News coming out of Syria has not been pleasant for several years now. Death, destruction, devastation — those are words too commonly used when describing its current state of affairs. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Of course, Syria was neither perfect nor utopian before the start of the Civil War, but full of real people with daily worries and fears, as well as pastimes and pleasures. I want to revisit that happier Syria, the one where people laughed as well as cried, had picnics with their families, played soccer in the streets, welcomed the strangers among them, and coexisted with the history that was on view all around them.
Raqqa and the Euphrates
I first went to Syria before the era of digital cameras, in 1995. In an effort to be “artistic”, I took several rolls of black & white pictures in those early years. This has always left me with the impression that those areas around Raqqa — where most of those black & white photos were taken — were stuck in a moment of unchanging time.
The area around Raqqa was, in some ways, a land it seemed that time had forgotten — though the external world never quite stayed away. Various tribes remained seemingly independent and rather fierce, though they included Bedouin who were living in areas they had been forced to settle. Shepherds took their flocks out to pasture through cultivated fields surrounding villages of mud-brick houses, though these would soon be flooded and abandoned as a result of the lake that would be created by the new dam on the Euphrates. The villagers joked that they would call their new village “Bashar”, after the (then)heir to the presidency, because then they’d be certain to get electricity and a paved road.
The notion of timelessness also stems from the “old” that can be found around every corner. Witness Resafa, whose arched walls span stretches of the desert south of Raqqa. Or look to the myriad dirt mounds (“tells”) covering millennia of occupation. Raqqa, itself, dates to an era long ago. In the 3rd century BC, when the Seleucids founded the city of Nikephorion where Raqqa now stands, the dirt already held the efforts of several civilizations. Of course, Raqqa and environs are not now- and were not then- timeless. One need only change the lens (or in this case the film) and the world is suddenly more modern.
Aleppo and Environs
Aleppo has always been my favorite city in Syria. It is neither the country’s largest nor its capital, both honors that are bestowed on Damascus. It does not have the “Street called Straight”, and it may not even be as old as Damascus. It is/was definitely not as cosmopolitan, but it held so, so many charms — ones that may, or may not, still exist.
The city is anchored by its Citadel, an amazing architectural work around which the city grew. Unfinished explorations verify the site’s significance over several millennia, though its use as a fortified castle dates to the Hellenistic era, and its modern form wasn’t achieved until around the 12th century AD. The names that can be associated with the Citadel during that Medieval period attest to its central place in the shaping of the modern world: Salahdin, Tamerlane, Mongols, Mamluks, Baldwin II, Crusaders. It remained part of the fabric of the Old City, thronged with locals and tourists alike. Its streets were full of busy commercial districts and the suq, as well as important mosques and the archaeology museum.
The old and “new” existed quite peacefully in Aleppo, where even the “new quarter” (Jdeideh) was built in the 16th century. Jdeideh — and neighboring Aziziyeh — form Aleppo’s Christian neighborhoods. Jdeideh’s main square was a quiet, calm respite from the more chaotic parts of the Old City, and a fine spot for a glass of wine and people watching.
Beyond the city, the area’s more ancient history was visible — and still interacting with people’s daily lives. A Roman road might run through a town, or a house be built next to an old temple of Zeus where kids still play. The rugged terrain northwest of the city and toward the Turkish border is home to hundreds of “ghost towns” of Late Antiquity; these so-called “Dead Cities” were home to thriving olive-oil production in the 1st millennium AD. They have gone largely abandoned, save by shepherds, squatters, and picnickers, since then.
Signs of history are much more subtle in the country’s northeast region, where the modern towns of Qamishli and Haseke lie. Daily life is on display in the midst of terrain dotted with tells that, in some cases, conceal occupation dating back 7 or 8 millennia. Personal interactions highlight the ethos that was present throughout Syria, where cooperation, industriousness, and hospitality were a way of life.
The open vistas and barren stretches might make it seem as though there is less to fight over here, but the antiquity of ancient settlement tells the real story; it is a frontier — modern and ancient — between people of varying culture, religion, language, and philosophy. Those frontiers still exist as Syria, Turkey, and Iraq meet here, as do Kurds and Arabs. Like the rest of the country, it is an area that has seen numerous periods of peace, prosperity, unrest, and decline. That long history is a testament to the people’s resilience, adaptation, and — inshallah — continued survival.
Jill Weber started working in Syria in 1995, and made her last trip there in 2010. All photos are the author’s, and date between those years. For more from Jill, visit www.winingarchaeologist.com