I'd only packed for a long weekend in Sicily. On the August bank holiday, I was supposed to fly from Palermo back to London and, two days later, embark on a separate journey to Larnaca. Then UK air traffic had a meltdown and my flight, along with thousands of others, became an ex-flight. Having realised there was no prospect of getting home, my practical brain kicked into gear: alternative flights were booked from Catania to Cyprus, and an extra night in Italy reserved. Pizza and beer rounded off a stressful evening as I figured out what clothes and other supplies would be required.
I wasn't in Cyprus for long. After taking in the abandoned tourist resort of Varosha in the Turkish-occupied north and making a quick circuit of the divided city of Nicosia, I caught a mercifully functioning flight to Beirut, from which, the following morning, I set off on the road to Damascus. En route, we (a dozen-strong group of like-minded travellers) glimpsed the concrete stump and jagged metal of the explosion which ravaged Beirut's port just over three years ago.
Most of my friends and colleagues are no longer surprised by my travel destinations, but this one was an exception. Their assumption seemed to be that Syria was completely off limits, still ravaged by war, terrorism and the Assad regime. That was of course once true, but tourism is gradually returning, although there are perhaps no more than a few hundred British visitors each year. As Colin Thubron observed in his excellent history of Damascus, Arabs used to believe that Englishmen (sic) 'were possessed by evil spirits, which forced them to frequent ruins and plunge across deserts'. Those evil spirits are clearly still at work.
I liked Damascus immediately, particularly its old city. It's an intensely atmospheric urban environment, its souq and alleyways packed with buildings, human beings and history, Christians and Muslims often side by side. It has a strong claim to being the world's oldest continually inhabited city and I had no difficulty believing this to be true. We saw the underground church linked with the Damascene conversion (which occurred on the 'Street Called Straight'), a casket said to contain the head of Yahya (John) the Baptist at the Grand Mosque (this, of course, is disputed) and the Baron Hotel, which counted Agatha Christie and King Faisal among its guests.
The country's history is long, complicated and exhausting. For centuries an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, Syria was then occupied by the French for a quarter century before in 1946 Damascus became the capital of an independent kingdom (proclaimed by Faisal from the Baron Hotel). That much I knew, though its 1958 union with Egypt had passed me by (something still symbolised by two stars on the Syrian flag), as had the break in 1961. In 1970 Hafez al-Assad – father of the current President – assumed power and there followed four decades of relative stability.
This is not the place for a commentary on the rights and wrongs of the recent conflict and the present Syrian leadership, not least because I am not qualified to provide one beyond the banal observation that it is highly complex. Our guide had a particular view and, in context, not a wholly irrational one. Life for him pre-2012 was good and 'terrorists' disrupted that. Assad set out to stop those terrorists and has largely succeeded. Ergo, Assad is a good thing. There were euphemistic references to 'the crisis' and a critique of the Western term 'Arab Spring', which suggested rebirth. In our guide's view it had brought mainly destruction.
Bashar al-Assad was difficult to escape during my week in Syria. Everywhere were sun-bleached posters of the President, although his propagandists had taken care to inject some variety: sometimes he was in military mode (uniform and Ray-Bans); sometimes statesmanlike (suit and serious demeanour); occasionally tieless and with the hint of a smile. These were official displays by roadsides and on government buildings, but there were smaller posters too. Few of the latter appeared to be spontaneously displayed.
From Damascus we drove to Aleppo, a name familiar through reportage of the crisis, war, civil war – call it what you will. But reading about a city that's been pulverised and actually seeing it are rather different things. While the imposing citadel still stands (though now off limits due to February's earthquake), the souq was largely an empty shell. Any restoration work has since been funded by the private sector or by donation rather than by the government which, to quote my guide again, is 'bankrupt'. Russia and China, Assad's main international backers, have their own resourcing problems.
Homs was even more sobering. One part of the city – that 'defended' by Syrian forces – was surprisingly intact, but on the other side of that defensive line there was nothing but destruction. Here and there a business had occupied the shell of a building to offer some sort of service – refreshments or repairs – but it was difficult to imagine any sort of major reconstruction was imminent. As in Aleppo, the recent earthquake had added another layer of destruction. Life went on, but it didn't look like much of an existence.
Beyond the ravages of war, we also enjoyed many of the sights once familiar to tourists. Krak des Chevaliers, an extraordinary 12th-century crusader castle, was largely deserted, as was Afamia, an impressively colonnaded Greco-Roman avenue now more likely to be patronised by livestock than ruin-obsessed tourists. Some attractions were off limits due to earthquake damage, but it didn't really matter – Syria is so packed with history that alternatives were easily found. Palmyra, another ruined Roman city, brought the conflict back into focus, for parts of its theatre and forum had been blown apart by ISIS. The detritus of target practice was not hard to discover.
The coastal city of Latakia, meanwhile, could have been any other city on the Mediterranean, virtually untouched by the crisis and full of partying Syrians (and they party hard – the night we visited music from a wedding finally subsided at 5am). From Latakia we drove south back to Damascus, pausing on the way to see Maaloula, a mountainside village which boasts a Christian community in which the Aramaic language is still spoken. It too had suffered over the past decade, although Vatican funding means the Mar Bacchus Sarkis monastery has already been meticulously reconstructed: its smashed altar repaired and its ancient stones put back together like an architectural jigsaw puzzle.
Amidst all this was the consistent friendliness of Syrians, a welcoming people quick to laugh despite having plenty not to laugh about. While younger Damascenes viewed us as a novelty, their seniors didn't bat an eyelid, for they remember when foreign visitors were nothing special. One sensed an acute sense of loss, not only of the mainstream tourism which used to bring income and praise, but of the international legitimacy that conferred. Their welcomes – which were genuine – were tinged with that loss, as well as an unspoken hope that its few contemporary visitors might help, over time, to return this remarkable country to its former status.
David Torrance is a writer and historian