Syria, before the bombs fell


IN PALMYRA, around the Temple of Ba’al (41 A.D.) with a large “tetrapylon” (four columns) considered to be themost important, ancient religious structure, built by King Solomin of Judca

Bomb attacks in Syria’s capital, Damascus, and clashes between the government and rebel fighters in the ancient commercial hub Aleppo saddened entrepreneur Nina Halley, who has nothing but fond memories of her visit before the civil war.

Although the media has been rife with stories about terrorist attacks in public places and bombed towns badly in need of medical supplies, Halley remembers the soul of Syria and the glory of its ancient past.

Images of  stone  arches, lanes teaming with black-veiled women and keffiyeh-clad men,  old men moving pushcarts, cobblestone streets, the echoes of prayers at night, the hammam or Turkish bath and desert oasis  coexist with such modernities as boutique hotels and trendy restaurant bars  tucked away in  maze-like streets.

NINA Halleywearing an embroidered dressmade in Syria

In 2010, Halley’s friend, Leonore de Leon El Khoury, a Filipina based in Lebanon was celebrating her birthday. She invited Halley and some French friends to visit Lebanon and Syria.

“The moment we crossed the Lebanon border, we felt something was not right. But the experience turned out to be beautiful,” recalled Halley.

The Damascus-based Beroia Travel Agency not only planned an eye-opening tour, but also provided them with a security guard.  Back then, Syria already  had a reputation for being a harshly controlled society, replete with undercover agents and police. Halley was warned against talking politics because even waiters were said to be part-time mukhabarat or intelligence agents.

There was fear in the atmosphere, brought about by the authoritarian regime of the Ba’ath Party.

KRAK des Chevaliers, medieval castle of the Crusaders (1100 to 1271 A.D.) was once the headquarters of the Knights Templar, who protected the pilgrims of those times. Nina and friend, Lenore Khoury, with the view of the entire castle sitting atop a 2,300 feet hill

Still, Halley and her companions never felt unsafe, as the hotels offered sublime hospitality, and the food—grilled lamb, pomegranate juice, kibbeh nayeh (minced beef), and baba ganouj (eggplant with olive oil)—made them forget the troubles.

Walk in time

They spent the first few days in Aleppo, where they were billeted at the Al Mansouriya Palace, the  16th-century limestone quarters  renovated by French designers who created the suites that echoed Syria’s royal past.

The group enjoyed Aleppo’s wonderful cuisine, the stone-vault souk, and the picturesque quarters, and visited sacred landmarks outside the city. The Archbishop of Aleppo Emile Assouad took the group to some neighborhoods and to his quarters.

VARIETY of mezze, or Syrian appetizers, served before the main meal

“If Moses walked through the markets of Aleppo, can you imagine how old the city is?” exclaimed Halley.

The medieval citadel offered awe-inspiring views from its notched defense walls. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Citadel of Aleppo showcased the influence of medieval Arab architecture and how it was designed to protect itself against the Christians.

Yet, there were also the influences of early Greco-Roman street planning, Christian edifices, mosques and Islamic schools, limestone houses and exquisite courtyards, and the Great Mosque, which embodied fine Islamic architecture.

NINA, having recently read a book on Lady Ellenbourgh (Jane Elizabeth Digby), a most beautiful, paleskinned English Aristocrat, who after four husbands, including King Ludwig of Bavaria, married Arab SheikhMedjuel el Mezrab who has 20 years her junior,meets her very first Arab Bedouin in Plamyra, with the greenest eyes she has ever seen

Syria was dotted with caravanserais or trade centers, where sellers and animals carried goods from other continents. They were built in the 18th century, when the Silk Road flourished and Syria became one of the biggest areas for commerce.

However, Aleppo was famous for the souk, a rambling complex of noisy corridors and stalls crammed with spices, silk, dried fruit, nuts, fabrics, pets, carpets, clothes, camel meat and jewelry.

Halley found the souks charming, with their Ottoman architecture and stone vaults. She shopped for Aleppo silk as a giveaway for her school reunion.

Halley and her group dressed up for an evening at Club d’Alep, the exclusive club patronized by  chi-chi Syrians. When they arrived, the locals stopped their gossiping and dining and gawked at the foreigners.  Halley’s group headed to their table and  ordered the specialties—mezze or starters, a salad of green olives dressed with pomegranate molasses, puréed dips with walnuts and hot peppers, and main courses of soujouk (peppery sausage) and kibbeh (minced lamb). “The best was the kamayeh, a dish from Syrian truffles,” recalled Halley.

THE SO-CALLED “Valley of the Tombs” in Palmyra, a 1-km-long necroplis with a series of richly decorated columns; at left,Nina Halley wearing an embroidered dress made in Syria

That evening, a writer from the Financial Times had also brought a group to enjoy Syria’s gastronomy.

Then there were the tours outside the ancient city.  A Unesco World Heritage site,  Krak des Chavaliers, an 11th century Medieval castle built on the hilltop  outside of Homs Gap, a passageway in south Syria,  was the first stop.

The Kurds, an ethnic group from Iran, originally occupied the place. It was also used as garrison during the Crusades.

A stone curtain wall protected the castle and its square and round towers. Halley’s group explored the courtyard encircled by vaulted chambers. They took photographs of the architectural elements that defended the castles, the cavernous chapel, the frescoes of the Crusaders  and the arid panorama from the slopes of Tartus Hill.

Another hillside landmark outside of Aleppo was  the ruins of St. Simeon Cathedral, the oldest Byzantine church, built in the fifth century. Aside from the pillar of  the hermit monk St. Simeon Stylite, which was viewed on a boulder at the courtyard, the pilgrims walked the sacred grounds and explored the monastery, the four basilicas, the baptistery and the annexes.

INSIDE the Talisman, a beautifully restored hotel situated in the old city in the heart of Damascus

There was the obligatory visit to the Dead Cities. A sacred destination, Serjilla was like a ghost town with undone stone buildings. The center was a bathhouse stripped of its mosaic and more ruins.

In Hama, the main attraction was the series of nouras, old machines that transported water into a small aqueduct to irrigate the gardens. The travelers saw famous mosques and their mosaic art.

Desert oasis

Exploring Syria’s most famous ruined city, Palmyra, the tourist van traveled across the parched barrenness, past camels and tents of Bedouin nomads.  It felt as if time had stalled when the visitors were taken to the  majestic ruins,  with the sight of Corinthian columns, battered archways, elaborate hillside crypts and temples  unfolding across the terrain.

Inside a precinct lined by a colonnade, the Temple of Bel was built with two sanctuaries dedicated to the deities.

A NORIA (water wheel) built in 460 AD. It is the largest noria, the Al-Mohamadiyya, which used to supply the Great Mosque with water

The group stayed at the Tadamora Palace Hotel and Spa, whose architecture mimicked the Hellenistic style of the nearby Temple of Bel.

In Damascus, Halley’s group explored the Old City with its medieval citadel of Islamic schools and Ottoman palaces. They crossed the Roman archway to the inner sanctum of the eighth-century Umayyad Mosque—the core of Damascus’ Old City.  The mosque was a breadth of stone atop a former Byzantine church, which held the tomb of John the Baptist.

Next to the mosque was a courtyard house which offered views of the city and local cuisine. Close by was a coffee place where one could enjoy Turkish coffee and smoke narghile or water pipes.

For art exposure, the group visited the Azem Palace, the 18th-century citadel of the Ottoman governor, which became the Museum of the Arts and Popular Traditions. The architecture in itself was a marvel, with its mix of various natural stones used as decoration and ceilings painted with natural scenery.

Halley’s group stayed at the Talisman Hotel, an old Jewish palace transformed into an exquisite boutique hotel with intricate Damascene touches.

The group enjoyed Syrian cuisine, with the food always fresh and rich with aromatic spices.  There were the al ouzi, baked wraps filled with rice with minced meat, green peas and nuts, and the Damacene falafel and cold meats.

Aleppo beckoned with its pastries made of pistachios, walnuts and pine nuts rolled in filo dough, or enveloped in threads of sugar floss.

At the end of their trip, what remained most significant to Halley was Syria’s great manuscript of destiny, layered with stories of religion and empires.

“We were one of the last tourists. We came two months before the Arab uprising. The tour was carefully arranged,” said Halley.

Sadly, one of the richest countries of yore is now being savaged by war.

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  • Ornbort Vortingeresdemesus

    yeah i can see how the temple of Baal is a treasured memory…especially the one built by Suleiman bar Dauid. lol. 

    • Ornbort Vortingeresdemesus

      ..and all because of his women…

  • noyab

    halatang walang alam ang sumulat ng article na ito, basta may maisulat lang, hoy magresearch ka naman,,  there is no such thing as king solomin of judca…..solomon ng judea meron….di yan typo error, human error yan ng di nagbabasa, sulat lang ng sulat…..

  • rnoldrmada

    It breaks my heart of what is currently going on in Syria with the civil conflict although I know that it’s for the betterment of the country but with a high price, unfortunately. It was inevitable that the Arab Spring would reach this country and rightfully so. Syria has been ruled by the same family and its cronnies for decades and like the Philippines, the people just had enough. 
     I will always cherish the warmth I received from some of the folks I met in Syria which is quite the opposite of what we usually hear from mainstream media especially american media. The driver I hired even took me to their home for lunch his mother prepared  when he advised me that the food in Palmyra area, where we were at that time,  was not to be desired. The folks at the hotel where I stayed, the merchants at the souks and cafes of Damascus I met and talked with are one of the nicest peopleI have ever met in my travels. After conversing with them they are no different from folks in other places…same aspirations, same dreams for their children and basically the survival of the family. It made me wonder how in the world this country find itself in the list of sponsors of terrorism by the US.
    I had the great chance of visiting a couple of christian villages north of Damascus called Maalula and Saadnaya where the folks still speak Aramaic, the ancient language of Christ. I was told that the local schools in both villages utilize this language in their teachings to ensure its survival for generations.  But what was moving at that time was in the monastery’s dimly lit chapel the guide led us in Aramaic in reciting the Lord’s Prayer which was truly a spiritual moment.
    I intend to go back and experience this beautiful country once again and more. I hope that the conflict would stop and soon to avoid more bloodshed and allow the Syrians to go back to their normal lives. Inshala……

  • ruth

    I was lucky enough to have an audit engagement in Aleppo, Syria. I was able to visit the Citadel, the KRAK des Chevaliers, Noria and the souks in Aleppo and Damascus. We also went to a church (I forgot the name) and they said that Pope John Paul II visited the place. It was the best audit engagement ever and the most memorable experience of my life. Very sad about the war and how it is destroying a beautiful country. I miss the people and everything about. I hope peace will reign soon. 

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