Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran & Syria - Part 7

In Damascus we hired a car and driver to take us on a four-day overland jaunt to Aleppo, where we’d end our trip. Our first stop would be Palmyra, 140 miles northeast into the desert. We were very happy with the car that showed up. It was an almost-new VW Skoda. Our driver was Nasser. He seemed like a nice guy, spoke passable English and was a good driver.

The road was good and the traffic was light, so it didn’t take long to get to Palmyra. We stopped once for tea and a snack (olives and cheese) at a tiny oasis called the Bagdad Café. This place was like a movie set on the back lot of Paramount Pictures in the 1940’s. A small broken-down structure housed what passed for a restaurant and a room filled with local artifacts. A few traditional mud houses with conical roofs were nearby, as was a well (I don’t know if it had water) and some scraggly small trees.

We sat outside and had our goodies. The price was about five times what I thought it should be, but I decided not to complain. A couple of Arab gentlemen were engrossed in a game of backgammon. It was very quiet at the Bagdad Café. We were surrounded by sand as far as the eye could see.

As we neared Palmyra Nasser suggested it would be a good idea if we had a guide to show us the ruins. I demurred. A few minutes later he suggested it again. I began to get the message. I bet our man Nasser has a friend/informal business associate in Palmyra who would be the perfect person to be our guide. Nasser’s cut of the fee we’d pay would be a nice bonus for him.

While we weren’t happy with the rather clumsy promotion number Nasser was laying on us, Sandra and I conferred and decided maybe a guide would be a good idea after all. So we told Nasser to call his friend. By this time we were at the Palmyra entrance. It turns out the preferred guide was occupied with a group of tourists. Nasser wanted us to wait until he was available. We wanted to get started. He’d convinced us a guide was a plus, so we started a conversation with another man, Mohammed, who was offering his services.

This agitated Nasser. He could see his scheme was backfiring, because there was no way Mohammed was going to pay Nasser anything. Everyone involved knew what was going on, but after some serious bargaining we concluded our deal with Mohammed and moved on. Nasser, grumbling about how we were getting an inferior guide for too much money, could only stand around and wait for us to finish our tour.

The Lonely Planet says:

Palmyra is Syria’s prime attraction and one of the world’s most splendid historical sites. Hard-bitten travelers who have seen enough old stones to last a lifetime (does this remind you of anyone?) are still moved to superlatives by the profusion of colonnades, temple remains and funerary towers and their desert oasis setting. Palmyra is special.

I’ll resist the temptation to join the other hard-bitten travelers in showering Palmyra with superlatives. It’s true there is a profusion of remains, and as old stones go they are better than many. I was more impressed with the ruins than with Mohammed. He was a rather unattractive blowhard whose lame jokes seemed boring even to him. Maybe we should have waited for Nasser’s man after all.

We would be staying overnight in Palmyra. When I was setting up hotels in Syria I found it difficult to find a room in Palmyra. Most visitors come and go the same day, so there aren’t that many hotels. I finally took what I could get and sight unseen made a reservation at the Tetrapylon. Given how little I knew about the place and the relatively low price, my expectations were not high.

The Tetrapylon met my expectations. It was not wonderful. However, even though the room was small and a bit shoddy, we had a great view. Not far away, in full view, were the Roman ruins.

Palmyra is not a large town. There is one main street a few blocks long, which we found by walking out our front door. A short distance away was the Traditional Restaurant, recommended by our man Nasser. We ate at a table outside next to the street and ordered a Bedouin rice dish said to be their specialty. Again, our expectations were not high, and so the meal was just fine. We did an after dinner walk down the main drag and back again. Took about 15 minutes.

The only real problem with the hotel was that the room was cold. As in Iran, the weather in Syria was cooler than we expected it to be. We were told the date for cold weather had passed, so the heat was turned off. Makes sense – I guess. In the end they brought extra blankets and we were fine.

In the morning after a brief visit to the Palmyra Museum we headed west back across the desert toward Hama, where we’d spend two nights. We planned to make a stop on the way – at Krak des Chevaliers, reputed to be the finest Crusader castle in the world. The terrain changed dramatically as we neared Krak. The desert disappeared and we found ourselves surrounded by neat farms in a verdant, hilly countryside. Atop one the highest hills was the castle.

If you like old castles, Krak des Chevaliers is for you. And I suspect most of us, especially those who were once children, have at least a fantasy relationship with castles. Krak has it all. First off, it’s huge. Thick walls. Moats. Towers. Ramps that lead up to courtyards. Wells. Chapels. Stables. Kitchens. Fortifications. Openings to shoot the arrows through. Openings to throw rocks or burning oil down on enemies trying to scale the wall. Dark tunnels. And rooms large and small for every conceivable purpose.

It’s fair to ask: “OK, if this castle is so wonderful how come the Crusaders lost it to the armies of Islam?”

Krak des Chevaliers was built in the middle of the 12th Century. Over the next hundred years the castle successfully withstood many attacks and sieges. But by 1271 it was a lonely last outpost. Jerusalem had been lost. The Christians were retreating. Krak, which was built to hold a garrison of 2,000, was down to 200 knights. Even though they had supplies that could last for five years, the Crusaders agreed to depart with a promise of safe conduct. So the Muslims never had to overcome the castle by force.

A tasty surprise adjacent to Krak was a restaurant that served a wonderful mezze (many small appetizers) for lunch.

We arrived in Hama late in the afternoon. As in Palmyra, the hotel choice was limited. I took the safe route and set us up at the only large hotel in the city, the Cham Apamee Palace. The Cham Palace hotel chain is well known in Syria. They have a dozen hotels, are on the pretentious side, cater to tourists, and lack charm.

The Cham Apamee has seen better days. Behind the façade it is showing its age and could use some maintenance. The staff was less helpful than in other places we’d stayed. And many of the 200+ rooms were not occupied.

On the positive side, we had a wonderful view of Hama’s main claim to fame – its norias. These are centuries-old wooden water wheels, some of which are 65’ in diameter. The Orontes River, which flows through Hama, is lower than the surrounding land, so the norias were needed to scoop up water and channel it for irrigation. Even though modern water management systems are now available, some of these ancient norias are still in use.

Hama has (or had) a reputation as being a pleasant, picturesque town. This is less true today than in the past. In 1982 a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama was brutally put down by Hafez al-Assad. He brought in some 8,000 troops, and in fighting that went on for three weeks large portions of the city were destroyed or damaged. Evidence of the battle is still apparent in Hama’s Old Town. We spent some time walking through Old Town, and it is lovely. We were told that what we saw is a small portion of the pre-1982 Old Town.

Our one full day in Hama was pleasant and laid back. The main Old Town attraction is the Azem Palace, an 18th Century Ottoman home. We couldn’t see much because it was closed. No problem; we walked on. I noticed quite a few women covered head-to-toe (including a face veil) in black. One stands out. Clearly young and perky, as she passed Sandra she surprised us with a clear “hello.” And then she was gone. (Throughout our trip the women we encountered paid attention to Sandra. I didn’t exist for them.) We went to an old mosque. Small, quiet, little decoration, and a very nice feel to it. We went to the Christian Quarter to buy wine.

Nasser suggested we eat lunch at the Orient House, an out-of-the-way hotel. It was a good choice. The restaurant was in a large courtyard-like room. The food was very good. Not much English was spoken and no wine was available, but we were OK with that. After several days in Syria we’d realized that more often than not we wouldn’t find alcohol in restaurants. It seems that in recent years the trend has been to tighten up on serving booze, not the other way around.

In the restaurant the night before, a place called the Jardin near the hotel, they served whiskey and beer, but no wine. The Jardin was on the river and had a view, but mediocre food and noisy kids left us unimpressed. For our second dinner we went to the Four Norias, also on the river. Again no wine, but good food (mezze) and no kids, so we were happy.

Nasser asked us if his wife, Fatima, could join us for our drive to Aleppo the next day. It turns out her family is from Hama and she used the occasion of Nasser going there to make a trip up to see them. She brought their young son with her (who we met after dinner at the Four Norias.) We thought her joining us would be fine. Once we were dropped in Aleppo they would head back to Hama.

We couldn’t communicate much with Fatima, but what we observed was very positive. She is a good-sized woman in her 30’s, with a strong face and a confident sense of herself. We had the impression she is quite intelligent. She and Nasser talked a lot and seemed to have a very good relationship.

On the way to Aleppo we wanted to stop at Serjilla, one of the larger of the hundreds of so-called Dead Cities in Syria. I say “we” advisedly. It will be no surprise to hear that the main requester for a Dead City stop was Sandra.

These ghost towns date from the time this area was part of the Byzantine Christian city of Antioch, about 15 centuries ago. Why they were abandoned is a mystery. The current theory in favor is that these sites were on trade routes that changed and the people moved with them. No one knows for sure. Since the Dead Cities number about 600, I doubt the trade route theory is accurate.

It was a challenge finding Serjilla. It’s off the main road, signs don’t exist, and even though Nasser asked several people along the way for directions there wasn’t a lot of certainty about where we should go. We finally realized we were there when we spotted a cluster of buildings off to the left side of the road. The area is windswept, rocky and hilly. A small community of Bedouins, with their tents and sheep, were camped on the right side of the road. I was amused to learn and see that while the Bedouins retain their traditional nomadic lifestyle, these days they get around from place to place in trucks.

Serjilla was a different kind of old stones place. It is more recognizable than other ruins we’d seen. There are dozens of semi-complete buildings and a few that look almost intact. They say that the latter were a tavern, bathhouse and church. The surrounding ground is covered with short grass. There are no wild bushes or undergrowth. It’s almost like it is being maintained in an almost orderly way. Or maybe that’s just imagining things. We spent some time wandering around. Nasser and Fatima went off on their own and seemed to be having a terrific time. Sandra was entranced. I enjoyed the walk.

Next stop – Aleppo.


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