The Road To Damascus Part One – Travel In Northern Syria Before The War

“The natives showed us extraordinary kindness.”
– Acts 28:2

The second intifada forces us to reconsider our plans. Access to the West Bank is restricted and most sites closed, so we promise to visit the land another time. Overland options along the eastern Mediterranean are limited, and we decide to take ferries from Turkey to Egypt via Greece. We ring in the New Year waiting for the boat to take us from Marmaris to Rhodes. Meanwhile, outside the wind is kicking up a fuss, and the crossing is canceled until “maybe Friday”. But, our Turkish visas are expiring in a few days and there is only one route left to follow.

The Citadel in Aleppo in 2001

Aleppo Citadel

We know as much about Syria and Jordan as the next western tourist, which isn’t much. The area’s depiction in the media is less than inviting, but at least we know enough to not believe everything we see on TV. So, we go back to Ankara and jump through the hoops of getting Syrian visas. We make  several visits to various embassies to buy letters of recommendation, drop off unstamped and pick up stamped passports. Finally, with a bit of apprehension, we venture into the Arab world.

Noria and Mosque in Aleppo, Syria

Noria (Water Wheel) and Mosque in Aleppo

Our first obstacles are deciphering the customs and immigration procedures, and filling in the forms written in an unintelligible script. This is almost unmanageable without the help of a Lebanese gentleman who guides us through the process. He also changes our remaining Turkish lira into Syrian pounds, which is officially impossible. Could friendly interactions like this be commonplace in Syria, and possibly convert our trepidation?

Travel in Northern Syria

We arrive in Aleppo after dark, and stand in the middle of a parking lot, puzzling over a map in the only English guidebook we could find in Ankara. A French-speaking local stops to see if he can help. He points out our location (we are nowhere near the bus station), points us in the direction of a decent hotel, and says goodbye. We expect to see him during check-in to collect his commission, but he is nowhere to be seen.

Alex at the Citadel in Aleppo, Syria

Alex takes in the atmosphere at Aleppo’s Citadel

Any town worth its salt in the Middle East hosts an imposing citadel. But, one of the world’s largest castles, destroyed and rebuilt for several millennia, watches over Aleppo. Views across the old city, slightly obscured by a mid-winter coal-heated haze, echoing with minarets calling across the rooftops, added to a palpable medieval atmosphere we would experience throughout the entire region – often alone. In fact, for the next fortnight, we have every ancient castle and ruin in the country to ourselves.

Birds fly over the Aleppo skyline in 2001

Birds fly across the Aleppo skyline on a hazy afternoon

Syria and its sites are cultural and historical superlatives. Aleppo’s market is no different. However, where Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar offers every manner of kitsch and souvenir, Souq al-Madina is for locals.

We don’t have to imagine how it might have been a thousand years ago. We just have to look around to see donkeys carrying robed men in headscarves, bumping into veiled women who order cuts of mutton hanging from stone archways over the cobbled alleys of an ageless market.

Little, it seems, has changed.

The Market Souq in Aleppo, Syria in 2001

Souq al-Madina

Down By The River

Syria is a downstream country, with nearly 60% of its water originating somewhere else. The Tigris crosses its border only momentarily as it flows from Turkey to Iraq. Meanwhile, the Euphrates bisects the country and provides its capital with fresh water. Both sources are in the Taurus Mountains in eastern Turkey and, like all rivers in the region but one, flow south. Unlike the others, the Orontes River flows north from Lebanon and provides water to Syria’s third and fourth largest cities, Homs and Hama – our next destinations.

Krak Des Chevaliers near Homs, Syria

Krak des Chevaliers Crusader Fort

Close to Homs is one of the world’s most important and imposing medieval castles. Krak des Chevaliers was first captured from the local Kurds. It was rebuilt, repaired and defended by the Knights Hospitaller during Crusades, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Forever situated on military battle lines, political borderlines and seismic fault lines, it continues to be damaged by centuries of earthquakes and conflicts.

Nearby, and not to be outdone, Hama boasts the world’s largest “noria”. Waterwheels dot the banks of what few rivers Syria has, and have been irrigating the fields above since the Middle Ages.

Nowhere, however, are they as charming as Hama. Wooden paddles and spokes, reaching diameters of over sixty feet, creak and groan above the Orontes’ downstream flow.

Water Wheels grace the banks of the Orontes River in Hama, Syria

Norias reflecting in the Orontes River

* Editor’s note:

Part of the Fertile Crescent, Syria is home to the oldest civilization in the world. 10,000 years ago, animal husbandry and agriculture were first practised there. It has been home to nearly every ancient empire – a clash of civilizations which continues today. This article is the first part of The Road To Damascus and describes our travel in northern Syria in January 2001.


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