The final reading of the service was given by Colin Thubron, the acclaimed travel writer. It is a letter written by Freya Stark, one of the first Westerners to ever journey through various parts of the Middle East, to tell her father of her first experiences of Syria. It gives a beautiful, vivid portrayal of Syria as it was, through foreign eyes.
FIRST VISIT TO DAMASCUS BY TRAIN 1928
By Freya Stark to her Father
The snow is still heavy on the Pass and we are crawling towards it at an incredibly slow pace: it takes nine and a half hours for less than a hundred miles. I have Syrian family with me: we spend the time eating: last station they dashed out for ‘leban’, the milky cheese: this station it is onions. My Arabic is working well…We are zig-zagging up on a cogwheel over stony hills, and all the olive stretches left between us and the sea. The country is terraced and bare now, its reddish earth lovely with blue shadows and ribbons of melting snow. People who want conversation stroll along the boards outside the carriages and look in at the windows. The sun is getting very hot already: it is the good burning sun of the hills up here. I have seen the first black Bedouin tents pitched among poppies in the fields.
Later…We are down across the ridge now in the flat valley between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon: …It is good to see flat rooves…and people ploughing and wide stretches of browny green earth where corn grows, and poplar groves round the villages. A broad pebbly river bed winds south: it might be Italy, only there is a camel. What an absurd silhouette they have! There seems to be little enough water about, but it is evidently a good soil for vines: they are not propped up, but stretch out flat with their branches outspread, like corpses on a battle field, row upon row head downwards on the slopes.
At the top of the Pass, where there was a lot of snow, I saw a tank, its little gun and all complete, being used to clear the road; and another further down. There was great snowballing at the stations. The passengers have kept reserves of snow to throw at unsuspecting labourers down here in the plain. The Syrian lady has just told me that she was blocked on the Pass seven years ago and all the passengers had to spend six days in the little station building, for there is no village up there.
The party has got out now. Affectionate farewells. I thought we should be set alight in the long tunnel: We spent the time burning matches and dropping them casually about; when the little boy of three joined in the game I was really afraid for the woodwork…..We are now getting to the valley of Barada: a fantastic country. I will tell you from Damascus.
Did I tell you I saw an army of storks, the other day, flying towards Turkey…
Your Own Freya