A Sojourn in Syria
Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
13Trip End Ongoing
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Sitting in a cafe in Doha one fine sunny morning, sipping coffee in the charminly restored souk area, I spied a gallery offering Syrian art. A quick look yielded nothing exciting except a red brochure on SYRIA as a tourist destination. GPJ absorbed its contents and declared..."I'd rather go to Syria than Turkey". I was a bit astounded, planning for our trip to Istanbul and Cappadocia was well advanced. "We could do both" I suggested and got a "hmmm.." in reply. On further probing next day, back in Dubai, Dad affirmed his decision. "Syria, just Syria". So Turkey went on the back-burner and the planning process began again.
Five weeks later we landed in a gentle evening rain, were met and taken to our hotel by Safur, who was to be our driver (and we thought guide) for the next 10 days and found ourselves struggling to keep up with a porter disappearing with our luggage through the throng and traffic of old Damascus streets to the Dar Al Yasmin Hotel A charming restored palace, one of a number now finding a new existence as boutique hotels within the old city, our room was small but comfortable, off a quiet side courtyard with a fountain playing in its centre. A great start.
We'd been in Damascus for 24hrs two years before, staying in the much grander (and more expensive) Talisman Hotel, which was a superb experience in itself. While not as sumptuous as the Talisman, the Dar Al Yasmin shared many of the same features that make these hotels a special experience.
GPJ, my father, is an 85yr old of robust health and mind. During some of our other adventures I’d had him on the back of a tandem bicycle in Yangshuo, China; bouncing round the grasslands of Mongolia for 10 days in a 4WD; cruising the Nile and sights of Egypt; touring Cyprus; safari-ing in Tanzania; and now it was to be Syria. That suited me just fine, I’d wanted to take a serious look at Syria since spending 24hrs in Damascus 2 years ago and now was as good a time as any. While GPJ felt up for adventures of these kinds I was a most willing organiser and travelling companion.
Intrepid travellers on another adventure, this time to explore the glories of Syria. 2 years ago we were in Damascus for a tantalizing 24hrs, staying at the restored Jewish merchants palace that is now the Talisman hotel, and exploring the old city with its souks, mosque and winding old streets. At every turn we were avoiding ditches and diggers as ‘restoration’ of the ancient city centre was underway. I had been assured this part of the city’s history was behind it, so we were expecting a rather more civilised wander this time round.
Met at the airprot by our guide/driver Safur, we engaged in a very sedate drive into the city, deposited by the Touma (East) gate around 10pm. A hotel bellboy was waiting for us with a trolley for our luggage and set off at a cracking pace through a small cobbled street being shared by all manner of people and cars - we scampered along behind trying to keep up and remember our way for our rendezvous with Safur next morning. Luckily there were only a couple of twists and turns and we were at the door of the Dar al Yasmin hotel.
The room was very warm, perhaps a little too so, and we were kept awake by the clattering of heels, talking on a mobile, door knocking, door opening and closing…and luckily nothing else as I didn’t really want to think about what all those related sounds might mean. We had a somewhat restless night and I woke at 5am with daylight peeping through the lace curtains and my body sure it was really 7am, which it was in Dubai.
We dropped briefly into Sala Haddin’s tomb next door, definitely no photos. The main item of interest here seems to be a beautiful inlaid marble sarcophagus, empty, donated by the German government…I think his body must have been in the green damask-draped one beside it but this didn’t get a mention.
Next stop was the Azem Palace close by - something we’d missed last time - and what a gem. Like so many of the old buildings here it is built from alternating bands of black basalt, golden marble and limestone, mellowed into an attractive stripe. The addition of the golden marble to the mix denotes serious expenditure of money – most often the buildings are black and white, and if the golden hue is introduced it is painted on. Not only were the walls of the building magnificent but this colour scheme carried through in the paving of the courtyards and rooms - all of marble. It was built in 1749 by the Governor of Damascus in the style of the time, with areas for men to meet and conduct business, and a large courtyard and rooms for the women, away from their prying eyes. Many of the rooms had fountains in them, with magnificent painted ceilings and ornate furniture. Particularly enchanting were the groups of very young schoolgirls, decked out in colourful clothes, following their teachers around in a long line of clasped hands. Lovely age, all doing exactly as they were told with wide-eyed devotion.
We paused to relieve our tired feet at the famous Al Nawfara Coffee Shop at the bottom of a steep fligt of steps below the mosque. Full of locals and tourists alike, drinking coffee or mint tea and smoking nargileh, or shisha as we know it. Even I didn’t whinge about the smoking - it was their coffee shop, we were outside and it somehow seemed right.
GPJ and I were sent off for a wander through the Hamediah Souq where I became fascinated with photographing the displays of headscarves on rows of pretty heads. I love this souq where the locals come to shop for all manner of things. We didn’t venture far, it’s an absolute maze and so easy to get lost and we felt we didn’t really have the time to lose ourselves and find ourselves again on this occasion. We’d rather save that up for our return in 9 days time when we’d have the whole day to wander aimlessly at will on our own.
Safur was waiting happily in the sun for us, chatting to all his other ‘guide’ mates and waving happily before heading off with us following faithfully behind like puppies. We returned to the car and did a drive by photo-ing of St Pauls - hardly even got out of the car…on our way to the National Museum where once again tickets were purchased, handed to us and we were told he would meet us in the coffee shop in about an hour. It was all we needed, the museum has some interesting things in it but almost all the interpretive signs were in French and Arabic, and often too small to read easily. GPJ was almost expiring by now but we headed across the road to a very interesting old black and white-striped mosque, Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya built in 1554. But this turned out to be incidental to the handicraft market in the matching madrassa next door and an obligatory silk scarf was purchased. Delightfully no-one has ‘renovated’ the courtyard housing these shops and the paving rises up and down like a stormy sea.
It was time for lunch and we were given the option of dining at a 5 star restaurant at the top of the hill where we were to head for a view, or at a local place of more reasonable price. Not so much for the money but for the experience I opted for the local place, which was perhaps a bad call. I was like a pig in mud chowing down on Fattoush, moutabal, kebbe and local bread, but Geeps really struggled on his cheese fattaya (tasteless) and onion soup when it finally arrived (worse than tasteless was the verdict as the contents of the salt shaker were tossed in). Poor Geeps was never one for ‘foreign kicksaws’ and this introduction to Syrian food did not bode well for the next 10 days.
We were both a bit annoyed and rather disappointed that our guide/driver was more of a driver than a guide, but what to do, we would be a team for the next 10 days and so decided to make the most of it.
We headed up Jebel Qassioun for our promised view out over Damascus and it didn’t disappoint. High enough to get a good overview of the city which fill most all of the large plain, we could see the Golan Heights in the distance, and the highway heading to Beirut 125kms away. The city looked like a heap of kids building blocks from up there - uniformly grey squares of concrete. Along the edge of the ridge clung a few small café/restaurants, each with a few tables and chairs with groups of young people seated in the sun enjoying plates of fresh green almonds. Further on, retired tractor tyres had been set into the earth to provide comfortable seating, along what Safur smilingly called ‘lovers road’.
Back to the hotel for a bit of a rest, read and dinner - this part of the world sleeps all afternoon and parties all night so food was not available until 8.45pm - but joy of joys omelette was on the menu so Geeps went to bed a happy man.
Seidnaya, Ma'aloula and Palmyra
We narrowly avoided having our bags loaded into the wrong vehicle back at Bab Touma next morning, so keen was our kindly luggage porter to be rid of us. We set out for Palmyra driving through a city that seemed barely awake despite it being 9am - shops were shuttered and traffic very light - the only activity seemed to centre round the occasional fresh carcass hanging in the street, hot bread piling up beside its oven and vegetable sellers with a few offerings on newspaper set on the ground - life doesn’t get going before the third or fourth cup of coffee.
The road was fine and around a half hour later we climbed up a hill through the village of Senaya, full of half-constructed mansions - or were they small blocks of flats? Whichever, it seemed the village was still under construction for some reason - maybe they’d all gone broke in the GFC, maybe it was something to do with a weird tax regime - Safur was a font of no knowledge.
We were deposited at the top of the hill below some steps leading up to a church. We ambled past a group being told something interesting by their tour guide, about little pieces of white string tied to the shiny new balustrade, and began wandering aimlessly about. This was actually a convent and church dating back to 500-and-something, and having peeped at black habits hanging on a balcony washing line, we retreated to a small church from which a loud female chanting was being broadcast, sounding awfully like a female version of the Muslim call to prayer. A scowling nun in a black woolly hat pushed past us as we hesitated outside the vast bronze doors, beckoning us in with irritation so we went timidly in. The inside was painted baby blue and hung with a forest of bright chandeliers. A group of nuns chanted into a microphone, others sitting in the pews in small groups and there were a number of ‘civilians’ dotted around. We hung about for a few minutes then made our escape by a side door.
We were back at our van in no time, much to the surprise of Safur who exclaimed we had been very quick. Hmmnn. He waved goodbye to his mates, crushed out his half-finished ciggie and off we went, next stop Ma’aloula, billed to have another old convent. We weren’t all that excited, although I was picturing the ‘periwinkle blue painted village appearing from behind the mountains’ in our travel notes with some excitement, camera ready.
Mistake. A small village stuffed into a large crevice between two hills and, if you looked closely, the odd pale blue-painted house, quite a few churches and crosses, and religious statues on the cliff tops ala Rio. At the top of the ridge we stopped at a new stone building proclaiming to be the Counent of Sergio and someone – we presumed they meant Convent. This time Safur took us inside and deposited us with a young girl who was to tell us all about everything…he wasn’t taking any chances on us getting away early this time.
She was sweet. We were inside a tiny church which she explained was one of the oldest in the world, having been built on the site of a Temple to Jupiter sometime between 319 and 325 AD.
“You can tell it’s been built on the site of a Temple to Jupiter,” she said, “because if you look there, you’ll see the bottom half of the walls have been hewn from the rock of the mountain and up there is a Corinthian column.” It was true.
“And there are two things that prove when it was built. The first is the wooden beams in the construction, imbedded in the walls to help the building withstand earthquakes. The timber was carbon 14 dated in Germany as 2000 year old cypress from Lebanon.”
“Wow” we said.
“The other is the shape of the altar” as she walked us to the front. “It is semi-circular like a pagan altar, with raised sides to contain the blood of the sacrificed animals. It was decreed in 325 that Christian altars could only be rectangular and flat on top.” Impressive evidence we thought. And such a well preserved and polished 2000 year old altar it was.
Safur was found in the coffee shop, where we assured him he should stay and finish his coffee, ciggie and chat, while we waited in what had become a very chilly wind. He appeared five minutes later and took us down the other side of the ridge, pointed at a rocky path heading back under the road and told us he would meet us at the other end. We didn’t know quite what to expect but dutifully set off. It turned out to be a mini-mini version of the walk through the Petra Suq – a narrow water-carved canyon through the rock, with a few rudimentary tomb caves. You just never know what you’ll find.
Back at the van we waited for Safur to appear. Next stop Palmyra. Initially we travelled through a fertile patch of low hills covered in canola and white flowers amid sparse olive groves and orchards - Safur informed us there were to be no photos here as it was a military area - hadn’t they heard of google earth, Geeps postulated.
GPJ was in his element, map in hand, making sure the driver was going the right way, which luckily he was. We were heading not only to Palmyra, but, according to the road signs, we could also end up in Baghdad. Eventually the paths diverged and we headed towards our destination while the border with Iraq was signposted as 232 kms to the east. Made me ponder just how different things are across that border. Strange feeling.
I was also pondering the rather different trip to Palmyra I’d recently read about, undertaken in 1812 by Lady Hester Stanhope and her large caravan of camels, horses and, of course, attendants of various sorts including her English doctor. She’d had to befriend, and grease the palms of, the tribal Bedouin leaders along the way to ensure safe passage - we had to avoid the trucks and other drivers for the 200kms in a comfy vehicle travelling at 100kms per hr. Which we did quite happily. For all the non-guiding Safur was doing he was making up for it in his steady and sensible driving.
About half way between Damascus and Palmyra on the stony desert plain dotted with the occasional Bedouin encampment and barren hills, we pulled into Baghdad Café 66! Well if you can’t have the real thing I thought. This was a kitschy but fun roadside rest stop - a hut or two with very clean toilets - with signs and a coin box requesting 25 pounds – Syrian, not English luckily (around 50 cents). Inside was a trinketarium but a welcome break and we had a coffee, bought a trinket and then chatted with a Swiss gentleman - Hans - who’s well-travelled motorbike we’d admired outside. Hans was on a motorbike ride around the world www.motorbikeworldtour.com - he’d been on the road for 1.5 years so far and was heading to Australia and NZ, via Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and, hopefully, Myanmar. It will be interesting to follow his progress on his and I must send the photo of him and GPJ by his bike - taken in a sandstorm splattered with rain that blew in just as we were leaving the cafe.
On arriving at Palmyra we stopped at the Palmyra Gate restaurant on the outskirts - “my friend” said Safur. Buffet, we ate little, expensive.
Then to the Temple of Ba’al - a massive Roman/Hellenistic ruin of golden limestone. Safur bought our tickets and suggested we pay his friend to be our guide…I asked pointedly “you’re not coming with us?” “No.” We resisted at first but the friend persisted and we gave in. He did have interesting stuff to tell us but I was fighting annoyance the whole way, framing my feedback to the travel company. We eventually agreed that the friend would also show us round the rest of the Palmyra ruins - a good deal for the two, or so he told us. There was some confusion as we thought the next morning would be good, Safur and his friend thought that afternoon - it was already 4pm. We agreed on the morning - I was sure we could manage it despite their reticence.
We went to the hotel, unpacked and were off again at 5pm to drive to an imposing castle, built by Muslims on a steep hill overlooking the Palmyra ruins, for a sunset view. Us and the 11 tour buses. It was blowing a gale, freezing cold, but a great view as the sun bathed the golden ruins in golden light with the last of its rays.
Back to our hotel - the Dedeman. Billed as a five star, it couldn’t have been more different to the last two nights in the atmospheric old mansion. Very comfortable, good bathroom, no character and everything expensive. There was only buffet available for dinner - very poor selection of food and expensive. Buffets are designed to make money out of people like GPJ and me - small eaters at the best of times but particularly at dinner. In bed by 8.45pm…getting in lots of reading.
Woken by an un-asked for wake-up call at 6am we were ready for breakfast at 7 and on the road at 8.30. Luckily I noticed and managed to intercept the bell-boy loading my suitcase onto a random coach laden with Japanese. That would have been fun!
Clear, sunny but still cold, our first stop was a tower tomb. We were offered the services of a guide but declined and hooked onto small group for a bit. These unusual tombs near the Palmyra old city site are 3-level rectangular towers used for burial which dot the area. One is open for tourists. In each level are niches set into the walls, just wider than a coffin. The coffins were slid in on a series of shelves, one on top of the other, five or six high. A highly decorated ceiling on the lower level and some defaced busts at one end were glimpses of what they would have been. There were a couple of sculptures on the upper levels but no signs of any coffins or bodies. All the busts and sculptures seem to have been of women but I cannot illuminate you as to why.
We moved a little further away from the old city, just managing to beat the first of the tourist buses, to visit the underground Tomb of the Three Brothers. Again - no details other than to describe it as a T-shaped tomb, with each rectangle containing niches with space for up to six coffins. The trunk of the T seems to have been for the family and the painted decoration in that section was in very good nick. The other two areas were sold as burial plots to the rich and famous - one area had a whole series of de-faced busts - heads/faces hacked away, reminiscent of the buddhas in western China de-faced by the Muslims long ago (graven images). However, I overheard a guide telling an English couple that when the French discovered this tomb they did a deal that they would be able to take 50% of the goodies and the roughly hacked off faces was the 50% they took - not quite sure what shower those Poms came down in but it was possibly the last one.
We had agreed to meet with Najeb, our guide of the afternoon before, to throw more money in his direction in return for a little enlightenment during a tour of the old city of Palmyra - basically a Greek ruin with some overlaid Roman elements. Like the Temple of Ba’al it was built from the same golden limestone. Significant sections of it remain, in particular a charming Greek theatre, totally buried under the sand until quite recently. Amazingly you can access this site from all directions, there are no fences and no ticket collectors until you get to the theatre. Unlike Roman cities that have dead straight colonnaded streets, the one here pivots through 30 degrees at one point, cleverly disguised by the use of double arches, and again later through 10 degrees, this time disguised by an impressive raised platform. Thanks to Najeb we were able to appreciate all the finer points of the jumble of columns and broken blocks, including the public double toilets, to be found every 40 metres along the road, Queen Zenobias baths, and the site of the customs hall where the Silk Road caravans were taxed and the market place where they sold their goods. Palmyra was a major stopping point on the Silk Road from China to Europe and from Yemen in the south. The roads between the columns were left un-paved as camels cannot negotiate paving.
Crac de Chevallier
By 10.15am we were on the road to Homs and a 2.5 hour drive to Crac de Chevallier, a crusade castle. The country changed gradually from the barren, stony, sandy desert to patches of sparse green wheat crops with dustings of Bedouin camps, and finally to lush olive, fruit and vegetable plantings. By the time we reached Crac de Chevallier it was all so green it hurt your eyes.
Crac de Chevallier is one of the impressive Crusader era castles in this region, situated like all good castles on top of a very high hill commanding views of the countryside in all directions. And like all good castles it has seen plenty of action over the years, usually involving lengthy sieges some won, some lost. We lunched on mezze and chicken, GPJ’s nutritional status saved by a banana. Then we tackled the castle, guideless. Reminiscent of similar castles we’d visited in Jordan but no less impressive for that. GPJ excelled himself, making it all the way up to the highest ramparts.
We were in our hotel - a rather kitschy and extraordinary version of a ‘castle’ but with a grand view of the real one - by 3.30pm. Our room was huge - a cave-like bathroom separating the bedroom area from a living room, two televisions (both without anything to watch), two bar fridges (one with bar stuff in it) and a decent balcony. Although it was too cold to spend time on the balcony it did afford a good view of the castle as daylight faded away. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the castle wasn’t lit at night.
I killed time downloading and organising photos - my mini lap top coming into its own - it’s so good to do the photos as I go rather than tackle 2,000 of them when I get home. I even did the Palmyra lot in the car on the way. Love it. Emails are not so easy on the mini - almost no screen room by the time all the yahoo gumf covers most of it, but there was wifi in the foyer this morning so I managed to check them briefly.
And so to dinner. Well, the good news was that it was al la carte…or off the menu, as they told me. The rest was a bit of a challenge. Freezing cold dining room decked out like an old castle - well they got the temperature about right. GPJ and I were the only diners, although by the size of it they were expecting several coach loads or more any minute. Or perhaps they’d already been and gone as the Greek salad I ordered was ‘no more’. Geeps ordered a BBQ cheese sandwich, which I tried to warn him was going to be like the first one he’d had a couple of days back, and it was - tasteless. “Why do they make tasteless cheese?” he wanted to know. What could I say? “Because they do, they like it.” I knew I was in trouble when I saw one of the waiters run in carrying a box of Almaza beer - pretty good beer from Lebanon - but they were caught short by my order and it wasn‘t nearly as cold as the room. All very entertaining, a sensible price, and cold beer was waiting in the bar fridge back in room 203.
Not long before leaving for Syria GPJ and I attended a couple of Literary Festival talks, one of which was John Simpson, the intrepid 65 year old BBC reporter who is always donning a flak jacket and reporting from the latest war-torn hot-spot. He’d arrived into Dubai that day from Baghdad where he’d been covering the Iraqi election. An interesting speaker. The other one was ‘A conversation with Alexander McCall-Smith’, the author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series among many other books. He was the most entertaining person imaginable. I’d loved the film by the same title and was now hooked, so I’d come away with the first 4 books in the series. - three more books than I would normally take anywhere. By day three I’d finished the first and was into the second book - Tears of the Giraffe. Geeps had a stash of his own but I felt the pressure to at least finish the first one so I’d be ready when he turned his sights in Alexander’s direction. They’re a great read.
Amrit,Tartous, Al Marqab Castle, Ugarit, Lattakia
Saturday 20th March - thirty fourth wedding anniversary…no idea how many anniversaries we’ve spent apart but this certainly isn’t the first one. A leisurely start to the day with a 9am pick-up preceded by an unsurprisingly ordinary breakfast, saved by a boiled egg. GPJ soldiered on, painstakingly adding butter and apricot jam to small pieces of Lebanese bread…
The first twenty minutes of the drive before we joined the highway to Lattakia was on a small rural road through hilly farmland of olive groves, with cherry trees in blossom dotted about the hills like fairy floss. Off in the distance loomed snow-covered mountains over the border in Lebanon and in the foreground a deep turquoise lake - the local water supply.
Around an hour later we came to the coast and arrived at Amrit and some Phoenician ruins, the details of which were elusive but seemed to be a temple and some tombs - we were the only tourists and even the ticket collector hadn’t bothered to turn up. Next stop was Tartous, a rather tacky coastal town with a beautiful old Byzantine Cathedral, now housing a museum of local artefacts. The LPG was quite derogatory about the exhibits but we found them to be interesting, well displayed and well lit - perhaps they’d read the guide and sorted it before we got there. The building was simply lit inside and very beautiful. Enhancing the experience was a gentleman, possibly Italian, who stood by one of the columns and played a recorder-type instrument, and later sang - hauntingly appropriate in the setting and the acoustics perfect.
On up the coast around 30kms and we came to the Maqab Castle - another crusader castle, not very big and with rather garish white cement renovation, but in a fantastic location with sweeping views up and down the coast from its lofty perch. It was said that the castle had a water supply of five months and food for five years if under seige…it was not clear for how many souls however. A young man, disappointed we did not speak French, took us on a bit of an impromptu tour anyway, with the inevitable hand out at the end, but I was happy to pay him 200 squirrels as he’d shown me the latrines in the bosses boudoir.
At Safur’s suggestion we pressed on to Ugarit, close to our evening’s hotel but on the itinerary for the next morning. He was keen our lunch experience would be better and rang ahead to organise fish-for-one for us to share. It was delicious and sensibly priced and GPJ seemed to enjoy it - he was even spotted having several goes at the hummus…but I won’t tell if you don’t.
After lunch we wandered the ruins of Ugarit, a hill town from around 1300 - 1200 BC. A few signs helped us figure the layout and it was a lovely warm sunny afternoon for a wander around such an ancient place, imagining the people living there all that time ago. The ruins were punctuated by bright red poppies and yellow daisies.
The Cote d’Azur Hotel in Lattakia was just down the road and we were there by 3.30pm. Our room very spacious, with a balcony and view over the beach to the water. Some very good chicken soup delivered to our room solved the buffet-only dinner problem.
No response to my SMS’s from Kym and no anniversary phone call so he must be busy planning a great surprise for my arrival home - either that or the golf went on for a while.
Woken at 5.30am next morning by Kym’s SMS wishing me a happy anniversary, I grabbed the phone and dived under the covers, trying not to wake GPJ. “5.30am, talk later” I texted back - why does the phone beep so loudly at each key-stroke when you’re trying not to wake someone? Kym called me around 8.30am after we’d breakfasted and it was nice to have a quick chat and know that all was well at home with him, girls, Matt and dogs.
Saladdin Castle, Apamea
We set off at 9am first taking a drive along the Lattakia corniche - a massive port, no ‘people space’ and the only thing of interest was a Naval dockyard with some rather old-looking patrol boats in it. After a bit of confusion about the roads we should take (Safur even stopped to ask!) we were headed towards Aleppo and AFC - Saladin’s Castle this time.
Although named for Saladin it was originally a Byzantine fortress, then the Hospitallers (French Crusaders) then won by the Muslims and later used by the Ottomans. This story is common to the castles in the Levantine and each encompass building projects from the various eras. Perched along a narrow, forested ridge, it was easy to see why it was a secure place for a castle, very difficult for attackers to capture it other than by siege. But also difficult to understand the ‘why’ of the place - what exactly were they protecting/controlling? I enjoyed this castle, it was smaller and felt more accessible than the more famous ones, and more intact in many parts. The enormous water reservoir and food storage areas, along with the knight’s halls, a palace, baths and a mosque were all easily distinguishable.
Leaving the castle behind us we climbed a high mountain and were presented with magnificent views of the Ghan valley, a broad bright green valley far below, criss-crossed by roads and water channels, obviously fertile country even from up here. Unfortunately it was a bit early for lunch at a nice-looking restaurant overlooking the view. We descended the mountain into the greenest valley and passed through small villages and open farming country with well advanced wheat crops. Shame about the ubiquitous plastic bags clinging to every fence and tree, and littering the pretty picnic areas sitting beside streams. There was not much activity anywhere as it was a holiday - Eid Al Umm - Mother’s Day. In fact the only activity I could see, were the mothers preparing the lavish celebrations…how strangely familiar.
On the way to the ancient city ruins of Apamea we passed a small village, contained within the walls of a medi-evil castle perched on a hill-top - I’d have loved to have taken a walk through there but maybe next time…
We were dropped at one end of the 2km Hellenistic road with pillars remaining on only one side and a jumble of pieces of columns, capitals and stone blocks all around. The massive paving slabs of the street were difficult to negotiate but more annoying were the young boys trying to flog postcards and tickets. Safur had warned us not to pay any money, he’d meet us at the other end with the tickets. With almost no interpretive signs, and no map or information available, it was a slightly disappointing experience. Apamea would certainly rival Palmyra for size we thought, but not as much of it is standing as, apart from each new conqueror (Roman, Persian, Muslim) whopping it through the centuries it was almost completely flattened by an earthquake in 1157. It had once had a population of 500,000 people. The small boys soon gave up on us and it was a pleasant walk along the paved way, with columns here and there amid the wheat fields and we had fun trying to figure out if we were looking at the baths, the Nymphaeum or a temple.
As we approached the end we were disappointed not to have found the amphitheatre, which is meant to be worth a look - however it seemed to be lost amongst the wheat fields - we asked Safur…”don’t know” was his inevitable reply. We gave up. I bought a couple of manoushi, a sort of Arabic pizza, cooked by a couple of women in an earthen oven, and a bottle of beer to have in the car, Geeps had a banana and some Ritz bickies. So…a bit of a disappointing experience.
We drove through an area of freshly ploughed, fertile burgundy soil, contrasting spectacularly with the interspersed and well advanced vivid green wheat crops. As we passed through a small town called Sheizan, Safur pointed out a large wooden water wheel by the road - the first of which the town of Hama we were heading to is famous. Water wheels have been in use for over a thousand years, lifting water up out of the river and into irrigation systems. On arrival in Hama itself we looked at several more of various sizes, some with the remnants of stone aqueducts attached, but sadly they were not turning (and hence making the gentle groaning sound of wood on wood which I’d read about) as the river was a slimy green sludge, several metres below the level of the wheels.
Safur drove us down a tiny dead end street to where the Azem Palace is located - the baby brother of the one in Damascus, built by the same guy before he moved to Damascus and - unfortunately both this and the National Museum were closed at 3pm.
Checking into our hotel, the Apamea Cham (pronounced sham… ) Palace hotel, a supposed 5 star, we couldn’t help feeling it lived up to its name…sham that is, not palace. But we did manage to order a reasonable meal - smoked salmon for Geeps and Salad Nicoise for me, delivered just like in the movies on a rolling white-robed table - the beds had to be moved to let it in, and I had to sit on one to eat. Breakfast was a monumental disappointment however - I’m not sure how you get the yoghurt to taste like the burnt remnants of a campfire but they’d managed it, along with truly awful coffee and stale croissants - it was ever thus with state-run enterprises.
Ma'aret Al Numan, Serjillah, Ebla
We happily left the sham palace behind us and headed through broad flat farming land growing wheat, olives and pistachios. Our first stop for the day was Ma’aret Al Numan - we had no idea what this was going to be, nothing in the notes other than the name, so we were quite blown away when we stopped in a small, traditional town, entered an old caravanserai and discovered an absolute treasure trove of 3rd - 6th century mosaics.
Stunning not only in number but in detail, colour, preservation and completeness. We were blown away. The caravanserai (place where trading caravans used to rest on their endless journeys along the many silk road routes) consisted of a large courtyard containing a graceful mosque and arches leading from colonnaded terraces on each of the four sides into large rooms behind. Every inch of the place seemed to be covered in mosaics. Well lit and displayed inside the rooms, with others lining the walls and floors of the colonnaded verandahs. We bumped into an English woman travelling alone who was equally surprised, and equally annoyed at the ‘no photos’ inside rule. Geeps and I have seen many mosaics in the region but nothing like this, it must be the richest display on earth. An unexpected highlight.
We tugged ourselves away and travelled down a quiet road through rocky country with sheep herds, their shepherds, and sparse agriculture to Serjillah, one of 700 so-called ’Dead Cities’ in the north of Syria. Dating mainly from the 2nd to 6th centuries AD it was completely abandoned by the 10th century. There is so much remaining of this town that it is easy to imagine the lives of the people who abandoned it due to over-population, plague and drought all that time ago. It was a real highlight, so much more real and accessible than the monuments of Palmyra and Apamea, magnificent as they are. This town was once wealthy from producing more wine and olive oil than they could consume. How they managed to eek that out of this overly-stony land is a mystery to me, but others, who’s lives are not all that different today, are trying still.
I found the village fascinating, with its tombs, church, wine and oil press, water cisterns and public baths. The design of the houses, built from enormous limestone blocks and with many of the decorative facades still intact, differ from our own today only in the number of bathrooms - they all used the public baths.
Down the road was Al Bara - remnants of an even larger ‘Dead City’ - fragments of buildings and arches amongst freshly ploughed olive groves, no buildings remained as intact as in Serjillah and in a way GPJ’s rather depressing comment “seen one seen ‘em all” was true. However, for me there was nothing ‘dead’ about these places. Along the road a farmer had stopped his tractor and was beside it praying, facing mecca, on his knees in his field.
Taking up most of a cul-de-sac and car park was a group of German and Austrian ‘grey nomads’ in their campervans - around 20 - 25 of them. They were on their way to Jordan before heading back to Germany and I envied them momentarily, being a fan of campervanning…must be awesome to try and keep that group together though. Safur peeled and shared a large polmelo with us as GPJ had a ‘chat’ with a group of local teenage boys pressing around him. It was a warm sunny day with skies as big and blue as you will ever see. A nice moment.
From 6th century AD we jumped back to 4,000 BC and the ruins of the city of Ebla. Not much remains here, but enough to get an idea, plus some later additions by the Greeks and Byzantines. A friendly Syrian caretaker showed me around, jumping down into the out-of-bounds areas and explaining to me in Italian and a couple of English words what was what and what the Italian archaeologist had found, said, done. Interesting, but difficult to access a sense of life.
An uninteresting rural drive led us to Aleppo amid great expectation. Before we moved to Dubai, during our 6 months in Melbourne, we’d been taught some Arabic by a wonderful lady, Fiona, who had since become a friend during several visits to Dubai. Among other incredible things she’s done, she has an ‘adopted’ Syrian family in a village somewhere near Aleppo - so the sound of the word had, for the last 3 years, conjured thoughts of Fiona in me. I’d been thinking about her often during our week in Syria, but now she was front of mind and I was hoping there would be email at our hotel so I could let her know where I was right now.
In the distance, as we wove our way through the city, the Citadel, dominating all below it from its perch on a high hill, its slopes glowing with yellow canola flowers awaited our visit. It is an awesome place and I reflected just how much this country has within.
We left the citadel to the sound of the 4pm whistles informing the almost exclusively local visitors it was about to close and drove to our hotel, within the world heritage old city. We were met outside the city wall, near the Kennesrin Gate, by a man from the hotel with a trolley for our luggage, and walked through one of many imposing entrances, a short way down a cobbled street, through a narrow, stone-lined, arched passage to a door. We were met by Aida - a young Syrian woman with impeccable English offering us freshly squeezed orange juice.
I had somehow missed the fact that our accommodation in Aleppo was to be in a beautifully restored Ottoman palace of nine suites - ours the Vizers. There is no way I can describe this adequately, you will have to look at the photos which do it no real justice either. Suffice to say it was the best hotel I have stayed in anywhere - totally me. Bought by two couples, one French and one Swiss around 7 years ago, painstakingly and authentically restored for them to live in, it had recently been sold to a Syrian boutique hotel chain. Marble floors and walls with wide sills and wooden shutters, a huge marble bath, twin hand basins and mod cons like wardrobe, shelving, TV , bar fridge and safe concealed by matching wooden shutters along the wall. Wifi (free) in the room an added bonus and people on the end of the phone to organise your every whim.
We had a light meal in the dining room, including a Lebanese red wine, and breakfast was full of Aleppo specialities. A banana and egg to kept GPJ alive. Safur collected us at 9am and left us to walk our way through the souks and visit the Umayaad Mosque (baby brother to the one in Damascus) - both of which were shut. The mosque was locked so we wandered the mostly closed souks, the only action from some selling foods - breakfast pastries, nuts, breads and a few butchers. Gradually more shops opened- clothing, kitchen things and a few tourist places selling trinkets.
We allowed ourselves to be enticed up a set of old stone stairs to a trinketarium - “antiques and silk” - by a friendly young man who’d stopped to help me buy a wooden rolling pin (as you would). It was his uncle’s shop and sold some nice things. We were given tea and GPJ watched some soccer on their TV while I browsed. We bartered back and forth for a pair of earrings, then a silver necklace and silk scarf took my fancy, and we began to talk price. His rather charming and good-looking uncle arrived at this time and took over the negotiations which we finally concluded over another cup of tea.
He invited me to have ‘small dinner’ that evening but I declined, explaining my father needed to go to bed early…”your father, I thought he was your husband”…’haha’…don’t ask me how that works…and off we went. The nephew thoughtfully took us back down into the souk and then warned us about young men who might come up and ask us where we were from and if we’d like to look in their shop…just like he’d done…and he was right, there were three by the time we reached the car. It was ever thus.
St Simon Monastery
AFR…Another xxxx Ruin. On our program was a visit to Saint Simon monastery and basillica so we almost dutifully set off around 11am for the 45 minute drive. We weren’t all that enthusiastic but the site was impressive. Apparently Saint Simon was an ascetic in the 4th century AD who seems to have spent 42 years on the top of a 20m stone column…sounds crazy to me but apparently was a saint-worthy act. After his death the hill became a place of pilgrimage and a huge church was built around the stone column, plus accommodation and water supply for the pilgrims. The remains of the church were worth seeing, the stone column only a shadow of its former self but still sitting there. It’s still popular with pilgrims, judging by the group who took themselves off, bibles in hand, to sit within the church ruins for some quiet time together.
Back in Aleppo we headed out of the hotel into the old city in search of some lunch. Not far from our hotel we came across the ornate entrance to an old building and poked our noses in. Lucky we did - a fascinating old hospital with explanatory signs and some busts and life histories of Muslim philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians. Well worth a look and free to boot.
We wandered on a little further and by my reckoning we were closing in on the souks again, but GPJ’d had enough and we headed back to the hotel where they organised us shish taouk…Geeps tried it but luckily we had a few ritz and some processed cheese as back-up. We spent the afternoon reading/computering and snacking on fruit , bickies and cheese.
Another Syrian breakfast had Geeps eyebrows off the scale. Amid much sighing and shaking of his head he tackled a banana, peeled soft boiled egg with toast so hard it shattered at the sight of the knife and delicious fresh squeezed blood orange juice to fortify us on our 350km drive back to Damascus - but first the Aleppo National Museum. An interesting diversion, housing some of the clay tables found in the archive in Ebla…can’t quite remember how old but old. We were a bit museum’d out by now.
The drive was uneventful and pretty dull through farming country until just before Damascus where it became drier and more desert-like. It took us 4 hrs, and after an hour Safur asked if we wanted to stop for “toilette or drink.” “No.” we replied. What we didn’t know was that was the only opportunity we’d get…after 3 hrs Safur pulled into a roadside kiosk “sorry, must have coffee” he told us. “No probs” we replied as he lit a ciggie.
Back in Damascus, into the old city through the now-familiar Bab Touma gate we negotiated the impossibly narrow streets with difficulty but no scrapes and were deposited at our hotel, this time the Beit Zaman on Straight Street, not far from Bab Sharqi. Another renovated old palace around a courtyard, our room was small, but with a nice bathroom and we were happy. We went for a walk and got thoroughly lost, finally finding ourselves and a long way home. Almost back at the hotel we stopped at a shop that caught my eye, bought a few things and then were ’picked up’ by a friendly Syrian gentleman. To cut a long story short he led us through some winding back lanes, my anxiety levels rising as I followed GPJ trotting happily along behind him. We both thought he had said we were going to a glassblowing place, but it turned out to be another old palace, un-renovated, the Dahdah Palace near the Talisman Hotel, our hotel of 2 years before.
A friendly lady let us in after the doorbell was rung on the anonymous door and explained how the place was in all the guide books and we were very welcome. We bought a couple of scarves, chatted and laughed and finally got let out again, this time directed on a much more direct route back to Sraight Street and our hotel, no harm done.
We read for a bit and then wandered back up the street to the Al Naranj restaurant, where we happily ate deep fried brains and a fattoush salad, plus a bottle of red, the remains of which I carried back to the hotel for the next evening.
Our hotel room was overly warm but had an aircon that kept it comfortable and we had a pretty good sleep. Forming part of the courtyard, the room was vulnerable to activity and although I heard the staff setting the tables in the courtyard for breakfast around 3am they were remarkably quiet at it. Breakfast was very pleasant and the courtyard filled with fellow diners had a relaxed and happy atmosphere. It was cloudy and a bit cooler but the weather continued to be good.
Safur was outside at 9am to take us south 1hr 45mins towards the Jordanian border and AFR at Bosra. The ruins here are of black basalt and the only part we found interesting was the free-standing amphitheatre, built to seat 15,000 people, and later enclosed by battlements to form a citadel. Really quite impressive. After a coffee we headed back to Damascus via several towns with old Roman remains, in one of which, Shahba, we stopped briefly to see some excellent mosaics.
On return to our hotel we wandered back into the souqs, this time with a better idea where we were going, and also purposely called in again to the Dahdah palace for more scarves. To complete the evening we headed back to the same restaurant for dinner …when you’re on a good thing with GPJ’s meals it is best to stick to it!
Woken at 11.45pm by what I thought was GPJ having a nightmare I quickly realised it was something much more serious than anything a dream could produce. My Dad was having a fit, or seizure. The really scary question was why - was this a stroke-induced fit, or other brain episode, or what? The fit subsided fairly quickly with no more damage than a bitten tongue but he remained unresponsive for 15 mins, and then confused briefly before falling asleep. I got to the phone and called reception for a doctor, and in almost half an hour the charming Dr Noor arrived, buy which time Dad was lucid and surprised by what was going on, and why I’d woken him in the middle of the night - at least the blood on his pillow was proof it wasn’t a whim on my part. It transpired that he’d had a similar problem many years ago and the medication he’d been taking every since had recently been recently stopped. I wished I’d known that. The hotel staff went out in a taxi to get the medicine and Dad was settled again by 2am.
He was fine in the morning, a little sore in the mouth and muscles and quite subdued and flat but otherwise OK. We shelved plans for a return visit to the museum and had a stroll through the almost deserted streets of the old city. It was Friday morning, holy day. The hotel allowed us to stay in our room until 2pm and we were able to sit around in the courtyard, reading, until our airport pick-up scheduled for 6.30pm. It would be 3.30am before our heads hit the pillows in our own beds in Dubai.
The hotel, Beit Zaman had a special offer for their bath-house - scrub, massage and light meal all for around $25 so I took advantage of that and let them wash away some of the tensions of the night’s occurrence. Below is an account of that amazing experience.
Among the many things to occupy your time and senses in Damascus, don’t miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Hammam experience. Our hotel, the Beit Zaman, on Straight street, one of an increasing number of restored old houses or palaces being turned into boutique hotels, has its own Hammam in the basement under the courtyard. I’d had a Turkish bath in Istanbul 35 years ago, memories of steam and scrubbing, so I had a vague idea what to expect, and after 10 days travelling around Syria, although by no means a stressful or difficult experience, I felt I deserved an hour of pampering before our flight back to Dubai - and anyway, it was Friday and the souks were closed, so what better way to spend the hours before departure?
The hotel was offering a special deal for a scrub, massage, ‘treatment’ and snack, about an hour’s worth. So I booked in and took myself off down the flight of stone steps to the basement. Having recently survived the experience of sharing a sauna and bathing area in our hotel in Austria, naked, with males and females both known and unknown, it was only a small leap for me to stand in the Hammam reception area and fill a drawer, smilingly indicated to me, with all my clothes. Thankfully the Hammams in this part of the world, unlike Austria, are segregated. Women and children until 3.30pm, leaving them free for males, exhausted from many hours in the cafes conversing over coffee, to release the tensions of their day, into the evening.
Undressed, I was wrapped in a large sarong and pushed towards a door which opened into a room so steamy I needed to be taken by the hand to make any progress through it. I was placed carefully on the edge of an oval, white marble bench in the centre of the room, the attendant indicated I should sit forward as the back part of the seat and ‘backrest’ in the centre were ‘chaude’ - and hot indeed it was. From the raised centre of the bench steam gently hissed through small holes drilled into the marble top, obviously the source of the foggy surrounds, and heat radiated onto my back in a just bearable barrage.
I could dimly make out the shapes of arches in the walls and a soft light, but the most obvious sensation, once I’d quelled the panic and let the warm steam flow gently in and out of my lungs, was the sound of scrubbing, sloshing and the occasional woman’s voice speaking in Arabic. I gave myself up to the steam, closed my eyes and enjoyed the sweating.
Around ten minutes later, although time became irrelevant, the steam began to clear a little, a naked lady was led from one alcove to another and I could make out the black and peach-coloured marble stripes and diamonds on the floor. I was led into the now empty alcove, my sarong placed on the floor with me on it and a rather robust lady began her work on me. First a hair wash, head massage and conditioning with the olive oil and laurel products for which this part of the world is famous. Then came the brillo pad. No part of me was safe and my attendant grunted away with the effort to rid me of a few layers of grime. Just when I thought I’d survived the scrubbing, the brillo pad was swapped for what felt like steel wool and lashings of olive oil soap, and what skin remained was duly removed. Not exactly fun, just below painful, it sure was nice when it stopped.
I was arranged face down on my now-saturated sarong on a massage table in the adjoining room. This was the truly wonderful part. Drenched in perfumed olive oil, the attendants hands worked wonders and the pores of my skin, now relieved of the sooty grime of life and travel, lapped up this most wonderful of oils. Then it was neck and shoulder time. I can never quite figure out why, whenever a massuese starts on my neck and shoulders, they say…”ahhhh, stress.” I think they were the only English words she knew as she vigorously, and painfully, attempted to turn those important structures to jelly. I’m convinced my neck muscles have knots in them in order to hold my head on properly, but I must admit that after this treatment I did feel good.
Following the massage I was returned to the first area, where water was thrown all over me before I was enveloped in various towels and wrappings, returned to the reception area and given tea, after which I dressed and headed up to the courtyard, to be seated next to the soothing fountain and fed Hummus, Foul, pickled vegetables and Arabic bread. I was olive oiled on the outside and on the inside.
And all this for a little under $25. Why wouldn’t you?