Syria before the Arab Spring was a bunch of contradictions that might always have led to the horrific conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more. I doubt any of the pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets in 2011 demanding an end to the authoritarian and corrupt regime of Bashar al-Assad could have imagined how destructive were the forces they unleashed. What appeared a cultured and stable country has been destroyed by a decade of warfare. Propped up by Russia and Iran – and the indifference of the United States and Europe – Assad is still there.
What do I mean by contradictions? Try sipping a cocktail in a swanky Damascus rooftop bar overlooking a billboard promoting the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It seemed to encapsulate entirely incompatible elements of Syrian society. Here, after all, was a country ruled by a ruthless authoritarian family but which seemed relatively prosperous and cosmopolitan with a better record of female empowerment than most in the region. Cosmopolitanism ended at the city limits though, rural Syria was very differetn.
I was working in Syria and staying with a friend who worked in refugee camps that were home to many thousands who had fled the US-led war and occupation of Iraq. This was a few years before the Syrian conflict erupted, and in retrospect the Iraqi experience foreshadowed the devastation and human misery that would sweep Syria. I had a couple of free days one week and my friend had arranged for a Syrian tourism student to be my guide.
In the time available to us we covered a lot of ground. As it seems unlikely I’ll be going back any time soon, I’m glad we did. It was a fun couple of days, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t keep any contact details and have no idea what happened to my guide in the intervening years. It’s surreal that the lives of all the people I met at that time have been shattered, many may be refugees, others may even have died in the war.
Similarly, most places and communities I visited have been damaged or destroyed by the bloody conflict. I almost visited the Roman city of Palmyra, and now greatly regret missing an opportunity to wander epic ruins in the desert overshadowed by the impressive Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle. Palmyra suffered serious damage in the fighting, extensive looting and deliberate destruction by ISIL Islamist fanatics – whose barbarism went as far as executing people in the amphitheatre.
My decision to skip Palmyra was based on the fact that a day earlier I’d visited another ancient Roman city, the black basalt ruins of Busra. This has to be one of the most extraordinary sights in the region. Well preserved Roman city streets hewn from black rock lead to a fortification dating from the 13th century. This is just a facade though. Inside the fort sits a near-perfectly preserved 2nd century Roman amphitheatre built during the reign of Emperor Trajan.
Busra was known to the ancient Egyptians and grew into a major Nabatean centre – the same people responsible for Petra – before the Romans arrived. It was conquered by Byzantium, Persians, Crusaders, Islamic tribes and the Ottomans. What history Busra hasn’t seen probably isn’t worth seeing. Busra was caught in serious fighting in the Syrian Civil War and just across the border in Jordan is the Zaatari Camp, home to 80,000 of the estimated 700,000 Syrian refugees now in Jordan.
In Damascus we visited the utterly beautiful 7th century Omayad Mosque in the heart of the old city. We wandered the disorienting Medhat Basha and Al-Hamidiyah Souqs, at the time they retained the bullet holes from when French troops suppressed the Great Syrian Revolt in 1925. They’ve suffered much worse since then. Old Damascus is a warren of mesmerising streets, ancient mosques, hammans, churches and palaces, not to mention cafes and restaurants. I wish I’d spent more time exploring.