Syria my heart is bleeding for you

28 April 2013
Ben Pentreath

I spent the afternoon in the garden, doing simple things. I cut some hazel rods for the broad beans, and earthed up and planted potatoes. It was a chill, grey day in Dorset. Spring arrives, then eludes us. I had other things on my mind. With the news, that I read today, of the destruction this week of the beautiful minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, my thoughts turned yet again to Syria, and I am so sad I can’t bear it.

When I was just out of University, a friend and I travelled across Greece and then south through Turkey. In ancient Antioch, modern-day Antakya, I said good bye to Sophie, who was heading back home, and I made my way south into Syria. I was full of trepidation yet found myself in the happiest, most beautiful country that I’d visited in a very long time. There’s something about travelling alone. It’s impossible not to meet people. I’ve never had a kinder welcome anywhere in my life.

It’s a long time ago now, back in the summer of 1994. To be honest the regime was fairly grim even in those days; Hafez al-Assad’s government was deeply repressive, the atrocities of his suppression of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama not far from the surface just 12 years later. (Incidentally, the site of the mass burial of the estimated 25,000 people who died there was sold to the Hilton Group, in case you ever had the misfortune to stay there).  Years later I couldn’t believe, in New York, just a few days after 9/11, reading an op-ed in the Times about how firm, how excellent, Assad had been in stamping out so thoroughly this proto-arising of Al Qaeda. Strange how politics works in a city then reeling and still smoke-filled from that dreadful day.

I will never forget the sight of young school children dressed in military uniform everywhere, at once bizarre and chilling, and a sense of forboding that would grab you from time to time. In those days of course, Bashir al-Assad was nowhere to be seen. The heir elect had been his elder brother Bassel, whose image, like the father’s, was still ubiquitous, unavoidable. But Bassel had died in an accident driving himself to the airport early one morning six months earlier.

It was a curious thing travelling through a country where you couldn’t buy Coca-Cola – the only place in the world I’ve ever been where the familiar logo could not be seen or found. I admit, I liked that. And, well: I loved Syria—the ancient, crowded bazaar in Aleppo; the deserted ruins of Aphamia, even more beautiful than incredible Palmrya; the extraordinary Crac des Chevaliers; dreamy, wonderful Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

I’ve just spent an afternoon digging out old photos of Syria. My diary’s in London, so I haven’t had the pleasure of curling up and reading that too, but even these little photographs bring back floods of memories.


The Baron Hotel in Aleppo, where I couldn’t afford to stay but had many happy evenings

Aleppo I love you


Meeting the tent arabs was like stepping back to a different era. I can hardly believe I took this photograph; it belongs to another life.

I can’t explain the sensation of being completely alone in the great ruined city of Palmyra as dusk softly fell and the moon rose and thunderstorms flashed way in the distance across the desert

Palmyra, too, has been shelled and is on the brink of destruction by the Assad government forces.

The backstreets of Damascus

and back in Aleppo

Where are you now?

I didn’t have a lot of time to draw on that trip

A good way of making conversation (their photo is up top)

At Palmyra

Damascus: the Blue Mosque – one of the most serene buildings I have visited in my life

I know, I know, that buildings are nothing compared with the destruction of life and liberty in Syria right now. And yet there is something emblematic about the collapse of a civilisation that is embodied in its buildings as much as the pain of its people.

Syria, I don’t know what the answer is. But my heart is bleeding for you.

20 comments on this post

I appreciate your beautiful post and I too feel the loss of Syria in this most appalling of wars. Civilians have paid the biggest price and the people who once lived together. If this was a revolution then it was quickly infiltrated by people who had no knowledge of Syria. I doubt we shall ever witness the country as a multi faith country again as it has been taken to pieces by extremists on both sides. If only there had been the will to provide a feasible alternative in the beginning.


heartbreaking. What beautiful pictures and I love your sketch books. xx


Thank you, Ben, as always for your brilliant eye and beautiful observations. I don’t think there’s anything contradictory or callous in mourning the senseless destruction of beauty that inevitably goes along with the destruction of human life. My Armenian grandfather escaped the ravages of the Turkish death marches of 1915 via Aleppo–they found respite and eventually salvation there so even the name of the city carries a sense of relief and hope for me. I am so sorry to know what is going on there now.

Thank you for sharing this. It is heartbreaking to think of the terrible loss of life and the age old culture.Your work is inspiring!


You might like Agatha Christie’s book Come, Tell Me How You Live, which describes summers in Syria in the 1930’s living and working on a dig with her husband.

Bing Taylorsays:

Wonderful heart-wrenching photos and I agree, you should publish the watercolours – it might even help to draw people’s attention to the beauty (both human and architectural) being destroyed.

I always love to visit such historical places but unfortunately, I will not be able to see this anymore. 🙁


Tragic-I know…Beautiful watercolours-do you still have time to paint when abroad? They’d make a wonderful book


Oh,Ben I understand why your heart bleeds for Syria- it is a tragedy unfolding before our eyes and yet our leaders fail to act. The loss of life,culture & irreplaceable monuments- at moments like this I truly despair.


I am not sure what action we can take. Luckily that’s not my job to decide… I cannot see a clear answer.

Such a cruel situation. A place that I’ve always longed to visit, I can’t imagine that will be possible for a very long time now. I’m armchair traveling though through your stunning watercolours.

Bang Bang Bamiyan; Heritage Held Hostage – so said my thesis in 2003. On the brink of going into Iraq, would it be bang bang Babylon next? And here we are 10 years later as Syrian crumbles to the ground but not from our collective memory. Yes the plight of the people must come first but yes, it’s the heritage and history that provides the building blocks for it’s ‘future’. Like you, we found them the friendliest and most charming citizens of any Middle Eastern country (and they all are). Independent travel, hire car, high adventure. Crak de Chevalier castle, (en route to pounded Lattakia) 3 proud brothers had just built an extra terrace on which to woo the tour buses with panoramic views and fabulous Arabic mezze cuisine, Lebanese wine. We loved it so much we returned after our pan-Syrian circuit. Grounded in Damascus due to Icelandic ash cloud I voted we stay and sit it out in Damascus, learn to cook/speak Arabit, out-voted 2-1 we came home by BUS!


Your compassion counts a lot. All will come good.


wow ben. those photos. wow.


I have visited Syria three times and your wonderful pictures bring back memories I have not thought of for many years: the Baron with its gracious Armenian owners, drinks at dusk on the terrace of the Hotel Zenobia in Palmyra, the humbling kindness of strangers. I read and weep.


Obviously the loss of buildings that Syria has suffered pales in comparison to the horrific loss of life (especially children) but one cannot help but mourn the loss of such beauty, history, and culture.

Elizabeth Barrsays:

It is so hard when the places we love don’t survive our short lives.


Dramatic photos. Just the picture I have in my mind of the region. Beirut has long been a destination that has tempted, but eluded me. Just before the trouble started, Egypt came close to a visit but that too didn’t work out. I had to hear about it from people taking advantage of cheap package deals; in light of the unrest. That sort of thing always makes me feel a bit queasy. The situation demands a lot of attention.

What a beautiful and moving post. I have to admit I have hardly given a thought to the destruction of irreplaceable historical buildings but, of course, the people of Syria must be mourning that loss on top of dealing with the more obvious horrors of their tragic situation.


Profoundly beautiful, aesthetically and emotionally.

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