Syria

29 May – 12 June 2005

 

[The thumbnail in the index file that connected you to this site depicts  a deity from Tell Halaf, 1st millennium BCE. It’s also used as background here]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We traveled in Syria with car, guide and driver. We used our GPS to record our track shown here in yellow. We drove a total of 1662 mi on very good roads. We had a modern minivan with a Palestinian driver and a Syrian guide. Both were excellent and helped us to interact with locals in a way we couldn’t have accomplished alone. Everyone in Syria was very friendly and hospitable. That shows that government policies and people’s  feelings toward each other don’t necessarily coincide (there and here). At Mari, the most eastern point in our travel we were only 10 mi from the Iraqi border.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The history of the site where the magnificent Umayyad Mosque stands in Damascus goes back 3000 years to the Aramean God Haddad. Later to the Roman God Jupiter, then as a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist (the Muslim Prophet Yahia).  The mosque holds a shrine with John the Baptist’s head and both Muslim and Christian pilgrims come to the shrine. The slender minaret in the picture is the minaret of Jesus. Tradition has it that this is where Jesus will come down to earth on Judgment Day. This mosque is one of the most holy Islamic sites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This mosque was built between 706-715, just 74 years after the death of Muhammad, and is known to be the oldest existing monumental architecture in the Islamic world.

 

 

The aniconic nature of Islam (no images of living things because that would be “competing” with God) creates a serene atmosphere in mosques conducive to undistracted worship. Walid, our guide, gives explanations to Yvonne in the Umayyad Mosque.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Yvonne mentioned to our guide that she didn’t meet enough women, he made a point of introducing her to a number of them. In the picture are three Druze women who were very interested to talk to Yvonne and asked her many questions. Most Syrians will ask you first what you think of Bush. Depending on your answer, the conversation may or may not continue. We never encountered the latter.

The Druze is a very secretive Islamic sect based on the Koran, the Bible and Plato. They make up 3% of Syria’s 17 million people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yep, that’s Yvonne in the Rouqayya mosque. She just looked at the tomb of one of the daughters of Hussein, a great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

 

This mosque was built in 1993 by the Iranians who come here on pilgrimages. Iranians  prefer a far more opulent style than do the Syrians.

 

 

 

 

When you travel with us, food is important. Syria’s cuisine is superb, in quantity, quality and variety. This is a “simple” lunch we had with our driver and guide at the Crusader Castle, Crak des Chevaliers. To our biggest surprise, in Syria we didn’t have to worry about cleanliness. You can eat everything: uncooked vegetables, fresh fruits and food from roadside stands without worrying. We did, and never had a problem.  We even ate (and enjoyed) several times a typical Syrian appetizer: raw, ground lamb (like lamb Tartar). Usually on our travels we’re super careful with food and water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crak des Chevaliers is probably the most famous and best preserved castle from the “glorious” Crusader times, a stronghold of the Order of the Hospitalers. It’s a magnificent edifice in a stunning setting and a fascinating history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of the road-side “fast food” operations that we enjoyed during our trip. We stood there and ate many of these flat breads which were topped with tasty spices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apamea is one of the magnificent sites from the Hellenistic era. It was  founded around 300 BCE by the Seleucids. The shepherd on his donkey provided a colorful contrast to the splendid remains of the ancient buildings. After Juergen asked if he could photograph him, he posed in lots of places and even sat on his donkey. They were very friendly, which added to our positive memories of Syria.

 

 

 

 

 

Hellenistic ruins, sheep and goats, and a shepherd.

 

 

 

 

 

Does time matter?

 

 

 

 

The famous norias (water wheels of Hama, up to 60’ in diameter) where introduced by the Ayubbids (13th century) and are still working. The wood makes wonderful soft groans as the wheels go around. The norias serve an interesting purpose: water buckets on the circumference scoop up water at the bottom and dump it at the  top into the beginning of an elaborate aqueduct system

 

 

 

St. Simeon is the site of an important Christian church (5th century) dedicated to a saint who spent most of his time on top a tall column. The stump in the arches just right of the center is all that’s left of the once tall column. Pieces were chipped away and taken for souvenirs….

 

St. Simeon was the inspiration for Hearst Castle and the area produces some excellent wines. You buy them from Armenians since Muslims don’t drink alcohol.

 

There are many communities containing Christian sects from early in the Christian era. They fled to the mountains to escape the organized church and are there yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the famous bazaar of Aleppo, which like Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, we found this butcher shop that only sells camel meat. We had camel meat and we can recommend it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The great mosque in Aleppo has a beautiful minaret that dates from the 11th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View from the Aleppo citadel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We got a kick of these guys enjoying their water pipes and fiddling with their cell phones. We asked for permission to take the picture and they said they didn’t mind.

 

Our driver occasionally smoked a water pipe flavored with apple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our hotel in Aleppo was in a beautiful historic building. The open courtyard was the dining area and was totally sheltered from the busy city noise and activities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rasafa on the right was a 1st century CE Roman outpost. It became a basilica and later was converted by the Islamic rulers that followed.

 

 

 

 

This is Doura Europus with the Euphrates in the background. It was founded in 303 BCE by one of Alexander the Great’s officers. In the 2nd century BCE, the many Macedonians and Greeks living there created a city with perpendicular streets and an agora. We walked the entire archeological site. It was very hot.

 

 It was later the last defensive fortress for the Romans against Persian attacks. On the trip we made sure to cross the Euphrates to have been in Mesopotamia.

 

 

 

This is Mari, the most eastern location on our trip. The kingdom of Mari was ruled in the third millennium BCE by a music-loving king. He launched a project to build a 120 km canal, which involved expense and technical skill. For several hundred years Mari acted as a town on major trade routes, but didn’t try to expand. That ended in 1760 BCE when its wealth awakened Babylon’s greediness. Hammurabi (of the first code of law) destroyed it forever.

 

Humans and their actions have not changed over the millennia….

 

The particular location is one of the hundreds of rooms of the palace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had dinner at this delightful outdoor restaurant in Deir Ezzor several times. The photographer (not in the picture) has his first 0.5 l can (of the evening) of Löwenbräu (blue can) which made him happy.

 

Our driver Hani, on the right, is a Palestinian who grew up in the camps in Syria. The Syrian government put him through college. He has a BS in mechanical engineering and is very depressed because there is no work for him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re now heading back west and made a detour to Qasr al-Hayr al-Charqui, otherwise known as the Eastern Palace. It’s one of the desert castles founded by the Umayyads in the 7th - 8th century. Like at many other locations, we were the only tourists and it took some time to find someone with a key to let us in.

 

 

Our timing was lucky. The Europeans had finished coming two weeks earlier because it was too hot. The Syrian school children were having tests and so they wouldn’t be traveling until a week after we left. We had Syria to ourselves!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the Eastern Palace are remains of magnificent buildings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most splendid tourist site in Syria is Palmyra. Even today, it’s an oasis and its use as a caravan stop dates back several millennia. During the Hellenistic period, the Greeks established it as Palmyra, but it really flourished during the Roman period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The magnificent colonnade in Palmyra. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Again, there were hardly any tourists (an occasional bus with Japanese and some solitary travelers like us). The guy with the camel was so bored that he offered us free rides. He even let Yvonne drive the camel and canter through the stunning ancient site (We did pay him).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nobody, absolutely nobody, hiked up to the Arab citadel in the mid-day heat (close to 100 F) – except us. The locals on top greeted us with incredulous stares and cold drinks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On top of the castle, we were rewarded with stunning views of the colonnades. We stayed up there until sunset.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At a roadside stop in the middle of the desert we watched sheep being milked. Two women milk, each going down one side. The sheep are tied together with one long rope in two rows facing each other. It’s amazing how patiently they endure the milking. To set them loose the shepherd just pulls on one end of the rope and it all comes loose. Even after they’re untied, they’re not in a hurry to disperse.

 

 

Marmoussa:

At the top of 850 steps up a steep canyon, a Jesuit from Italy restored this 12C Christian monastery with the help of idealistic young people from various countries. He started a movement called “al-Khalil” in honor of Abraham (father to Jews, Christians and Muslims) with the purpose to further Christian/Muslim understanding. His literature states that as the Palestinian Islamic movement believes it impossible to give up liberating the entirety of historical Palestine and the Zionistic movement believes it impossible to give up conquering the presumed biblical Israel, then in the end, they must live together in a bi-national and bi-lingual state that was already proposed in the 1930s as a worthy solution to human dignity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took a side trip to Lebanon and drove through the Beqaa Valley to Baalbeck, Lebanon’s greatest Roman treasure. On the left are the famous six columns of Baalbeck, which belong to the temple of Baal/Jupiter. It is the single largest religious edifice ever erected by the Romans.

 

 

 

 

 

The so-called Bacchus temple was apparently consecrated to a mysterious and initiatic cult centered around the young god of Baalbeck. This god was identified as a solar and growth deity, whose birth and growth promised regeneration and eternal life to the faithful. Wine and other drugs such as opium may have been used by the worshipers and it was the carvings of grapes and poppies on the main door jamb and some carved Bacchic scenes which suggested the temple's identification with Bacchus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another impressive archeological site in Lebanon is Anjar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow-covered mountains (you can ski in Lebanon) in the background of the archeological site in Anjar.

 

In case anyone wonders, Yvonne is wearing the Indian (Muslim) dresses we got in Delhi earlier this year. They work fine in the mid-east and, probably in any Muslim country that doesn’t object bright and vivid colors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Damascus, we went to a hill overlooking the city and took this picture of the Umayyad mosque, the place where we started this journey...and where they say it all will end.

 

 

 

 

We had a wonderful trip that left us with many impressions and thoughts. Could there be a more timeless scene than the one on the right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

In case anyone got this far and is still interested in more of our impressions and observations, Yvonne wrote some e-mails while we traveled. You can access their content by clicking on Syria notes.