The Syria I saw, now in ruins
Secretary of State John Kerry may be negotiating an end to Syria’s chemical weapons program, but the country I worked so hard to document is already gone.
Since 2006, I’ve traveled to Syria to photograph and record the nation’s ancient Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities for Smithsonian Folkways, the Sephardic Heritage Museum and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. I have dealt with every part of Syrian society: religious leaders, Kurdish villagers, President Bashar al-Assad’s secret police, underground death-metal bands, restaurateurs, artists and professors. Today, many I know have fled. Some remain as a matter of pride, but most because they don’t have the means to escape. The archbishop who first hosted me has been abducted by terrorists. I have friends fighting on both sides, and many of the streets I spent so much time in are reduced to rubble.
All I have left are my photographs. Here are some of my images of Syria, paired with more recent photos of these places’ tragic destruction. — firstname.lastname@example.org
I first went to Aleppo’s Saadallah al-Jabri Square when the city was declared a “capital of Islamic culture” by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2006. Thousands packed the square, dancing in the heart of their 8,000-year-old metropolis. In 2010, on a less happy occasion, I met with a member of the secret police at the now-destroyed Tourism Hotel (in 2010 photo, the last building on right) to get permission to photograph highly protected Jewish cemeteries. The agent was more interested in procuring American skin cream than in my assignment, and I didn’t get approval.
Aleppo’s Citadel was the most-visited tourist site in Syria before the civil war erupted — I have the icon tattooed on my arm. Since my last visit, the Citadel’s stone stairs and 1,100-year-old iron door have been heavily damaged, and plans to build a museum and a protective shelter over a 5,000-year-old temple inside have been suspended. I befriended an architect who had been working to restore the site. He’s since fled the country and lives in the United States.
Built more than 1,000 years ago, Aleppo’s Great Mosque was burned last October, then shelled until its minaret collapsed in April after these photos were taken. Like the cathedrals of Europe, the mosque demanded reverence. Its huge open courtyard was lined with archways that harbored the poor and disabled. I spent hours there recording and listening to the blind sing, and photographing the faithful.
Mahmandar Mosque, damaged by shelling in 2012, sits in ruin at the edge of Bashita, once one of Aleppo’s most prominent neighborhoods. I spent a great deal of time there, working at the Great Synagogue nearby. Even before the civil war, the neighborhood felt ancient, dusty and forgotten, and I never saw another Westerner. Just outside the mosque was a bakery that made great falafel and manakeesh — small street pizzas coated in olive oil, za’atar and Aleppo pepper rolled on top of each other. I would weave my way through narrow passageways, grab lunch and eat in the mosque’s 700-year-old shadow.
Jason Hamacher, a musician and photographer living in Washington, is at work on a photo book about Syria.