Alep, Syria, September 1998. In the alleys of the old city. Dans les ruelles de la vieille ville.

I repeat it everywhere: out of over 60 countries we have been to, Iran was where the people were the most hospitable, followed by Pakistan, the Czech Republic, and Syria. “Why do you want to go to Syria?” the Western diplomat, whose recommendation she needed to get a visa, had asked my companion. That’s none of your f… business, I thought. “This is not a place for tourism,” he lectured sternly. And he was right on the dot! Mass tourism — read: money — is what destroys the purity of intentions and disinterestedness of a people. Egyptians and Moroccans and Indonesians were purely obnoxious — those in contact with foreigners, I should clarify. When the young Belawan (Sumatra) passenger pick-up attendant tried to extort triple the fare from us, our neighbor slapped him in the face. In Syria, whenever we lacked small change, our fellow-passengers regularly offered to pay our fare. So many examples, abroad too. On the beach of Khoms, Libya, a Syrian worker very warmly offered us tea and fish in his poor hut, while one of his fellow countrymen bought us cookies in the bakery of another Libyan coastal town.

“Que voulez-vous faire en Syrie?” demandait le diplomate occidental qui devait nous donner une recommandation pour un visa. “Ce n’est pas un endroit pour faire du tourisme!” Combien il avait raison! Les Syriens sont en tête de notre liste de peuples favoris, pas encore corrompus par le tourisme de masse.


Alep, Syria, September 1998. The market.

And its market… Positively the best of the Middle East, leaving behind in character even Cairo’s or Istanbul’s. With a history spanning over three millennia — more than twice Cairo’s — and a major trading tradition since the Roman times, would you expect any less?

Certainement le plus beau et le plus intéressant marché du Moyen-Orient. Avec une histoire se déroulant sur trois millénaires — plus du double du Caire — et une importante tradition commerciale depuis l’époque romaine, fallait-il s’attendre à moins?


Palmyra, Syria, September 1998.  Tadmor in Arabic, the Unesco World Heritage site is in an imposing, desert setting, right below the 17th century Arab castle perched on top of a tall hill.


Damascus, Syria, September 1998. The Ommayad Mosque.

One of the world’s main Islamic mosques, and one in the 200 plus mosques of one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities! Many superlatives, but what is important is that it was beautiful and a welcome respite from Assad’s (occasionally with his sons) posters “decorating” every single store or wall — well, almost — of the country, in the feudalistic tradition of the personality cult too present in the Middle East.

Alep a le plus beau bazar, Damas a certainement la plus belle mosquée du Proche-Orient.