18 December 2008

In the court of the Nabataean kings

[Cont'd from Part 2]

It was with some small sorrow that we emerged from the Cairo Hotel, took a taxi to the coach station, and said our goodbyes to unassuming, friendly Hama. After an uneventful two-hour trip south we returned to the north Damascus coach station we had left a week earlier: it was every bit as chaotic and noisy as before. We quickly arranged a taxi to take us across the city to the part of town where the service taxi drivers congregate and await passengers.

As we neared the site one particularly persistent service driver was waving at our taxi driver while driving alongside our cab, hoping to secure our fare to Amman. But my attention was elsewhere - I was sitting in the front passenger seat with the window down to let the breeze in, and a wasp managed to secrete itself down the back of my shirt and sting me twice, once on the shoulder and once on the lower back. I shook the marauder out and Andrew planted a boot firmly atop it on the taxi carpet, while I proceeded to say 'ow' a bit. Not the most convenient timing on the wasp's part, given that we had to negotiate with a service taxi driver and cross an international border.

The service driver was keen for our business and we offered him half up front and half on arrival. His car was another white Hyundai, like the chap who'd driven us from Amman, and there were no dents in its paintwork, which sold us on his driving ability. However, once we emerged onto the open road it became apparent that this would be yet another knuckle-clenching ride, as the driver bobbed and weaved into any gap in the traffic and seemed keen to get to Amman as soon as possible at the highest speed. I don't wish to belabour the point, but suffice it to say that at one stage on the two-lane highway both lanes were blocked by slower traffic, so our driver 'undertook' on the dirt verge to sneak past a truck, with one wheel on the dringe of the tarmac and the other wheel rumbling 20 centimetres lower on the dirt. At this point the speedometer read 140 km/h. From my front seat vantage point the fastest I saw the speedometer climb to was 155km/h. That's 96 miles per hour.

Still, we got through the border crossing without incident, although we did have to put up with the driver encouraging us to carry a couple of packs of his cigarettes each to avoid him getting pinched for duty free violations. As soon as he dropped us off in Amman and we had paid him the rest of his fare he was on his way in a trice, haggling over a return fare to Damascus with a businessman in a suit. Then we boarded a local taxi to bring us to downtown Amman where we found our beds for the night at the Palace Hotel, which was down a small arcade dominated by garment and fabric shops. As the early dusk swept over Amman we climbed the steep steps behind the hotel to the well-off Al-Rainbow area on the hill, a part of town dominated by wealthy Jordanians and expats in the business and diplomatic community.

Admiring the view of the Amman city lights, we walked to the smart 'Books@Cafe', a combination English-language bookshop and cafe/nightclub. We knew it was a bit unusual when we were frisked for concealed weapons by a uniformed security guard before we entered. Upstairs, we relaxed in the chic dining area while trendy young Ammanites and expats chatted cheerfully, and we relished the opportunity to devour broad, thin and tasty pizzas from their wood-fired ovens. We retired early, as it had been another tiring day of travel, and because tomorrow would be another.


We had arranged a minibus tour to take us from Amman southwards to Wadi Mousa, the town adjacent to the fabulous ruins of Petra. The tour would take us eight hours, and would visit many historic and scenic attractions along the way. We were joined in the minibus by a young Swiss couple who spoke excellent English, and were friendly travelling companions for the day.

Highlights of the journey included our visits to:

- Mt Nebo, the rocky peak said to be the spot from which Moses gazed down upon the Promised Land at the end of his long life. The beaten-down ruins of a 4th-century monastery adorn the peak now, and the remains of its splendid mosaics are on display. There's also a memorial to the goodwill visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000, which is an impressive sight in this relatively open and tolerant Muslim country.

- The sweeping vistas of Jordan's own Grand Canyon, the Wadi Mujib, a giant gouge carved out of the terrain by millennia of river erosion.

- The age-old mosaic in the church at Madaba, where the remnants of a Byzantine mosaic map of the known world have survived 1500 years.

- Karak, a former Crusader castle built in the 1140s with cavernous stables for warhorses and a row of medieval underground shops.

Until this point in the narrative I've successfully glossed over the general illness and malaise that can beset travellers in the Middle East, but it would be remiss of me if I omitted to mention that on this day of buzzing about in a minibus along twisty, curlicued Jordanian hill roads, I was quite impressively off-colour. By the time we finally reached Wadi Mousa at sunset I hurriedly checked in to our hotel for the next few days and immediately went to bed to recover. After 12 hours of bed-rest I was feeling much more human!


The next day I fortified myself with food and drink to rebuild my energy levels, and set off down the valley to the entrance of the Petra world heritage site, which was once the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. (Jennifer and Andrew had departed earlier to catch the best sunlight). Wadi Mousa (Moses' Valley) is a narrow gully lined with shops and restaurants, with the steeper portions occupied by olive groves and the scanty huts of a few Bedouin herders. At the bottom of the valley several smart hotels are located near the site entrance, as well as the usual souvenir and snack stalls. Past the entrance gates the dusty path passed the Princess Alia charitable home for retired horses and donkeys, which would be some small relief to the army of animals lugging tourists up and down to Petra either in canopied gigs or on their backs. There are camels for hire too, but for some reason they don't qualify for the home. Maybe that's because once they stop being useful you can eat them?

As you enter the former eastern gates of Petra you begin the descent through the narrow canyon known as the Siq, with its russet-red sandstone walls still etched with the irrigation troughs that once supplied the city with its life-giving water. The canyon walls tower over the path and would have offered great protection from invaders; now they are crowded with clumps of tour groups having the features explained to them, and the harnesses of passing horse-drawn gigs send echoing jingles bouncing off the stones. The walk through the Siq to the city is over a kilometre, and after what seems like an age the ravine narrows to a mere crack, through which carved stonework is just visible.

The first and most famous view of Petra is of the tomb known as Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, a 10-metre high semi-Roman facade cut into a vertical cliff. A long-held rumour maintained that jewels were secreted within the toppermost urn, and the upper statues are still pockmarked from the gunfire of raiding tribesmen several centuries ago. The climbing holds cut into the rock face by the would-be thieves are still clearly visible too.

The area near the Treasury is thronged with tourists and the attendant camel, horse and donkey-ride touts, so it's something of a relief to leave the little canyon and move further downhill past other, less grand tombs cut into the rock face, and a 7000-seat amphitheatre carved into a hillside. The city opened out at that point, and as you walk westwards past old Bedouin cave-dwellings you enter the old heart of the city along its broad processional way. The heavy flagstones of the ancient city still rested underfoot, their jumbled irregularity in stark contrast to the patterned order of the hexagonal floor tiles of a grand temple (of which little remains).

At the end of the way by the free-standing Qasr al-Bint temple, I turned aside and stumbled up a side path to the ruins of a Byzantine church where the views of its elaborate floor mosaics were soundtracked by the soothing voices of a choir-group of French pilgrims. The afternoon was hot and still, and the temperature was only briefly diminished when a fleeting two-minute rainshower wetted the sandy earth and brought some sustenance to the hardy desert plants clinging to the hillsides.

What with the early sunsets and my late start it was soon time to think about returning to Wadi Mousa. I hadn't run into Jennifer and Andrew but had stayed in touch with them through the day by text, and now we arranged to meet up for a meal at a nearby cafe. We shared our experiences of Petra and looked forward to another day of exploration.


The next morning we returned to Petra and made our way to the furthest edge of the city by the Qasr al-Bint before beginning the invigorating hike up 850 steps to the far-flung tomb known as the Monastery. The path was peppered with wiry Bedouin women selling cheap trinkets to passers-by, but we pressed on with a polite 'laa shukran'. As the path wove upwards we stepped aside often for passing donkeys carrying rather lazy tourists up. Given the steep path and number of steps involved I don't think it would've been a comfortable ride!

Finally we reached the top and were able to admire the stark beauty of the Monastery, which received its name because it was consecrated by the Byzantines and used for church ceremonies centuries after its construction.

Past the Monastery the path meandered along the mountain top to a series of lookout points offering spectacular vistas over the surrounding valleys, and a corresponding plunge to doom if we got too close to the edge. Each of the best vantage points was marked with a rickety souvenir hut that enteprising Bedouins had erected to soak up any excess cash tourists might want to fling around, and here and there haphazard cairns of stones brought up from the valleys by walkers formed lopsided totem poles.

After the somewhat more sedate walk back down to the main part of the city I ventured up the incline to the series of eastern tombs overlooking the colonnaded way. Most prominent was the tomb of the Roman governor of the province of Arabia, Sextius Florentius, which was carved in about 126-130 AD. To the south sits the impressive architecture of the Urn Tomb, the largest tomb in Petra, which is believed to have been carved in about 70 AD - about the same time construction began on the Colosseum in Rome. More recently the Urn Tomb was reconsecrated as a Byzantine church... but when I say more recently, I mean in the mid-fifth century - i.e., about 1500 years ago!

Finally the time came to bid farewell to Petra. I could've easily spent more time there exploring the furthest trails and soaking up the atmosphere, but a day and a half was enough to get a good feel for the place and its history. As I walked slowly back up the Siq I paused to admire the acoustics and the soft shades of the stones in the setting sun. Here's a couple of videos to give you an idea - the second one is just a few moments after the first, when I heard the horse-drawn gig approaching up the slope.


After a leisurely breakfast chatting to a Belgian couple at the hotel dining table we packed our belongings and adjourned to the nearby bus depot to await the minibus back to Amman. The vehicle was waiting there so we loaded our gear onboard, paid the man a few pounds each and settled in our seats to wait for a full complement of passengers. The services don't operate on a timetable - rather, they leave when they're full or when the driver gets sick of waiting for more people to arrive. In this case we ended up waiting 55 minutes. Our middle-aged driver wore a Bedouin headdress and spent the majority of the three hour journey to Amman fielding numerous calls on his mobile phone. A quick taxi ride from the depot to the Palace Hotel and we were out on the streets of the capital once more.

We went for an excellent late lunch of chicken tawooq at the busy but remarkably cheap Cairo Restaurant (everything's named Cairo in the Middle East, it seems). After a bit of shopping we had a low-key dinner and packed our bags for our flights the following morning: Jennifer and Andrew were bound for Cairo and the continuation of their Middle Eastern adventure, and I was returning to London. It only remained to get up ludicrously early for our taxi ride out to the airport at sunrise, and to say our farewells before we boarded our respective flights. As far as I was concerned it had been a marvellous adventure in Jordan and Syria, but I had to hand it to Jennifer and Andrew - if I'd been going on to Egypt for another 10 days of travelling I think I'd have needed a relaxing day or two off first!

Photos taken flying back over London:

12 December 2008

Thoughts on the first day

A few quick notes on the first day's play in the first test between New Zealand and the West Indies at the University Oval in Dunedin:

Daniel Flynn's dismissal for 95 was not only significant because the lbw decision was gained as a result of West Indies captain Chris Gayle's appeal to the TV umpire. It was also noteworthy for the more prosaic and old-fashioned reason that it was actually the largest score by a New Zealand number 3 batsman since April 2006, when Stephen Fleming scored 262 against South Africa at Cape Town. Traditionally the number three slot is reserved for a side's most punishing batsman, but in recent tests New Zealand's number 3 batsmen have failed to carry on to big scores. (By way of comparison since 27 April 2006, the start of the New Zealand test in Cape Town, five test centuries have been scored by the Australian test number 3 Ricky Ponting, six by the South African number 3 Hashim Amla, and five by the West Indies number 3 - two by Lara and three by Sarwan). Since Fleming's double century seven other batsmen have been tried in the role before Flynn: Scott Styris, Mathew Sinclair, Lou Vincent, Peter Fulton, James Marshall, Brendon McCullum and Jesse Ryder (and Fleming had a few more goes at 3 as well - but he deserved the slot). The new team management have indicated that Flynn has been chosen for the position to offer a calmer head at the top of the innings, and if this innings is anything to go by, he's well suited to the job.

It's too early to say how the West Indies bowling attack will fare in New Zealand, although as usual Chris Gayle (42-3 today) relished the opportunity to bowl in the local conditions. West Indies fielded two test debutants, as discussed by Tony Cozier in this profile. It's worth noting that Brendan Nash is the first white player selected to play for the West Indies test team since Geoff Greenidge, who played 5 tests for the Windies in 1972-73. Greenidge (no relation of the Windies great Gordon Greenidge, I presume?) also made his test debut against New Zealand, in the famous drawn test at Georgetown, Guyana, in which Glenn Turner (259) and Terry Jarvis (189) scored a mammoth 387 for the first wicket, which was the highest New Zealand partnership for any wicket until Martin Crowe and Andrew Jones put on 467 against Sri Lanka in Wellington in January 1991. For the record, in his debut test Geoff Greenidge scored 50 (his highest test score) and 35 opening the batting with the talented Roy Fredericks, and had bowling figures of 14-4-34-0 in New Zealand's only innings.

While New Zealand will be pleased to have ended the first day of the test only having lost four wickets, the fact remains that the last two recognised batsmen are now at the crease, and New Zealand's innings could be wrapped up for considerably less than 300 if the West Indian bowlers find their rhythm in the morning. Still, Franklin's in great form with the bat, and he, Vettori and Mills can all score a few runs. (New Zealand's replaced the lovable uber-rabbit Chris Martin with... two more Chris Martins. Both Mark Gillespie and Iain O'Brien average under 5.0) Then it'll be the turn of the ominous Gayle, Sarwan and Chanderpaul, all of whom could score heavily against the New Zealand attack on their day. It will be a fascinating match between two well-matched sides. I'm picking a knife-edge duel consisting of four 250-range innings with an either-way finish on the fourth day. But then what do I know?

[Pic: Getty Images]

04 December 2008

'Everything sounds better backwards'

Liam Finn (& friends)
Scala, London
2 December 2008

(Pics by me, from Wireless Festival performance, 04.07.08)

Yes, Liam Finn is the son of pop legend Neil Finn, and the nephew of another pop legend, Tim Finn. Perhaps this meant he had a few extra helping hands and wise heads to point him in the right direction when he started out with his friends in their teenage band Betchadupa, that went on to become a talented New Zealand indie rock act. And Liam certainly had great opportunities not befalling many of his peers: I remember seeing him in 1998 when he had only just turned 15, playing backing guitar on stage for his father's gig at the Royal Albert Hall. And then he went on tour with his dad for a series of 11 acoustic gigs across Europe, according to this comprehensive Neil Finn gig list. Not bad for a teenage guitarist!

Despite having certain advantages in his music career, Liam Finn would not have attracted anywhere near as much attention as he has if it were not for his appreciable talents. Success in New Zealand and Australia was always likely, with his committed Betchadupa fanbase and the overflowing goodwill of thousands of Finn fans. But as his first solo album, I'll Be Lightning, took shape it became apparent that there was a wider interest in his material when Rolling Stone named him as an artist to watch in November 2007, and after a particularly exciting performance of the single Second Chance on Letterman on 28 February 2008, the buzz in America grew ever larger:

Liam's London concert last night occurred at the end of a frenetic 18 months of touring to support his new album, during which time he had already performed in the UK on several occasions. Al and I had an all-too-brief taste of Liam's live show when he performed a 30-minute set at the Wireless Festival in Hyde Park back in July (my video clip of one of his frenetic drum solos is in my blog report on the Festival). He's not a big name in the UK yet - fellow New Zealander Ladyhawke is far more scene-y in London at the moment. This low profile is despite favourable reviews like the Guardian's, in which he was described as 'a proper wild-eyed oddball of a man (in a good way) [who] writes irresistible songs that hum with riotous melodic invention'. Fortunately, that means it's possible to see Liam perform for a measly £13, which is just about as cheap as a decent-sized gig gets in London.

While the album is an accomplished mix of folky tunefulness and exuberant rock numbers, Liam's live shows are an exhilarating mix of creative impulses and talented musicianship, with songs veering off in unexpected directions as the fancy takes him. He performs as a two-piece with Eliza-Jane Barnes (the daughter of Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes) who describes herself as 'a daggy folk singer at heart - but [I] like to shriek and wail very much...', and it's an inspired musical pairing. They make great use of recording loops to build a bigger sound and enjoy themselves at the same time. Liam holds centre stage and might start a song on lead guitar before setting up a guitar loop and playing duets with it, before changing his guitar settings with a foot pedal and accompanying himself on bass, and lastly rounding out the multi-instrumentalism by capping the performance with a rib-shaking drum solo while the loops play on. Barnes is the perfect foil, building sweet harmonies and maintaining the tempo with a little percussion stand (she plays a mean cowbell!) and occasionally breaking out a portable theremin for a space-age jam.

It's in these jamming minutes that Liam and Eliza-Jane provide the most inventive and lively moments of their performance, broadening the now-narrow scope of modern rock performance with a hippie sensibility of experimentation and free-forming musicianship, building loops and backwards tapes into a skilful sound collage; in one moment of stage banter between songs when Liam was wrestling with his tunings, Eliza-Jane joked that 'everything sounds better backwards'. But the material never descends into parodic self-indulgence, which is always a risk when drum solos are involved! The songs always loop back into crowd-pleasing harmonies and melodies before delving anywhere near the excesses of the musical Guantanamo of prog rock or jazz fusion.

And it's the quality tunes that stand out in the performance, elevating Liam's music above a squadron of similar indie performers. Not only is he fortunate in the heredity of his rich yet subtle vocals - once a Finn, always a Finn, it would seem - and the fortunate upbringing with access to music legends and no doubt a great record collection; Liam Finn is a gifted performer with the ability to achieve real and lasting success in the pop world.


The main support for the evening was New Zealand band Lawrence Arabia, who impressed with their tuneful folk-rock numbers, which benefited from a well-honed pop sensibility and quality lead and backing vocals. Earlier in the evening, the whimsical experimentation of Connan Mockasin endeared with its avante-garde spirit and the good-natured squeaky-voiced daftness of songs about the futility of unrequited love for Scarlett Johansson or a sinister snake-rat hybrid known as 'The Snat', which was accompanied by a member of the touring party dressed as a mummy wearing a Mexican wrestler's mask. In a sane universe concert-goers attending a £13 gig and hearing this sort of material from a second support act would probably tear up the stage and set fire to the venue. It's a credit to Connan (who appeared later to sing I'll Be Lightning with Liam and E-J; turns out he co-wrote the track) that the opposite occurs: his set is a charming glimpse into an alternate universe. Aw bless, it's like watching your little kid brother up there...

02 December 2008

The remnants of ancient empires

[Cont'd from Part 1]

Another blue-sky Syrian morning dawned in Hama, and we met the 'English-speaking' driver that the Cairo Hotel manager had hooked us up with. It turned out that Abdul, a genial fellow in his sixties with a well-polished old burgundy-coloured Mercedes sedan, actually spoke next to no English. But he became adept in repeating the phrase 'Abdul good! Abdul good!', which was fair enough because it was true. The language barrier was no impediment to enjoying his company because unlike most Syrian drivers he was relatively cautious, didn't drive at excessive speeds (although this may have something to do with the fact that the stately Merc was a senior citizen in car terms), and didn't over-use the car horn. There was even a passenger seatbelt. Well, in the front seat anyway, if not in the back.

Our first expedition with Abdul was to the hills west of Hama, where we sought out the Krak des Chevaliers, the famed 12th century Crusader castle that I had longed to see for many years. One of the most perfect examples of medieval military architecture, the Krak was never defeated in siege warfare, and it remained as a bastion of Frankish and Hospitaller control in the Crusader states for a century and a half until it was surrendered without a fight by the demoralised garrison in 1271. This surrender meant that the castle was captured intact rather than being bashed by trebuchets and catapults, so modern visitors can easily imagine the castle in its heyday, bustling with life as knights and footsoldiers rubbed shoulders in the massive stables that could house hundreds of horses, or in the steep double-back entry hall that was lit by flickering torches and the light streaming through the murder holes pierced through the ceiling at regular intervals. From these unfortunate invaders would be attacked with boiling oil or tumbled boulders - a stern reproach for unwelcome visitors.

There are few remnants of the original Frankish inhabitants, but here and there a small detail appears: a carved stone arch support bears pretty laurel wreaths, or the vaulted ceiling in the curved grand hall speaks of simple medieval elegance. Reaching the roof of the highest keep, one can see why this rocky spur was chosen for the site of a splendid fortress. In my imagination I had pictured the castle in a dusty desert plain like at Masada, surrounded by bleak and wind-blown wastes. But instead the Krak dominates a fertile river valley dotted with farms and villas, a testament to the riches of the local river valley soil. It also benefits from nearly 360 degree views of the surrounding terrain, while at the same time being almost impregnable to armed assault from without.

It was truly an excellent visit to one of the region's greatest historic attractions: a day to remember.


The next morning we noted the news reports on BBC World about a US strike on a dwelling in a border town in the east of Syria near the Iraqi border. We wondered if it would affect our trip at all, but the worry turned to be groundless. Only one person raised a political discussion with us during our visit to Syria, and that was only in passing on mishearing a sentence and thinking we were talking about President Bush. Even that was a trifling incident, and we found that people in Syria and Jordan were perfectly friendly and cared not a jot where tourists were from. Indeed, part of the charm of Syria in particular was that it has yet to be overwhelmed by hordes of tourists due to some travellers' residual nervousness regarding the country's role in Middle East politics.

We decided to secure Abdul's services for a second day so we could visit three of the Dead Cities in the western hills en route to the city of Aleppo, where we would spend the next two nights. Abdul earned his baksheesh right away by asking us as we drove away, 'Passports?' At which point I leaped out of the passenger seat and ran back to the hotel, because we had indeed left our passports with the manager when we'd checked in. A lucky escape!

After an hour or so we rolled up to a dusty museum at the base of a steep hill. This set of four covered peristyles around a central courtyard contained the remains of superb early mosaics from the city of Apamea on the hill above. No photos were permitted, but the artwork on display on the cool concrete floor was quite spectacular, and all were from the first half of the first millennium AD. One image of a deer gnawing on a flailing serpent was particularly memorable: a carnivorous Bambi, perhaps. The scale of the mosaics was impressive too - a couple were 10 metres long. But as a reminder of the perils of archaeological heritage, the mosaics were also sadly incomplete in places and it was obvious that some portions of the tableaux had simply been cut out and taken whole by earlier fortune-hunters when the artworks were in their original locations in the city above, and sold off to the highest bidder: European and American museums or collectors.

After buying a few postcards we boarded the Mercedes for the short ride up the hill to the remains of Apamea itself. Our timing was fortunate, in that we arrived just ahead of a small tourbus, so we were able to leap out and take some tourist-free photos of the vast sweeping column-fringed boulevard that stretched over two kilometres into the distance like a landing strip for a two thousand year-old space shuttle. We ambled the length of the road, admiring the rare twisted columns and lapping up the strong sunshine and the eerie stillness of a hill summit without a skerrick of a breeze.

At the far end we paused for a cold drink in a cafeteria, and on the way out we narrowly avoided being caught up in a minor hissy-fit brawl between a bunch of young men hanging around the ruins selling cheap trinkets to visitors. The argument seemed to revolve around a dispute over which two of three chaps was going to ride on a scooter. (There's not much to do on trinket-selling duty). The first I noticed of it was when voices were raised and one pushed another into the side of the Mercedes where I was standing. I quickly got inside and shut the door! Cooler heads soon prevailed, and in this they were ably assisted by Abdul, who proceeded to pour oil on troubled waters to sort the piffling dispute out. No-one emerged the worse for wear.

The next destination was deeper into the hill country, and the Mercedes rolled over undulating country roads fringed by farmlands and occasional sleepy villages. As we drew nearer to Al-Bara, Abdul pulled over at a stranger's house and asked the residents a question in Arabic. Turned out he wanted to borrow a knife for his lunch. After a few minutes of bemused discussion between the women of the house, they asked the father and he agreed, so a daughter emerged with a cheap knife and passed it through the car window - an example of Arabic hospitality. (Later on the way back I reminded Abdul about the knife - using my Arabic dictionary - but he didn't stop to return it. Perhaps the family were his relatives? Or maybe families have a stock of cheap knives set aside for such a request?).

At Al-Bara we roamed amongst tumbled-down stone dwellings and explored a wealthy home, now roofless, with carved circular bosses above the doorways. Nearby the remains of imposing ceremonial tombs jutted out from the landscape like weird truncated pyramids, and inside each rested the now empty sarcophagi of wealthy citizens, now long forgotten.

Close by was the twin town of Serjilla, a series of thick-walled stone houses spread over the folds of a small valley. The first sight was of the town's graveyard, and with the solid stone sarcophagi capped with heavy slab lids open to the air at a jaunty angle it was hard to dispel the entertaining notion that the inhabitants of the tombs had risen up as Byzantine zombies. As we explored the ruins the orange late afternoon sunlight ebbed away and was replaced with a still, quiet dusk with nary a sound to be heard other than the occasional farm-boy's motorbike and the crunch of broken stones underfoot.

As darkness descended Abdul delivered us safely to the busy city of Aleppo, where we found our hotel for the next two nights. Craving Western food after nearly a week of constant kebabs, we decided to visit the nearby Sheraton, which proved to be quite affordable. We were even able to enjoy a glass of wine in a mock English pub inside, although as with the Blue Fig in Amman we were the only patrons at the hour we visited. The Sheraton restaurant, on the other hand, was buzzing with a large number of elderly German tourists dining and discussing the day's adventures. We consumed our tasty meals with gusto!


It was a personal treat to visit Aleppo, as my grandfather Claude Tucker was stationed in the city during 'the war'. (I say this like it makes perfect sense because that's what we've always called it in the Tucker household, but of course there have been plenty of wars. I'm referring to World War II).

Working for the New Zealand Army 2NZEF field ambulance service in the city's former Italian hospital, Grandad and his mate Smithy were able to assist a local woman desperately in need of milk formula to feed her children, and made friends with a few of the city's families, being invited home for dinner and to meet their relatives. Stout and Duncan's 'New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy (Wellington, 1956) relates the formal tale of Grandad and Smithy's stay in Aleppo (and here are a few archival photos):

Sixth Field Ambulance took over for an MDS the 100-bed Italian hospital in the centre of Aleppo which had previously been occupied by 2/8 Australian Field Ambulance. The field ambulances were completely equipped to AFI 1248A scale, including malaria diagnosis panniers. Expendable medical supplies were drawn from 8 Advanced Depot Medical Stores in Beirut. Indents were necessarily fairly large because the New Zealand medical units serviced numerous British and Imperial troops in the divisional area, as well as giving out-patient and emergency treatment to impoverished civilians where no local medical practitioner was available.

When Grandad and Smithy were there Aleppo was a desperately poor city, and many of the locals suffered greatly from poor health due to infectious diseases. These days Aleppo is a tidier and more modern place that's nearly as busy as Damascus. The traffic was almost as hideous, for one thing. On our first morning's exploration of the city's streets we quickly became frustrated with the scale and volume of the city's traffic congestion.

Eventually we found our way to the centre of the old part of town and gazed at the prominent citadel perched atop the only hill around, surrounded by a wide dry moat. Pausing for a refreshing strawberry juice and lunch underneath shady awnings in the nearby plaza, we regained sufficient energy to climb up the steep fortified ramp to the citadel itself. Passing through the gatehouse and then the massive entry hall, we explored the remains of the fortifications. The hilltop in the centre of Aleppo has been occupied for millennia, but the Muslim castle atop the summit took its present form between 1193 and 1215. Standing atop its high walls afforded us a view across the entirety of Aleppo - a sprawling mass of concrete apartments and shops, all decked out with a multitude of satellite TV dishes.

We descended back to ground level and shunned the bright sunlight to enter the Stygian confusion of the age-old Aleppo souk. Unlike the more orderly, tidy Damascus souk, the Aleppo version is narrow, winding and hectic, with locals and tourists mingling with handcart boys, dodging the drivers of mini-trucks edging slowly through the crowd, and even the odd donkey owner riding his mount through proceedings with the air of a regal polo player. The souk is divided up into areas of specialisation, so we were able to admire the textiles on display in one area and later duck past the hanging red carcasses of the butcheries with our eyes averted. Many of the English-speaking stall-holders had an advanced sales patter, like the rather camp fellow who, on discovering we were New Zealanders, proceeded to make mildly disparaging remarks about Australians. On being told that we quite liked Australians, actually, he changed tack and sashayed off, exclaiming, 'See you in Queenstown!' With the emphasis on 'queens', we presumed.

Later we wandered through an area of shops devoted to furniture making; followed by a series of shops devoted to sewing and knitting supplies. On finding that the restaurant we were aiming for was being refurbished we instead opted for a smart-looking place with rough-hewn brick walls and a glass front wall. This offered excellent kebabs and yet more of the culinary find of the trip, iced strawberry juice. As we walked back to the hotel after dinner the children of the furniture-makers were playing in the streets in front of their shops and the neighbourhood was alive with the passage of dinner guests and promenaders out for an evening stroll.


The next day was Friday, the local day of rest, and we emerged into a sleepy, almost deserted Aleppo. Whereas the day before the streets had been a hectic mash of jostling taxis, now the streets were nearly empty, and pedestrians could amble down the middle of the usually busy roads if they wished.

Andrew and I walked up to a shop near the citadel so he could purchase some tasteful souvenirs including a beautiful inlaid-wood backgammon set. On returning to the hotel we checked out and entered into a confusing dance with would-be taxi drivers to get to the inter-city bus station. On hearing their quoted prices and resolving not to be taken for fools one moment longer, we decided to walk to the station instead. The navigation was straightforward, but when we arrived it soon became apparent that the station was no longer there: it had been shifted to a new facility on the outskirts of town. So the taxi-drivers were quoting a reasonable fare after all! We quickly found another taxi, which took us to the new depot, and after batting off hordes of really annoying service taxi touts, we secured seats on the Hama coach, having decided to return there to use it as a base for our upcoming day trip to Palmyra.

During the uneventful drive we read our books, listened to iPods and glanced in a bemused fashion at the 'in-flight movie'. This was an over-the-top melodramatic Arabic soap opera in which a character segues into a dream sequence dance routine in which the choreographer had laid down dance steps to a too-fast techno beat, thereby requiring the actors to hoof at a frenetic and undignified pace.

Upon arrival in Hama we checked back into the Cairo Hotel - there was no sign of the boring Englishman - and went hunting for a place to eat. In the north part of town near the river we stumbled upon a great find: behind an nondescript doorway and down a small passageway we emerged into a giant covered courtyard that hosted Aspasia, an excellent restaurant with dozens of tables and a dining soundtrack consisting of the happy buzz of a myriad of patrons. Aside from the scrumptious mixed grills we also relished quenching our thirst with glasses of lime and bitter lemon, which was the next best thing to a nice glass of wine to round out the evening.


Saturday proved to be one of the highlights of the trip: we secured Abdul's services for a third and final day to venture into the eastern desert to view the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, which was for centuries a major trading hub on the caravan route to Central Asia. During the Roman Empire citizens of the imperial capital would delight their taste buds with dates brought from Palmyra as they enjoyed a knockabout satire in Pompey's sumptuous Theatre or the gruesome spectacle of the gladiatorial games in the Flavian Amphitheatre (a.k.a. the Colosseum). Palmyra was also an economic rival of the great city of Petra further south, which we would visit later in the trip.

It was a journey of several hours to the ruins, so we set off early at eight. We paused for ten minutes in a small town en route as Abdul took us to visit a family farm compound sporting distinctive clay and daub beehive-style huts, which we were encouraged to explore. It was also expected that we would want to have our pictures taken with the inhabitants, who seemed perfectly used to such visitors, but we were slightly unsure whether a payment of baksheesh was expected. (We gave a small amount just in case). We were also treated to a shot of blindingly hot tea by the Bedouin gentleman of the house, to which we nodded and smiled, thanking him with a polite 'shukran', despite the scalding sensation afflicting the roofs of our mouths! As we smiled and chatted in a state of friendly mutual incomprehension, the family's children played together in the nearby fields, heedless of our visit.

After another brief pause to take in the grandeur and isolation of the desert scenery, we drove on and soon approached Palmyra. At the last junction we were presented with the uncommon tourist opportunity: turn left for Palmyra; turn right for Iraq. No right turn please Abdul!

Then it was time to explore Palmyra itself. While Abdul occupied himself chatting to friends in the Syrian town that has sprung up to service visitors to the ruins nearby, we walked to the town outskirts, past moping camels on a break from tourist duty. In the bright sunshine and steadily rising heat we began our visit by venturing inside the towering walls of the Temple of Bel, a huge religious compound at the head of Palmyra's colonnaded way. The temple was dominated by the high walls of the temple itself, a large enclosed chamber ringed by columns, with a ceremonial dais at each end where statues of the gods would have resided - the holiest place in the ancient city.

Returning to the imposing city gates, we dodged the trinket vendors and camel touts and began our trek down the long avenue that was the main thoroughfare of the once wealthy city. Each of the ornate columns marking the route had a stone ledge three-quarters of the way up, upon which statues of city patrons would have rested when Palmyra was in its prime. Now they are all empty, the statues having been toppled off and either spirited away or broken to bits many years ago.

Despite the damage wrought on the city over the many centuries, it's still possible to get a sense of its former vibrancy, particularly given the amount of time it takes to walk the length of the street. Half-way down the street splits around the imposing Tetrapylon, in what would've been the main meeting place of the city. Further still and the street takes a sharp turn towards the left at a small funerary temple, and leads to the low foothills where the grandest families of Palmyra erected burial towers for the remains of their kin, so they could watch over the city in the afterlife.

Soon it was the hottest part of the day, and we were glad that we had chosen to visit in November when the temperature was manageable, instead of in mid-summer when the heat would've crushed us. I could've spent hours longer rambling through the ruins, but we were conscious of the long journey back to Hama, and wary of the prospect of driving at night because the sun was setting relatively early (dark by 5pm) and it seems Syrians aren't keen on turning their headlights on until it's pitch black. There was time to visit the modern town near the ruins for a late lunch, and then a brief detour to admire the views over ancient Palmyra from atop a craggy spire marked by a medieval Muslim castle. From there it was possible to discern the scale of Palmyra. It truly was a remarkable city, spreading out from the main avenue over a wide area and encircled by defensive walls that still remain in traces. We paused a moment longer to admire the lengthening shadows stretching over the sandy hills, and then began the journey home.

This took slightly longer than expected. On the way to Palmyra Abdul had pulled in at a family dwelling and exchanged a few words with a woman we took to be his daughter. Now on the way back we made what seemed to be a planned halt, and drove into the family compound for a visit for which we were rather unprepared. As a hoarse growling family dog was shooed away we were herded onto plastic chairs in the dirt courtyard and the extended Bedouin family gathered around to say hello. It was all a bit confusing because no-one spoke English, and my phrase-book didn't contain much in the way of chit-chat. Everyone was pleasant and the children were cute though. Some of the smaller boys went to fetch the family's pet falcon, a young bird that was tied to a lead weight. I expect we were supposed to take its picture but we felt so sorry for the poor thing that it seemed wrong to photograph it. After an hour of stilted nodding and smiling we were mildly alarmed when the man of the house offered us dinner and a bed for the night, but I had read somewhere that this was standard generosity for Bedouin hosts. After we had thanked him profusely and politely declined twice he relented, and eventually after a group photo shoot we were on the road again.

Our adventures in Syria had been invigorating and we had seen many memorable sights, but even more awaited us in the southern lands. It would soon be time for us to cross back into Jordan and make our way down the King's Highway to the famously beautiful and historic ruins of Petra, the former home of the ancient Nabataean people and a World Heritage Site of great renown.

NEXT: Part 3 - Amman (again), Mt Nebo, Kerak and Petra