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Syrian island with a history.

Only a 15 minute boat ride from the bustling Syrian port of Tartous lies the island of Arwad. Although barely more than an outcrop of rock, some 500 people live here, on Syria's only island, making a living from fishing and boat building.

The island has little part to play in Syria's security these days although that was not always the case. Arwad's history, dates back over 3,000 years to when the Phoenicians used it as a secure port for their eastern Mediterranean trading routes. The Romans and then the Crusaders followed their lead, using the island as a staging post to supply their armies on the mainland. The remains of their fortifications can still be seen today.

A number of decaying Beirut-registered freighters lie moored at the harbour mouth. Rusted and pock marked they make an eerie sight. Local youths amuse themselves and others by diving from the bows of these crumbling hulks into the waves below, with a cry of "Yaa Allah" as they somersault through the air.

Apart from the freighters, on first sight the harbour at Arwad looks more Greek than Syrian. Greek designs seem to have influenced the architect responsible for the buildings along the quayside. Colourful awnings shield care tables which overlook the boat moorings, while the harbour itself is full of small motor vessels, painted brilliant white.

Once on land, however, there is no doubt that Arwad is Syrian. Posters of a stern faced President Assad look down from walls in the maze of narrow streets that cover the island. Here, unlike on the mainland, the locals are prepared to talk to strangers about politics but no one ever questions the President's policies. However, visitors to Arwad are treated with great warmth, anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of a European language is glad of the opportunity to exercise linguistic skills.

After the busy streets of Tartous the calm of Arwad with its centuries' old ruins seems like another world.
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Title Annotation:Arwad
Author:Norton, Andre
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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