Back in 2009, as part of a larger solo backpacking adventure around the world, I found myself wandering through the Middle East and into a relatively unknown and media-shy country called Syria. There was no civil war, there was no Islamic State, and there certainly weren’t four million people trying to flee.
What I found was a unique combination of beautiful cities drenched with history and buzzing with life; impressive world-class archaeological sites set in striking natural surroundings; and the most genuinely warm, friendly and hospitable people I had ever encountered in all of my travels.
I remember walking across the Turkish border and into the far north-eastern town of Al-Qamishli – a little bit hesitant and anxious about what to expect. Those feelings however were quickly dismissed as soon as I went in search of my first meal. A passing restaurant owner came out and asked me to join him for a kebab. We ate together over a bunch of laughs, sweet tea and chats about Australia. Welcome to Syria.
I also remember jumping on a bus in the city of Homs. I looked up at the bus driver who had a huge smile on his face – he realised I was a visitor in his country and refused all payment, instead welcoming me onto his bus free of charge. Then there were the countless strangers who constantly stopped me in the street to have their photo taken, or have a chat and “practice their English”, without the hidden agenda you find in so many other countries. If only for the people, Syria would be one of my favourite destinations.
But then there’s Palmyra – and this just raises the bar. Set in the middle of the desert, this ancient UNESCO Roman city is overshadowed by an equally impressive Arab Castle set high on the nearby mountain. In 2009, the number of camels outnumbered the number of visitors which I could have counted on both hands. There was definitely something special and authentic about the place. Wandering between the ancient city and the castle, I encountered a Bedouin family seeking shelter in the shade. Without hesitation they greeted me and offered to share tea and smiles – an experience I’d never forget.
Just as beautiful are the cities and towns which have managed to (recent events aside) preserve their old-world heritage and charm. Take the Souq al-Hamidiyya in Damascus for example – an exciting marketplace packed with everything from spices, to leather goods, copperware, and silk scarves. Beams of light shine through the corrugated-iron roof thanks to bullet holes made by French planes nearly 100 years ago. At the end of the Souq sits the genuinely impressive Umayyad mosque – completed in the 8th Century, this significant site was previously a temple, a church, and a church/mosque combination. It holds the head of John the Baptist and is where Jesus is said to return at the End of Days. I spent a good half-day just sitting in the mosque; soaking up the ambience, watching kids play in the courtyard, watching people catch up, pray and rest. It became evident to me the mosque was the centre of community life and such a peaceful place to be.
I can honestly say that throughout my brief time in Syria I had never felt safer or more welcomed. It really was a spectacular country with the most beautiful people. For those reasons it will always hold a special place in my heart and I feel so fortunate to have visited when I did.
The way things have turned out is extremely saddening. When I see Syrian refugees on TV I can’t help but think of those happy, welcoming people I met on my travels and how bad things must have been for them to risk it all and leave. I think about the destruction of Palmyra, the fighting in the streets, the shelling of Aleppo’s citadel. Syria had so much going for it and it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly recover.
All I know is if one of those Syrian’s came knocking on my door, I would welcome them inside without hesitation, offer them some tea and genuinely enjoy their company – just as they had done for me.
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