© Mark Lowey 2021. All rights reserved.
In this photo essay, Mark Lowey recounts his travels to Syria with his wife and another Aramco couple in April 2011, which inadvertently coincided with the beginnings of the civil uprising in Syria. The last day of their stay in Damascus included an unlikely encounter with the not-so-secret police, Bashar Al Assad’s Military Intelligence Directorate.
The Arab Spring
In December 2010, the Arab Spring movement started in Tunisia and began to sweep across North Africa and the Middle East. January 2011 saw the Egyptian crisis boil over in Cairo. In Libya, major protests against its regime started in February.
Around the same time, a fellow Aramcon and I had begun meticulous preparations for the trip of a lifetime to Syria. As the Arab Spring movement began spreading, we decided to forge on with our plans while travel to Syria was still possible. We secured tourist visas for ourselves and our wives, booked hotels, and finalized flight reservations.
15-day Single-Entry Visitor Visa.
On a chilly, sunny morning on April 2, 2011, we flew into Damascus International airport. Our taxi took us on a thirty-minute drive into the heart of the Christian quarter of Old Damascus. We arrived at our hotel, Dar Al Mamlouka.
Dar Al Mamlouka
We checked in to our rooms at the recently restored traditional beit (house) and relaxed in the leafy courtyard with a cup of hot tea.
“An oasis of beauty, calm, and exquisite oriental architecture Dar Al Mamlouka is lovely traditional 17th century Damascene courtyard house built around a tranquil central courtyard with wisterias, lemon trees and a fountain.” 
“Courtyard housing is an architectural device with a long history first appearing in the buildings of Syria and Iraq three millennia ago. Arab nomads first made use of the concept of a courtyard during their travels and stay in the desert. They set up their tents around a central space, which provided shelter and security to their cattle. With the development of Arab-Islamic architecture, the courtyard became an essential element.” 
“The Dar Al Mamlouka is a 17th-century Damascene masterpiece whose meticulous restoration was completed in 2010. Guests are accommodated in ten individually designed rooms that boast beautiful features such as decorative floor tiles, carved wood latticework, Persian carpets and furniture with mother of pearl inlay.” 
The door to our room.
The interior courtyard at Dar Al Mamlouka.
Close by, in old Damascus, is the famed Umayyad Mosque, the fourth holiest site in Islam . We spent an afternoon there, hiring a private guide to show us around. Before entering, women wearing western clothing were directed to a small anteroom near the entrance. In the “Putting-on-Special-Clothes-Room,” they were asked to don a full-length, tan-colored cloak, complete with attached hood, which was worn over their clothing. We left our shoes at the entrance and toured the mosque either barefoot or in stocking feet. Luckily, the polished floor of the expansive outdoor courtyard was heated. What a lovely feeling on a cold spring day.
Umayyad Mosque entrance.
The forecourt and open-air courtyard of Umayyad Mosque.
In the mosque’s courtyard, the Treasury, built in 778 AD.
“The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. After the Muslim conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was built on the site of a Christian Basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims. A legend dating to the sixth century holds that the building contains the head of John the Baptist. Two shrines commemorating Husain ibn Ali, whose martyrdom is frequently compared to that of John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ, exist within the building premises. The mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return before End of Days.” 
“The four holiest sites in Islam are the Kaaba inside the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the holiest of the four, followed by Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; these sites are accepted in this order by the overwhelming majority of Islamic sects which are all held in high esteem.” 
Khan As'ad Pasha
Down the street from our beit, in the heart of the central market, we strolled to the Suq al-Buzuriyyah and entered the magnificent 18th century Khan, or caravanserai, called Khan As'ad Pasha. A Khan is a large accommodation and storage facility – a hotel of sorts for merchant caravans, their camels, livestock, goods, and cargo. Animals and cargo were kept on the first floor near the shops and eateries while people used the second floor for lodging. This cool, cavernous space, now an art space, was suffused by natural light from an opening in the domed ceiling.
“A caravanserai was a roadside inn where travelers could rest and recover from the day's journey. Caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information, and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa and Southeast Europe, most notably the Silk Road.” 
“Constructed at a major point of economic activity of the Ottoman Empire’s rule in Damascus, governor As’ad Pasha al-Azem oversaw the construction of the Khan which was completed in 1752 and served as a guesthouse, commerce center, and storage facility for merchants traveling through the city. It was located at Suq al-Buzuriyyah.” 
Khan As'ad Pasha.
The Rental Car Caper
After a few fascinating days in Damascus, we were prepared to venture northward to visit famous historical destinations, including Aleppo and Palmyra. We needed a rental car. The original plan was to use a major company like Avis, but we received a recommendation from a Syrian acquaintance to use a smaller, mom-and-pop rental agency. The cost would be less, and we would be supporting a modest, local business. It sounded good.
Our wives went off shopping, and we two Aramco husbands took a taxi across town. Sure enough, they had the perfect vehicle for us, a late-model Hyundai minivan.
Ready to tour Syria in a minivan.
While we were filling out the usual forms and paperwork the rental car employee exited the office and left us alone. Twenty minutes later he returned with a bizarre request. Would we kindly accompany the gentlemen outside to a nearby location and answer a few questions? It appeared that we didn’t really have a choice. We walked out to a waiting car with several men loitering around it.
Slightly uneasy, we got in the backseat and were driven ten minutes to an ordinary three-story office building. As our ride stopped at the curb, we noticed that the entrance was heavily guarded by men wearing track pants and leather jackets. Each of them carried an automatic weapon, an AK-47. This didn’t bode well.
In a recent conversation with my friend, he recalled: “We were led into the foyer and sat down. As we waited, men were coming and going, and one positioned himself behind the foyer desk and glared at us. Finally, we were led up several flights of stairs into an office with a large painting of Bashar Al Assad in camouflage fatigues and mirror glasses.”
We were invited to sit on the couch across from whom I perceived to be a lieutenant or military officer, also in a tracksuit. It soon became clear that we were about to be interviewed by a member of the infamous and feared Military Intelligence Directorate – known as Mukhabarat in Arabic.
My friend continued, “A television was on. We sat down and he announced, ‘Welcome to Syria.’ We thanked him and he started questioning us, first asking why we were in Syria. He asked us if we were there to meet anyone, and we said no. He then asked us what we thought about the unrest in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia. I thought that this was a potentially dangerous question and replied that these events were none of our business.”
Naturally, I was apprehensive. Are we in danger? What’s with all the guns? Why does my Blackberry suddenly not work? Our answers were concise and factual. We were simply tourists interested in the Syrian culture.
After thirty minutes or so, the lieutenant, apparently satisfied that we were harmless, dismissed us. Another private vehicle returned us to the car rental agency, where we completed the paperwork. I was a bit numb, and surprised when the rental guy announced that we could not have the vehicle until later in the evening. Did they need time to install microphones or a tracking device? Who knows? We were exhausted. We requested that, given what we had been through, would he kindly bring the vehicle to us in the old city? He agreed. We taxied back to Dar Al Mamlouka in silence. Four hours had elapsed since we had parted from our wives.
Meanwhile, unable to contact us, our wives became progressively unnerved by our prolonged absence. We had safely left them at a small jewelry shop, and as the clock ticked on, first one hour, then two, then three, to avoid panicking, they distracted themselves by slowly buying more and more pieces from the attentive jeweler and his female assistant. In the end, we reckoned that their purchases probably exceeded the cost of the rental car. Lesson learned. Next time, leave the wives at a coffee shop.
These friendly jewelers took good care of our wives.
. . . . . . .
Next: SYRIA’S TREASURES, PART 2 – PALMYRA, the Roman-era oasis and caravan stop along the Silk Road.