Souq and Desert (Lebanon, Syria and Jordan)



The following day, after the large coach slowly made its way among all types of vehicles to the small office facing the main square, we started towards Syria. The traffic to the border was relatively relaxed, but, once on the other side of the frontier, it got very busy: the simple, one lane per way road was definitely not enough, as one lane of the road was taken by many trucks parked, probably waiting for documents to be done. Therefore, vehicles both coming and going had to "share" a single lane. Cars and smaller lorries or vans could cheat here and there, going through the nearby field, among someone's feeble crops, through mud and rubble, but trucks and coaches like ours could not do that and complicated manoeuvres had to be done. At a certain moment, an old bus full of passengers and heavily loaded with heaps of merchandise on the roof, almost turned upside down while trying to pass by our coach. As As Bogdan and I were to see for ourselves later on, many things were considerably cheaper in Syria than in Lebanon, hence the reason for all that merchandise traffic and / or smuggling.

Learning our next destination (i.e. Krak des Chevaliers), an English-speaking gentleman on the coach gave us some directions and, after talking to a few other passengers, a boy in his 20s decided to come show us around. He was going to Hama, just like us, but going with us to Krak and then to Hama took him at least 3 hours more than going straight. The sense of hospitality these people showed was impressive and this way we had a great introduction to the country we had just entered. After getting on a van from a quite large and crowded bus station in Homs, we reached the Crusader fortification at Krak des Chevaliers. It was imposing and all those passage ways, together with the Gothic arches and stone carving works in the central part, granted the place a touch of mystery, hence its being a pleasant site to visit. While walking around and telling our ad-hoc guide about our itinerary, when I reached the part involving Jordan, he said "no!" and made some strange gestures. We were to find out later that day that there had been explosions in three hotels in Amman, the results of which being about almost 60 dead and around 300 injured. However, like in any other situation, both to the good or to the bad of it, the world we live in goes on, at least as long as this piece of earth, water and fire we call Earth keeps on spinning around.

We reached Homs again and then we got to Hama where, after showing us to the centre, our recently made friend left us. He spoke no English at all, and we communicated through gestures, mimic and the very few words we knew in Arabic, but his generosity and simple smile were more than anyone could have ever asked for. Later on we realized we we did not even introduce ourselves and that we did not know his name. However maybe it is to the better, keeping memories linked to facts rather than to names and / or pictures.

The next morning, I had a long walk along the Orontes and around the fortress hill (or rather around the hill, as there were hardly any remnants of the fortress). The city, despite the events in February 1982 and the destruction then, had preserved an air of its own and, provided someone was willing to look over the sometimes desolated houses by the rather smelly river, there were interesting things to see, starting with some beautiful stone decorations or with the impressive wooden norias, and ending with several houses perched upon or carved in rocky cliffs. Then we had a tour to Apamea and to two of the so-called "Dead Cities". We were given the tour by an old and charismatic man in his lightly younger car: "Pontiac 1951", as he proudly said. It had been very well maintained and, when visiting Apamea, it was to turn into a tourist sight competing with the Roman ruins, as the members of a German group of tourists turned towards us and started shooting pictures at the large, white limousine shining in the sun. Unlike the site at Baalbek, Apamea did not impress one through size, but rather through its location and its setting, as one goes walking on a column-lined ancient street stretching for about 2 km.

Later on we went on a scenic ride, crossing stone-dotted hills covered with extensive olive tree orchards. One of the two "dead cities" we visited, the one at Serjilla, was the most impressive. Incredibly well preserved Byzantine decorations, great columns and household or public edifice walls lay among rocks, and olive trees scattered on a couple of hill sides. There was a sheepfold hosted in a dwelling set 15 centuries ago, while sheep could be seen among the ruins. The other city, Al Bara, was more mysterious, with ruins lost in an olive tree orchard, with bushes making the whole place even more shady. Only a handful of children granted the site with life and light, with their running around and playing. Our driver eventually dropped us close to the highway and we took a van, reaching Aleppo in the early evening.

"Ce faci, mă?" (Romanian, approximate English translation: "How are you, dude?"), the receptionist at Syria Hotel greeted us smiling. He had learnt some phrases in Romanian from "people doing business in Romania", as he put it. As we were to see for ourselves, the city of Aleppo was a quite cosmopolitan place, with many tourists, but even more merchants that kept the trading tradition alive in this place. Signposts in Russian and Turkish, cargo companies promoting fast deliveries of merchandise to remote destinations, as well as the different lifestyles we met in the street were only mere proof for the statement above.

That evening we enjoyed a fascinating sunset over the minaret of the Great Ummayad Mosque, with the sun throwing a reddish, dim light over the stone decorations which had survived over almost millennium. We were to see the following day that Aleppo was simply captivating. It was impossible for one to break free from this city, it was impossible to ignore it, to avoid its fragrance and sound. Traffic was bad, there were many construction sites (including streets meant to be repaired), people were running around, merchants were calling for customers. Everything was for sale and everything could (and should) be negotiated. Life, beginning with buying a piece of cloth and ending with crossing the street, was a matter of looking at the other person and trading one's negotiation skills. As the sun got up in the sky, the extensive bazaar area with all its souqs was continuously growing. It grew bigger and bigger, more shops were being opened, , more people were coming and going, more things were sold and bought. Small carts, donkeys bearing heavy loads, large and small plastic bags, motorcycles and even, where the width of the souq passage way allowed it, vans and cars, all of these would bump into one another, providing one of the liveliest places I had visited so far. Apart from the souq, other historical sites could not live on their own and they were overwhelmed by the agitated life of the city: just off Bab Antakya (the Gate of Antioch), a baker was drying down about a dozen of bread loaves directly on the sidewalk, while, on the other side of the souq, another baker was doing the same thing, but he was using the hot engine cover of his car in the process. Lost in a thick cloud of dust coming from the working sites in the streets around it, the local fortress provided broad - even though foggy - views over the city, while its throne hall made it for a great contrast with the rest of the ruins. Meanwhile, Al Jdeida Quarter provided a totally different (in looks) souq, with its different life approach and with its Armenian church. The city's being so diverse, so captivating and rich in life scapes made it for a never-to-be-forgotten moment of a lifetime.

We woke up very early the following morning, as we were to part: Bogdan was on his way to Damascus, on the 4 AM train, in order to get on a flight to Bucharest, while I was going to spend one more week in Syria and another one in Jordan. It felt strange, but nevertheless welcome to leave the big city and get on the first morning train to Lattakia. The scenery was dramatic while the train crossed the mountains. The pine forest and eventually the blue sea made it for a good change after the so many colours and languages of the souq in Aleppo. I briefly crossed the town and eventually took a van to Al Haffa, then a taxi to Qala'at Salah ad-Din. Even though impressive from a distance, once up there, the fortress did not 'move' one too much, but the natural scenery was more than a comfort. The mass of pines, dotted from place to place with other trees full of nowadays reddish or yellow leaves due to the fall, the distant sea shore, as well as the rocky cliffs shining in the sun completed a day of its own on my tour, even though there was nothing "outstanding". Back to Lattakia, I wandered through the town, which proved to host a "normal" commercial area - where locals would go for their day-by-day needs. There was nothing special about the town at that moment (dislike its history), but it was pleasant and intriguing at the same time (e.g. the sea front, the "Corniche", which in Beirut made it for one of the city landmarks, in Lattakia was blocked by the busy harbour. Strolling along busy streets, once again crossing construction sites and watching people go on with their ancient occupations, I slowly made my way to the station, with a railway guard that approached me and only wanted to shake my hand, respectively wish me a pleasant journey.

I reached Aleppo again and got on the train to Deir ez Zur, reaching my destination at 4 AM. The relatively small station was dark and it was rather cold outside, but the station clerk on duty invited me in his office, a rather poor room that looked like the Temple of Jupiter to me, given the hot stove near the desk. Hassan, the clerk there, spoke very little English, but, just like many other Syrians I met - he was a great host. As we had a few cups of tea and as we talked about my trip in his country, time passed by and the sun got up in the sky. As his morning shift arrived, we both got on the bus to Deir and, when reaching the town centre, the driver would not accept my money: "guest", he said. Deir looked like a poor town, with a commercial area that was slowly waking up at that time of the day. After walking for a while, I reached the microbus station and got on a van towards Abu Kamal. The ride was interesting and, the closer we drew to the Iraqi border, the more flat and arid the desert got. I got off a few kilometers before Kamal, to visit Tell Hariri at Al Mari, the ruins of a Mesopotamian palace, which were not impressive through their dimensions, but rather through their age. Back on the road, I got a ride with a car driven by a mid-aged man and his 63 year old very funny uncle, eventually reaching Tell Salhiye and its archaeological site, providing vast and wonderful views towards Euphrates Valley. In the opposite direction, there lay the desert with its being flat, dry and overwhelming. In the afternoon, I was given a ride by a young man that defied all other vehicles, pedestrians and animals on the road, almost having us both killed when he tried to take over a van that was already taking over a tractor on a road on the sides of which children were going home from school. Back in Deir, I was lucky to have a bus going to Palmyra right away. The road the bus took on its way justified the growth and wealth of Palmyra as a stop on the trading routes of the ancient world: the desert that would stretch for as long as one could see and far beyond that. Once in Palmyra, while crossing the town, children would approach me saying "hello, mister", while some people tried to convince me to go for one of the hotels they worked for or got a commission from. Eventually I found the place I had been looking for and got a room I hadn't been looking for (which had no window, but which had a shower where I was to almost die electrocuted). Then I had a walk across the site: it was impressive because of its being vast and because - differently from other sites of its age - one could actually realize the initial dimensions of the ancient town. The vicinity of the Arabian fortress on top of a hill overlooking the ruins, as well as the tomb towers on the horizon line with the sunset light fading behind them, all these made it for a great end of the day.

The following day was dedicated to the site and its surrounding area, with coaches and groups of tourists going around the main places, local people trying to make a living out of the "Bedouin souvenir, Bedouin souvenir, postcards and table cloths, mister!" they were trying to sell, with the sun, the desert and paths crossing it that seemed to go on forever. In the afternoon I went on top of the hill overlooking Palmyra, and spent a couple of hours on the highest level of the Arabian fortress there, turning it in my own "qala" that would provide a perfect shelter against groups of tourists and against noise, respectively enjoying the silence that was only pleasantly interrupted from time to time by the muezzin in some mosque down in the town, or by the sound of trucks and coaches crossing the desert below on their way to the horizon line. I was to get back to life in its noisiest and busiest shape, as the morning was to take me to Damascus, with its music, richly coloured fabrics and captivating life.

The city with so much history behind it was gleaming with a very vibrant lifestyle. More than any other place, Damascus gave one the feeling that nothing had changed during the last millennium or more. Leaving aside the shops meant for tourists, souqs were filled with a moving mass of people and goods. People were coming and going, merchandise - filled carts were pushed from stall to stall, bags, from small ones containing head scarfs, to large ones containing everything from clothes to carpets, were dragged, while cars, vans, motorbikes and bicycles were slowly making their way through the crowd of people and merchandise. One could not ignore echoes, broken fragments of conversation, car horns or the noise made by the hand shake upon an agreed deal. Compared to this atmosphere, any building, any palace or residence faded away. Even though the merchandise sold and bought was most times common (basically, with the tourist-focused items exception, and definitely not outstanding, the souqs in Damascus were unique in their own way, if compared to similar places in Iran, Turkey or Lebanon.

Following the crowd and the call of the muezzin, I eventually got to the Ummayad Mosque, which provided a refreshing place with the vast spaces and the faithful inside. Beyond the inner courtyard and the indeed beautiful golden mosaics, the large praying hall inside was far more impressive for me: it hosted a whole city of its own in the heart of Damascus. People would pray, they would meet acquaintances or family, children would run around or play, tourists would shoot pictures, some of the young would even talk on their mobile phones. This atmosphere was maybe not what one would have expected, but it was so pure in its being natural, that it would have indeed moved mountains. The same day I visited Azem Palace, a quiet and pleasant oasis of silence and delicate decoration, however I was to find Dahdah Palace to be more beautiful or, to put it in a different way, more touching. I spent the evening walking across old Damascus, which had preserved a fine city - fortress touch; its quarters were still visibly delimited and the architectural difference from one house to the ones a few streets away, was a joy.

In the morning, getting to a large bus station and asking around, someone took the time to walk with me and show me to the right bus and this way, after a bus and a taxi ride, I reached Mar Musa Monastery, located on a barren hillside surrounded by the desert. Without being a stunningly beautiful building (it was rather simple, built of stones), it hosted some old, simple and therefore touching frescoes, as well as a quite interesting, heterogenous group of people: the monks, people working to restore the building, as well as travelers from a few countries, one of which was on a 6 month trip "in the world". Hitching a ride and later on getting on an "official" van, I got back to the big city, to explore some of the old residences it hosted.

The sun rose once again, this time over my last Syrian day. In the morning, I went to Bosra, the granite fortress which rose like an imposing, dark cloud in the clear blue sky of white stone fortresses and castles I had seen so far. In the old theatre, one could feel the Roman rule as if it had ended the day before, while there were echoes of voices, restoration works and children's playing. Especially as it was Friday and they were not at school, the latter were to be found everywhere, greeting me, running after me, asking where I came from or simply smiling. If it weren't for these creatures, the old town would have had a ghostly touch, with its half-ruined walls of black stone and with its dark columns. Time passed by and I had to go to yet another big, bustling city with a long history behind: Amman.

An old bus with Jordanian plates, some passengers with a lot of luggage... (click here for the sequel)


THE SYRIAN SECTION (you are here)


I once asked someone on a bus from Tripoli to Homs to tell me where to get off in order to go to Krak des Chevaliers. A boy on the bus got off the bus with us (even though he was going elsewhere), spent a few hours with us and showed us to Hama in the evening. A few days later, getting to Deir ez-Zur in the early morning, I was invited in the office of the railway station chief, to have some tea with him. Later that day, I got a ride with a man that went score kilometers off his way to take me to Dura Europos. "Little" things that tell more about the people in Syria than 1000 pictures or guidebooks.