Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wonderful Syria

The Assad dynasty; a vege shop

Kristin at Krac des chevaliers; K and Diane at Aleppo; Camel at Palmyra

Map on a goatskin

Arriving in Lattakia a day later than planned, we met my Mum Diane on the waterfront. The sightseeing programme was very full and we covered many miles to see some wonderful places.

First was the crusader fortress Krac des Chevaliers, a spectacular building dominating the landscape, in an impressive state of preservation. It was easy to visualize the crusaders and their horses in the stables and banquet halls of the castle, looking out over Syria in all directions, even to the mountains of Lebanon with their shreds of snow. We also visited the tiny ancient shrine of St Ananais, who had baptized St Paul after the scales had fallen from his eyes on the road to Damascus.

Lunch was in a Bedouin tent with musicians, an array of aubergines, olives, tomatoes, tabbouleh and hummus. We then drove through the desert - Bedouin tents here and there, long rectangles with awnings and all the household and animals about. With remarkable frequency we passed incongruous fairgrounds with ferris wheels and pirate ship rides – all closed. After some hours, we turned a corner and there was the most impressive breathtaking ancient site - pinkish gold columns and avenues of stone reaching over a huge area – Palmyra. This town was built on a oasis in the desert which is still a lovely patch of green. We visited the ancient temple of Bel, the god of the gods, with its beautifully preserved lintels and ceilings. 72 columns of the original 360 were still standing in this enormous space. We walked along the main colonnade imagining the people of ancient times in this street – camels pacing by, statues looking down from the ledges on the columns, water running in channels alongside…Palmyra was truly a place of dreams.

That night we stayed in a Damascus hotel, and went to an extraordinary dinner and show at a venue that was a cross between Las Vegas and Disneyland – in one huge area there was a Spanish galleon, the tower of Pisa and a windmill – a huge stage for the dance spectacular, central fountain, and tables all around with waiters in turbans. However to the alarm of some there was no alcohol!!!

The next day was a visit to the museum in Damascus which has mosaics, statues, and the most wonderful synagogue from Doura Europus – a whole huge room with amazingly preserved frescoes depicting stories from the Talmud, Moses and Abraham featuring in many of the panels. It had been preserved in the sands of Doura Europus, rediscovered in the 1930s and transported to the museum in pieces for reassembly. It is extraordinary; rare to have any Jewish temple so richly decorated.

Wandering through the streets and markets of Damascus after lunch we thought we were in another time; rickety buildings hanging over us, dusty shops, a bustling souq (market) with Shi’ite pilgrims beating their breasts and chanting as they passed through on the way to the Grand Mosque of Omayyad. .

Before entering the mosque we had to don a long hooded robe (for Kristin) and a skirt to cover Rupe’s knobbly knees. What a sight! almost as spectacular as the mosque with its mosaics and geometric beauty. A shrine inside holds (apparently) the head of St John the Baptist, who is a prophet for Moslems as well as Christians.

Too much to tell; the other places we visited were:

The citadel in Aleppo; dominating the skyline of this northern city; huge gates, two mosques, a sultan’s palace, baths, an enormous cistern.

The enormous water wheels in Hamas that lift water from the Orontes river to aqueducts and groan on their ancient axles as the Hamas citizens wander and picnic in the park nearby.

Saladin’s Castle; the enormous fort that first brought Lawrence of Arabia to the Near East as a student of medieval architecture – from a Phoenician settlement in 1100 BC it was reshaped by the Byzantines, the Aleppo Moslems and the Crusaders before falling to Saladin after a siege. Saladin mercifully let the Christians leave with all they could carry.

Ugarit, a huge settlement that had once been the capital of the Phoenician kingdom, with remarkable stonework and an archive room in the royal palace that had yielded at least 11000 tablets of early writing (sadly, only 300 remain in Syria). The Damascus museum has some, including a tablet the size of a large date with the first ever alphabet etched into it. The Phoenician king described Ugarit in a letter to the Pharaoh; covering 1 hectare with more than 90 rooms, it was a truly grand palace. Diplomats visiting the king would meet with their feet in a grand paddling pool in the reception area to keep cool; what a great idea.

Overall Syria was like a step back in time, the tiny winding alleys with dusty shops, women wound into their chadors in the baking heat, lots of well-loved children.

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