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Syria - Ancient Wonders and Welcoming People

One of my most amazing trips ever, with sights I will always remember

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The Valley of Tombs, near Palmyra, Syria

There are moments when traveling, I feel, that what you are experiencing is so dramatic, so inspiring, that you know their memory is being seared onto your brain.

One of those moments came on my second day in Syria, at the Ancient ruins of Palmyra. I was exploring an area called the Valley of the Tombs. Dozens of "Tower Tombs" are scattered throughout the dusty orange valley and up its rocky slopes. The towers are blocky, three to four story mausoleums built by families to house generations of Palmyrene burials. They range in state from perfectly restored to crumbling piles of rough, stone blocks. In my brown leather jacket, I was playing Indiana Jones, clambering up the towers, sometimes even lowering myself down inside to explore their deteriorating stairwells and creepy shelves, where bodies were long ago stacked up by the hundreds. I was resting atop a tower for a moment, admiring the gorgeous, otherworldly view. Not another soul could be seen for miles. That's when the haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer drifted into the valley. The music fit the mood perfectly, and I felt my soul rise. I thanked God that I'd once again been led to one of the world's wonderful places.

Earlier this year, when I'd confided to one or two that I was planning on visiting Syria, they thought I was tempting my fate. Too dangerous, they claimed, believing our 21st century media's labeling and packaging of other countries and cultures, and the subsequent distortions of reality. Even a cursory reading of first hand accounts of travelers would reveal that Syria was anything but crawling with terrorists and fanatics waiting to pounce upon Westerners. All who'd really been there agreed how friendly and welcoming the people of that country truly are. Sure, our governments may disagree, but what does that really have to do with the people in the street, and how they welcome a visitor?

The inner cella of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra was the number one reason I'd been yearning to go to Syria for years. A once powerful oasis trading city that challenged the might of the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century A.D., its ruins sprout romantically from the desert and are wonderfully preserved. So intent upon visiting Palmyra was I that, upon landing in Damascus, the first thing I did was find a bus to there. Three hours across the sun-drenched, rocky desert, and I was amongst the ruins.

I was first struck by how massive they are. Their centerpiece, the Temple of Bel, covers the area of a football field, its buildings, walls and columns soaring skyward. Although most of today's ruins at Palmyra are Roman, the temple shows its Semitic origins. Three storey walls surround the complex, just inside of which were giant rows of columns on all four sides. The central temple building stands slightly off center within the rows, its shrine devoted actually to a trio of Gods: Bel, a supreme god who controls the movement of the heavens; Yarhibol, a solar god; and Aglibol, a lunar one. The Romans, who were always quick to equate the local pantheon to their own Jupiter, Artemis and so on, expanded and enlarged this temple. The Bel complex is the only place in the ruins which you have to pay a (small) entrance fee, and is definitely worth it.

The 'Decumanus,' or main colonaded street in Palmyra, Syria

As I ventured outside the temple, down the main street, I was also struck by how immense an area Palmyra's ruins cover -- more than six square miles. The decumanus -- as the Romans called the main street -- is lined on either side for about a mile and a half by elegant, decorative columns -- with a local adaptation. About halfway up each column, a short shelf juts towards the street. Statues were placed upon these shelves (sadly, none remain), to honor local nobility, wealthy merchants and the like who'd funded civic improvements. This feature is repeated on columns throughout the city, and in its day, must have made an amazing sight -- rows of columns stretching into the distance, each adorned with painted statuary. Even without the statues, the sight is impressive.

Palmyra also has standard Roman city features, including an atmospheric theater, sprawling agora, temples, and the like. I spent half a day exploring them, sharing the site with an occasional tour group or locals selling souvenirs or camel rides. However, Palmyra is vast enough to swallow its sparse crowds, and much of the time I paced beneath the columns by myself. I read my guidebook's description of the various sections of the city and pictured Palmyra's past glories. Later in the afternoon, my hotel had arranged a driver to take me to the Arab castle, Qalat ibn Maan, to watch the sunset perched on a hill overlooking the ruins. It was a bit of a disappointment, though, as the castle itself was closed and the view is too far from the ruins to really experience much of it. Returning to town, I wandered around a bit before turning in for the night. I was exhausted from my full day of sightseeing and the two plus days of travel to get there.

The next morning, though, I was up early, walking through the brisk cold to the ruins to watch the sunrise. The wind whistled across the sands, driving ice into the veins of my exposed fingers. I found a viewing point and hunkered down behind the stones. Soon, the rising sun brought forth a palette of pale pinks, oranges and purples, and the view was worth the shivers. As the sun climbed higher, I turned around and photographed the effects of its rich orange light on the ruins. I dashed back to the hotel for a quick breakfast, then devoted the rest of the day to the Valley of the Tombs.

The Tower Tomb of Iambliku in the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra, Syria

Travel is a curious thing. Years ago, when I'd first read about Palmyra, I immediately wanted to visit it. While researching the trip, though, nothing about the Valley of the Tombs caught my fancy. However, when I SAW them the day before, looming somewhat sinisterly in the distance, I was instantly afire to walk amongst them. Only two of the tombs are "officially" open to the public (and that only three times a day at prescribed times). So, when you visit them, you are shoved in amongst virtually all of that day's tourists. I find tour groups the single most irritating thing when traveling. I know its selfish (and unrealistic) of me to expect to enjoy historical monuments alone. However, the feeling of walking in History's footsteps is so powerful when it is just you and the site, that I seek to time my visits in off times to minimize crowds whenever possible. So, after a cursory visit to the two officially opened tombs, rubbing shoulders with German and Spanish tour groups, I had the driver drop me off at the far end of the valley.

As the vehicle receded, and the visiting hour ended, the crowds disappeared. I sighed in relief as quiet returned to the valley, and then began a slow and thorough exploration of the tombs. I poked inside open doorways, clambered up to the top of more accessible towers, and even found a way to lower myself down inside officially "closed" tombs. My flashlight illuminated the dark passageways and I had to fight down the urge to mutter the Indiana Jones line, "Fortune and Glory, kid, fortune and glory..." After several hours of exploration, I felt I had truly absorbed the Valley of the Tombs. The experience was complete atop the Tower Tomb, listening the muezzin's holy call. I basked in the warmth of afternoon sun, wanting to soak up as much of the moment as I could. After the music faded in the distance, I walked slowly eastward. As I drifted near the Roman ruins, I saw the sun's rays struck a peach-colored glow from the columns and stones. Entering the site at the Roman Agora, I gasped in pleasure as the area gleamed with reflected golden light. I had come full circle, I realized. I'd begun the day 11 hours earlier, shivering, but admiring the play of light on the ruined city, and I was ending it the same way, enjoying the ruddy glow. I'd come a long way and waited a long time to see Palmyra, but it had repaid every minute, with interest.

The view of the Tower Tombs stretches away across the valley, Palmyra, Syria

The next morning, the time came to leave Palmyra, and take a bus west to my next stop. Not being able to read Arabic, and able to say and understand only half a dozen phrases, made bus stations in Syria VERY interesting. My first leg, from Palmyra to Homs, was easy: Mine was the only bus at the stop. I paid my fare (75 Syrian pounds for the 2 hour ride, or about $1.50). However, it was a tad overwhelming when I got to the bus station in Homs, Syria's second largest city. I asked a couple folks in the teeming, sprawling, chaotic station, "Wayn al-bus lil Qalat al-Hosn?" I followed their pointing until one older Arab gentleman tucked my arm under his and walked me directly to the minibus that was going to Kerak des Chevaliers, my destination.

Minibuses ply the smaller routes and supplement the larger buses, which go between major towns. The minibuses usually have 14 seats and leave, not on a time schedule, but when full. This one had two decidedly Western-looking guys in it, and one Arab man. I said hello. The Australian and a New Zealander informed me that they'd been waiting for a half hour, and I was the first new passenger to show up in that time. I suggested we bargain a rate for us to leave right away -- "buying" the other seats, so to speak. After about 15 minutes of back and forth, and a heated dispute between our driver and another that wanted to steal away our business, we finally departed. Final price: 75 Syrian pounds -- three times what the individual 25 pound (fifty cent) fare was. In my opinion, it was well worth it, although the Kiwi was balking at paying what amounted to a buck more!

Once in Krak des Chevaliers (Arabic: Qalat al-Hosn), I asked directions to Hotel Beibars, where I'd planned to spend the night. Since most people visit Krak -- the largest crusader castle in the Middle East -- as a day trip or as part of a tour, there aren't a lot of places to stay, and I'd heard they were a tad more expensive than the $8 a night I paid in Palmyra. I followed the road that looped around the castle and spotted a building that I hoped would be my hotel. It was gorgeously sited across a deep valley with what would be a stunning view of the castle. Sure enough, it was the right building, and I bargained the rate down to $20 a night. Hotel Beibars is probably a four star hotel in Syria, although in the U.S., it would be equivalent to a Holiday Inn. I'd paid for the room with a balcony and the view was every bit as spectacular as I'd guessed. I quickly unpacked and headed back out the door to go explore the castle.

Magnificent Krak des Chevaliers, Syria

Krak was the number two reason I came to Syria. Lawrence of Arabia visited the castle in the last century and called it the "perfect castle." For more than three hours, I explored every room, tower, battlement and cavern in the castle. Liability lawyers in the States would swoon at the lack of guardrails, but I eagerly admired the view over the edges of the battlements and towers. A couple times, I sat down and shimmied myself out onto a ledge of stone -- my feet dangling over the abyss -- to get a better angle on a photograph. I'm not scared of heights, but my heart was definitely in my throat as I scooted slowly and methodically into position to snap the picture.

The Arab enemies of the Crusaders called Krak "the mountain," because of its distinctive inner fortifications. The Knights of St. John, the religious order of knighthood that built and controlled the castle, used a feature called a glacis on the inner walls. A steep, triangular slope, smoothed and paved with stone, led up to the inner towers and battlements, making Krak loom indeed like a mountain over its lower outer walls. The castle is in near-perfect condition, although some restoration work was going on while I was there.

The sun was slipping into the West as I finished my exploration. I hurried back around the loop and towards my hotel, eagerly anticipating the photogenic effects of the late afternoon sun on the castle's stone walls. The view, as I edged around the valley towards my hotel, could be summed up as "poetic." Once at the hotel, I hurried to the balcony and propped my feet up on the rail. As the colors deepened, and the orange shimmer on the walls was replaced by a pink blush, I wrote out my postcards. I paused to "ooh" and "aah" when the moon rose from behind the castle. Afterwards, I enjoyed the luxury of the hot shower, centrally heated room and Western-style amenities. Since the sun sets early in Syria in November (4:30 pm or so), I had some time to relax before heading out for dinner. I ate that night at The Round Table, being the only diner in the place. Krak's tour bus and day tripper crowds mean lunch is the big meal for restaurants. The chef/waiter Mohammed sat down after I ate and we talked for nearly two hours. Like everyone else I met in Syria, he emphasized that though they may dislike George Bush, they love Americans. I told him that I agreed: Just because our governments and politicians don't get along is no reason for he and I not to become friends. Mohammed was typical of the Syrians I met -- friendly, and more than happy to welcome an American to his country.

From my hotel balcony, the crusader castle at sunset

When I returned to the hotel, I met two Londoners who had just arrived. Boldly (I thought), they were renting a car and driving about the country -- despite neither of them being able to read or speak Arabic. I told Steve and James about the car tour that I'd arranged earlier with the hotel owner for the next day (I gave him my list of historic sights I wanted to visit and he'd picked out four he said were possible to see in one day). I offered to Steve and James to join me -- if we split the $70 price I'd negotiated, it'd be a bargain. Plus, with driver and vehicle provided, they wouldn't have to worry about using their gas or getting lost. Steve jumped at it, and convinced a more reluctant (and less of a castle enthusiast) James to go along.

The next morning, we cut a deal to add in the town of Hama, which was famous for its agricultural water wheels which James wanted to see, for $20 more. We set off shortly after 8 am, headed towards our first sight: Qalat Marqab, a crusader castle built of black volcanic basalt. We detoured through the town of Tartus for reasons we never really were sure (the driver -- who spoke almost no English -- insisted he needed to talk to the police). After 20 minutes of threading through the town, we headed back out on the highway. We arrived a short time later at Castle Marqab, climbing the hills and finding it...closed. Now, my guidebook said that most historical sights in Syria are closed on Tuesday. I'd pointed that out to the hotel owner the day before, but he said that there would be no problem: The sights he'd picked out were all open.

As we pounded on the castle door, I surveyed the walls. I noticed once section where they had crumbled down a bit, and the grass and dirt rose to meet that section. "Hmmm..." I thought, purposefully securing my camera bag, and climbing towards the spot. Steve and James watched as I scrambled up and over the walls. Once inside, I retraced my steps towards the entrance, slid the bolt aside, and boomed out, "Enter the castle!" My friends cheered my exploits, and we embarked on our own private, self-guided tour of Castle Marqab. To deflect any unlikely problems with the police, we left the posted entrance fee at the ticket booth window. The castle's black stone did give it a brooding, somber appearance, as my guidebook said. The white mortar between the stones also lent it a dramatic, clearly accentuated look. We clambered up stairways, through rooms, atop towers and walls, and enjoyed our private visit for just under an hour. James suggested we "lock back up" when we left, so I ushered them out the front door and repeated my scaling of the walls. As we were leaving, an Arab couple was just arriving, and we giggled at their ensuing baffled expression at the closed castle, and how we could possibly have visited it.

Qalat Marqab and its somber black basalt stones

The drive to our next stop, Qalat Saladin (supposed to be the number two most romantic castle in Syria after Krak), dragged on and on, as we wound our way along tiny, mountain roads. It quickly became obvious our driver had no clue where he was going, and had never been to the castle before. It took nearly two hours to get there...only to find it...closed. Again. Once again, I surveyed the walls, joined this time by Steve and James. However, the crusader builders and Arab renovators had done too good of a job with this one. I could see no way of getting inside without taking foolish risks. We tried to get our driver to scout around for the caretaker and see if it could be opened up, but he was useless. The men working at the adjacent snack bar (which, strangely WAS open) merely echoed that it was closed. We had to be content to walk around it a bit, and back in the van, drive around for a scenic overlook. Checking the time, we began to feel we'd been sold ocean-front property in the desert. There was simply no way we were going to be able to get in all the sights we'd been promised. So, we decided to snip the Bronze Age town of Ugarit (1.5 hours back the way we'd came) off our schedule, and head south and east towards the castle of Masyaf and Hama with James' water wheels.

This led us to driving up and over Syria's coastal mountain range, the Jebel Ansariye. It was a gorgeous drive, with immense panoramas of mountain and valley. It was spoiled only by our growing realization our driver's incompetence. First, he had to detour 20 minutes or so to hunt fuel (since he'd neglected to begin the day with more than a half tank). Then, he stopped nearly every 10 minutes to reconfirm directions (WE could have done as poorly in Steve and James' car, we groused). Eventually, at a crossroads, we looked at the time and failing light of day and realized we also had to cut from our itinerary Qalat Masyaf -- the stronghold of the cult of the Ismailis, or the Assassins, as the Crusaders called them. All that remained was Hama, and our driver, realizing perhaps what his inability had caused, had us humming along at high speeds towards it. We arrived at dark, and only just persuaded an attendant to let us past closed gates for a quick photograph of two of its famous water wheels.

Hama's famous agricultural water wheels

By the time we made it back to the hotel, it'd been dark for hours. We dropped our things in our rooms and headed out for dinner at the Round Table again, which was enjoyable. We talked about travel, music, politics and so on. We agreed upon a maximum price we should pay the hotel owner for our truncated and misguided trip, although we agreed it was best to save the argument for the morning after check out. It was a gorgeous, clear night as we walked back to the hotel, and the lights of the surrounding villages down below shone brightly, as if mirroring the stars and moon overhead. It is a shame that more people do not stay overnight in the Krak des Chevaliers area because it is a beautiful hilltop setting, with a pleasant view around for miles.

After breakfast, the three of us confronted the hotel owner, who was adamant that he'd done nothing wrong, and that our trip was a success. He blamed any missed sights on US changing the schedule he'd given the driver. We brushed his irritating position aside, and stuck to our point. I realized that the whole charade was simply how his culture does business -- argument, negotiation, and compromise are part of the Arab way. Was I angry? No (but James was!). Sure, I was disappointed that I didn't see those really cool sights I'd picked out, but I HAD enjoyed seeing a side of Syria I might not have otherwise. I'd seen tiny villages, Bedouin tents in the fields, dusty provincial towns and crowded, modern cities. I'd seen flocks of sheep spreading across a tiny mountain lane, caught the eye of shepherds whose rhythm of life beat at such a different pace from mine that I probably couldn't begin to understand their lifestyle, and they mine. The tour wasn't what I signed on for, admittedly, but it had been an education and a glimpse at Syria's sights, nonetheless.

My final day in Syria would prove to be somewhat of an anticlimax. After saying goodbye to Steve and James, I negotiated a minibus to Homs, then caught a bus to Damascus. I'd planned a full day of sightseeing in Syria's capital, but transportation proved much slower than I'd figured. It was after 3 pm by the time I was walking towards the Old City, hunting my way through its labyrinth for the Ummayad Mosque. I'd been assured by other travelers that it was the premier sight in the city, but I found myself vaguely disappointed. It is crammed claustrophobically inside the walled Old City, making it next to impossible to step back and take it all in. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant, sprawling building to explore, and I took my time, following along with my guidebook's description. It is interesting how informal a gathering place the mosque is, with people napping, children chasing each other around, kids playing with radio controlled cars -- a far cry from a Catholic mass!

Me at the ruins of Palmyra, Syria

Afterwards, I found the tomb of the Kurdish general and Crusader nemesis Saladin and paid my respects. I tried to get in the building housing the remains of the Mameluke general Baibars (who my hotel had been named after, and a rather more wicked thorn in the Crusader's side), but the building was closed. I wandered through the souk, or bazaar, and enjoyed its color for awhile. I paced along the city walls in the deepening dusk, knowing I had hours and hours before my flight departed (2 am!). When I grew tired of the weight of my backpack, I found a restaurant, enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and finally took a cab to the airport. The long road back home was beginning. However much my body dreaded the two days of travel that lay ahead, inside I could reflect back if I wanted, and summon up a more pleasant memory...of sitting in the desert atop a stone tower, the afternoon light beginning to redden the hills...and that eerie sound beginning to wash over me...

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:55 Archived in Syria

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