Lattakia is the city of my birth but to me it is but fragments of memory like an old grainy film with long stretches completely faded. Despite that, Lattakia has always maintained a powerful pull on my consciousness. Certainly, the early imprinted memories of childhood, sanitized as they are by time and distance, play a powerful role in this attraction. But it has more to with the fact that in my many adoptive homelands, I have either felt or was made to feel not quite fully at home: I looked different, did not speak the language, spoke with an accent, was not a citizen or was not native born. No one can dispute my "belonging" in Lattakia. It is where I was born, delivered by my own father in my grandfather's old house. To any doubter I can walk up to that old house and show them the room where my mother suffered through twenty four hours of labor before I had the decency to come into this world. The house, thankfully, has recently been designated a historical landmark, not because I was born there it goes without saying, but for its period architecture. This means that we no longer have to pushback relatives lobbying to raze it to the ground to replace it with a apartment block devoid of character or history.
I always remember Lattakia as being a pleasant, laid back and quiet place especially when we would come back to visit from the chaos that is Beirut. Lattakia's history, at least for the past millennium, has been equally quiet and nondescript although its more ancient history is more illustrious. It started out as the Canaanite port of Ramitha, part of the kingdom of Ugarit (photo of Ugaritic prince, left), the famous city about 10 Km up the coast in Ras Shamra. As Ugarit declined Ramitha gained prominence because of its deep natural harbor. It was renamed Laodicea, shortly after Alexander the Great's conquest, in honor of the mother of Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian officer of Alexander's army and the founder of the Seleucid empire. Laodicea thrived under the Romans and was famous for its wine produced from grapes grown on the slopes east of the city. Herod built an aqueduct and Septimus Severus built colonnaded streets. Its influence declined after the Byzantine period as it was ruled a sucession of empires, a history shared by most of the Levantine coast: Persian, Arab, Crusader, Seljuks, Mamluks and Ottomans. Lattakia was also unfortunately repeatedly devastated by numerous earthquakes in the 5th, 6th, 12th, 13th, 18th and 19th Centuries which explains why so few ancient structures have survived -another reason that my grandfather's house should not be destroyed.
Lattakia's population in most references is listed at about 550,000 although the official Lattakia website lists the population at 900,000. It is famous for its beaches, where I and my brothers had our first taste of the sea. An even more picturesque stretch of the coast is Ras Basit, north of Lattakia where the mountains abutt the seashore. Lattakia was also once famous for its scented tobacco, which is now apparently grown in Cyprus. The city is also within short driving distance from several important medieval castles dotting the Syrian coast and the mountains just to the East. Slunfeh is where the people of Lattakia move in the hot summer months. I still remember the drive up to Slunfeh, the lush green field, Salahedin's castle in the distance and the invigorating cool morning air of the mountains.
Despite the multiple earthquakes that repeatedly destroyed the city, some remnants of its ancient past can still be seen. Perhaps the most famous is the four sided arch built by Septemus Severus (photo top right). Here and there are also remnants of the colonnaded streets, one such column, al-Amoud, stood at the end of the road where we lived. There are also buildings of more recent vintage with ottoman style buildings and a 17th century khan that has been turned into a museum. As with in many Levantine towns, excavations for new buildings continue to reveal, layers of the city's past.
Of course the attraction of the city for me is more personal and sentimental. It is the memory of the kindness of my grandmother and the comfort of the embrace of the extended family. It is where we came back periodically to shed the sense of being strangers; it was and is home.