It was during the summer of 2009 that I visited Damascus for the first time. The Syrian capital was somewhere that I had always wanted to visit and had studied in detail, but I was still awestruck by the city when I arrived there with my friends.
In its geographic position straddling East and West, Syrian culture blends aspects of both worlds to create a unique, vibrant environment. Traditional shops and local markets stand in some places almost adjacent to shopping malls, nightclubs and discotheques. More controversially, some of the oldest mosques and churches in the Arab world are in close vicinity of each other in a way that doesn’t instinctively highlight the seismic sectarian divide in the country. These were my first impressions of a truly amazing nation, where a young population looking to the future performs an often tricky balancing act with the culture and traditions of old.
Arabs are known for their welcoming manner and superb hospitality, and in this regard I was certainly not disappointed. Whenever we were lost in Damascus there was always someone who went out of his or her way to help us back onto the right track. I made good friends who I remain in contact with to this day.
Experiencing a nation so incredible on so many levels made it incredibly sad to be reminded of the trials and tribulations that the people of Syria go through, which have obviously escalated significantly over the last year. For most of us in the western world it is difficult to imagine living in a society practically devoid of democracy and political rights; freedom of political expression, freedom of press, right of assembly and the right to free elections to name just a handful.
After a month in Damascus, a short trip to the ancient Roman city of Palmyra came next before heading home. Palmyra is a world away from Damascus, but made no less of a striking impression. We headed up to the picturesque Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle to watch the sun set over the desert upon our arrival before heading back to our hotel, then awoke at the crack of dawn the next morning to head down and explore the city centre. The tourists and salesmen that had crowded the area the night before had surprisingly vanished, leaving behind them one of the most a tranquil, beautiful cities that I’ve ever witnessed.
Studying Arabic culture and visiting other parts of the Middle East was already a huge part of my life, to which visiting Syria added an exciting new dimension. I’ve never stopped missing Syria since I returned, and when the turbulence there has lessened I will return to further my experiences.