With all the Syrian refugees fleeing from their country today, memories were brought back of a wild trip some of us stationed on the carrier Roosevelt ventured, in November 1952.
Our ship was anchored off Beirut, Lebanon. A group of us decided to take a bus trip to Damascus, Syria, through a tour provided by a Lebanese outfit. If I remember correctly, it is about a three hour drive over a mountain between the two cities. We had a Lebanese driver, and a guide.
About halfway through the trip the unheated bus made a pit stop up in the mountains. We all had a few drinks to warm up. I remember thinking to myself "what the heck are we doing up here - in the mountains - in a tavern - in no mans land - between two Mid East countries that are not too friendly with each other - or us.
Arriving at the border the lebanese guide got out of the bus to talk to the Syrian soldiers. They had rifles slung over their shoulders. For some reason our guide got into a heated argument with one of the soldiers, and the argument got to the point, the guide actually punched the soldier in the face. All of us sailors thought "we've had it now, these soldiers will probably open fire on us and the Lebanese guide". Just the opposite happened, the Syrian soldier put his hands up to his face, leaned against the bus and cried. I mean he was actually sobbing.. The tour guide got back on the bus, and we took off without any further problem. We never knew what provoked the incident, or why the other soldiers just stood by without doing anything, but we were glad to get out of there and get down to Damascus.
Walking the shopping area of Damascus, a large street with many shops, with a large overhead roof that covered the street, we found the most exotic shops in any country Ive been in. Some of the guys bought fancy knives and daggers with ivory and camel bone handles that were inlaid with fake rubies, emeralds, etc., the blades were made out of Damascus Steel. Wood carvings, inlaid jewelry boxes etc. I never came across stores and products in any country like those in Syria.
A guy with a loud wailing voice came walking down the street followed by a funeral procession. We lined up with the Syrian people along the street to pay our respects. After the funeral passed, a caravan of camels and nomads came in from the desert, and parked themselves in the middle of the street. I can remember the camels wearing bells and the jingling of those bells, it was quite a sight. I got the feeling the nomads were not allowed to use the sidewalks. A nomad kid ventured away from the caravan and immediately got into a fight with a Syrian kid. The Syrian kid pushed off the nomad, and gave us sailors a proud look, as if to say "hey, I beat this guy".
You all know the Bible account of John The Baptist, how he was beheaded by King Herod, and his disciples buried his body in a tomb (Mark 6). But his head ended up in Damascus, Syria. Part of our tour was a visit to what is today a Mosque where John's head is buried, called the Umayyad Mosque. Its a large building, and I walked around the grounds not realizing what a historic place this is. In the 1950's I was not really interested in the Bible, but today I would give an eye tooth to be able to go back to Damascus to see that tomb again. The rest of the day sightseeing went by without any major incidents, we got back on the bus and headed back to Beirut, Lebanon.
This time we crossed the boarder without a problem, there was no customs or searches to go through in those days.
My most vivid memory of the trip, was not the guide and soldier fight, the caravan, the funeral, or the sightseeing - but the red glow of the setting sun, that turned the mountains and the desert below into a beautiful red colored scene. It was like a painting, and to top it off, another caravan of camels were down there walking through the desert. I'll never forget that - looking down the mountain and seeing a scene that a Hollywood movie could not do justice too, the colors were fantastic. We eventually arrived in Beirut, and got back on the ship.
Between the exotic night clubs, with the belly dancers, the haunting eastern music in Lebanon, and the streets of Damascus, it was probably one of the most unusual couple of days I can remember.
Just to let you know there were good times in those two countries, before the troubles started, but I can just imagine what would happen if thirty or so American sailors went walking the streets, in full uniform, in Lebanon and Syria today. It just dawned on me as I am writing this (10/6/2015), that I actually, over the years, saw the tombs of Jesus (for three days) - St. Peter - King David - and John the Baptist.
By George Konig