Syria by Irene Butler
Pics by Rick
Damascus Syria – one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world – and the locals claim it is the oldest “capital” in the world. A feast of the senses surrounded us. The architecture holds a richness as glorious as it’s past. The chaos of traffic not adhering to lanes, and the sidewalks of side streets are full of parked vehicles. The tantalizing scent of pressed chicken rotating on a spit, hardly browning before being sliced off in sliver thin bits and packed into circular flat bread slathered with yogurt – called a “shwarma” (our mainstay). Sipping Turkish coffee in small cluttered cafes. Western dress competed with traditional garb on the streets, with young women in pants and fashionable tops, but most still with a hajab (head covering). Men wore a mix of business suits and the Arab shirt-dress. But that is where western influence seemed to end; there is not a Starbucks, Mc’Donald’s, or KFC in all the land.
A walk through the Old City was our first excursion. The vaulted roof of the gigantic Al Hamidiyya Souq (market) appears to be a star-studded night sky, but in reality the light shining through the black corrugated tin are holes made by machine gun fire from the French air raid of 1925, in a failed attempt to keep Syria under French rule. The streets were jammed with shoppers; the most popular purchasers being cakes and cookies to satisfy the Arab penchant for sweets. We fit right in with our purchase of dates, and found a place to sit with families among the remains of Roman columns in the centre court. From there we zeroed in on the Bakdash Shop advertising “Arab ice-cream & pudding”, both superbly creamy and loaded with crushed pistachios and almonds.
We now had the energy to wander through the gates of the famed
Umayyad Mosque.- me in a brown monk-type robe (a requisite for western-dressed women). Converted from a Byzantine cathedral, which prior to that was the site of the Roman Temple of Juniper, this sizable mosque that came into being in 1193 has a mix of features ranging from the Shrine of John the Baptist, the Minaret of Jesus and the Shrine of Hussein (the son of Ali and grandson of Mohammad).
Ready to go seek out distant antiquities left by past civilizations, we hired Nasser, who takes customers to sites in his private car. The Roman ruins at Bosra (140 km south of Damascus) dates back to the 2nd century, and was the Roman capital of the Arabia section.
Carefully manoeuvring through dark tunnels and dimly lit corridors, it was breathtaking to walk out into the sunlight and look downward at the steep stone seating of the amphitheatre that could accommodate 15,000 spectators. The echoing clarity of some people chatting on the stage below gave testimony to the exceptional acoustics. How thunderous the roar must have been when this magnificent entertainment centre was filled to capacity. The theatre is amazingly intact, the result of it being covered to the top with soil until 70 years ago.
We then sought out the remains of later societies in the Bosra ruins who had re-fashioned the stone work of the Romans into such structures as the Byzantine Church of Saints dedicated in 510 BC, and the Mosque of Omar in the 12th century.
We noted several peculiarities as we moved further into the ruins. A few motor-scooters passed us along the ancient stone road of the market street, and children coming home from school were playing hide-and-seek among the Corinthian columns. Up on the hillsides of the ruins we saw small houses with laundry hanging out to dry. We learned the ruins are where 5,000 citizens still make their home, We actually witnessed a group of men piling the ancient blocks to form a new wall of a structure they were building, and in another location a couple of locals were prying some of the ancient Roman stones loose for some purpose, which came tumbling down in a cloud of dust. Anthropologists would no doubt cringe, but we are thinking “why not” put these massive ancient blocks to current good use. The amphitheatre and the religious structures are the only places that seem off limits to the locals.
A few days later Nasser was once again our man to see the sites north of
Damascus. Our first stop was at Sednaya to visit a convent perched on an enormous rocky outcrop. Our Lady of Sednaya is an important place of Christian pilgrims in the Middle East as it contains a portrait of the Virgin Mary purportedly painted by St. Luke. We were keen to see it, as on a recent trip to Chennai India we took photos in St. Thomas Mount Church of a painting of the Virgin Mary that was also said to have been painted by Luke. After a lift ride up to the main courtyard of the convent we ducked under a low wooden doorway and into a dark room lit by candlelight. A nun murmuring prayers stood guard, making sure no photos were taken. Shucks! As it turned out the painting was behind a wall for protection, but a miniature replica was on a small alter. This painting was not at all like the one we had seen in India (which you can go to our story on Chennai on our website to see). I then realized that a similar depiction to the convent replica was done in ceramic tile on the wall of the courtyard (which is in our gallery of photos for Sednaya).
It was then on to the town of Ma’alula to visit the Monastery and Church of St. Sergius, the oldest Christian church in Syria. Built in 325 AD, the back of the church is hollowed out of a mountain, with the remaining walls built of stone, with beams fashioned from 2000-year-old-cedars. Icons of the 17th and 18th century and portraits of Arab saints decorate the altar. In this humble little church an event occurred that we knew was so out-of-the-ordinary it would never be repeated in our lifetime. Time stood still in a surrealistic aura as we listened to the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. As the angelic voice of a young lady melodically recited the words I was gripped by emotion. Even though we were aware the village of Ma’alula is one of the few places on earth where people still speak Aramaic, it was uncanny how we happened to be in the church at the precise time the parish priest Father Toufic dashed in for a few moments, and after greeting us called upon this young lady to bestow us with this rare and unforgettable gift.
Still in Ma’alula we ventured to the Convent of St. Thecla via St. Thecla Gap, a steep sided ravine. According to legend the gap was formed when Thecla (a student of St. Paul) was being chased by soldiers. She prayed to God who sent a bolt of lightening to carve out the gap in the rock which became the escape route for Thecla. Walking through this ravine made for a grand entry to the convent which is tucked snugly against a limestone cliff. It is now a sanctuary for nuns and orphans and contains St Thecla’s tomb.
Another hour’s drive brought us to Crac des Chevaliers, a castle of the
Middle Ages situated on a volcanic hill 750m above sea level. It is one of Syria’s most “must see” sites, and was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in 2006. It is not definite who built the oldest section (from many centuries BC), but it was the Crusader Knights who around the middle of the 12th century largely built and expanded Crac into its existing form. Despite numerous attacks and sieges it never fell, but when in 1271 Arab Sultan Baibars marched on the castle, the Knights gave it up as Jerusalem had been lost and the Christians were retreating. It was then used as a military base until 1934 when it became a tourist site.
Nasser deposited us at the Cairo Hotel in Hama, and he left solo back to Damascus. We rushed out to the nearby city centre to see what we had come to see – the Norias – the wooden water wheels that carried water from the Orontes River to aqua ducts that then carried water for irrigation to outlying areas. There were once 30 Norias along the river, with 17 remaining, 3 being the ones in the city centre. The river was only a muddy trickle of water. Overnight the temperature dropped and the rains came, and since the forecast was for no let-up for days we headed out in a drizzle that became a downpour while on our way to see the waterwheels further up the river, called the Four Norias of Bechriyyat. I used my umbrella to shield Rick’s camera as he snapped photos. Back in the city centre the river had already reached over two feet in depth, but still not enough of a flow for us to hear the mournful groan of the water wheels turning. Lots of hot coffee and sweets at a little café was in order, and then it was back to hang up our drenched clothing around our toasty warm room at the Cairo to dry.
It was still raining the next morning when we taxied to the bus depot (called a garage in Syria) to catch our bus for the desert town of Palmyra. The bus looked ordinary from the outside, but like a Disneyland ad on the inside, which being in the seat directly behind the driver, we had time to take stock. Cardboard Snow-whites were affixed to the visor blinds, Daffy Ducks on the windshield, Mickey Mouse carpets by the driver’s seat, three bouquets of plastic flowers – the fuchsia covering the crack in the middle of the windshield, the other two in orange were on outer edges of the front window, plus grapes hanging everywhere – no doubt personal touches by the regular driver on this route, a paunchy fellow with a serious comb-over.
Mother Nature seemed adamant to show us her might when we drove though a sand-storm for most of the three-and-a-half hour trip. At times the visibility was almost nil, which made for slow-going.
The first thing we made sure of when settling in the Al Nakheel Hotel was its heating system. Though it was cold and windy in Palmyra, the chatter in the tea shops was how much worse Damascus was off with a 20 cm snowfall. The next day, wearing all our warmest clothing at once, and Rick with a “keffiyeh” (what a red-chequered head scarf is called in Syria), we headed for the ruins for which Palmyra is famous.
Excavations show that Palmyra was inhabited since the Palaeolithic
Age. The ruins are from the Roman rule beginning in the 1st century BC, until the Moslem Arabs took control in 636 AD. As we walked along the Street of Columns to the Temple of Bel and The Theatre, we could feel the vibrancy of this once flourishing city that was an important commercial center between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea. At sunset we took a taxi up to the castle above the ruins, only being there a short time before our hands were numb from the cold.
Shop owner, Sallam, who we enjoyed many cups of tea with sitting around the small heater blasting at the back of his shop, was an expert on the area’s history. He told us the ruins were occupied by Palmyrians right up until the 1920’s when the French ousted them. He pulled out old photos of locals inhabiting the ruins. His grandfather was born in the family home in the inner courts of the Temple of Bel, and his father was born outside the Temple, but still deep in the ruins. Sallam is a handsome man in his late 40’s (he’s single ladies) is well travelled, but chooses to live in Palmyra tending the families olive groves and his shop. His family of 10 brothers and 6 sisters mostly live around Palmyra. He makes the best flower tea, picked from his garden, and plays a mean Rababa, a Bedouin one-string instrument. He said the town in sadly without the many thousands of Bedouins that usually tent around Palymyra. They have had to relocate nearer the coast, as with the lack of rainfall in Palmyra for the past few years there are not sufficient grazing plants for their herds of goat and sheep.
The only traces of snow left in Damascus when we got back were in the mountains surrounding the city. The evening of our return we met a Palestinian fellow who was now a filmmaker in England. It so happened his film crew was coming into Damascus from Jordan that evening by Service Taxi (vehicles that are authorized to shuttle passengers back and forth over the borders). How convenient when he arranged a meeting with the driver in order for us to negotiate a fare to take us to Jordan, which ended in a sweet deal for us and a bonus for him not going back empty. This meant a quick packing up for a departure the
next morning, and bidding farewell to the friendly hotel staff, and some café owners who we were on first-name basis with, and to our special friend Nasser. We found out during a parting coffee with Nasir that in his younger days he was a body-guard for a very wealthy man – no wonder he always felt like a security blanket.
Syria was not in our original mix of countries to visit, but rather an impromptu inclusion. We knew being further north we could expect to hit some colder weather, which now prompted a snap decision to head for a warmer clime.
We are now in Jordan and looking forward to doing some loafing by
the Red Sea.
Irene & Rick