Southern Syria before the war
My then pregnant wife and I spent a little more than two weeks in Syria back in 2002. I have been treasuring these photos and memories since then. In this and the upcoming posts I’ll try to show you how inviting and calm this country was before it fell prey to the greed of local and international powers. This first part is about Southern Syria.
Bosra, a hidden gem in Southern Syria
We arrived in Southern Syria by road from Jordania. We flew to Amman, the Jordanian capital. First we wanted see Syria to then return to its southern neighbour for the second part of our holiday. The journey was a bit tiring but I remember how good it felt when the border guards welcomed us with a smile.
We took a short sightseeing tour on a horse cart. The owner of the cart was a sweet young man, who did his best to present his town though we didn’t have a common language. He took us to a souvenir shop and let me take a photo of him and his horse.
For me the highlight of this small town was the ancient Roman theatre, now nested in the middle of a younger fortress. We spent hours walking up and down the stairs and admiring how the lights changed.
The other memorable thing was the accommodation. We stayed in the medieval Citadel, the only budget hotel at the time. Our room was around 6 metres tall and we slept on old beds lined by the walls. Everything was decorated with beautiful carpets and cushions.
Update: In 2013 the army used the Citadel to bomb the town on a daily basis. Later the town was taken over by the Syrian rebels in four days of fierce battle.
Arriving in the Syrian capital, our first experience was that the hotel owner gave us a discount when he heard we were from Hungary. The positive vibe surrounded us during our stay. One day a man showed us a mosque; he turned out to be a carpet seller. In other Oriental countries this would have meant an hour of hassle. He wouldn’t accept any money in return for his time.
The medina – old town – of Damascus felt like travelling back in time. Supermarkets were still unheard of so people went to the small specialist stores to shop. Entire streets were filled with handicraft workshops, clothes bazaars or goldsmiths’ shops. And people were smiling.
I will never forget the atmosphere of the 100-year-old Bakdash ice cream parlour. Or the elderly taxi driver who tried to teach me Arab words with enthusiasm. It was Friday when the batteries in my camera died. We asked in a small shop and they sent us to a Kodak store. But first they insisted we drink a tea with them. And then there were the old buildings of a thousand tales.
The most majestic of them all was the Omayyad Mosque. This ancient building has pieces of a Byzantine temple in its walls and its decoration is stunning. We sat inside watching how people prayed peacefully in the shade.
Update: January 2012 the clashes between the Syrian army and the rebel forces reached the suburbs of Damascus. In June bullets, shrapnel shells and tank shells caused serious damage in residential areas in central Damascus.
Saidnaya and Maaloula
These two Christian communities are located in the Barada Valley not far from the capital. Both are noted as two of the last few towns in Southern Syria where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken.
Saidnaya has long been a pilgrimage destination for both Christian and Muslim believers. Its Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya sits high above the city, offering wonderful views of the neatly organised stone houses.
The population of Maaloula is special as both its Christian and Muslim inhabitants still speak the ancient Aramaic language. The town is famous for its blue-silver houses and old monasteries.
Update: Between 5000 and 15000 people (war prisoners) were executed without a trial and cremated secretly in the prison not far from Saidnaya by the government forces.
During the war Maaloula has changed hands several times. The army took hostage 12 of the Orthodox nuns (they were later released). Today it is held by government.