In 2008 I was awarded the Thomas Dammenn Junior Memorial Award to make a visual study of the dead cities of Syria.
The following year I tried to travel to Aleppo on the Taurus Express which runs between Istanbul and Aleppo, but unfortunately at that time it was cancelled.
I decided to travel to Syria again the following year and contacted my friend the artist Victor Sloan to see if he would be interested in such a trip. I had previously travelled with Victor to Taiwan and knew he was an interesting travelling companion; he also has an original and individual way of looking at places, people and their surroundings. We decided to fly this time.
Arriving in Damascus we stayed in a small hotel near the ancient centre of the city. The hotel was a converted traditional Syrian house based around a courtyard with a fountain and overhanging fruit trees. Every day we would walk into the old centre of the city and like all tourists visited the famous mosque Umayyad, ate ice cream in Bahir’s Ice Cream Parlour and shopped in the Souk. On one occasion we experienced the slaughter of sheep. This was because it was the festival of Eid. It was a shock to our western sensibilities, as the sheep were killed in front of us in the public streets. The stench of blood flowing into open drains in the hot weather was overpowering. It was almost nauseas and we took deep breaths and walked quickly by. However, it was interesting to note that people only kept one third of the meat of their slaughtered sheep for themselves, another third went to their family and the remaining third to the poor.
Cafe life was very vibrant in Damascus with young couples laughing and joking over cups of tea and coffee, the way young people here would do over alcoholic drinks. Some were smoking hookahs; the heady aroma from the pipes was a mixture of tobacco sometimes flavoured with dried fruit, a very pleasant smell.
Damascus claims to be the oldest city in the world, we were made aware of this when walking down Straight Street which is mentioned in Acts in the Bible. At the bottom of Straight Street there is the house where St. Paul was brought after his conversion to Christianity.
Also near Straight Street we visited the city’s main contemporary art gallery called AllArtNow. We saw a series of installations in some of the most ramshackle and downright dangerous spaces where we’ve ever seen art. Health and Safety in this country would have closed it immediately. Near to the gallery was an interesting area where in the past Muslims, Christian and Jews had all lived together in harmony.
We also travelled beyond the city to visit the ancient Roman site of Palmyra, sadly it is in the news again as parts of it are being destroyed in the current Syrian conflict. Victor insisted that we would get up very early so that he could capture the beautiful golden light on the ancient stone buildings, I never realised that a desert could be so cold, but it was typical of his attention to detail when it comes to taking photographs.
While in the area we visited Beirut in the Lebanon. We also visited the towns of Homs and Hama, now sadly famous for their role in the civil war. Back then Homs was renowned as the city where the most beautiful women in Syria came from and Hama was known for its norias which were giant waterwheels. We also visited the crusader fort, Krak De Chevaliers. Lawrence of Arabia considered it one of the finest castles in the world, as Lawrence described it in his undergraduate tour in 1909.
While in Damascus we decided to visit Aleppo, the dead cities lie between Aleppo and Damascus so we could visit them on the way. Victor was keen to stay at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. He had already made contact with the Le Pont gallery in Aleppo, which was the Middle East’s first photographic gallery, where he was to give a talk on his work.
We arrived at the Baron hotel where Victor had arranged to meet Issa Touma the director of the Le Pont gallery. We met in the old bar where many years before, German and British spies had rubbed shoulders. We were given Agatha Christie’s old room, outside of which remained the original poster for the Orient Express, which is said to have given the writer the idea for her book ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. She stayed here with her husband the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowen.
The hotel retained some its faded grandeur, and I remember Victor photographing the thick folded linen and a brass plate which had been placed under a door to prevent the wood from wearing. The brass was etched by many years of use. This for me was typical of the unique way Victor could spot something about a place and in one simple photograph could summarise the entire building and its history.
Lawrence of Arabia’s unpaid bill was proudly displayed in a glass case in the lounge. The room in which Lawrence stayed was just up the corridor from Agatha Christie’s.
I did not know then that in a few years time Victor and I would be sleeping in a Bedouin tent in the desert where Lawrence had been a soldier, and where the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ had been made. We would also see the rock formation in Wadi Rum that would give Lawrence the title for his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.
It was sad to read a recent report about the hotel’s owner, Armen Mazloumian lamenting about the early days of the hotel when world leaders stayed there. Among the guests were Charles de Gaulle, David Rockefeller and Charles Lindburgh. Armen Mazloumian is the fourth generation of his family to run the hotel. He said the best years are behind us now. The hotel has been damaged and is now closed.
Outside the hotel, Aleppo was a fascinating city with an ancient Christian quarter. In its famous Souk I purchased saffron from Iraq and local soap made with olive and laurel oil, while Victor bought a silk pashmina for his adored wife Joy.
Victor met Issa, gave his talk and met with some of the Syrian photographers whose work and approach interested him. One of whom was Nazem Jawesh who created wonderful images of local people at work. Sadly the last we heard of Nazem was that he had gone north to visit family, but worryingly he has not been heard of since.
Issa Touma comes from Armenia, he took us to an Armenian restaurant where we got the best food we had ever had in the Middle East. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion which meant that you could buy alcohol with your meal. The only way to access alcohol in Muslin countries is to go to a Christian quarter.
I found travelling with Victor very insightful as I was able to observe his unique way of looking and recording places and cultures. This enriched my own experience of the trip.
Brian Kennedy, 20 May 2015