February 6, 2012

A Taste of Syria

Lyra: Damascus, Syria

A little while back, I had the privilege to travel to Syria as one leg of an overland journey from Cairo to Istanbul. Frankly, before I set foot in Syria, my expectations were very low. Especially, after spending 4 hours queuing at the border with Jordan...

...And the experience at the border was utter chaos! We spent several hours waiting in queue as one Syrian "travel guide" after another cut in front of us and had their passport visas validated. This must have happened 5 or so times! Each time, the "travel guide" had a stack of 10 passports to be "approved." After a while, on the "exit" side, a large fight broke out...I am assuming over the same frustrating situation. I started to get a little worried during the fight, but needless to say, I was mostly frustrated by the lack of respect we were shown by the agent and "travel guides" cutting in line. Finally, the lone agent took the 30 seconds required to stamp our passports and we were off...almost.

But this was only the first check point. We then had to drive a couple more miles to the next check point to show our validated visas. Argh...and apparently the agent at the first check point had back dated the validation on one of our visas! We were then forced to drive back to the first check point and start the process over again. For F#%& sake! Eventually, we got the date corrected and we were on our way...

Like I said, my expectations were low, but I have to say, as a traveler, it was enchanting. In most of the Middle East, you can witness, first hand, the unbroken march of time from days of Roman rule, through the Christian period and up on into the present Islamic era. Damascus, like many Mid-East cities, is layer upon layer of history is built one on top of the another. It is this layering of histories that makes all of the Middle East so complex. You can't just rip out the old and bring in the new, you have to work with the stone foundations that already exist...

Above...the men are worshiping in Umayyad Mosque that was once the basilica dedicated to John the Baptist. They are actually praying to the tomb of John the Baptist himself who’s body is in the structure in the left of the photo...the basilica was built from a Roman temple for Jupiter...before that it was an Aramean temple of Haddad-Ramman...layer upon layer upon layer of history.

Anyone looking to rehab the Middle East will have a lot of work on their hands. It is a major fixer-upper project. I wonder what most Western politicians actually think they are doing when they get dragged into this part of the world. I think they only thing to do is take on direct, but slow engagement. Not money or guns, but people on the ground over a long period of time...who have the empathy and tenacity to make a difference...but I digress.

Photo: Euromed Heritage

Nothing in my home town of Kalamazoo, Michigan is truly old...maybe 150 years. In Damascus I was able to patronize the Hammam Nur A-Din...And it is my understanding that it is one the oldest functioning bathhouses in the world, being built around 400 A.D. This place is a sanctuary in stark contrast to the chaos at the border. It has been a safe haven from the harsh realities that are far too common in the streets that surround it.

Photo: Euromed Heritage

And the food...well...simply wonderful...I have come to understand that food is truly comfort in the Middle East. This tasty dish (below) was served to us by one of the most flamboyant chefs I have ever met. More of an artist than cook. I don't know the name of the restaurant, but it was served to us just near the Krak des Chevaliers. The picture does not do it justice...

Anyway, I thought I would share my experience of a land that I feel is so enchanted. I pray they all can stop the blood shed and permit themselves to use the creativity, talents and history that make their culture so rich.

If you would like to enjoy more beautiful photos please have a look at our Flickr Collection: Syria