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The Land of Saladin
A month's of travel using local transport in this fascinating part of the Middle East.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
Photographs and text : © 1986, 2003 KryssTal