Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Basra: these names used to ring in my heart each time I heard them. I remember strolling along wide, tree-lined boulevards, meandering down Straight Street in Damascus that both Jesus Christ and Saint Paul once walked along, and almost unchanged since they did so. I slept one night wrapped in carpet in the Basra castle wall overlooking the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world, gazing up at the star-filled sky in the silence.
In the Scheherazade restaurant close by, I ate camel steaks for lunch next day, followed by pistachio ice cream; both new experiences for me back then in 2002. I was on a six week camping truck holiday from Egypt to Turkey. On the approach to Palmyra I drove the truck, another first. I will never forget the spectacular setting: mountains, a hilltop fortress, Roman ruins spread over several kilometres, an oasis of palm trees.
As if this wasn’t enough, next day I visited Crac des Chevaliers, an ancient fortress complete with secret passages, my mouth agape as I followed my guide, a young boy who sang prayers while we walked. The C11 castle looked so well preserved it could have been a film set.
The market at Aleppo displays colourful heaps of orange, red and yellow spices, decorated with pastes, dates, fat juicy sultanas, and real honeycombs. A vendor called out ‘Are you interested in cheap and nasty scarves?’ I watched a dwarf on an ass in full Arab gear trundle along under vaulted alleyways past thick stone walls and narrow side passages, the aromas of coffee and spices mingling with drain smells. Cobblers and tailors lined the paths, using antique Singer sewing machines, among oddly shaped stands for storing heels and soles, nails and lasts. A group of backpackers sat in the middle of a car repair area, surrounded by tyres, fan belts, and automobile parts galore. I had coffee in the nearby Baron Hotel – where Agatha Christie wrote ‘ Murder on the Orient Express’ – and perused a copy of T E Lawrence’s unpaid bar bill. The owner showed me the room Lawrence had slept in.
Now, I see images of what was once Homs, and I wonder what has become of the medieval wooden waterwheels that had taken my breath away. The quiet, elegant streets of the town have been utterly destroyed, the buildings nothing but piles of stones and dust. Will those Byzantine period waterwheels, just a few kilometres away at Hama, meet the same fate as beautiful Palmyra, where ancient columns are now reduced to rubble?
At Palmyra what I didn’t see was the infamous Tadmur prison where over 11,000 inmates were tortured to death by the regime, including thirteen-year-old Hamza al-Khalib, who became the symbol of the Syrian uprising; in Damascus what I didn’t hear were the cries of detainees being questioned whilst hanging upside down in basements below my feet. Just nine years later it would begin: Assad’s oppressive regime, which massacred tens of thousands of civilians, half of them children, and released Islamist Jihad leaders from jail, would be become one factor in a full scale civil war with a death toll of a quarter of a million people so far, and the flight of so many dispossessed from their homeland.