Thursday 2 January 2014

Syria – the tragedy of the end of normal things

A very personal and deeply felt blog this week, and different from the sort of items I usually write about. But it may prove of interest nonetheless.

Each day the media bring ever worse news of horrific events in Syria. I find this profoundly sad, for I have visited this beautiful country twice, including a two-week journey with my daughter around all the major archaeological and historic sites in 2009. These included remains of cities, such as Ugarit, which flourished well over 3000 years ago and was where an alphabet was developed that was the first in human history, and other spectacular monuments such as vast Graeco-Roman amphitheatre at Bosra that is as perfectly preserved as if it was completed yesterday. The vast area of the ruins of Palmyra were still yielding up secrets – a hitherto unknown burial chamber was discovered while I was there – and ruined cities such as Apamea and Resafe, hitherto only names to me,came alive. The sight of ancient cities on the Euphrates, such as Mari and Doura Europas , where archaeological investigations were still in progress, made it possible to imagine daily life in the distant past. Visiting the gigantic Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers was realisation of a dream I had since boyhood.
Ugarit - source of the first alphabet

Apamea - a forgotten Graeco-Roman city, great in its time

But most of all what I now remember – and mourn – is the normal daily life, active, vibrant, friendly, which I encountered in cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Lataki and Deir-es-Zor, which new figure in the news as scenes of horror. I remember being in a restaurant in Damascus where a young girl’s birthday was being celebrated and her family insisted our sharing the birthday cake. And I remember my daughter emerging from the hamam, the Turkish bath, in Aleppo and laughing about the pummelling she had received from the masseuse and saying that she had never before been so clean. Later that day, we were drawn by the voices of a choir to a Maronite Church where beautifully-turned out young people, male and female, were singing their hearts out in perfect harmony. That they did seemed to offer no offence to their Muslim neighbours and passers-by. Afterwards we sat out in a square near that church as darkness fell, and we marvelled at the expertise of the goldsmiths who were so common in that quarter of the city. In Homs we marvelled at the size and complexity of ancient water-wheels sill in use. At Palmyra we greeted the sunrise on camelback as we picked our way through the ruins of this vast city and at Latakia we searched for, and found, restaurants that would hold their own with any, anywhere.  In the huge covered markets at Aleppo, and at Damascus, near the "Street called Straight" where St.Paul lodged, we found endless satisfaction for just being there and we encountered nothing but gaiety and energy and welcome.

Resafa - a vast Byzantine frontier fortress in the desert
Palmyra - extensive beyond words
Bosra - the Amphitheater, its acoustics still superb 
Damascus Souk, full of life
And at Deir-es-Zor, on the Euphrates, our hearts were chilled in sorrow and anger when we visited the Museum of the Armenian Genocide, with its dreadful record of cruelty and suffering, brought to life by so many photographs. Terrible as it was, the fact that this museum had government support made us hopeful that the days of such intolerance and slaughter would never return to Syria.

How wrong we were.

For me the most poignant aspect of the tragedy now playing out is that normal life, in all its unspectacular but happy, modest, fulfilling ways, has been destroyed and that it may not return for decades to come.

The symbol for me of this lost normal life is perhaps a bizarre one – the restoration of old steam locomotives. For at Damascus the terminus of the famed Hejaz railway – to the destruction of which T. E. Lawrence and his Arab allies were so devoted – has been fully restored and much of the line is still in use, or was in 2009. It may have been jerry-built further south, but in Syria the civil engineering involved was of a very high standard. The terminus building houses – or housed – a museum with wonderful historic photographs and there we learned that Syrian enthusiasts, ably complemented by Turkish ones who spent their holidays there, were involved in restoration of some of the original steam locomotives delivered from Germany prior to World War 1. In the photograph here one is shown – and indeed it might have been very lucky to have survived one of Lawrence’s attacks.

Hejaz Railway locomotive - one that escaped Lawrence
Locomotive Manufacturer's Plate - German quality
I can think of few more innocent, constructive and friendly activities than restoration of old steam engines, and societies in which volunteers from differing backgrounds come together to work happily together on such projects have all the makings of happy ones.

And now? Are there any enthusiasts still restoring the Hejaz engines or are they struggling instead to survive at the most basic level?

It breaks my heart at times to be human.


  1. Thank you for a truly moving post - it's often the most mundane, simple things that connect us on a human level. What's happening now in Syria is heartbreaking on this level and so many others.

  2. Antoine, you, your books, and your web-site are a gift to the world community.