I’ve always had a bit of a wild streak in me.
And in my twenties, it appeared more often than it should have.
What’s worse is that I spent two of those years living in a country that was much more conservative than the United States.
On the other hand, I lived in a country whose police had been told by President Hafez Al-Assad to leave foreigners alone, since they brought in hard cash, which the Syrian government needed, as their own currency was not traded internationally and pegged at a rate of 50:1. Which it most definitely was not worth.
And in my time there, I began to forget boundaries.
It started simply with excursions around the country.
The expatriates who had lived in the country for a few years swore by Monuments of Syria, a book written three years earlier by the former Australian ambassador to the country.
I’m not sure what diplomatic responsibilities Mr. Burns had while working in the country, but there couldn’t have been many. The book is meticulous in its descriptions of EVERY manmade structure in the country.
If there were a single block carved by the Turks left in a ditch next to a road 23 miles north of Aleppo, Burns found it, told us how to find it, and described what we would see in detail.
This focus on detail extended especially to directions, since the Syrian highway and road systems were not made for English speakers.
For each monument, Burns offered specific distances based on signs on the major highways leaving Damascus, and my absolute favorite of these was when we decided to go see an old Byzantine church in southern Syria occupied by the Druze.
I don’t have the book in front of me, so unlike Burns, let me approximate what the directions to the church resembled:
The directions were precise; the oak tree stuck out from the grasslands, and there, in the distance, sat an old Byzantine church.
There was nothing around it. It was humorous, thinking a man would materialize from thin air…until we arrived at the entrance to the church, and a few minutes later, some man dressed in local garb approached us with a key to the church.
The church? It was cool.
The most accurate directions ever given in the history of mankind? Completely overshadowed the monument.
I’m jumping forward a bit here, but on 17 December, 2010 a street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the corruption of the Tunisian police, among other things. This self-immolation led to what we call the Arab Spring, and in a few places it succeeded.
It did not succeed in Syria.
Protests started about a month later following the arrest and beating of a man in Old Damascus.
In March, a group of schoolchildren were arrested for protesting the government, and Syria erupted. For months, the world wondered if Syria would open up like other nations (like Egypt) had done – after all, Bashar Al-Assad (Hafez’s son) had grown up in England.
But it wasn’t to be.
On July 31, tanks rolled into a number of Syrian cities and attacked the protesters, which started the Syrian Civil War.
Shortly thereafter, those moderates among the protesters were sidelined by more radicals, and the country was engulfed in flames. To this day, parts of the country are still under fire, and over a million people have fled.
Not surprising, the ancient artifacts of Syria haven’t done so well.
Ross Burns’ love of Syria never went away.
In 2011 he started his website named after the book to keep alive the memories and spirit of Syrian history.
If you get a chance, stop by and check out some of the amazing places the country had to offer.
Unfortunately, some of them don’t exist anymore, such as the Citadel of Aleppo.
Where I broke yet another rule.
…to be continued…
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