Last April, Paonia resident David Lorig traveled to Syria with a group of journalists, activists and observers. Lorig gave a presentation on his experience on July 27 for the Paonia Public Library Armchair Travel lecture series.
"It's not your typical armchair program where people go on vacation just for fun," said librarian Laura Lee Yates.
While many of his photos were of the damage that resulted from years of conflict, Lorig also shared images of ancient architecture, aqueducts, mosques, market places, and of the Syrian people, some returning to their homes for the first time in years as the government reclaims cities, and some who remained throughout the occupation by militant opposition groups.
"The Syrian people in general were very welcoming and open to being photographed," said Lorig.
Throughout the trip journalists interviewed refugees and survivors of the years-long conflict. They also met with church leaders and the media adviser to Syrian President Assad.
With the exception of the recent damage, life in many places seemed very normal, said Lorig.
Bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel, Syria was once a popular tourist destination. The country offers stunning landscapes, magnificent architecture, ancient remains of long-fallen empires, beautiful beaches, delicious food and drink, and a welcoming culture. Syria's capital of Damascus, and its largest city, Aleppo, are among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Lorig said his interest in visiting the region began around the start of the Iraq War in 2003. Prior to last April's trip he had worked with humanitarian aid organizations in East Timor and Haiti, and traveled to the Middle East region during the Arab Spring and witnessed demonstrations in Egypt's Tahrir Square.
Lorig said he doesn't want to discourage travel to Syria. But under current conditions, "To be a tourist in Syria is extremely difficult right now." Travel warnings have been issued by the Department of State, and visas to Syria are difficult to obtain.
Lorig traveled on a journalist visa and in solidarity with an organized international group of 14, including five members from the United States. He said he found out about the trip through an American Facebook friend who organized the itinerary in conjunction with a Syrian contact also serving as the group's main guide. Journalist visas were pre-approved. For their safety, travel was restricted to government-controlled areas.
The group met in Beirut, Lebanon, and after obtaining proper documentation, traveled by bus across the Syrian border en route to Damascus.
Their first destination was the ancient village of Maaloula, one of the few places remaining where the ancient Aramaic language is spoken. While visiting, said Lorig, they heard "The Lord's Prayer" spoken in Aramaic.
On their first outing they toured the city's churches, some built centuries ago into the cliff sides overlooking the city. Armed militants, (Lorig avoids using the word "rebels" due to the large proportion of foreign fighters and sponsorship involved) who occupied the city for about six months between 2013-2014, caused a lot of damage to the buildings and removed or destroyed many religious artifacts.
The land around Maaloula, some audience members agreed, looked very much like the Utah desert. While there the group hiked through a deep and narrow canyon where, said Lorig, a number of U.S. presidents are said to have walked.
On their way to Saidnaya the group visited more historic sites. At a convent in Saidnaya a Mother Superior spoke to the group about miracles. (She talked on and on, he said. "It was a lot of miracles.")
After returning to Damascus they began their journey to the northern city of Aleppo, taking an alternate route from the main highway in order to avoid conflict zones. In the city, and in particular in East Aleppo, they witnessed the damage to buildings and infrastructure caused by armed militants and the Syrian government and its allies during the fighting.
The entire city is now back in the hands of the Syrian government, he said. Visitors are under strict instructions to avoid photographing military checkpoints. Lorig said he did speak with a guard at the Umayyad Mosque in East Aleppo, who told him, "All we want is peace."
As their bus rolled into Aleppo the group received news of a bombing of buses carrying refugees from the villages of Foua and Kafray which had arrived at an area west of Aleppo. The following day, said Lorig, they interviewed survivors at a refugee center in East Aleppo.
On Easter Sunday they visited a hospital for eye care in East Aleppo that had been taken over by armed militants and used for military operations, a Sharia court, and a prison, among other things. The structure was heavily damaged, and books, signs and other items were left behind by the militants.
At an old hotel they were shown a register supposedly signed by British officer T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, who is believed to have stayed there. "The word is, he did not pay his bill," said Lorig.
While dining out they would order the "mezza," traditional dishes of tabouleh salad, hummus and bread. They were then expected to order their meal. For Lorig the vegetarian mezza option was enough, but for others, like a large man in their party named Tor, they wanted "real food" after their appetizers.
In the Al Waer district of Homs, which only recently was reclaimed by the Syrian government, Lorig and his group observed armed militants being bussed out of the city under a reconciliation agreement. Photos show them taking their light weapons, belongings and families with them. The process took place over a period of weeks, said Lorig.
The group also visited the Citadel of Aleppo, a medieval fortress towering above the city and one of the last areas in East Aleppo to be recovered by the government. The Citadel is still not entirely open to the public, he said. They were unable to access the main structure rising above the city, but were allowed to walk the entry bridgeway for a good distance.
A cultural and historical highlight, said Lorig, was the Krak des Chevaliers (Fortress of the Knights), A UNESCO World Heritage Site built about a thousand years ago during the Crusades. Lorig called it "one of the most magnificent things you can see anywhere." In the absence of international tourists, they essentially had the site to themselves.