This is Arbil with his son Mahmoud, and Arbil is the king of his castle.
This imposing fortress is Al-Nejim, on the banks of the Euphrates in Aleppo Province. It was built by the Romans, requisitioned by the Moors, attacked by the Ottomans and then left to fall to ruins.
Mohammed and I visited Al-Nejim on a sticky spring evening in May. We had just returned to Syria to report on what was happening in Aleppo City, and we were staying with Sheikh Omar, the leader of a local Free Syrian Army battalion. The Sheikh, being a generous and fun-loving guy, thought that we might like to see some of what Syria used to be famous for. So we piled into his saloon with his wife and three kids and drove northwards at hair raising speed, arriving at Al-Nejim just before sunset.
Two years ago tourists thronged here and it’s easy to see why. Tucked in a crook of the Euphrates at a point where the river is 3km wide and sparkling clear, the castle is a heart stopping sight as it looms up through the rocky biblical landscape. We had brought drinks and snacks with us and planned to have a picnic at the top, but after we’d parked up we discovered that the castle was locked and deserted. Luckily Arbil, who was watching from his house on the plain at the base of the castle, had seen us scaling the entrance steps. He followed us up with his keys and, swinging open the great wooden doors, invited us on a private tour.
As we entered the cool dank entrance lobby Arbil told us that until 1977 Al-Nejim was deserted and unloved. It’s a sign perhaps of the abundance of antiquities that Syria boasts. In other countries with shallower histories this castle would be a star attraction; in Syria it’s just one relic amongst many. But as he pointed out the ancient central heating system, the fountain and steam rooms and the ornate carved inscriptions above the doorways I couldn’t quite believe that for over a hundred years no-one had bothered to come to Al-Nejim.
Arbil’s father, however, had the foresight to realise that this ruin could be a tourist attraction. He cleaned up the castle, restored the bits that had crumbled to the point of precariousness, and treated the steadily growing trickle of visitors to tours and history lessons. When he died Arbil inherited his keys and he has kept up his father’s work since. Maybe when Arbil dies his son Mahmoud will take over, the third generation in this unique family business.
But times are getting tougher. Arbil told us that until the start of the civil war in Syria he received visitors from all over the world. He isn’t paid to look after Al-Nejim and show people around, but many of them stayed in the guesthouse he owns and he earned a good living from the tourist trade. But for nearly two years he has had no visitors at all. That is why the castle was locked up when we arrived, and why Arbil was so delighted to see us and give us his tour.
From the top of the castle we looked down onto the banks of the Euphrates. An extended Syrian family had gathered for an evening barbeque, and apart from us they were the only people there. It was such a normal and peaceful scene that it seemed ridiculous to think that we were deep in rebel held territory, in the middle of one of the most vicious civil wars in the world today.
Al-Nejim has seen out countless conflicts – sometimes it has sat at the very centre of them – and it will doubtless see out this one too. In a hundred years time the tourist crowds will be back, enjoying this same timeless view and maybe learning about the history of the castle and of Syria from Arbil’s great grandson. But in a perverse way it was a privilege to see the castle like this – deserted and majestic, and unmovable despite the chaos that currently surrounds it.