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Entries in Syria (2)


Two impenetrable fortresses

Crac des Chevaliers

Yesterday we drove from Palmyra to Crac des Chevaliers (Qala’at al-Hosn). Crac des Chevaliers was originally built as an Islamic fort by the Emir of Homs in 1031. However almost all the castle is Crusader built, as they vastly expanded the basalt fort with limestone in the 12thcentury, building a second castle around the first. The castle was built to guard the only significant gap in the mountain range between Syria and Lebanon, and was the castle where Richard the Lionhearted was based. It was repeatedly attacked by the Muslim warlords, but was never breached (alone of all the Crusader castles). The only reason it was ever taken, was that after Saladin took back Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East, and sieged Crac des Chevaliers for several years, the 200 remaining knights saw no point in holding out, and in 1271 surrendered to Beybars in exchange for free passage to the coast. Beybars let them retreat, but was so fearing a trap that rather than enter the gate, he tore down the southern tower and went in through the wall (this tower is now different from the rest, as he rebuilt it in the hexagonal Islamic style, rather than the round Crusader style).

We got to crawl all over and around the castle, through the dungeon and kitchens, the meeting hall, Turkish baths, secret tunnels and the round table where the knights meet on the roof. It was really quite spectacular, and you can see why it was never taken, rising up on a steep mountain, with an enormous outer wall, an inner moat, 13 watch towers, and an inner castle. Lawrence of Arabia said it was “the finest castle in the world”, which I really like, because it sounds like an opinion which is repeated simply because he is famous, but actually he was an expert on Crusader architecture, so his opinion is valid.

After walking through the castle we had a mezze lunch on the roof, then drove to Aleppo via Hama. We only stopped briefly in Hama to see the norias, waterwheels pumping water up from the river to aqueducts to supply the city. The sixteen norias of Hama are the largest in the world, and date back to 1100 BCE.


Today we had a day to wander around Aleppo (Haleb). Aleppo has been a major city for 7000 years, making it the second oldest continually inhabited city in the world (close behind Damascus). We walked into the Old Town of Aleppo, which largely dates back 700 years, but there are parts including Madrasa Halawiya, which was built in the first Islamic century, making it over 1300 years old, and one of the oldest mosques in the world. Also very ancient is Jami al-Kabir, the Great Mosque, which was originally built by the Umayyads, although of the old structure only the minaret stands from 1090, as the rest needed to be rebuilt after the 1260 Mongol invasion.

We walked along the old town wall, 5km of solid rock, with seven gates. Inside the wall we visited the old mosques, schools, and Al-Bimaristan al-argouni (an insane asylum built in 1354). We visited the Aleppo Citadel, standing raised in the middle of the city on a 50m high artifical hill. The citadel is massive and ancient. The constant upgrades have meant that the current structure is about 700 years old, but parts of it are far older, including a 3500 year old Hittite temple to the storm god. The citadel door is wonderfully designed, being high up on the wall, only accessible by a drawbridge. Unlike most door, which face the exit, the Aleppo door is actually perpendicular to the castle in a niche, so that invader that make it to the door can be shot at from three directions (and have boiling oil tipped on from the holes above), and they only have a few metres to use a battering ram to knock down the walls. Inside the castle is enormous, housing 1000 people during peace times, and up to 10 000 people during war. There are palaces, mosques and bathes inside. The citadel was so strong that over the 7000 years Aleppo was only stormed successfully once, by the Mongolian invasion.

Aleppo was a major city because it is on the crossroads of two trade routes - between the Mediterrean Sea and the Euphrates, and Damascus and Istanbul, making it a major trading centre in the world. It has been estimated that during early Islamic times as many camels came through Aleppo in a day as came into Cairo in two months. So the souqs (markets) were well worth visiting. Most date back from the 13thcentury and Ottoman era, with hectares of markets and 30km of passages under a vaulted stone ceiling, and many stone khan (commercial courtyards, a complex where merchants could bring in their camels, sell their goods and stay). The souqs have strong stone walls and enormous iron doors (which swing open to let camels in, and have small doors like catflaps for people), so that the merchants could lock up the entire souq at night, rather than pack away each stall. I went shopping with Michelle and Tamara. They both bought plenty of jewellery, we had 12 cent falafal kebabs, and were given free pancakes from a guy they smiled at. Each time we went into a stall to look at something the seller pulled up chairs and poured us a tea to drink, and we had wonderful conversations with the very friendly people. Tamara cheered me up by offering to buy me a present, and Michelle cheered me up with her humorous pursuit by an Armenian shopkeeper. Afterwards Rhys was telling us about an Australian he met who had been in the Middle East for three years, and was very happy to see Rhys 'to talk to someone who could speak English'. I commented that many people here had a very high functional vocabulary, and Michelle laughed and rolled her eyes, remembering my unfavourable comparison of Rhys's English skills versus her Armenian suitor. Syria has actually had the nicest, most charming people.

It has been interesting watching the scenery change over the trip - Egypt was solid desert, except for the irrigation from the Nile and oases. Jordan was semi-arid, with some shrubs in the desert, and moving up in Syria it became quite verdant (in Lebanon too, where I had the best oranges I have ever tasted), except in the east where the Iraqi desert started. Now to Turkey...


Roman ruins in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria

The Dead Sea and Amman

The day after Petra we left for the Dead Sea. The shore of the Dead Sea is the lowest dry land in the world, at 396m below sea-level. It is quite interesting, because when plates are pulled apart they split to form three rifts which become deep trenches, then eventually seas/oceans. The centre of tearing of the African place, focused on Ethiopia, has split to form the Great African Rift Valley/Lake Victoria, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. The Dead Sea lies in the continuation of the Red Sea rift (about 14km wide and 72km long). The desert lake has dried since then from the desert heat, so it is now so salty it is 33% solids (20x bromine of sea water, 15x magnesium, 10x iodine), and 'dead', since no fish can survive.

The Dead Sea was great, so much fun. We all went for a swim at the local beach, and bobbed around on the surface of the water. It was actually tough to stand up, since our legs floated up so well. I tried to work out how much lead I would need to scuba there, I am guessing about 60kg. The water was so salty it tasted vile and burnt our lips and eyes, but it was so much fun floating around that it was worth it. The salt was precipitating out on rocks and safety ropes in the water, which became sharp enough to cut my legs when I brushed past them, and I had really picked the wrong day to shave :) After floating, we covered each ourselves in Dead Sea mud (I got called naughty for slapping mud on Andy when he was trying to clean off), which was nice messy, gooey fun.

After the Dead Sea we drove to Amman, during the drive Michelle cut my hair with a Swiss Army knife, it turned out well even with the bumpy road. Amman has been continually occupied since 3500 BCE, called Rabbath Ammon ‘Great City of the Ammonites’, then Philadelphia after it was taken by Herod for Rome in 30 BCE. It fell to Persian Sassanians in 614 CE, and reduced in size and importance, only regrowing as the capital of Jordan.


The following day we drove to Jerash. Jerash became a major city under Alexander the Great (333 BCE), and was conquered by Pompey for Rome in 64 BCE, (when it was renamed Gerasa). Gerasa became a city of the Decapolis (a league of major commercial cities), reaching its peak in 3rd century CE with a population of 15 000 Romans. The ruins have now been restored are were magnificent to wander through, newly restored. 

 We entered the city through Hadrian’s Arch, built in 129 CE for the visit of Emperor Hadrian. The enterence leads to the main market place, a huge round paved area surrounded by columns (all still standing). Small stalls for butchers and merchants were arranged around the market place, and from it lead the Cardo maximus, the main street (with an underground sewage system). The city contained a Nymphaeum (public fountain), Hippodrome (seating 15 000 for chariot races), a Temple to Zeus (built 162 CE) and a Temple of Artemis (the Goddess of the hunt was the patron goddess of Jerash). The columns are the Temple of Artemis are famous as one is a moving column - it sways gently in the wind (I couldn't see the sway, but when I stuck my finger in a crack I could feel it being squashed). There was also a magnificent theatre, with the acoustics designed to allow everyone inside to clearly hear the person in the middle (with amplifiers surrounding the theatre, and all the design calculated to move the sound from the centre to the audience). They demonstrated the acoustics for us with an Arab marching band playing 'Yankie Doodle' on bagpipes, which was quite odd.

I enjoyed being in a city which invested so much in its public buildings, with beautiful carvings designed to last thousands of years.


In the afternoon we drove across the Syria. Syria was a similar history to Jordan, since Lebannon and Jordan were a part of Syria, except after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire France was given the mandate over Syria, rahter than the British (until independence after WWII). So now they have excellent desert pastries and people ask if I am French.

Before the rise of Islam, the chief religion here was Zoroastrianism, the worship of Ahura Mazda revealed by Zoroaster three or four thousand years ago. Under the Sassanians in the Middle East it was quite a savage religion, persecuting other religions and worshipping fire. It was lead by the Magi, about which Herodotus had to say; The Magi are a peculiar caste, quite different from the Egyptian priests and indeed from any other sort of person. The Egyptian priests make it an article of religion to kill no living creature except for sacrifice, but the Magi not only kill anything, except dogs and men, with their own hands but make a special point of doing so; ants, snakes, animals, birds – no matter what, they kill them indiscriminately. Well, it is an ancient custom, so let them keep it. They fled to India in the eighth century when they were persecuted during the Islamic conquest and conversion of the Middle East. Jadav Rana, the Hindu king of Sanjan, accepted them on the condition that they don’t try to convert anyone, so now they remain a very small religion (they still don’t proselytise). I think this humbling experience has been good for them, because they now focus on education and arriving at moral positions through self-reflection, so their religion has the highest literacy and tertiary education rate of any religion. Also, they firmly believe in the equality of all people, regardless of religion, race or gender, they are environmentally conscious, believe in charity, and condemn all oppression or cruelty towards people or animals.

Anyway, we didn't get to do much in Syria that day, because the border crossing took so long. We went to Damascus (Ash-Sham), the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (7000 years), in the Ghouta oasis on the Barada River. Damascus has been a captial for a long time, being a major city in the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires, then the Arab empire after it fell to Islam in 635 CE. In 1200 it was sacked by Ghengis Khan and the Mongols, then ruled by the Mamluks and Ottomans before world war I. We had dinner in the historic walled Old City in the centre, a great mezze of vegetarian food and excellent mint lemonade. The cafe was right by Umayyad Mosque, which is a bit of a floosy of religions, starting out as a Temple of Jupiter thousands of years ago, before converting to a Byzantine cathedral and then a mosque in 705 CE. It is where Saladin is buried. We went shopping in the souk (market), one of the best in the Middle East, an enormous network of covered shopping streets, and had Arab icecream, which was great :)

On a banner in the souk: From Syria the country of peace and loving to the aggressive Israel and ally America... We are in Syria and the country of self-estiem and home-bred. We refuse to your democracy after what we had seen happened in Iraq and Palastine and now your democracy build on peoples bodies which you bombed on civilians innocents, and when the matter reached the council of security in the United Nations and how you used the rejection right (the veto) to save Israel for only a suspicious matter, and how American pushed the council of security to issue a decision against Syria followed by new decision even Syria executed the first one, but the Syrian people not afraid what ever the difficulties could be, and they are resistant by leadership dearest the President Bashar Al-Assad.


Yesterday we paid a flying visit to Lebanon. We visited Baalbek first, which contains an ancient temple to the Phoenician god Baal (Baalbek means City of Baal). Baalbek was renamed Heliopolis (City of the Sun, it has 300 sunny days a year on average) by the ancient Greeks), and Baal was turned into Jupiter (and the temple converted) by the Romans. Baalbek also has later built temples to Venus, the Goddess of Love, and Bacchus, the God of Wine (who alone of the Roman gods has no gender). The temple was magnificent, enormous stones rising up to look over the snow covered mountains. It contains the famous six columns of Baalbek, which have never fallen over the 2000 they have stood there (since they were imported from Aswan in Egypt, being shipped to Beirut and then rolled 1000km through the mountain passes to Baalbek), with the Lion head gargoyles overlooking the site. Baalbek has the largest carved stones in the world, three enormous sandstone pieces at 100000 tonnes each, a fourth was carved, but at 120,000 tonnes was too heavy to shift, remaining in the quarry as The Stone of the Pregnant Woman.

Driving over the pass to Beirut, I was delighted to regain my hearing in my left ear, which had been gone since Dehab. I guess I just needed negative pressure. Beirut was great, originally known as Beryte, a modest port in Phoenician times (2000 BCE) which rose during Roman times with one of the first three Schools of Law. The city was largely destroyed during the civil war, but has been recently rebuilt. Now the city if obviously rich, with the main streets looking like they belong in New York, and expensive cars driving around. Yet there were still bombed out buildings that have been left, the old surviving churches have bullet holes in them, and the beggar children have no hands.

Our guide left us in Beirut, so I lead Andy, Katho, Tamara, Ruth and Ken on a list of highlights that I wanted to see. Andy and Katho made up a theme song to 'Map Man', and we got to see Downtown, which was a beautiful cafe district (we had icecream). We saw a Knights Hospitaller Church converted to a mosque a thousand years ago, St George's Cathedral, the Grand Serile (an enormous Ottoman era building) and the Roman bathes. The city was very friendly, when we looked lost we had people coming up to us to offer directions, they all chatted for awhile. Katho asked for directions from one guy, who asked if we could ask again in Arabic or French, because his English wasn't very good, and a security guard ended up showing us to the Roman bathes. Tamara said it was the second best Roman bathes she had seen (after Bath), and told us how the stone pillar in the bath were built to support the floor of the sauna. The fires would have been lit beneath, and every night the slaves would have to crawl under the floor to clear out the ash.


Today we drove from Damascus to Palmyra, stopping at the Bagdad Cafe near the Iraqi border. Palmyra (Tadmor) was an Assyrian Caravan town 4000 years ago (built on an oasis 200km from the Euphrates River, vital as a watering hole in the desert crossing), and an important outpost in the Greek Empire. It was annexed by Rome in 217 CE, and became amazingly wealthy through taxing trade, with a population of over 200 000 people. As the most eastern part of the Roman empire it was only tenuously held, and when Zanobia became ruler of Palmyra in 267 CE after her husband Odenathus suspiciously died, she claimed descent from Cleopatra and rose up against Rome. She had early success, but the city was sacked by Emperor Hadrian in 273 CE, and has since been buried in sand.

We first visited Fakhredin al Maany Citadel, which was built only 800 years ago after the Islamic conquest of the region. It was a lovely little castle, I wandered around it by myself, poking into small passageways and admiring the view over Palmyra from the highest towers, cheering me up a lot. The castle was extended about 300 years ago, by a noble with visions of independence from the Ottomans. He made peace with them eventually, and the Sultan invited him and his sons to Constantinople to seal the peace, then hung them.

The city itself was amazing. It isn't strictly Roman, being rather Nabataean under Roman rule, with the Nabataean fusion of styles. It was an enormous city, with a 6km wall surrounding it, and a 1.3km main street, lined with columns (many of which are still standing). Only 30% has been uncovered from the sand, with the work still underway, but they have already revealed a Senate, bathes, temples and a small theatre. We saw the columns with Zanobia's titles carved on them, with one of her titles (Empress?) removed by the Romans after her defeat. The main street has an unusual double arch at the end, where the street needs to turn to the Temple of Bell (Roman architecture likes straight streets, so two archways were built, each perpendicular with the road they faced, and slight askew from each other, to give the impression of a straight road).

The Temple of Bell was very impressive, still largely intact. Bell/Baal was the most important God in the Palmyrene pantheon), although Zanobia was also a convert of Mani, the Babylonian prophet (210-276 CE) who formed the major religion Manichaeism which tried to peacefully fuse together Christianity, Buddhism, Judaisim and Zoroastrianism into a pacifist religion (which lasted a thousand years before dying out). The Temple was converted to Jupiter under Roman rule, and later used as Church and Mosque, with fresco of Gabriel and St George, and a mark cut to indicate the direction of Mecca. The temple gate was impressive, carved with olives (the symbol of fertility), grapes (the symbol of immortality) and poppy (the symbol of medicine). The whole complex looked pockmarked, as the Ottomans cut out the rock to extract the bronze dowls used in the construction. A really wonderful site...