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.
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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.