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Iíve only been once in Syria, during a week, as part of a voyage from London to Kathmandu, with Encounter Overland, in 1982.
Under the middle of Turkey, right near the Mediterranean, thereís a lob of Turkey, with the city of Iskenderun. From there we drove to Aleppo, in Syria, and had to cross the borders. That didnít went smoothly. Syria was obviously not aware yet of itís full touristic potential. Waiting for hours at the mercy of Allah. I had lots of coffee which had boiled for hours together with lots of sugar. Yuck, but I needed something to get awake. I walked around a bit, and saw a box for complaints. I thought about filling in a form, to complain about the inefficiency, but then I noticed that the officials had full view on whoever dumped anything. Letís not do it.
There was also a map of Syria, and I must have made a mistake in distance of 70 kilometers. The Turkish lob didnít exist. According to the map, Iskenderun was Syrian, and the borders where I was now, was far away from here. Amazing.
In Aleppo I had a cola, in some kind of coffee shop / snack bar. All the folks over there looked at me like angry, quite like all the gasoline station assistants who all refused to supply us with drinking water. A soldier from the not-too-bright type tried his best English, and an old man mumbled something into my direction. The soldier translated what he said: our country is swarmed with tourists like wasps. Strange, I thought that the twelve of us were the only tourists, we didnít meet anyone else, not even at the borders.
Later, a soldier threw the stone of an apricot to me, from a driving truck. Ballistics werenít his specialty, and he hit my girl friend next to me, with great force. What a jerk. But there was this treat of war, and that didnít make people more friendly. Nowadays, Syria seems to be a true tourist paradise.
Palmyra is a lovely oasis in the middle of the desert, with a few hotels near the temple of Baal.
The road to it was spectacular too, all highways were in excellent condition, but no street lights anywhere. Lots of symmetrical hills, spread throughout the country. Later one these turned out to be hangars of the army, and all highways were also used as landing strips. All of Syria was one very big military airport.
Hama is a very special city. It houses a great waterwheel, over 2000 years old. As usual this could be visited after buying an entrance ticket. But not here, as the ticket office was riddled with bullets. All glass broken, and no-one home. Free entry. At closer inspection, lots of parts in Hama suffered from a war. Many burned out apartments, and some were restored by replacing the lost apartments with new ones, attached to the old apartment. I didnít knew this was possible, I always thought the complete building had to be renovated.
Much later, the Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, from January 9 1991, revealed what happened. Three months before I arrived, there was an up rise from militant Islamic groups against Hafez al Assad. He had the opposition slaughtered, and had the military kill some 20,000 people. The western world was not informed, and it was kept a secret till the nineties.
The next day Mike, our driver, asked us if we were interested in visiting Lebanon or visit a great castle. The borders between Syria and Lebanon were quite open, no hassle, and Lebanon was a relaxing, beautiful holiday paradise of luxury, to a boring level. We chose to check the castle.
Near Homs thereís the Craque des Chevaliers, the most beautiful knights castle, from the days of the crusaders. Build for 4000 soldiers, 300 knights and 1 king. It was one of a line of castles, which were all in sight distance from each other, covering England to Jeruzalem.
Back in Damascus we heard machine gun fire. Eight rounds. The next day too, as well as the tremendous sound of Migs at way too low altitude. Apart from that also a strange rumbling noise in the far distance. That appeared to be the sound of a bombardment by the Israelis on a ďtraining campĒ in Lebanon, 25 km away from Damascus. You could say that the day we arrived, hell broke loose, as this was the start of a long terrible war.
The Egyptian camping site owner was sweating blood, he feared that Syrians would kill him to avenge the Israeli attacks. After all, Egypt (under Sadat) and Israel were good friends, reason enough to cut this Egyptian throat. On june 10, we left by plane in the early evening, towards Pakistan, right in time to hear the second attack on Lebanon. The other Encounter Overland group, travelling in the opposite direction, had to wait, as their plane was confiscated by Pakistani fighters to fight in Lebanon. Home is were the action is.
Map of Syria