn’t elicit any hostile glances; just the occasional inquisitive stare.
We headed immediately for the ancient souk where stallholders have proclaimed their wares from ancient alcoves and customers have sipped sweet tea perched on splintered chairs for millennia. Nothing appeared to have changed. I spotted an ice cream shop and the proprietor gave me a wink and an extra scoop of the cold stuff before sprinkling pistachio nuts over the top. A good start in my books.
Actually, food seemed to be a theme of the trip. The scent of freshly baked croissants hung heavy in the humid air as each twist in the souk would reveal the rather incongruous sight of neatly twisted dough – so often associated with French boulangeries – laid out under the Middle Eastern sun.
Food also features as one of my fondest memories of the country. We were taking a taxi from the train station in Aleppo to the town centre. The taxi driver informed us that we would be passing his cousin’s sweet shop and could we please say hello? We agreed and, as we pulled up to the shop, a man emerged staggering with the weight of sweets he’d just scooped up into his arms. He gesticulated that we should open the window and then he poured the golden-wrapped chocolates, toffees and boiled sugar sweets into the car so they cascaded into our laps and down our legs into the foot well before shouting a greeting and disappearing again.
But I digress. Back in Damascus I was decked out in a brown hooded cloak to visit the sacred Umayyad Mosque (required clothing for a non-Muslim woman) and slunk about in the shadows trying to avoid the oppressive heat. As I stepped out of the doorway, I enjoyed my first (and, I suspect, last) taste of fame as a crowd of women holding their phones towards me snapped pics of the rapidly-reddening tourist dressed as a low-rent monk.
From Damascus we caught an extremely slick and modern train to Aleppo (top tip: never get off the train to buy food. Aforementioned train will suddenly start off without you and one will be required to run down the platform shouting and swearing before grabbing on to the door and swinging oneself inside in front of a gaggle of bemused families).
In Aleppo we visited the mighty citadel – one of the largest and oldest in the world and now, unfortunately, severely damaged – and bought scarves the colour of a summer’s dawn in the souk. The next day we drove to Homs to see the famous creaking water wheels or ‘norias’ before scrambling over the formidable ruins of the Crusaders castle Krak de Chevaliers. There are no barriers, ‘keep off the grass’ signs or stern attendants here; we could wander as we pleased gulping in the magnificent views.
I’ve left the most breath-taking monument until last. On our last day we took a taxi deep into the desert and were chatting amiably as we approached a ridge in the car. We were both silenced as we drew up and spotted the most perfect Roman city squatting in the sand. It was as though the ruins had been placed there from outer space such was the lack of modern development or people around. The place was utterly deserted on first glance although one or two guides soon emerged from behind bleached corinithian columns offering their services.
We agreed a price with one of them and then sped about the site on the back of his motorbike as he told us about each extraordinary building, water pipe (so intact! So straight!) and mosaic that we passed. With our minds leaking from our ears at the incredible place we had just witnessed, we took tea resting on ornately-woven carpets in the shade of an olive tree. A diminutive young man came over to greet us. “Top camel jockey,” explained our guide. He then asked where we were from and spoke rapturously about Shakespeare, correcting me when I confused character-names in Othello.
I wonder where our guide and the camel jockey is now. I wonder what is left of the truly wonderful Palmyra.
Listen, Syria is far from extinct and the essence of the country is still there. It will take time to be rebuilt but I am confident it will happen. In the meantime, let’s keep the pre-war memories alive. As Anthony Dowson so succinctly says: “Speak of me as you have always done/ Remember the good times, laughter, and fun.”