(I received the letter in German from a friend in Berlin and found it so heartbreaking in terms of what Syria was then and what it is now, that I made this rough translation. L. Weingarten)
Today’s Irak, the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, is seen worldwide as the essence of hopeless violance and desolation. The destruction of antique treasures of the „cradle of humanity“ by Anglo-American bombs is an indiction of the extent to which human understanding of history and shared identity has been lost. All social arrangements ceased to function as a result of the war.
In the neighboring country, Syria, between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, the world looks entirely different. What a traveller finds here, is a picture of peace, religious tolerance and colorful, middle-eastern activity, evidence of a land of progress, working towards cooperation with the west, with Europe.
Along the 100 kilometer autoroute from Damascus to Homs, the largest industrial city, one passes rows of pines and ceders. The broad, green bands of reforestation constrast with the clay-colored slopes of the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain to the left and the cement gray, half-built housing settlements on the right — mostly bare buildings, bearing a maze of satellite dishes. All manner of trucks are enroute, ancient busses with wooden-framed windows, also private cars in increasing numbers now that the import duties have been reduced.
In the last thirty years the population of Syria has almost doubled: from barely eight million to around 19 million, of whom 75 percent are below the age of 30; the average age range is said to be 16 years! Investment in public health care contributed to this population growth. Children laugh and wave; wherever one looks, one sees school children and students. Since 1970 there is compulsory education through the ninth year. Foreign language training, mostly in English, begins in second grade. In addition to the five large state universities there are also private secondary institutes. International co-operation is being expanded. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has a representative in Damascus. Economic reform, beginning in the 90’s, has opened the country to all manner of private investment. Construction activity is visable everywhere.
The secular-socialist system of the Baath Party under the presidency of the Assad family — whose portraits appear everywhere — is difficult to grasp by western standards….the Orient with a touch of East Germand and Cuba perhaps. Yet, conservative oriental family structures have been largly been maintained, by Christians as well as Muslims, both of both have lived with or next to one another over centuries.
Mosques and churches amidst the same areas. As many as eleven differant christian denominations, both catholic and protestant, live next to the large Sunni majority, the Shiites and other muslim sects such as the Druse and the Alawites. The Assad-Clan is Alawite. In the port city of Lattakia on the Mediterrean, home of the largest concentration of Alawites, one sees jeans and short skirts, and almost no veiled women. Its large hotels are run on a western model.
One can hardly imagine a more pleuralistic society, made up of the many ethnic groups living in various parts of the country. On the Mediterrean coast one feels one is parts of Italy with endless olive plantations and fruit cultivation. In the northwest towards the Turkish border there are steep mountain areas. The lake-like reservoir on the Euphrates, constructed with Soviet Russian assistance, is the key for arability and watering of large areas of the country. Syria remains an overwhelmingly agricultural country, but even the wide desert-like steppes in the direction of Iraq and in the south, towards Jordan, have been electrified. Small oil pumps produce energy for internal needs; natural gas is largely exported. Beduins still live in hide tents or low clay huts. Today they tend to be semi-nomads, movivng only occasionally with their herds of sheep and goats. Valuable minerals — copper and phosphates — are mined and loaded onto fright cars which move through the steppe. In the past, trains ran from Aleppo to Bagdad.
About 120 km towards the border with Iraq clever young Beduins have opened a „Baghdad Cafe“, as in the film of the same name by Percy Adlon with Marianne Sägebrecht. An original poster for the film hangs above the water pipes. They plan to open a small hotel in the near future. Syria is counting on expanding its tourism. The Third International Tourism Fair took place recently in Damascus with — as reported by the Syria Times —indication of hopeful perspectives.
Points of interest for travellers are without compare : some 25 consecutive civilizations have left their traces here over almost 10,000 years. Three thousand sites have been excavated; many European archeolgists are working here and I had the privilege of visiting a German dig carried on the Berlin’s Technical University in Resafa.
The awe which overcomes one when standing on the excavation heights of Ebla, seeing on one side the sun going down and directly opposite the rising full moon is almost undescribable. In the immense Temple of Baal in Palmyra one has a sense of eternity. And after an excursion to the fortress of Aleppo one understands why it is listed among the wonders of the world.
In the Bazaar of Aleppo — some 12 km in length and the largest in the Middle East — European visitors are met with a natural friendliness and interest. Conversations begin easily; many vendors speak English, German or French and ask about the visitor’s opinion of their country. And whether they really consider it to be a „rogue“ state.
Of the of approximately two million refugees from the conflict in Iraq, half live in Damascus. In 2006 an additional half a million fled the conflict in Lebanon. Some 600,000 Palestinians have been more or less integrated over the years. All this has astonishingly come about without major problems — aside from the rise in living costs about which everyone complains. Housing in large city centers has gradually become unaffordable. Unemployment does not decrease as more people continue to arrive.
Europe would do well to give Syria stronger support for the integration of refugees. Italy, German and France are Syriens main commerical partners. They could contribute a great deal so that Syria remains a bulwark of peace in the Middle East.
Note: Temple of Baal was largely destroyed by ISIS during this year. The Bazaar of Aleppo, along with most of the historic Old City, is in ruins due to battles between the Syrian Army and opposition forces from 2012 onwards.