“It is a very sad story. I have come to the point of despair.” Jamal’s eyes crinkle and he smiles oddly, mournfully, as he remembers Aleppo, his family’s home for 600 years.
Speaking in London this week, the Syrian tour company owner cries out and looks pained as he recounts the complete destruction of the medieval souk in Syria’s second but largest city, which was ravaged by fire in 2012. “It is heartbreaking. It is a very sad story”, he repeats.
Drone footage released last month by news website AJ+ showed the extent of the damage across the Ancient City of Aleppo, the oldest part of the city and a popular attraction for tourists keen to see 8,000 years of history, wander its souks and admire its museums, mosques, churches and citadel.
The footage is corroborated by satellite imagery showing the destruction of the Great Mosque, whose minaret was blown off in 2013. The 15th-century Yalbougha an-Nasry bath house, where tourists once went for scrubs and massages, has been heavily damaged, while the former five-star Carlton Citadel Hotel, which government forces used as a military barracks, was blown up last year.
The satellite imagery is part of a report documenting “massive destruction” to five of Syria’s six Unesco World Heritage sites, compiled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science – a non-profit organisation, the Smithsonian Institution and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.
Jamal’s last clients were a British couple who took a tour with his company at the end of March 2011.”One day before their tour was due to end, they had to be told to leave, to get out.,” he said.
Those who worked in tourism in Aleppo have little left. As well as the complete destruction of the luxury Carlton Citadel Hotel, Jamal understands that the luxury boutique hotel, Al-Mansouria, and the Salahie guesthouse, popular with foreign visitors, have also been damaged.
Jamal’s company used to offer tailor-made and group tours around Syria, offering visitors the chance to see a rich and beautiful country, from the ancient city of Palmyra to the coastal resort of Lattakia. He employed guides, drivers, and office staff, and worked with British tour operators, although he admits that organisation was “definitely made difficult” by the internet restrictions put in place by the Assad regime. But he always had very positive feedback from clients, including many Britons, about Syria: “we had the guides, the hotels and the level of customer service that made it good.”
Jamal fled to Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2013. “Most of our guides have migrated”, he continues. “It was perhaps a little easier for them to leave as they knew agencies and people they guided abroad.” He has taken four of his staff with him to Erbil, the regional capital.
Despite the risks – “the road to the airport was not safe” – he stayed on to serve Syrians booking trips out of the country after other travel agents left. He knows that he is still not safe in Kurdistan, but with a resigned, sad smile, says that he lives each day as it comes.
Central Damascus, the Syrian capital, has been relatively spared damage to its rich architectural history, although last month the state Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) released photographs showing damage to the grand Ummayyad mosque, vernacular houses, and a restaurant.
But those working in the tourism industry have seen their livelihood dismantled. According to Syrian government figures, income from tourism used to make up about 12 per cent of the country’s GDP, and the sector employed 13 per cent of the workforce. The government was actively promoting tourism, offering press trips and working with overseas travel agencies.
Diana Darke, a British expert on the Middle East and author of “My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution” owns a property in the Old City, and explains how friends who used to work in the tourism sector have been struggling to find other jobs. “In despair, some of my friends who used to be guides have left Syria for Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, seeking different work to support their families. One only has succeeded, and he has had to learn Turkish to survive.”
Damascus was renowned for its elegant courtyard hotels, which “people had spent their life savings restoring”, says Diana. She has returned to her Syrian home six times since 2011, and on her most recent visit, “most [hotels] were closed or housing rent-paying refugees.” She reports that the National Museum is closed, but that other key sites like the Azem Palace and the Ananias Chapel are “open and well-tended.”
According to Diana, government officials are still paid a monthly salary and are attempting to encourage internal tourism “to safe areas like Suweida in the Druze south, or Tartous on the Mediterranean coast, where there has been no fighting and therefore no damage to the Roman, Byzantine and Crusader remains.” The DGAM did not respond to requests for comment this week.
In the Isil stronghold of Raqqa, on the banks of the Euphrates, hotels are now occupied by fighters, according to one activist who fled the city to the relative safety of Turkey two months ago. Speaking to Telegraph Travel this week under the name of Abu Mohammed, he said: “Hotels were shut down and are where Da’esh [the transliterated Arabic word for Isil] foreign fighters live with their wives. All the restaurants have become shops. The only tourism, he said, is fighters taking their wives and children for picnics.“
Jamal stresses that the number of Syrians in Isil is “very few.” Diana Darke said that her friends and contacts wish for stability to return to Syria so that they can resume their work in the tourist industry: “All have a deep love of their own cultural heritage and yearn for the chance to once again convey this to future visitors.”
That cultural heritage has sustained significant damage during four years of war.
The AAAS report says that Syria’s Unesco World Heritage Sites – the Ancient Cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Bosra, Krak des Chevaliers castle, Palmyra and the Dead Cities in the north of the country – have in some cases “been reduced to rubble.”
Their satellite imagery is corroborated by an extensive library of ground photos and video footage collected by the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (Apsa2011), a group of academics in Europe working with activists in Syria to document the extent of damage and lootings in Syria’s cultural sites.
Their photos of Palmyra, the remains of a city dating back to the second millennium BC, appear to show heavy weapons positioned near the citadel. The AAAS satellite images show earthen berms, many of which are being used “to provide cover for military vehicles”, while Unesco has reported that the temple has been damaged by shells and bullets, and that “illegal excavations are occurring in the Valley of the Tombs, in the Camp of Diocletian, some undertaken by heavy machinery.” It also believes that the Necropolis was attacked by looters in November 2014, who stole “22 funeral busts and the headstone of a child”.
Professor Hugh Kennedy, Professor of Arabic at SOAS at the University of London, said that he was “particularly worried” about Palmyra because it is relatively close to Isil held territory, and contains the sort of iconographical stoneware that the group has destroyed at sites in Iraq, such as Nimrud.
Internally displaced Syrians have been reported living in the tombs and ruins of the Dead Cities, a group of villages founded between the first to 7th centuries. Apsa last month published photos and video of extensive destruction to the Kherbet Kseibjeh and Darquota sites within the Unesco-listed area.
Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle in western Syria, was one of the best-preserved examples of fortified architecture from the period, but was shelled by the regime looking to oust opposition forces. A number of craters are visible in satellite imagery, while Apsa reports show the castle being bombed, and extensive collapsing of inner sections.
There have been reports of snipers shooting from the theatre at Bosra, an ancient city that was a prosperous provincial capital in the Roman era, and was a day trip from Damascus for tourists before the conflict.
The AAAS admits that the damage across the sites surveyed may be even greater than shown in its report, because the satellite imagery does not show close-up detail.
Cheikhmous Ali, a researcher at the University of Strasbourg and a member of Apsa, told Telegraph Travel this week that although the work poses risks to those taking photos and videos, it is important to document the destruction. “Whatever the length of this war, it is necessary to document the damage for when the time comes to reconstruct the historic monuments.” He is aware that the documentation disturbs the Syrian regime, because “we show everything”, whoever has committed the damage.
Cheikhmous thinks that tourists will still be attracted to Syria, once the war is over. “Despite the catastrophes, Syria has such a rich culture that there remain non-looted sites; there will always be things to see. But first we need stability for a good while, before the tourists return.”
Prof Kennedy said that it would realistically be 15 years before tourists can make a return to the country: “The political fighting will burn itself out in two to three years, but that doesn’t mean there will be parties of tourists at Palmyra hotels then. I have been visiting Syria since 1964 and I feel passionately about it, but there is no reason for huge optimism”.
He said that he has heard unconfirmed reports of students in Aleppo salvaging the remains of the Great Mosque in the hope that it can be rebuilt. He described the city’s medieval souk as “one of the great wonders of the world, with an Arabian Nights atmosphere like nowhere else.”
Diana Darke recounts one small glimmer of hope. On her last trip to Damascus, she says, she met a Syrian who had earned enough money working in Europe to buy himself a small house. “In defiance of the current chaos, he is now cheerfully restoring it into a boutique hotel.”
But Jamal will not go back to Aleppo and to his tour company. He repeats, “It is a very sad story”. Distance is his way of showing respect to Syria now, a Syria that will never be the same again. “My allegiance is to my country. Even if things calm down, I don’t think I will go back.”
He seems resigned to the war continuing: “If I really wanted to do something then I would carry weapons and go [to fight], but I don’t want to show allegiance to those who do that.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities
AUTHOR: Lizzie Porter
The Telegraph, 13.3.2015.