Christians and Muslims living in Maaloula were immune from war until September when opposition fighters, including an al-Qaida affiliate, besieged the town.
Before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, the 360-kilometer highway linking the capital of Damascus with Syria’s largest city of Aleppo to the north, was the most widely traveled road in all Syria. It was also the corridor linking visitors with the country’s most treasured archeological sites and cultural landmarks.
Upon leaving Damascus, the first place of interest was the village of Maaloula, located about 40 minutes north of the capital. Maaloula’s claim to fame is that the Christian inhabitants still speak Amharic, the language spoken during the time of Jesus Christ.
The first time I visited Maaloula was in the summer of 1990 when I was based in Damascus for a news agency. My wife and I took a day trip to Maaloula, which is nestled against the side of rock cliff. We spent the day exploring the town and surrounding caves where Christians hid during times of persecution. A Greek Orthodox convent is built inside the largest cave dedicated to Saint Thecla, one of the original followers of St. Paul. Nearby is a narrow passageway that winds its way between the towering rock cliffs. My wife and I walked along the path and when we got to the other end we climbed the rock face to what is believed to be one of the oldest monasteries in the world, dating back nearly 2,000 years. Back in 1990, the Monastery of St. Sergius and Bacchus was pretty much isolated on top of the cliff overlooking the town. Unfortunately, developers saw an opportunity, and today tourist hotels and private villas encircle the monastery, ruining the once tranquil surroundings.
Up until September, the Christians and Muslims living in Maaloula were largely immune from the fighting raging throughout the country. Their peaceful existence ended in September when fighters of the opposition, including the Al Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, overran a government checkpoint and besieged the town. During the fighting many of the townspeople fled. According to eyewitnesses, some Christians who stayed behind were accused of being government informers and shot. Others were forced at gunpoint to renounce their religion.
The town has since returned to government control but remains eerily quiet; a sign that residents have not returned.
Continuing from Maaloula, the next historical place of interest is the city of Homs, about 120 kilometers to the north.
Homs was a place I always drove past but never visited, until I had an assignment there to illustrate a special report in 2005. Like many of the cities and towns in Syria, the first thing that greeted the visitor when entering Homs was a giant statue of Hafez al Assad, the father of the current president Bashar al Assad.
Before the onset of the civil war, the old city center of Homs was similar in character to that of Aleppo, but on a much smaller scale. A hill dominates the skyline from where in ancient times a citadel once stood. I climbed the hill, but unlike Aleppo, all that remains of the citadel is the foundation and a few portions of the ancient wall, but the hilltop offers a stunning 360-degree view of the city.
The old city center of Homs was made up of a patchwork of neighborhoods that grew over time, including a thriving Christian quarter, similar to the one in Aleppo. Souk al Atik, the old covered bazaar, in the very center, was quaint and picturesque, but tiny when compared to Aleppo’s covered bazaar. On the September evening I visited, the bazaar was full of life and teaming with people eager to get out and enjoy the cooler evening temperatures.
I was recently in Lebanon with a team working on a series of short documentaries about Syrian refugees. We were in the Christian Village of Qaa, a few kilometers from the Syrian border in the very northeast of Lebanon. All the refugees we spoke to were from Homs, just over the border.
While I was packing up all my gear I struck up a conversation with the eldest daughter of a family we had just interviewed. I told her that my son was her same age, and when she asked me what he was doing, I said he was a freshman at university. She told me that before the war she was looking forward to eventually going to university, but now she just wanted to learn some basic computer skills so that she could find a job and help her family financially.
She looked sad talking about her future, so I changed the subject and told her I had visited Homs. She smiled and asked me what I thought of the city. I told her some of the places I visited, and when I said how much I liked the Souk al Atik she turned away and said it was completely destroyed. I asked her about a few other landmarks that I remembered and again she repeated “everything has been destroyed.” Before I could change the subject, she began to tear up and then quickly put her hands over her eyes.
About 50 kilometers east of Homs, positioned high on a hill, overlooking the surrounding countryside, is Krak des Chevalier, a Crusader fortress considered to be one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the world. In 2006, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and up until the conflict was a popular destination for tourists.
Krak des Chevalier is unique in that it has two lines of defense. The 9-meter high outer wall with its own tunnels, turrets and passageways, encircles an inner fort equipped with its own protective moat. During its heyday, in the first half of the 13th century, there were estimated to be 2,000 Crusader soldiers stationed inside the walls.
I visited the castle on numerous occasions and was always impressed by how majestic it looked from a distance. I also felt that same wonderment while standing on one of the turrets looking out over the countryside. Each time I went I would inevitably spend a few hours exploring the various caverns and passageways. I can’t recall how many times I got separated from my party and then had to spend the remainder of my time trying to reconnect with them.
It’s hard to believe that a century later Krak des Chevalier is once again on the frontlines of another conflict.
Recent footage posted on YouTube shows government planes bombing rebel positions inside the giant fortress.
About three quarters of an hour north of Homs is the city of Hama, famous for its giant 20-meter high waters wheels, used for centuries to divert water from the Orontes River to the town and irrigate crops
Besides its water wheels, Hama was known as a stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood, who were vehemently opposed to Hafez al Assad and Baath Party rule. They saw the Ba’athist ideology, with its mixture of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, as being anti-religious.
Clashes between the Brotherhood and the government continued unabated throughout the 1970s. In 1979, the Brotherhood changed tactics and began targeting military and government officials, including an assassination attempt on President Hafez al Assad. In February 1982, the military struck back with vengeance, and for three weeks lay siege to the city of Hama. After it was over the old city, and former stronghold of the Brotherhood, was flattened. To this day, the number of casualties remains unclear, but estimates range anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000.
No matter if I was traveling from Aleppo in the north or Damascus in the south, Hama was always the point closest to the middle where I would stop to take a short rest; have a bite to eat, and sit on the shady banks of the Orontes River and watch the water wheels turn. That is really my only recollection of Hama. I don’t even think I ever entered the town proper.
In my fourth installment, I will continue my journey through Syria and revisit the Kurdish stronghold of Qamishli in the very northeast of the country.