Tuesday, January 02, 2007 Syria Syria

Road to Damascus

Camel ride [Enlarge]

After a final night back in Haleb (Aleppo) at the Spring Flower Hostel, we set off early in the morning accompanied by Ali and our new driver, Mohammed, in his smart air conditioned, reasonably new MPV. We were on a three-day trip south through the country to the capital, Dimashq (Damascus). From there we will make our own way to Jordan. Mohammed spoke no English but fluent French, since he is married to a Belgian. Luckily our French is good enough that we could talk to him reasonably well.

It was the first day of Eid Al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice, and we passed a few trailers full of scared-looking cows and blissfully unaware sheep. Their time remaining on this earth was very short indeed. We had been told to expect blood on the streets, and blood there was. On every corner people were excitedly crowding round a scene of slaughter, and we repeatedly saw the act of the throat being cut and the subsequent death throes in full detail. We felt sick, but also humbled. We are both meat-eaters, but we prefer to think that meat comes pre-packaged from supermarkets, rather than from the real animals that we were watching being dispatched on the pavement as we drove serenely by. These people are prepared to confront the truth and get in there and do the necessary work themselves. And unlike in the west, where fast food restaurants throw away tonnes of uneaten meat every day, not a scrap of the these animals was going to be wasted.

As we contemplated our hypocrisy, the van's radio was on, broadcasting of course in Arabic. At the top of the hour, the news came on. We couldn't understand a word of it but we could tell it was the news because it had the same sort of inane-but-dramatically-serious 'news' jingle that unites radio stations all over the world. After a minute Ali, sitting in the front passenger seat, turned round to face us and told us the latest news. Saddam Hussein had been executed early that morning.

Ohmygod. They've done it. Not only have they done it on the first day of the feast of the sacrifice (how unbelievably stupid is that?), but they've done it on a day when we're driving around in Syria and cannot hide in our hotel room! We were silent for a moment. We knew that we were both thinking the same thing. Ali also knew what we were thinking. Were we going to be lynched?

Ali had however gone to pains earlier in the week to stress that his country's hatred is of the West's and Israel's policies, and that his countrymen are perfectly capable of differentiating between governments and people. They see westerners in much the same way as we see the people of Syria: as largely innocent victims of oppressive, corrupt, hypocritical and undemocratic governments. Tentatively, we asked him what the reaction was likely to be to the hanging. Mixed, was his view. Some people supported Saddam, others opposed him and would be glad to see him get his punishment. In any case it was all widely expected, and don't forget that Syria is a moderate country full of moderate and tolerant people. No need to worry, we were in no danger. He never actually told us what he thought of Saddam, but he did say that the timing of his death couldn't be any worse: the Shiites, who hate Saddam, would be offended by the 'tainting' of their holy day, and the Sunnis, some of whom love him, would use the occasion to turn him into a martyr.

Out of the city and and by now the death throes and corpses had been replaced by just the occasional red area on a pavement, betraying the scenes which had taken place earlier in the morning. We stopped at the side of the road to pick up a special breakfast, a flaky-pastry treat filled with honey and pistachio nuts. It was delicious, although neither of us particularly felt like eating.

Syrgilla dead city [Enlarge]


By looking at what past civilisations have left behind them you get an interesting perspective on human nature. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans all thought that theirs was the definitive empire, which would never die. Just like the British Empire in the 19th Century. They became arrogant, and lazy, and finally irrelevant as their foreign subjects rebelled, either politically or economically, allowing another power to rise somewhere else.

In the second century AD Syria was in one such golden age. It was a pivotal part of the Roman Empire and traders came through the area along the silk routes to buy and sell in the cities. A buoyant economy led to the building of new towns and villages to house the incoming people and across the fertile hills of north-west Syria a network of communities sprang up. After many prosperous centuries they decayed, and they now form a collection of 'dead cities', or more correctly, 'abandoned villages'.Our first stop was Syrgilla, one of the best preserved of the dead cities, and one of the last to die, being abandoned in 1148.

The cause of the demise of these settlements is not entirely clear. Maybe the climate changed. The holes for roof beams still visible in the walls show that the roofs were pitched which indicates a wet climate, but Syria now has little rain; so perhaps there was too little rain for a few years in succession for the people and the crops. Syrgilla had no reservoirs or nearby rivers. Or maybe there was a big earthquake. In Ali's opinion the spread of Islam was the final straw. The main export in the area was wine, and alcohol is outlawed by Islam: not just its consumption, but also its manufacture and trade. Even if the people of Srygilla, and the other settlements had not converted to Islam, they would have seen their market shrink to nothing and their livelihoods disappear. One by one the families would have chosen to leave, to go where the work was, as their ancestors had done centuries earlier when they had come to this part of Syria. Low population density in the area means that the land has never come back into use and the houses still stand exactly as they were when they were deserted, slowly crumbling to ruins.

Waterwheel at Hama [Enlarge]


We now had a long drive south to Hama, a city famous for its waterwheels. There used to be wheels throughout Hama to elevate water from the Orontes river into aqueducts which carried it out to irrigate the fields. Now only eighteen remain and they have a full time carpenter to keep them in top condition. (By the way, 'Orontes' means 'disobedient', and the river got this name because it is the only one in Syria to flow from the south to the north.) We spent just long enough in Hama to take a few pictures of the wheels and to pick up another Eid treat: a yoghurty sweet coated in coconut and pistachio. It was sickly to the point of being almost impossible to eat. Glenn struggled to finish his (at which point he was offered more by Ali!) but Isla didn't.

Crac des Chevaliers [Enlarge]

Crac des Chevaliers

It was now early in the afternoon, the weather was perfect and we started our drive through the mountains to Crac des Chevaliers, one of the most famous castles in the world. It really is the kind of castle you imagine when you learn about King Arthur, knights, medieval princesses, jousting tournaments and holy grails. It has been altered a bit over the past 800 years, but Richard the Lionheart would still recognise it were he to see it now. The first fortress there was built in 1031, but it was when the Crusaders from Europe took it over that Crac was extended to take on pretty much its current form. It has everything a castle should have: it's built on a steep motte with a surrounding moat, and has an outer wall with turreted round towers and battlements, holes above the portcullis from which to pour boiling oil on your enemies below, and arrow slits to shoot them from. Inside the defensive wall the castle has accommodation for 2,000 soldiers with stables, kitchens, a chapel, baths, and separate rooms for the officers. The population had enough food and water inside the walls to sustain them for many months.

We stayed the night at Baibers Hotel. Baibers was the Muslim warlord who finally took Crac from the Crusaders as they deserted the holy lands in 1271. The hotel has a perfect location just across a small valley from the castle, and it would not have been a bad place from which to attack the castle. Our room had a balcony with a super view of the castle with the rising sun behind it. We had a memorable dinner just around the corner from the castle at an otherwise deserted restaurant. Dinner for four included drinks, dish after dish of mezzes, followed by grilled garlic chicken, as much fresh fruit as we could eat, and coffees, all for SYP 750 (GBP 7.27 / USD 14.37). Back in our hotel room we watched the videos of Saddam Hussein being hanged on Al Jazeera (the Arab world's CNN). We didn't understand the words but the pictures did the talking.

Syrian desert [Enlarge]


From the mountains we again had an early start the next morning and we headed east into the Syrian desert. The desert proper started shortly after we had passed the city of Homs, and the road to Palmyra was long and straight. Supposedly, if you only see one thing in Syria, you should make it the ruined oasis city of Palmyra. Just before driving into the city itself, we detoured up to a hilltop fortress for an aerial view of the ruins and the oasis—both amid miles and miles of rocky desert. Because of the oasis, the city was a vital staging post on the silk route for over a thousand years. In the second century AD it became very wealthy due to tax breaks given to it by Rome, and it began to build itself up as a major force. Its leader was the charismatic Zenobia, a woman who claimed descent from Cleopatra. Her husband was ruler of Palmyra, but he died (in suspicious circumstances) and as their son was too young to rule, Zenobia took over. She was the cause of her city's demise, becoming over-ambitious and setting her sights on defeating Rome itself. Her army was soundly beaten and Palmyra's favour with Rome was, understandably, dented. The city declined, was taken by the Muslims and finally destroyed entirely by an earthquake in 1089. Although people continued to live in the area the ancient ruins were gradually buried by the shifting sands and remained beneath the desert for the next 860 years. They've still only been partially excavated, but what is there to see is truly amazing. The sheer number of pillars, towering into the sky is still impressive today in a world where tower blocks are a familiar sight, so it must have been awe inspiring in its heyday to the caravans crossing the desert.

We were about to start our tour of the ruins with Ali when we were approached by some camel owners offering rides around the ruins. We weren't too bothered about taking a camel ride, especially when the camel owner's opening price was SYP 1,000 each (GBP 9.70 / USD 19.17). We bargained it down to 200 Syrian Pounds each (almost certainly still far too much) and had a strange but fun 20 minute ride around the ruins on top of two probably very bored camels. Camels act cool but we think they are actually quite vain—like cats, they make a point of looking 'not bothered' about what they're doing, while at the same time constantly looking around just to make sure everyone is watching them.

The modern town of Tadmor, across the road from the ruins, is unremarkable. We visited the museum to see some of the finds collected from the ruins which include pottery, coins, pieces of textile (2,000 year old clothing!), jewellery and four well-preserved mummies.

After checking into our hotel on Tadmor's main street and having a short rest, Ali and Mohammed took us out into the desert for a sunset picnic. Once again they had procured some tasty fare: shawerma kebabs, wheat patties filled with minced meat, sesame seed biscuits and fresh fruit. They brewed some tea and we sat down to watch the final sunset of 2006. As if on cue a Bedouin shepherd wandered past and Ali invited him to join us and share some tea and fruit. Curiously, he was fair-haired and blue eyed which got us wondering about his lineage. Perhaps he was a genetic throwback to a Crusading knight, or perhaps one of his parents was a European hippy whose camper van broke down in the desert in 1967 and who never left?

It was cold enough before sunset, but once the sun had gone it was freezing. Ali told us that there was a singer performing in a local pub if we wanted to celebrate the new year, but it was expensive and in any case we've never been much into new year's eve, so we said we would go back to our room. He and Mohammed did the same. We slept very well until midnight when the sound of car horns and gunfire in the streets woke us. Beats fireworks!

Damascus [Enlarge]

Dimashq (Damascus)

Next morning we again started out early on the road from Tadmor to Dimashq. Half way there, surrounded by desert, we stopped for tea at Bagdad Café (the setting, we were told, of a famous film). On arrival in Dimashq Mohammed dropped the three of us off in the city centre and Ali took us for a look at the old city. By now we were almost experts on Roman town planning and it was interesting to see that Dimashq still has its original Roman layout: a city wall with gates leading into a colonnaded walk of shops (the souk) which end in a triumphal arch with a temple beyond (now a Mosque). The shops in the souk used to extend out into the street, but the government recently had the fronts moved back to their original location, exposing the Roman columns. Apart from the merchandise, nothing about the souk has changed in 2,000 years, and we got an insight into what the shopping streets of places like Palmyra and Ephesus would have actually been like.

We stopped off at the Chapel of Ananias with its paintings telling the story of St Paul having his epiphany on the road to Damascus. Later we had flowers tea in Ash-Shams Coffee Shop and met up with a friend of Ali's from Dimashq who he had met at an interview for a place on a tourism course. If Ali is successful in getting on to the 45 day course, and passes it, he will be able to lead official tours and to advertise to hotels. He doubts he will be successful though because a prerequisite is a degree in English Literature (if you intend to be an English speaking guide) and he doesn't have this. We said how crazy that was as his English is excellent and probably much better than students who have studied Shakespeare for three years. But that's bureaucracy for you.

Then it was time to say goodbye to our guides, who had the long drive back to Haleb ahead of them. Ali walked us back to our hotel and we wished him good luck with his course. Left alone after seven days of being looked after we felt a bit lost. We hadn't planned our next step, but we knew we wanted to go by bus to Jordan so we asked at the hotel reception desk for directions to the bus station. The bus station was pretty small considering we were in the capital of Syria and we easily found a company with modern coaches offering tickets to Amman. The waiting room was busy, and seemed to be full of posh Oxbridge students, at least one of whom spoke good Arabic: was it a field trip? It turned out that they were leaving on the 15:00 bus which was about to depart. After the rush had subsided we approached the counter and asked about tickets on the following day's bus. There were two buses per day, one at 09:00 and one at 15:00. We wanted to go at 09:00 to be sure of arriving in Amman in daylight, but all the tickets were already sold. We thought about staying another night in Dimashq and catching the 09:00 in two days' time, but in the end we went for the 15:00 coach.

The entry for our Dimashq hotel in the guidebook said that they would help with booking onward hotels. While we were sure that that meant within Syria we thought it was worth asking if they would make a call to Jordan for us. They were happy to and dialled the number of our chosen hotel in Amman. Having found someone there who spoke English the receptionist handed the phone over and we booked a room for one night. With transport and accommodation sorted we could relax. We decided to go for a leisurely dinner in Dimashq's top restaurant, Elisar. It wasn't quite haute cuisine but it was a very good meal in a lovely setting, and it set us back the princely sum of SYP 1,200 (GBP 11.64 / USD 23.00) for the two of us including tip.

So, our considered opinion on this rogue state, harbourer of terrorists, part of the axis of evil? Well, we cannot possibly know based on our short, touristy visit. Certainly under the old president's regime there is no doubt that people disappeared and a lot of bad things happened. But under his son's rule there is a definite feel of a thaw in progress (even though the new guy's smiley face appears Big Brother-style on too many billboards and public buildings for our liking—an example is in the photo above: zoom in and look at the far end of the street). We found Syrians to be friendly, warm, welcoming people. They all wanted to know where we were from and whilst we had gone there intending to say "Scotland" rather than "the UK" or "England" this was never necessary. We don't know what was said behind our backs, or even to our faces,or to Ali when people spoke Arabic, but we never got a bad vibe, we never felt unsafe walking the streets of Haleb or Dimashq after dark. English is widely spoken—not often fluently, but always enthusiastically. There are huge cultural differences. Even with the high level of gun ownership in the US, the malls don't have bullet holes in the ceiling; contrast this with the souk in Dimashq where the corrugated iron arched roof is riddled with holes, shafts of sunlight stabbing through into the blackness underneath. Ali pointed the holes out to us as a mere curiosity. Hardly worth mentioning—a perfectly normal way to celebrate a wedding or your return from the Hajj at Mecca!

Syria's population is young, and getting younger. They're entrepreneurial, small businesses abound, they know how to trade. They love children and value family. A great place to go if you want to visit somewhere with most of the facilities of home, but with a totally fresh culture and a multitude of things to see and do. Syria will broaden your mind (and won't slim your wallet too much at the moment).

Map of Days 036-038

Days 036-038
Aleppo to Damascus

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

1 Comment:

Jimmy K. said...

Most excellent post.