After I wittnessed the differences in cultures during my travels through Asia in 2010, I was eager to explore other non-western cultures as well. Mainly due to its political importance, the Middle-East was a place that attracted me a lot to explore next. Since in 2010 the Arabic Spring began to rise up, it was not quite an easy descision where to travel in the Middle East. However, in the first months of 2011 the political situation still looked quite stable in Lebanon and even in Syria. Therefore we – Iman, a friend of mine, and myself – happened to travel those two countries in April 2011. And in the end we turned out to be amongst the last tourists that had the chance to experience Syria just before a massive destruction of the country took place. Now – 10 years after our visit – I would like to share our impressions of 2011 with you and link it to the latest history that the cultural heritage of Syria has gone through during the last years when ISIS took over.
Our Travel Route
During our trip we passed along the following cities or sights of Syria:
- Maaloula (Malula)
- Deir ar-Zur
- Dura Europos
Just a couple of years later, many parts of the regions we passed through were captured by the Islamic State (ISIS). The following article shows that ISIS was present in regions like Palmyra, Aleppo or Deir ar-Zur during the years of 2015 until 2017.
Subsequently military operations or combat actions have taken place in these parts of the country. For instance, the following map of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve – shows the hot spots of military actions of the US-led commando in summer 2016.
But now I would like to share Syria with you how we were able to see it and how it looked like by that time. I still remember that shackling feeling when we crossed the border to Syria on April 8, 2011 from Lebanon. We took a cab to Damascus and saw the first Syrian flags and also Assad posters all over the highway leading to the capital of Syria. It was strange and also thrilling, because western media was already reporting about Assad and his strong course against the first protests before we left Germany, and those were the first symbols of his power that we perceived.
Damascus was a fascinating experience: A clash of different religions in one city, a Christian and Jewish quarter in an Arabic country. Also the fact that Damascus is several thousand years old was really impressive to us. Luckily I didn’t find a lot of reports about severe damages in Damascus city, maybe because Assad is also based in Damascus. I am assuming and hoping that places like the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus haven’t been damaged during the war and will continue to resist. Those places were stunning beautiful wittnesses of Abrahamic History of Religions.
Malula and Sednaya
After Damascus we went to Malula and Sednaya. I didn’t find any press reports about Malula or Sednaya being affected heavily by the war, so hopefully one can still experience these places like we did. In Sednaya we even met a family that spontaniously invited us to their home, served us tea and spent time together with us – even though they did’t speak our language or could’t even read latin letters. This hospitality is one of the most remarkable memories I indeed have from Syria.
The only thing western people today eventually know about Sednaya is the fact that there is a prison located in or close to the city that was very present in the media since the protests began:
- Sednaya prison is known for torturing and referring to Amnesty International is said to be amongst the most notorious prisions in the world (see YouTube video below)
- Leading figures of Isil, Al-Nusra or other extremist groups were imprisioned here
Of course we didn’t go to see this prison – hopefully we never will.
Our next stop led us to Bosra. As far as I know, the region around Bosra was one of the first regions where demonstrations took place – it is located only 40km from Daraa where the protests began. On April 11, 2011 we were able to wander around the old city of Bosra and enjoy perfect views on the very well preserved Roman theatre of the city.
As the following twitter post shows, the Roman theatre might already look very different today. Mainly the stairs have been damaged during the war.
Also, there are reports of the Bosra Old Town also being affected of the combat actions (see video). But in contrast to the destruction that has taken place at other Syrian sights of cultural heritage, Bosra obvisously was still lucky.
Palmyra seems to be the sad place that suffered most from ISIS. The terrorists blowed up severeal temples, tombs and other historic traces of the Romans. ISIS also destroyed most of all exhibits of the Palmyra museum. Therefore, I guess that Palmyra counts amongst the biggest losses of Syrian Cultural Heritages during the ISIS periode.
When we entered Palmyra on April 12, 2011 there was a strong sandstorm, so we needed to wait until the next morning until we could start to explore the ancient city. However when we arrived, it was already clear that not many tourist are around: Shops and hotels were closed, the whole city almost seemed to be abandonned. Those must have been the first signs that something was changing in the country. And obvisously, we have been amongst the last tourists of Palmyra for a long time.
Palmyra: The Valley of Tombs
In the early morning of April 13, 2011, we started to explore the empty Palmyra ancient town. Before the sun rose, we have made our way through the ruins. Then I was taking pictures of the sunrise and the ruins in the magic light of early sun. When I went through the pictures today, I recognize that I was especially fascinated about the tomb towers in The Valley of Tombs. Those towers and the calm athmosphere somewhat appeared mystical to me. Later on in the day, I also took some more pictures – so you can see the contrast of the pictures depending on the time of the day.
Three of these mystical tomb towers today don’t exist anymore, since ISIS has blown them up. For sure I have only identified one of them in my pictures (see subtitles in the gallery). You can have a look at satellite pictures though to see which towers are missing now. Those three towers existed for 2000 years – until ISIS came along. Luckily there are still a couple of towers left, but one of the destroyed towers was the biggest and best preserved one, if I interpret the satellite picture correctly.
Palmyra: The Roman Arches
One of the most impressive sights on Palmyra were the Roman Arches at the „entrance“ of the ruins. They were the central meeting point where visitors usually started to explore the ruins of Palmyra, either to walk down the old Roman road, visit the temple of Bel, take pictures from here or enter the bus to the next station. I think it was just amazing to see that these pillars and stones still were able to resist the weather and other forces of nature for almost 2000 years, so maybe that was the reason that I have also taken quite a lot of pictures of that arch.
Sadly, those arches simply don’t exist anymore. As the following YouTube video shows, the arches have been brought down by ISIS in the year of 2016. Since all the detinations that have been executed here by ISIS, one isn’t really surprised that this fragile structure couldn’t stand these incidents of terrorism.
Palmyra: The Temple of Bel
One of the most famous sights of Palmyra was Temple of Bel. We unfortunately didn’t go to visit it. I’m not entirely sure about the reason, but I think there were renovation works going on. However the Temple of Bel can be spotted on the two pictures that I have taken from the hill of Palmyra castle with my telelens.
Today, from the Temple of Bel there is nothing left but an arch. The building of the temple has been blown up completely by ISIS in the year of 2015, as satellite pictures and photos confirm.
Palmyra: Roman Theatre
The Roman Theatre of Palmyra was not as well preserved and also not as big as the one in Bosra. However it was special because it was still embedded into the ancient city of Palmyra and therefore it made us imagine even better how Palmyra must have looked like at it’s peak time.
ISIS has used the theatre as a place for public mass executions that have been filmed also. Due to these and other actions, parts of the amphitheatre have been damaged. These damages happened in 2017, during the second occupation of ISIS.
There were many pillars to be seen in Palmyra, e. g. the old main street of Palmyra was completely enriched with pillars on both sides. The Tetrapylon was one of the sights that was not just looking like pillars encompaning a street or a temple, that monument looked more majestic and therefore I have taken some areal pictures of Palmyra where the Tetrapylon can be seen as well.
As the Tetrapylon is located quite next to the Roman Theatre, two of the four groups of pillars have been destroyed completely by ISIS also in the year of 2017. So unfortunately, today it would not be possible to take beautiful picture like the ones above anymore.
Even more magical and mystical than anything else we have seen was our visit at Dura Europos on April 14, 2011. By the time, this spot was mentioned on Lonely Planet as a possible option to visit when staying in Deir ar-Zur. As we didn’t feel very attracted by the city of Deir ar-Zur, we decided to explore this minor recommendation of Lonely Planet, not knowing what beautiful spot we would actually reach.
Dura Europas lies at a main road somewhere in the middle of nowhere. You can only guess that there is something to see when you know it, otherwise it just looks like a old ruin from the main road. When we came closer, we first of all were the only tourists visiting this place. A guard suddenly approached out from a small cashiers office close to the old city walls to charge us the entry fee.
Entering the ancient city – which was founded 303 BC – we were just thrilled by all the old parts and pieces of the houses of this city. You were still able to see old wash basins made of stone, door frames made of wood or parts of a wooden ceiling. Everything probably around 2000 years old and without anything being closed away from public. You were able to move around without any barriers. By the time we were visiting there were even French archeologists working at the site to dig out and preserve even more parts of the city.
The most exciting part of our visit though was, to find out that this city was built just close to the Euphrates river. Since it was a time before Smartphones and GPS, we didn’t know about the location exactly and were quite surprised when exploring the city further, that suddenly – out of literally nothing! – a river appeared and the whole landscape turned into green, whereas the ruins of the city of Dura Europas were located just inside the desert and no one had expected water around here. Also, we spotted the village of Salhiyé from the top of the hill upon which Dura Europos was built.
Deir ar-Zur later on became a very important base for ISIS, since it was the entry gate to Syria for ISIS soldiers coming from Iraq. The village of Salhiyé later on turned out to be one of the last and most important outposts of the caliphate of ISIS. Due to this facts, Dura Europos met a very sad fate: ISIS has looted the whole ancient city to sell any archeological piece they could to finance their caliphate and the war against Syria. On satellite pictures you can see that there were holes digged throughout the houses of the ancient city and even worse than that, the Museum of the city was involved in an aerial bombardment. So obvisously this place will not look the same anymore today and it just feels unbelievable sad to me that something like this has happened to this wonderful spot.
The last Syrian city we stopped at was Aleppo, the trade central of Syria.
Even though we had already visited the souks in Damascus, the souks of Aleppo were a complete different dimension of what we had seen already: It seemed to us like a city underneath the city – so big that you could easily get lost into it. You could actually spend days wandering around in the souks, if you don’t mind the crowds of people and the dim light.
Also, we have visited a typical Arabian Hammam, the Hammam al-Nahhasin. When we were inside the Hammam on April 16, 2011, Assad was just holding a Government speech about the current situation in Syria: One could feel the tension in the air, when all people in the Hammam were following his words on TV.
During the war, the Aleppo souks have been a center of combats between the Syrian army and the different rebel groups. In 2012 there was a great fire in the souks of Aleppo, that has caused severe damage. The following YouTube video gives some impression about the fire incidents and the situation of the souks during this tragic period.
Aleppo: Citadel and sourrounding area
Besides the souks, our visit was focused on the old citadel of Aleppo as well as the surrounding area. I have taken a lot of pictures from the hill of the citadel, which I want to share with you as follows. By that time, this part of the old town of Aleppo, appeared really nice and clean to me. Compared to desert cities like Deir ar-Zur, of course Aleppo was a jewel of a city.
As satellite images proof, Aleppo has suffered tremendously under the war and many buildings of the old town have been destroyed. It says in the following YouTube video, that damages have affected 60% of the Old quarter, whereas 30% of it were completely destroyed. One of the great sights of Aleppo, the Umayyad Mosque, has also been partly damaged – it is very unfortunate that we haven’t visited it.
After doing the research for this blog post, I really feel depressed about the tragedy that has happened in Syria and to the Syrian people during the time since we have visited this once beautiful and inspiring country in April 2011. It feels to me, like we were very lucky people that we were allowed to experience this country in a way that nowadays is not possible anymore.
However I hope that some day I can visit Syria again and see with my own eyes, what the country has gone through during the last 10 years. And it gives me hope to read about the first initiatives that are now involved in rebuilding the cultural heritage of the country.