The last time we were in Syria, back in 2009, there was a sense of optimism in the air. Or at least the illusion of optimism. New hotels, bars, restaurants, and boutiques had been popping up in the old towns of Damascus and Aleppo, and tourism — thanks to the magnificent castles, atmospheric souks, expansive Roman ruins, and compelling cuisine — was going through the roof.
The last time we visited Syria peace talks were underway with Israel, relations with Lebanon were warming up, and the liberalisation of the state-controlled economy was underway. Everyone we met was positive about the future, even those who didn’t support the regime.
The complexities of what followed in 2011 are for the historians to argue over, but for me every day that I see yet another image of needless death and destruction, while the West sits on its hands, breaks my heart — particularly as I scroll though images of Syria from our work covering the country over the years.
When I was looking for some Dubai images the other day, I plugged in an old hard drive labelled “Crete, Cyprus, Turkey, UAE, Lebanon, Syria 08”. Those were some of the places we were covering for magazine stories and guide books that year.
We did a huge journey through Syria in 2008, spending six very intensive weeks of research and photography on the road, traversing the length and breadth of the country with a driver. We had travelled to the country a number of times before that road trip, the first time in 1999 and the last trip in late 2009.
Even to this day I don’t think that there are too many Western travel writers who have covered that much territory in Syria, apart from the guidebook writer who wrote the first edition of the guidebook that we were tasked with rewriting and combining with another book, which we would end up updating twice.
After some years covering the Middle East as travel writers, by the end of 2009 we were getting a little restless. The instability in the region was increasingly making it difficult to sell the sort of stories we wanted to write. It was only the Middle Eastern in-flight magazines commissioning us to do features, on everything from the jazz scene in Damascus to street food in Amman.
I can remember when we did a story on the flourishing bar scene in Beirut in 2005, which the editor of the magazine called “Beirut is Buzzing”. By the time the magazine hit the shelves in 2006 Beirut was buzzing with Israeli jet fighters.
While we increasingly wrote more on Europe from 2009 onwards (which we had been covering for years anyway) and we started to cover other parts of the world, including Asia, we hadn’t abandoned the Middle East. In fact we had a book deal with a major publisher on Syria that we were about to finalise when the troubles began.
As I recently scrolled through my selects (images that I think are worthy of publishing), I kept wondering about the people I photographed and where they are now. We have been in contact with some of our friends who were lucky enough financially and politically savvy enough to know when it was time to leave, but there were countless other people with whom we lost contact.
Whenever I look at this photo above, taken at the Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus, I wonder what happened to the mother and son who dominate the image. They look as if they are in awe at an aspect of the exquisite detail of what was one of the world’s most sumptuous mosques, as if they are visiting the Umayyad for the first time.
I imagine they must have had the same expression on their face when they saw the magnificent minaret — the minaret that is no longer there, thanks to the civil war.
The scars so visible at Syria’s historic sites — those that still stand — can never compare to the collective mental scars of the nation and its people. How can Syria ever rebuild after the war is over? It seems like an almost insurmountable task — a task that, sadly, is hard to imagine even starting any time in the near future.
This photo taken on 26.03.2007 with a backup camera, a Nikon D80, while my main camera at the time a Nikon D2X would have been on my other shoulder with my 17-55mm f2.8DX mounted. One of the reasons for using the D80 was that it was so much smaller than the D2X (Nikon’s huge flagship camera at the time) so I’d often put the D2X (nicknamed the ’soul stealer’) in my camera bag and just walk around with the D80 with a 50mm lens on, making me much less conspicuous.
Details: Nikon D80, 80-200mm f/2.8D Nikkor @ 170mm @ F3.5 @ 1/250th second @ ISO400.