Published: June 13th 2008June 11th 2008
Some people love ancient ruins, some people hate them, some people are ambivalent.
I thought I was in the ambivalent category, but today may have converted me. I want to say, “Everybody has that special place. You know, that place that when they first set foot in, they knew they would never forget the feeling of just being.” But for me that would be lying, because before today I don’t think I have ever had that feeling.
Somewhere in my first twenty steps at Qala’at Samaan though, it happened for me. Perched atop a hill/cliffs overlooking the Syrian countryside, it is also known as the Basilica of St Simeon, and it is only a forty minute drive out of Aleppo. Maybe it was because I was the only person there, or maybe it was because I was feeling lonely. Maybe it was the breathtaking views off the cliffs, or maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I don’t know what it was, but I could have stayed there all day. I would have stayed there all day, and slept there all night, had it not been for the fact that I have to be in Egypt in exactly
According to sources, Qala’at Samaan commemorates St. Simeon Stylites who was one of Syria’s most eccentric early Christians. He climbed to the top of a 3m pillar in 423 AD and proceeded to spend the rest of his life on this and other taller pillars. He died atop one that was 18m high 36 years later, I’m not sure if this means he physically died on it or he jumped to his death from it. The site isn’t the biggest attraction in Syria. That title would have to go to Crac des Chevaliers or Palmyra, both of which I have yet to see. Either way, I am completely blown away by it. It’s not even that big in area, it consists of mainly one church facade and an octagonal yard next to it which sits on small cliffs and plateaus. The spectacular thing is the view though, no matter where you stand as you look out towards the yard the arches and ruined columns perfectly frame the horizon where the countryside meets the blue blue sky. It’s all I can do to keep myself from trying to actually step through an archway which looks like a path
to some sort of heaven. I get to very slowly peruse an archaeological site which would be a photographer’s dream completely alone, I stand on the edges and try not to get blown off by the intense winds. I’m not a romantic whatsoever and I never come up with ideas like this, but I thought to myself that one day I would have to come back and show this to somebody special to have this all to ourselves and a nice bottle of red. I have never in 23 years ever felt this way about a historical site, it really was something else for me. Does this mean I am finally maturing?
Today was dedicated to exploring the Dead Cities along the Aleppo-Hama highway, a series of Syrian ruins which date back to Byzantine times that historians have used to piece together “a picture of life in antiquity.” Some villages such as Serjilla, the most poignant of them all, still show complete outlines in houses, baths, churches, tombs. Others only have a few structures or walls still standing. After Qala’at Samaan, the driver “Zach” takes me along with a Syrian man named Mohammed to Serjilla, then to Al-Bara (Mohammed
slept through St Simeon, thank God because I think his commentary described below would have really ruined the ambience.)
Mohammed is a very entertaining character. He works in the hotel I stayed at in Aleppo, and when he heard I was looking for transport to the Dead Cities (fairly impossible to get to via public transport) he said he wanted to come with me and would split the cost. He’s never been to Serjilla or Al-Bara, and he has really taken a liking to me. He is 26 and is studying archaeology and working on the side at the hotel. As the drive to each site is an hour to an hour and a half, I spend a lot of time with Mohammed today. His English is quite good for a Syrian, and he has a very up-front flirtatious (and harmless) humor that I don’t think normal locals would dare to use. However he has picked up on a LOT while working at the hotel.
Mohammed decides today he wants to try to marry me. Syrians, like Turks outside of Istanbul, still have arranged marriages. Children are usually married away around 16 or 17 if they are not
students. A man in Syria can have up to 4 wives which to them makes sense as only 40% of the Syrian population is male. Mohammed tells me about one man that has 37 children with 3 wives. He himself has 7 brothers and 6 sisters. Apparently all his brothers are tall and Mohammed is short. He asked his father what happened, his dad says that he made Mohammed with his mother in the summer when he was very busy and he couldn’t do a good job. The other boys were made in the winter when they were not busy and wanted to stay inside. We talk more about the arranged marriages. On average, a girl can be married “for” on average 6 thousand USD. A cheap girl would be considered 4 thousand. Mohammed says that he thinks I could sell for 10 thousand. I think it was a compliment in his mind, but that makes me a little nervous. I console and remind myself that one USD is worth much more in Syria than in America. Mohammed tells me he can give me a small house, six chickens, 12 sheep, a cow, a tractor, olive trees, and some donkeys.
We will have eggs, meat, yogurt, and olive oil. Life will be good.
In Syria though, it is hard to meet women, for most men the only woman they will ever know is his wife. There is no such thing as dating boyfriend-girlfriend or meeting girls in bars or clubs, when asked Mohammed says the only girls you can find there are prostitutes which are dirty and Russian girls which are dirty. He doesn’t like either, so to entertain himself he used to watch “sex movies.” This point he is not ashamed of at all, and I will spare you the details but “sex movies” come up a lot this afternoon. I even tell him, “Mohammed, in America is it a little taboo to speak of sex movies so openly. People are embarrassed.” He says his 72 year old grandfather too watches sex movies! But Mohammed has stopped because he says it is too much to handle, watching the sex movies, when he cannot have the sex himself. He didn’t meet girls when he was younger because he is from eastern Syria and came from farmland. In the school year he went to an all-boys school, and in the
summer he herded sheep. I am 99% certain that this means he is a virgin.
We also talk about him wanting to leave Syria to travel. But apparently it is very difficult for Syrians to obtain visas to anywhere outside the Middle East and Russia. America and Europe, forget about it. The only way they can obtain visas is to marry. His older brother lives in Italy with his British wife. One of his sisters lives in Spain with her Swiss husband. Both couples met in Damascus. I told Mohammed he should try to move there, he says he is thinking about it, he is practicing on me first. When we pass sheperds and their herds, he always points out “my friends!” He calls himself repeatedly Moja-Moja for “hairy man” which like most Middle Eastern men, he definitely is. I tell him in America, models and many men actually wax their chests and body hair. Mohammed says that is girly. He jokes nonstop at the sites and in the car that if we spend the night together, he is like a mattress and I don’t need blankets. He says we should have the fun and eat ice cream in
the empty quarters of the sites. He says when I come back to Aleppo next time, I stay for four months and only pay for one month. My room will not have any blankets though but will have a Moja-Moja. He also says when they drop me off in Hama at the end of the day, he hopes there are no hotel rooms so that I have to come back to Aleppo with him. He says his hair means that he is strong, he can scare off the other men for me. I roll my eyes at him, at everything, all day. He laughs a lot.
So far Syrian ruins top anything I’ve seen in Turkey or Greece, as Serjilla is also extremely impressive. The town itself is actually quite eerily big, and here are some complete building still standing after 15 centuries. Shepards and their herds apparently graze the abandoned town, as there are heaps of sheep droppings everywhere. My words will not do it or Qala’at Samaan justice, neither will pictures, but I try. For Serjilla, there was simply no way for me to capture the size of this antique town all in one shot. But is
it big, and it is amazing to stroll through. There are houses, churches, big baths and tombs, roads, you can even tell probably where each wall fell by looking at the rubble clustered around. It is truly amazing. Two Syrian boys follow Mohammed and us around, and I ask Mohammed what they are doing. He says the boys probably think we are husband-wife and need to make sure we don’t make sex in the ruins. He thinks it will be really funny if we start kissing right in front of them. I tell Mohammed that isn’t going to happen. I think about how fun it would be to grow up in ruins and spend the days exploring and imagining who lived there and how they lived each day. Mohammed says one day he will come back with his wife and make sex right in front of the children for fun.
I think Mohammed will do very well with women in America.
There are more photos below