We hear so much about Syria these days - usually in connection with evil hearted terrorists who have chosen to make it a sort of gathering point for themselves. Yet over the years when I visited Syria the most striking thing was the dignified friendliness of the people and the sheer lack of fanaticism. It was a place where, as a non-Muslim woman, I was treated always with the greatest respect and kindness, and where I always felt entirely safe, even walking through dark alleyways at night, alone.
I know that murderous fanatics have been smashing up the amazing heritage of this country - not to mention elsewhere in the Middle East. Until I went there I had no idea of how much history there was in the deserts, in the stones and streets and houses. I have been looking through my hundreds of images of Syria lately, and picked out a few, almost at random. I'm offering them to you now. Just so you know.
Above - some of the buses were works of art. This driver was rightly proud of his. Because Syria wasn't really a tourist destination, few people knew about the splendid buses that were to be found, many of them decidedly vintage but very reliable.
Below, a Syrian Orthodox church
There are very, very ancient Christian churches at Ma'loula, some of which were converted from Roman era temples, and don't have electricity; such a powerful atmosphere. Ma'loula is one of the few places where people still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. I believe many of these amazing places have been destroyed by the bigots and vandals.
This is Beit Jabri, one of the best places to eat in Damascus, popular with just about everyone. It was hidden away in a tiny alleyway. Once a courtyard of an old mansion, it was roofed in with glass, with flowers growing inside and out - and great food at very low prices. You could come almost any time of day or night and find it busy with people meeting their friends and having fun.
A fountain at Al-Azem palace.
Below is a little corner of a souq. Nobody ever pestered you to buy in Syria. Nor was there the tiresome business of haggling. You could wander around and please yourself whether you bought anything or not. Souqs in Aleppo and Damascus were both vast, full of life and with countless things to see (and buy), and they rambled on for miles. It certainly makes going to a supermarket seem dull and bland.
This is part of the exterior of the Ummayyad mosque in Damascus, built on the ruins of a very early Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist - and John the Baptist's shrine was on display inside the mosque. There was a large archway left over from the Roman Temple of Jupiter in the square, which was one of the entrances to the souq, so there were always people around until late at night. The tomb of Saladin is to the North of the mosque; it is where the Prophet Muhammed is said to have recited verses from the Quran.
Inside the souq were all kinds of travelling salesmen including coffee sellers and candy sellers. Somewhere I have a picture of a coffee seller with a great curved coffee pot on his back. But I'm just offering you a selection of pictures here.
Anyway these lurid sweets caught the little boy's eye. I don't think his granddad was going to buy him any though.
Some of the buses were very striking, both inside (see top picture) and out.
Some of the best Middle Eastern pastries come from Damascus. This was a small, old but high class shop in a dark square in the centre of Damascus which sold elaborate boxes of sweetmeats.
The courtyard of the al-Mamlouka hotel, hidden in the maze of streets that made up Damascus's Christian Quarter. Most large Arab houses present a blank face to the street but have these hidden courtyards; this one had huge mirrors in the niches around it to reflect the light.
Some very splendid ancient cars on the streets. OK - who can name this one? I feel as if I should know what it is.
A staging post in the desert, with shop and café. Imagine total silence all around... it made a huge impression on me. The domed building is in a traditional architectural style.
Bosra, in the south of the country, dates from Roman times and was capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea. When we went the entire huge site was almost deserted but this amphitheatre was quite spectacular and gave an eerily convincing impression of how it must have felt to come along to see a show in Roman times. Backstage it was dark and massive.
I've never been a huge fan of the Romans -too tough and brutal - but I always admire their extraordinary building and engineering skills.
This dear little boy was full of happiness and mischief. He was having a picnic with his large extended family inside the mosque, which has a great marble floor and courtyard. Families seemed to hang out there for hours, chatting with friends, using the mosque almost as a park - and his family was settled down for the whole afternoon. This is the only picture I took of him where he was not pulling funny faces.
We last went there in 2011. The country had been a dictatorship for many years but things were gradually liberalising. Life was far from perfect - to put it mildly - but people coped with problems with grace and humour. It is painful to think of the bad times there now and I very much hope that peace will return sooner rather than later... and visitors from the outside world will also be able to return, to admire this most varied and appealing country.