Remembering visits to Syria’s lesser-known sites from antiquity, now threatened by conflict.
This is part of a series of “diaries” by veteran photojournalist Norbert Schiller, reflecting on his world travels in decades past:
Up until the beginning of the civil war, in the spring of 2011, I traveled to Syria regularly for nearly two decades.
Unlike most journalists, who had a difficulty procuring a Syrian visa, I had it relatively easy. For many years I worked part-time as the photographer for an economic journal that did country reports in the Middle East and North Africa. Because the report on Syria was in part sponsored by the Syrian government, I had unprecedented access to go and photograph just about anything I requested. My relationship with the government also made it easy for me to get regular tourist visas whenever I wanted. Normally, journalists were not granted tourist visas and had to be sponsored by the Ministry of Information every time they wanted to visit.
Syria never embraced mass tourism like its neighbors Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt. In fact, under Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad, Syria was never vigorously promoted as a tourist destination. Not only was it difficult to get a tourist visa, but costly as well. When Bashar came to power after the death of his father in 2000, the country slowly began to open up. Tour operators I spoke to at the time were excited about the young Bashar taking the helm and were hoping for a Syrian renaissance of sorts. Luxury hotels were built, infrastructure around tourist sites was improved and private tour agencies were allowed to operate independent of the National Tourist Agency. But even with all the upgrades, Syria still had a difficult time breaking into the international tourist market and remained largely off the beaten track.
For the individual who wanted to experience the beauty of a country without the hassle of tourist busses, hawkers and the crowds, no country in the region was more magical than Syria. Before the civil war, I can’t recall how many times I would be wandering through an archeological site and suddenly realize that I was the only person among the ruins.
Ruins in the haze
Unfortunately, with the civil war well into its third year, many of Syria’s treasured landmarks have been damaged in the fighting. A recent UNESCO report said that all six World Heritage sites in the country are threatened, including the ancient city of Palmyra, situated in the middle of the desert between Damascus and the Euphrates River. The report quoted eyewitnesses who said soldiers and tanks were stationed in the ancient city and that indiscriminate shelling — both by forces loyal to Assad and those opposed to him — damaged many of Palmyra’s landmarks. The Temple of Baal, the Fakhreddine al Maany Castle and the Monumental Arch are a few of the casualties. Witnesses have also said that many irreplaceable artifacts were stolen from the Palmyra Museum.
One of my most memorable trips to Syria was visiting Palmyra in the middle of winter with a colleague of mine. We arrived at the Historic Zenobia hotel, located just beside the ruins, well after dark. The next morning we got up before dawn, walked outside and all we could make out were the tops of the Roman columns visible above the mist. In the distance, partly obscured by the early morning haze, was the Fakhreddine al Maany Castle perched high on a hill.
Once outdoors we were forced to keep moving in order to stay warm. It’s not uncommon for temperatures in that part of the desert to drop well below freezing. As the sun rose, so too did the mist and before long the ancient city of Palmyra could be seen in it entirety.
We spent the better part of the day exploring the remnants of what was once a flourishing city linking Persia to ports along the Mediterranean. Strangely, in a place so spectacular, we saw no other visitors, only a few local Bedouins who made their living selling small handicrafts and precious stones to tourists.
In the afternoon, as we were about to leave, we noticed a car pull up with three foreigners inside. As we passed them, I felt as though we were handing over a key to the ancient city. My colleague and I had had Palmyra to our selves for the first half of the day; now it was it was their turn to be alone amid the ruins.
Ancient stone, modern bullets
About 40 kilometers from Daraa, where the Syrian uprising first began in the south of the country, is the ancient Roman settlement of Bosra, another World Heritage site that UNESCO says has been damaged in the fighting.
Late last year a video surfaced on YouTube showing rebel fighters entrenched inside the Amphitheater exchanging fire with government forces on the outside. In the video you can clearly see bits of the ancient stone being chipped away in the gunfight.
The Amphitheater at Bosra is said to be one of the best-preserved Roman theaters in the world. Before the civil war it was a popular venue for musicians to perform concerts because of its exceptional acoustics.
During the years I lived in Lebanon I often traveled to Syria to visit friends. On one occasion, a good friend of mine, whose specialty was photographing archaeological digs, invited me to take a trip with him to Bosra.
Similar to Palmyra, the Romans incorporated the settlement of Bosra into their empire because of its proximity to a well-traveled caravan route, connecting the Eastern Mediterranean with the red Red Sea. One of the main reasons why the Roman Empire was so successful in the beginning was their ability to control commerce that passed through their territories.
Later, under Muslim rule, Bosra continued to prosper because it was on the route religious pilgrims took from Damascus to Mecca and Medina in the Hejaz.
Besides the Amphitheater, Bosra contains the Al-Omari mosques, one of the oldest surviving mosques in the Islamic world. There is also a Byzantine cathedral that has given historians clues into early Christian architecture. Under the Ottomans Bosra became less significant as trading routes shifted and by the 19th century, it had fallen into disrepair.
My friend and I spend the entire day photographing the Amphitheater and surrounding area and except for a group of Syrian children on a school outing, we saw almost nobody.
Assessing the damage
Unfortunately, because of the continued fighting throughout the country it is nearly impossible to fully assess all the damage done to Syrians historical treasures. Besides the damage caused by artillery, there are also numerous reports of museums and historical sites being looted, similar to what happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In part two, I will continue my remembered journey to the north of the country and recount my many trips to Syria’s second city, Aleppo, and the surrounding ruins of the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites and the Dead Cities.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.