More about the people and places Laila and Ahmed experienced in Syria
"...Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days, months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality. She saw Greece rise and flourish two thousand years, and die. In her old age she saw Rome built, she saw it overshadow the world with its power; she saw it perish.... She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”
Often called the Cradle of Civilization, Syria’s history dates to that of the first civilized man. A country of fertile plains, mountains, and desserts, Syria was home to countless empires. It was once the center of the Islamic Empire and survived many invasions and occupations over the ages from the Romans, Mongols, Crusaders, and Turks. Throughout history, Syria has stood at a crossroads - of trade, of culture, of ideas. The country is home to several diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis. Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946 and it is one of the few countries in the region that is officially secular. Currently, over 50% of the Syrian population of 22 million have been displaced due to the civil war.
Ibn Battuta (1304-1368) was a 14th century Moroccan-born traveler who traveled over 75,000 miles in 30 years, at a time when airplanes did not exist and the main mode of transportation was camel or horse. This was more than any other traveler of his time, including Marco Polo. His memoir, Rihla tells of all his travels and is considered the world's first travel journal, filled with strikingly accurate and descriptive detail. Ibn Battuta is widely considered the "traveler of this time." While the famous Marco Polo (1254-1324) traveled for 17 years and visited 20 countries, Ibn Battuta traveled for 29 years and visited over forty countries. These included Spain, West Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, the Maldives, India, Indonesia, China. What began as a pilgrimage from Morocco to Mecca for Ibn Battuta at age 21 ended as one of the greatest journeys recorded. Ibn Battuta's famous advice to fellow travelers was "never, as much as possible, cover any road a second time."
Located about 150 miles from Damascus (or four days' journey by camel), Palmyra was a trade outpost between the Phoenician and Mesopotamian civilizations. The city had a camel corps that would protect merchant caravans, and the Palmerian culture included a mix of several cultures that its citizens interacted with, including Persian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Egyptian, and Latin traditions. Mark Antony tried unsuccessfully to capture Palmyra in 41 B.C., and though the city fell within the Roman empire, it operated independently from a legal and tax perspective.
The ruins of Palmyra had remained well preserved for thousands of years and are a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, with Syrian Bedouins having memorized the intricacies of its majestic structure. However, the city suffered extensive damage during the recent war and theft of many of its antiquities. Most residents of the area continue to be displaced.
Queen Zenobia was a legendary and beloved woman who ruled an ancient empire of Palmyra. In 270 Zenobia launched an invasion and conquered much of Rome and Egypt. She's considered a national hero in Syria (may equate her to Cleopatra) and is even printed on Syrian currency currently. She was known to be a lover of learning, culture and poetry and peacefully ruled a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire of pagan cults, Christians, and Jews. During her rule, she also expanded the empire, consolidating power and securing borders. Unfortunately, she was eventually captured by the Romans in a tragic ending to her rule. However, her legend lives on till today, especially in Syria, as a courageous queen and the "queen of the dessert."
Bedouins are age-old tribally-organized communities that herd livestock (primarily sheep and goat) and traditionally wandered the desert. The Bedouin lifestyle is known for its strong honor code built around loyalty, kinship, collective responsibility, and hospitality. Bedouins also share a rich cultural tradition that includes oral poetry, sword dances, and playing traditional instruments. Many Bedouins were forced to give up their nomadic herding lifestyle after the formation of the nation-state system, which attempted to root-out tribalism and tribal loyalties. However, many Bedouins have managed to maintain some of their customary law and cultural practices. In Syria today, Bedouins populate several dessert areas, including Palmyra, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor. Unfortunately, these areas have recently become battlegrounds in the recent Syrian war, and have displaced many of Syria’s Bedouins who have fled to Turkey, Jordan, and other neighboring states.
Krak des Chevaliers
Between 1096 until 1291, waves of European Christians known as Crusaders arrived in the present day Middle East to gain control of the Holy Land, or Jerusalem. During this time, the Crusaders built castles and fortresses across coastlines and hilltops to defend and fortify areas they had captured.
The Krak des Chevaliers, or Castle of the Knights, was built on a strategic mountain-top location upon the ruins of an older Muslim castle, and considered the strongest crusader castle of the time. T.E. Lawrence called it "perhaps the most wholly admirable castle in the world." The castle was eventually captured by Saladin, a Kurdish military general who later went on to retake Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
Today, several villages lie at the foot of the castle, admiring the castle and its surrounding greenery and cypress trees from below. Author Peter Theroux has called the castle "the perfect storybook castle that you have always known existed somewhere." Until recently, Krak des Chevaliers was the best-preserved crusader castle in the world, a designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, it suffered extensive damage during the recent Syrian war.
Hama has the reputation of being one of the most charming and picturesque of Syrian towns. The city's river is lined today with 17 historic "norias" or waterwheels that traditionally were used to push water to surrounding agricultural areas and gardens. Hama has specialized in the building and use of such waterwheels since Byzantine times, which helped transform the city into an important agricultural center.
Aleppo is amongst the oldest cities in the world, serving since ancient times as a strategic trading post. It subsequently became a center of Arabic culture and architecture, and until recently was filled with well-preserved buildings over hundreds of years old, including mosques, old homes, minarets, and a famous citadel and souq (market). In modern times, the city has come to be known for its industry, farming, and cuisine, the last of which is considered the finest in Syria.
Walking through the old city of Aleppo in 2011 felt like taking a walk back in time, to a living and breathing medieval city with a vast historical legacy. Unfortunately, Aleppo and its people endured some of the most extensive consequences of the Syrian civil war, with destruction of nearly the entire old city and displacement of most of the city's residents.
Legend has it that on a journey from Mecca, the Muslim Prophet Mohammed cast his gaze from the mountainside onto Damascus but refused to enter the city because he wanted to enter paradise only once – after death. In a place that vies for the title of the world’s oldest continually inhabited city, this is but one of thousands of stories. As the first stop for travelers from the east, with a once gushing river flowing through it, Damascus has always been a coveted capital. The city is surrounded by lush agriculture and ancient farmland, and filled with remnants of architecture and culture of the many civilizations that called Damascus home. The city has survived invasions, wars, and economic sanctions. In 2010, before the war, the NY Times listed Damascus as the 7th best place to visit.
The old city of Damascus lies on the bank of the now dry River Barada, enclosed by old city walls. It is romantic a maze of alleys filled with lovely arches, bazaars, street vendors, coffeehouses, mosques with fountain courtyards, churches, and a historic Jewish quarter. In The Adventures of Laila and Ahmed in Syria, Laila and Ahmed dine in an traditional Damascene home. These homes fill the Old City and were symmetrically built around lovely courtyards, trees, and fountains that served as a natural method of temperate control. The walls of the houses were often engraved, and the interiors lavishly decorated with lanterns and the many handicrafts of the country. Today, several of these homes have been restored converted to vibrant restaurants and cafes .
The Umayyad Mosque, also known as The Great Mosque of Damascus, is one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built in the 8th century A.D. by over 12,000 multi-ethnic craftsman, incorporating influences from many surrounding cultures. The mosque is built in a rectangular style around a giant, open courtyard surrounded by pillars and has served as the architectural influence for several mosques around the world. It is one of the few mosques that has three minarets, Minaret of the Bride (9th and 12th centuries), Minaret of Qat Bey (15th century), and the Minaret of Jesus (13th century), each which hold a unique story. The mosque also contains a shrine which is thought to contain the head of John the Baptist (known as Prophet Yahya in the Islamic tradition), honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims alike. The Umayyad mosque is considered the fourth holiest site in Islam, and believed by Muslims to be the place that Jesus will return one day. In 2001 Pope John Paul II visited the mosque and its relics of John the Baptist; it was the first visit time a pope had visited a mosque.
Al-Hamidiyah Souq is Syria’s largest and central souq, located inside the old walled city of Damascus. In 2005, the souq was one of the treasures featured in the BBC series Around the World in 80 Treasures by Dan Cruickshank, in which Cruickshank visits 80 of the world’s greatest manmade treasures. The assortment of shops begins at a busy city street and continues for 2000 feet to the Umayyad Mosque. Al-Hamidiyah dates to Ottoman Rule and is covered with unusual iron-vaulted ceilings. Present days holes in the ceiling were the result of gun fire attacks in the mid-20th century, while Syria was under French mandate. A major commercial center up until this day, the shops in Hamidiyah stock all types of items with vibrant displays to lure in prospective customers, including handmade brocades, mosaic, woodwork, copper inlaid with silver, ice cream, perfumes, and more. It is frequented by Damascus residents and tourists alike. Here is an interesting article about the souq: Sexy secrets of the Syrian souk
A 1200-meter high mountain, Mount Qasioun majestically overlooks the city of Damascus. Local residents often drive or sit along the mountaintop, smoking shisha and drinking hot tea or hot chocolate from the on-site vending trucks while enjoying the sunset. The view from the mountain is marvelous, the air is, and the sunset over Damascus from the mountain is a must-see. At night, Damascus lights shine like small stars from the mountain-top, with green lights representing mosques down below.
Maaloula, a mountainous city with a population of about 5000 people, located in the mountains nearby Damascus. The cities name is Aramaic for “entrance,” a name that describes the town’s religious heritage. According to popular beliefs, St. Thecle, a beautiful young Christian convert who studied under St. Paul, fled from her home when persecuted by her parents and the Romans for her newfound Christian faith. Arriving in Maaloula, she found her path blocked by a mountain. Legend says she prayed to God for help, and the rocky mountain divided creating a passage with a stream under her feet – and so the city was named Maaloula, or “entrance.”
As home to several Christian holy sites, including the fourth-century St. Sergius Church, Maaloula has long been a haven for Christians. Christians make up about half the population here and city is best known as one of the only cities in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus dating back to 900 B.C, is still spoken. Experts say, some 18,000 Syrians speak Aramaic, including those who live in the nearby villages, Bakha and Jubadin. Aramaic speakers in Maaloula are both Christian and Muslim, through the language is incomprehensible to most other Syrians. More about the cities linguistic heritage can be found here.