Travels with my Art

Paintings and Photographs inspired by Travels Around the World

The dead cities of Syria

Scattered across the northwest of Syria, between Aleppo and Hama, are more than 700 abandoned settlements known as the Dead Cities.

I visited these curious Roman and Byzantium ruins fourteen years ago, while I was living and working in Damascus. Little did I know at the time that Aleppo, the stylish and classical city where I was staying, would one day become a mirror image of these dead cities.

Watching the news over the past few weeks, I have seen images which nobody should ever have to see, of thousands of hunger-stricken people waiting desperately for evacuation, sheltering in bombed out apartment blocks, in Aleppo, a city which was once a popular tourist destination, famed for its spectacular white marble. Much of the city’s ancient heritage has been damaged, including the Great Mosque, which was built in the 8th century, and the citadel of Aleppo, considered to be one of the largest and oldest castles in the world.

But it is the images of the people’s faces which I can not erase from my mind, of the men, women and children, who have been subjected to immeasurable suffering during these years of brutal fighting,
Over the last decade, throughout the conflict, I have looked often looked at the faces in the photographs I took of Syrian people in 2003 and 2004 and felt such melancholy at the smiling faces gazing back at me, wondering what became of these innocent people – did these school children finish their education, did they escape, are they alive or more realistically are they dead?

Although a ceasefire agreement has recently been reached and it looks like the battle of Aleppo is slowly drawing to a close, it still remains that over 30,000 people are reported to have died since fighting began in 2012, and another 20,000 are thought to have been displaced from Syria’s biggest city.

The battle might be coming to an end, but some of the damage will never be mended. Areas of some of Syria’s grandest cities including Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Palmyra are now uninhabited rubble, like the dead cities from antiquity.

Here are some of my photographs from Syria from before the conflict.

Schools out in Al-Madina Souq in Aleppo, Syria.

Schools out in Al-Madina Souq in Aleppo, Syria.


Children playing with toy guns celebrating Eid Al Fitr in Arwad, Syria.

Children playing with toy guns celebrating Eid Al Fitr in Arwad, Syria.


Photograph of Friday afternoon in the Souk El-Hamidiyeh, Damascus, Syria by Ali Dunnell

Friday afternoon in the Souk El-Hamidiyeh, Damascus, Syria.


A family entering Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

A family entering Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.


School kids on a bus in Damascus.

School kids on a bus in Damascus.


Children returning from school in the Dead Cities, Syria.

Children returning from school in the Dead Cities, Syria.


Children from the Dead Cities around Aleppo, Syria.

Children from the Dead Cities around Aleppo, Syria.


Three little girls from Arwad Island, near Tartous, Syria.

Three little girls from Arwad Island, near Tartous, Syria.


Taken from the British Government Foreign Travel Advice page for Syria

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to Syria. British nationals in Syria should leave now by any practical means. The FCO is not able to provide consular services, and won’t be able to help your evacuation from the country.
The situation remains extremely volatile and dangerous. There is widespread fighting throughout Syria, including in Damascus and its suburbs. Full scale military operations involving the use of small arms, tanks, artillery and aircraft are ongoing. The Syrian government no longer exercises control of large parts of Syria, notably the north, south and east of the country. Areas of eastern Syria are under the effective control of the Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL), which is fiercely hostile to the United Kingdom. Beginning on 30 September 2015, Russia embarked on a concerted military campaign of aerial bombardment, using indiscriminate weapons in Syria backing an offensive launched by troops loyal to the Asad regime. From 3 December 2015, UK joined the Coalition air strike effort in Syria against Daesh.
In Aleppo and elsewhere, the regime has been undertaking an indiscriminate campaign of aerial bombardment since mid-December 2013, using so called ‘barrel’ bombs – huge containers packed with explosives and shards of metal dropped by helicopter – against largely civilian targets. A number of chemical weapons attacks have taken place across Syria, most notably on 21 August 2013, where a major attack took place in the suburbs of Damascus. Latest estimates are of over 400,000 dead, including well over 10,000 children.

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  1. ann c December 19, 2016

    Thank you for your very personal reflections on Syria. The whole situation is totally numbing.We need to put our own lives into perspective as we live our ‘easy’ lives ………

  2. The Wanderess December 24, 2016

    this breaks my heart. your photos are beautiful. i wish the people of Aleppo would one day be able to smile again.

    • alidunnell December 24, 2016

      Mine too. It really was the most beautiful city and country – the people, the history, the architecture, the atmosphere. I just hope peace can be restored so they can rebuild their lives and get back to normality. Ali

  3. lenalimhamn December 28, 2016

    Thank you!
    Met some of them here in Malmö when they arrived end of 2015. Frozen, tired after months of walking through Europe. Millions trying to escape, hurt for life.

  4. lenalimhamn December 28, 2016

    Do you mind if I publish your post to my friends on Facebook? Some worked in Aleppo many years ago.

  5. lenalimhamn December 28, 2016

    Thanks! Happy New Year 2017

  6. healingpilgrim January 11, 2017

    At once, beautiful and heartbreaking. I pray for life to return to that ravaged and deadened country…
    Thanks for sharing images from a more peaceful time in Syria.

  7. Celebes January 11, 2017

    A very interesting text and some photos that tell us about the victims of the war. Congratulations!

  8. stemgirlssite January 11, 2017

    Well done on this piece, you’ve outdone yourself!

  9. eclecticwave January 11, 2017

    Absolutely beautiful photos!

  10. Fearful Individualist January 11, 2017

    Thank you for shedding light on this piece of darkness!

  11. Naomi Byrnes January 16, 2017

    Thank you for reminding the world of this dire need. I’ve nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award. Feel free to skip if it isn’t of interest or time is too tight. Will completely understand. Keep being wonderful you.

  12. andreahaidar January 26, 2017

    These photos are striking. Thank you for sharing.

    • alidunnell January 27, 2017

      Thank you Andrea, but if I am honest, they make me sad to look at them now. I remember the children being so happy and full of life. What has happended to Syria just makes me dispair. Ali

  13. UnCrushedLeaves March 3, 2017

    Those eyes with curiosity, glee and dreams… let’s hope they find happiness in their own ways.

  14. Marvi October 11, 2017

    Looking at these photos really breaks my heart. I hope all of these kids are well.. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Ali Dunnell October 11, 2017

      Syria is such a beautiful place with beautiful and kind people. We must all hope for a peaceful end to this conflict, soon. Ali

  15. Indu October 11, 2017

    Emotional portrayal of your post touched me. Thanks for sharing with all.

  16. PossesstheWorld October 11, 2017

    You made my heart break with your beautiful images and the story of your time in Syria. We met some Syrian refugees in Turkey this year and to a man (and woman) they all just wanted to go home to their beautiful Aleppo, my heart remains pained for them. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking piece.

    • Ali Dunnell October 11, 2017

      Aleppo is or rather was a wonderful city – so cultured and lively. It is now just rubble. It makes me so sad to look at these pictures too, but I wanted to share them, to raise awareness of this awful conflict.

  17. Jem October 11, 2017

    A really powerful and emotional post with beautiful poignant photos, thank you for sharing x

    • Ali Dunnell October 11, 2017

      Thanks for reading – and for caring. These pictures seem to sum up how happy Syria was – a happy, friendly and beautiful country. So very sad 🙁

  18. heraafarooq October 11, 2017

    Touched my heart. So sad how kids are suffering there.

  19. Priyanka October 11, 2017

    Your photographs are very powerful. It is sad what is happening in Syria but I hope it will become better now. Thank you for writing about such a beautiful place.
    Cheers ~ Priyanka @ NErdy Adventuress

  20. Claire October 12, 2017

    Fascinating post Ali! The pictures are absolutely stunning and really telling a story. You are very talented!

  21. The Wandering October 12, 2017

    My heart goes out for Syria every time I hear/read the name, and suddenly I start feeling sad. Love how beautifully you’ve captures the life of Syria before all this mess.

  22. Jonathan Morales June 8, 2018

    Makes me want to question why do people always destroys something that is so beautiful? War doesn’t really makes sense at all.

    • alidunnell June 10, 2018 — Post Author

      Completely – You would think in 2018 that we would have come up with other solutions to conflict. It makes me so very very sad.

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