It was June 2008 when I entered Israel through the King Hussein Bridge crossing the Jordan River, into the West Bank. I had come from Damascus just days earlier, and as both countries were still technically at war, I got a lot of attention from the border guards. In fact, I was held until the border was closed on the Jordanian side, and the only remaining options to the border officers were to let me in, or to detain me overnight until I could be deported back to Jordan. At that point, I was called into a room with a senior border officer, who asked me a number of questions. He was the first person I met at the border that day whom I liked (read: who didn’t carry a machine gun while speaking with me). Seated in an office chair, with a large map of the region behind him and a small menorah on his desk, he had one question: “On your trip, which country did you think was most interesting?”. Saying Jordan was obviously the safe bet, but I wanted to be honest, and blurted out “Syria”. “Why’s that?” was his solemn response. I must have spent 15 minutes telling him various stories, and how much I enjoyed my time there. He mulled things over for a second. “Thanks for being honest. I really hope there will be a day when me and my family get to visit as well. Enjoy your time in Israel”. Very different things would unfold for Syria just a few years later, and they had little to do with Israel.

This blog is, rather than a narrative, a collection of photos and descriptions that hope to describe pre-war Syria, as I found it to be in 2009. I hope this is relevant, as today we read a lot about Syria and its refugees, sometimes without having the background to see where the country came from.

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Chemins de Fer Syriens (CFS), the Syrian railway company, is headquartered in Aleppo, and pretty much out of service since the beginning of the war. The company opened its first rail line in 1895, from Damascus to Beirut, with a second line opening to Medina in Saudi Arabia in 1905.

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First evening sunset of the train ride, waiting in a small station in Turkey.

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Final sunset from the Toros Ekspresi, the direct train from Istanbul to Aleppo in Syria, just after crossing the Syrian border. If you ever read “Murder on the Orient Express”, you know that the story doesn’t actually start on the Orient Express, but at the Aleppo platform, waiting for this train back to Haydarpaşa terminal, on the Asian side of Istanbul. The train takes about two days for its journey. I didn’t realize until early this year that I was on the very last Toros Ekspresi ever. After my ride, the train would be shut down for track renovation until at least 2011. Given the war, it was never restarted.

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Syria’s bedouins allied with the government since 1982, when Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, gave them significant freedoms in exchange for their support against the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this opening restricted again over the last few years, and today their allegiances are more split and less well understood. Over the last few years, more and more Syrians started to self identify as bedouin, buckling a historical trend. Most of them no longer live in the desert-like south, but the north of the country.

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The Citadel of Aleppo is one of the very oldest castles in the world. The age of its current buildings is somewhat up for debate, but many of them date back to at least the 1400’s, and some elements have been used since at least the 3rd millennium BC. It is said that the prophet Abraham once milked sheep on the hill. In the current war, the citadel was used as a Syrian Army outpost, and has suffered significant damage. In a historical perspective, this isn’t all too surprising, as soldiers were stationed on the castle since the 1400’s until 1920, when the French started renovation work.

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Ummayad Mosque of Aleppo, or جامع بني أمية بحلب. Destroyed in 1260 by invading Mongol forces, but was later rebuilt, only to be significantly damaged in 2013.

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The great minaret of the mosque, originally finished in 1090. It was very unique in the sense that the entire wall was decorated, a few hundred years after it was built, by the Mamluks. The entire minaret was destroyed in 2013.

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One of quite a few people in Aleppo we ended up having coffee with. It’s innate to Syrians to invite guests into their homes. Given the climate and temperatures, and the historical distance between towns, a trader would need to rely on the courtesy of strangers to make it across multi-day trips, and extend those courtesies himself. Seated next to our host is Becky, of Scotland, whom I met on the train and was traveling Syria by herself. We both found people liked couples better than single people, so we traveled together through Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers and Hama, to separate ways afterwards.

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The National Museum in Aleppo contains the oldest civilized human shelter (8500 BC), brought from Northern Syria. The museum was built in 1930. One of the interesting things, which you also see in places like Uganda and Vietnam, were the different languages used as descriptions. Many expositions were sponsored by German and French scientific organizations, so you’d see some parts of the Museum with indications in Arabic and English, and others in Arabic/German or Arabic/French, depending on whom sponsored the exhibition.

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A busy street in downtown Aleppo.

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A busy street in downtown Aleppo, with a parked United Nations vehicle. I remember at the time digging pretty deep to find out why there was a UN presence in Aleppo, but was unable to find out. My best guess was the unrest in Lebanon, which had only just ended a month before, and was only a good 200 km away. My friend Danial correctly pointed out that UN involvement really doesn’t need to indicate a sign of conflict, but could be related to other issues that are being addressed. For instance, by the start of the conflict, Syria was home to over half a million Palestinian refugees itself, who are now again at a great likelihood of being displaced.

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A big part of Syrian architecture, at least in the larger and wealthier cities, is “Courtyard housing”. Building one or more houses around a central courtyard became popular in Iraq and Syria, as the Arabs adjusted to living in the city, coming from the nomadic desert life where they’d place their tents around a common area, where the family would live and work. Courtyards in Islamic architecture add additional privacy, as they are not visible from the outside, allow for better control of sunlight and shade in hot temperatures, and a special, covered area called an “Iwan” allows for a covered area from where the courtyard can be enjoyed, or where music can be performed with great acoustics towards the courtyard.

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Another shopping street in Aleppo.

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One of many wall paintings of Bashar al-Assad. Many also depict his father, Hafez al-Asssad. Most of Syria is sunni muslim, including the Kurds, with around 13% of the population being Shia. However, the al-Assad family are Alawites (“followers of Ali”) which are Shia. Other religious minorities include Christians, Druze, Yazidi and a very small amount of Jews.

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During my stay in Syria, I stayed in the Baron hotel, which, despite its small size with only 17 rooms, was the favorite hotel of both Agatha Christie and TE Lawrence, when they stayed in Syria. This is where the beginnings of the ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ was written, on Agatha Christie’s portable Remington typewriter. I stayed in room 202, which was quite intentional- it was the room TE Lawrence requested upon each of his stays in Aleppo. Just down the hall, from the balcony of room 215, King Faisal once declared Syria’s independence. In 2014, the hotel closed its doors as it had had no paying guests since the beginning of the war.

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To the right, TE Lawrence’s last unpaid bar bill. As he famously wrote in a letter to his mother: “Another letter from this beautiful hotel, whose face you must be getting to know by heart”.

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Crossing the street in downtown Aleppo.

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A view of downtown Aleppo from the Citadel. I did not prepare well for the trip, and was reading a copy of TE Lawrence’s seven pillars of wisdom on the train. He describes the city as ”a town of two hundred thousand people”. Needless to say I did not expect anything quite this size.

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He also wrote how in Aleppo “The races, creeds, and tongues of the Ottoman Empire met and knew one another in a spirit of compromise. The clash of characteristics, which made its streets a kaleidoscope, imbued the Aleppine with a lewd thoughtfulness which corrected in him what was blatant in the Damascene. Aleppo had shared in all the civilizations which turned about it: the result seemed to be a lack of zest in its people’s belief”.

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It was clear Lawrence was deeply impressed. “[the people of Aleppo] fought and traded more; were more fanatical and vicious; and made most beautiful things”. I found Aleppans to be this way. My initial welcome to the city were children using the bi-weekly train for target practice. Most of the ride over I had wondered how so many windows were broken on the train. That question was quickly answered when we were hit with large rocks once we rolled into the city.

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He felt Aleppo was a “great city in Syria, but not of Syria”.

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A lone traveller from the UK, reading up on the history of the ancient Citadel, while taking a break from his walk. There were really only a few tourists in Aleppo the four days I was there, and most had travelled in by train.

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Heading towards the al-Medina Souq in Aleppo. The gentleman on the right was one of perhaps three people across eight weeks that didn’t like his shop being photographed. We talked about it afterwards, and he no longer minded. One of the things I noticed strolling through the souq was the incredible ethnic variety of people in Syria. There are many reasons for this, but one of the reasons you sometimes find blonde, blue-eyed Syrians is the mixing of races that did happen between the crusaders, and some of the locals.

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The Al-Madina Souq in Aleppo, one of the jewels of the silk road, yet unfortunately much of it was destroyed in fighting between the Syrian government and opposition forces. Prior to this damage, it was purportedly the longest covered market in the world.

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Children enjoying an icecream in the hot Aleppo sun. Family is incredibly important in Syrian culture, to the degree that as a then 27-year old without a wife and kids, I was shunned a little bit. On the Toros Ekspresi, I had a conversation with a 27-year old Syrian woman, who had six children, and who genuinely thought something was very wrong with me for not having any at her age. Arriving in Aleppo, I also felt somewhat avoided by most, until Becky and I pretended to be a married couple, after which we were suddenly the hottest couple in town, and everyone wanted to speak with us.

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A giant Noria, or water wheel, in Hama, Syria on the Orontes River, which flows from Lebanon to the Lake of Homs. These are giant pots which raise water into aquaduct, so it can be transferred either to a plot for watering, or to towns and villages. While they remain for historical purposes, and no longer transfer water, they were famous throughout the Middle East during the Byzantine period, when they were constructed.

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A view from the rooftop of my inn in Hama. I was staying here with Becky, my newfound Scottish friend, and the innkeeper took his belief that we were married a little bit far… In the evening, we had dinner with a Journalist who was studying three small villages, Jubb’adin, Al-Sarkha and Ma’loula, where people still speak Aramaic – the language of Jesus. Earlier, we had checked into a nice inn, and had gotten two separate beds in a dorm room. When we returned from the dinner, we found the innkeeper had moved everyone off the roof, and into various rooms. On the rooftop, there was a single soft, lush mattress, a table with a romantic candle, plushy pillows, and some sweets. It was a hard night’s rest on the stone floor, for me.

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Masyaf Castle, home of the “Assassins”, an ancient Shia sect, which trained a special class of warriors that would conduct espionage and assassinations of crusaders. Governed by “the Old Man of the Mountains”, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, the castle’s main function was to protect and safeguard the trade routes to inland Syria.

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The next day, we travelled to Krak des Chevaliers, described by TE Lawrence as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. On this picture you see the city of al-Hosn. In 2013, al-Hosn was the subject of serious fighting between rebel forces and the Syrian army. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the predominantly Sunni village was seen by the army as housing terrorists. The entire village withdrew either to Lebanon, or sought refuge in the castle, which was then assaulted by the government, and sustained heavy damage. According to journalists that visited the castle since, most of the surrounding village is today, destroyed.

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Krak des Chevaliers and al-Hosn, with the anti-Lebanon mountains in the backdrop.

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I could just imagine being a medieval soldier, sitting on top of this fortress lookout, overlooking the plains and the mountains for the arrival of invading forces.

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Children from al-Hosn.

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The Inner court of the Krak. In 1271, in a spectacular failure of the fort’s defenses, Egyptian Sultan Baibars constructed large catapults called mongonels, which launched weaponry towards the impressive fortress walls. The crusaders withdrew to the inner court, until a representative from the Knights Hospitalier gave them permission to surrender. On April 8th of that year, Krak fell to Muslim forces.

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The Arch of Triumph in Palmyra. Palmyra is an ancient, Semitic city once ruled by Queen Zenobia, who was one of the few leaders of her time who dared to challenge the Roman emperor.

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Boy riding a horse in Palmyra.

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The Roman Theatre in Palmyra, which dates back to the second century. It was rebuilt and restored in the 1950’s and in current days was used as the main event hall for Palmyra. In 2015, when ISIS took control of Palmyra, it became the site of a mass execution by teenage members of the movement.

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A beautiful row of columns in Palmyra. Luckily, this row is not the one flattened by ISIS, but a similar nearby column was.

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The Temple of Baalshamin, in the foreground, which was dedicated to the sky deity Baalshamin. The building was originally built in the 2nd century BC, but rebuilt in 131 AD. This was one of the most complete structures in all of Palmyra, until it was demolished by ISIS in 2015. In the background is the Arab Citadel, also known as Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle, which was built by the Mamluks in the 13th century. This building is in relative safety, as ISIS announced they would only remove objects of “pagan interest”, whereas the castle has little religious value.

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Another beautiful row of columns, the current state of which is unknown. Note the beautiful detail on the column remnant in the foreground. Palmyra is famous for the use of color motifs, including one very famous one, the “Palmyrene rose”, which was widely re-used by artists across the world. This little motif became famous for its use in arts and crafts across the United Kingdom after it was discovered here.

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Another beautiful row of columns, the current state of which is unknown.

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The Tetrapylon, a monument which once oversaw a pivot in one of the main roads of Palmyra, a road which was once completely collonaded by large pillars.

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The north wall of the Temple of Bel, which was Palmyra’s largest temple, until it was confirmed to have been destroyed by ISIS in August of 2015. The temple was built in consideration of the god Malak-bel, a sun deity. Both him and his brethren Aglibol, the lunar god, and another sun god, Yarhibol were simultaneously worshipped at the temple.

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A sunset photo of the Arch of Triumph.

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A local family driving from the ruins back to the local town of Tadmur on their motorcycle.

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Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle and the now removed Temple of Baalshamin.

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An old Volkswagen Beetle. There were quite a few of these around, and they’re most likely an easy to maneuver car in the narrow streets of the old city of Damascus.

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Bashar al-Assad assumed office as President of Syria in 2000, taking over after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Initially he was widely seen as a reformer, due to his scientific education both in Damascus and abroad. This turned out to be somewhat accurate, with al-Assad closing down a major prison, and offering amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners. Later, in 2005, his government was blamed of ties to the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon. Only a few years prior to that, the US had also marked Syria as an “axis of evil” state. During my stay in Syria, many people complained to me about the fact that tourism income had gone down tremendously due to Bush’s statement in 2001. This seemed accurate, in Palmyra, it was just me and a Japanese girl, in Aleppo, I counted just eight tourists, and in Hama, there appeared to be only three. In some places the amount of street vendors were more than triple the amount of people roaming around. A violent response of Assad’s forces to a fight between a police officer and a civilian in 2011, led to a significant government crackdown, squashing the hopes of reform, and finally resulted in the current war.

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The Al-Hamidiyah Souq is the largest market in Damascus, almost half a kilometer long. One of the most attractive features is a major spice market, which you can really smell during the entire walk throughout the hall. The Souq starts on the outside of the old city, and leads all the way to the entrance of the Ummayad Mosque.

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The Great Mosque of Damascus, was constructed in 734 and is one of the larguest mosques in the world. After the Battle of Karbala, where the allegiants to Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, lost against Yazid I, the Ummayad Caliph. All woman and children were taken prisoners, and were made to walk back from present-day Iraq to the mosque, and held as prisoners in this location for sixty days.

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A young child overlooking the courtyard of the Ummayad mosque.

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Another view of the Great Mosque, also known as the Umayyad Mosque, as it was built by adherents of the Umayyad caliphate, using its traditional building style, incorporating minarets and mihrab’s, the typical semi-circular niches in the wall that indicate the direction of the qibla in Mecca.

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The Mausoleum of Saladin holds the grave of Ayyubid Sultan Saladin, and was built in 1196. Saladin was the first sultan of Egypt, and led the Muslim opposition to the crusaders. He oversaw a massive conquest over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, where he recaptured Palestine, and in particular Jerusalem. Even in Europe, Saladin was seen as an impressive leader, and someone who was just for both his people and his enemies. In particular, in 1191, he is supposed to have bought back the child of a Christian woman, which was stolen and sold on an illegal market.

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The Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque houses the grave of Zaynab, the granddaughter of Muhammad, and daughter of the first Shia imam. Zaynab protected her nephew Husayn, by throwing herself over him in a protective embrace, when he was sentenced to death by the governor of Kufa. Due to her actions, she became known as the “Hero of Karbala”. Today, the Mosque is one of the holiest sites of Shia Islam, and many Shia come annually during summer and engage in a passionate ritual of wailing, crying, and beating on their chest. That was what was happening in this image.

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Carpet sales in the old city. And a convenient way to keep the car cool throughout the day.

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Damascus, in particular the old city, claims to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. While that claim is hotly debated, there was definitely a presence there of people dating back to 2 millennia BC. The city is still changing in many ways, as is seen here by the introduction of communications cables.

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Entrance to the Armenian Aposstolic Orthodox Church Diocese of Damascus.

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The Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Damascus. The Melkite Church is headquartered here, in Damascus, but operates across the Mediterranean, and has about 1.6 million members. In 2013, their patriarch, Gregory III Laham, called out against foreign intervention in the country, instead appealing to countries to stop importing weapons.

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I’m not entirely certain, but I believe this was a street in the Jewish Quarter of Damascus. Damascus, and Syria in general, has historically been a place where many different religions lived together. In the 40’s, life on Syrian jews became harder, with laws being passed reducing their rights, and particularly limiting their ability to emigrate. According to a local rabbi, there are now only 17 left in the entire country. Hafez al-Assad most famously once said about Jewish emigration, “I cannot let them go, because if I let them go how can I stop Russia from sending its Jews to Israel, where they will strengthen my enemy?”.

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Children playing in the Old City of Damascus.

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View of Damascus from the top of Mount Qasioun. The mountain is right next to Damascus, and is a favorite place for young Syrians to go and hang out. It also has a long list of fancy restaurants with great views of the city. Historically, however, Mount Qasioun is said to have been inhabited by the first man Adam, and it is known as one of the few places in the world where prayers were immediately answered. The mountain is also known as the “Cave of Blood”, as it is supposed to be the site of the first murder in the world – that of Abel by Cain. When I took this photo, right behind me was the Jamraya research facility, which is now believed to have been the headquarters of Syria’s chemical weapons program. The area was razed by Israeli bombs in late 2013.

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I have a habit of buying a local newspaper in every new country I visit, and this was the copy I managed to pick up in Syria. During my stay, Bashar al-Assad was in India, apparently meeting with then prime minister Manmohan Singh.

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The shared taxi which brought me and four Syrians from Damascus to Amman. There is a railway between both cities, but it was already suspended at the time of my trip.

 

16 comments

  1. Hey Maarten! Thanks for this great view of Syria, Beautiful pictures, it’s really a shame that most of the things you have seen are gone…

    1. Thank you, Sara! It is indeed quite sad to see what has become of the country since then. Life was definitely not all rosy for people of Syria before the war, but it has gotten significantly worse. Appreciate your comment, and happy you enjoyed the photos.

  2. Thank you for a very informative and well written article. There is so much in the media now about Syria’s current situations and I think your photos and descriptions are especially important and relevant.
    -Vanessa at Green Global Travel

  3. Hi Maarten, Thank you for your excellent article and great photos which have evoked
    many special memories for me. I was lucky enough to be in Syria in 1974, working on an archeological dig on the Euphrates, 65 miles south of Aleppo. I, too, stayed at the Baron Hotel for a couple of nights and spent a magical day wandering around Palmyra. What is happening there now makes me weep as the Syrian people are so hospitable and kind.
    Prue

  4. Hi Maarten, Thank you for your very informative post of peaceful Syria. I’m a strong believer of non-violence (ahimisa) taught by Mahatma Gandhi. I am deeply sad when I see small girls orphaned and crying for their mother due to some mindless conflict. I personally see all the conflict around middle east are simply sectarian and often think why not the leaders of these religious sects join tighter and announce that they are together as followers of Islam and people should not fight on sectarian issues?.
    I understand there are positive and negative side of any regime which do not operate on democratic norms. But as long as there is peace and general standard of living, then the international community should leave them alone.
    Sorry, to have brought in multiple issues to your beautiful travel narrative. Thanks for sharing. I pary to god to bring peace to this region and wipe of out the tears of innocents.
    Regards
    ravi

  5. hi maarten,

    that was a great piece of information. I was transported into that world. D you you also have a general idea about what does the local people do for living? Do they have entertainment spots, how free are women of this world? Are their common spots like restaurant and pubs, where people chat, and how is the vibes at these places?

  6. Hey Maarten ! 🙂 Your article is very nice and your pictures are amazing !
    I am a young architect doing a competition for post-war social housing in Syria and I would love to talk with you about the way Syrian people used to live there and how is the architecture ! Do you think you could give more information about that please? I made some research and found information about iwan, courtyards, q’aa, but if you could send me some information about how they are using the place, it would be really great !
    Thank you a lot !! 🙂 and keep going, you have a really nice blog!

  7. Sadly the writer have very low knowledge about Syria!!
    I didn’t finish reading all the article to the end but there is many mistakes historical geographical and also demographical…..

    1. Hi Feras, thanks for the feedback, and I’d love to learn more about what is inaccurate about my reflection so I can improve my understanding of the country. Feel free to send me a message with any inaccuracies you find, or any useful pointers you may have. Thanks!

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