I haven’t written much about my trip to Syria, which is a bit of a shame, since, of all the places I’ve been, it was the biggest surprise. We incorporated Syria into our OE because CDH wanted to see Crac des Chevaliers – a virtually intact crusader castle of remarkable size and beauty. But that deserves an article all of it’s own.
The West has no concept of how the media has warped our interpretations of the Middle East. From our border crossing over a minefield in an ancient car with the boot sellotaped together, to shopping for fashionable Syrian dress in Damascus, this is a world you’ve never imagined. But most of all, it was a country full of incredibly kind and creative people. The Syrians loved to joke, to dance, to eat delicious food. They do their best to survive while war goes on around them. Everywhere you go, people clasp your hands and say “Thank you for visiting our country.”
Unfortunately, you will probably not spend so much time smiling and eating, as you will probably end up with what we termed “The Syrian Sickness” as soon as you cross the border. I won’t go into details, suffice to say that being close to a toilet suddenly becomes your one consuming desire.
The city of Palmyra (Tadmor to the Syrians) is located in the middle of the desert. We drove there from Crac in a rickety minivan with our gear tied to the roof. CDH was, at this time, delirious with sickness and we asked the driver to go with all haste to Palmyra. He promised he would. The trip was supposed to take 5 hours, and our driver careened this ungainly van across the desert and made it in 2.5 hours.
1. Temple of Baal
Palmyra sits on the site of the only desert Oasis in Syria, and, as such, has been an important city on the caravan route for thousands of years. You come to Palmyra to see the ruins, and, if you’re an ex-archaeologist with a bit of a ruins fetish (ssh, don’t tell), you’ll have your fill.
You’re free to explore the desert ruins at your leisure. However, you’ll need to pay a fee to visit the temple of Ba’al. It works out to something like 7 US cents, so don’t grumble too much.
Ba’al means literally “lord, master, keeper”. It was originally a name given to human officials, and also to gods. More than one god bore the name Ba’al, including Hadad (a Canaanite storm and rain god), Melqert of Tyre (the Ba’al cult popular during biblical times and worshipped by Jezebel using the Ba’al pillars), and various other local gods. Early Christian demonologists, who didn’t understand the Semitic pantheon, decided the Baal mentioned in the Bible was a single demon, a lieutenant of Satan who ruled over the East of Hell.
So Ba’al is totally metal, and he (or they) has a temple in the Hellenistic style in Palmyra. Unlike comparative temples in Greece, you can actually go inside – right into the cella itself. You will see niches for the cult statues and the remains of an enormous collonade.
Running from the temple, a colonnaded main street leads you through the ruins of the city. You will walk past a temple to Nebu, the baths of Diocletion, a remarkably-intact theatre (again, another entrance fee), an agora, “Diocletion’s camp” and a temple to Allat (a Syrian goddess). The street ends with a tetrapylon – a platform of four gates placed at a crossroads.
Although you cannot view the temple of Ba’al at night, you can walk around the ruins, which are lit. This is the best time to go, because it’s finally cool enough to be comfortable and you won’t be hounded by camel salesmen. Watch out for the snakes, though.
2. The Pancake House of Ill-Repute
A few doors down from our hotel was the Pancake House of Ill-Repute. That wasn’t really its name, but this particular pancake house happened to be a hub of illegal activity in Palmyra. We’re not talking drugs or anything, just illegal internet (the government blocks several sites, so they use a proxy server) and fake student ID cards. Here is a typical exchange between myself and the waiter:
Waiter: “Good evening. Welcome to the Pancake House of Ill-Repute. Can I get you some illegal internet?”
Steff: “No, thanks, I’m good. I’d just like to see a menu-”
Waiter: “Well, what about some Iraqi money? Fresh from the border today! It has Saddam Hussain’s face on it. I know how much you tourists love wacky old Saddam!”
Steff: “No, no, I’m fine, really. I’d just want to eat-”
Waiter: “Fake ID! You look like a girl who could use a fake student ID!”
Steff: “really, sir, there’s no need-”
Waiter: “No ID? No Iraqi money? No illegal internet? Do you want to marry my cousin? He’s very nice.”
Steff: “NO. Sir I really-”
Waiter: “I suppose I should bring you the pancake menu, then?”
Nevertheless, the pancakes are quite out of this world, so we ate most of our meals there. And I did, in fact, end up buying some Iraqi money and getting a fake ID.
Outside the ruins of Palmyra city, you can see the remains of a large necropolis, stretching for at least a kilometer across the desert. This is the Valley of the Tombs – towering multi-storey tombs for the residents of the city. Each body placed into a chamber in the wall and covered with a detailed relief.
Every night, they open up one or two of the tombs for public viewing. A huge crowd of people clusters around until a man comes with some keys and you have 5-15 minutes to scramble around inside the tombs. You’re not allowed to take photographs. However, if you do what we did, and bribe the key man, they will take you to a tomb that isn’t open to the public.
So, that is what we did.
These tombs are incredible.
The ride across the desert to reach the Valley of the Tombs is something in itself. We went in this van:
The floor was coming loose. In sections, you could see desert rolling away beneath you. It had excellent Syrian air-conditioning (ie, they simply don’t shut the doors). We had to take winding, twisting paths to avoid camels and collapsed tombs. And behind us, the sun was just starting to set.
4. Desert life
You will see two things in abundance in the desert:
2. Small children trying to sell you wooden frogs
5. Sunset from the Citidel
There is probably nothing more beautiful than a desert sunset. I was blessed to have witnessed several over the course of this trip, but none so beautiful as sitting on the walls of the Citidel and watching the light fade over the ruins. The soundtrack – hordes of children playing on their blasted wooden frogs.
From Palmyra, we travelled on to Damascus on a public bus, driven by a man who thought he was driving a Jet. He was even crazier than the man who drove our mini-van into Palmyra. This bus hurtled down the road at some unheard of speed – down the centre of the road, I might add, only veering to the side when faced with imminent collision. CDH and I had the backseat and I swear I have not been on a roller coaster as frightening as that bus ride.
Have any of you been to Syria? Would you ever go? Who are your favorite Syrian metal bands?