An ill-timed tour of Syria: Amid the ancient sites, an uprising takes root

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It was the morning after the UN voted to bomb Colonel Gaddafi out of Libya that I made my way to Gatwick Airport. Hosni Mubarak had fallen as Egypt's leader just a month before. Tunisia had been swept up in revolution, Yemen's Day of Rage was turning into weeks of bloodshed, and even little Bahrain was stirring with protest.

With hindsight, flying out to the Middle East for two weeks, touring around the little-known but magnificent ancient sites of Syria was not the most sensible choice of holiday at the height of the Arab Spring. But nobody seemed to think anything would happen under the Assad regime. Little did I know that on 18 March 2011, while I was cruising at 30,000ft, gunmen were opening fire on a crowd in Deraa and three people would be left dead. They were the first fatalities of a civil war that has gone on to kill an estimated 60,000 souls; the name of a town whose only previous claim to fame was a brief mention in the film Lawrence of Arabia would soon be on every news bulletin around the world.

After months of excited planning with my backpacking companion, Rich, and hundreds of pounds already spent, we simply hoped the violence wouldn't continue or spread. After three nights in Lebanon, we drove to the border.

Both of us being journalists, it had been tricky securing our tourist visas – I had made sure to play up just how young and insignificant a reporter I was, providing them with a list of my worst recent articles (luckily I had gone through a lean period of writing reports about toilets, seemingly every day). So when a moustachioed, leather-jacketed goon pulled me to one side and looked at my passport, I naturally feared the worst. "You know who you remind me of?" he asked with an indecipherable expression on his face. Was I to be taken away to a cell or turned back to Beirut? Then he cried: "Michael Owen!" Quite how I could be likened to any professional sportsman, I don't know – perhaps us English all look the same to them. But he laughed, I laughed – a little nervously – and soon we were hitchhiking through the night to the tune of some very suspect Arabic dance music.

The smiles vanished when we reached our destination: Hama. Lying back on my bed and opening my Rough Guide, I read of the thousands who died there during the last rebellion in 1982. I had read about the country's ancient history but was woefully naive about its more modern events.

Our dinner that night in the near-deserted Le Jardin restaurant, overlooking the city's vast ancient waterwheels known as norias, was interrupted by reports on state television of more violence in Deraa. The waiters stopped to watch footage of people being shot (blamed on rebel terrorists) followed by 15 minutes of propaganda footage of president Bashar al-Assad waving and kissing babies accompanied by patriotic music. If it wasn't reassuring the waiters, it definitely wasn't reassuring us.

Walking back to the hotel, we came across what looked like a body floating in the river. What had we got ourselves into? Nobody was around; we walked down to the riverside in trepidation. As we got closer, we realised that it was an effigy – presumably from a recent protest. Phew.

That was the first of many such events. Time and again we thought the uprising had caught up with us, only to realise with little confidence that we were OK, for now. There was the helicopter gunship that repeatedly buzzed us at low level by the Saint Simeon monastery before flying away; the almighty bang in the middle of the Palmyra desert that sounded like a massive bomb but which we could only assume was a sonic boom from a jet; the sound of people chanting and horns blaring and what sounded like gunfire in the middle of a sleepless night in Aleppo, only for it to turn out to be pro-government supporters lighting fireworks. Huge protests gripped Damascus when we arrived – but they, too, were pro-regime, so the soldiers had no reason to fire. That day I got an e-mail from the office saying Robert Fisk was trying to get into Syria but had been denied a visa; that's never a good sign for a holiday destination.

But what made the trip so surreal was that in between these hints of the nightmare that was just starting, Syria still felt like a beautiful dream. The ruins at Palmyra were astonishing in scale, the labyrinthine souks of Aleppo enchanting and its citadel awe-inspiring. All the people we met (including the giggling village girl in Apamea who cried out to me from between the Roman pillars: "I love you!") were friendly and welcoming without exception.

But what now has become of those places, those people? I dare not think. We drove past Deraa on our way out to Jordan. Soon the killing and destruction steadily began infecting everywhere we had visited.

I remember, on the long taxi ride up to the crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, pulling out a magazine that I had saved for my holiday. It contained a Lynn Barber interview with Christopher Hitchens, one of his last. As I read it, in an uncanny twist, she challenged this man who once flew out to Romania just as Ceausescu was being ousted, about "revolutionary tourism". The phrase really did send a shiver down my spine. It was "voyeurism", Hitchens admitted. "One is aware of that. But it's better than not going at all."

I don't regret my holiday in Syria one bit – but unlike Hitch, I was completely unaware of what I was getting myself into. I hope more than anything to one day return when there is peace, as I feel blessed to have been one of the last Westerners, the last of anyone, to see that nation at its best. But if I have anything to do with it, my own experience of revolutionary tourism will remain once in a lifetime, and once only.

Back on the map

* Take a group tour to Kurdistan. A trip to this region of Iraq will reveal the history of the Kurdish people, starting in Kurdistan's capital, Erbil, one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities. responsibletravel.com

* Kashmir: After nearly 20 years, the FCO has lifted its advice against travel to Jammu and Srinagar. Wild Frontiers' new 11-day trip includes trekking in the Himalayan foothills. wildfrontiers.co.uk

* Tourism has returned, albeit sporadically, to Egypt since the first uprisings in 2011. The FCO currently only advises against travel to Sinai and border areas. The Red Sea resorts have remained immune, while the Nile cities are still largely free from crowds. egypt.travel

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