‘It’s easy to forget that a decade ago Syria was among the world’s top travel destinations’

Prior to President Assad’s security forces crushing anti-regime protests in Deraa on March 15, 2011,

Prior to President Assad’s security forces crushing anti-regime protests in Deraa on March 15, 2011, unleashing a decade of destruction, I would find any excuse to visit Syria, a country I fell in love with.

From Amman, once, I rode to Damascus by the fabled Hejaz Railway – already by then a decrepit vanity project to Mecca of Ottoman design. Mischievous children hurled stones at the carriages in the Damascene suburbs, despite little being left of the livery worth spoiling.

I shared a taxi, another time, from Beirut, in the back of a black Mercedes, staring at the red-and-white keffiyeh of an old Palestinian in front, destined not to reach my guesthouse until nightfall because a cultured fellow passenger, an Amharic-speaking Christian doctor, insisted I meet his charming family. Coffee became mezze, then arak, and I wonder now if he survived the war?

My decoupage of memories extends to sucking upon my first nargileh waterpipe in the palimpsest old city of Damascus, at a café alongside the Umayyad mosque. The melon-infused shisha was sickly-sweet. And basking like a lizard on the sun-scorched bastions of the 12th-century crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers, imagining the besieging armies of Islam below. And I hiked once through the Syrian Desert to Palmyra – footsore and wishing I’d emulated the 19th-century adventuress, Lady Hester Stanhope, the new Zenobia, and ridden, instead, by horseback to reach the famous Greco-Roman ruins.