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Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

London Bombay Cebu

A Country in Ruins...
by Jim Laurel

Dispatch #9, Syria
20 February 2001
Amman, Jordan
We rolled into the chaos that is modern Antakya – clogged streets filled with cars and trucks with horns sounding continuously. Known in the ancient world as Antioch, the city was one of the first conquered by the first crusade in 1098 on their way south to Jerusalem. Sadly, however, not much of the ancient city remains in evidence. For most travelers today, Antakya is just a stopover on the way to the Syrian border.

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We approached the Turkish-Syrian frontier with trepidation, well aware that relations between the two countries are strained. There is a palpable tension in the air that increases as you approach the border area, emphasized by a heavy concentration of military outposts, and huge tufts of razor wire lining the fence. But despite all my anxieties about entering Syria, the crossing turned out to be a non-event. Traveling together as a family seems to confer some privileges in the Arab world, and we were often shunted to the front of queues and given special attention. Even so, the process of clearing the border and temporarily importing the Land Rover is incredibly disorganized, and there seems to be no set procedure. We’ve learned that you just jump into the process at a likely-looking window, whereupon the official will invariably tell you that he can’t help you until you have such and such stamp, signature, or some other prerequisite. The window he points you to will likely point you to another and so on down the chain, until you finally find the starting point. As we were wending our way through the Syrian bureaucracy, a couple of guys from the Ministry of Tourism showed up and were a great help in getting us straightened out. They also loaded us with maps, and various informational pamphlets, which would prove very useful during our time in Syria.

Syria is a country in ruins – ancient ruins, that is. The place is loaded with great sites, and you have to be selective about what you spend your time seeing. We spent a couple of days in Aleppo, a bustling city which, like Damascus to the south, claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. We enjoyed visiting the citadel, which was more or less under continuous construction from the 13th through the 16th centuries and served as a Muslim power base during the Crusades. You have to take the posted signs with a grain of salt, though. A Syrian friend of ours told how once he saw a new stone arch being built there. He returned around 3 years later to see a sign that labeled it "13th Century".

We also took time to wander a bit in the souks, which is always a treat. It’s refreshing to be able to stroll casually through these ancient shopping malls without being constantly hassled, as in Morocco. We love the frenzy in these kinds of places, and are even at home enough to eat at the various food stalls that line the covered streets. Unfortunately, some of us got a bit ill from eating some local pizza, and I got a bad case of the runs from a lamb shwarma (similar to a Greek gyro).

When you first get to Syria, you can’t help but notice all the pictures of President Hafez El-Assad and his sons practically everywhere you look. You’ll see these pictures everywhere you look – on buildings, large roadside billboards, even on huge stickers in people’s car windows. It really is out of control, and we heard that the new President, Bashar Assad, recently issued some edict forbidding it, but it doesn’t seem to have done any good.

One of the crazy things about Aleppo is all the vintage American cars running around, many of which are still in daily service as taxis. In just a few days, we saw more Studebakers, Chevys, Fords, Desotos, and Lincolns than you’d see at a classic auto show. For many years, high import taxes in Syria meant that new cars were prohibitively expensive, so they kept the old ones going. It’s amazing that their owners have kept them running for so long, and a real testament to the quality of American automobiles built in the 50s and 60s.

Just south of the Turkish border, deep in Kurdish territory, we visited the 3rd century Roman provincial town of Cyhrrus. We wound our way there through dusty little towns and across two Roman bridges, still in everyday use after 1700 years. There isn’t much of the town left to see, but we had our first encounter with the local Bedouin there. This small group of people were living among the ruins, herding sheep and no doubt gleaning whatever they can from foreigners intrepid enough to make the trip to their remote location. They rummaged through our car, snatching pens, cigarettes, and anything else that caught their fancy. They reminded us of the Barbary Apes that jumped into our windows at Gibraltar looking for stuff to eat. The experience actually frightened Connor and Kirsten, who locked themselves into the car, while the Bedouin children kept pulling at the door handles and knocking at the windows. On the plus side, they sold us some quite old Roman and Arab coins that they had found in their nearby grazing areas.

On the way to Lattakia, which serves as a sort of Syrian Acapulco, we stopped off at Syrgilla, undoubtedly one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world. It’s not on the grand scale of Palmyra, but there are several buildings that are in beautiful shape, including a tavern, public baths, and a Byzantine church. Karin and the children finally understood why I had been so disenchanted with visiting ancient sites in Europe. Here was an ancient city, beautifully preserved – some buildings with their roofs still intact – and we were the only people there! I have never seen anything like it.

The ruins of Serjilla, Syria - one of the best-preserved Roman provincial towns in the world.
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Still following the footsteps of the First Crusade, we stopped off at Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle built over 800 years ago that’s still completely intact. Your first view of Krak as you round the last bend in the road is striking. It is in such a complete state of preservation that you could be forgiven for thinking the thing had just been built yesterday!

We were in a hurry to depart Krak, as we still had several hundred kilometers to cover across the vast Syrian Desert to Palmyra. We drove the last 50km or so at dusk, through a kaleidoscope of color that you only get to see in the desert at the end of a day. We started passing signs pointing the way to Baghdad, and big Mercedes trucks running goods to and from Iraq. It was an eerie reminder of the ongoing strife happening just to our east in Iraq and to our west in Palestine. Veering off the paved road at frequent intervals are desert tracks, which lead to the Bedouin settlements scattered all over the area. Unfortunately, we couldn’t explore them, as the day was getting short and none of us relished the idea of traveling across the desert at night, dodging overloaded trucks and microbuses.

A panoramic view from the Eastern wall of Krak des Chevaliers.
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Karin and the children immediately recognized Palmyra from my photographs taken 4 years ago. The site occupies a vast area, and as you drive into the town on the main road, you can’t miss the great colonnade, the two huge rows of columns that have lined the entrance to the ancient city since the 3rd century, and the Arab castle perched up on the hill overlooking the city.

Known to locals as Tadmor, Palmyra covers some 50 hectares, much of which has been excavated and restored. According to tradition, Tadmor was founded by Solomon, King of Israel, and is mentioned in tablets dating back as far as the 19th century BC. You can find references to "Tadmur" in the Bible (see 1 Kings 9:18). Most of what you see there today dates from around the 2nd century AD. Even to the layman’s eye, it’s obvious that Palmyra was a fabulously wealthy city.

It served as a staging area for caravans bringing goods from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, as well as being a key stopover on the silk route from India and China to Europe. Taxes levied on this trade resulted in great prosperity, and the city thrived for hundreds of years until the beautiful Arab Queen Zenobia began to defy Rome late in the 3rd century. Like today’s high-tech barons, those Palmyrians weren’t shy about flaunting their wealth. The columns on the great colonnade each had a small pedestal upon which sat statues of the city’s most prominent citizens.

The citizens of Palmyra took their affluence to the grave, constructing huge funerary towers in which to be buried, each able to contain 300 or more people. We were able to visit some of these, in addition to hypogeums, which are underground burial chambers. As we were visiting one of these, I happened to ask the museum guy with the keys where all the bodies had been taken. Apparently, looters long ago had taken most, but he informed me there was a recently-discovered hypogeum around 5km away that was is not open to tourists. He advised that this one still had some of the original inhabitants in place, and that for a little baksheesh (tip), he’d be willing to take us there.

So after all the Japanese tourists clambered back onto their bus, the key man jumped in with us, and we headed out of town. We drove down some dirt tracks, then he instructed me to stop. Once out of the car and on our feet, we could see the hole in the ground with the marble staircase descending to the tomb. As we walked down the stairs, we couldn’t help but notice a large (2ft diameter) pipe that ran right through the marble sides of the stairway, almost directly over the tomb itself. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something ancient and exotic, just a transport pipe carrying petrol from a desert refinery.

The key man positioned his shoulder against the 1 foot thick stone door and pushed it open. As our flashlights pierced the darkness, we could make out the perfectly preserved interior, complete with several still-sealed tombs adorned with small busts of the inhabitants. Even the original Palmyrian writing on the walls of the tombs was still intact.

One thing you get used to in Muslim countries is seeing the faces on frescoes and statues chipped away or destroyed altogether. This is due to the fact that Islam prohibits images of living creatures, so to many Muslims, these ancient representations of people were sacrilegious. The effect is quite pronounced in Cappadocia, where the faces on most of the beautiful frescoes painted by Armenian Christians ages ago are now badly damaged or gone altogether. So, seeing the faces of these Palmyrians carved into the stone blocks on their tombs was quite striking. We even saw one body still in its original position, complete with some of the artifacts he had been buried with.

One of the best things about Palmyra is that visitors are free to wander in any part of the ruins without restriction. The local Bedouin have a small network of dirt tracks all around the area, and we made good use of them. It was quite an experience to actually drive off-road between the funerary towers and the ancient city! Kirsten and Connor got a chance to try their hand at the wheel in Palmyra, and they were all smiles as we accelerated through the gears along Palmyra’s dirt tracks.

The rainy weather appeared to be clearing as we prepared to leave Palmyra, but in the desert, weather conditions can change quickly, and 15 minutes down the road to Damascus, we found ourselves in a sandstorm. Visibility was very poor as a thick cloud of sideways-moving sand enveloped us for the first 100km. We turned on all 6 of our driving lamps in an effort to be seen by oncoming traffic, and plodded on. Eventually, the storm subsided and we were able to pick up some speed, arriving in Damascus late in the afternoon.

We did the usual uninspiring tourist stuff in Damascus…visited the Umayaad Mosque, Saladin’s tomb, and wandered around in the souk for a while. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with visiting sites like this, it’s just that they leave us a little cold after exploring the newly discovered hypogeum in Palmyra, and the adventure of getting to Damascus through the desert sandstorm. But checking out a new souk is always fun.

On our last day, we took an interesting side trip to a town called Maluula, some 65km to the northeast of the city. Maluula is remarkable in that it is one of the few communities left in the world where Aramaic (Jesus’ language) is still spoken. Most of the residents are Christian, so Maluula has a distinctly different feel to it than most other Syrian towns. It is a charming little place, with houses painted in cheerful colors, a welcome respite from the drab, unfinished, unpainted concrete and cement structures we see everywhere else. There are two principal attractions in Maluula – the Monastery of Saint Sergius (4th century AD), and the convent of St. Thekla.

The interior of St. Sergius, an ancient church built into a mountainside in Maluula, Syria. The congregation is one of the last communities in the world that still speaks Aramaic.

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I visited these places four years ago with the Mungo Park "Magi" expedition. Things today are pretty much the same, and the new pastors made us feel very welcome. Of course, we sampled the Monastery’s sweet wine, said to cure whatever ails you with just a sip. Maluula is a special place, and St. Sergius is a true treasure. There’s something very spiritual about this little pocket of Christianity in the Muslim world.

Things seem to have loosened up since the last time I was in Syria 4 years ago, but the country still seems to spend more time thinking about the past than striving toward a better future. People we talked to seemed more concerned with Middle East politics than entrepreneurial pursuits, and most expressed an unabashed love of the President, the government, the military, etc. You’ve got to wonder if this is genuine, or just to stay on the safe side, in case someone is listening.

The Internet is tightly controlled, and the few places that allow access have full-time "watchers" keeping an eye on the surfers. Email is only allowed through some sort of national gateway that labors under a crippling load, and getting an email account requires special government permission. Web email is forbidden and they have supposedly blocked web mail services like Hotmail, Excite, etc. Will someone tell these guys that controlling the Internet is like trying to hold back the tide?

Syria’s real asset is the friendly nature of the people, who made us feel welcome wherever we went. Meeting someone usually starts with them asking you "Where are you from?" We’d reply "Amreeka", and they’d immediately smile and say "Welcome!"

Well, tomorrow we head for Jordan for a little slice of the West and, hopefully, more comfortable accommodations than we had here in Syria. We’re planning to spend a few days in Amman, just relaxing while our Iranian visas come through, then we’ll head down to Petra and Wadi Rum for a bit of off-road fun in the desert.

Next up: On to Jordan!

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