Syria; A Wing and a Prayer

Adventure travel by its nature has a Pandora’s box full of things that can go wrong or at least very differently to what you might be expecting. You might be doing things not usually in mainstream holidays, in countries and locations off the beaten track, accommodation that might leave a lot to be desired, but often only overnight and it means you get somewhere really hard to get to, to see or do something worth the telling.


You do have to wonder, sometimes if customers actually realise that only part of the adventure comes from what we are able to arrange, some of it requires their own flexibility in accepting that things might change unexpectedly, arrangements have to be made on a purely ad hoc basis, because of weather, accidents, personal problems, transport problems or genuine hazards like wild animals or an over enthusiastic local militia

A couple of potential problems presented themselves immediately when I was offered the chance to run a tour in Syria and Jordan. First, the U.K. at the time didn’t have diplomatic relations with Syria, so we could only get visas in Amman prior to an onward connection to Damascus where we were to start.

There was no guarantee that a traveller would be issued with one, and definitely not if someone had an Israeli stamp in their passport. Potential brick wall. Second, the facts that a) I’d never been in either country before, b) Pretty much all the tours I’d run previously had been sort of natural history, walking and general activity trips.

This one was being done in hotels, by coach, and apart from a general interest in culture and history, one of the main selling points was an awful lot of archaeology in it, of which I knew doodley squat. The company of course, kept a closely updated set of manuals for tourleaders, so that in emergency, a tour leader could be flown in and still know the basics of what the job was, travel times, how to get various things done, hotel info, local food availability – markets, restaurants, cafes en route, various costs and hazard warnings. But nobody had been there for a little while as a result of the diplomatic problems, so I was to do this only partially sighted, as it were, though not completely blind.

I popped down to do some last minute research in my local library at home and came across a copy of a Hachette guide to Syria, published by a French company, which would not be well known in Britain. It was brilliant – mainly as a result of the French occupation of Syria after the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WW1, when many scholars swarmed around the area building up archives of material. As a result I had detailed plans and information on almost every site I would be taking people, as well as town plans and historical background. Bingo !

Just before flying out with people, my boss told me that they had received a minor complaint from a previous customer that the tourleader they had in Syria couldn’t speak the Syrian dialect of Arabic (I mean, just how much can people expect ?) Still, I’d picked up enough useful generic Arabic from other places, so I wasn’t too worried. Anyway we flew to Amman in Jordan, loitered around in the airport for ages before getting everyone safely onto our flight to Damascus, arriving around midnight and getting to the hotel around 1am. The staff, astonishingly, as we were booked for overnight, had kept a mezze style meal for us in case we hadn’t eaten, and we very gratefully had some long awaited sustenance before crashing out.


Shopkeeper near Ommayad mosque Damascus
Shopkeeper near Ommayad mosque Damascus


Now I had a job to do, so at 6am I set off with the book and legged it down to the old part of the city for a recce, went back to the hotel to join the group for breakfast then set out about 9am for a walking tour of Old Damascus, led by me. I just memorised the main routes and sights, dawdling in the covered markets because I could talk a lot about spices, trade routes in history etc, then the Omayyad mosque and side streets.

I’d earlier spotted a nice little café, so we took a little break there, just people watching, whilst some punters browsed fabric, spice or hardware shops – an immersive experience not to be missed in any country ! I had therefore established my ‘compendious’ local knowledge, and I employed the same strategy for the rest of that tour, learning everything I needed each evening for what I had to do the next day. It took until the end of the week before anyone twigged that I’d not actually been to Syria before, but it didn’t matter by then. Stage management !

There were a few people on that trip who were really keen on the archaeology, and really wanted to know the inside of a cat’s arse (phrase from a Welsh girlfriend’s mother), about everywhere, and some who almost hadn’t any idea where they were.

A young Londoner – of the breed who were making fortunes in hours at that time, had been told he should take a couple of weeks off, so he just phoned the company and asked what was leaving the next day and paid for it over the phone. Last minute, anywhere – as a result his blank sheet of expectations gave us a few laughs, his signature question on arrival at a site to visit was always “So, Bob, what’s the scoop on this ruin ?”


Waterwheels at Homs, Syria
Waterwheels at Homs, Syria


We did have a Syrian ‘guide’ but he didn’t know as much as Hachettes, but was handy for tracking down supplies of beer and of arak, a sort of Pernod-type aniseed drink, very refreshing. I remember being invited to join a family picnic when we went to visit the place where St. Simon stylites had perched for decades on a pillar to be closer to god.

It was hardly a meditative experience I imagine, as he would have had lots of visitors and acolytes hoping a bit of his grace would rub off. I shared a sheesha pipe with the men of the party and relaxed on the grass as my group poked around the antiquities. En route north, we passed through Homs and Latakia, then arrived at the stunning Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader era castle.


Aerial view of Krak des Chevaliers Taken from Guidebook ©Syrian Directorate of Antiquities 1982
Aerial view of Krak des Chevaliers Taken from Guidebook ©Syrian Directorate of Antiquities 1982


This redoubt deserves to be seen by many more people and it gives a great insight into the building skills and mentality of the Crusaders. It is absolutely massive and well preserved. Of course, a differently angled view of the Crusaders might put them as being little different from football hooligans abroad nowadays. Apart from some sense of ”liberating” Jerusalem from the Arab incomers who were Muslims, there was the undoubted draw of endless plunder, maybe gaining some indulgence from the church, but in any case it got a lot of younger brothers of Europe’s minor aristocratic families out of the way.

Aleppo’s citadel and old town was stunning, though the newer parts were dreary. We stayed in a hotel that early 20th century travellers had made famous, and it was of course, past its sell-by date, but still a honeypot for foreigners. The best bit about our stay was discovering an eatery nearby where they literally just passed grilled chicken and salad wrapped in a large flatbread through a hole in the wall to customers on the street.

The local version of having fish and chips wrapped in newspaper ! One of the most disarming things about Syria (as also in Yemen), for all of us was that people would cross the street simply to say “Marhaba ! Welcome to my country !” This was hard to reconcile with Britain’s view of Syria, but the people are always different to the government, and the Syrians we met, without exception, were eternally grateful to the British for helping rid them of the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. People’s memories stretch a very long way in some parts of the world.


Picnic at St Simeons
Picnic at St Simeons


We travelled on from Aleppo to the desert town of Deir ez-Zor, where we stayed in the only available accommodation for a group such as ours, some portakabins normally used by oilfield workers. This was because it was the nearest we could stay to Mari, a well known archaeological site on the Euphrates, located 120km further southwest, meaning a whole day to get there and back.

Well, for my money the “scoop” on this ruin was a step too far. Arriving at a part of the excavations at that time, all you could see were a number of interlocking trenches in river sediment with a large plastic sheet protecting them from the elements. Frankly, to the untutored eye, they were just trenches and Hachette did nothing to unlock anything of gripping interest.

It did reveal that a scholar by the name of Andre Parrot had spent many years here, establishing that the site dated from near to 5 thousand years ago, and was a trading state of some significance. To us, though, it was just a bunch of trenches, and I surmised that it might have been the origin of the phrase, “sick as a Parrot” when the archaeologist realised what he’d spent his years on. That’s the philistine in me coming out !

Our final stop off in Syria was after a long desert drive, to Palmyra was a huge site, a couple of thousand years newer than the trenches at Mari, Colonnades of columns lined ancient roads and left us in no doubt about the historical importance of Palmyra.

It attracted the attention of the Romans when they were adventuring in the Levant, mainly because of the intransigence of their one-time Queen Zenobia in playing ball with the Romans. She was duly overcome by the might of Rome and apparently carted off to that capital in golden chains, becoming a poster girl for insurrection against the Empire.

Although there is not much of dramatic import in this piece, I wanted to write it in tribute to the people of Syria, who have suffered many long years from many hands. As a result it may be many years before travellers could or would visit the country, which is a tragedy in itself. To make things much worse, there may be few of those sites in existence before long. In common with most of the world, I also mourn the wanton destruction of so much of the historical richness of the country, part of the common wealth of the Syrian people.

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