Syria (Syrian Arab Republic) is a big country of Middle East ranging from the Mediterranean Sea and Lebanon to the west to Iraq in the east and from Turkey in the north to Jordan and Israel in the south. Its territory consists of fertile valleys, high mountain ranges and desert. The history of Syria is lost deep in time, consisting the cradle of mankind, since the Neolithic era when agriculture and livestock farming was first practiced here in the Mesopotamian Valley. From the 14th century BC nomadic tribes of Aramae and Phoenicians settled the area. The Empire of the Assyrians flourished from the 10th century BC. century until 605 BC. and the conquest by the Babylonians and afterwards by Persians. Alexander the Great annexed this region to its vast empire, naming it Syria as a paraphrase of Assyria, an acquisition that continued by the successive Greek kingdoms of the Seleucids. The kingdom of Palmyra was founded in the 3rd century AD as a wealthy trade center of this desert city and eventually became part of the Roman and later the Byzantine Empire, followed by the Arabian conquest and the prevalence of Islam. The conquests will be continued by the Crusaders, the Seljuks, the Kurds, the Mongols and finally the Ottomans, who promoted a peaceful coexistence of the different national and religious groups. The modern history of Syria is tied to the troubled, wider Middle East area. Israel-Egypt War, Palestinian Issue, Iraqi Crisis, with Syria involved in warfare with Israel for the Golan Heights, as well as in the Lebanese long term civil war.
The Syrian Civil War
n 2011, Arab demonstrations in Syria have escalated into a revolt against the president Bashar Al-Assad regime, triggering a bloody civil war that continues to this day, with enormous costs in human lives, infrastructure and of course, causing economic collapse, a humanitarian crisis and a huge refugee wave to Europe. As is common with civil conflicts, the situation has become complicated, with foreign powers being involved in a “proxy war” with Russia, the US. and the states of the Middle East, either opposed to the dictatorial regime or supporting it as a legitimate government. Assad, however, was re-elected in the 2014 elections with an overwhelming percentage. The situation soon became uncontrollable, with cities being pounded by rebel fire or government army and most victims in the civilian population. In 2013, the Islamist State of Iraq and Levante (ISIS) was formed, which captured cities in neighboring Iraq, together with money, arms and control of oil fields. With just 2,500 fighters captured the city of Mosul, proclaiming it the capital of the “caliphate,” greatening its power, imposing an extreme version of Sharia law and committing crimes and atrocities to the civilians. The jihadists were constantly strengthening, recruiting foreign fighters and expanding their area of occupation. In 2015 the rebels surrendered the destroyed city of Homs, but continued the confrontation of Aleppo, the biggest city at that time. ISIS occupies the ancient city of Palmyra, causing incalculable catastrophes, theft and looting of the monuments. Russia launches air raids against the rebels, while U.S.A. still remains uninvolved. Finally, in 2017, the United States were also involved, supporting the recapture of the city of Raqqa from ISIS. Their involvement and the subsequent bombing of certain positions has aggravated relations with Russia. Also, their support for Kurdish groups has caused dissatisfaction of Turkey, which invaded Afrin in 2018. The Syrian government was accused by Amnesty International for more than 13,000 captives, dissidents of the Bashar al-Assad regime, that were executed in prisons, acts that constitute crimes against humanity. The Syrian government has denied these accusations. Since the beginning of the war, the parts involved have been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians, while the Syrian government finally admitting their possession. Following a series of chemical weapons’ attacks, US President Donald Trump ordered missile attacks on Assad’s air bases. The United Nations estimates the war deaths to more than 300,000. There are accusations of all aspects of human rights violations, including torture, kidnappings, illegal detention and civilian executions. At least 4 million people have left Syria to neighboring countries, or to Greece and from there to Europe, being the main wave of the European immigration crisis. Today (April 2019), a few days after the declaration of the total elimination of the Islamic state from the last encampment in the Baghuz region by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the ISIS attacks continue. As well as the main participants continue their battles, in a civil war that seems never ending.
The capital and now biggest city, is one of the oldest continuous inhabited cities of the world. The old town is of special beauty, with its narrow streets and colonial architecture buildings, with main attractions being the Al-Hamidiyah Souq, the great mosque Umayyad, which encloses the temple of John the Baptist, the Saladin mausoleum, the chapel of Apostle Paul, the chapel of St. Ananias.
Aleppo was the largest and richest city in Syria before the war (4.5 million in 2010). It is estimated to have been inhabited since the 6th millennium BC. The Citadel, one of the largest and oldest castles in the world, is built on a dominant hill of the city. Al-Madina Souq was a famous bazaar, stretching for about 12 km, making it the largest covered market in the world. Unfortunately it was completely destroyed during the civil war. The city was in a four-year siege between the rebel forces and the government, with huge disasters in every part and countless victims among civilians. Now the city is controlled by the Syrian army, but in the north and southwest suburbs the fighting continues.
One of the most afflicted cities, which, during its three-year siege, was presenting us tragic images of the war.
Getting Used to War
Some legitimate questions you would ask me:
_What are you going to do in Syria?
_To see how it is. Let’s say… tourism.
_And why do you do that?
_Because I need to know. Cause I care. Cause the trip to me is not limited to recreation.
_Are you crazy?
_In the medical sense of the term, probably not.
_Are not you afraid? Do you want to commit suicide?
_I do worry, like in any trip. So far, I have no suicide will.
_But it’s a war zone.
_Yes this is the bitter truth. There’s an ongoing war. The way I travel is based on knowledge and that shows me that I can visit some important areas that aren’t on the front line, at this time…
From Lebanon-Beirut, we’re heading up the country’s snowy mountain area which looks like an illusion on that warm spring day. The distance to the border is not far in this small country. Three years ago I’d seen the Syrian valley again, dreaming of this trip. The agony was intensified at the time of the visa procedures. After all, the pre-approval by the ministry of security was a long-lasting task and the positive outcome was unexpected. Got the coveted stamp on my almost full passport. The mobile connection will be absent for the duration of my stay. I am once again in a war zone and I admit that adrenaline is coming up to familiar levels. After all, it is considered to be the most turbulent area of the planet. Bombings, atrocities, displaced population, death… among others, foreign journalists and volunteers of humanitarian organizations who lost their lives in battlefields or were abducted and murdered by ISIS. These thoughts didn’t get much on, as we’re soon approaching Damascus. A city of the Middle East with the characteristic vibe and lifestyle of the region… Nothing resembles to war. Not a sole bullet hole. Cars, shops, people on the streets … A complete normality. President’s propaganda is supported by posters and graffiti with his portrait in every part of the city and the whole country. First stop in the archaeological museum. Walking through a lush palm garden, one faces the entrance to the imposing facade of an ancient desert castle (Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi) that was moved to grace the museum building. Findings are not many in number and photography is prohibited inside. Some are impressive, especially those of the Hellenistic period, among others, mosaics, sarcophagi, decorative objects and a rare fresco of the goddess Nike. In the courtyard there’s the lion of Al-lāt, an important sculpture destroyed by the ISIS terrorists in Palmyra, its reconstruction has recently been completed. Let’s hope that the treasures that were looted and stolen during the “crisis” -as the locals call the civil war, or revolution according to others- will be found and restored. The main witness of the looting, the head of antiquities on Palmyra’s archaeological site, was tortured by ISIS to reveal the location ancient artefacts that he had helped to hide and eventually was publicly beheaded in 2015 on the pretext of apostasy and idolatry.
We head to the old town, the bustling Al-Hamidiyah Souq where everything is for sale. From traditional products, spices, gold, to Chinese clothing. The place is full of liveliness with no sign of sadness or gloom. Although we’re the only tourists, no one is surprised by our presence. Besides, many Syrians have similar characteristics to ours. People are very comfortable with my camera and they also take selfies all the time. Only some kids are over-excited and ask for photos by giving me contact details to send to them. At the exit of the bazaar, I am impressed as I see an imposing ancient temple dedicated to god Zeus, which, along with the big flags on the roof, surrounds the outgoing crowd. Immediately afterwards, is the Umayyad mosque, a remarkable example of Islamic architecture, with beautiful mosaics. Inside the Great Prayer Hall there is a marble monument with a green dome where it is believed that the head of St. John the Baptist, who is also a prophet for Islam, is buried. The old town is a delightful place for the visitor. In the adjacent Saladin Mausoleum, the guard invited us for coffee. This hospitality will be repeated by more people. In the narrow streets you’ll find small “oases” in the stylish restaurants, the cafes with the shisa waterpipes and the hammams. People are well-dressed, the ladies are trendy and attractive. So far I’m wondering about where the war took place, since nothing testifies that. We will also visit the chapel of Paul the Apostle who at this place saw the Divine Light and converted from persecutor of Christianity to a global Teacher, writer of half of the books of the New Testament. In his four trips, he taught the new religion in the difficult years of persecution, and was named “Apostle of the Nations,” until his martyrdom in Rome. The story goes on at the house (chapel) of St. Ananias, who baptized the Apostle Paul.
In the evening the old town is changing. Most restaurants that attracted crowds, now are almost empty. It took a bit of a search to find some where you’re not alone. Many groups of young men and even more women enjoyed smoking hookahs that cost less than € 1. We’ll enjoy our dinner in a beautiful restaurant and our hookah in a cafe that has nothing to be jealous of the European ones. At one point, Greek music sounded (not my taste), and the rest of the track list was also hits, famous by cover versions in Greece. We return with my travel buddy after 11p.m. and the city is almost empty, giving a mysterious beauty to the ancient walls, palm trees and minarets that rise to the moon that’s half hidden in the clouds.
Early wake up as we have a trip over 6 hours until Aleppo. On the northern outskirts, the shadow of the war made its presence visible. Whole industrial and residential areas were bombed and deserted. I can see on the map that we’re in Duma, of the wider Ghouta area, which was often mentioned to in newscasts. The testimonies of people lived in these areas are shocking. “My children have seen it all. Corpses, broken and decapitated. Our house was not hit but the surrounding area became hell. Ηouses were all looted. The soldiers even stole the water taps, the electricity cables. Now we live in the center of Damascus and we don’t want to go back”. Some girls I met in Lebanon told me: ” It was raining rockets also in the center of Damascus. They hit a neighbor’s house and you didn’t even bother to see what happened. We got used the war. I was going to work, not caring if I got killed, as death could also find me at my house.”
After some hours and countless army check points, we reach the martyrdom city of Homs. The compulsory guide we had, was a very educated and serious gentleman. But when I asked him to visit the destroyed areas, he was not positive. He told me that the soldiers at the entrance of the city gave an explicit mandate not to stop. This has filled me with frustration and distrust. After my persistence, he said, “Alex, I do not want to get arrested.” We will walk around Homs on our return and the soldiers will prove very scrupulous with checking us. However, the first impressio was tragic. The central square of the city, the main streets of people in their everyday life, are in much destruction all around. On the outskirts, there is a ghost town, with endless building blocks bombed. Entry street is blocked and obviously access is indeed not feasible, of course not safe.
The route to Aleppo will not be continued on normal straight line of the main road. The areas of Hama, and especially the province of Idlib, are a battlefield, as we were also been informed by international news media. Thus, army directs us through a long bypass to the east, halfway to Raqqa and then again north. An agricultural area, without many villages near the road, an area ISIS had occupied. The few scattered buildings all along the way were bombed. At some point the road approaches a salty lake. In this area there are many traditional brick houses – “beehives” as they are called. All of them in that area are now uninhabited. I approached some as close as I could, but I thought it was dangerous to step outside clear paths, where the spring grass can hide mines. We asked to stop in other villages, without any remarkable interest, to see the lives of locals. Children like everywhere are lovable and the few locals we meet have opened their homes to us. Our guide was stressed to pick us up and leave.
After many hours of travel and more than 30 military checks, we arrive in Aleppo… Probably I will not have to look much for the damaged parts of the city. Destruction is everywhere. Shock and awe, I’m speechless viewing the ruined buildings. But within this setting, life is flowing normally. The Citadel of Aleppo is built on a dominant green hill. The pavement gives glamor on the route to the entrance of the castle, but if one notices carefully, there are many patches of bomb holes. By approaching, the setting becomes completely surreal. On one side the green hill with the castle. In the paved open space, families with children, popcorn and ice-cream sellers, an open air a hookah shop, a riding horse, children playing ball, skateboarding, flying kites and a number of schoolchildren with their teachers visiting the castle. Like nothing unusual happens. Behind this bliss, as if nobody sees it, there is a mess of ruins. There, in this central part of the city, in that leisure center for parents and children, there are dilapidated buildings, such as the Grand Serail of Aleppo. Nearby, the debris of Carlton Citadel Hotel, where in 2014 the rebels digged underground tunnels triggering tons of explosives, levelling down the building, for some an act fair since it had occupied a former hospital building. Next to it, the entry of the now destroyed market of Al-Madina souq. A little further behind, concrete ghosts of bombed apartment buildings. At the same time, the inhabitants were frantically making selfies enjoying their walk.
I find it hard to believe what I see, but it’s a powerful lesson for me, life goes on…Together with the young students who were excited about my camera, we visit the castle, with a stunning view over the beige buildings of the city. We enter some large interiors with majestic wooden decorations that, as in Damascus, were formerly used as palace of the governor. Then we head to the famous Al-Madina market where nothing is left standing. Huge holes from bombs have been opened on the roofs, in some places the small vaulted shops are completely flattened and nature begins to re-occupy the terrain. There, under the rubble, you could still smell the essence of spices. A part of the bazaar was under restoration, impressive from the glimpse I could have through the fenced area. Getting out again in the city of destruction, we were hearing bombings from the north of the city. In the next few days we will read about them.
We sat for a tea where we discussed enough trying to understand the geopolitical situation of the region and the interests of foreign powers there. Then we went to our hotel that was right on the main square of the city and it’s one of the few still operating in Aleppo. This area seemed to have never been hit by the war fire, but you searche on internet, you’d see images of destruction as well. After we “got rid” of the tour guide, we discovered access to the hotel’s terrace where we enjoyed a view from above. Down in the square, the people once again enjoying their walk, as in any normal city, taking selfies in front of the construction ” Love Aleppo”. The kids, a policeman and the rest of the people were welcoming and enthusiastic.
We continued exploring the city without restrictions, walking through the open-air markets of the functional parts of the city, but we also discovered the deserted neighborhoods, the empty alleys, the looted shops. Blocks of flats that have collapsed partially or completely, neighborhoods where crumbling structures were over your head. People were hanging around normally, even in the most damaged places, while few had reopened their shops. In our walk we didn’t meet any soldier, neither had to give any explanation for our presence. Only kind people were to greet us. It’s hard for me to believe how those kind people have been involved in this nasty civil war!
The evening, he found us in a very upgraded district, with restaurants, cafes, and even bars with loud music. Some luxury cars, a convertible with upbeat music, made you feel confused about whether the tragic sight you saw earlier was only in your imagination. In this area that reminded Europe, there was also the church of St. Andrew where a litany took place, with participation of scouts and many pilgrims. We satisfied our hunger in a very stylish restaurant and had the typical hookah and ice cream in a cafe where they put some Greek music (here we go again) and made us a discount as we were out of currency. Byt midnight the shops were closed and we walked back to the hotel, while strong cold air made Syria feel like… Siberia.
My visit to Syria filled me with mixed feelings, but ultimately the most dominant is hope. The power that these people inspire to you, people that returned to normal life with courage and optimism, even though the cannons of war are not expected to silence soon.
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