The Land of Saladin

Syria

Raqqa Palmyra St George's Convent Hama Damascus

A month's of travel using local transport in this fascinating part of the Middle East.

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Introduction

This is the story of my travels through Syria.

During 1986, I spent seven months travelling through several countries of the Middle East. I flew from London to Istanbul and spent three months in Turkey. This included a day boat trip to the island of Cos (Greece). In the East, I crossed the border into Syria. After spending a few weeks there, I entered Jordan. After a couple of weeks, I entered Israel and the Palestinian Territories where I stayed for seven weeks. My trip ended with six weeks in Egypt. I returned to London by flying from Cairo via Bucharest (Romania).

The Syria part of this trip is described here.

Day 1

I awoke in the Turkish city of Antakya which had an excellent museum of mosaics. I had to wait an hour and a half at the bus station for the dolmus to fill. A dolmus is a minivan which only travels when full. It was a 40km ride over mountains to the small village of Yaladagi, set in a fragrant valley. The border was 6km further on.

Border formalities on both sides were easy. The Syrian side was less formal than the Turkish. When I told them I was British they said "welcome". My visa was in order and I had to change $100 at the official rate, getting about 10 Syrian Pounds to the dollar.

I chatted to a local while waiting for transport. He gave me a Lebanese Pound note as a souvenir. I gave him a Turkish note. A shared taxi took me to Latakia. Shared taxis seat four or five people, run set routes and go when full. The 60km journey cost $2. The driving was fast and manic. I was pleased to see my first Syrian town.

Syria appeared less Westernised than Turkey and more chaotic. Vehicles are older models and buildings are a little delapidated. Although a Muslim country, men and women walk and eat out together. Pictures of the country's president, Hafiz Assad, were visible in prominent places. The people seemed very friendly. There were a lot of soldiers around but, unlike Turkey, females were also in the military.

I found a room for less than $2 and went for my first meal. I had a shashlik kebab (meat and vegetables grilled on a skewer) with ayran (a refreshing yoghurt drink). This filling meal cost me another $2. The tourist office was closed so I obtained information by asking people in the market. I found an English language newspaper, the first I'd seen for a couple of weeks. Supper was from the market: donner meat rolled in bread, falafels (fried chick pea paste) with salad, a drink and a kilo of apples: all for $1.50.

Day 2

Latakia
Street scene in Latakia
Latakia is a noisy town but I had a good sleep.

I wandered through the bazaar (market). The people were very varied. Modern women with revealing dresses walked next to men with long robes and turbans; male and female soldiers mingled with the crowd but were unarmed. Juices were delicious and I had several: orange, lemon, mixed fruit. In one street, I came across a Roman arch surrounded by trees.

Among the mosques were several Greek Orthodox churches. I walked into one to find a wedding taking place. The Greek style icons around the walls were attractive and covered with Arabic writing. I was told that there were about a million Greek Orthodox Christians in Syria.

At a cafe I enjoyed a grilled half chicken, bread, salad and drink for the usual $2.

Day 3

Today, I had planned a day trip out of town. The minibus station was only ten minutes walk away. I found one to Banyas. The 54km ride cost me $0.30. The countryside was fertile and well cultivated. Building work was in progress everywhere. I could see the blue Mediteranian Sea. The trip took an hour.

I was looking for a fortress but did not know its Arabic name. A cafe owner pointed me in the right direction. I walked for 3km along the coastal road. Unlike in Eastern Turkey, women as well as men greeted me. I got lost but shared watermelon with some workmen. They spoke Greek as they had been sailors. They told me the path I was on was steep and full of snakes but gave me alternative directions. I picked up some figs from their trees. A pickup van took me to the fortress for a few cents, passing several villages. The other passengers thought I was Russian.

Qalat Al Markab
Qalat Al Markab
The fort itself was a spectacular structure made of black volcanic stone. It looked in good repair with many battlements. The only other visitors were a Syrian couple. They were Christian. He was called George, an English teacher, and he offered to guide me. His wife, Janet, was an engineer and spoke French. We arrived at the ticket office. The man behind the counter smiled at us and took us into the Director's office; here we were given water.

The fortress had been built by the Crusaders. It was later captured by Saladin, hence its nickname "Saladin's Fortress". The Arabic name is Qalat Al Markab. There were many chambers, all at slightly different levels and reachable by dark stairways. From one level there were windows from which the level below was visible. A chapel contained some recently discovered frescos. There were superb views from the roof: a fertile valley and mountains in the East and the sea in the West.

Ugarit
Ugarit
We had tea at the Director's office: only then were we sold our ticket: less than 10 cents. The family gave me a lift to the minibus station. It was 2pm and very hot. Within the hour I was back in Latakia. My first day trip in Syria had been a fun adventure.

Lunch was okra (ladies fingers) and rice. I took a 15 minute bus ride to Ugarit, just north of the town. This is the ruins of a 4000 year old Phoenician city that traded extensively around the Mediterranean region and as far as India. In 1500 BC, the alphabet was invented here. I walked though the grid of streets disturbing lizards with every step. I had the entire site to myself.

I waited for the bus back and a couple gave me coffee and a chocolate wafer. Syrians are amongst the friendliest and hospitable people I had ever met. The bus was packed, picking up swimmers on their way home. I returned to my room 12 hours after leaving: it had been a long but enjoyable day. Being Friday, most places were closed so I ended up eating some sandwiches in flat Arabic bread. They were filled with spicy sausage, potatoes and tomatoes.

Drink Seller
Grape juice seller in Allepo

Day 4

I had discovered that taxis in Syria can be cheaper than state run buses for some destinations. This was good as the taxi stand was only 20m from my hotel. Today's journey was 130km across the mountains of Western Syria. The driving was better than on my first day. I refreshed myself with apples. It took 2 hours to arrive in the chaotic city of Allepo (Haleb in Arabic). This was a crowded Asian like city. Many women were veiled or wore colourful tribal costumes. Red turbans and Arabic head-dresses were common among the men.

I found a large room with sink and fan for $3 close to the tangled streets of the bazaar. Half a grilled chicken was devoured with bread and washed down with ayran. In the market I met an old man who'd visited London in 1953 "for the Coronation". The nearby museum was full of items from several ancient civilisations: Hittite, Amorite, Assyrian. Exhibits included basalt slabs used for sacrifices, black statues with white eyes and pots with human figures attached.

Walking back, I bought a drink from a colourful street grape juice seller. He wore a fez, brightly coloured jacket and carried his drinks in brass containers strapped to his body and covered with emblems. I asked him for a photograph. He agreed and realising I was a visitor, gave me back my money for the drink.

Supper was two pides (Arabic bread with egg and sausage grilled onto it) and a kibbi (cracked wheat surrounding mince meat). I was looking forward to exploring the bazaar next day but I was tired so it was an early night for me.

Day 5

The Citadel in Aleppo
Inside the Citadel in Aleppo
The bazaar was covered; the main drag was about 700m long. On either side were passages, tunnels, and open caravanserais sheltered by trees. Caravanserais are the courtyards where camel trains would stop to unload their wares. People packed the narrow walkways along with small vans, donkeys and horses. Everything was on sale: cloth, leather, wool, sheep skins, shoes, meat, metal implements, spices, chunks of soap, nuts, sweets. There were no hassles as I explored. Occasionally I would hear a "welcome to Syria". I changed money with a shopkeeper, getting 22 Syrian Pounds per $1.

Next to the bazaar was the Citadel, set on a small hill in the centre of the city. It measures 200m by 100m and was built during the 8th Century by the early Muslim Arabs. The architecture has Arab, Byzantine, Crusader and Turkish influences. The structure contains three mosques, two baths and a theatre. The best room had painted wooden carvings over its walls, inlaid ceiling beams, wooden chandeliers, stained glass windows, a black and white marble floor and a marble fountain. There were great views from the top over the city with its many minarets.

In the old city I came across a Maronite Christian church. This sect is more common in Lebanon.

Lunch was kofte kebab (grilled meat balls), bread dipped in spicy tomato sauce, humus (a chickpea paste dip) and a lovely salad with herbs and olive oil. I washed it down with a fresh rasberry drink and tried the excellent grapes.

I fell into my room as the heat rose and switched the fan on. Minutes later there was a power cut.

Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo
Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo
The Umayyad Mosque dates from the 16th century and has a tall square minaret covered with relief carvings. The inner courtyard had a large domed fountain in the centre and was surrounded with arched cloisters. The building itself was full of chandeliers. The tomb of the prophet, Zachariah was popular with women dressed in black.

It seems I arrived in Allepo just in time. The city is hosting the basketball world championships and all rooms are full of players and fans.

Palestinians
A Group of Palestinians in Aleppo

Day 6

Dana Market
Market at Dana
Up early today for a day trip and by 7:30 I was at the bus station. I found a minibus to Dana, a small village near Allepo. I spent a little while at the animal bazaar where cows, goats, donkeys, horses and sheep were sold by colourfully dressed people.

My next ride was in the back of a pickup van with four women, a girl, two men and a sheep. We bumped along the fertile countryside. I was dropped of in Davet 'Azze. From here, a vehicle carrying two Kurdish men gave me a lift. After I told them about the Kurdish areas I'd visited in Turkey, they refused payment. I walked the final kilometre along dry and thorny country.

Qalat Sam'an was the ruins of a 5th century Roman church. The building was pre-Byzantine but had many features that would later be incorporated into Byzantine churches. The church was cross-shaped, each branch pointing to a cardinal point. The symmetry of the cross was not exact. Looking along the East-West axis, there was a kink symbolising the crucified Christ's head tipped over to one side.

In the centre of the cross was the remains of a pillar. It is said that St Simeon preached from the top of the pillar for 42 years until his death in 459AD. At the foot of the pillar were beautiful mosaic patterns. The walls of the building were covered with different types of crosses: Greek Orthodox, Byzantine, Latin Catholic, Assyrian, and Babylonian solar crosses. The church was built before the major schisms of Christianity appeared.

There was an underground chamber where over 400 monks once lived: now it was full of bats.

St Simeon's Church
Qalat Sam'an (St Simeon's Church)
After being shown around by the curator, I was given tea in the office along with a French couple who'd driven to the site. They gave me a lift to the main road from where I caught a packed minibus. A bumpy mountain ride took me to Gogonia. It was hot. I took shelter from the sun in a house full of young Kurds. I played them at backgammon and won, much to their amusement. I was watered and given apples and figs, stuffed egg plant, yoghurt, oil and bread.

As soon as I walked outside a lorry picked me up, dropping me off less than 2km from my destination. It was a hot, unsheltered uphill walk. Qalb Loze was the remains of a Roman cathedral built in 476AD. It was not as spectacular as the first Roman church I'd visited. I was soon herded into a house by the local school teacher and given water, tea and more water. I got a ride in an empty bus: the driver was going home. He also gave me water and dropped me off at a turning in the middle of nowhere. After a 1km walk past some barking sheepdogs, I leapt into a van driven by two Arabs in traditional clothes. They gave me a potted history of the area in a mixture of broken Arabic and English. The engine kept stalling but we eventually made it to a village called Kafar Arok.

Kurds at Gogonia
A group of Kurds at Gogonia
I drank water from a well in the mosque and ended up in another house. They insisted I stayed and fed me yogurt, scrambled eggs, bread and tea. I had to leave as it was getting late and the sun was getting low in the sky. After a couple of kilometres walk a tractor picked me up. I held onto the back as we bumped along. At Killi, I caught a ride in the back of a van for 5km to Hazen. I arrived at sunset; an hour and a half later it was dark and I was still there. I had 60km to get back to my hotel room in the city.

A soldier resembling Omar Shariff joined me. We communicated in a mixture of Russian and English. He was going to Allepo. We got a van to drive us 15km to a busier road for $1.50 each. So far I had only paid 50 cents for three of my rides. It was pitch black. At Assughra, the soldier got the final space in a taxi full of other soldiers and I remained on the side of the road with five other men for 30 minutes.

Finally, a shared taxi came and I spent my 12th ride of the day sitting on a man's lap as we sped back to the city. This 35km ride cost me 50 cents and dropped me off 200m from my hotel. After a cool lemonade I fell into my room 15 hours after I'd left it. What a day trip!

Day 7

Not surprisingly, I slept till 9am the next morning. I had planned to visit three places today but thought one would be better. The bus station was not the right one so I took a taxi to another. Everybody except me was searched by an armed soldier before getting into the bus station. I had to show my passport to buy a ticket. Soon we were on the way.

I passed a village with strange egg shaped houses. My destination, Al Bab looked less interesting. A tricycle took me to Tadef which was supposed to be a dead city full of churches. In fact it was a living village with one delapidated church. I returned to Al Bab and had lunch (three sticks of kebab with salad, bread and a drink - 50 cents). There were lots of soldiers present and I was told that there had been shootings.

Back in town I was so tired I slept till evening.

Arab youths at Raqqa
Arab youths at Raqqa

Day 8

Had a "runny" night. Nothing serious though. I picked up three letters from the post office as this place was one of the mail drops I had arranged. I didn't feel great but decided to travel anyway. I threw up out of the bus window and then felt better. As we entered featureless desert, I fell asleep. At one stage, I noticed the torquoise coloured Euphrates River with fertile land on either side of it. In the early afternoon I arrived at the city of Raqqa.

This is a hot dusty town and I planned to use it as a base. I found a room with a shower for $3.50 and rested. My runny tummy had left me with stomach cramps. I took a salt tablet with lots of water and felt better. I ended up at the pictures watching some American film about soldiers.

Day 9

It was a hot night - I kept waking up to drink water. As soon as it got light I got up for another day trip. A bus took me to a turning where I had to wait an hour for a ride that would take me 50km off the main road. It was in a trailer being pulled by a tractor. It was a long straight boring road through desert. Sharing my vehicle was the driver's wife and three children. They gave me grapes.

Eventually, the monotony of the desert was broken by a walled city rising out of the flat landscape as if by magic. Apart from three youths who left as I arrived, I had the whole site to myself. There was no ticket seller or drinks on sale. I was thirsty.

Risief
Byzantine church at Risief
Risief was founded in the 9th century BC as an Assyrian trading outpost. It was later used by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, before being destroyed by the Mongols. The walls were complete with arches and a stairway everywhere along their 1km length. Within the walls were several structures, and four huge underground caverns. The central church was an excellent example of early Byzantine architecture with columns, arches and a marble fountain.

I sat by the road in the shade for 20 minutes and got a ride in a jeep back to the main road (60 cents). I needed liquid so, before catching the bus back to Raqqa, I had several delicious cherry drinks. I chatted to a doctor who spoke English, Greek and Turkish and we amused people by conversing in all three languages while he translated to Arabic. Back in town I stuffed my face with kebabs (with lots of salt) and many cherry drinks and had several cold showers to cool myself.

In the cooler evening I met the multilingual doctor and his friend. We had drinks by the fast flowing river singing songs in Greek, Turkish and Arabic. We went to a house where I met the local postmaster. I was given Syrian stamps and tea.

It had been a long day - aren't they all in Syria - sightseeing in the morning and socialising in the evening.

Day 10

This night I was kept awake by a fly trying to go down my ear - you couldn't make it up! I finally got it and fed it to a friendly spider. In the morning I was off again. I caught my bus as it was pulling out. It was a three hour ride along the Euphrates valley. On my left was green fertile land and the blue river; to my right barren red coloured mountains.

At Dayr Az Zor I changed buses. Three hours through desert brought me to the small oasis village of Tadmor. My room cost $3. For the first time in days, I saw tourists.

Day 11

Palmyra
The ancient city of Palmyra at dawn
I was up early (5:30) as I wanted to take photographs in the gentle golden light just after sunrise. A 500m walk brought me to Palmyra, a large ancient city mentioned in Babylonian records as long ago as 1900BC. It is set in an oasis in the middle of desert. Greeks and Romans lived here trading with much of the world from Spain to China. The most famous ruler was Queen Zenobia during the 3rd century AD.

The entrance was a monumental arch leading to a 700m long colonaded way. There were barren mountains in the distance topped with a later Arab castle. The only company I had were some vicious dogs - I kept my distance.

I came across a temple built to the Babylonian god, Nabo and later used by worshippers of Apollo. there was a small theatre with fine rock carvings. Beduins were living among the ruins.

Beduin Children
Beduin children at Palmyra
The site was full of later temples: Greek and Roman. The Tetrapyle was a structure with four columns set onto a base, one on each corner. Part of a Byzantine wall remained. Across from a dry river were a number of highly decorated funerary towers, thought to be the tombs of prominent families. There were more tombs in the hills.

By 10am it was hot and I headed back to the village. The small but interesting museum had exhibits about the development of the Aramaic script, the language of Palmyra under Greece and Rome. There were many stone carvings (including Greek attempts at camels), glass (invented close by), mosaics, lamps, Roman coins, mummies, Arabic jewellery, carpets, carved screens and furniture.

During today's sight seeing the only other people I saw were two Beduin children, a French archiologist and an Arab family.

Funerary Towers
Funerary towers at Palmyra
Half a chicken was devoured with bread and juice and dozed off.

Around 4pm I returned to Palmyra to see one more site. Here I found a ticket office (10 cents admission). I entered the huge walled enclosure that was the Temple of Baal. The entrance was marked by two columns, 15m high. The walls were highly decorated with reliefs. The ceiling was made of single slabs carved with decorations of the trinity of gods worshipped here: Baal, Yarhibol, and Agribal. From the top of the walls I could see the forest of palm trees that give the city its name. Beyond was desert.

I returned for supper (kebabs with salad). The lights went out early and so did I.

Temple of Baal
Temple of Baal

Day 12

I had learned to read the Arabic script. Today it proved useful. When I left my hotel I spotted a bus and could read its destination: it was my bus!

There were 12 French friends travelling through the region and we chatted, exchanging tips as we were going in opposite directions. As we sped through the desert I was being thrown into the air by the bumpy road sitting in the rear seat. After a couple of hours, greenery appeared; first patches then olive groves. By noon I arrived in the pleasant city of Homs.

I walked to the centre and found a tourist office. They had no map and information about the city. They did draw me a map by hand and indicated some places I could visit. I had my kebabs for lunch along with some delicious humus - it was invented here taking the name of the city. I spent the afternoon playing backgammon in the gardens of the hotel with a French Canadian travelling through the region in the same direction as me.

Day 13

I slept till 9am, which is late in this heat.

Woman and child in Homs
Woman and son in Homs
I wandered to the bazaar which was small and colourful. People's clothes were interesting: many women wore clothing that resembled Medieval Europe, with flowing gowns and pointed hats. I watched a wood carver working. He would place a block of wood on a machine to make it spin and then used a selection of tools to make rolling pins, table legs and other items.

As usual, people were friendly and helpful. I met my first secret policeman. He asked to see my passport, checked the visa stamp and wished me a good stay. I had humus and bread for lunch. The humus really was the best I'd ever had.

The Ibn Alwalid Mosque was Ottoman style; it was white with two thin minarets and a large silvery dome with smaller domes around it. The courtyard was built out of black and white stone and was Arab in style. In the Syrian Orthodox Church of Om Aizenar I was shown "the belt of the Virgin Mary" in a locked relic room. Inscriptions in the church were in Arabic and Syriac, a liturgical language. St Elian's Church was covered in frescos showing New Testament stories. This was a Greek Orthodox church so inscriptions were in Arabic and Greek.

I had to show my passport to a group of heavily armed men in a car. I asked them if they were secret police. They laughed when I told them I was a "secret tourist".

Homs does not get as oppressively hot as further inland. Although not that interesting a place it did make a good base with all the facilities I needed.

Day 14

Homs seems to have quite a few secret police. I had to show my passport to one as I boarded a bus to leave the city for a day trip. I joked about it with a university teacher and two soldiers. Every time the bus slowed down for a passenger, somebody would shout "passport" and we'd all laugh. After half an hour on a good dual highway I arrived at the picturesque town of Hama. This time the tourist office had maps.

Water wheels in Hama
Water wheels in Hama
The town is delightful. The Orontes River passes through and there are ancient water wheels along its length. They are 2000 years old and can be over 20m high. Many still lift water onto still-used aquaducts. The buildings looked medieval and were made of light coloured stone. I came across a derelict area. In 1982 up to 30,000 people had been killed after an uprising here. Perhaps that is why the people are quieter and less friendly than in other parts of Syria.

At noon I walked to a riverside restaurant overlooking the river and its wheels. Children were using the wheels as diving boards while I enjoyed a lazy lunch. The food here was more expensive than normal but I still ate for less than $2.

From the citadel, I got excellent views of the town and its surroundings.

On the bus back nobody asked to see my passport. Back in Homs, I passed a man beating up a female in the streets while others tried to separate them. Supper was falafel.

Day 15

Today was my 15th day in Syria. I had to get my visa extended. I took my papers to the Immigration Office. I had to visit almost every room in the building, fill in six forms and supply five photographs. I was told to return in six days to pick up the extension. When I asked if I could have it sooner, the man got angry so I agreed to return in six days.

Krak de Chevaliers
Krak de Chevaliers
I jumped onto another bus. The man sitting next to me kept giving me sweets. There were several police checkpoints as the road was passing close to the Lebanese border. The bus turned off the main highway and climbed into the fertile hills. I got off in a small village set in a valley overlooked by a castle. I walked 500m up to the castle, called Al Hosn in Arabic.

The castle is better known by its French name of Krak de Chevaliers. It is one of the most famous and best preserved Crusader castles that dot the eastern Mediterranean coast from north to south. It wasn't swarming with visitors but there were more tourists here than are normally found in Syria. The building dates from 1110AD and could garison 4000 soldiers. In 1271 it was taken over by the Arab king Al Zater Baybars and it was inhabited until 1934 when it was abandoned.

I explored the huge wall, wide moats, a couple of towers, several tunnels, courtyards, a mosque and a school. Highlight was the magnificent cloisters, 27m wide, 10m high and 120m long. The views from the top across the valley and out to sea were excellent.

I jumped on a bus for a 6km ride. One of the passengers paid my fare. I reached the pretty 5th century, Syrian Orthodox St George's Convent, a yellow building set in a fertile green valley. I could see the castle above in the distance. I visited the three chapels decorated with carved ebony dating from the 13th century. The priest showed me round in French. He held me by the hand as he explained. As this was a common practice in Arab societies I didn't think anything of it. He then showed me some icons and, while saying "Cette tres jolie, non?", he brushed my hand against his erect penis under his robe. The next thing I remember was being about 2km down the road before I stopped and laughed at his lack of subtilty.

St George's Convent
St George's Convent
A minibus and bus brought me back to safety of my room. Several banana milk drinks were consumed before and during supper.

Day 16

I don't normally have breakfast but today I felt hungry. I had spicy sausages with vegetables in a rolled up bread. I took the bus to Hama. This was stopped at a checkpoint and we all had to get off while a heavily armed solder had a look inside. Another bus took me to Suqaylibiyah. I could see a lovely castle called Qalat Shayzar; it was next to the Orontes River, a water wheel and a humped back bridge.

A third bus took me the 7km to Madiq, dominated by a citadel with inhabited houses. I explored a large caravanserai with an arched doorway and a wide cloister with an exhibition of very fine mosaics showing animals, fights, birds in entwined trees, Greek writing and human figures. The mosaics came from the ancient Greek city of Afamea. I walked there via the village at the foot of the citadel. Many people greeted me as I walked along the dirt track.

Afamea mosaics at Madiq
Afamea mosaics at Madiq
Afamea dates from 300BC. It was pure Greek with no later Roman arches. The ruins are unrestored: columns and buildings stand in the middle of fields and amongst houses and Beduin tents. My only companions were a shepherd leading his flock home. The countryside was golden and a cooling breeze was welcome.

It was noon and I was sitting in the shade in a small village.There was no shop and I wanted a drink. Suddenly a young man in full Arab clothing stopped next to me on his motorbike. "Water?" he asked. I nodded and he beckoned me onto his bike. I assumed he would be going to the houses 50m up the hill. Instead he turned off the road. Just I was beginning to remember yesterday's priest and get worried we arrived at a Beduin encampment.

I was taken to a tent as the large family crowded around to look at the stranger in their midst. I was given water. Next came tea. I chatted with the family in a mixture of my broken Arabic and sign language. They laughed at my antics. Chickens and sheep were wandering around stopping occasionally to urinate. The children were giggling every time I smiled at them. The father sat with me.

Then came watermelon. I was too thirsty and too polite to refuse. Everybody dipped in after I'd taken the first slice. Food appeared: a large bowl of rice, vegetable salad in oil and freshly made ayran (yogurt drink with salt). I remembered to eat only with my right hand but they still laughed at my table manners. As we ate, people from the other tents appeared and stood around to watch and giggle. Even the old grandmother was laughing as I imitated taxi drivers, bus conductors, market sellers, goats and chickens.

Beduins near Afamea
My Beduin hosts near Afamea
I left after several hours. My motorcyclist host gave me a hair raising 3km ride back to the citadel at Madiq. I say "hair raising" but it was my sun hat that got raised and we had to stop and retrieve it. I quickly climbed up to the top of the citadel for the views, all the while being greeted by the women in the houses. Children giggled and ran away when I approached.

Two buses brought me back to my hotel room. I enjoyed a supper of roast chicken, humus and bread followed by a banana and a milk drink. At sunset, a four day holiday began.

Day 17

I packed and walked to the bus station. My pack was searched before I boarded the bus. The two hour bus ride was uneventful along a fast road. We descended into a green valley to Damascus, (Al Shams in Arabic), a city of wide avenues and parks. I walked towards the centre of town and was stopped by two soldiers. They welcomed me to their city and put me on a bus they had stopped, after giving me tickets and telling the driver where I was going. As I jumped on the bus, they told me to come and see them if I had any problems in the city.

In the central Square of the Martyrs, I found a comfortable room with wash basin, fan and breakfast in a good hotel for $2.30. I ate lunch in a fancy air conditioned place: two kibbis, chips (?), humus and two drinks. It came to $3. Most shops were closed and people were in a holiday mood. The city has a very cosmopolitan feel.

Day 18

Church of St Sarkis
Church of St Sarkis
Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Caananites then Amorites had their city here before the Assyrians took it in 732BC. The Babylonians arrived in 605BC and they were followed by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and finally Muslim Arabs of the Umayyad dynasty. At one time the Umayyads ruled an empire stretching from Spain to India. After the city was sacked by the Mongols, it was taken by the Turkish Ottomans. French influence increased until 1946. It is once again an Arab city.

Church of St Mary's
Priest at St Mary's Church
With such a long and fascinating history, there is a lot to see in Damascus.

First were the mosques: the black and white stone Darwish Pasa (1574; Ottoman), Sinan Pasa (with its green tiled minaret), Sibabya Medrese, and Sabuniya (with pretty inlay on its walls).

Then were the churches: Church of St Sarkis (13th century; Armenian Orthodox; with a beautiful brass gilded icon over its alter), Bab Kisan (built on the site of a house where St Paul was imprisoned), The House of Ananias (a chapel in a cavern reached by a flight of stairs), and St Mary's (Byzantine; Greek Orthodox; marble pillars and a carved marble screen).

Parts of the city: Bab Shakri (The Roman eastern gate), a Roman arch, Palace of Azem (the delightful house of an Ottoman governor - now a folk museum featuring traditional clothing, tents, Islamic scrolls, inlaid furniture, ceramics, musical instruments and glass lamps), and the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter.

During the day I met Greeks, Ghaneans, Pakistanis, Armenians, Bangladeshis, Kuwaitis, Gujeratis, Japanese, Iranian, Trinidadian, Turkish as well as locals. Lunch was humus and bread.

In the afternoon I visited the city's most famous landmark: The Umayyad Mosque. It dates from 705AD and is one of the oldest surviving Islamic buildings. It was full of visitors. The walls and ceilings are covered in 6th century mosaics. The large courtyard has cloisters on three sides; one side has Greek style columns; another side had square pillars with reliefs that were all different; another side had pillars inlaid with coloured stones.

Umayyad Mosque
The mosaic covered Umayyad Mosque
in Damascus
The praying area was 100m long by 50m wide and the roof dome was supported by inlaid pillars. There was a painted wooden ceiling. There are two tombs in the mosque: John The Baptist and the head of Hussein, son of Ali (revered by Shi'ite Muslims). I sat in the courtyard watching people. This was one of the most beautiful mosques I'd ever visited.

Umayyad Mosque
Inside the Umayyad Mosque
Supper was a plate of broad beans, a sandwich and a delicious pink drink with bananas in it (?)

Day 19

Saladin's Tomb
The tomb of Saladin
I wandered back to the lovely Umayyad Mosque to take some photographs in the morning sun. Nearby was the Tomb of Salah El Din (known in the West as Saladin). He was a Kurd who liberated the Arab lands after they were occupied by the Crusaders. The tomb dates from 1195 and is capped by a red dome and has Turkish Seljuk style tiles inside with a marble sarcophagus.

Lunch was kibbi, humus, kebab and drinks for $1.10.

I visited a couple of mosques and and felt hungry again (half a roast chicken). I relaxed for the rest of this, my 100th day away from home.

Day 20

Today was the last day of the holiday.

Two buses took me to the cliffside village of Ma'aloula. At the top of the cliff was St Takla's Convent with a lovely view of the village below. The convent was built around a Greek Catholic chapel dating from 325 AD. It is simply decorated with icons and statues of the Virgin Mary. The liturgy is conducted in the ancient language of Aramaic. There were a number of caves carved out of the rock in the cliff face.

Convent of the Blessed Virgin
Convent of the Blessed Virgin
On another hill I found the Convent of St Sarkis dating from the 1st century AD. The tiny Greek Orthodox chapel was carved out of the rock face.

I returned to Damascus for my chicken and humus. Another bus took me to the pretty hillside village of Seynaya.

On the top of the hill was the Convent of the Blessed Virgin, an important pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims. As I was approaching I was detoured to a Greek Orthodox family house. He was a medical student and spoke English. The 91 year old grandmother insisted I take a couple of icons with me. The convent dated from 570 AD and was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Highlight was a collection of silver and gold icons and oil chandeliers.

After a big lunch, fruit juices were my supper.

Day 21

Went to Homs for my visa extention but it wasn't ready. I took all my forms and photos to get it done in Damascus but the office had closed by the time I got back. I picked up five letters from the post office, took some clothes to a laundry and changed $75 into local currency. I got 47 Syrian Pounds to the dollar after that currency was devalued by 60%.

Day 22

Damascus Bazaar
The Bazaar in Damascus
I went to the Immigration Office. I only needed three photos but I had to get the correct form from a stall across the road from the office. The man said "Tomorrow at 1pm". I bought some books and a book about Arabic grammar. In the heat of the day I sat in a shady spot in the park reading and relaxing.

In the afternoon I visited the huge bazaar, now fully open after the holidays. One part is called "The Street Called Straight" and dates from Roman times. It was very busy. I bought some Lebanese casettes.

Day 23

Today I spent the morning exploring the old part of Damascus. I walked the narrow streets with their overhanging houses and arched covered alleyways.

In the afternoon I picked up my visa extenstion. At the post office I waited two hours to phone home. After lunch (peas, okra and rice) I collected my laundry. I slept for the rest of day.

Day 24

I woke up late today. I missed my 6am alarm and got up at 9:30. I caught a bus for a day trip to Bosra.

On the way I was taken off the bus during a police check for not having my passport with me. I was led to a tent full of soldiers and machine guns. When the officer saw that I was a tourist, he shouted at the soldier who'd brought me in and apologised to me.

Back on the bus I sat with a friendly woman and her two children. At Suweida I changed buses to Salkhad. I found myself with the same family. We joked through the journey, the children taking turns to sit next to me. Her name was Adad and she was visiting relatives in Salkhad and invited me for a coffee at their house.

Mahmood and his family
My host, Mahmood, and his family
At her brother in law, Mahmood's house I had endless cups of tea and coffee. I was then fed meat broth, rice, corned beef, bread and tea. I ate communially on the floor with the family. The meal ended with grapes and mint tea. Lebanese music was played and the children danced to it. They invited me to stay the night and continue my daytrip the next day. I was tempted as the company was good.

They took me to Adad's parents' house. Her brothers were there; they had lived in Australia so spoke good English. I was given more tea. Adad told me she'd like me to join her family and presented her 15 year old sister. The family laughed at my embarassment. I went for a walk with Mahmood and the brothers and ended up at their house. We watched a video while playing backgammon and drinking mint tea. I was fed mashed potato with onions, cheese, yoghurt, oil, spices, bread and tea. They also wanted me to stay the night. It was now dark and there was no hope of getting back to Damascus. I stayed at Mahmood's house sleeping in a room on the floor with two cats and the sound of giggling females in the next room.

Day 25

I woke several times during the night after all the teas and coffees I'd had. The whole family waved me off and negotiated a taxi for me to Bosra. The 30km trip cost $2.30.

Bosra was settled around 14th century BC and has been inhabited by Amorites, Canaanites, and Nabateans. The Romans made the town their regional capital. The only Roman Arab emperor, Philip, was from Bosra. The Byzantines and Arabs also ruled here. It is built from black volcanic basalt.

I explored the citadel. Inside is the best preserved Roman theatre I'd seen. All the backstage areas were in place and there were mosaics. It is one of the few theatres from this period not built into a hillside.

Theatre Bosra
Stage of Bosra's theatre
Around the town, the original Roman houses are still inhabited. many buildings are nestled between pillars and columns. TV ariels on the roofs give away the fact that these are not museum pieces. People were friendly and their brightly coloured clothes contrasted with the blackness of the town. The town's Nabatean gate is the only example of its type in the region.

Bosra Street Scene
Street scene in Bosra
I found a Byzantine cathedral dating from 513 AD, and a Byzantine bassilica (4th century). The Mosque of Omar is one of the oldest mosques built in 720 AD from a converted pagan temple complete with Greek, Latin and Nabatean inscriptions.

The road through the town still had the original Roman paving stones and parts of columns. At the town's entrace was the 2nd century AD Cryptoportic, an underground market, 106m long, 4.65 m wide and just over 4m high. Skylights gave illumination. Side doors lead into shops.

A bus took me to Dara. The bus to Damascus was so busy, I only got on by following a soldier through the driver's door. My first meal of the day was at 4:30 (okra and rice). 33 hours after leaving I returned to my hotel room.

Day 26

Today I visited the Jordanian embassy for a visa. The cost was one photo and $22 in local currency. I changed more money. I had a pizza breakfast and sat around in the Umayyad Mosque until it was time to collect my passport and visa. I prepared my pack for a new country and relaxed for the rest of the day. I tried watermelon - it was delicious.

Day 27

I overslept again. Syria has tired me out.

I had planned to meet three Americans and share a taxi with them to Jordan. Instead I took the bus. It was full. I met Laird, a New York journalist and Mohammad, an Egyptian on his way home. The three of us teamed up for the day. We shared food and water for the journey and communicated with a local family in a mixture of English, Turkish and Arabic.

We had to wait for several hours at the anarchistic Syrian border post while the rest of the bus went through passport control. My passport was stamped within a few minutes. It was sunset by the time we reached the well ordered Jordanian post. I returned to the bus after changing some money.

Finally everybody got on the bus and we prepared to leave for the short drive to Jordan's capital, Amman. The bus wouldn't start. We tried pushing it but it was no use. It was too late to go on so we left the border area and walked a short distance to a truckers hotel. A tripple room cost us $6 each: Jordan is more expensive than Syria.

Our journey would continue the next day...

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Photographs and text : © 1986, 2003 KryssTal


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