Visitors at the Syrian National Museum, now fully reopened. Photo: AFP/Louai Beshara

On January 7, the gates of the “Cave of Blood” were opened to tourists in Mount Qasioun, overlooking Damascus. According to legend and popular lore, this is where the first two sons of Adam and Eve lived, and where Cain killed Abel with a rock.

Not knowing what to do with the dead body – since nobody on earth had died before – he carried him on his shoulder for centuries.

“It gives me shivers,” said Nawras Fahham, a 22-year-old medical student at Damascus University, who was among the first to visit the newly re-opened shrine.

The site, which was sealed off for security reasons by authorities seven years ago, offers a bird’s eye view of Wadi Barada, a valley in the countryside of the Syrian capital, where armed insurgents had cut off drinking water to Damascus in 2017.

“It still needs plenty of work to return to its former self,” Fahham admitted. “There is still no electricity, and it’s difficult to reach because of checkpoints. We can only take photos inside the shrine, and not of the city.”

Mohammad Makhlaf, the custodian of the mosque built nearby, which dates to the 16th century, notes that parts of the 600-step staircase are damaged and need repair. 

“This is not a problem. We just hope that the tourists come back. Before the war, 300 people visited this place every day, from all religions: Muslims, Christians and Jews. Today, we had 15 tourists,” he told Asia Times. 

The tourists now are Syrians, as well as Iranians, Iraqis and Lebanese. “Also, we have had Russians coming,” Makhlaf exclaimed. 

Ahmad Mansour, a board member at The Friends of Damascus Society, a private NGO that works on preserving and promoting the history and culture of the Syrian capital, said Damascenes suffered a “heavy blow” when the road to the top of Mount Qasioun was closed eight years ago. 

“The war in Syria has damaged everything beautiful in this country – monuments and shrines included. With the Cave of Blood re-opening, we are somewhat optimistic, but authorities have to rehabilitate these historical sites in a modern and sophisticated manner that puts them on equal footing with the rest of the world,” he said. 

Reopening the National Museum

The opening of the Cave of Blood came only days after authorities fully reopened the National Museum of Damascus, situated on the banks of the fabled Barada River on Shukri al-Quwatli Boulevard.

First opened in 1919, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it moved to its current location in 1936. Its façade is the original gate of Qas al-Heer al-Gharbi, the splendid twin palace of an Umayyad castle built west of Palmyra in 727.

Inside are artifacts, statues and paintings stretching across 11 millennia, with the newest object on display dating to the early Islamic Era.

The National Museum was closed in 2012, its possessions moved to a safer location over fears of an attack by Islamist insurgents. While Damascus remained a stronghold of the government throughout the conflict, the museum of Palymra – in central Syria – was ransacked by the Islamic State group (ISIS) in 2015, its statues smashed and dismembered.

The latest addition to the National Museum was the Lion of Lat, a 15-ton statue once located at the gates of Palmyra’s Museum. It was blown up by ISIS in June 2015, but a team of Syrian archeologists picked up its tiny fragments from the streets. These were shipped to Damascus and meticulously pieced back together with the help of a Polish expert from the University of Warsaw.

“The importance of the National Museum of Damascus goes beyond its collections,” said Fadi Esber, editor of Dimashq Journal, a peer-reviewed academic publication focused on 19th and 20th century Damascus.

“The museum, beyond being an educational tool, was an essential part of the early attempts at creating a Syrian-Arab national identity following four centuries of Ottoman hegemony. The museum was one of the projects championed by the nascent Arab Academy, which tried to breath back life into Arab language and culture in order to shrug off the heavy Turkish legacy.

“At the time Damascus was a hotbed for Arab nationalism and the capital of an independent Arab kingdom,” he told Asia Times.

“When war broke out in Syria in 2011, the museum closed its doors for the first time ever. Its role in the country’s history, however, grew even more important, as it became home to hundreds of thousands of historical items recovered from across Syria in areas where war threatened to wipe out epochs-old civilizational history, such as Aleppo, Palmyra and the Euphrates river valley,” he added.

“For years, unsung heroes, archeologists, academics, students and volunteers worked to catalog and preserve these items, so that one day they could be restored to their original place or put on display at the Museum in Damascus.”

Perhaps no one sacrificed more than Khalid al-Asaad, the former chief archaeologist of Palmyra, murdered at age 83 by ISIS for refusing to reveal the locations of hidden antiquities. 

Ideological tourism 

Work remains slow on the Palmyra Museum, which was looted after ISIS stole 200 of its precious artifacts. The same applies to the Fakhr al-Din al-Maani Castle, a Mamluk-era fortress overlooking the ancient city, which ISIS used to shield itself from the Russian and Syrian armies.

In eastern Syria, the historic bridge of Deir ez-Zour remains in rubble, destroyed by fighting in 2014, as was the city’s Armenian Genocide Memorial Church, destroyed by ISIS. The Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Mosque of the city of Homs is presently being repaired, and so is the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo.

Once complete, government authorities hope to revive tourism in Syria – a once-thriving industry.

In 2010, one year before the conflict started, 8.5 million foreign tourists were visiting the country each year, with total revenue of 30.8 billion Syrian pounds (US$8.4 billion). The sector at the time provided for 14% of the country’s income and employed 12% of the workforce.

More than 300 tourist sites were damaged during the war – notably in Aleppo and Palmyra. By 2015, the number of visitors had plummeted to only 2% of their pre-war levels. As mortars rained on the Syrian capital throughout the years 2012-2018 from the city’s countryside, foreign tourists disappeared completely and were replaced by Iranians, Iraqis and Lebanese.

Many of those were Shiite pilgrims, visiting sites like the Sayyideh Zeinab Shrine in Damascus or a corner of the Umayyad Mosque, said to house the amputated head of Hussein, son of the fourth and last righteous caliph, Ali Ibn Abi Talib. They never stopped, even during the worst years of war.

Now with the guns silent around the Syrian capital, authorities hope to expand religious tourism to include visitors from the Gulf, Asia, and possibly, the European Union. They are particularly interested in “neutral” or friendly states, like South Africa, India, China and Brazil.

Small hotels in Damascus are finally transitioning back to hosting tourists, rather than refugees displaced by the war. The Ministry of Tourism says that in 2015-2016, it had 500,000 tourists and expects them to exceed one million this year.

Five-star hotels have remained full throughout the war, housing diplomats and UN staff: the Four Seasons reached 100% occupancy during the worst times of fighting.

Recruiting new tourists will be easier said than done, however, given that most international airlines are still not landing at Damascus Airport and sanctions have made credit cards useless in Syria, forcing tourists to carry bags of cash and to travel to Syria by car from Beirut.

That burden, topped with chronic electricity problems, makes it very difficult for tourists to make the journey at this stage – unless ideologically committed, like the Shiites of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon – or unless there is a major political shift in the international arena.

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