One of my fondest travel memories of the recent past was of the days, in May 2008, that I spent in the Middle Eastern country of Syria. Like a lot of people around the world, I’ve been following, as best I can & with an overbearing sense of ruefulness, the seemingly never-ending civil war that is presently ravaging the country, the site of some of the world’s most ancient centres of civilization. The lamentable destruction of the Syrian city of Homs was brought home to me by a BBC News website slideshow, entitled Syrian troops in devastated Khalidiya, which shows the utter destruction brought upon a neighbourhood in the city. While Homs is not a city I visited on my trip, I can only imagine the destruction is similar in places I did visit, namely Damascus, Hama & Aleppo. (All images shown here captured with a Canon PowerShot A520 point-&-shoot at a time when point-and-shoot was all I knew.)
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, although not the capital. Having been inhabited since perhaps as early as the 6th millennium BC, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, an ancient trading city steeped in history, sitting, as it does, at the western end of the old Silk Road. Today most of it lies in ruins. Its medieval fortress, from where I captured the above picture, offers great views over the ancient city. It – the fortress – was built on top of several previous structures & in 2009 was found to contain a 5,000-year-old temple. Fighting is said to have destroyed much of what remained of the fortress, including the medieval iron gates.
Sadly the centuries-old al-Medina souq was destroyed by fire resulting from the fighting in early October last year (2012). Kevin Rushby, in this article for theGuardian.com, sums up the travesty of this loss perfectly:
Crac des Chevaliers
Originally built in 1031, Krac des Chevaliers, transliterated Crac des Chevaliers, was a Crusader fortress that was said to be one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world.
The castle is located east of Tartus, Syria, in the Homs Gap, atop a 650-metre-high hill along the only route from Antioch, a town in southern Turkey but which was once an ancient commercial centre and capital of Syria, to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of many fortresses that were part of a defensive network along the border of the old Crusader states (present-day Greece, Turkey and Israel & the Palestinian Territories). In peacetime it was one of the country’s most visited attractions, but today reports say artillery fire & fighting have taken its toll & the fortress’ church, with its unique 12th-century Crusader graffiti, has been damaged.
Hama, the fifth-largest city in Syria, is renowned for its 17 norias which line the Orontes river. The huge wooden wheels were used, it is claimed, since 1100 BC for the purpose of irrigation, but today the norias only serve an aesthetic purpose.
The city of Hama became one of the main opposition centres in the early days of the civil war, ensuring its status as one of the war’s main arenas.
The Great Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque, is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world.
The Umayyad Mosque was built after the Arab conquest of Damascus (circa 630) on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, a basilica built circa 310 during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine I. The mosque holds a shrine which still today contains the head of John the Baptist, honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims alike. In 2001 Pope John Paul II visited the mosque, primarily to visit the relics of John the Baptist. It was the first time a Pope paid a visit to a mosque. I spent a few hours sitting on the edge of mosque’s gleaming marble courtyard watching the peaceful world go by. It was an almost hypnotic experience. Reports abound of the destruction of the similarly titled & UNESCO-listed mosque – along with its 45 metre, 923-year-old minaret – in Aleppo but it’s hard to find any information on the present condition of this mosque in Damascus.
dMb & Syria – Then & Now
Needless to say I’ve just looked back over the pictures I took during my trip to Syria. It didn’t take long & doing so saw me resisting the urge to comment here on how different a photographer I was in May 2008, solely because I wasn’t a photographer back then, not insofar as I am one now (& back then I certainly didn’t, unlike now, travel with for the purposes of creating pictures). Truth be told I took some pretty woeful pictures back then during those simple point-&-shoot days, and even more alarmingly I felt the need to share them (dMb on flickr – Syria 2008). I was also surprised to find that I shot the majority of my images back then in portrait orientation, something I shoot very, very few of these days. But all that said, in the days before davidMbyrne.com & its vanity-driven logo, before I even knew what an SLR & interchangeable lenses were, & before I developed a hostility towards post processing, I did love my 4MP Canon PowerShot A520 compact point-&-shoot. And just like it did for many trips through many different countries, it came up trumps with a few presentable pictures in Syria, the images I chose to display here. All told I’m glad I visited the country & I’m glad I have some pictorial evidence of the historical beauty of certain parts of Syria as it was then, and hopefully how it will be again someday (but unfortunately not any day soon).