In 2009 I was walking around The Church of Saint Simeon, the oldest surviving Byzantine church dating back to the 5th century, about 30km northwest of Aleppo in Syria. I was enjoying the solitude in this historical location when I was befriended by a group of local kids on a school outing. They reminded me of school kids everywhere: inquisitive, friendly, giggling and keen to learn about other parts of the world; some had family living in Australia.
Starting in Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, I started an amazing, and at that time, safe ten-day Syrian holiday. My nephew Campbell, traveling in Europe, arrived by bus from Turkey to join me. I had been told to wear a wedding ring to ward off potential suitors! This didn’t seem to make any difference to the proprietor of a Palmyra restaurant who delivered a packet of dates to the hotel where we were staying ‘for the tall blond lady’!
Hiring a car and driver in Aleppo was easy; so off we headed to the Dead Cities, a series of ancient ghost towns scattered among the limestone hills that lie between the Aleppo-Hama highway in the East and the Orontes River in the west. There are apparently some 600 sites – we looked over three!!!! They date back to the time when this area was part of the great Byzantine Christian city of Antioch.
Then it was off to Palmyra (with car/driver) leaving at 0830 via Hama to look at the ancient wooden water wheels and Krak Des Chevaliers the finest crusader castle in the world. Considering it was Ramadan, the driver was fasting; fortunately we had our large bottles of water and nuts, dates and apricots; a long hot day!
Palmyra (Tadmor in Arabic) is in the heart of Syrian Desert, and is often described as the bride of the desert. Its magnificent remains (6 sq kms) tell of a heroic history during the reign of Queen Zenobia. The ruins dating to the 2nd century AD have been extensively excavated and restored. Whilst being hot it was magnificent walking from one end to the other ending up at the Temple of Bel.
Then here we were on “the road to Damascus” – quite a surreal feeling!
Some believe Damascus was the original Garden of Eden and Cain slew Abel on these slopes. Moses, Lot and even Christ himself are said to have traversed Qassioun (a mountain so integral to history, it appears in the Book of Genesis).
The Talisman Hotel sent their ‘golf cart’ to collect us (roads too narrow for cars) and we were taken into the old city. The hotel door opened into an old house refurbished as a 5 star boutique hotel – just gorgeous; 17 rooms all furnished differently in local design. We found it hard to leave each day after breakfast around the pool.
No matter where we were or whom we encountered, local greetings were never long in coming. Ahlan wa sahlan bi Sham: Welcome to Damascus. So walking around the old city was easy and safe visiting:
- Umayyad Mosque – it ranks second with Jerusalem’s Dome of the rock while in sanctity; it’s second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. It possesses a history unequalled by all three. Worship on the site dates back to the 9th century BC. Campbell had to wear a long skirt to cover his legs as he had shorts on! I had to put on a burqa.
- Straight Street or the Soug al-Hamidiyya (the souq’s were a treat in themselves with no one trying to hassel us to buy) – Hamidiyeh is a true working market used by locals as a source of everything from meat and spices to cleaning products and children’s toys. Stalls stocked with toiletries and cheap kitchenware fill laneways only metres from brilliantly lit shops selling silk brocades, inlaid chess sets and olive-wood carvings. Faces with Aramean, Hittite, Mongol, Turkish, Bedouin and Arab origins, among many others, surround me in the world’s original melting pot of cultures.
Syria has a history of being attacked and conquered; it has been razed, emptied of its people, burnt and plundered so many times. The Ottoman Turks ruled the city from the 16th to early 20th centuries, and then the French oversaw a few troubled decades until Syria gained its independence in 1946.
With the country in crisis, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is one of the worst humanitarian crises of our generation. I have read that two million Syrians have fled the country including more than one million children.
I fervently hope that the smiling school kids I met at Saint Simeon (outside Aleppo) have found safe refuge with their families and can look forward to an end to the civil war in their country.