As some of you read this article, it is important to time-stamp the events at the time of writing. As fighting is still raging in some areas, the war is coming to an end and the situation is changing rapidly. With the government now in control of the country once again, I expect the situation to improve very quickly through the next 2 years, and people reading this article 2 years from now might get a very different experience on their trip. But Make no mistake, as I was visiting in mid-may 2019, the country was still at war and heavy fighting was going on in the Idlib region and around Aleppo where I stayed 2 nights… Was it worth the risk? I Beleive it did, and here’s why…
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I decided to come to Syria as I believed it was the right time to come after a long 9 years wait. In my opinion, it marked the safest time to come in recent years, while the situation is still at risk to spill over other countries in the region in the future, risking to bring back Syria along with them… Syrians also want to look past the troubling years they have endured during this dirty war, and are only asking for tourists to start coming again and start a normal once again. For a more in-depth explanation about why I decided to come, how I did it and the logistics of it all, you can consult the article I previously published: Exploring Syria During War Times… (My 191st of 196 Country Visited).
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My Experience traveling through Syria
I travelled only in the government-controlled areas which stretched to most of the country except the very volatile region of Idlib, around Aleppo and Northern Hama, still under rebel control and currently experiencing its heaviest fighting since the beginning of the Syrian War. The north is also a no-go zone as it is in Kurdish rule supported by the United States. Isis was declared “defeated” by Donald Trump back a few months ago but is still holding a few areas in the desert and some news surfaced while I was there of several attacks on government forces, as well as fighting along rebel forces in Idlib.
Inside the government-held areas, I felt secure. There was a military checkpoint every 3 km or so, sometimes as much as 5 within one kilometer, with heavily armed soldiers controlling whoever passed. Most frequently, they would only check my documents and say, “Welcome to Syria”, but every once in a while, they would check my information in a computer before letting us go with the same “Welcome to Syria”. Some more highly ranked officers even offered me to “contact them if there was anything and needed any help” and they even followed up with some calls to my guide asking how it was going so far”. Sometimes my guide would get some calls from government security to give details on our itinerary and our whereabouts. I knew I would be spied on and somehow followed by the government as this is the right thing to do in wartimes where thousands of foreigners came to fight with the enemy. But I didn’t mind as this was for my own security and as I am a public blogger with a story which is published online, I had nothing to hide in the event of questionings which never directly happened.
Lebanon to Al-Wadi visiting Krak des Chevaliers
We Started the trip in Beirut where my crew came to pick me up and drove me to the northern Syrian border with Lebanon. The area was and still is very popular with tourists, mostly Syrian Christians and Lebanese as it hosts one of the most important sites of Syria, the fortress of Krak des Chevalier; a Crusader castle and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world. The first thing that impressed me was that I was completely alone to visit what once had constantly over 40 tour buses in the parking of the castle. The fortress was taken by Isis early in the war and they resided in the castle for 1 year and a half, supported by the village of Krak just steps away. I was shocked to go through the village which has been completely destroyed by the government, in their subsequent liberation of the area and in reprisal for supporting ISIS during their stay.
The area of Al Wadi where I stayed on the first night is largely a Christian area and the village that had been supporting Isis was a Suni Muslim village and together with Isis, took advantage of its advantageous location to bomb the Christian villages below. The village today is just rubble, houses falling upon itself, and bullet holes everywhere, signalling that the city suffered a lot from supporting Isis. The village is empty now, its residents being denied reentry and are on the run up to today. Al Wadi, on the other hand, has recovered entirely from the shelling and is a great place to spend a few days with impressive views of the Castle and Valleys all around. The other highlight of Al Wadi is the Greek Orthodox monastery of St George where we visit the church, built in 1857 above the 13th-century chapel and the original 6th-century monastery. The Church, after receiving a mortar on its dome from Isis, managed to rebuild and reflourish to receive the inflow of Christians that come to visit every day.
The next step on the itinerary was a HOMS, one of the biggest cities in Syria and the birthplace of the revolution in 2011. The city has suffered massive damage during its liberation by the government forces which had to bomb building by building to free them from terrorists. The scenery is shocking, somewhat of a ghost town after an apocalypse! The only perfectly standing structure is the Great Mosque of al-Nuri which has just recently been rebuilt by donations supposedly from Chechens. The mosque is famous for having the tomb of the great Muslim leader Khaled Ibn Al Walid who lived in Homs for the last seven years of his life. Following our stop in Homs, we continued to Hama, having largely been spared from the war. Hama had its own war in the 80 when fanatics of the Muslim Brotherhood were crushed by the father of Bashar Al Assad. They appeared to want to avoid joining the rebels and in turn, the only few rebels who had heard of the violent crackdown in Homs decided to flee the city on their own to the north, avoiding total destruction like in Homs.
Homs to Aleppo through an alternative desert road
Aleppo was definitely the scariest part of the trip… During my visit, the countryside of Aleppo was still held by Al-Quaeda affiliates terrorists, rebels and Turkey, since the government had pushed all of them in an area around the Idlib region. There was heavy fighting in Idlib when I traveled and the situation was uncertain as both sides were making gains… We had just received news that Aleppo had been bombed by the rebels a day ago and a missile landed on a building less than a kilometer from where I would sleep in old Aleppo. Another attack by the rebels was carried on a Palestinian camp killing 4. My guide definitely seemed worried about going to Aleppo, which didn’t reassure me. But anyhow, we decided to go. On our way to Aleppo, the main highway which connected the two biggest cities of the country was held by rebels, constraining us to a long detour around the desert through the city of Khanassir.
The experience driving through this road was unreal since Kinassir was also a pretty tensed area in its worst days. The area is full of oil and when it was held by Isis back in 2014, was one of the main source of illegal oil smuggling to Turkey in an effort to fund their activities. On the road to Khanassir, many trucks are left destroyed on the side of the road. I was explained that the Russians would occasionally send air raids to bomb trucks that had been found smugglers of illegal oil, to stop the influx of cash funding their activities. This caused a big part of the roadside and desert area to be totally burned with strong smells of oil emerging for several kilometers. On a crossroad of the Raqqa-Homs road was the oil field, now full of trucks filling up in what appears to be a big pond of oil. An interesting fact was that, even though Syria is full of oil, we were struggling to find any gas to fill the car, the vast majority of gas stations being shut down for being empty. Most people seemed to buy smuggle gas on the side of the road for 3 times the price! When we finally found a gas station that was in operation, there would be long queues and we could only fill up about 10 liters at a time for restriction by the government. There was news of a gas crisis in Aleppo so my driver was a bit careful to get as much gas as possible before going deeper into the Syrian desert.
Khanassir city was all in ruins and there were destroyed buildings everywhere. Past Khanassir, views of the desert was quite nice; tons of small villages still built of mud with Beduin inhabitants living in bee style mud huts. We stopped by a village on the way where Mohammed the driver went on to trade some of our dates for some local made Beduin pita bread.
Another interesting part of travelling through the desert was to see the Russian Military present everywhere. They had positioned several bases on the road to control the oil fields which they now hold the rights to exploit. I was explained they had just been awarded a 25 years lease from the government for exclusive access to the oil fields for the help they have provided to the regime. Even in Aleppo, we could see Russian soldiers enjoying life in the parks with other soldiers. The Russians are widely seen in Syria as the crucial key to the success of the government in wiping off Isis and Rebel forces out of the country.
Aleppo: over 8000 years of history lost in ruins…
Arriving in the Aleppo region, we entered the city through the New Aleppo area which was inhabited mostly by rich people prior to the war. The city was in complete ruins and completely destroyed, with empty, shelled and burnt buildings all over the place. Nearby, the industrial city, once a pride of the government hosting over 30 major industries, had been totally robbed, dismantled and transported piece by piece by Isis, as my guide claimed, straight to Turkey to be sold. Nothing is left, only ruins as Isis would then burn them to the ground after stealing everything they could. Inside Aleppo, it’s all ruins… with people trying to live normal lives walking through the rubble. Some have decided to stay in the destroyed buildings, but most of them remain unoccupied and ready to fall down at any moment.
The worst was arriving downtown, in the old quarter of Aleppo. Aleppo is widely known as the oldest inhabited city of the world, with over 8000 years of civilisations built on top of each other. The old town is where the tourists used to stay in fancy hotels around the famous Citadel. What was previously the most expensive area is now a ghost town, empty buildings with massive mortar holes and burnt facades, crippled with so many bullet holes everywhere! During its occupation, ISIS and other rebel factions such as Al Nusra had taken some parts of the old town and were constantly fighting and shelling the treasures of humanity around the old town. The famous old Turkish Bath (Hammam Yalbougha al-Nasri ), had a massive mortar hole in its dome. The magnificent Great Mosque of Aleppo, a World Heritage Site, located at the entrance to Al-Madina Souq, was completely destroyed. The mosque is purportedly home to the remains of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. The worst part was the old Souq of Aleppo, completely destroyed as well and abandoned… Walking through it at night felt like being in a movie scene of a horror movie. Crippled with bullet holes everywhere and massive holes in its walls, we could go inside the abandoned houses to see the horrors that had happened between closed walls. The information I was given is that 80% of the old town had been destroyed…
The only positive news I can think of in Aleppo was the citadel. It was 70% spared from any damage! The story of how it was saved from rebel destruction is also one of a movie scenario! The Citadel is a UNESCO historical site that was built from the 3rd century BC up to the 12th century AD. It is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. 25 soldiers of the government were stationed here early in the war to avoid being taken as its location is very strategic! These same 25 soldiers managed to live there for 5 years to defend the citadel at all costs, being constantly targeted by Isis fire on one side and Al Nusra on the other side. They were resupplied during these 5 years by the government forces with the help of secret underground tunnels. Overall this time, The terrorists have never been able to take the citadel, but manage to damage some parts of it. This shows even nowadays how these fortifications are still very effective to protect against foreign invasions! I even met with one soldier on top of the citadel which had been in the base all that time and still holding his position in his little post on top of the citadel. A very brave and friendly man!
We were also invited to a Ramadan Party by our hotel owner, hosted in the old caravansary in the old town of Aleppo. While the whole surroundings were destroyed, it seemed like the Caravansary had been mostly spared. People seemed to carry on with their lives and enjoyed the company of each other for the festivities, a kind of time to forget about all the problems they are facing which they will have to deal again the next day…
Damascus, Mostly Spared from Combat
Damascus is the capital of the country and the most important city where the government is centred. Even though Aleppo carries the title of most ancient inhabited city in the world, Damascus is almost as old as Aleppo and a jewel of its own! Only when arriving in the suburbs of Damascus could I see some destroyed buildings with any trace of heavy fighting. The old town has received a few thousand mortars from rebel villages in the suburbs, but reconstruction was quick. What stroke me of Damascus is that life seemed completely normal, people laughing, people wandering around at night, nice cars parading the downtown streets. It made me think how Aleppo must have had the same atmosphere, should I have seen it outside war times. Instead, I only saw ruins and destruction over there…
During my stay in Damascus, I had the chance to stay in a beautiful hotel in the old town and since I was the only tourist, I was offered what they called the “sultans room”! The room was mind-blowing, with an original marble fountain in the middle of the room and original ottoman style decoration dating from the 18th century. This is probably one of the advantages to visit a country as one of the first tourist seen in years!
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