Playing in fountain
The massive Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is the fourth holiest place in Islam, and remains a meeting ground for Syrians and Muslims. © Rachel Smith
Playing in fountain
Tasty arabic coffee
Coffee is sold everywhere, as here in Souq al-Hamidiyya. © Rachel Smith
Tasty arabic coffee
Palmyra
Camels can often be seen when traveling in the desert. © Rachel Smith
Palmyra
A young boy
Syrians are friendly and eager to meet foreigners. © Rachel Smith
A young boy
The Euphrates River
A special meeting along the river banks of the Euphrates. © Rachel Smith
The Euphrates River
Baghdad Café
You will find Baghdad Café on the way to Palmyra from Damascus. © Adam Hedengren
Baghdad Café
The Syrian Desert
Syria is filled with historic sites and ancient ruins. © Adam Hedengren
The Syrian Desert
Aleppo
Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world, and also one of the largest in the Levant. © Rachel Smith
Aleppo
Damascus
The breathtaking view over Damascus in the evening. © Rachel Smith
Damascus
The Bakery
The traditional way of baking bread. Your Middle East's Editor had one every morning during his time in Syria. © Rachel Smith
The Bakery
The Bakery
The bread is delicious here and attracted large numbers of people every morning. © Rachel Smith
The Bakery
Damascus
Yellow cabs are seen everywhere in the capital. © Adam Hedengren
Damascus
Tea anyone?
A common sight on the streets of Damascus. © Adam Hedengren
Tea anyone?
Christianity
A Christian church in the old part of Damascus. © Adam Hedengren
Christianity
Commerce
A carpet shop in one of the souqs of Aleppo. © Rachel Smith
Commerce
The souq
A souq (market) alongside the grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. © Rachel Smith
The souq
Waiting
A man waiting for customers to his rolling fruit stand. Fresh juice of all kinds is a specialty amongst the locals. © Adam Hedengren
Waiting
The Umayyad Mosque
The Umayyad Mosque is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. © Rachel Smith
The Umayyad Mosque
Evening at the Mosque
People come here to read, relax, socialise and worship. © Rachel Smith
Evening at the Mosque
"Americana-Syriana"
Old American cars are seen all over Damascus. © Adam Hedengren
Palmyra and camels
Palmyra is a stunning archaeological site of Ancient, Greco-Roman, and Islamic ruins next to an oasis in the middle of the Syrian Desert. © Adam Hedengren
Palmyra and camels
Safety first...
European football teams are a favourite amongst young Syrians. © Adam Hedengren
Safety first...
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Joely Denkinger
Last updated: February 17, 2012

Remembering Syria before the revolution

This is not an article about politics. Nor is it an attempt to minimise the political upheaval and atrocities currently taking place in Syria and other Arab states. It is, however, a reminder that we should never forget what is truly important about Syria.

These are things that were there long before the revolution, and will be there long after it: the spirit of the Syrian people, and the history of their remarkable land.

When I arrived in Damascus for my semester abroad, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had pretty much just packed modest clothing for hot weather. Very quickly, I learned that I should expect offers of tea – “Tafaduli, Ishrabi!” – inquisitive shopkeepers, and advice from locals on everything from tourist destinations to hair salons. Oh and of course, everyone has a brother/uncle/cousin/friend who lives/studies/works in America. “Are you from New York City? California?” Somewhere in the middle, I told them.

At first, when I revealed my American-ness to those who asked, I was nervous that it might put an awkward pause in the conversation. I wasn’t sure, but I just thought they might be put off by the fact that my government has, from time to time, labelled their government as a sponsor of terrorism and isolated them from the international community. But to my pleasant surprise, I encountered genuine curiosity about why I wanted to learn a ridiculous language like Arabic, and if I was enjoying Syria so far. Even when I assured them that I was already having a great time, they gave me advice on where to eat and what to do. This was generally followed by a list of names and numbers of their relatives to call should I find myself in Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, or even Beirut! Whenever we finally parted, I usually received sincere instructions to come back and speak to them if I needed any help, with anything. I honestly feel that most of the time, I could have gone back to them and they would have remembered my name and helped me, whether I needed directions, or a place to live.

In conversations with locals who would humour my attempts at colloquial Arabic, they would often ask about my favourite place in Syria. It was a difficult question, as the whole country was breathtaking, with a romantic, rugged beauty about it. My first trip outside of Damascus was to Palmyra, a stunning archaeological site of Ancient, Greco-Roman, and Islamic ruins next to an oasis in the middle of the Syrian Desert. The four-hour bus ride was well worth it as I watched the burning orange sunset, perched on the walls of a castle that overlooked the acres of columns, temples, and amphitheatres below. Legend has it that there was a temple at Palmyra 2000 years before the Romans ever saw it, and it is mentioned in the Bible as part of Solomon’s Kingdom, built by Solomon himself.

Each place I visited gave me a better understanding of the rich history that makes Syria unique. The country has been at the crossroads of major civilizations for most of its history, and the structures left behind only scratch the surface of a complex and ever-changing story. The crusader castle at Qaalat al-Hosn, the massive Roman amphitheatre at Basra, and the not-so-ancient ruins at the eerie ghost town of Qunietra near the Israeli border demonstrated that history is ever-present in Syria. The reminders of past empires, glory, and wars are prominent in both the landscape and the national identity.

To be honest, if had to answer their question about my favourite place in Syria, it would be a small town called Maloula, about an hour northwest of Damascus, tucked into the mountains of the desert. In this village Muslims and Christians live side by side, sharing a unique, non-Arab heritage. This is one of the last places in the world where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is spoken. As with all ancient languages, Aramaic is struggling to survive the onslaught of globalization, modernization, and expanding communication infrastructure. But efforts are being made in this proud town to teach Aramaic to the new generation. At the end of the road, on top of one of the hills, there is a monastery and chapel made of stones so old it is hard to believe they have not crumbled.

If we had kept driving north, we would have missed this town altogether. There are no billboards, no tacky tourist signs, and very few pushy vendors. It is simply there to discover for those who are curious. That is how Syria works. It is a country of surprises: a collection of places and stories bound together by the spirit of its people and their belief in Syria’s unique history.

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