25 November 2008

No seatbelts on the road to Damascus

A trip to the Middle East! Blimey. Sure, I've visited Turkey with Jennifer & Hayley in 2002, but that's the Middle East for beginners; the Levant with training wheels. I've wanted to visit other corners of the Middle East for years, but wasn't keen on going by myself. But all things come to those who wait: Jennifer and Andrew decided to venture forth from their kempt demesne in One Tree Hill to sweep through the Middle East on a grand tour, and kindly invited me to join them.

Initially the plan was to take in Jordan, Syria and Egypt, but after due consideration of my status as a contractor sans annual leave (i.e. don't work, don't get paid) I decided to restrain my travelling urges and reduce the scope of my trip to just Jordan and Syria. This would have the additional benefit of allowing Jennifer and Andrew some quality 'couple time' in Egypt after enduring a fortnight with my company.

As it turned out, this proved to be a wise decision. A week before they left New Zealand, Jennifer and Andrew decided to get married, and the wedding was quickly organised for the day before they flew out. So now I was joining them on their honeymoon!

It was an easy middle-of-the-day Tube journey from Southfields out to Heathrow for my flight to Amman, the capital of Jordan, and the BMI Airbus A321 departed on time. The inflight movie was the fourth Indiana Jones instalment, but I gave that a miss and listened to the audio stations instead. The comedy selection offered the Vic Reeves Radio 2 panel show Does The Team Think..., including one episode that I attended the recording of with Richard Ngatai. It was entertaining and at the same time pleasingly odd to hear it whilst flitting over Bulgarian mountains at 800 km/h.

Border control at the airport proved to be slightly confusing, although the officials spoke English. There seemed to be about five stages involved in acquiring my Jordanian tourist visa (£8) and I was never entirely sure what was happening at each juncture. Still, I got through in 10 minutes. Then some geezer in a boiler-suit saw me carrying my backpack and pulled it onto a large x-ray machine, although the machine didn't seem to be manned. After it emerged from the x-ray he toted my bag and hurried towards the exit, with me close behind, rather bemused but not too concerned.

As we emerged into the public area I spotted a transfer driver with my name on a piece of paper - it was the first time I've had this when emerging from Arrivals, so I experienced a small moment of travel thrill - and so beckoned the keen porter over with my bag. The transfer driver asked me 'who's this guy?' and I could honestly say, 'err, I dunno, he just picked up my bag'. After explaining that the guy with the sign was my driver it took a discussion in Arabic to reveal that the bag-picker-upper was just an airport cleaner who had finished his shift and was trying to nab some extra dinars by acting as a taxi driver on his way home. Instead I travelled into the city along Amman's motorways with the guy I'd booked, Samir, who explained that his excellent English came from a year working in Texas and Michigan in the 80s. As we drove along I pondered the SUVs parked alongside the motorway with Jordanian families enjoying the equivalent of a Friday night barbecue while the traffic sped by.

Samir dropped me off at the Select Hotel in west central Amman, about a 15 minute walk from the centre of town. I was greeted by the manager and checked in, and as it was after 10pm I retired to my simple but clean room and turned in.


I hadn't forgotten about the early morning wake-up call provided in Muslim lands by the calls of the muezzin, but it seems my room had a direct sight-line to the heavy-duty speakers on the neighbourhood minaret, so I was to receive special attention. The call to prayer blasted into my bedroom at 5am and again half an hour later. As I lay there with the atonal drone blasting through my earplugs, I could at least reflect that the muezzin had quite an impressive singing voice. This provided some minor mitigation to the whole astonishingly-loud-noise-at-five-AM thing.

Soon it was time for breakfast downstairs, and I was able to link up with Jennifer and Andrew, who I'd not seen since my going-away party held at their house in February last year, 20 months before. We caught up over breakfast (the ubiquitous flatbread and jam), and planned our day while chatting to a tidily-dressed American almost-doctor who was perusing a bible over his morning repast. To whet our appetite for Middle Eastern driving habits he told us of a trip he took in a service taxi down the King's Highway towards Petra. In his tale the driver, travelling too fast as usual, realised too late that it was going to be a struggle to avoid a truck reversing into his path. The driver's response was to spin the steering wheel and then fling his hands over his face to await certain death! Obviously this didn't occur - a collision was narrowly avoided and the driver ground to a halt, panting with terror, in the company of a set of distinctly unimpressed American passengers.

Our first day in Jordan was clear and warm, with blue skies and a comfortable mid-20s temperature. Knowing that we would be spending more time in the capital later in our trip, we ventured out to see the ruined Roman city of Jerash (Gerasa), some 50 kilometres to the northwest. This involved a cheap taxi ride across town to a bus depot, a five-minute wait for a minibus to turn up, and another five minute wait for it to fill up with passengers so we could depart. In the hour or so it took to reach Jerash we descended through an irrigated valley dotted with stone farms, functional concrete apartment buildings, and here and there flecked with patches of dun-coloured rock. Alongside the motorway, farmers and their sons propped rack after rack of colourful fruit and vegetables to tempt drivers, with bulging pomegranates standing out.

Jerash was a Roman and Byzantine city that reached its peak in the 3rd century AD, but declined rapidly after being conquered by Persians and Muslims in the 7th century and a major earthquake in the 8th century. To set the scene for our visit we tagged onto the second half of the regular Roman martial arts demonstration held in the ruined city's old stadium. A mellifluously-voiced centurion with an English accent narrated the simulated combat between two groups of Roman legionaries, and then introduced a batch of burly, rather scary-looking gladiators who proceeded to bash the living hell out of each other in a demonstration of how much noise one can make by fencing with Roman shortswords (which turns out to be quite a bit). As each combat resolved into victor and vanquished the crowd was given the opportunity to vote on the fate of the defeated gladiator, just like in Roman times: thumbs up for 'spare the poor sod' and thumbs horizontal (*not* down) for 'I never liked him anyway!' The compere pointed out that as an added bonus and to ensure that the defeated gladiator wasn't just playing dead, the bodies of the losers were generally dragged out of the arena by two meathooks inserted beneath the shoulder-blades. Try keeping a straight face in those circumstances. The Roman demonstration finished with a chariot race: three two-horse chariots raced around the dirt-covered track whilst stirring, martial music blared from loudspeakers. The chariots and drivers were a splendid sight, although the music turned out to be quite a short sample on a loop, so it was continually re-starting like a skipping vinyl record.

Then it was time to explore the remains of the town while the warm sun beat down. The prominent Arch of Hadrian stands at the far southern end of the town, and was erected to commemorate an imperial visit in 129 AD. (For more on Hadrian, here's my write-up on the recent British Museum exhibition on his life). From the broad column-fringed oval of the forum we walked up the impressive ceremonial way, which was punctuated with Corinthian columns and the tumbled-down remains of the temples and shops that served the city in its heyday. As I had seen during my visit to Pompeii, the uneven flagstones were marked with the regular grooves caused by generations of iron-clad cart wheels wearing grooves in the stone. At the end of the ceremonial way we clambered around the town's theatre, admiring the steep terraces with each row still marked with the numbers of the seats in Byzantine Greek.

After pausing for lunch in the shade at the site's large restaurant, we returned to the busy road junction outside the ruins to look for a way back to town, as we were unsure where the minibuses stopped. In the end we opted for a very cheap ride in the back seat of a ute (pickup) with two other passengers, locals, sharing the front seat with the driver. It was a speedy journey back to Amman and we had our first experience of holding on for dear life, because the vehicle didn't have working seatbelts in the back.

In the evening we took a cheap taxi across Amman to an inner suburb to visit the trendy expats' haven, the Blue Fig Cafe. We enjoyed the warm evening air on the patio, but our collective choice of a refreshing-sounding cocktail resulting in a tray of three tall glasses full of a luminous green mouthwashy-type liquid that proved rather less than thirst-quenching. As we left to return to the hotel the early evening crowd was segueing into the livelier set who must adopt later hours than we travelling Antipodeans.


On our second morning in Amman we traipsed down the winding road to the centre of town, but on arrival we wondered if we had gotten lost and missed it completely, so unprepossessing was the collection of run-down low-rise concrete shops split by a ragged array of taxis and delivery vans on a narrow stretch of four-lane roadway. (Later it turned out that we were wrong. It was downtown Amman - we were just expecting something grander). Taking a left turn we climbed the switch-back streets to the summit of the hill overlooking the old town, on which perched the sparse remains of the town's citadel amongst a clutch of much older buildings. A few columns and the floor remain of the Temple of Jupiter, while at the far end of the ridgeline a Byzantine cathedral loomed emptily, its hemispherical dome visible across the inner city.

The site also hosts the National Museum, an unpreposessing small building that housed some interesting exhibits, including some of the oldest statues in human history (pre-historic types didn't go in for arms on their human sculptures, it seems), a cast of a skull showing clear evidence of repeated administering of trepanning, and a selection of the leathery remains of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered nearby six decades ago.

We collected our bags from the hotel and the proprietor called a service taxi (pronounced 'servees') to collect us and take us all the way to Damascus. A short while later a youngish Syrian chap arrived in a tidy Hyundai Elantra. He spoke almost no English, and we noted that he had purchased a set of Ferrari seat covers to augment the car decor. (Had we put two and two together we might have demurred and walked to Syria). We departed from the Select Hotel with me in the front seat (again, no working seatbelt) and Jennifer and Andrew in the back, and began our three hour introductory lesson in Syrian driving techniques.

First up: the horn. In New Zealand, a car horn is used sparingly for its actual designed purpose of alerting fellow road users to dangerous situations, and is almost never used in the stereotypical LA freeway or Manhattan gridlock scenario, in which repeated honks express the irritation of the driver at being caught up in a jam. In New Zealand car horns are generally used in brief parps, either to transmit a jaunty farewell to friends or relatives ('see ya!') or in a staccato pair of quick honks to thank a truck driver for pulling over and allowing us to sweep past on the open road ('cheers ears!'). For Syrian drivers, on the other hand, the car horn is the most important device in the car, surpassing the importance of anti-lock brakes or the cigarette lighter (a most hallowed tool for a nation of chain-smokers). The horn is used when the driver:

- approaches any intersection or corner
- slows, speeds up, or (occasionally) maintains the same speed
- comes within 100 metres of another road user travelling at a different speed
- wishes to gently encourage a vehicle in front to move into another lane so he can pass
- pauses for a moment in the gaps between inhaling and exhaling, and needs something to occupy himself.

While there are lanes painted onto the road surface, Syrian drivers see them as a futile attempt to restrict their artistic expression, to whit, the fanciful notion that their bobbing, weaving and occasionally suicidal dogfighting driving style is a fluid artform. Rather than, say, a calamity waiting to happen at every bend in the road. There also seems to be a novel and compellingly revisionist understanding of the physics of acceleration and momentum amongst Syrian drivers. Upon sighting a slower vehicle blocking their passage ahead, instead of braking to ensure a safe following distance they maintain their existing (high, frightening) speed in order to place their own vehicle in the same space as the offending blocker, trusting that repeated applications of the car horn and a rare sense of self-preservation in the slower driver will see everyone through: 'Inshallah' - God willing - is the oft-heard refrain.

Suffice it to say that the confusing bureaucracy of the Jordanian-Syrian border crossing in the middle of a bleak, wind-swept desert plain proved to be an unexpected relief from the stresses of the road journey. (At one point our driver was texting on two mobiles at once while steering with his left knee). A stern-looking Syrian major with a bushy moustache looked quite imposing at first, but gave us a grin and a salute once he'd stamped our visas. Our shifty driver wedged plastic bags containing duty-free cigarettes around our bags - standard practice, it seems - and proffered a bag of tea for the last set of border guards to avoid a car search.

By the time we entered the fringes of the mammoth Damascus rush hour traffic sprawl, some three and a half hours after leaving Amman, we were rather exhausted from our driving experience. Our driver decided to bail on us and pulled over to a tea-hut where a couple of yellow cabs were waiting. Despite our initial arrangement to take us all the way to our hotel in the middle of town, our driver was adamant that he would go no further. Once we considered the pros and cons we quickly took him up on his offer of not driving us any more and swiftly entrusted ourselves to a slightly saner taxi driver who overcharged us for the 15-minute ride to the hotel, but at least we were never afraid for our lives.

We had problems booking accommodation for Damascus, with all the budget and mid-range options apparently full. In the end we had settled on the intriguingly-named French Palace Hotel, located on a busy main road in the new city. While we were grateful for a roof over our heads, the hotel was significantly overpriced for the quality it offered. My room was a tiny cell with no external windows tucked right behind the reception area, which later proved to be a noisy option as multitudes of staff hung around there until midnight chatting non-stop. We dined in a nearby restaurant on a tasty array of kebabs, and then called it a day.


In the morning we walked for 15 minutes to reach the Damascus old city, dodging the careening traffic long enough to find a pleasant family restaurant to have breakfast in. They even managed to find some milk for Jennifer's tea, although they did think her strange for adulterating the revered beverage in such a fashion. After exploring the broad covered avenue of the city's souk - the descendant of the medieval markets - and circumnavigating the walls of the squat, blocky citadel, we ventured inside the famous Umayyad Mosque. Jennifer had to don an unflattering hooded cowl that came down to the ankles and was less than impressed - but on the plus side it did later afford Richard with the opportunity for some talented Photoshop mashup work:

We paid our respects at the compact mausoleum to the legendary Saladin, which was originally constructed in 1193 AD, and in which the rather bland original sarcophagus sits alongside the much grander, larger modern one donated by Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited and was struck by the plainness of the memorial to a leader beloved by Western followers of the chivalric arts. Saladin's remains are still in the small one though. We also explored the smooth, wide surface of the mosque courtyard, admiring the gold filigree of the stilt-dwelling treasury room and the colourful stained glass in the prayer hall. I was also impressed to see a shrine supposedly containing the relic of the head of St John the Baptist. Not knowing what to expect, I was surprised to see a head-shaped bundle of fine cloth behind the protective glass, as if someone had just wrapped it up in the contents of a washing basket before putting it on display. (I thought it would be poor manners to photograph it, though)

My grandfather was in Damascus during the war and remarked that at night in the old town it was so dark that it was impossible to see your hand in front of your face. He also remembered 'the street they call Straight' - Straight Street, the remnants of a Roman thoroughfare tracing a line plumb through the old city to the old Christian and Jewish quarters and the eastern ramparts of the city walls. I spotted a city cat perched on a ledge overlooking a narrow alleyway, a perfect location for an attention-seeking animal to have a snooze in the sunshine. Later, after a splendid real vanilla milkshake at a cafe, we passed a trader setting out the flatbreads he was about to sell on the bonnet of his car. Wonder how often he washes that car?

We ate lunch in the hidden courtyard of the Beit Jabri restaurant, secreted down a dogleg passage from an unassuming street entrance. Once inside, the three-storey gabled courtyard is a riot of fountains and smoking nargilehs, shaded from the weather by a series of elegant sunsails.

There was just time to visit the Azem Palace (built 1749) and admire its displays of black-and-white stonework and the curious mannequins set out in illustrative tableux demonstrating the historic use of each chamber. I particularly admired the schoolhouse scene in which a dozen young Muslim boys, each wearing the traditional Ottoman red fez, paid rapt attention to their lecturing schoolmaster at the head of the class; all, that is, except for the boy in the third row, whose mannequin head had snapped and was listing at a rakish angle that would conventionally indicate an attempted blunt trauma decapitation by one of his studious classmates, if CSI: Damascus was on the case.

Spices in the Damascus souk:


The next morning we strolled towards the National Museum, pausing only to refuel a tea-deprived Jennifer, and to shout our conversation at one another as the cacophony generated by the morning rush hour traffic rose higher and higher. Inside the museum (where no photos were permitted) we took in the displays of ancient statuary, Roman mosaics and enjoyed deciphering the somewhat cryptic captioning on the exhibits. One glazed pottery knight on horseback fighting a dragon coiled serpent-like around the horse's hooves was marked 'date: 12-13AD', and for a moment I mused on the likelihood of this knight emerging from a kiln when Jesus was in primary school trading Pokemon cards, until I realised that it was meant to be a Crusader knight, and that the date range meant the 12th or 13th centuries AD. It was still impressive though. In the tiny gift shop I bought a slightly tacky replica of an ivory carving of a 1st century BC prince's head from Ugarit. Obviously you could get away with being a New Romantic royal back in those days, because he sports a mean daubing of eyeliner.

We had a little more time before our departure from Damascus, so we walked one block east to a craft market nestling in a cobblestone square courtyard, with shops arrayed along each of the cloisters. Aside from photographing the tribe of perky kittens rambling amongst the tourist shoppers, we enjoyed browsing amongst the collections of lacquered wooden boxes and backgammon sets, and in one shop Andrew admired a sturdy British field compass made in 1862.

After collecting our bags and paying the stiff fee of the unlovely and unpalatial French Palace we made our way by taxi to the coach station in the northern suburbs. There we secured coach tickets to our destination, Hama, for a few quid each, and boarded the tidy and modern vehicle for our journey. It took half an hour for the coach to crawl out of the station because military police were checking the papers of every passenger on every coach before each was allowed to depart, but eventually we were on our way.

It was a pleasant if uneventful journey northwards to the regional city of Hama, which we had chosen as our base for the next few days. Our accommodation, the Cairo Hotel, was a likeable place located in the middle of town - right next to a major intersection, which meant we enjoyed a constant barrage of taxi car horns throughout the night. But the manager was a pleasant and helpful fellow and the rooms were tidy and inexpensive. Before sunset we explored the town and took in the sight and sounds of the symbol of Hama: the famed giant water-wheels or norias that creak and churn on the Orontes River as the waters flow towards the Mediterranean at Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch.

We took the hotel manager's recommendation for a nice restaurant where there was rumoured to be a wine list (oh happy day!) and took a taxi there with an English fellow who had latched onto us and more or less invited himself along. Initially he seemed to be decent enough, with a wealth of travelling stories, but it soon became obvious that while conversation was not his forte, but monologue was. It was impossible to get a word in as he related story after story with barely a pause between them, and to make matters worse it turned out that the restaurant didn't serve wine after all. Needless to say it was an early night that evening. But the coming days would be full of sights and history. There was much to look forward to, and our trip had only just begun.

Next: Part 2 - Krak des Chevaliers, the Dead Cities, Aleppo and Palmyra.
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