“Where to eat in Raqqa”: Eerie lines from a 2009 Syria travel guide

“Despite being depicted by the US administration and Western media as a terrorist training ground, Syria is an extremely safe country to travel in. You can walk around virtually anywhere, day or night without any problems. Syrians are friendly and hospitable and if someone invites you to their village or home you should accept their offer."

It's hard to imagine Syria being described as an “extremely safe” country now, but that’s exactly the advice that a 2009 edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Syria and Lebanon gives the Syria bound traveler. Just before the war, Syria was a jewel of culture and art renowned for the kindness of its people and the richness of its heritage.

Today, much of what once brought international visitors to the souqs of Damascus and the ancient neighborhoods of Aleppo lay in ruins as the bloody civil war enters its 6th year. Despite puzzling attempts by the Assad regime to bolster tourism in Syria, it’s unlikely that we’ll see foreign travelers return there anytime soon. For now, old guidebooks offer us a glimpse - an eerie and wistful glance - into what Syria once was.

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syria food

On safety: “The first thing you’ll notice in Syria is the hospitality. Those travelling from Western countries with preconceived ideas about the country being a ‘rogue state’ or part of an ‘axis of terror and hate’ will find little to support these notions on the streets of Syria.”

Syria religon

Between Sunni fundamentalists and the sectarianism Syria faces today, it’s hard to believe that “All across Syria you’ll hear people say that they don’t care about ethnicity or religion, nor [will they] inquire about it when meeting people.” - In 2009, Syrian’s multiculturalism was it’s crown jewel.

Bashar asad

Just two years before the war Lonely Planet spoke of optimism. “Reforms by the young president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, may not have been as wide-ranging as many might have hoped, but there is certainly a feeling of optimism in the capital.” It's hard to imagine Assad as a youthful and promising leader - but many hoped he was.

news station

On failed reforms: “Liberalisation of the media appeared likely when Bashar al-Assad came to power, but regional tensions and government interference have seen plans fall far short of expectations. ... a concerted campaign against outspoken bloggers, opinion forums, independent news outlets and even Facebook doesn’t bode well.”

Hafez al assad tomb

The book shares a story about Hafez al-Assad’s grave in Lattakia and a taxi driver ranting about politics. When they meet government officials at the tomb the driver becomes a vocal devotee of to the regime. “Hafez al-Assad might not be able to reach out from the grave, but his legacy is a culture of fear that isn’t disappearing fast.”

storyteller abu shadi

The storytellers of Damascus were a source of entertainment for 2,000 years - but radio and TV slimmed their numbers last century. Eventually, only famed storyteller Abu Shadi remained to tell the old tales. When he died in 2014, he left behind his only son.. “It’s up to him.” Abu Shadi said in 2009. Time will tell if the art died with him.

Deir ez-Zor

Deir ez-Zor was a “bustling town” on the Euphrates river before Daesh began its reign of terror there in 2014. With a “wonderful fragrance of jasmine” and “pleasant riverside setting”, the “Deir” as people called it was a popular stopover for tourists headed east.

Raqqa

“Raqqa is a dusty town with little to detain a traveller.” Or at least it was, before it came the headquarters of Daesh terror. Even before the conflict, in the town “the options are unappealing and unless you must, avoid staying at Raqqa.”

Aleppo

Aleppo was “saved from irreparable damage by not succumbing to modernization. Few cities anywhere in the world have a medieval heritage like it. Today, it is a fragile treasure.” Though lamenting on lack of funds, the guide writes “at least there is a plan in place to preserve what is one of the real gems of the Middle East.”

Palmyra

“I’m worried about the threat from the environment on [Syria’s archaeological sites].” Wrote archaeologist Greg Fisher in the Palmyra section. “Even at Palmyra a massive amount of work needs to be done and there are only a limited number of resources available.” No one saw what would happen to Palmyra in the coming years.

Sanctuary of Bel

“The single most impressive part of the ruins [of Palmyra] and the most complete structure is the Sanctuary of Bel.” The Sanctuary of Bel was completely destroyed by Daesh in 2015, along with other irreplaceable treasures at the site.

Syrian women

In a stark contrast to the present day, Lonely Planet said on women in Syria: “As a woman traveller in Syria you can expect little verbal harassment and virtually none if you’re with a male companion.”

Syria drought

Many analysts place part of the blame for the civil war on a long drought that hit Syria in 2006.“The consequences of severe drought would severely affect the livelihood of millions of people … However, would it be a disaster of Biblical proportions?” A prophetic question that ends with advice: “See it while you can.”

syria food
On safety: “The first thing you’ll notice in Syria is the hospitality. Those travelling from Western countries with preconceived ideas about the country being a ‘rogue state’ or part of an ‘axis of terror and hate’ will find little to support these notions on the streets of Syria.”
Syria religon
Between Sunni fundamentalists and the sectarianism Syria faces today, it’s hard to believe that “All across Syria you’ll hear people say that they don’t care about ethnicity or religion, nor [will they] inquire about it when meeting people.” - In 2009, Syrian’s multiculturalism was it’s crown jewel.
Bashar asad
Just two years before the war Lonely Planet spoke of optimism. “Reforms by the young president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, may not have been as wide-ranging as many might have hoped, but there is certainly a feeling of optimism in the capital.” It's hard to imagine Assad as a youthful and promising leader - but many hoped he was.
news station
On failed reforms: “Liberalisation of the media appeared likely when Bashar al-Assad came to power, but regional tensions and government interference have seen plans fall far short of expectations. ... a concerted campaign against outspoken bloggers, opinion forums, independent news outlets and even Facebook doesn’t bode well.”
Hafez al assad tomb
The book shares a story about Hafez al-Assad’s grave in Lattakia and a taxi driver ranting about politics. When they meet government officials at the tomb the driver becomes a vocal devotee of to the regime. “Hafez al-Assad might not be able to reach out from the grave, but his legacy is a culture of fear that isn’t disappearing fast.”
storyteller abu shadi
The storytellers of Damascus were a source of entertainment for 2,000 years - but radio and TV slimmed their numbers last century. Eventually, only famed storyteller Abu Shadi remained to tell the old tales. When he died in 2014, he left behind his only son.. “It’s up to him.” Abu Shadi said in 2009. Time will tell if the art died with him.
Deir ez-Zor
Deir ez-Zor was a “bustling town” on the Euphrates river before Daesh began its reign of terror there in 2014. With a “wonderful fragrance of jasmine” and “pleasant riverside setting”, the “Deir” as people called it was a popular stopover for tourists headed east.
Raqqa
“Raqqa is a dusty town with little to detain a traveller.” Or at least it was, before it came the headquarters of Daesh terror. Even before the conflict, in the town “the options are unappealing and unless you must, avoid staying at Raqqa.”
Aleppo
Aleppo was “saved from irreparable damage by not succumbing to modernization. Few cities anywhere in the world have a medieval heritage like it. Today, it is a fragile treasure.” Though lamenting on lack of funds, the guide writes “at least there is a plan in place to preserve what is one of the real gems of the Middle East.”
Palmyra
“I’m worried about the threat from the environment on [Syria’s archaeological sites].” Wrote archaeologist Greg Fisher in the Palmyra section. “Even at Palmyra a massive amount of work needs to be done and there are only a limited number of resources available.” No one saw what would happen to Palmyra in the coming years.
Sanctuary of Bel
“The single most impressive part of the ruins [of Palmyra] and the most complete structure is the Sanctuary of Bel.” The Sanctuary of Bel was completely destroyed by Daesh in 2015, along with other irreplaceable treasures at the site.
Syrian women
In a stark contrast to the present day, Lonely Planet said on women in Syria: “As a woman traveller in Syria you can expect little verbal harassment and virtually none if you’re with a male companion.”
Syria drought
Many analysts place part of the blame for the civil war on a long drought that hit Syria in 2006.“The consequences of severe drought would severely affect the livelihood of millions of people … However, would it be a disaster of Biblical proportions?” A prophetic question that ends with advice: “See it while you can.”