Published: January 3rd 2008January 3rd 2008
Well, we’re currently in Palmyra, in the middle of the desert, amongst wonderful Roman ruins and an oasis filled with date palms that surrounds the town.
Unfortunately, we both seemed to catch one of the local bugs in Aleppo and have been feeling a little worse for wear for much of the last week. On the brighter side, it’s provided us with an opportunity to experience a lot of the local bathrooms and we’ve certainly gained an appreciation of the finer aspects of Syrian porcelain-ware…
From Aleppo, we visited the town of Hama for a few days - a city renowned for its wonderful norias
or waterwheels. Some of these wooden structures are up to forty metres across and apparently make this deep, mournful creaking sound as they slowly turn. I say apparently because unfortunately we visited before the winter rains have hit so now they sit stagnant (emphasis on stagnant) in the dry riverbeds which seem to double as the town’s rubbish dump as well. I imagine the rains which turn the wheels also go a long way to clearing out winter’s rubbish build up.
But non-functioning norias aside, Hama provided us with a great base to explore some of the nearby ruins and castles and we joined a few Italians, Irena, Matteo and Alessandra, whom we’d met in Aleppo for a trip out to the Apamea (lots of Roman columns), Meysaf (an Ishmaeli castle, much like the Castles of the Assassins that we visited in Iran - this was about as far west as these fellas ventured) and the piece de resistance, Crac des Chevaliers. The ‘Crac’ was one of the Christian strongholds during the many, many Crusades that passed this way and one of the few that Saladin didn’t actually capture when the Muslim armies began their blistering counter-attacks. However, considering the absolute impenetrability of this place, he really took the wiser option, instead overrunning all of the surrounding fortresses, including cutting off the Crac’s supply lines, and basically waited until they got bored and wanted to go home. Today, it’s in remarkably good nick and we spent a couple of hours wandering around the battlements, although it was bloody cold, especially with the harsh winds whipping over the ramparts, and as mentioned previously, we weren’t feeling too crash hot anyway.
And then it was on to Palmyra, bouncing along over bumpy roads through the harsh and barren desert. Eventually a few Bedouin camps appeared (they seem to have traded in the camels for one-tonne Isuzu trucks) and we finally rolled into town. Essentially, Palmyra is an oasis town and home to the best preserved of the Roman ruins in Syria. It covers a massive site; at one end is the gigantic Temple of Bel (an earlier manifestation of Baal or Zeus) and then a huge colonnade leads down past the baths, theatre, senate and onto the Gate of Damascus. It’s quite impressive but I reckon I’m getting a little “columned-out”. I mean don’t get me wrong, the history and the setting are amazing, but there’s only so many ways that you can look at (and indeed photograph) a column before they all start to look the same. I guess it’s like what happens after you’ve visited the 600th paya/stupa/temple in SE Asia, it all just starts to blur a bit. But the landscapes here are stunning, the barren desert and rocky outcrops, peppered with long-forgotten tombs, creating a wonderfully eerie and surreal picture. You can just wander for hours at a time and not see anybody else, bar the odd shepherd and his sheep, who is more than eager to have you sit down and share a cup of tea (or three). I guess you get pretty lonely with only sheep to talk to…
We’d bumped into a German couple who we’d met in Aleppo and they told us that they were heading out to explore some of the desert cities and ruins, probably an eight hour trip all up, and wondered if we’d like to join them. After ascertaining the Jane’s belly was finally okay after a wonderfully exotic meal of plain rice and potatoes, we rocked up bright and early and off we all went. All went smoothly enough until we were a hundred or so kilometres from Palmyra and then the van we were in started to cough and splutter ominously. As we slowly crawled to a halt, I glanced out of the window and noticed the vehicle parked at the intersection; a couple of dust-covered blokes loitering around a battered pickup, complete with large calibre machine gun mounted on the back. One of them slowly sauntered over to the van, looking us up and down, and there was an audible sigh of relief when he suddenly burst out laughing and beamed at the driver. Not quite sure what they were looking out for, but as this was the main road to the border, I assume it was a half-hearted attempt to stop insurgents getting into Iraq. After a collective push-start, we were off again and we headed out to our first destination. Not long after, the road began to disintegrate and we’d alternate between the heavily fragmented tarmac and what proved to be the relatively smoother ride on the compacted hard sands of the desert.
The ruins of both Qasr al-Heir East and Resafe (the latter is actually mentioned in the Bible) were stunning; crumbling walls and buildings rising up out of the desert sands (and sinking back under them now). The former was a collection of palaces, as well as home to potentially the third oldest minaret in Islamic history, while Byzantine Resafe was a fortified frontier town that served as military garrison cum site of cult worship. The object of this adoration was St Sergius, a Roman centurion who refused to worship Jupiter and was thus killed here for it (Incidentally, Jane had popped into a church dedicated to the guy in Istanbul). We finally made it to the banks of the Euphrates as the sun began to set and watched as the locals rowed forth to fish from what is the lifeblood of much of this part of the Middle East.
And then began the journey home. We’d barely made it twenty kilometres when the engine began to sputter. After a bit of fiddling, we chugged off again, but the sounds issuing forth were far from normal and the fact that we struggled to exceed thirty km’s an hour seemed ominous. This continued for the next couple of hours, stopping every twenty minutes or so when the engine would cough exhaustedly and then whimper to a standstill. With 100 kms or so to go, Adnan turned to us pleadingly and asked if we’d consider tea. We veered off towards a collection of small shacks and piled out into the pitch dark, peering up at a blanket of millions of glittering stars, at a local Bedouin’s house. Fortunately, Adnan (as we later established) knows pretty well all of the local Bedouin in this part of the country and we were welcomed into a large room, placed around a heater and fed copious cups of tea. The entire family of twenty-three turned out to peer at us with wonderfully inquisitive looks and we sat there drinking and smoking, communicating through sign language and wondering if we were actually going to make it home tonight. With a sudden scurry, everyone jumped to their feet as the door swung open and the father and head of the clan, Mohammed, strode in. He was a huge barrel-chested bear of a man, boomingly forthright yet at the same time quite jovial and indeed most hospitable, as he formally welcomed us to his house and sent his daughters scurrying off to prepare us all dinner. It was a wonderful meal of different mezzes and loads of sugary tea and I’d snap to attention every time Mohammed addressed me (unfortunately the ladies received relatively little attention) in his deep and resonant voice. He constantly laughed at my name, apparently Sa’man, as he pronounced it, is some sort of vegetable oil used for cooking, so there you go.
An hour or so later Adnan, hands covered in grease, blearily recommended that we restart and after multiple handshakes/palms to chests and copious 'shukrams’, we wandered back to the van and struggled off again. While all seemed fine for a while, the problem soon resurfaced (we think it might have been the gas station spiking the diesel with water). However, no matter where we broke down, the first truck along would stop and attempt to lend a hand - all of these wonderfully friendly amateur mechanics with their own opinions amid a mass of hand gesticulation. The next three hours, huddled in the back trying to keep out the desert cold, were an endless cycle of stop, start and chug along at camel-pace, including another pause with our gunner-mates who chuckled again at our predicament.
We did finally reach Palmyra late into the night, and we all sat around laughing, sharing a very welcome whiskey with our new German friends. Yet my dreams were frequently interrupted by that high pitched whining noise that the engine continuously made…