Revisiting Syria – A chronicle from 2008

You’ve seen it all over the news. Syria is in turmoil and there is no end in sight. A series of threats, warnings, negotiations and visits from international observers, the bottom line is: it’s not letting up. The latest plea has been from the Saudi delegation to the UN, who in spite of their own deplorable record on the human rights record, have decried the Syrian President’s actions as in direct opposition with ‘the will of God’. It’s very difficult to know what is going on in a country that has built such a strong and pervasive police state over the past 40 years. I am not trying to make a political argument here today, merely let you see a slightly different image of Syria, the Syria I visited as recently as 2008.

I had been to Syria before. My father being Lebanese, there were many opportunities to go spend some time in Syria whilst visiting Lebanon. I’d usually go for a day, spend a few hours snaking around the streets of Damascus, and then head back to Lebanon for the night. It’s surprisingly close, only a couple of hours really, if you discount the chaos of the border passage.

Syria and Lebanon’s histories have been tied in an unfavourable fate. They are very different countries, different culture, slightly different dialects, but they’re like a couple of brothers, one strong and stern, the other shambolic but fun-loving. I’ll let you guess which one is which… The origins of the two countries are inextricably tied to the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the French colonial rule. When the ‘sick man of Europe’ (the Ottoman Empire) finally collapsed in the wake of WWI, the French pounced on the Near-East like a lion on a gazelle, keen to develop strategic political and trade relations with the region’s christians.

They formed what was then known as the ‘Grande Syrie’ and at this point, the distinction between Lebanon and Syria was very fluid. In fact, Lebanon referred more to Mount Lebanon, the mountainous area in the centre of the country, the supposed refuge for thousands of christians throughout the long Ottoman reign. You still see traces of this in this part of Lebanon. Fascinating.

Modern Syria is a very unusual Arab state. Symbols of order and power are immediate and all-pervasive as soon as you cross the border. It’s the product of the broken dream of socialist-tinged pan-arabism, and has developed into a particular strand of socialist secular state run by the Alawite minority for the past 40 years or so.We noticed the difference immediately when we crossed the border into Syria. The country was very much organised under one voice, a unifying narrative that contrast completely with the plurality and superimposition of voices that makes Lebanon such a unique Arab nation.

First port of call was Damascus, a completely different city from Beirut and completely incredible as well. Overlaid onto the Roman foundations of the city are layers and layers of medieval fabric, lane ways, shopfronts, and grand passageways. It’s not like Beirut used to have this and lost it, Beirut is a much younger city than Damascus. For a long time Beirut was actually a secondary or even tertiary port in the region. Saida, Tyre, Acra and Haifa were actually much more active as port cities and thus still hold evidence of centuries of inhabitation. Damascus was the intellectual capital of the Middle East, the centre of science and literature, history and astronomy. You can see why this was: the city is an absolute gem in its central parts.

What struck us is the level and depth of cultural refinement in this place. The architecture was much more detailed and ornate than we’d anticipated. Especially in the few remaining old houses, than are being renovated at great cost to owners across the old city. We were lucky enough to visit one of these houses, a bed and breakfast place run by an Italian woman from Milan. A friend from Sydney had put me in touch with this incredible woman who’d jumped through all the hoops to restore and enhance the historic value of the house through careful renovations of the interior and the exterior. Her taste was impeccable and she’d manage to salvage bits of other houses who didn’t make the cut of preservation.

The ‘House of Light’ as it was called was an incredible hodge podge of layers of history: the deeper you went, the older the house’s fabric. This house had been built in stages through the century but retained a Roman kitchen, located about a full meter below the floor level of the rest of the house. The Roman arches were the first give away but then the bricks and rudimentary features of the kitchen completed the picture.

The main dining room featured a salvaged Ummayad wall (we’re talking 750 AD stuff) from another house. The rest of the house was a treasure trove of local craftsmanship. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed I was in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Architecture was not the only aspect of this city which was more refined to what I had been exposed to in Beirut. The food was also outstanding. Many Lebanese won’t give any credibility to what I am about to say, but Syrian food is actually much more interesting in the way flavours and textures are combined. There is also more innovation in Syrian cuisine, with unexpected juxtapositions such as pomegranate and sheep’s cheese. The sensory experience was just unreal.

Whilst in Syria, we ventured further afield, out of the Krak Des Chevaliers (right past Homs, the current theatre of unprecedented violence on protesters), to Palmyra and to Bosra, in the south of the country. It’s incredible to think that Syria neighbours Iraq in what is the most arid region of the country. It was not always so, Palmyra in the east of the country used to be an oasis all those years ago, but is now a field of ruins defended by Zenobia against the Romans (she lost, clearly). Bosra is a city built entirely of volcanic black rock and retains one of the world’s largest intact Roman amphitheatre. Simply amazing to experience the acoustic qualities of these performance spaces built in open air all those years ago. Good design has enduring qualities.

At the risk of sounding like a Lonely Planet Guide, Syria is a truly amazing country to experience. It’s not on the list of recommended destinations at the moment, but hopefully this little account has opened up a new side to the way we think about Syria, as a people and as a country. It’s hard to predict what might happen, whether Assad will step down or not, whether he’ll be succeeded by a true democracy (unlikely) or a benevolent dictator (more likely). The future of the Syrian nation has repercussions on the stability of the whole region and the world potentially as China and Russia continue to veto foreign intervention in Syria. That’s a story I will be watching closely.



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