In 1996 I was posted to Damascus for a 3 month stint as Deputy Director of British Council in Syria.
As I turned the corner I came nose-to-nose with a decapitated camel.
Exploring streets of old town Damascus was always an adventure. Scarcity of other westerners added to the thrill. Surprises were part of the fun, but the camel’s head startled me. It hung grimly, outside a butcher’s shop. A hook through the underside of its jaw.
The main souk (market) was a long, wide street covered by a high, metal roof. Laser-like beams of sunlight shone through bullet holes, like a giant colander. The result of a French air-attack in the 1920s, to suppress a Syrian revolt against colonial occupation.
The country was relatively safe when I visited. For foreigners at least. The Syrian population were ruthlessly oppressed by the regime of Hafez al-Assad, who crushed all signs of rebellion.
Huge portraits of the president covered government buildings throughout Damascus. TV, controlled by the ruling party, broadcast propaganda promoting ‘the great leader’. The absurdity of these TV programs would be comical if the reality wasn’t so brutal.
Theresa, Education Officer and wife of the Director, invited me on a tour of Syria’s 4 universities. Meeting with Vice Chancellors to update them on our work. The bonus: along the way, I’d get to see more of the country.
We left early. As the driver carried out my luggage, Theresa walked around to the back of the car. ‘I’ve got the most important thing’. She said, throwing open the car boot. ‘I’ve got the booze’. A plastic crate was stacked full of wine, beer and Arak (a clear aniseed spirit). ‘Some of these hotels are dry you know. We don’t want to be caught short’.
We set off north, into the desert, close to the border with Lebanon. After a few hours Craque des Chevalier, a 1000-year-old Crusader castle, appeared dramatically in the distance. I’m not an expert on Medieval Castles, but I am an expert on Monty Python. The outline was so perfect, it was my idea of Camelot. Or a model at least.
This is one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world. We had time to explore for just an hour before moving on. Visiting a country untouched by mass tourism is a privilege. This incredible site was eerily deserted.
In Aleppo we stayed at the iconic Baron Hotel; once Syria’s most luxurious. I was in good company. Notable past guests included Lawrence of Arabia, Charles de Gaulle, Julie Christie, Theodore Roosevelt and Yuri Gagarin. During her stay, Agatha Christie wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express. King Faisal declared Syrian independence from its balcony.
The Baron was now, in every sense, threadbare. Gloriously unrenovated. Original features untouched, and unloved, for decades. Its grandeur unashamedly faded. Guest rooms were stately, but paint flaked from the walls. Bathroom tiles were cracked. Breakfast was meagre: a boiled egg, a bit of cold meat and a bread roll. This was accommodation for the eccentric and I loved it.
That evening the owner of the Baron, Theresa’s friend, joined us for a drink. It took a few minutes for me to place her. I’d seen her in a BBC TV documentary a few years earlier. When I asked, she confirmed a BBC film crew had interviewed her but she never saw the final program. I later wrote to the BBC requesting a copy to send her (they never replied).
Palmyra, another iconic, historical site, was also deserted. The sprawling Roman ruins were mine. Silent. No guards. No fences. I was chaperone to a group of UK archaeologists. Our accommodation, temporary shacks, in amongst the ruins. The curator of the small museum was responsible for the entire site. Palmyra was his passion. I was treated as a VIP. Receiving a personal guided tour and a signed copy of his book.
Twenty years later, It’s devastating to see the wretched lives of the people of Allepo. Struggling daily to survive. Their city destroyed. Palmyra has been occupied and partially destroyed by ISIS. The kindly museum curator, I believe, brutally murdered. My short, 3 month, visit to Syria was packed with memorable experiences and people. I received a warm welcome and generous hospitality wherever I went.
A video tour of the Baron Hotel.
Bullet Holes image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/spdl_n1/506694924/in/album-72157600237097708/
Craque des Chevalier: By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10255715
Palmyra: By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12153761