Arwad: From a Glorious History to a Forgotten Present (Part I)

A journey among the ruins of the only inhabited island in Syria and its fishermen.

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(Photo: The local port of Arwad that receives small fishing boats as well as passenger boats that transport people to the island – Tartus – 8-7-2015 [Ghenwa Yusuf/Good Morning Syria]).

(Tartus, Syria) In Ancient Greek, the city of Tartus was named Antarados after Arados (“anti” means “opposite”), the island facing its shores. What is now known as the island of Arwad was called Arvad in Phoenician and it ruled the coastal region and remained powerful for ages.

Arwad, located three kilometres away from the shore of Tartus, is currently the only inhabited Syrian island. Most of its residents work in fishing and boat building, in addition to occasional touristic services. However, the ongoing situation in Syria has had severe repercussions on the island.

Arwad Port, Tartus (7 am)

It is no large port. A few serried rocks were enough to form a bay where several small and medium sized fishing boats, and some touristic ones, can anchor. This is Arwad’s port.

The blue metallic waiting room is dappled with the people sitting in it. On the rocks across the room, a fisherman just threw his rod into the sea. The fishing boats that left hours before dawn are now returning, loaded with fish and many smiles. Meanwhile, I listened to a group of people talking after they had chosen to sit on empty boxes on the sidewalk rather than inside the waiting room.

As I was standing on the dock waiting for the boat that would take us to az-Zira (which is the local name for the island), I asked a man about the departure time. “There is no specific time. We must wait until one of the fishermen decides to return to Arwad,” he said. He might have sensed my surprise at the time, so he explained: “Because of the war, most of the boats are used for fishing instead of transportation. As you can see, there are no tourists at all. Now, we must wait for an hour or maybe more until a boat becomes available to take us to az-Zira.” The wait shall therefore be longer than I expected.

Indeed, the heat increased and the air felt more humid and also saltier with every blowing wind. The dock became crowded with people.

Someone called, asking us to prepare to leave. We hurried straightaway, jumped onto the boat, and scattered all around it; on the sides, the front, and back. Some were lucky enough to find a seat while the others remained standing. When the boat set sail, the passengers held on to whatever they managed to lay their hands on, a rope or a wheel. After all, it was only a fishing boat.

Arwad Island (9:30 am)

You are greeted by the sight of houses floating on the surface of the water as if they were hanging from the sky. The air is filled with the smell of fish. As soon as you set foot on land, you are caught by all the restaurants and cafés that are empty of all people except for their owners.

I roamed the narrow alleyways of Arwad, wandering around its adjacent houses. As I advanced into it, the houses seemed to become more and more adjoining until there was barely any passage between them. The place is quiet and children are playing freely. There is no room for cars here; after all, you can cross the island on foot in 15 minutes.

You stop at the sight of garbage thrown onto the sidewalk, piled up for several weeks perhaps. In reality, services are not good here and do not match the overpopulation of the island; there are around 10,000 people living in Arwad at the moment on a space of less than 15 hectares. The island has also received a significant number of displaced people from Aleppo.

I resumed my journey in the narrow alleyways and stopped at an enormous steel door among the houses. It is the door of the citadel of Arwad…

(The story continues here).