This article is based on the travels of a family and an individual whose personal archives are in our collection. The article was translated into French and published in the October 2021 edition of La Faute à Rousseau, the theme of which is ‘Voyager’, or ‘Traveling.’ The magazine is a publication of the Association Pour l’Autobiographie (APA) and is available on the APA website.
by Myrthe Korf, Assistant archivist
These days we all miss travelling. Archives let us learn about travelling to different places at different times, including those that do not exist anymore or are now impossible to reach. This article gives a glimpse of Syria through two collections that the Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) holds.
One chosen collection contains two travel reports from the mid-1980s by a Dutch family of four who decided to travel by car from Oman, where they were living, to the Netherlands. Both times, the family took their time crossing Syria from Jordan to Turkey and visited various historical sites along their way.
The other one is the journals of an American student who spent a semester studying Arabic in Damascus in 2001. She describes some of the same places fifteen years later during the sightseeing excursions she and her study group took around the country.
In 2021, it is hard to imagine travelling through Syria in this way. Unfortunately, in the past 10 years Syria has been destroyed and divided by civil war and armed conflict, and some of the locations mentioned were seriously damaged. Nevertheless, these archives allow us to see what a fascinating country it must have been to visit.
During their first visit to Syria in 1983, the Dutch family visited the old and famous Al-Hamidiyah Souq in Damascus. They wandered around the covered market and visited the nearby Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. The American student visited the Old City more often as she was living in Damascus. She describes one of her visits to the Umayyad Mosque: ‘The Mosque is beautiful. We arrived just around sunset. When all the birds flew up from the courtyard, it was [a] gorgeous scene[…].’ Fifteen years earlier, the birds in the old city were already noteworthy: ‘In the inner court [of the Tekkiye Mosque, MK], the children feed the ducks with the pigeon food they took from the [Umayyad, MK] mosque.’
During an outing to the north of the country, the American student visited the famous Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle. ‘It’s a huge, marvelously [sic] preserved Crusader castle. You walk in the front door and it feels like some cavernous fortress. The walls drop off sheer on three sides and the other side has a moat. It’s full of nooks and crannies and strange dark passageways and random windows with spectacular views.’ The Dutch woman described the fortress in 1983 as ‘Beautiful, but neglected. With a few minor alterations one would be able to create a magnificent atmosphere for parties here.’ But, she concludes, ‘The atmosphere in Syria, however, does not give rise to a festive mood.’ It may be a while before any parties are held at Krak des Chevaliers, as it was damaged by fighting and shelling during the war.
Both the American and the Dutch visited the Citadel in Aleppo, a fortress that the Christian crusaders or other invaders never conquered, a fact proudly stressed by their local tour guides fifteen years apart. Both mention the pride with which their guides expanded on the different ways in which the inhabitants of the fortress could defend themselves against invaders: holes from which to throw boiling oil on the enemy, doors leading to secret passageways, the large moat around the castle.
Both also visited the Church of Saint Simeon near Aleppo, where Simeon stood fasting on a pillar for almost forty years. ‘It’s a gorgeous old building, 5th or 6th century, I think, and very dramatic,’ writes the American. ‘With fog settling on the surrounding hills and the lovely ubiquitous olive trees coming out of dirt so red it looks like it belongs on a different planet, the church (which the Muslims converted to a citadel in the 10th century) is quite a striking site. Very silent, with beautiful arches and pillars carved with windswept leaves that echoed the little grove of bent trees between the main church and the baptismal font.’ In 1986, the Dutch had a decidedly less romantic opinion of the location: they described it as a ‘sparsely inhabited, agrarian region, where herds roam.’ Unlike the American, they visited on a clear day and ‘far away [they] could make out the places where other monasteries and churches used to be. Now, there are only rows of trees surrounding heaps of stones, the rest has disappeared below the earth.’ Unfortunately, fighting has heavily damaged the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites.
Finally, both the Dutch family and the American student noticed something entirely different that did not change in the fifteen years between their visits: the ever-present pictures of the various members of the ruling Assad family. The American student frequently mentions the portraits of Hafez al-Assad, who was president of Syria until his death in 2000, his oldest son Bassel, who died in a car crash in 1994, and the younger son Bashar, who succeeded his father as president and still rules the country today.
On their way to the border crossing with Turkey high in the mountains, the Dutch family ‘sees once more the ubiquiteous [sic] portrait of the head of state. It shows a slightly roguish looking [Hafez al-] Assad, sitting on a bench with a prayer chain in his hands, a box with pastel coloured tissues ready for use on the adjoining coffee table.’
Many places in the world don’t exist anymore or can’t be visited. The archives let us preserve the memory of these places and allow a view of how people before us must have seen and experienced them. It is fascinating to read what has changed through the years and what has stayed the same.