While I was travelling in Iran, I had a nagging question on my mind, the exit point for the flight home, I had flown into Istanbul with Damascus being my exit point nine weeks later. Trouble had broken out in Syria in March and I was due to fly home on the 18th of July.
While in Iran I meet a fellow traveller in Esfahan, who turned out to be a Dutch police man, he had come to the attention of the secret police down near Bam southern Iran after speaking to a journalist, he told me he had started getting strange phone calls as he moved around the country, I had noticed he seemed to be looking over his shoulder a bit and talking quietly when we first met.
We had stuck up a conversation while I was photographing a mosque in Imam Square, I hadn’t spoken a full sentence of English for weeks, we chatted and found we had a few shared passions, one of which was cinema, deciding to hang together and look at the sites we both had on our lists, he seemed a bit guarded at first, after a few hours he told me what had happened to him down in the south, after that I started to look over my own shoulders more just because I was hanging with him, its funny the things our minds do after a life of watching politics and the way news is covered these days.
For me it was a bit close the truth, having spent a life observing others, on one occasion a few days earlier, I had a feeling I was being followed, normally I slow down turn and go back the way I had come from, checking faces, if I notice no one taking any interest I turn and go back the original way, slower, looking for the closest reflective surfaces to spot anyone unusual, on this day as I did a serious looking man passed me, as he did the wind caught his jacket and with his motion exposed a holstered revolver on his hip, this wasn’t to be the first or the last, it had happened in Turkey, I was sitting having a coffee when a group of men sat down at the next table, a few of them had concealed weapons tucked in their belts under there jackets.
We chatting about where we had been over a cool drink, what we had seen, and were we where going, after hearing of my travel plans he became concerned about my entering Syria, he recounted some stories of skirmishes and riots he had been involved in with his job, I must admit I had my own concerns, the last news I had had before leaving home, was about a photographer being arrested and thrown into jail in Hom’s, it had become a niggling question, will I stay for a day or the twelve days I had planed, Syria was to be the real highlight of this trip.
Travelling throughout Iran over the next few weeks, I finally decided, throwing caution to the wind and going against sound advice I booked my flight from Tehran to Damascus while down south in Shiraz, deciding to travel around Syria for nine days.
Flying out of Iran I landed at 9.30pm in Damascus, after a delayed flight of three hours, passing through the stale sweaty halls of the airport, finally rounding a corner I spotting immigration with no lines a very nice change, I walked straight to the counter passed over my passport to the officer, as he flipped through the document looking for my visa, all of a sudden it fell out onto his lap then onto the floor, it may have been the constant changing temperatures, air-conditioning then 45 degree desert heat, having affected the glue, he was immediately suspicious, without a word he stood with my documents and step out of the booth, he walk away and disappeared.
Five minutes became ten, ten became 15 it seemed an eternity, by this stage my camera bag on my back seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, he reappeared from an office up the hall, his face still serious he re-entered his booth sat, his finger still holding the passport open, sat picking up the stamp he stamped the visa, you have to be more careful, he said, also this is now sticky, I was waved through, to my great relief.
After collecting my pack and changing some money, I waited outside in the warm dry night air, bathed in the orange glow of the parking lot lights, waiting for the bus into the city, I recounted the visa experience and decided they wouldn’t have let me into the country if all had turned to full scale civil war.
The next day in Damascus I spent time visiting the Souq, Bazaar and the over whelming National Museum, trying not to gasp at what was displayed, taking in Syria’s truly incredible history, after off to a Hamman for a massage and steam, that night I had the great pleasure of a very cool beer after having to abstain from alcohol for a month while travelling in Iran.
Early the next morning after an amazing breakfast of tomatoe, soft cheese, olives, flat bread, heavy cream honey followed by a perfect coffee, I caught a cab north to the bus station, the sun was still rising, the city was washed in dusty orange light, some of the taller buildings cast long black shadows over the highway, getting to the bus station just before 7am, it was hectic, this was to be my first taste of really heavy sercurity, passing through just in time to catch the early bus to Homs.
On the way north the bus broke down, for 30 minutes the driver tinkered below, on the way a few kids had vomited so it hadn’t been the most pleasant trip, finally pulling into the bus station on the outskirts of Homs at 11am, I grabbed my pack from the hold walked out of the busy terminal to find a cab to my Hotel, it was then across the highway I notice the fortified sand bag bunkers bristling with heavy machine guns, with heavily armed security guards, taking this in whist being swamped by cab drivers all trying to get my fare, one man of about 40’s with salt and pepper hair and a good splattering of English won in the melee, I negotiated my fare into the city.
It turned out this driver was very cool, 20 minutes later we pulled up outside the very beautiful rustic slightly shabby 100 year building which housed the An-Nasr-Jedid Hotel on it’s 2nd floor, it had huge rooms, tall ceilings and a massive picture window looking out to the busy streets below just off the massive common room, giving sweeping views of the city streets and all the action. The manager greeted me ‘welcome’ the phrase all Syrian’s use on first meeting, even it seems if they are holding a machine gun. Booking in I told him of my plans for the next few days in Homs, I did notice the taxi driver was still loitering off to the side, I wanted to leave for Krak des Chevaliers immediately, with my planning I was well organised for the little time I had wanting to travel quickly between cities, so I could visit as many of the ancient historic sights as possible.
Negotiating a fare out to the castle and back and having reached an agreement, I locking my pack in my room, next needing to grab some lunch to eat on the way, it was off to the markets to get some fruit and water, it was fantastic having my own car, being free from the public transport, a leaf in the wind, I grabbing what I needed, we set off, to my surprise he stopped a dozen blocks later just outside a take away he shared a joke with the owners, his regular lunch stop I guessed, he ordered falafels which he then payed for, the flavours of the yougat and mint dressing and the crunch of the freshly cooked falafels was brilliant, back into the cab, with the yougat dripping into my lap from between the folds of flat bread.
We where now travelling west towards Lebanon. It felt great sitting their chatting, bright blue sky, hot wind blowing in through the open windows, the opaque light gave the landscape the feeling of driving through a watercolour.
I have been looking forward to seeing this castle all my life. We turned right off the expressway and started winding our way through the farm land, slowly heading into the hills, with every turn the road got steeper, now and then I caught sight of this fabled castle.
Krak des Chevaliers was never concurred during the crusades, finally rounding the last bend there it was looming over us; so massive you couldn’t see it in its entirety. Pulling up out side the main gate, beside myself with excitement wanting to savour this moment, I sat speaking for some time with the guard, allowing the castle to soak into my very soul, glancing around I imagined what this place had seen, while I recalled all I had read of this extordary citadel, the guard was telling me their had been 300,000 tourist last year, this year only 2000, being one of this small number, it was so quite brooding in its deserted state.
Entering through the huge portico into the cool dark silent of the main gate, was like walking into a room the tea still steaming the cigarette still burning and no one around, so visceral was the experience, I could almost hear the white pennants fluttering and snapping in the breeze that was sweeping over the battlements, It turned out this was true of all my experiences in Syria, in the end I felt I was the one discovering these places.
I was 10 years old again and could almost smell sweaty horses, and hear the sounds of foot steps on the massive flag stones all mixed with the clinking of amour, after many many hours of exploring it was time to finally tear myself away to return to Homs.
My driver could see my boyish excitement, he drove me up to the hill behind to get a full view, as shadows started to reach across the farm land below, swallows circuled and swooped on the unseen insects in the late afternoon sunlight, standing there not wanting to leave my driver had run out of cigarettes, with great reluctance I climbed back into the cab and we headed back to Hom’s, he had let me linger as long as he could. As we pulled back onto the highway, he asked if I wanted a coffee, nodding with a smile, he pulled over to a small van parked not far ahead, stopping we walked over and ordered, while he chatted to the barrister, I stood looking back to the castle, lost in my thoughts he had payed, he passed me a takeaway cup with this very dark viscous ristretto coffee, there are times in life when you do recall the most amazing coffees you have had, this was to be one of those moments, to be honest I did lick the bottom of the waxed paper cup, the flavour was dark, strong and spicy with after tones of chocolate and cardamom.
We arrived back to Homs at 5pm he dropped at the front door, bouncing up the stairs two at a time wanting a quick shower, so I could get back to my room to write about this exrordany day, their was so much I wanted to get down, I was totally engrossed in my writing, there come the sound of a machineguns, only a few blocks away, it didn’t register immediately, but the next moment all hell broke loose, as more guns opened up, all around me now there was the defending sound of automatic weapons, being joined by running feet, yelling and the screeching of shop shutters being hastily pulling down, for a moment I was frozen in place as my body filled with adrenaline, what happened next was on reflection a strange reaction, I became completely calm, I walked to the window and watched what was unfolding in the streets below, making a decision on what observed, there was some panic but their was also calm strangely I found myself sitting back at the shabby desk set against the wall and continued to write, there seemed to be less people on the streets as the gun fire had increased. Finishing writing, I went out into the communal room, a group of local boys with worried faces were sitting smoking and drinking tea they looking quite rattled, concerned one of the boys was from up north he had travelled down to do his exam he was quite frightened, he was astonished to see a westerner emerge from the hall way, it was quite surreal sitting drinking chatting surrounded by the sound of battle.
It was late I was getting hungry I had to go out to eat, I asked was there a restaurant close, one of the boys was a friend of the night manager said there was a place quite close only five blocks away, he offered to show me the way, we went down and into the night, walking up the street the city centre was eerily deserted, imagine a big city with very few people or cars moving about with the backdrop of gun fire, it was only eight o’clock, at the restaurant he asked a friend that worked there to look after me, off he when back to the hotel
Eating and looking around it seemed I was the only one still out, I quickly paid and headed out the door, into the inky dark streets with no traffic no one any where all of a sudden I was feeling very exposed, turning down the street for the walk back in the dark the sounds of sporadic machine gun fire echoed down the side streets, head down thinking myself a shadow, walking quickly I finally rounded the corner there not 30 metres away in the gloom split by a shaft of light spilling down the stair well, was the entry up to the Hotel, it seemed as soon as I was bathed in the light I felt cocooned and strangely safe.
Back up in the common room they where relieved to see me return and in one piece, we chatted late into the nigh, finally off to bed with a yawn and chalky eyes.
It was a fitful nights sleep constantly woken by out bursts of gunfire.
Waking the next morning naked sweating heavily in the oven like room, I threw back the curtains to open the windows, having closed them before going to bed, somehow it feet safer, like pulling the sheet up when your having a night mare. Looking out standing there a slight breeze drying my sweaty body, I focused opposite to a half finished building, their staring right at me was a sniper framed in the unfinished window, frozen in place and not sure how to react, I was surprises and relied when all he did was wave, astonished I walked to the back of the room and sat on the bed.
The start of a new day, shower, go outside find some breakfast, then find a taxi to drive me out to Palmyra.
Written by Ross pulsford