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It was a chilly Damascus morning. I pulled the peaked hood over my head and bent through an archway into the Umayyad mosque, its high walls shimmering green and gold.
My long robes – offered to tourists in the wonderfully translated “putting on clothes room” – were a sign that Syria was happy for visitors to amble alongside its centuries-old buildings.
Later, I wandered across the city. Near the National Museum, and the Barada river, I arrived at a small souk selling leather slippers, beaten metal plates and hand-painted silk clutch bags worthy of any high-end fashion boutique in Knightsbridge or South Kensington. “Please tell people to come,” the salesman told me, “we love tourists”. I am ashamed to say that I walked away without buying one of his bags.
That was exactly three years ago. Despite the odd hint of tension, I had not expected the civil war that followed, the third anniversary of which was this week. Today, the website for the monolithic Four Seasons hotel in Damascus bears no mention of the country’s strife but tour operators are predicting it will be at least five years before tourists can return.
At the time of my visit to Syria, the world had just witnessed the overthrowing of President Ben Ali in Tunisia and the beginnings of the Libyan Civil War, which would eventually lead to the death of Colonel Gaddafi in October 2011. The world’s focus was on North Africa but while I dithered over booking last-minute flights to Syria, I felt that there was little risk to tourists in Damascus at that time.
The hospitality of the Syrian people was resolute. From the firm greeting offered by a passing toilet attendant at Damascus airport (“welcome into Syria, Madame”) to those tourist vendors, it was obvious that Syria’s hospitableness was one reason why its tourism industry had been coming into bloom.
Jonny Bealby, founder of tour operator Wild Frontiers, told Telegraph Travel that Syria had, from nowhere, grown to become his company’s second biggest selling destination.
“It had everything really – the obvious stuff was the ancient history and culture, but also in terms of cuisine and the friendliness of the people. The accommodation was good, the infrastructure was good, the guides were good. You really had everything you needed to make a really good cultural holiday there.”
That is a view shared by Hugh Fraser, founder of Middle East specialist operator Corinthian Travel. He explains that, up until 2011, tourist numbers to Syria had been on the rise – he was sending about 200 clients there per year. “I don’t think you could find such a depth of history and culture anywhere else in the Middle East.
“The socialist leanings of Syria’s dictatorship meant that they had kept out a lot of the trappings of modernisation in terms of fast food restaurants and lots of other associated things, so it was in a bit of a time warp – no McDonald’s, no Starbucks.”
Then the fighting increased and Syria started to feature on the front pages of Western newspapers. And the whisperings of kidnappings and shellings, bombings and sniper fire, civilians dying and journalists disappearing became startlingly, horribly real. Jonny Bealby’s last group of tourists was there in April 2011, crossing over into Syria from neighbouring Lebanon. “That was tricky, so the problems were already well established on the border. We did get the group in – but I don’t think they could get all the way to Aleppo.”
Contact with partners that British tour operators used on the ground has now dried up.
Hugh Fraser tells chilling stories of those he used to work with. “One of my favourite drivers, he is now – or when I was last in contact with him – running refugees from Damascus to the Lebanese border, which goes partially through both government and rebel lines, so a pretty risky profession.
“But what can you do? He had invested in his own car. Just because a war comes along, the banks don’t give you a moratorium on your debt, so he had to make ends meet somehow.”
Others fled, and then returned to Syria.
“The owner of the company we used to work with found out at one stage that he had a price on his head, and within 24 hours he and his brother left the country”, Mr Fraser continued.
“He went to the United States for six months, then to Iraq, then to Lebanon – so many Syrians are in Lebanon.”
But he then returned home to Damascus. Hugh explains: “He said, ‘I was fed up. It was much better for me to go back to my own country that I love, even though it’s got great problems.’ And of course there’s no work, but he was at the top of the tree, so they probably have good savings that they can use to live off. I think he spends his days now going horse riding.”
It would be wrong to over-emphasise the damage to cultural sites in Syria at the expense of highlighting the loss of human life, and the displacement of those who remain alive. The most recent estimates say that 140,000 people have died in the conflict, and millions have been forced to leave, spilling over borders into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
And yet there is no reason why media attention given to human and cultural loss should be “one or the other”. That the human loss is great does not detract from the fact that the loss of heritage is also significant (and vice versa).
Last week, a joint statement was released by Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General; Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, and Lakhdar Brahimi, United Nations-League of Arab States Joint Special Representative for Syria, calling for an end to the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage.
“As the people of Syria continue to endure incalculable human suffering and loss, their country’s rich tapestry of cultural heritage is being ripped to shreds. World Heritage sites have suffered considerable and sometimes irreversible damage”, the statement said.
“Archaeological sites are being systematically looted and the illicit trafficking of cultural objects has reached unprecedented levels.”
The officials also condemned the use of cultural sites for military purposes and made an appeal “to all countries and professional bodies involved in customs, trade and the art market, as well as individuals and tourists, to be on alert for stolen Syrian artefacts, to verify the origin of cultural property that might be illegally imported, exported and/or offered for sale, and to adhere to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property.”
The damage is already clear. In June 2013, UNESCO added six sites to its list of “World Heritage in Danger” – the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the ruins at Bosra and Palmyra, and the castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din. In Aleppo, Syria’s second city, the minaret of the 8th-century Umayyad mosque was destroyed last April .
A rampant fire ruined the city’s 17th-century souk in 2012, an incident that also destroyed one of the hotels Wild Frontiers formerly used on its Syria itineraries. In addition, streets in Homs, the country’s third city, now lie is ruins.
Recent reports say that shell blasts and mortar fire have damaged the ruins of Palmyra, 215km (133 miles) northeast of Damascus. The Temple of Baal at the site has reportedly been damaged by shrapnel during conflict between government and rebel forces.
Damascus’s streets are said to have a heavy military presence, although the souk is reportedly still operating. Late last year, an Italian news agency reported that a mortar had damaged the city’s Umayyad mosque . Their source – purportedly Syrian archaeologists monitoring damage to the country’s cultural heritage – said that mosaic decorating the prayer room’s transept was affected.
What does the future hold for Syria, and its people who relied on tourism?
Jonny Bealby points out that many people working in tourism in countries where the sector is subject to flux have secondary businesses. “In these parts of the world tourism is a very fickle business and they are used to having tourists bombarding them one minute and then not there at all the next.
“So I think in places like Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, they are aware of the possibility that tourism can disappear just as fast as it can boom and therefore have other ways of surviving, and they knuckle down and get stuck into those.”
Hugh Fraser points to the way Beirut was rebuilt after the Lebanese Civil War as a way Syria might one day recover. Despite the damage already done to heritage attractions in urban areas, he supposes that the Roman sites and castles in more rural areas will survive. “Whatever happens in the cities now, Syria will still emerge with something that is still quite incredible.”
That is, there will be something for tourists to return to, one day, and one day Syrians will be able to make a living from people visiting their currently troubled country. While Wild Frontiers’ business has moved to other areas – Jonny Bealby says there is currently a lot of interest in Iran and Uzbekistan, and India makes up about 35 per cent of sales – the company will always seek to go back to Syria, even if that is at least five years away.
“Believe me, as soon as there is a sniff of an opportunity, Wild Frontiers will be there,” he said. The way in, he added, would be to visit the lesser-affected regions.
As peace talks between government and rebel representatives stall, reports of barrel bombings fill our news pages, with violence the result of an ever-increasing number of conflicts between an ever-increasing number of groups, it all seems a long way off indeed, foremostly for Syria’s people.
How I wish that I had bought all of those painted silk bags in that souk three years ago this week, if only to keep the seller going a little bit longer. Perhaps he has fled now, perhaps he is still in Damascus. From everyone’s perspective, I want to hear someone say again, “Welcome into Syria”.