Travel writer, Syria: ‘Most of this is a war zone now, the medieval souk gutted by fire’

My Syrian visa was the jewel of my passport and I couldn’t drop the country from my itinerary, despite the danger

 

It was my first experience of crossing a land border in the Middle East, although in the following months I would become breezily familiar with the process. The small minibus rattled from Turkish holy town Urfa to the hot and grimy border town separating me from Tel Abyad, my first stop in Syria.

Worried texts from home (it was March 2011) warned of the increasing volatility in Syria and entreated me to drop it from the itinerary of my journey from Istanbul to Bangkok. I couldn’t. My Syrian multiple entry visa was the jewel of my passport and my imagination had already roamed the souk of Aleppo and clambered over the ruins of Palmyra.

So I negotiated the chaotic Turkish side into the large clean Syrian border post, where minimal formalities were accompanied by a hearty “Welcome in Syria!”, a phrase I would hear repeatedly throughout the next few weeks. At the ramshackle bus-station in Tel Abyed, another policeman asked for my passport. “You are Irish?” ‘”Yes.” “North or South?” “South”. A smile and a wink and another “Welcome in Syria!”

In the following days I did it all: staying beside the Aleppo’s iconic clock tower; evenings in the laid-back Christian Quarter; hookah-pipes; unexpected beer stalls down side streets; getting intoxicatingly lost within the souk before emerging in front of the imposing citadel; and everywhere I went, curiosity and conversation and “Welcome in Syria!”

Most of this is a war zone now, the medieval souk gutted by fire and the citadel a heavily bombed snipers’ haven.

At the bus station on the way to Deir-ez-Zor and the Euphrates, I underwent a mild grilling in the attached police office. The river was brown and slow-moving, maybe not worth the five-hour bus journey. The evening streets made up for it, with free pastries from a stall-holder (“My gift to you: welcome in Syria!”) and a chance meeting with a Spanish student of Arabic. We ferreted out a small bar selling cold beer. I doubt it’s there now.

Palmyra was all I imagined and more. And I had it completely, gloriously, all to myself, the few hawkers deciding not to bother with the solitary tourist gazing in awe at temples and funerary towers, scrambling over fallen columns. In the evening, a lounge boy taught me the pro-Assad chant that I had heard emanating from cars and groups in the town: “With my heart, with my hands I will fight for Assad.”

I then headed back west towards the Lebanese border, with a stop to see the magnificent Krak des Chevaliers. At the border post my naivety dissolved. Two Syrian men, friendly but understatedly intimidating, gently held me back to search my rucksack. “Camera?” Yes I had one. They went through the pictures. “Videos?” It was clear that they were mukhabarat, secret police. My heart pounded as I tried to recall videoing any of the (admittedly all pro-regime) demonstrations I had seen. There were none. A pat on the shoulder and friendly wave goodbye belied the menace of a few seconds before.

After a week in decadent and dysfunctional Lebanon, I returned to Syria to a few days in Damascus, the tomb of Saladin and mezze, drinks and hookah with a group of similar solo travellers in Assad’s favourite restaurant, before an effortless journey south to Jordan. The contrast between the warmth of the welcome and the collapse into chaos and unspeakable violence has stayed with me ever since those few weeks in 2011. I hope to go back some day.

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