America’s First Consul in Damascus, a Brief History

From Historical Travel on The Faster Times.

First Obama named the first ambassador to Damascus in five years. Then the State Department lifted its travel warning for Syria – though not the 30-year State Sponsor of Terrorism tag. In a week of overdue warming, some observers might look to business next, even if Obama renewed economic sanctions last year.

Syria’s economy is ripe after years of being closed. As Josh Landis recently wrote, “Syria has been hosting one delegation of American and European businessmen after another as Western banks scramble to get in on the bottom floor of the Syrian economy.” Tourism is a quickly developed and expanding market already, even if it’s Middle Eastern and European investments pouring in and not American dollars.

Almost monthly for the past year or so, a travel section somewhere chalks up Damascus as the next Marrakesh, promotes Aleppo as a historic crossroads once again welcoming Westerners, or sings about Palmyra, Zenobia’s desert city on the silk road near Iraq. Americans visit, though in far fewer numbers than the French or Belgian, though the end of the State Department travel warning for Syria might change things. Or not… mind the reasoning of State:

“The current series of travel warnings were enacted in September 2006 following an attack against the Embassy, and were not based upon Syria being designated as a State Sponsor of Terror. Being a State Sponsor of Terrorism is not a basis for a travel warning.”

Syria has other designations, though, like history, something I wrote about at length in the Faster Times back in December. Travel dispatches from there can reference so many things, though they almost always hinge on the same: anecdotes of the old and exotic East, quite Orientalist pictures of ancient markets and mosques.

Syria has those, sure. It has a lot of other things, outside the cities, beyond the Crusader castles that represent more than a “reminder that conflict between Islam and the West stretches back centuries.”

A somewhat shorter historical view – the 19th century – presents a more immediate bit of Syrian travel and history in light of the news that an American envoy will return to a state for decades at odds with the US. The Embassy has been without its head since 2005, when the US withdrew Margaret Scobey to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the car-bomb death of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

It’s a story about a Christian notable from Lebanon who became America’s first consul in Damascus in 1859. He witnessed a massacre of Christians in Damascus in 1860, a sordid event in the city’s long history.

Read the rest at Historical Travel on the Faster Times.

Image via Wikipedia Commons: “Anonymous Venetian Orientalist painting, ‘The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus,’ 1511, the Louvre.”

Historical Travel and Molasses

I’ve just launched a new beat at The Faster Times, for their Faster Travel section, called Historical Travel. The working tag-line is “far-flung destination chronicles and the Delphic past.” Historical narratives will be posted, along with original stories and columns by me on a range of travel subjects, all from the angle of history, ideally the strange and less-known cultural or social variety. I ought to say outright that the wonderful Atlas Obscura has already set a foundation for web coverage of what they dub “A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica.” Historical Travel will not aspire to that, but be more grounded in history while keeping an eye on the marvelous, revealing, ambiguous, Delphic past as a way to cover travel and travel writing. Please visit!

My inaugural post is on the 1919 Molasses Disaster (or Flood, or Explosion) that rocked my home town of Boston. It begins:

A wave of molasses, bursting from an exploded steel tank at thirty-five miles per hour, smothered two city blocks in Boston’s North End on a warm January in 1919. The strange disaster killed twenty-one and injured 150; an elevated train track buckled, a train derailed, buildings collapsed and a truck flew into Boston Harbor.

Molasses, the sweetener of the day and a prime ingredient for rum and industrial alcohol, was stored in a massive but shoddily made tank on the waterfront of one of the Boston’s most crowded and impoverished immigrant neighborhoods. Built by the Purity Distilling Company, it apparently leaked so much that its owners painted it brown to mask the drip of molasses, which local residents collected and used in their tenements.

More here.