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
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