The Middle East (Part 2/8) - Syria - Before the Flood

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


Aleppo Citadel: one of the most ancient castles in the world

Foreword

This is a blog that I first wrote almost ten years ago - in late summer 2008, before the flood; before the Civil War that has engulfed the country and destroyed a culture, tragically and irrevocably. Some of the places I visited, like Palmyra and Aleppo, have been terribly damaged and are unrecognizable from what I saw. What little remains in the country of tourist interest today that has not been touched will not be seen by tourists for many years. It's a tragedy that what has happened in Syria has ruined what was truly a gem of a place for backpacking; off-the-beaten-track, inexpensive, friendly, with loads of historical sites and fascinating cities; quirky, fascinating and fun. Far from the threatening, axis-of-evil pariah portrayed at the time in the western media, it was in fact a friendly, curious, welcoming place. Syria really had it all, and for the fortunate and adventurous few who visited, was a word-of-mouth gem or hidden secret. I didn't want to see it destroyed by mass tourism - I honestly thought it could be. Looking back, I wish it still had that option. Instead, it's been destroyed, utterly, by the greedy hands of politics and short-sighted leaders, and the brainless fanatics who are ISIS. To see Palmyra and other ancient sights I marveled at detonated is heart-breaking. One day, Syria will reach its potential again, and its resilient people will build it back up brick by brick. Whether that's in the next five, ten, twenty or fifty years is anyone's guess. As always, politics decides such matters. And that is a matter for a different blog. I hope for this region's sake it's sooner rather than later. Syrians, above all, deserve that.

Aleppo: one of the most ancient cities in the world

Arrival: Aleppo

Syria is quite an enigma from the outside. Very rarely in the news, either for positive or negative reasons, all you tend to hear about it is what emanates occasionally from the White House - and that's that it's a dangerous, terrorist breeding ground, or that it's a land of religious zealots and extremists. At best, it's said to be profoundly anti-western, pro-Islamic and particularly anti-American. The net result of all this means that there is barely an American tourist to be seen. As so often is the case with such places in the Middle East it seems, the image of the country is tarnished by it's eastern neighbour. Only a 200km expanse of desert separates Aleppo or Damascus from the Iraq border, and this, obviously has hit tourism in the country in the last decade pretty badly. The first thing you notice when you step off the bus in Aleppo after coming from Turkey (which is pretty liberal in comparison, especially in tourist areas) - is the women. Here, more than anywhere in Syria (Aleppo being the most conservative city in Syria), the women almost all wear some form of head-dress, such as the hijab or niqab, and many wear the burkha - covering the entire face including eyes.

Woman in hijab on streets of Aleppo

It's quite unnerving to walk past a woman when you can't even see her eyes. The black cloth in front of their faces must make just walking around quite a challenge - they are almost always accompanied by someone, usually their husband or a male relative. Not to mention the physical discomfort of wearing heavy, shapeless black material from head to toe in the blazing heat (although it was now early September, the temperature was still around 30 degrees every day). Another thing you can't help noticing on arriving in Syria is the ubiquitous sight of the country's leader - Bashar al-Assad - on signs, billboards and posters everywhere, in all public and many private buildings, hotels restaurants - and the apparently high esteem he appears to be held in. When I questioned a hotel owner about this, he laughed and said that I thought it normal people in the west put pictures of David Beckham on their walls. He had a point. I certainly didn't detect any anti-Assad sentiment, from him or anyone else in Syria - but I wouldn't expect locals to open up to a stranger about such matters anyway. As I hiked aimlessly and without a map to the centre from the bus-stop in the searing heat (all street signs were in Arabic), in my shorts and vest, I was getting plenty of odd glances. I soon found that people, though often lacking any English or indeed any language but Arabic, were incredibly eager to help lost tourists, and one guy walked us down some side streets for five minutes to point us in the right direction for our hotel. We got our bearings from there, and thanked him. His smiled bow and gesture of hands together in praying position, accompanied by "You are welcome sir", dismissed my vague worries of a hostile reception instantly. From that moment on, all I experienced in Syria was kindness and helpfulness.

Al-Assad: Big brother is watching you

Death by Lonely Planet

My hotel had been crucified by the Lonely Planet. In an unprecedented move, it had advised that no one should consider staying there, due to its lecherous staff, who had a habit of peeping through holes in walls at women in showers. The Springflower hotel has written a strong letter of protest about this on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, and I'm not surprised - those sorts of comments are libelous. Fortunately for them, plenty of cost-conscious backpackers, many eastern European, seemed to pay scant regard to such comments, and seemed to frequent the hotel regardless. I was given a room of moderate quality for $10 a night, which seemed reasonable. I tried to broach the subject of the Lonely Planet comments with the hostel owner, but he was understandably reluctant to discuss it. I suppose those kind of write-ups can kill businesses, and the power of the Lonely Planet should not be under-estimated. So often, you meet people who have coincidentally stayed in the same hotels in the same towns and eaten at the same restaurants, whilst having the same opinions about things and visiting the same sights - because they both own the same Lonely Planet. Anyway, I am happy to report that I had two lech-free nights at the Springflower, and other than an unwelcome cockroach in the bathroom one night, was very happy there. Aleppo is one of the great cities of the Middle East. Although it's a city of four million, double that of the capital Damascus, it's not very famous for some reason, not since the days of Agatha Christie and her Murder on the Orient Express which terminated here anyway. It seems happy to stay under the tourist radar for the most part, but it's a bit of a find.

Entrance to Aleppo Citadel

Souqing it all up

The central area contains souqs dating back to medieval times, and this network of high stone walled and roofed markets are absolutely great for wandering around, getting lost in and shading from the fierce sun. Some of the fiercest bargaining goes on here also, and you have to stride determinedly through the cool narrow alleyways with their shafts of sunlight from above to not be drawn in by some of the cunning sales banter. Aleppo boasts some world-class cuisine also. Its mezzes (small starters), grilled lamb and chicken meat and deserts are often mouth-watering. You walk into a top-class restaurant, perhaps a courtyard arranged around a central fountain and a terrace above you, sheltered by leafy trees from the glare of the hot Syrian sun, and sit down to a lazy lunch which starts with a few courses of delicious mezze; this is followed by a crisp salad perhaps with bits of fried bread, then some lamb meatballs soaked in cherry sauce and washed down with fiery arak and then a strong Turkish coffee or cold Al-Sharak or Barada beer (yes, alcohol is happily widely available, and cheap). You lean back in your chair, replete, and ask for the bill, and find it comes to less than $5 for two people. That's the eating experience in Aleppo - and the choices for fine eating are extensive. If you're willing to pay a bit more - which is in my opinion totally unnecessary - you would dine like a king. Truly. One place you can go and feel like a king - or at least a very wealthy Collonial-era traveller a la T.E Lawrence, is the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. I walked in for an afternoon tea and was treated to some excellent starchy old-school service and quality tea and cakes in luxury surrounds for a price you'd pay in Mcdonalds at home. Wonderful. There are certain places in the Middle East which have a real whiff of colonial times, and though I'm by no means in favour of colonialism, they are a real treat, mainly for their fusty, yesteryear feel.

Eating out in Aleppo: a high-quality budget pleasure

Great Crac

The citadel of Aleppo is a one of the oldest and largest fortified medieval castles in the world. It's bang in the centre of the city, and is one of the main tourist draws. It costs about one hundred and fifty Syrian pounds to get in; ten with a student's or teacher's card. ($2/20 cents respectively). It's a pretty impressive structure, and commands fantastic views of the city. Like most other tourist attractions in Syria, as we would later find out, it is pretty much free of tourists, so you get it to yourself. It's probably the single greatest sight in Aleppo, and from the one place you can really soak up the history of the city, which goes back several millenia. It's survived Byzantine, Roman, Mamluk and Islam eras, and is still standing, like Elton John. I dare say it might stand a bit longer than old Reginald too. One other example like this is the Castle of Salah-ad-Din, which we visited on a day trip from Latakkia - it's about 30km distant, high up in the hills above the coast. A massive castle which dominates the surrounding valley, this place enjoys an awesome setting, and is considered, along with the more famous Crac des Chevaliers, one of the most important of the Crusader Castles in the Middle East. It's mostly in ruins, but you can walk around the battlements and get a good idea of the size and importance of the place.

Castle of Salah-ad-Din, near Latakkia

Now, I grew up in Northumberland in the north of England, where you're never a stone's throw from a castle, so I'm not all that easily impressed by them, but Crac des Chevaliers was special. Of these three great historical sites, Crac gets my seal of approval for best castle. It's a big kid's fantasy adventure playground - simply awe-inspiring in size and scope - and also commands majestic views of the surrounding plains in central Syria. It's more or less intact, and has a European elegance, brought in part by the French Crusaders who gave it its name in the 12th century when it was built by them. It's rightly regarded as the most impressive intact medieval structure in the Middle East - and possibly the world. According to famed author and diplomat T.E. Lawrence, Crac des Chevaliers is “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.” I am not going to contradict that. In each one of the above castles, I spent several hours happily exploring, each one almost completely deserted. Apart from the ticket-sellers, to whom I handed over about $1-2 entrance to enter each place, I can't remember seeing another soul in any of them. That sounds ridiculous but it's true - and how many other places in the world of such beauty and historical value can that be said about?

Crac des Chevaliers: one of the great Crusader castles

Takki coastal sojourn

My next stop after Aleppo was Latakkia - a coastal town and a port. I took the train - my only train journey on this trip - and paid $2 for a four hour journey. The train, in reasonably good shape, wound through some pretty countryside, through the hills of northern Syria. Latakkia was rather underwhelming - a so-so port area and uninteresting downtown area reveal little of interest to the tourist. The coastal area of Syria is not developed at all - it's hardly the party hot spot of the eastern Mediterranean region - but there were a few hotels for rich Syrian families to lounge around in. There were precious few beaches or bits of swimmable sea here though and the whole area around the city left a lot to be desired environmentally- speaking; there was a lot of rubbish and it was all a bit uncared for. Still, I found another fantastic restaurant in the evening with a fantastic mellow vibe and delicious mezze again. Its speciality was a fantastic walnut and pomegranate dish (baba ganoush) which, with a touch of lime juice, tasted incredible when spread on hot garlic bread. Its taboulleh (crushed, creamed eggplant with garlic) and onion soup weren't to be sniffed at either.

Beach near Latakkia: rough around the edges

Not easily put off, I explored the Syrian coast a bit - I'd been recommended a few places by my friendly hostel owner. The first of these was a huge disappointment - a pay-to-enter beach at a hotel which was strewn with rubbish and had filthy looking sea water; the second, fortunately, a few miles to the north, was much better. My mini-bus dropped me by the side of the road near a forgotten-looking restaurant; not too promising. I ambled over the adjacent field and along to the cliff top and had a glimpse of a fantastic rocky coastline with virgin white pebbly beaches and craggy cliffs crumbling into the sea, one or two little islands dotting the seascape and seagulls crowing overhead. Again, not a soul was visible. I found an idyllic-looking cove and scrambled down a steep path to the beach below which I had completely to myself. Perfection - and not really expected; Syria isn't known for it's beaches. For complete isolation and off-the-beaten-track uniqueness, this place had to be a real find. It also had some of the most colourful and attractive white and grey pebbles I have seen, some of which I stowed in my bag as souvenirs. Such a find on the Syrian coast is probably rare, so finding it was doubly sweet. I made the most of it - swimming and sun-bathing in the little cove till sunset, with only a few fishermen in their little boats for company. It was to be my only beach experience in Syria - a country not really known for being on the Med anyway, and with far greater things to offer. I was heading next to the great city and capital, Damascus, where all roads, after all, lead - and then to Palmyra, the great ruin in the sand.

Coastline near Latakkia - tourist-free





Although I generally have nothing but disdain for the publication, this Daily Mail article illustrates well the shocking destruction of Aleppo.


Here is some drone footage of the damage that's been done in and around Crac des Chevaliers - so far the fortress has survived relatively unscathed, but the surrounding village has been devastated.





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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, on Istanbul/Cappadocia in Turkey, and Damascus/Palmyra/Apamea in Syria respectively, please go here:


Part 1/8: Turkey - Istanbul, The Turquoise Coast & Cappadocia

Part 3/8: Turkey - Apamea, Palmyra & Damascus