National Geographic : 1974 Apr
ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT AZZI MAGNUM Damascus, THE GUN TURRET slowly revolved; the cannon barrel came down to point straight at me. I froze behind the wheel of my car. I had driven up the Barada River valley, a few miles northwest of Damascus, and was making an ascent along a narrow gravel road toward An-Nabi Habil, the legendary hilltop Tomb of Abel, Cain's murdered brother. Now here I was smack in the middle of an encamp ment of Syrian troops, deployed around Soviet built antiaircraft guns guarding the approaches to the Syrian capital. With Arab-U. S. relations at an all-time low, was I about to become a tragic victim of mistaken identity? Then the Syrian friend who was with me smiled, and the troops roared with laughter. It was all a good old-soldier-type joke. I waved to the soldiers and we went on. Not long after that incident, Israeli bombs did fall on Damascus. On October 6, 1973, at 1:30 p.m., Syria, in a surprise offensive coordinated with Egypt, sent 850 tanks across the 1967 cease fire line and landed helicopter troops on Mount Hermon. The objective was to regain the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel ever since the six-day war of 1967 (map, page 516). It was not only an attempt to liberate territory rapidly being colonized by Israel, but also to regain karamah, Arab dignity, after previous ignominious defeats. Three days after hostilities started, Israeli planes bombed Damascus. The Arab offensive failed. An Israeli counter attack was halted by strong Syrian resistance at Sasa, 22 miles from Damascus. A United Nations cease-fire silenced the guns, and once again Damascus knew a tense sort of peace. Damascus: The 12th-century traveler Ibn Puzzled gesture parries a hard question for a Damascus first grader in the region where the alphabet was born. The city helped teach the ancient world the A B C's of trade, and learned the X Y Z's of conquest from invading Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and French, who coveted this gate way between East and West. In the recent struggle with Israel, the Syrian capital once again felt the gusts of battle sweeping over the desert toward its green borders.