Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Guest post by Yasmin Al-najar
In the summer of 2010 I visited Syria, Damascus for six weeks with my parents.Damascus is the oldest inhabited city in the world, with evidence of people living there at least 11,000 years ago.
Damascus has witnessed both flourishing and crumbling empires, been the prevailing conqueror and the conquered and has experienced both wealth and destitution. As I roamed around the city I certainly felt that Mark Twain’s observation that Damascus is “a type of immortality” was right.
Syria has an abundance of rich history from the Ottoman Empire. You can see the influence of each civilization etched into the walls as if time has stood still. Even the iron roof above Damascus’s popular market place, Souq al-Hamidiyeh, still bears the bullet holes of French gunfire echoing the history of the colonists' failed attempts to repress Syria's revolution. Damascus was fought over and occupied by different civilizations; the Aramaeans, Assyrians, Achaemenids, Greeks, Nabataeans, Romans, Umayyads, Mongols, Turks, and the French. So it is no wonder that Damascus is every historians dream!
I really enjoyed visiting Ma’loula, a small Christian village in the mountains. It is home to St Takla, the daughter of a Roman prince who was converted to Christianity by St Paul. She had fled to escape persecution from the pagans and it is said that here God had split the mountain in half for Takla. The landscape of Ma’loula is stunning and nothing like I’ve ever seen. There are plenty of monasteries, convents, churches, shrines and sanctuaries to visit and there’s even an outdoor restaurant that allows you to soak in the glorious view. The village looks and feels Biblical and it may be ancient but it is full of life. There were figs, fragrant flowers, grapevines and little birds and the caves were bathed in luminosity at night. Ma’loula is considered to be an important source for anthropological linguistic studies concerning first century Aramaic because Ma’loula and the nearby towns of Bakh’a and Jubba’din are the last places in the world where the Aramaic language is still spoken.
One of the highlights of my trip to Syria was definitely Qala’at Al-Hosn castle, also known as Krac des Chevaliers. As famously stated by T.E Lawrence Qala’at Al-Hosn is “the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. It was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271. The castle has had work done on it from several different civilizations including the Byzantines in the 10th century, the Franks in the late 12th century and the Ayyubid dynasty in the late 12th to mid-13th century. I have still not visited a castle that has taken my breath away as much as Qala’at Al-Hosn to this day.
My favourite beach resort was Tartouss beach. Luscious green grass paved the way to the front of the beach and I could see the sea glistening in the distance from afar. Swimming in the sea to cool off from the hot sun is one of the most satisfying feelings but for me nothing beats watching the sun set. The way the burning amber sun set on Tartouss beach looked as if it was taken from a painting.
Umayyad Mosque is sheer architectural beauty. For many people, including myself, it is the jewel in Damascus. Have a Google and you’ll see just how huge it is too! The stone pillars beam beautifully against the sun and bring a sense of tranquillity. The Umayyad Mosque is the earliest surviving stone mosque, built between 705 and 715 CE by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walīd. Opposite the mosque there is also the tomb of one of the most famous Muslim leaders, Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
The food in Damascus just took my taste buds to another level. If you were to cut a cucumber you would smell it through the entire kitchen. The watermelons were huge and were crisp and bright red on the inside. I could smell chicken kebabs cooking from at the top of the road. The oranges were so juicy that when you opened one the juices would pour out onto your hand. The flavour of pomegranates was the strongest I have ever tasted.The herbs and spices filled to the top in straw bags at the souq were so bright and in every colour of the rainbow. And the honey looked like golden sunshine rays being poured into a jar. I dined at Damascus Gate which was awarded the title of the largest restaurant in the world by the Guinness World Records in 2008. The restaurant sold every Arabic dish you could think of; Makdous, bamieh, kibbeh, hummus, tabbouleh, fattoush, labneh, shawarma, mujaddara, sujuk, chicken taouk, shorba. Oozy was one of my favourite traditional Syrian dishes I tried. It is vegetables and ground meat wrapped in a pastry sheet. For dessert I had Kunāfah, which is a family favourite of ours. It has two crunchy layers of shredded and buttered kataifi or knefe dough and is filled with melted cheese infused with orange zest and cardamom, topped with syrup infused with lemon juice and orange blossom water.
How my trip changed the way I viewed travelling
1. Connecting with your heritage is important
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”- Marcus Garvey
Your heritage is a part of your identity. Heritage informs, influences and inspires us and plays a role in what we value. It provides us with pieces of our past which help us to examine our history and traditions. I didn’t realise just how much these pieces allow you to understand more about yourself until I went to Syria.
My trip made me realise that my name is so much more than just one that means flower. When walking down the cobbled streets of the ancient city at night I remember asking my father “What is that smell?” It was intensely sweet and soothing. It came from a delicate white flower called Yasmeen (Jasmine in English). Certain things like objects, places and even plants hold memories. Damascus is often remembered by this scent and is even known as the “City of Jasmine”. For my father the plant gave more than just a pleasant smell but gave the feeling of home, a feeling of being wrapped in warmth, love, happiness and comfort. It made me realise the extent of a parent’s love for their child. For my father, having a daughter was like being home.
We visited a restaurant my grandfather used to enjoy going to and at the table I heard stories about my grandfather and my father I had not heard before. The shop where my dad hit his motorbike in over 20 years ago was still open and the garden I had heard about in the middle of the city was still adorned with flowers and was full of life. Having a direct experience with history and interacting with my father’s birthplace had brought history to life as well as increased my appreciation for my heritage.
Pieces of my heritage are at home like the wooden mosaic clock in the hallway, the beautifully decorated trinket boxes, a Syrian board game, the Arabic music we enjoy, the smell of traditional home cooked meals but there’s nothing quite like seeing and experiencing it all in the place of origin.
2. Find a balance between taking photographs and living in the moment
Taking photographs and videos is a great way to keep the memory of your travels alive. But at the same time we need to learn when to put down our cameras. Sometimes we can be so busy being concerned with taking photographs that we don’t get to fully enjoy the wondrous sights in front of us that we may only get to see in person once. Seeing everything through a camera lens creates a barrier between you and the place you travelled for miles to see. I have been there where I have been spending too much time looking down at my camera to free up storage to take more photographs instead of paying attention to the glorious scenery, taken six pictures of the same thing and made some videos that I never really watch.
When you do take photographs make sure you know what you are taking a photograph of and it’s a great idea to note down where you took it. It just adds meaning and significance to the photograph. I’ve seen so many people rush round museums taking photographs of artefacts they most likely do not know much about. And those photographs will probably be lost in the mountain of other photographs. Instead take your time, read the description and if that object has drawn your interest then take a photograph of it. If you know what you are looking at you can appreciate and enjoy it more.
3. Travelling feeds the soul
When I was in Syria it was Ramadan, a religious month observed by Muslims in which they fast from dawn to sunset. I would hear the adhaan (call to prayer) five times a day and everyone would stop whatever they were doing and close their businesses for a while and go to pray together at their local mosque. It gave a wonderful sense of community. Everyone broke their fast together whether that was at home with family, in a restaurant or at the top of the mountains whilst watching fireworks. Being in this environment had given me the spiritual nourishment I had been longing for but just couldn’t find a while back.
Even if you aren’t religious, travelling still enriches the soul because of the understanding you pick up from other people’s ways of life, the people that you meet who embrace you and show you around, the things you get to do and say “yes I did that” and the beautiful sights you only imagined now come to life.
4. Don’t take travelling for granted
The ability to travel abroad is a luxury and should be valued. Especially because of the war I may never be able to visit Syria again and if I have children in the future they may never be able to either. But with that being said I am grateful that I got to see the city with my own eyes and meet the people who share my blood, even if it was only once.I am proud to be connected to a people who are brave in the face of adversity and are so kind and giving when they have lost so much to the war.
Travelling is so much more than just a holiday, sunny skies and beaches. It is the souls that you meet, the kindness of strangers, the places you connect with, the stories locals share with you and the stories you will share and memories you will treasure when you are home. There is even the chance that you may reconnect with an old friend you have lost contact with (this happened to my father when we stopped at a petrol station) or you may make new life-long friends.