still life in the desert, a moment of peace in between group travel

I know I have been very critical about group travel, not my thing, etcetera. Earlier experiences were not necessarily a great success altogether. But for a trip to Syria, once again because of the uncertainties ahead of the trip, I had selected group travel once more. I am actually not sure whether you can travel on your own in Syria, you may well have to travel in a group, or at least through a recognised agency – so that you can be watched at all times, your movements controlled.

collective dinner on the first night

So I dreaded the prospect of group travel, ahead of my departure. The endless Whatsapps, the urge to sort out everything beforehand. And yet, I was wrong, this time. All twelve of us got on really well, there was nobody who didn’t fit in. The Syrian guides, the agency director and his family, that he took along on the trip (dangerous trip, anyone? Not if this guy brings his family!), they were all very nice, even though they not necessarily understood our hunger for information all the time. Actually, it was good fun. Except for the endless need to take group photos at every conceivable occasion (and there are many more….).

group picture in Bosra

group picture in the mosaics museum

group picture in front of the Aleppo citadel

group pictre at the Doom Cafe in Homs

and the final group picture, last morning at the hotel

oh, and I also added my own group picture, after one early morning bus departure

at the wedding, impeccably dressed women on a variety of heels

Of course there are limitations. I may have had to move quicker through the souk than I would have wanted to, didn’t have the time to talk to everybody who wanted to talk to me, take all the pictures I wanted to take. But then, I didn’t have to organise anything either, hotels were booked, transport was ready every morning again, food was on the table every evening. Comfortable. Who knows, I may be tempted once more, in the future. For a maximum of ten days, of course, let’s not overdo it.

the musicians in the hammam, doing their job however much annoying it was to me, the listener (admittedly, the rest of the group did enjoy it more)

and of the group, totally refreshed after a hammam treatment

the famous Old Extra Red Wine from 1993

imagine this: bags full of artichoke hearts, and I couldn’t bring them home!

Was there then really nothing that didn’t work out well? Hmmm. At the instigation of our agency director we attended a wedding where we obviously didn’t belong. We – well, the men in the group – we went to a traditional hammam in Damascus, where we got pestered by a few musicians; I know, it is their job, but their music was really unbearable. I already commented on the quality of most of the wine, but none was as bad as my proudest acquisition, a bottle of old extra red wine, according to the – rather newish – label from 1993. For which I paid the impressive sum of 2 US$, slightly more then I was asked to pay for a bag-full of artichoke hearts, which I almost bought, until I realised that they came in a bag of water, impossible to carry home. Regrets, regrets! A small price to pay, for an otherwise great trip, for the experience even more than for the tourist sights.

every morning another excellent breakfast, and we were not the only ones looking forward to that

more food pics: these are wonderful aubergines

a vegetarian dish, with aubergines and courgettes, and garlic, if I remember correctly

and some nicely decorated sheep’s brain, delicious

Syria is a safe country, there where government is in full control, enforced by multiple roadblocks and checkpoints

Firstly, contrary to common belief, traveling in Syria is not dangerous. There has not been a single moment that I have felt uncomfortable, let alone threatened. I suppose it has been relatively quiet in Syria for the past four, five years, fighting has subdued, the government is in control again of most of the country – and those are the only places we can travel anyhow. Of course, you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time: Israel is regularly attacking specific targets in Syria, but those are strategic targets, Iranian military positions – or embassies in the middle of Damascus, granted. The director of our travel agency came along, and brought his wife and two teenage daughters, which he wouldn’t have done if he didn’t think it was safe to travel.

Travel is tightly controlled, though. At every check point we have to hand over a passenger list. Our travel operator has submitted an itinerary, and it proved impossible to deviate from that. At one stage we wanted to drive to the coast, but we got the idea too late, the Ministry of Tourism was already closed, and the next morning, because of national school exams, the internet was suspended, country-wide – we cannot have students cheating, of course. So for 3-4 hours every day for two weeks from early morning onwards, the internet is down. GPS doesn’t work, emails don’t come through, websites are unavailable, mobile telephone and WhatsApp is down, payments cannot be made, it is incredible, just in terms of economic costs. And for tourists who want to change their itinerary.

which does not diminish the enthusiasm for using it

Syria is a functioning country; the laundry is being done

well, functioning, but with rather old equipment

For the rest, at least from what I have been able to see, Syria is a functioning country. People go about their business, they go to work, go shopping. They go out at night, restaurants are operating, the hotels we stayed are operating, too. And not only in Damascus, also in Homs and Aleppo, cities that obviously have been badly affected by the civil war. And in smaller towns, like the village of Rabah, or the small towns of Ma’loula and  Al Mistaya. People are resilient, they start their businesses again, whether in restored souks or just from a table or a carpet on the street.

outside the citadel in Aleppo, tourist stalls are up and running,

small business from a cart, if there is no shop available anymore

Of course, millions of people have fled – an estimated 6.6 million have left for other countries, mostly in the neighbourhood, like Turkey and Lebanon, and another 7 million are thought to be internally displaced. Think of those people on the way to Aleppo, who lived in the now flattened towns along the highway. Or those in the centre of Homs, or Aleppo. Another half a million people have been killed in the civil war, give or take a few, and the victims from ISIS may add up to another 20-30,000, or so. Imagine this, on a population of perhaps 22 million before the civil war started in 2011. (Except that official population figures for 2024 are 23 million, again, whilst only a handful of the refugees have returned – enigma.)

the proposed pipelines that never materialised

The ones who stayed put are solidly behind Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Or at least, that is what they tell me. They may have no other option, of course – one of our group, a Ukrainian, commented that he had lived under an authoritarian regime in the past, and he well understood the limited space to manoeuvre, for our tour guides. Nevertheless, we have heard, for ten days, nothing but good about the regime, opposition is referred to as rebels and terrorists, and all the severe damage we have observed has been done by them, or by ISIS. Actually, all those rebels and terrorists were clients from foreign powers who were intent on undermining the Syrian state – Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Saoudi Arabia, and the great satans Israel and the US, of course. It is indeed true that foreign powers have supported the Syrian opposition, with funds and with weapons, although carefully, as they were well aware of that part of the opposition that was leaning towards ISIS and other extreme Islamist factions. But agents undermining the state? Fighting the regime, yes, but the regime immediately links this to plans for competing gas pipelines, at the time, from the Gulf to Europe. One proposal was from Qatar and Turkey, to bring gas to Europe, crossing Syrian territory, another was from Iran, also crossing Syrian territory but bypassing Turkey by laying the last part through the Mediterranean, to end up in Greece. All of this directly undermining Russian gas exports, at the time, to Europe. Unfortunately for Syria, none of these gas pipe options ever materialised. And Russia is the friend, helping without any ulterior motive. And is the country that got most directly, and visibly, involved in the conflict. And is the one country not blamed for the gas pipe debacle. Plenty of food for conspiracy theories, not entirely unthinkable. But the fact that there may have been some dissatisfaction from parts of the Syrian population with the rather authoritarian government in charge, within the context of the Arab Spring in late 2010, early 2011, no, that’s unthinkable. Unthinkable to those we talk to. And they may not have been able to say anything else, yet, to me their conviction seemed all too real. I really think they believe in Bashar, and in his version of the truth. Well, there are Trumpists, and there are Brexiteers, too.

Bashar is everywhere

Bashar is everywhere

Bashar is everywhere

there is some reconstruction going on, but mostly of religious buildings – which is where the money is

Syria is a beautiful country, with fabulous ancient archaeological sites. Krac de Chevalier is impressive, and so is the theatre in Bosra, the colonnaded road in Apamea, even what is left of Palmyra. The mosques, the churches. The Bedouin tents, the characteristic bee-hive huts. Maybe not so much the country side, but alas. However, the one thing that overshadows all that is the destruction, the senseless destruction, the rubble everywhere, the bombed-out city centres, the demolished suburbs, the flattened houses. Think of the pain this must have caused, the distrust it must have generated. I have no idea where this country is going to, who is going to solve this mess. But I do hope that at one stage the people – those Syrian people, like so many Middle Eastern people funny, friendly, welcoming and hospitable – I hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel for those Syrian people. Even if they support their own government.

next, and last: a word on group travel.

a brand new tourist offive, in flat-bombed Homs, of all places; question of priorities?

the entrance to the courtyard of sculpturer Mustafa Ali in the Old Town of Damascus

Just around the corner from our hotel in the Old City of Damascus I encounter the atelier of Mustafa Ali, a local sculptor. After having passed three times already, without noticing. A narrow passage leads to an inner courtyard full of Mustafa’s work, quite attractive, quite innovative. Not the thing you would expect in Syria, but then, why not? There are creative people everywhere, and Mustafa is certainly one of them. What I found impressive is the variety of material he is working with. There are wooden sculptures, some of them slightly more mainstream, others unexpectedly provocative. Metal comes back in many different forms, as main material for life-size abstract sculptures of what I suppose are animals, but also as delicate copper figurines inside stone cylinders, inside wooden frames, or just sculptures in their own right, large and small.

the courtyard, aka exposition space

an original dog sculpture

this may well be a self portrait of Mustafa Ali?

another original work, depicting a whale

most works are very big, but in a separate room is a cupboard with smaller work

The only problem is that Mustafa himself isn’t there. Instead, he is represented by his manager. Who is wholly non-communicative, despite obviously a decent command of English. Hmmm, which doesn’t help in selling, not to me at least. What doesn’t help either is that the tiniest piece in the entire collection already needs to cost US$ 200. In Syria, that is an enormous amount of money. Some other time, and somewhere else, perhaps. Or not: Mustafa’s website doesn’t work, gets directed to something Chinees.

But a nice collection it is, and I enjoy looking at it.

next: back to Damascus, or check out some early conclusions of the trip.

of which I liked this one – lighter for scale – but at US$ 200 a bit too steeply priced

the Old Town of Damascus is full of narrow, twisting alleys

After the Great Umayyad Mosque and the souk, the highlights of Damscus and the sites we visited first, we also had some time for the rest of the Old City.  There is the Azem Palace, an 18th C Ottoman house, which has now turned into a museum. The museum itself, of popular arts and tradition, is not particularly interesting, but it is the courtyard and the various rooms surrounding it, that make this a magical place. Tiled walls, mirrors, wooden ceilings, marble mosaic floors, and plenty of trees inside, to find some shade. And once again, whatever has been restored, has been done very tastefully.

the main courtyard of Azam Palace, an 18th C Ottoman house

marble and mirrors dominate the galleries of the palace

inside, antique furniture, carpets and artefacts

as well as fabulously decorated ceilings

thee outside of the National Museum

a basalt buste

and a really nice set of sculptures, no further information given

this would’t be misplaced in our collection, a saddle cover

We also pass by the National Museum. Like the one in Aleppo, this museum has an equally, if not richer collection of Syria’s antiquities, laid out attractively as a walk through time. Again no photos, of course, which is a pity, because I then could have demonstrated quite nicely what has been lost in Palmyra: one of the rich Roman tombs has been transplanted in its entirety to a room in the museum, showing how a tomb would have looked like before an ISIS intervention.  Outside, in the museum garden, are further pieces from Syria’s rich history – although from the description of my 2010 guidebook I do have the impression that by far not all the museum treasures are accessible now.

outside the museum

my house in Damascus, if I were to buy one!

narrow alley twisting through Damascus

a fruit stall in thee Old Town, bringing some necessary colour

metal doors are hiding the rich interior of those houses

a door knocker

a see-through balcony, needs some work to restore

window of a Damascene town house

It is hot in Damascus in June, 40o C during most of the day, which means that our tour of the city doesn’t last the whole day. Great, because it thus allows us to wander around on our own, for a while. The old town is a labyrinth of small alleys, at once bending and turning, then again with sharp corners changing direction. Although many of the old Damascene houses have been, or are being restored – see our hotel -, there are lots of places that have not yet been refurbished. Some of the houses can be looked through, balconies are precariously hanging above the narrow streets, but this is from neglect rather than war damage. Some walls are even supported by metal poles against the opposite side of the street, to prevent the façade from collapsing. And yet, that is exactly the atmosphere I was looking for, and has so far eluded me. I can spend hours here, discovering each and every corner of this maze. Like the atelier of sculptor Mustafa Ali. And the good thing is, you never really get lost, because sooner or later you hit ‘straight street’ again, the Via Recta from Roman times, the street that cuts – almost – straight from west to east, linking the Muslim quarters in the west and the Christian and former Jewish quarters in the east. Very lively, during the day with shoppers and at night with cafes and terraces. If you wouldn’t know better, there has never been a crisis in this country.

next: looking back on the Syria trip.

perilous alcove extending above the street

and a small market under coloured umbrellas

another of those narrow streets

a street lantern

Straight Street, in fact not that staight at all, but you get the idea

anothher fabulous old house, with brilliant balcony

an old house, being stutted with metal bars against the opposite of the street to prevent it from collapsing

they are still there, the coffee men, serving a very strong cup for a few Syrian pounds only

if fact, there is a sign of the war, the images of martyrs honoured at a little square in Damascus

the entrance to the Great Umayyad Mosque, both Damascus’ oldest and most impressive building

At the end of our trip we finally spend time in Damascus. Less than 48 hours, by far not enough, of course, but we do get to wander around. Thankfully, although the outskirts of town also show quite some war damage, the centre, especially the Old Town, has been spared the ravage we have seen in so many other Syrian cities. Our hotel, the one we already stayed the first few nights, is a pleasant surprise, a refurbished old Damascene house with several court yards,  a swimming pool and well equipped rooms – except that mine is also populated by a colony of fleas!



the swimming pool in our hotel, a refurbished Damascene house

and an alcove in the same hotel, tastefully furnished

in the outer wall of the mosque courtyard, an ancient Roman entrance to the Jupiter temple, now closed off.

The two main attractions we visit are the Great Umayyad Mosque and the souk. The mosque has been built on the site of an Aramean temple from the 9th C BC, which was subsequently incorporated in the Roman Temple of Jupiter, in the 1st C BC. The traces of the Roman structure are still clearly visible, especially at the outside of the wall, where big building blocks form the lower part, and several now defunct, and closed up, entrances have a distinctly Roman character, too. The Christians than turned the inner part of the temple into a large Cathedral in the 4th C, and even though the Muslims made it a mosque in the 8th C, the building still looks very much like a basilica, with its large dome in the middle and three large aisles on either side, separated by two rows of columns.

the mosque inside, looks a lot like an old church

and just in case you weren’t convinced yet, this is the structure of a basilica, for all intents and purposes

a mirhab inside the mosque, which does show its own character through intricate decoration

the Ku Klux Klan in blue, just to ensure no bare legs are visible, and no ladies’ shapes

the large courtyard of the Great Umayyad Mosque

Inside the mosque is a very relaxed atmosphere: some people praying, but others just chatting away, children running around playing, effortlessly moving between the women’s and the men’s sections. People are charging their phones, they are having something to eat, nothing like the subdued, serene and serious air usually associated with a church or cathedral. Of course, the mosque is largely empty, and decorations limit themselves to coloured glass in the windows. John the Baptists has its tomb here, also revered by Muslims, and there is even an old marble baptismal font. The funniest part is the women tourists, those who are not properly covered, and the men, wearing shorts: they have to wear long, heavy cloaks, to show respect. Kind of Ku Klux Klan in blue.

with one of its smaller structures beautifully decorated

In fact the outside of the mosque, the courtyard, is more impressive. Whole sections of wall, and of vaults over the entrance, have been decorated with green and gold mosaics, some restored in the 19th and 20th C, but those above the entrance still being the originals of the 14th C. The rest of the spacious courtyard is equally nice, in part laid with beautiful marble mosaic in very complex geometrical shapes.

and not only the smaller structures, this facade of the main hall is also intricately laid in with mosaics

the most impressive, though, are the mosaics above the entrance

image of a house, or a temple perhaps

and more houses, in a brightly coloured mosaic

detailed images of daily life

the actual entrance of the covered souk

remains of the Jupiter temple are the entrance to the present-day souk

balcony shop – paradise for collectors – at the enrance of the souk

At the entrance to the souk, opposite the mosque, are further remains of the Temple of Jupiter, in the form of several Roman columns. Inside is a long covered street, with a high roof of corrugated iron, and with the usual souk-type business: sweets, spices, and all manner of cloths, including a remarkably large number of shops selling wedding dresses. Great atmosphere, although, in my view, it doesn’t meet the atmosphere of the souks in Tabriz and Teheran, in Iran, and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, they are in a different category altogether. Some of the side souks, if I may call it that way, do actually have a stone cover, and the area-specific black and white building blocks we have seen elsewhere in Syria, and we also know so well from Diyarbakir in south-east Turkey. Perhaps these were originally khans, the bonded warehouses and accommodation for 18th C traders, and have now been incorporated in the overall shopping paradise.

inside, lots of colourful products under the iron roof

like spices

and all kind of sweets

young boys happy to pose for the picture

there is a curious focus on wedding dresses in the souk

the main alley in the souk, full of people

more on the roof structure

a side souk, with a stone structure

lots of materials available – but the sellers are all men, of course

and another highlight, the ice cream shop

and, somewhat surprisingly, all kind of products are for sale

the fountain in the Khan Asad Pasha

and a section of the restaurant

One of the khans that are still their distinctly own entity, is the Khan Asad Pasha, also linked to the souk. Same black and white, but here fabulously restored into a spacious restaurant-bar, where you find a serene peace from the busy souk. A fountain in the middle, a first floor gallery providing beautiful views downwards, tables where smooth waiters serve cold, albeit non-alcoholic drinks, and a paradise for black-market foreign exchange, what else do you want?

But there is more to Damascus.

great overview of the Khan Asad Pasha

large parts of the collonaded road in Palmyra are still standing upright, despite recent destruction efforts

So far we have been moving generally north-south or south-north, in the area where the vast majority of the population lives. For Palmyra we turn east, into the desert. For a short while the road is still lined with olive groves, and with other trees, although many of these have been reduced to stumps. But soon the trees disappear, too, and the herds of sheep get less, and smaller. Houses, too, disappear, and are being replaced, locally by some type of bee-hive hut, and by tents. The bee-hive huts are, apparently, a 10,000 year old design based on adobe – mud and straw -, long the only material available for building. The tall domes collect the hottest air and the thick walls are an excellent heat exchange mechanism, making these huts actually quite liveable, in the middle of the desert.

outside Homs, on the way to the desert, lots of trees have not survived

the characteristic bee-hive houses in the Syrian desert

some of them have been integrated with more regular-shaped houses

lots of regular houses have been destroyed in the recent years of conflict

the desert itself

the desert highway, mostly with trucks and busses

economic activity is mostly limited to sheep herding, from Bedouin tents

And then there is nobody anymore, only the army. No photos, of course. There is a string of low earthen fortifications, bulldozered walls surrounding a couple of army tents, and huts which probably hold machine guns, to protect the highway. Multiple check points – we pass nine on the 160 km to Palmyra – also support machine guns positions, quite visibly, and trenches run off to both sides of the road, a little further into the desert. In the sparse hills, at one stage, bunkers have been constructed, as far as the eye can see, to shield, perhaps, artillery or tanks. What looks like a military airfield, with a range of bigger and smaller hangers, is situated maybe a kilometre or two, off the road. Here it is not rebels, but ISIS that we must be protected against. In the few villages we pass the houses are mostly destroyed, again, although in places efforts are being made to restore some of the damage; it looks like there are still people living here, a few. If not in houses, then in tents, in between the houses.

Just before we get to Palmyra, we spot a castle, strategically located on top of a hill. This is the Qalaat Fakhr ad-Din al-Maani castle, a Arab fortress probably dating from the 12th or 13th C, but named after a 17th C Druze emir who unsuccessfully challenged Ottoman dominance at the time. The fort used to be open to visitors, according to my 2010 guide book, but no more: the army has taken possession of it.

the majestic Arab fortress towering high above Palmyra

Palmyra from a distance

the columns around the Bel temple are still mostly standing upright

In Palmyra we are the only tourists. In a place that must have supported thousands per day in the early 2000s, before the various conflicts. When it was still largely in one piece – the guide shows a picture of the Bel Temple from before, from before ISIS decided to blow it up. Of course, these are not people’s houses, like in Homs, or their businesses, like in Aleppo, but we are once again confronted with senseless destruction. Difficult to say what is from two centuries wear and tear, and what from twenty minutes dynamite, but I reckon by far the most rubble is from the latter.

Despite all this, the site is still pretty impressive. The Bel Temple is no more, but a single arch is still standing upright – behind it is a collection of column pieces which looks an awfully recent creation. And a climb up a piece of the remaining outer wall provides an impressive view over the entire ancient city and the neighbouring oasis.

a photograph of the Bel temple, how it looked, not even ten years ago

and the same, now; note the arch as only remaining structure in between the rubble

but from high above you really get an idea about the destruction, the senseless dynamiting of an archeaological site – despite an haphazard tourist blocking the view (photo courtesy of Stephen Nemeth)

also from above, what is left from the Palmyra Roman city, still quite impressive

this looks more wear and tear from centuries, not from dynamite

and here, too, in impressive row of columns has survived

offering nice settings for more photos, of course

the back stage of the theatre

and the small theatre itself, restored in the 1990s

From here it is a short walk to the main part of the town, where another impressive colonnaded road leads past a bath house – adorned with four massive granite pillars, that somehow must have been transported from Egypt, from where they originate. And past the remains of several temples, of churches, of buildings, which I don’t think have been recently destroyed, their demise may have been from longer before. The small theatre, tastefully restored in the 1990s, has also escaped the ire of ISIS.

another collection of columns

the present city is inhabited by birds, like those small birds of prey

and this little owl

destroyed tomb structures above ground

A little further is the Valley of the Tombs, Roman tombs. The ones above the ground have been blown up; we enter one of the underground ones, where the heads of tomb sculptures have been chopped off, or defaced, and most funerary structures have been broken into. Whether this has been done because Roman tombs don’t stroke with Islam, or whether there were more mundane, grave robber motifs involved, we will never know.


and the same, underground

heads chopped off, or defaced

and graves recently opened and destroyed

the Palmyra oasis, with in the distance the shells of the five star tourist hotels that once had brisk business here

Outside the Roman site itself are the remains of the many five star hotels that did good business back then, now just empty shells like so many other buildings we have already seen this trip. I don’t think there are any plans to revive these to their former glory, just as so much in this country will never return to its former glory.

The way back to Damascus is less militarized than the earlier road this morning, despite another ten-plus check points. And with a mountain range on one side, it is also somewhat more attractive. Including structures that even ISIS cannot destroy.

next: Damascus

on the way to Damascus, more sheep herding

and more Bedouin tents, including water supply

some large scale geological structures cannot even ISIS destroy

it is hard to believe, but even in shot-to-pieces Homs there is the occasional burst of colour

there is nothing, absolutely nothing, attractive in this post; yet I have to share this – with far too many photographs, I agree – because it is so impressive, and so sad.

The entry into Homs is humbling. I have seen ruins before, last in and around Aleppo, but the destruction of the outskirts of Homs is beyond comparison. Everything has been shot up, houses collapsed, burned out. This compares badly to the effects of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 or the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the results of which I both witnessed. And those were natural disasters, this is what men did against each other.

the outskirts of Homs

and once again, the outskirts of Homs

a shopping centre, frame only left

except that somebody has set up a cafe, with an appropriate name (actually, serving Dome Coffee – an innocent mistake?)

aftre the suburbs, entry into Homs proper – the difference is hard to see

just one other apartment building, with rather recent window additions

a bombed-out apartment building where, from a satelite image and the solar panels, it appears are still people living

say no more….

The narrative? It is explained to us that people were demonstrating against the local mayor, who strictly enforced building laws, and had torn down buildings that had been built too high. The demonstrators were surrounded by police, with truncheons only, no weapons!!, when snipers started to shoot from the roofs, obviously rebels. More than 200 people died in the demonstration – only from snipers, remember? But the people believed that it was the government, and initiated a more than a year-long battle between Sunnis and Alawites. Just like that, they started to kill each other – where they got the weapons from, the narrative doesn’t tell. The bombed each other’s neighbourhoods; where they got the bombs from, the narrative doesn’t tell. One thing is for sure, the terrorists occupied the central part of the town, and the government never got involved. But the damage we see is more, much more, than just two groups of town citizens that fight each other.

(The Wikipedia page on the Siege of Homs mentions fighting between Alawites and Sunnis, but not a local cause of unrest, just the Arab Spring and nationwide anti-government protests, leading to a particularly nasty episode of the civil war from 2011 to 2014, with different neighbourhoods occupied by opposition forces and government troops at different times, who kept on shelling each other.

the new ‘old’ mosque, fully restored

inside equally new

the congregation praying for a better future, perhaps?

the neighbourhood in front of the new ‘old’ mosque, not yet restored

the only shops here are cloths spread out on the street

We take a walk through town, starting at the old mosque and ending at the old church. I suspect that this is the standard walk that has been done for years, especially before the crisis. But the mosque then was the old mosque; now, it looks new, repaired, restored. In the old days the town would have been lively, with lots of people, shops. Now, we walk in between the damaged buildings, burned out apartments, collapsed roofs. I realise that the destruction is not just limited to the outskirts of Homs, it is everywhere – even our Ukrainian group members, who must have seen a thing or two, are humbled. I cannot describe it, it makes me cry. As always, you read about this, from the comfort of your home, your armchair, but seeing it puts things in a whole different perspective.

there used to be nice old buildings, too, in Homs

and another old building, apparently partly surviving

and more damage, I just have to show all this

the inside of a former shop

the normal street view, these days

impressive building, equally badly damaged

more damage, made prettier in the late sunlight

and another one, same sunlight, same degree of damage

followers of this site probably know that I like to show photos of windows – but never before have I taken a picture of such a decrepit one

few shops operate in town, so commerce is mostly from improvised structures on street corners

the ‘old’ church, also fully restored

and the inside, complete with no doubt very expensive chandeliers

The old church, at the end, and the Jesuit mission where a Dutch priest was assassinated days before the violence stopped, they have been restored, too; repaired again after the war damage. A far cry from their original attractiveness, I suppose, but still, they are operating once more. Where the money for the rest of the reconstruction of this town needs to come from is anybody’s guess. It will take a very long time for the visible traces of conflict to have disappeared from the street view. Luckily, everybody here loves the government.

And yet, there are also traces of recovery. Small shops have opened, often in between the piles of rubble. A distant balcony supports some flower pots and laundry, where the neighbouring apartments are still empty, open, blacked from fire. A old house is being repaired into a boutique hotel, very stylish. Residents gather in the evening, for shisha and tea. There is hope. Even for the four boys I met, who, when they hear I came from Holland, asked me if I couldn’t arrange asylum for them – they were, somehow, less charmed by their government. When I told them ‘no’, they didn’t protest, just asked for dollars instead.

next: world-famous Palmyra

my favourite picture of hope, in between the burnt out apartments somebody has estab;lished himself again, or herself, flowers on the balcony

some business man is turning the shell of this old house into a boutique hotel

late afternoon, locals enjoying shisha outside a bar

a pretty undamaged minaret

amongst all the damage, this lamp has survived

and the young of Homs, in the evening: they will have to carry this city forward

Hama is famous for its water wheels, which have been supplying the town with water from the low-lying river since the 5th C AD

We have got a hour or two in Hama. If you think internal violence in Syria is a recent development, think twice: Hama rose to fame in 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong following in conservative Hama, staged an uprising against the regime of Assad-pére. It took three weeks, heavy bombardments by the army’s tanks, and somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 dead, but then it was over again. When I ask about it, I am being told by our guides that the people of Hama revolted against the Muslim Brotherhood, because they wanted to continue their comfortable life at the hand of the Hafez Assad government. Which is why almost the entire inner city was destroyed by bombing – still visible in the most horrible architecture representing the restoration. To add insult to injury, there is a large copper statue of Hafez Assad at the entrance of the town.

there is perciously little left of the old city, except this passage way

and a narrow alley behind it; really, that is all!

the youth from Hama is clearly excited to see so many foreigners

On our city walk we try to visit the Al Nouri mosque, built in 1162 according to the sign. It is closed. And so is the museum, the Alma Palace – in the only tiny little part of town that is still its historical centre. What is left are the water wheels that Hama is also famous for. Water from the low lying Orontes river is scooped up by the wheels, which are powered by the river flow itself, and water is then deposited higher up, to provide houses with water, and to facilitate irrigation. Piece of cake, really – for a Dutchman – , but apparently this technique was already in use here in the 5th C, and the current wheels probably date back to the 14th or 15th C. There are some 17 or 18 left, out of a 100, in the past, and they keep being maintained. What the photos don’t show is the noise the wheels make, a constant moaning, at least as characteristic as the wheels themselves!

next: Homs, or what is left of it.


well, and the mosque, and the water wheels along the Orontes river

they are quite impressive, those wheels

and here you can see how the water is dropped in a kind of aquaduct-like structure, for further transport

the architecture is sadly 1980s, in most of the town, very unattractive

and he was the man responsible for that… the back of Hafez al-Assad

incredible, because there are hardly any tourists, but the camel is there, inviting to take a seat

fabulously expressive mosaic in the Mosaics Museum in Ma’arat al-Numan

Because they are so nice, and so intricately produced, I have selected a few more photos from the mosaics of the museum in Ma’arat al-Numan – photos from the mosaics that were exposed, or were being exposed for us; there are numerous works still covered, hidden under cloth or another form of protective material.

The amount of detail, and the expression that speaks from the mosaics, is incredible, given that the artists produced this with coloured pieces of stone only, some 2000 years ago. As is the fact that so many of these works have been brought together here, in the middle of a war zone, and have not been looted in the process.

mosaic with geometrical patterns

a young cow, perhaps? lovely excexuted, look at how the body shapes, especially the stomach, have been formed to create a sense of perspective

a lake scne, probably, with birds and ducks, and a fish at the bottom

some of the birds in close-up, and another fish

The museum was founded in 1987, in an old caravanserai, the Murad Pasha Caravansary built in 1565. The mosaics collected here come from the Roman and Byzantine Dead Cities. Opposition forces captured the museum in 2012, after which the place has been subject to government aerial bombing several times, with devastating results. Thanks to an organisation called The Day After Heritage Protection Initiative (TDA-HPI), in partnership with the Syrian Heritage Center (SHP), the works have been protected, and most of the immediate damage to the caravanserai restored.(

back to the Apamea entry of the blog. Or forward to Hama.

lion hunting a deer

the deer really loking frightened

and the lion, well, damaged by recent bombings, I suppose

another hunting scene, even more elaborate than the previous one; this one is dated 567 AD and used to be a church floor in a place called al-Hawwat

with anothher lion

jumping what is probably an ox

a bird watching

and another one, too, protesting with its wings


brightly coloured birds around a drinking vessel

and these ones, two white pigeons in a black-coloured tree

and what about this fish? fabulous!

one of the many columns along the collonaded street in the Roman city of Apamea

The world famous Mosaics Museum, with more than 2000 m2 of some of the finest, most complete Roman and Byzantine mosaics, is housed in an old caravanserai in Ma’arat al-Numan, some 80 km south of Aleppo. And Ma’arat al-Numan has been in the firing line of the Syrian civil war for many years. To get to the museum, we drive, once again, through rubble, and more rubble, not a single house is standing undamaged. Not different from what we saw on the way to Aleppo.

Ma’arat al-Numan is still in the ‘military buffer zone’, and I suspect the museum is officially closed, but our guide has managed to convince the custodians to open up, for us. We are told that at the beginning of the conflict the mosaics have been covered with cement, to make sure they were not discovered and stolen by the enemy.

bombed out neighbourhood in Ma’arat al-Numan, close to the Mosaics Museum

and another street, same area, next to the museum

another house, not much left

scrap metal collectors do a good trade in the ravaged military buffer zone






(However, from what I understand by subsequently searching the internet is that, in 2013 when a journalist visited the museum, rebel opposition forces held the place, and the mosaics were still in the wide open courtyard. It is indeed hard to believe that local people would not have known about these mosaics. The most likely damage was in fact coming from government forces and air raids ( Only in 2018 the Syrian Cultural Heritage Centre, with UNESCO funding, protected the mosaics by bringing them inside the building, and covering them with some form of synthetic material, and with cloths (

the courtyard of the caravanserai, which has also not escaped the war unscratched

and this lovely bas relief of what I presume is a soldier

the courtyrad used to be home to lots of artefacts, like this tomb

covered mosaics on the floors inside the caravanserai, and others stacked against the walls

splashing water on the mosaics to make them look brighter

Many of the mosaics are still covered – not with cement, but some sticky cloth -, but the custodian easily rips off the covers from some of the mosaics on the walls, and happily throws water over them, to remove the dust and brighten them up for our pictures – I am not sure if this is the best possible treatment. From what I understand, contrary to the usual effects of war, the contents of this museum is still largely in place, thanks to the efforts of local people. What can I say? The mosaics we get to see are fabulous. More pictures of the mosaics are here.

As extra bonus we are also shown the secret passages through which rebels and terrorists escaped. Sure.

and this mosaic, originally stutted with column parts as weights

this is just one of the fabulous mosaics, a beautiful Roman scene

the impressive collonaded road of Roman Apamea

From the museum we drive on to Apamea, a city established in Greek times, but rebuilt by the Romans in the 2nd C AD. Once again, we haven’t gotten enough time to explore all the buildings in great detail, but we do walk part of the colonnaded street, with 1,85 km the longest surviving of its kind in the Roman world. Unlike Palmyra, where we go later, the street here is paved, and traces of rut marks from carriages can even be identified. Originally, there would have been some 1200 columns lining the street; 400 of them have been re-erected in the middle of the 20th C, as most had fallen to earthquakes over the years. It is a very impressive sight, indeed. The nearby amphitheatre may have been the largest in Syria, although you wouldn’t say: large parts have not been excavated yet, and many of the stones that were exposed have been carried off for construction by the local people.

a strech of almost connected columns along the road

same thing, from another angle

and a bit more detail at the top

colours are provided by the flowers

and by these insects inside the blue to purple leaves of a plant

this is the other side of the road, allegedly the Byzantine part

entrance to the Apamea theatre

of which not a lot is left, the seats mostly used in further construction

the citadel of Apamea, now – once again – a military fortification, out of bouds for us

access road and outer wall of the citadel

and a cemetery, nearby

The other attraction of Apamea is its citadel, reconstructed by Arab forces in the 12th and 13th Century, after earlier earthquake damage. Unfortunately, off limits nowadays because it is a military area. Yet, impressive from below – now I did take a picture of a military facility! Which, I am sure, cannot be said of what I think is Shizar Castle, an abandoned Arab fort on the way to Hama.

next: Hama

the Shizar Castle (I think)