Around this time, 16 years ago, I was assigned to a junket to Syria. I was a young journalist and it was my first overseas assignment, so naturally it was filled with a lot anticipation and excitement.
I was part of a group of journalists and travel agents, flown into Syria which at that time was beginning to promote itself as a tourist destination.
As the plane, prepared for landing over Damascus, I was greeted by the view of white structures in a barren desert landscape, interspersed with a few green patches – scenes from bibles I read as a child, and that in story books like Aladdin and Ali Baba and the 40 thieves.
I remembered the waft of perfumes and aromas from incense, hookah pipes and spices as I walked through stalls in cobblestoned ancient bazaars and souqs in Damascus and Aleppo (a UNESCO heritage site).
I don’t know if it’s because of a lack of green areas in the city, but on weekends, I remember seeing large families out picnicking on grassy road shoulders and in the middle of roundabouts – especially in Aleppo.
Most people I met were friendly, and realizing that I was a person of Indian ethnicity, they would go on and on about their love for Hindi movies. One trader in the bazaar excitedly showed me posters of Indian stars like Zeenat Aman and Sri Devi that he had plastered on his wall.
From my observation, most of the people I met lead simple lives centered on their family and neighbours. Most were self-sufficient – running small businesses of their own.
Then, there are the beautiful mosques in Damascus and Aleppo, most reflect the rich cultural and religious past of Syria and the civilisations that ruled it at one time or another. In the evening the minarets of these mosques dot the skyline with green lights.
The Ummayad mosque in Damascus in particular has a unique architecture that includes columns that used to house ancient places of worship and temples including that to the god of thunder and rain – Hadaad-Ramaan and later temple of Jupiter during Roman times.
Prior to becoming a mosque in the 5th Century AD, it was converted into a Cathedral by Christion Emperor Theodosius I in the 4th Century AD. It is a place of pilgrimage for both Muslims and Christians. The shrine of John the Baptist (who is also a prophet in Islam) in the Ummayad mosque is believed to be where his head is entombed.
Today, Syria is in the news every day – for all the wrong reasons.
The civil uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government began in early 2011, fashioned after the Arab Spring and the downfall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
It began as minor protests, but today, March 15, marks six years since major unrest broke out in Syria.
I don’t know what has become of the amazing people I met during my travels, and pray that they and their families are alive and safe.
Over the last few years I’ve been intrigued by the debate and suspicion about migrants from Syria fleeing to Europe, including Islamophobia. People tend to forget that Syria is also made up of a large number of Christians – from Catholic and Eastern churches.
It is painful to see the destruction of what used to be lively and vibrant historic cities like Palmyra – founded in 2BC and a major stop along the Silk Route.
This desert city flourished under the rule of Queen Zenobia in 3AD.
It had been developed as a major tourist spot before war broke out.
Islamic state (ISIS) militants who took control of the city in 2015 destroyed ancient structures and antiquities, and brutally murdered renown Palmyra scholar Khaled Al-Asaad, 82.
Khaled had worked on Palmyra for more than 50 years and was head of antiquities at the site.
It has been heartbreaking to see boatloads of Syrians, especially children making the dangerous journey in search for safety and security in foreign lands – not by choice but desperation.
When I arrived in Syria, we were given a media kit, in it there was a brochure with the words: “From the distant past, Syria has always known how to convert strangers into friends” – and based on my experience that was indeed true.
Let’s just hope that for now, the Syrians who seek refuge in other lands till the war at home is resolved are accorded the same hospitality and kindness they had accorded to others in the past.
A few Syrians I met, now based in Malaysia, miss their home dearly and are praying for the day they will be reunited with their friends and family to rebuild their lives.
I dedicate this post to them and all displaced Syrians; one filled with pictures of happier times in Syria, and I pray for peace and resolution for their beloved country soon.