Aleppo was breathtaking in 2005! Located in northwest Syria, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Parked at the end of the ancient Silk Road, the city boasted of selling beautiful silks, textiles and other luxuries. I am happy I was able to visit Aleppo and other parts of Syria in 2005, well before the current civil war which rages through the war-torn nation. This blog is from my 2005 observations. I recently chatted with a German archaeologist who was called back from a project to excavate more of the city’s buried historical treasures because of the war. He was heartsick. I am too.
I felt no fear as I wandered about the winding streets of the charming old city in 2005, peeking into enticing shops and chatting with citizens who wanted to speak with the rare American tourist who ventured into this country. The U.S. government deemed Syria an enemy because of its ties to the former Soviet Union since the 1970s and its historical connections to the Baath Party, which sought to unite the entire Arab world into one powerful socialist state.
I fondly remember the hospitable shopkeepers offering me hot tea, served in a petite glass with two lumps of sugar to sweeten the brew. The whiff of sweet tea metaphorically settled over the city that graciously combined the aura of the past with a multicultural population made up of different sects of Christians and Muslims, as well as modern Syrians and Muslim fundamentalists. They seemed to make do in a wary, yet peaceful, alliance, but always feeling the watchful eye of President Bashar al-Assad backed up by his powerful authoritarian state. When I casually asked individuals about their views on Assad and the military, they quickly averted their eyes and mumbled a few words that signaled no more questions.
Sweet Aleppo is no more. The civil war between two factions – the Syrian state and the hard-to-define rebel opposition – has pummeled Aleppo, shredding the city into a pile of rubble and misery. Thousands have fled, seeking refuge in nearby Turkey and other destinations. I wonder if our gracious tour guide, who plied us with intoxicating sweets during our travels through Syria, is among them. I can’t imagine this gentle man taking up arms, he who chanted a Muslim call to prayer for us that divinely echoed throughout the ancient mosque.
I have posted several photos in this blog post that reflect my impressions of Syria as a brief traveler in 2005, including the paradoxes I observed – the tensions between modern and tradition, the strain among Christians and Muslims, and the added animosity between the Muslim sects of Alawites (a branch of Shia Islam) and Sunnis. During my travels I saw a relatively stable state, although not democratic, governed by an authoritarian ruler – Bashar al-Assad – whose father Hafez al-Assad had ruled the country for 30 years before him. I found the Syrian people friendly, incredibly hospitable, and curious about me and my fellow American travelers.
The question is: What happened to Aleppo and Syria in general to transform it from a state with stable institutions and peaceful people, albeit too authoritarian for my taste, to a state disintegrating before our eyes on the news outlets? There are many intertwining factors that make it difficult to extract a simple answer. But I will leave my commentary about the disintegration of Syria to part 2 of this blog next week.
Our blogs post every week. Stay tuned for part 2 on October 8.