Sunday, December 31, 2006 Syria Syria

Around Haleb

This is all that remains of the allegedly 17-metre high pillar upon which St Simeon spent his final years. [IMG_0679]
Qala'at Samaan (St Simeon's Basilica) [Enlarge]

St Simeon's Basilica

The next morning there were no members of staff to be seen in the Spring Flower Hostel, so no breakfast for us. We'd arranged to meet Ali and our driver for the day at 08:30 so we couldn't hang around waiting for someone to appear. We gave up and went outside where the driver was waiting in a 20 year old Mitsubishi Lancer.

One of the most impressive things we've seen on our travels is the vehicles. Cars that would have been scrapped ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago in to UK are somehow kept running. There's always the ubiquitous VW camper van, and after that, each city seems to have its speciality. In Budapest it was Trabants (possibly the most famous hangover from the communist era), and here in Syria it seems to be huge American muscle cars. At times you feel like you're walking through an old episode of the Dukes of Hazzard.

It was no muscle car, but our Mitsubishi seemed sound enough. We drove North out of the city, past modern apartment blocks, heading for St Simeon's Basilica. St Simeon was an early Christian who took a notion to worship God in ways which to us seem a bit barking, but to the people of the day were remarkable. He became a huge celebrity. Whether it was locking himself in a hilltop cave without food or water, or balancing atop a large stone pillar for a few years, St Simeon was certainly the David Blaine of his day, though we presume he had different motivations.

As the years went by, his stone pillar kept being added to until it was allegedly 17 metres tall. Perched at the top in perpetual meditation, Simeon attracted a cult following, although his obscure practices were banned by the early church, fearing an escalation in the strangeness. When he died, still up the pillar, from a gangrenous leg wound he was so famous that his devotees declared his pillar a holy site and built a church around it. Later a monastery was added, then a gate and lodgings went up for the many visiting pilgrims, and finally there were the souvenir shops. The whole thing became big business. Today the church is roofless, but remarkably well preserved, and the pillar is nowhere near its original height because pieces have been taken as souvenirs for centuries.

Ain Dara Temple [Enlarge]

Ain Dara Temple

Syria is littered with archaeological sites. The vast majority of sites are unexcavated hills, or tels. Their unnatural shapes usually give them away. Tel Ain Dara is one such hill. One day (in the 1950s we think) a shepherd was hanging around up there while his sheep grazed and he noticed that his dog had dug up something unusual—a piece of black basalt shaped like a huge ear. When the area was excavated by the authorities, the ear's owner—an enormous lion—was uncovered. See the photo of Isla and the lion. The site turned out to be a very early temple dedicated to Ishtar, Goddess of the Moon.

The temple would have been all the more impressive because the black basalt it is built from is so different to the surrounding limestone. It actually occurs naturally in that one spot amid the pink limestone hills. It must have been a powerful symbol to the pagan worshippers who led their sacrificial offerings around the temple's perimeter before ritually slaughtering them on Ishtar's altar. Best of all Ali was able to get us access to the University Archaeology Department's store room where all the finds are kept. So we saw the face of Ishtar, pieces of carved frieze from around the temple showing sphinxes and prowling lions and other artefacts that the regular visitors don't get to see.