Bosra was half-way between Amman and Damascus. I sat next to an engineer on the bus. He was from Yemen, studying in Syria. I told him I was an architect, studying in England; I'd come to see the stones of Syria. He told me about skyscrapers made of earth in Yemen. he even gave me a key-ring showing one. He understood why I was getting off at Bosra, in the middle of the desert, right on the border between Jordan and Syria, but some others on the bus eyed me suspicously. People in Amman had already told me that visitor numbers were down since the war had started in Iraq.
Due to irretrievable data-loss all photos and videos from a journey to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in Summer 2003 have been erased from my digital memory. These vignettes are an attempt to articulate and safeguard the fading pictures of my biological memory. They will do little justice to the traumatic changes in Syria’s cultural landscape that took place a decade after my visit; it is only my personal consolation that maybe these words will do more good than so many jpgs confined to a hard drive. They are honest in their inaccuracy.
The bus grunted off in a cloud of smoke and sand. I glanced down at the scrap of paper the engineer had given me. An address in Damascus, with instructions to visit and talk about “English politics”. Tales of far away lands in return for hospitality; a trade as old as the hills in these parts. Bosra was dusty and hot. I went straight to the citadel, which was the only reason I had come. It was supposedly a Roman theater ensconced in an Islamic fortress; I couldn’t quite picture it, so I decided I had to see it. In a microcosm, this was the reason I had come to Syria: a juxtaposition of ancient and medieval architecture, monumental in scale but with details weathered by time, blurring, stories elbowing each other in to the sand and salt as they vie for the attention of future pens.
The citadel was a rabbit warren. I don’t remember entering, but I remember getting lost. A broad, black, vaulted tunnel led a gentle curve through darkness, punctuated by occasional chimney-stacks of light, which brought in distant sounds and temporary blindness if you looked straight up them. The ceiling was high, and the air felt cool and hollow. My footsteps echoed away in front of me. Small passageways led nowhere, or collided with new tunnels, twisting endlessly around some unseen centre. Stairs appeared to grow out of the walls, squared windows sat at my feet and offered glimpses of angular collisions, doorways turned in on themselves. It was sculpted Escher. Hacked architecture. The stones were great blocks, finely cut but roughly stacked in to high walls bending at the top to meet in crude vaults. They were toned honey to dark grey, creating a mood that turned from great hall to dungeon. I lost all sense of height and orientation.
Then suddenly light and order appeared as I found the top, the middle and the inside. The sun was thankfully still above me, and threw stark shadows along row upon row of concentric, semicircular stone steps. They drew the eye down to a stage, framed with Corinthian columns, with an imposing ashlar wall as backdrop. This new space was different in every way: bright and deep, warm and open. One glance was enough to understand where I was, where I could go and how long it would take to get there. Black openings lined the terraced slope, marking entries back in to the warren in a symmetry which mocked the labyrinthine interior. I made off for the one lying directly opposite. Walking down the steep amphitheater felt like entering a crater. The impression that this space had been carved out of the fortress maybe wasn’t so surprising, given the restoration that had been necessary to return it to that state. In reality of course it was the other way round. The Umayyads and the Millennium who followed them hacked away at the Roman fabric to fortify their walls; hacked architecture, hacking history.