Traveling Syria, Then and Now

Cathryn Collins

When DEPARTURES Contributing Editor Cathryn Collins visited Syria eight years ago on her own and with her iPhone Camera+ app, little did she know what was to come.

Aleppo, Damascus, Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers...just speaking these names out loud gave me chills of anticipatory awe before I went to Syria in June 2009.

Scrolling back through my photos over the Christmas holiday last year and knowing how much the country has been devastated in the years since my visit, I was so struck. There I was, the sun blazing down on my uncovered head, reveling in the undisturbed magnificence of the country. I wandered ancient Palmyra, I meandered through Aleppo’s Al-Madina Souq, blithely at peace following its rhythms by day and night. I listened to alfresco jazz concerts and opera in Damascus and walked past Christian Louboutin’s newly acquired house in Aleppo’s walled Old City every day.

If I were to return now, all that of course would be impossible.

Palmyra (dating to at least the second millennium B.C.) is back under ISIS control, a casualty of five years of civil war. The devastation at this ancient city is a loss to all mankind. Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest continuously functioning cities, situated at the crossroads of several trade routes since the third millennium b.c., has been brutalized in the interest of “liberating” it from the rebels. Homs, a town one must pass through to go from Aleppo south to Damascus, has been the scene of endless death, destruction, and despair because of its strategic utility.

Left: Aleppo’s 14th-century Al-Madina Souq in 2009; it was destroyed by fire in 2012. Right: Inside the Mansouriya Palace Hotel, a 16th-century Ottoman palace, where the author stayed. Courtesy Cathryn Collins

I look at images of the people who embraced and shepherded me or simply greeted me with the ubiquitous “you are welcome” (translation: “welcome to Syria”); and of the ancient ceilings, carvings, columns, friezes, homes, wheat fields, goats and sheep and kittens; and I know with certainty that if they are not obliterated, they are damaged. Or displaced or wounded or starving, in peril or simply in shock.

There are no words violent enough to convey my despair for what has happened since the war began, for the torment endured by this country, its people, and its ancient treasures.

Generosity, curiosity, and kindness were showered upon me during three extraordinary weeks of exploration in Syria. I hope we can reciprocate to the involuntary Syrian travelers who grace our lives and to those incapable of leaving or determined to stay.