Filmed and narrated by female Syrian journalist Waad Al-Kateab, the 2019 documentary For Sama followed five years of Waad’s life in war torn Aleppo with Hamza Al-Kateab, her husband who worked as one of the few doctors remained in Aleppo, and Sama, their baby girl who was born and raised in Aleppo during the bloody civil war. Her first person account of daily life in the rebel held Aleppo, and in particular, documentation of how warfare was affecting the innocent children in the city was heartbreaking. For Sama did generate some international attention at least in the film circles. It was critically acclaimed worldwide and won a number of the year’s best documentary award, including the BAFTA and Cannes. The documentary was a visual testimony for Waad to tell her story to her own child Sama, explaining to her what they were fighting for during the Syrian uprising, why they have insisted to stay in Aleppo to operate the only hospital left in the rebel territory, how they have attempted to support each other in the diminishing local community, how they have lived through the Russian and government bombardment in their neighborhood at a regular basis, and how they have witnessed death and desperation day in, day out for five long years. For Sama reminds me of the Syrian children we have encountered during our sojourn in Syria back in 2006. We could never fully comprehend and truly feel how terrible the situations must have been for each of these children during the decade long civil war. Our hearts go out to every one of them and their families, and hope that they can return to Syria and rebuild their homes as soon as situation allows.
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Before hiring a Jordan-bound service taxi from Baramke Station, we wandered in the old city of Damascus one last time. In a narrow alleyway, we saw a group of school boys, all dressed in blue school uniforms, perhaps just finished their morning school. We soon encountered another group of cheerful school children, this time they were all girls. We followed the girls to a popular neighborhood ice-cream parlour. How lucky we were. After the girls picked up their cones, we got ourselves some of the best vanilla ice-cream we had during the trip, and each cone was only 15 cents USD. Another group of school children arrived at the parlour as we were about to walk off.
At Baramke, we hired a taxi to make the trip to Amman of Jordan. We picked a driver in his fifties. Wearing a grey blazer despite the heat, the driver drove between the Syrian and Jordanian capital regularly. It didn’t take us much time to go through the passport controls at both the Syrian and Jordanian sides. After 1.5 hour we were already arriving at downtown Amman. We dropped off our bags at Sydney Hotel, and headed off immediately to look for the guidebook-acclaimed Palestinian juice stand for a cup of refreshment.
Before leaving Damascus, we wandered in the old city one last time.
Houses that have stood for centuries might have gone forever after the civil war, especially for cities like Aleppo where even the UNESCO World Heritage listed old city was bombarded by explosives, poisonous chemicals, and missiles from Russian warplanes.
It is always the most innocent and vulnerable people would suffer the most during wartime. Seeing the deaths of families, the fleeing of school friends, and the destruction of neighborhoods, and living along with the deafening noises of gunfire and explosives everyday is just too much for the children to bear.
We followed a group of school girls to a neighborhood ice-cream parlour.
We were curious about the school children and so were they on us.
Scenes of cheerful school children buying ice-cream from a neighborhood ice-cream parlour was perhaps a regular daily scene in prewar Syria. Now it may only happen in a handful of government strongholds.
For us, the ice-cream was delicious and affordable, but the most essential thing was the joy that it brought to everyone of us, school children and curious travelers alike, at that particular moment of spring 2006, in one of the narrow alleys of old Damascus.
No fancy shop decoration or special ice-cream flavours, just simple vanilla ice-cream has brought out the purest happiness from the Syrian children.
Every time seeing news of devastating destruction and haunting human sufferings in Syria would make me worry about all the children that we met during our visit.
Despite our brief encounter might only involve exchanges of eye contacts and smiles, these simple smiling faces represent the most unforgettable and precious imagery of my Middle East trip.
I sincerely wish that one day all Syrian children may safely return to their homeland, and have the chance, resources and freedom to rebuild a better country for their next generation.
56km northeast of Damascus, Maaloula is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Considered by many Christians as sacred, the rocky terrains of the small mountain village is home to some of the world oldest Eastern Catholic monasteries, Greek Orthodox convents, churches, shrines, sanctuaries, etc. The village is also famous to be one of the last places on Earth where Aramaic, the Galilean dialect spoken by Jesus, is still spoken by elderly villagers or priests. Today, the Aramaic language is considered to be endangered, as it is only spoken natively in a few pockets in the Middle East, and most speakers are elderly. Some scholars are racing against time to document the language before it extincts completely. The population of Maaloula is also in decline. The 2004 census recorded 2,762 Christian and Muslim villagers, compared to the 19th century, when Maaloula was a monastic town with 15,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and Sunni Muslims. Tourism and pilgrimage have been bringing modern energy into the village. But the Syrian civil war put an abrupt end to it. In 2013 and 2014, Maaloula was a battle ground between the Syrian army and Al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in Syria), a jihadist organization active during the war. During the temporary Al-Nusra Front occupation, monasteries and churches were damaged; Christian icons, including the Virgin Mary statue perched on the cliff above Maaloula, were destroyed; some Christian villagers were forced to convert to Islam or faced death penalty; and many more were forced to leave the village altogether. Rebuilding has been ongoing after the war.
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In the morning we took a minibus from Damascus to Maaloula, a small village 56km northeast of the Syrian capital. Backed against rocky cliffs, Maaloula is a small place with rich history and deep spirituality. We get off at a fork road. Immediately we went up to the cliffside Mar Sarkis Monastery. We made a short hike to tour around Mar Sarkis. The gorge was narrow and looked like a mini Siq of Petra. We reached a plateau with good views of the village before turning back to the monastery for a brief tour of the interior. At the end, a priest offered us a special wine prepared from the monastery.
We got off the minibus at the fork road at Maaloula.
The surrounding rugged landscape and high cliffs define the character of the monastic village.
High above the village, a statue of the Virgin Mary stood on the cliff side.
From a distant, Maaloula looks similar to any other small towns in the region until one finds the rooftop crucifix and Byzantine domes of the Christian monasteries.
the rock plateau above the village is quite overwhelming.
Christian crucifix and dome structures stand out from Maaloula as we went closer to the village centre.
Continuous construction upon older structures or renovations every generation conceal the thousand years of Christian history in the simple stone buildings that blend in well with the rest of Maaloula.
Yet artefacts such as bronze bells or Christian icons in the interior would reveal the true age of the place.
Aramaic, the language Aiken by Jesus two thousand years ago, is still spoken by some elder villagers or priests. For many in Maaloula, the language would only be used in monastic rituals. While the sound of the Aramaic prayers might pass on to the next generation as part of the rituals, the actual meaning could be lost in the future.
The cliff around Monastery Mar Sarkis is full of narrow and winding passageways.
Convent of Saint Thecla is home to the tomb of St Thecla, disciple of St Paul who came to Maaloula to escape from Roman persecution. During the war, 12 nuns were taken hostage but eventually released as a prisoner exchange deal with the government.
Due to its proximity to Damascus, Maaloula is considered as a holiday destination by the locals.
Constructed in 325 AD, the Mar Sarkis Monastery, also called Saint Serge and Bacchus Church, was one of the world’s earliest church dedicated to the two Roman soldiers executed due to their Christian faith.
The Saint Serge and Bacchus Church at Maaloula predates its counterparts in both Constantinople or Rome. Unfortunately many churches in Maaloula didn’t allow photography in the interior.
No matter where we were in Maaloula, the imposing rocky landscape was never far away.
Pictures and photos of the former president Hafez al-Assad could still be seen in different places from Syrian cities to villages.
We passed by some new concrete houses under construction on our way back to Damascus.
A number of foreign journalists have been allowed to return to some Syrian cities to report on the current conditions after a decade of civil war. After witnessing the apocalyptic devastation, most journalists depict an upsetting “hell on Earth” picture made of miles of concrete ruins and overwhelming human suffering. New York Times journalist Vivian Yee went a step further reporting on an uneven distribution of recovery resources as well as human suffering among different social groups and in different neighborhoods of a city. As a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad, Central Damascus is largely untouched by the war, the 310 million shopping mall recently built in the capital stands as a friendly reminder of which side is the true winner. A little further away in the suburbs previously held by the rebels, such as Douma and Ghouta, ruined neighborhoods and the lack of young men and the middle class illustrates a completely different Damascus. No running water, no electricity, no intact infrastructures, no hospitals or schools not lying in ruins, it is a tale of oblivion. Journalists describe the overwhelming noise of portable generators fill the streets of these neighborhoods, revealing a glimpse of hope that local residents are returning and attempting to move on with their lives. While government reconstruction in these areas are virtually non existence, rebuilding efforts are largely laid in hands of the returning residents who just refuse to give up their homes. A peaceful Damascus that we have experienced in 2006 feels like a fairy tale from ages ago.
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Back in Damascus from Borsa, we decided to visit the National Archaeological Museum. It has a fabulous archaeological collections from sites across the nation, from the region’s earliest settlements up to the Islamic times. I was particularly interested in the ancient alphabet of Ugarit, the ancient port city in northern Syrian that thrived between 6000 to 1200 BC. With 30 letters, the Ugarit alphabet was widely used in the area at around 1500 BC. Although not a dominate culture, Ugarit’s central location in the ancient world (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, Crete, and Cyprus) almost ensured a certain level of interaction with the adjacent writing systems at a particular moment in history. At the museum shop, I bought a necklace carved with Ugarit alphabet. After the museum visit, a travel buddy and I decided to take a causal walk. We ended up reaching Mezzeh, a wealthy district dotted with affluent mansions and foreign consulates. Occasional French mansions flanked peaceful residential streets. Floral shrubs, shading trees, trellis of climbers stood out from the private gardens. The scorching Syria Desert felt like a distant world. Through large windows, piano music could be heard clearly in the street. For a moment we thought we were in a French suburb.
Back at Al Rabie Hotel, we bumped into a German photography student and an Australian Chinese traveler. Similar to us, the German student visited Turkey before entering Syria. He came in search for monotonous urban scenes to fulfill his black and white photographic quest. He planned to travel in the Middle East until mid August. The Australian Chinese traveler has been to many places in Asia, Iran, India, and Pakistan are among his favorites. At 01:00am, three of our travel buddies took a taxi for the airport. Their Middle Eastern journey had come to an end. The remaining three of us would continue the second half of the journey to Jordan and Egypt.
At Marjeh Square, Yalbugha Mosque and the concrete structure (some said Business Centre or Ministry of Religion) behind are famous for remaining unfinished for 25 years. Recent news claims that the mosque has finally been completed.
After visiting the museum, we had a pleasant walk in central Damascus.
In Mezzeh, we had a relaxing stroll in a residential neighborhood under the soft piano music from the French mansions.
On our way back to the hotel, we once again entered the old city of Damascus.
There were many mosques around the area Al Rabie Hotel.
Before the civil war, Al Rabie Hotel was a popular budget hotel just a few blocks away from the Umayyad Mosque.
Ten years ago just before the war, Al Rabie Hotel has undergone a major renovation to keep up with the increasing number of tourists. Back then, no one has foreseen the coming of the war.
Found in the 1st century at the site of an earlier Aramaean Temple, the Temple of Jupiter was the largest temple in Roman Damascus. The Greco-Roman temple was renowned for its beauty and scale. In the 4th century, Theodosius I transformed the temple into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. In 705, the church was converted into the Umayyad Mosque after Damascus was captured by the Muslim Arab forces in 634. Despite being transformed numerous times, remnants of the Roman Temple of Jupiter survived for another millennium until the present day. The ruins have indeed interwoven into the urban fabric of today’s Damascus, serving as a 40 feet monument at the entrance of the central market, Al-Hamidiyah Souq. Indeed, the Roman entry route to the former Temple of Jupiter has become the main configuration of the market.
Shops selling clothes, antiques, handicrafts, souvenir, and jewellery line along the main shopping arcade, while vendors of spices, dried fruits, miscellaneous household items and clothing pack the side streets. Established in the Ottoman Era in around 1780, the 600m covered market has not been physically affected by the civil war, despite international tourists have largely disappeared. Due to the war, the Syrian pound has fallen dramatically in recent years, and the supply chains of many merchandises have also been impacted by foreign sanctions. Business is undoubtedly affected. Back in 2006, the souk was a must-see for all foreign visitors, including us.
After Umayyad Mosque, we wandered over to the city’s main souk. We discovered an unique shop that sells textiles, scarfs, bags, and embroideries made by local Syrian and Palestinian women. After souvenir shopping, we went to a shop called Bakdash, which is Syria’s oldest ice-cream parlour. Bakdash has been around since 1890, selling rosewater and almond ice-cream topped with fresh pistachio. Each of us had a delicious cone to end the day.
The ruined Roman Temple of Jupiter forms a dramatic entrance for Al-Hamidiyah Souq.
The souk is roughly 15m wide and covered with a 10m tall metal vaulted roof.
Political banner in support of the Assad regime was hung in the souk back in 2006.
In the evening, the ruined temple is lit up by flood lights.
In the evening, the Roman ruins give a strong atmospheric touch to the market entrance.
In 2010, Global Heritage Fund named the old city of Damascus as one of the 12 cultural heritage sites most “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction. In 2008, World Monuments Fund put old Damascuson its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world.
Population decline and demolition plans of old buildings are to blamed for the risks that Old Damascus is facing in recent decade.
Outside of the main souk, vendors of all kinds have spread to many side streets.
Vendors selling produces and household items have turned the side streets near the souk into an open market.
Five days after entering Syria from Turkey, we finally reached the capital city Damascus, after a quick tour of Aleppo, Crusader castles near Hama, and the ruins in the Syria Desert. Also known as the City of Jasmine, Damascus is one of the most important cultural centre in the Arab world, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Large settlement within the city walls dated back to the second millennium BC. The city’s status rose to its peak when it was chosen as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, the centre of the Islamic world, from 661 to 750 AD. Today, Damascus is the capital and largest city in Syria. Since ancient times, Damascus has been a melting pot of different Middle Eastern cultures and religions. While Islam is the prominent religion, Christians (Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Greek Orthodox Church, etc) represent about one fifth of the population. There was also a small Jewish community dating back to ancient times. Nowhere in the Syrian capital can illustrate the complex religious traditions better than Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest, oldest and holiest mosques in the world.
After checking in at Al Rabie Hotel, we ventured out immediately to explore Damascus. We walked through the busy streets and congested traffic, passed by the citadel, stroll through a covered souk, and at last reached the Umayyad Mosque. We took off our shoes and reached the huge courtyard. The marble floor was clean and smooth but quite hot. The Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque of Damascus) was built in early 8th century by the Umayyad Caliphate. In the Roman times, the site was home to a large and famous Temple of Jupiter. In the 4th century, Theodosius I converted the temple into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. In 706 AD, construction work began to convert the church into Umayyad Mosque. Christian and Muslim pilgrims continued to come and pay respect to St. John the Baptist. The small shrine which housed John’s head still exists today inside the mosque.
Adjacent to the mosque we found our way to the Mausoleum of Saladin, the famous and powerful Muslim knight who fought off the Crusades and recaptured Palestine from the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Mausoleum is a small stone building in which Saladin’s coffin is covered with a green textile.
Probably built in the 10th century, the Minaret of the Bride on the northern wall is the first minaret built for the Umayyad Mosque.
Located at the southwest corner, the 1488 Minaret of Qaitbay shows a strong Egyptian Islamic influence.
Completed in 715 AD upon alterations from the earlier church, the Umayyad Mosque was meant to establish a jama masjid (congregational mosque or Friday mosque). With a height of 118 feet, the Dome of the Eagle sits atop the main prayer hall.
It was said that about 12,000 craftsmen and workers from Coptic Egypt, Persia, India, Greece and Morocco served as the main construction force. Byzantine artisans were hired for the decorative and architectural details, including the mosaics.
The Umayyad Mosque is a rare example of mosque architecture still maintaining the original design features and structure since the 8th century.
In 1979, the old city of Damascus was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Out of the 125 monuments in the city, the Umayyad Mosque is considered to be the most spectacular.
Mosaic was a common form of art in the Roman and Byzantine era. Along with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque is one of the best preserved mosaic art of the Umayyads in the world.
Due to various fire incidents in history, the surviving mosaics only represent a portion of the original mosaics. Most mosaics we see today were plastered over by the Ottomans. First uncovered in 1929, little has been changed to the mosaics since the 8th century.
There are three domes in the main courtyards, including the Fountain for Ablutions in the centre.
Constructed in 780, the Dome of the Clock or Zeynel Abidin Dome at the eastern end of the courtyard. Later erected by the Abbasids in 1247, the Minaret of Jesus (Isa) at the back is the tallest among the three minarets.
Built in 790s, the Dome of Treasury was used to house the mosque’s endowment funds and old manuscripts.
The courtyard is a pleasant open space even just for sitting around to absorb the historic atmosphere.
The outer columns of the main prayer hall contain some beautiful marble decorations.
Other than the main prayer hall, the courtyard is bounded by a series of colonnades.
Decorative marble inlays can be found at both exterior and interior of the mosque. Some columns in the complex were actually recycled from the earlier church at the same site.
This early mosque borrowed a number of features from earlier Roman and Byzantine designs, including the dome, vaults and colonnades. Beautiful windows provide another pleasant feature to the interior of the prayer hall.
The qibla wall with the mihrab niche indicates the direction to Mecca.
The main prayer hall contains three aisles stretching to east and west.
Serving as a pilgrimage site for both Muslims and Christians, the shrine of Saint John the Baptist (Prophet John in Islam), almost like a small building within the prayer hall, situates at the central aisle.
Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians who are still going through the civil war, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman during the trip have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.