On the morning of 27 June we were guided around Palmyra. Built in AD 2, the city ranks as one of the world's greatest historic sites and, 2000 years after its construction by the Arab Queen Zenobia, it remains one of the most capitals of the ancient world.
Odenathus the Younger awarded himself the original title of “King of Kings”. To be sure, his brilliant military actions had earned him the gratitude of Rome: the Palmyrene armies twice defeated the Persian armies and, in AD267, the Senate of Rome named him the “Corrector of the East” in return. The authority of Oriental Palmyra seemed destined to extend over a vast territory but Odenathus and his son, the heir to the throne, were assassinated in mysterious circumstances. Rumor had it that Zenobia, the King’s second wife and mother of a very young son, was in some way involved in the crime. In fact, the queen immediately revealed herself to be an exceptionally able monarch. She was boundlessly ambitious for herself, for her son and for her people. Within six years she had affected the whole life of Palmyra. In AD270 the Queen, who claimed to be descended from Cleopatra, took possession of the whole of Syria, conquered Lower Egypt and sent her armies across Asia Minor as far as the Bosphorus. In open defiance of Rome, Zenobia and her son took the title “August” and had coinage struch in the name, thus setting themselves up as rival to Aurelian who was at that time having difficulties on the German borders of the Empire. Rome ended up defeating Zenobia and it is not known how she ended her days – although rumour has it that she married and lived out her days quietly in France!
Palmyra flourished for 1,000 years in ancient times as part of the Assyrian caravan route, before being annexed by the Greeks, and then taken over in turn by the Romans.
Palmyra is Syria's main attraction and we spent the morning exploring the splendour of these remote and extensive ruins (with the Arab Castle in view on the horizon). After walking past ancient temples and along the colonnaded, we explored the baths and theatre before heading over to the impressive Temple of Bel.
It was rather disconcerting to have fighter planes buzzing overhead this morning – a stark reminder that we were very close to the border with Iraq.
The others went back into town after that but I wanted to see the tombs in the valley that I’d seen from the Arab Castle the night before. Brendan had organized a taxi for me which picked me up outside the entrance the Temple of Bel.
There was another passenger along for the ride and I wondered who he was until he jumped out of the taxi when I did at the first tomb – he was the key holder! There was already the requisite camel out the front, ready to take the one or tourists who might venture past, for a ride. The difference this time was that she had her baby with her – and here I thought I would be sick of photographing camels!
There weren’t any other tourists at the site so I had it all to myself and what a strange place it was. Most of the tombs were in ruins but this one was in quite good nick – it had about four stories, with little lookouts along the valley through the thick brick walls. On each floor there were eight cavities from floor to ceiling and in each cavity were about six ledges (some were intact and some no longer existed) which would have been where the bodies were stored. There were some statues on the first floor, facing the door as you walked in, which were of the first residents of the tomb – after them it would have been filled with their family members.
Driving on we passed a Bedouin herder with his flock of goats and sheep. I commented on how big the dogs were and the driver told me not to pat them as they have been trained to be very suspicious of anyone bar their owner. Apparently the pups are kept in a deep hole when they are first born. The only people to feed or give the animal water in the first months of its life are family members. This means that the dog becomes very protective towards the family and excellent guards for people who live such an isolated existence. He told me that he was Bedouin and did I want to visit a Bedouin family? Unfortunately I didn’t have time or else I would have jumped at the chance.
Our next stop was the Three Brothers Tomb – this tomb, unlike the others, was underground. I was unable to take photos inside but it had three separate chambers – the first one immediately to your right as you walk in had statues of the three brothers reclining. The back chamber had very beautiful reliefs and the third chamber, to your left as you walked in, was interesting in that it sold chambers for use by non-family members. I suppose that people died when they were passing through on the caravan routes and had to go somewhere!
Back in Palmyra I went to the post office for stamps and then bought a couple of silk scarves for Mum and Lis. I had bumped into a date merchant earlier in the day and he had asked me to make sure I looked at his shop. “Later, later” I said. Well I guess later came because he saw me and called out, “You promised you’d come by later”. I had too so in I went – he had offerings of dried dates from last season and a paste made from ground up dates. It was all delicious but I politely declined buying anything but he kissed me goodbye nonetheless. Apparently the same thing happened to Ely but he didn’t get a kiss when he left…
A private minivan picked us up for our drive to Krak. The words ‘private minivan’ make it sound like we were travelling in the lap of luxury but this wasn’t exactly the case. I was concerned it would make the journey! Just out of Palmyra we passed the turnoff to Iraq – thankfully we veered right instead of left.
It was an interesting drive – to start with we were driving through a flat, dusty, pretty miserable part of the world which was dotted with Bedouin tents (no doubt with gargantuan canines snapping their teeth at unwanted trespassers). Then we came into an area which was rocky and hilly, passing a number of army looking camps with tanks parked in ‘garages’ under hills, huge satellite dishes and training grounds. The trees in this area were on an incredible angle from the high winds that must blast this area. As we got closer to Homs the country became more arable with fruit trees and cropping. Sadly we didn’t have the chance to visit Homs but I heard from another traveler that they had really enjoyed the city.
We arrived at Krak in the late afternoon – our hotel, and my room, had a view looking straight out over the castle of Krak des Chevaliers (Castle of the Knights) which is considered by many to be the greatest fortress in the world. In fact Lawrence of Arabia called it 'the finest castle in the world'.
The guys went to find somewhere playing the World Cup (the only place it was playing happened to belong to the owner of the hotel’s brother!) I sat out on the balcony and had a beer while I watched the sunset, making the bricks of the castle glow a beautiful red.
A large group were eating and I could hear oooooinng and ahhhhing about the food. “Yummo” I thought and ordered up, getting the set menu, thinking that everyone else was eating at the other place while watching the football. Of course, they all arrived back just after this enormous pile of food had been placed in front of me. I would have been quite content just to eat the babaganoush with leven bread but there was the usual mezze followed by a chicken dish which was all washed down with fresh watermelon. No complaints from me – the food was incredibly good.
There were a lovely couple from the UK who were sitting close by and I ended up having a good chat with them. We were joined by a Syrian/German guide who specialized in train travel through Syria – it was all quite interesting until he started to show us footage of each of the trains he’s travelled all to soundtracks like Star Wars and Titanic. A true train spotter if ever I saw.
I was very sad to get back to my room and find that my trousers had well and truly done their dash. I bought them with Ali at Rosebud Just Jeans and they were taken up by Grub, seamstress extraordinaire, who made one leg higher than the other so I had to walk on a slight angle whenever I wore them to make them look they were the same length..... These trousers had been worn to death (literally as it turned out) all through South America. I gave them two weeks recovery time while I was in London and when I put them back on for my flight down to Cairo it felt like I was putting on pjs – they were so comfy. While in Egypt I had discovered that they were starting to wear very thin around the seat and I took them to a few tailors hoping that a piece of material might be able to be sewn inside to keep them together – turns out the material was too fine and sewing them would just make another hole. I wore them until I could wear them no more (almost to the point of indecency) but they had served me well and I would miss them. Anyway this paragraph is just to say good-bye and thank you to those fantastic trousers - I wish you joy wherever your next journey may take you.
28 JUNE - Aleppo
This morning we walked over to the castle - there were some beautiful thistles lining the road.
Then we had a guided visit of Krak des Chevaliers, one of the world’s most famous Crusader castles.
It seems that little has changed in the 800 years since the Crusaders knights built the castle in order to protect the so-called “Homs Gap”, the gateway to Syria. It commands a view over the valley between Homs and Tripoli and it was through this passage that Syria communicated with the Mediterranean. In ancient times the importance of this strategic corridor was immense. It was of crucial importance to the Crusaders and other foreign invaders in their conquest of the coast. Conflict over Crac des Chevaliers continued through the ages but, being a perfect model of medieval fortification, the castle was never besieged or taken by storm. It was a fierce and bloody dispute, but in the end, the Mamluks, led by Sultan Beybar, managed to recover it in 1271 through a military trick and one month of fighting. Crac des Chevaliers was built on the site of a former castle erected to accommodate Kurdish garrisons; “Crac” is a modification of the Arab word “Qal’a”. The citadel stands as high as 700m above sea level and has a huge 13 towers, in addition to the many stores, tanks, corridors, bridges and stables. It can accommodate 500 soldiers with their horses, their equipment and provisions for five years. It was interested to learn about the women’s temple where the big cheese was able to house his wife and daughters (all the other knights and soldiers were monks) – the women could only enter and exit the tower by a narrow stairway which had to be accessed using a ladder. It was all very involved. The chapel was another highlight, with wonderful acoustics and evidence of the different religions through the ages.
This photo is of Dan shooting an arrow and the incoming enemy. Now, I don’t know about you but I probably wouldn’t hold a bow and arrow between my index finger and thumb….
Let’s get that in close up….
After we’d had a good wander through the castle, we transferred by minivan into Homs, stopping on the way to get a coffee from a roadside vendor. What a great set up!
We caught a public bus from Homs to Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo. It was a great trip and the bus was packed and cramped. Music videos blared the entire way, icecream vendors hopped on and off and a man sat down next to Dustin, promptly put his head on his shoulder and fell asleep. Classic!
We got into Aleppo in the late afternoon and walked through the souq to our hotel, Dar Halabia, which was only one of two hotels located in the Old City. It was a lovely hotel in one of the old houses which had been renovated and expanded – rooms were now spread over three houses.
We then went for a walk towards the Christian Quarter, passing a goldfish salesman who set up shop on the wall of a public square.
We stopped for a drink at the famous, if rather run down, Baron Hotel where I had a G&T. Actually I had two!
After that we wandered to a nearby restaurant which had been recommended to Brendan – the food was good, but the menu was better! I guess number 13, in this case, really is an unlucky number. Would you like some salmonella with that?
The other thing that cracked me up about this place is their obvious love of the Guiness Book of Records – it doesn’t look like the guys are agreeing on how the Longest Kebob, Skewen in the World should be cooked….
29 JUNE - Aleppo
Architecturally diverse, 'Halab' as the locals call it, means 'milk', originating from the ancient story that Abraham gave out milk to travellers as they journeyed through the region. At one time Aleppo was the northern capital and it’s now still the largest city in northern Syria (and rivals Damascus as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world). Aleppo is situated on the crossroads of several important trade routes, strategically connecting Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Consequently the city is a melting pot of diverse cultures with Muslim Arabs, Armenians, Russians and Greek Orthodox Christians. Hidden in this city, that was planned by the Greeks, are the many vestiges of the successive civilizations who once ruled here. Walking through the old city one is again in the Middle Ages and overwhelmed by the scents, colors and hubbub of the swarming labyrinth that is still a market place today, and although the Silk Road caravans no longer arrive, traders still have their offices in the caravanserais of old.
We started today with a guided tour of Aleppo's Old City, starting at the entrance to the souq which is on an angle so that it couldn't be rammed.
We had a wonderful tour through the Old City stopping at sites along the way, including different stalls in the fabulous covered souq where our guide, at the soap stall, explained a process of making the famous olive oil soap or the spice souq, where he talked about the properties of each of the spices.
We stopped in a khan (the caravan ‘motel’) of which there are many in Aleppo – most are now used as shops.
Out of the souq we passed a house with graffiti on the outside wall and our guide explained that this graffiti was of Mecca and shows that the inhabitant had visited Mecca, making it an auspicious house.
From the Old City wall we were able to see the Green Mosque, the President's private mosque, off in the distance.
We were able to visit a men’s only hammam and walk through the hot and cold rooms, as well as check out the swimming pool which looked a bit green to me (our guide told us it was no longer in use but Dan had a hammam later that day and was told to jump in there – we saw a couple of cockroaches down there too so not convinced about the cleanliness of that hammam particularly). We also visited the mental asylum where it was interesting to learn about how the site for the asylum was chosen. Pieces of meat were hung up in various places all around Aleppo – the meat that went off last was chosen as the site for the asylum as the logic went that the air was healthiest there.
There were enclosed wooden balconies on the outer facade of some of the houses – these were apparently built by jealous husbands to prevent their wives being seen by anyone other than him and are known as mushrabiya. They also allow the women to view public spaces without being seen.
It was early afternoon when the tour ended at the imposing citadel.
I left everyone and took myself off for the afternoon. Little did I know the adventures that Aleppo had in store for me.
Initially I was looking at my map thinking that I would be able to find the souvenir section of the souq which is just behind the citadel but I wandered way too far and when I realized this, I just kept going. I ended up in a little street and found a shop under a bridge which I went into to see if they had falafel. Nope, no falafel (and from the stains on the front of his shirt I was kind of glad that I wouldn’t be eating food that had been made by him) but through hand signals he demonstrated that he did have something in the back room of his shop that he wanted to show me. I’ll warn you before I go any further that you should skip this section if you’re squirmish about blood or anything like that. So I walk into the back of his shop and there are a group of around 6 men standing around a man sitting backwards on a chair with his shirt off. There was another man standing over him fiddling with something on his back. When I walked around I could see that there were two suction cups on the man’s back which were slowly filling with a plasma like substance (it wasn’t runny like blood). When they had filled to a certain point the ‘doctor’ would slowly release the suction and remove the ‘blood’ – you could see that small slits had been made in the skin where the blood came through. Anyway, it was all rather gross and I had no idea what was going on except that one man kept saying ‘operation, operation’. Ah huh. Another man, who spoke a bit of English, was bought into the room to translate to me – he told me that the man was getting this done to make him stronger. I asked if he’d ever done it and he said no, he was too scared. He then ran out of the room, dry retching! I didn’t quite know what to do – should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble, if I stay there will be double. Thankfully the ‘operation’ came to an end when some oil was rubbed over the wounds and I was able to thank them very very much (shukran jezelan – phonetic!) and maah assalama (goodbye).
I walked out, took a few breaths of clean air, and then continued on my quest to find falafel. I know I shouldn’t have been hungry at that time but I was and, what do you know, there was a little falafel shop right across the street. An old guy and his son ran the joint – they sat me down, gave me a cup of tea, offered me fuul and pretty much barred the entrance so no one else was allowed in. That didn’t last long - as soon as the old guy left his son pulled out his mobile phone and started taking pictures of me eating. That’s cool, I can still look devastatingly stunning with a mouthful of food. Then the guy from the first place (who pulled me in to watch the ‘operation’) showed up with an English translator, asking why I hadn’t eaten in his establishment. I apologized, telling him that I didn’t think he had falafel. He laughed and said he was just teasing me, that I was eating in his brother’s shop so it was just like eating in his shop anyway. Ha ha ha ha. The joke kind of got lost in translation I guess.
The original guy who had translated about the ‘operation’ and run out gagging came to find me and asked that I visit him at his tomatoe stall down the street. I said I would be happy to after I’d finished my lunch.
It didn’t take long for me to find the tomatoe man – who offered me a sunny fresh tomatoe and the services of a young boy, who was probably around 8, to take me up to show me the mosque. I entered the mosque’s internal courtyard with its canopy of around trees and vines without realizing that it was time for midday prayers. The Call to Prayer started to be sung while I was in the courtyard and I turned around and saw the priest (they’re probably not a priest are they) calling into a microphone. I indicated to my camera and he nodded assent – how incredible.
There were men happy to be photographed washing their feet and then the tomatoe man arrived and suggested that I take ‘portraits’ of the men at prayer. I told him that I didn’t think that was appropriate and after a bit of back and forth I think he agreed so he suggested I come back after prayers instead. That might be a better idea. My boy was still with me, talking to me in basic English about the World Cup – he was a great Messi supporter and, as the most famous footballer in the world, I at least knew who he was talking about. He wouldn’t introduce me to anyone by name but would point at them ad say, “Brasil” or “Spain”, then turn up his nose or give a thumbs up depending on his view of the team. I got introduced to the local cop who was an Argentina supporter and on it went. I continued wandering down the street with my little friend and found that it was filled with small shops and stalls offering everything you could possibly need - everyone knew about me and that I was on my way. There was a soldering stall, hardware shop, three guys busy making stringy cheese (they make it look easy – it’s not) with two young guys helping out with the simpler part of the process. There was a pizza shop, a juice vendor and a shop selling herbal remedies. I took photos if people asked for one to be taken but this was all about living the moment, not photographing it. This little community in a tiny area of this big city just dropped everything to welcome me to their part of the world. There was smiling and laughing and a bit of trepidation from the toddlers who weren’t quite sure what to make of it all.
I shouldn’t have eaten that falafel sandwich because I was offered more food there than I was in the rest of Syria put together! And culture dictates that it would be rude to refuse. They’re poor but they’re incredibly generous – they don’t have much in the way of material possessions but their lives are rich and fulfilled. It’s hard to put into words how these snippets in time can affect one’s life – I will look back on those hours in the back streets of Aleppo and know that not many people will ever have the opportunity to have an experience like that. This is why I travel and why I was falling head over heels for Syria.
Afterwards I made my way back through the Old City and souq, checking out the Umayyad, the Great Mosque which is only a couple of years younger than the mosque in Damascus, on the way.
I also wandered up to the Christian quarter, admiring the 15th century houses and equally old churches along the way, to reach an antique shop which was recommended by the guidebook. I hadn’t bought my Syrian present yet but I had a good idea of what I wanted and I’d done some price comparisons in the souq so knew how much I should expect to pay. The shop was a “Dad’s Delight” shop (as I’ve come to call junk shops) and was filled with all manner of goodies which had me entertained for a good hour.
The owner’s son kept filling up my tea cup as I deliberated over which café thermos to buy. I ended up going for the one that was the oldest and most beat up but it’s a wonderful thing. Here’s the balcony of the shop
I took my sweet time making my back to the hotel, stopping along the way - first I was dragged into a fish shop where I was taken into the back room to inspect their haul.
Onwards through the Christian Quarter....
Then I stopped in a coffee shop where I was the only woman and the only foreigner. No problem! I enjoyed my tea while I watched the men at their cards – after I got chatting to a couple of them they invited me to take photographs.
Then I wandered by the food section of the souq making friends with all the merchants. I was greeted, again, with smiles and joy. One of the butchers, who spoke pretty good English, would point to the cut of meat and ask me what they were. Lucky I’m a farmer’s daughter or I would have been stumped – as it was I got 9 out of 10 (some variety of offal tripped me up!)
I stopped to have a chat and watch the tinman tinkering
- and then admire the garlic of a garlic vendor whose smile never faltered.
It was getting close to dinner time and the smell of cooking food permeated everything.
The last part of the walk was past the shoe repairmen (or should I say, for the majority, boys).
I met up with the group and felt like I was glowing after my sublime day. We walked back into the Christian Quarter and ate dinner at a pub (which gets a good write up in the Lonely Planet but we didn’t rate at all – there were no set meals and the food was expensive). After that we wandered over to Aleppo’s main square where a big screen had been erected for the World Cup. It seemed like the entire city had turned out to watch the match.
Before leaving the next day I got up early to make the most of my last moments in Aleppo and Syria.
You can probably tell by now that I loved this country and it’s quickly become my favourite Middle East destination. The US State Department may want us to think that Syria is populated by terrorists, zealots and other bogeymen but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Syrians are among the most friendly and hospitable people in the world. Since Bashar al-Assad took over the reins from his father in 2001, modernization has been on the national agenda. Syria is modern, efficient and very proud. Fortunately all this modernization doesn’t mean that Syria has lost sight of its past. The country has more than its fair share of significant historical sites, all of which are respectfully maintained by the authorities. The ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo are listed on Unesco’s World Heritage list, as is the sensationally beautiful ruined city of Palmyra. Mighty Crusader castles, labyrinth medieval souqs, jewel-like Damascene houses and sacred Umayyad mosques are only some of the treats on offer; there are plenty more for those who are keen to search them out. Best of all is the fact that these monuments are often woven into the fabric of daily life – the locals worship in the mosques, shop in the souq and eat and drink tea in the houses. And they’re happy for travelers to join them. Also, as I may have mentioned once or twice, the national cuisine is absolutely superb so come with a big appetite!
I can understand how visitors to Syria end up developing a lifelong infatuation with its gentle charms because I am now one of them.