Memories Of Aleppo, Syria

Aleppo, Syria
I pulled into Aleppo, Syria, on January 10, 1994, and had a hard time caring that I was in one of the most historic cities of the Arab world. I was in the grip of a bad flu courtesy of a combination of a desert hike and an air-conditioned bus ride. I barely looked at the sleek minarets, medieval citadel and bustling markets. All I wanted was a bed, medicine and solitude.

Grumpy and harassed, I elbowed my way through the crowd of Russian prostitutes and smugglers who seemed to dominate the neighborhood around the bus station. Hotel after hotel was full. I was feeling weaker by the minute. Then I came to the Hotel Syria and was greeted by the manager Sali, a thin man with excellent English, graying hair and a ready smile. He took one look at me and tut-tutted.

“You shouldn’t be traveling in this condition. Come in and I’ll get you tea.”

“All I need is sleep,” I replied.

“Rest, I’ll bring you tea.”

I remember nothing of the room I collapsed in, or indeed anything else about the Hotel Syria. All I remember is Sali. Bringing me tea. Bringing fruit form the market. Bringing me medicine from the pharmacy without my asking.

“No, keep your money. You are a guest. Not like those Russians. They spend four days on the bus to come here and only cause trouble. I’m going to buy some disinfectant and spray them when they come through the door.”

%Gallery-168005%I was soon on the mend and out exploring Aleppo. From the citadel I could see the city spread out to all horizons, minarets pointing to the sky and chemical factories belching poison in the distance. In the evenings I’d return and sit with Sali drinking tea and recounting my day.

The best days were spent in the famous souk, once the western terminus of the Silk Road and one of the best preserved in the world. I wrote in my journal that it was “everything Westerners think of when they think of bazaars. A low roof arches over smoky stalls selling spices. Trucks and donkeys jockey for position in crowded alleys. Everything is for sale here: spices, clothing, sweets, all kinds of fruit, shoes, rope, gold jewelry, silk, dishes, pipes, toys, cigarettes, nuts, tea sets, gravestones, tiles, soap, leather, perfume, brooms, combs, juice, wedding dresses, etc. I saw no tourists.”

As I wandered down one of the little streets, two men in a tiny silk stall on a corner called out to me, “Where are you from?”

“Canada.” I replied.

One of them brought up two fingers in front of his eyes and brought them together, saying, “I crush you.” A “Kids in the Hall” reference in Syria?

I had found the famous Mohammed brothers. I’d heard about them a month ago in Turkey from other travelers. These nine brothers were the queens of the souk, flamboyantly propositioning passersby and grilling foreigners for pickup lines and dirty words that they carefully entered into a little black book.

They weren’t really gay (I think) they just found it fun. As we sat in their stall drinking tea they told me, “You nice, but no gay. Want to go to Turkish bath?”

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Too bad,” one said, then turned to the crowd to call out in English, “I love you! You nice!”

An old guy tottered past. One of the Mohammeds turned to me.

“He not nice, maybe 50 years ago.”

Back in those days no tourist made it through Aleppo without meeting these guys. They had a constantly growing photo album of their guests, including pictures of people I’d met weeks before. The whole Mohammed family owned eight shops (“we’re mafia”) and basically ran the street. That didn’t stop them from occasionally getting in trouble from Syrians who didn’t like their queer routine.

Now their shops have burned to the ground along with the rest of the souk, victims of the fighting between insurgents and soldiers of the Assad regime. The Mohammed brothers can no longer sit behind piles of silk propositioning Arabs in English and expanding their dirty vocabulary with the help of a steady stream of bemused foreign guests.

What happened to them? Are they hiding in their homes waiting for the storm to pass? Are they among the crowds of refugees fleeing to Turkey? Or did their sense of fun finally catch up with them and they fell victim to the Islamists who have joined the ranks of the insurgency? And what happened to Sali? He was old enough that he might have mercifully died before his world fell apart. If he still lives he’s in his 70s, and a war zone is pitiless on the elderly.

One of the affects of travel is that these places are no longer abstract images on the news. They’re real, with real people who are suffering real hardship. Perhaps if Sali had nursed Obama and Romney back to health, or if the two candidates had sat for a time sharing tea and dirty jokes with the Mohammed brothers, the sufferings of millions of Syrians would be a burning issue in this election.

Perhaps our leaders should get out of their political bubble and travel more.

[Photo courtesy Luigi Guarino]

Syrian Civil War Fueled By Illegal Antiquities Trade

Syrian Civil War
We’ve reported before here on Gadling how the unrest in Syria has led to the damage of much of that nation’s archaeological heritage. Now Time magazine reports that the Syrian Civil War has led to a huge trade in illegal antiquities that may be lengthening the war.

Smugglers and antiquities dealers in Lebanon told the magazine that both the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government are trading looted antiquities for weapons. One smuggler even claimed that the Free Syrian Army is organizing a special team to more systematically locate archaeological artifacts to sell. The Free Syrian Army denies the claim but admits that some of its members have engaged in looting.

While the destruction of Syria’s past may seem of little importance when compared with the 20,000 or more killed and the countless injured and displaced, the fact that the trade in looted antiquities may be fueling the conflict is troubling. It will also make it harder for Syria to recover once the war is over. It used to earn 12% of its national income from tourists attracted by the country’s many ancient and medieval sites.

There may be little left to see, with all six of its UNESCO World Heritage Sites damaged, and countless museums, archaeological sites and historic buildings looted and damaged.

One good source of information on the continuing destruction of Syria’s past is the Facebook page Syrian Heritage under Threat – grim but important reading.

[Photo of checkpoint in Damascus courtesy Voice of America]

Passengers Asked To Chip In For Fuel On Diverted Plane

air france As if fuel surcharges, baggage fees and having to pay for food on expensive flights wasn’t bad enough, on Wednesday, passengers on board an Air France flight that got diverted from Beirut to Damascus were asked to help “chip in” to refuel the plane.

The reason for the diversion was tensions in Beirut. Unfortunately, the airline suspended flights to Damascus in March due to safety reasons.

Roland, a 23-year-old engineer on the flight, explained the flight got held up in Syria’s capital because of the fuel dilemma. He told news.come.au, “There were some negotiations going on to buy fuel because Air France doesn’t fly to Damascus at the moment and so it doesn’t have an account with Damascus airport authorities.”

According to an anonymous Air France employee, the crew at first tried to pay for the fuel in Damascus with a credit card; however, the transaction could not be completed because of financial sanctions, which have been imposed on Syria.

It is unclear how the issue was finally resolved.

[Image via Joe Jones]

How Could An Ancient City Survive In The Desert?

ancient city, Palmyra, Syra
The drive through the Syrian desert to the ancient city of Palmyra makes you wonder how anyone lived out here 2000 years ago. For hours you speed east from Damascus along a dusty desert road, the only sights being a few dull concrete buildings, Bedouin with their herds and a thick black telephone line snaking along the ground next to the highway.

Once you get to Palmyra, you find a lush little oasis with splendid ruins nearby. It was here that a thriving civilization acted as the center of trade from east to west. But how did this city, which some scholars estimate had a population of 100,000, support itself? The oasis is nowhere near big enough, and the rocky, barren desert doesn’t look capable of supporting more than a few skinny goats.

Now a team of Syrian and Norwegian archaeologists has found the answer. With a combination of satellite imagery and boots on the ground, they’ve explored the region around the ancient city and discovered several ancient villages to the north. Through the clever use of dams and cisterns, the villagers were able to collect the uncommon but not rare rainfall in the region and put it to best use.

Also, tough grass lies just below the surface, its web of roots ready to capture any rain and immediately burst forth with shoots. The Bedouin would graze their flocks there, fertilizing the fields and trading with the locals.

So through an understanding of nature, an efficient use of resources and cooperating with their neighbors, the Palmyrenes brought forth a thriving civilization in the middle of the desert.

Looks like we could learn something from them.

[Photo courtesy Arian Zwegers]

Destruction, Looting Of Syria’s Ancient Heritage Continues, Report Says

Syria
The upheaval in Syria has been going on for more than a year now, and in that time thousands of people have been killed, including many civilians and children. Syria’s many ancient sites are also getting damaged. Previously, we’ve talked about how the Syrian army has shelled the ancient city of Palmyra and the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which there are six in the country.

A report by the Global Heritage Fund states that these and many other sites and museums, are getting damaged and looted in the chaos. Sites like Tell Sheikh Hamad, pictured above in this Wikimedia Commons image. This Assyrian town was inhabited for several centuries and archaeologists have found numerous cuneiform inscriptions there. Recently it became a battleground between the Syrian army and deserters. An Assyrian temple reportedly collapsed when it got hit by shellfire and the rest of the site likely suffered serious damage as well.

The medieval citadel of Hama has also been shelled, as can be seen in the video below.

Besides the fighting, historic sites are getting damaged by troops digging trenches, tanks rolling over fragile areas, and snipers building positions atop historic homes. Not even mosques have been safe, with several historic mosques suffering damage.

Looting is also a serious problem since members of museum staff are often not around to guard their collections due to the fighting. In Crac des Chevaliers, looters kicked out the staff at gunpoint and started digging.

With no end in sight for the Syrian Civil War, it’s certain that more of the nation’s previous heritage will be destroyed or stolen.