Today our media is filled with images of horror and desolation when it comes to Syria, the awful destruction of war and the resulting human tragedy of refugees fleeing to try and find some safety has all but obliterated a country which had a thriving and diverse culture and a rich and long history. This overpowering wall of images made me want to step back to 1994 when I travelled around Syria meeting it’s kind and friendly people and discovering the wealth of this region.
Back in 1994, with my sketchbook in hand I travelled across Syria, here are a few of those sketches and memories in the hope of reminding us all of the humanity and basic goodness of the ordinary people of that country.
I entered Syria in a taxi from Amman in Jordan, the journey already hinted at some of the problems of the country as the boot was filled with fish, smuggled to take advantage of higher prices in Damascus and giving my backpack an unusual scent. For me just the name Damascus filled me with wonder, one of those legendary cities, the words of Omar Sharif in ‘Lawrence of Arabia echoed in my head “Damascus ‘Aurance, Damascus”. The city did not disappoint, wandering through the beautiful souks to arrive at the Great Mosque.
The Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Sketch by Gary Drostle ©1994
The amazing history of the city could be seen in this one building, the front showing the great columns of the great Roman Temple of Jupiter, then the building almost growing through time in front of your eyes, first into the Byzantine Cathedral of Theodosius, becoming the site of the tomb of John the Baptists head, then into the great Umayyad Mosque, columns and arches of the original church being reused in the new mosque. Mosaics grace the front of the mosque for which Byzantine craftsmen were engaged. I remember the mosque having the most beautiful call to prayer I have ever heard. Beside the mosque a reminder of an earlier ‘holy war’, the tomb of Saladin, (Salah ad-Din).
I was able to sit inside the mosque and absorb the calmness whilst making this drawing.
Another ink drawing was done in the ancient streets of Damascus looking towards and ancient gateway.
Damascus Street: Sketch by Gary Drostle ©1994
Of course I won’t pretend Syria was without it’s own problems in 1994, the country was firmly under the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad (the current dictators father) who had been in power since the coup of 1970. People on the street were extremely cautious about who they spoke to and there was a palpable fear of the secret police. The tension could be felt all over the country but perhaps particularly at my next stop, Hama.
Hama the ancient fortress city famed for it’s medieval water wheels was a conservative town and early stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. Soon after I arrived I learned about the terrible massacre carried out by the Syria Army in 1982 which claimed the lives of up to 40,000 civilians as Assad asserted his authority with an iron fist. In fact when I drew the next sketch, drawn to the ‘big brother’ feel of the Assad portrait I brought a bit too much attention and was soon surrounded by plain clothed police asking lots of questions.
A street in Hama: Sketch by Gary Drostle ©1994
Water wheels of Hama: Sketch by Gary Drostle ©1994
From Hama I headed out east into the Syria desert and the ancient ruins of the oasis town of Palmyra. The great thing about drawing is that it slows you down as a tourist, instead of climbing off a bus, rushing around an archaeological site before zooming off on the bus again, you sit and take the place in, take time just to be there. Climbing up to the Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle I was presented with a rare and unusual view of the Syrian desert, a vast swath of green as the desert sprang into life after the first rain for fifty years. Unfortunately large sections of the ancient site were destroyed by by fundamentalist fanatics of ISIL in 2015.
Arch of Triumph, Palmyra: Sketch by Gary Drostle ©1994
Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle, Palmyra: Sketch by Gary Drostle ©1994
Aleppo, Apamea and Krak des Chevaliers
Aleppo was a bustling town with great souks, dominated by the huge fortress in the centre of the city. I decided to buy myself one of the distinctive arab coats in the market, it was heavy and black with embroidered trims, ideal for the desert nights. From Aleppo I headed to the Qualaat al-Madiq and the ancient ruins of Apamea. Sketching there I was entertained by a group of children collecting snails in buckets. Later on three local men, all around my age, sat down to talk, eat and pass some time.
Apamea meeting: Sketch by Gary Drostle ©1994
My final port of call was the stunning castle ‘Krak des Chevaliers’ one of the worlds most important preserved medieval castles. The crusader castle was a stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller and occupied a highly strategic point. From here I crossed the border out towards Antakya in Turkey.
I post this to remember the ordinary people of Syria. Who knows when it will be possible to visit Syria again, and I dread to think how those that I met back then have faired in this catastrophic war.