Damascus, Syria, Nov 2005:  Damascene refers to someone from Damascus- (alternatively it could be read as ‘Damascus Scenes’)- hence the title of this video. I was fortunate enough to visit Damascus in a relative time of peace- but in a matter of years the country would be torn apart, into a war  that does not seem to have an end…

In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is/was a major cultural and religious center of the Levant. Filmed somewhat clandestinely in the Umayyad Mosque- one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world (considered by some Muslims to be the fourth-holiest place in Islam)- and the Al-Hamidiyah Souq- the soundtrack is mixed with the original audio, capturing the Mullah’s call etc….


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Border Country

Turkey/Syria, Nov 2005: Hatay– Turkey’s southernmost province- has changed dramatically since my visit to the area in late 2005. Near the border town of Reyhanli there is a huge refugee camp for the thousands of Syrian’s who have managed to escape over the nearby border to safety- and other camps scattered throughout the province. Locals complain of unemployment as refugees, most of whom live outside official camps, accept lower wages. They say house prices are rocketing and fear worsening violence.

There is no sign of any let-up in the Syrian war, now in its fourth year, in which at least 140,000 people have been killed and millions made refugees. Fighting is especially intense in and around the city of Aleppo, just 45 km (28 miles) from the Turkish border. In May, twin car bombs killed 43 people and wounded more than 100 in a shopping district in Reyhanli. The government said it suspected Syrian involvement. The open border provides a lifeline for rebel-held areas which has allowed humanitarian aid in and refugees out. But it has also drawn accusations of allowing radical fighters to cross the border unchecked and of burdening a fragile economy with an influx of the displaced.

Hatay, sandwiched between Syria and the Mediterranean Sea- is also demographically unique, containing the country’s largest proportion of Arabs- nearly a third of the province’s population of 1.5 million. As the only province to join Turkey after its establishment in 1923, Hatay is politically unique as well. Hatay is also the only province that mirrors Syria’s key ethnic divides. In addition to ethnic Turks, it is home to Alawite Arabs (co-religionists of the Assad regime), Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Armenians, and Arab Christians. Moreover, Hatay’s Alawite and Sunni Arabs are connected to Syrian Alawites and Sunnis through familial and tribal links.

Given its history and demography, Hatay is exposed more directly to developments in Syria than Turkey’s other provinces. If the war across the border becomes explicitly Sunni versus Alawite, their sectarian brethren in Hatay could be pitted against each other, whether in terms of upping the current political tension, sparking violence within Turkey, or joining the fight in Syria.

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The Hejaz Railway – part 1

Syria, November 2005:  When I learnt that the Hejaz Railway was actually still operational, I knew I had to ride it. I’d always admired David Lean’s classic 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia”-and to actually ride the rails that T.E.Lawrence and his band of Arab rebels had so successfully attacked and destroyed- well it just had to be done…


While in Damascus I ran into Ian again (having met earlier in Beirut), an Aussie traveller on a 2-3 year trip with no real itinerary. I told him of my idea to ride the Hejaz to Amman and he was keen to come along. So on a bitter November morning, we flagged a cab and drove through the dirty back streets to the outskirts of Damascus. It had been raining most of the night and the temperature had dropped dramatically. At the deserted Khaddam Station we searched around looking for someone of authority, eventually tracking down a man who directed us to a run down looking building.


The big man at the desk questioned us briefly, then on figuring out we were too inept to be spies sent us downstairs again. A while later another man strode out and gestured towards us. We followed him out to a platform, a newish train was parked up purring, ready to go. But no, we carried on past it and followed the man as he jumped down and crossed the tracks. We caught up to him standing in front of a derelict shed. He gestured us inside. An older man with a bushy beard sat behind the desk. He asked me in broken English “what do you want”? “We want to get the Hejaz train to Amman in Jordan” I said. He replied incredulously “why not get bus”? He had a point, it would have been way easier and quicker- five hours instead of ten to twelve. We stood our ground and after a long silence begrudgingly set about issuing us with what amounted to tickets.


We left the ticket office on a high and asked a man which one of the two trains at the platform was the Hejaz. He shook his head and pointed in the opposite direction. We turned but could only see on the far side of the yard a bedraggled cluster of carriages. Turning back to look at him he nodded his head and said “yas”… I couldn’t believe it and burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter- he was not impressed.


The Hejaz Railway was a narrow gauge railway that ran from Damascus in Syria, to Medina in Arabia. It was named after the Hejaz region in Saudi Arabia it connected with. It was a part of the vast Ottoman railway network and was built to extend the line from Istanbul in Turkey, through to Damascus and on to the holy city of Mecca. It reached no further than Medina- 400 kilometres (250 miles) short of Mecca- due to the interruption of the construction caused by the outbreak of World War 1.


The main purpose of the railway was to establish a connection between Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire and the seat of the Islamic Caliphate, and Hejaz in Arabia, the site of the holiest shrines of Islam and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Another important reason was to improve the economic and political integration of the distant Arabian provinces into the Ottoman state, and to facilitate the transportation of military forces.


The sole passenger carriage consisted of eight compartments made of dark, dirty wood and worn out leather seats, springs bursting out at the seams. I found the name and date of the manufacturer of the carriage- Nuremberg, Germany 1905.


Soon after boarding a bearded man in his mid 30’s turned up. Yusuf was his name, he would be our “supervisor” throughout the journey. We were the only foreigners on board, with just a handful of locals in another carriage. The first thing he said- his way of introduction- was, “no photos”. Without a doubt Yusuf was an informer for the secret police, the Mukhābarāt. He was a typically friendly Syrian though, a nice enough chap, I just wish he would have left us alone so I could have taken some photographs.


We eventually drew out of the station and crawled through the dirty, derelict outer suburbs and into a vast army base South-East of the city. There were scatterings of buildings, training areas, troops, tanks and bunkers as we crawled through the camp.


It took at least 30-40 mins to chugg through the vast sprawling army base- but then this was one of the slowest (and oldest) trains on the planet. When we finally cleared the vast defence perimeter and were in the desert proper, Yusuf finally announced it was ok to take pictures- but by then there was nothing to take photos of…


To be continued…

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Aleppo, Syria, November 2005:  With the escalating conflict in Syria spreading to the country’s largest city, Aleppo, it’s about time I made a post about this ancient city. Also, over the coming weeks and months I will be publishing more images and stories from the Middle East in general, as it continues to fracture and […]

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Damascus, Syria, November 2005:  With the escalating crisis in Syria and it’s spiral into civil war, it’s about time I posted some more images from Syria in 2005… Of the seven countries I visited in my late 2005 Athens to Cairo overland trip- over half are now going through dramatic changes… Lebanon was once again […]

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Krak des Chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers, Syria, 2005:  A farmer walks his cows past the imposing walls of the 1000 year old Krak des Chevaliers. The castle, originally built in 1031 for the emir of Aleppo, became one of the most strategic fortresses of the Crusades by controlling the road to the Mediterranean.  In 2006 Krak des Chevaliers […]

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