Published: April 2nd 2010February 13th 2010
It was not a good start to the trip. In fact it was without doubt the worst ever. Things were a bit fraught, anyway because my mother-in-law was in hospital with a broken pelvis and my wife, understandably, didn't know if she could leave her. So there was an air of uncertainty as I packed the suitcases. Then, as I lifted the a suitcase using a hand held weighing scale, the scale broke and 17kg of hard plastic suitcase fell directly onto my toe. My first thought was that my poor toe was broken and that I would have to go to casualty and therefore miss the flight. My second thought was 'Ow. That really hurts' and my third thought was 'am I going to faint'. I didn’t faint and after 15 minutes of hopping and swearing I continued packing. I also photocopied the passports which are, according to our friends, are needed for entry into Syria.
A chatty taxi driver deposited us safely at the airport and we went to check-in where a nice Voyage Jules Verne rep was helping us old people with the new fangled self check-in screens. All you need is a
passport. So easy. So I opened our trusty wallet which has served us well all over the world and would you believe there was just one lonely passport. For two of us. In about one second I realised that my passport was still in the photocopier at home. 45 minutes away. I had a sinking feeling like I had never had before. I suggested to the VJV rep, that I had photocopies of the missing passport (ha) but she shook her head sadly. Things were looking decidedly grim. However fortune finally smiled on us in the form of the best neighbours in the whole world. A quick call to them they immediately used their spare key to get in to our house where they found the passport ( still in the photocopier) and then set off to Heathrow. In the meantime we went to Cafe Rouge for lunch. I must admit that I was not relaxed and would not relax until my passport was in my hand. What if he got stuck in traffic? What if the car broke down - no, that won't happen because it's a Honda. In the meantime our lunch did not arrive. After 30 minutes
it still did not arrive. Then the waiter admitted that our order was lost (how can it be lost between the dining area and kitchen?) and our lunch did not exist. This was indeed a low point.
But then things began to change. Our sainted neighbour arrived with my passport, we checked in easily and got upgraded to luxurious business class and were greeted with a glass of champagne. The world was immediately a better place. At Damascus airport we were greeted by our Syrian tour guide who immediately wanted to take our passports away. Having just been through the trauma of losing it then regaining it, I was a bit reluctant to give it up again, but if I didn't I would not be let into Syria. There was no choice. Damascus airport is quite unremarkable, so I won't.
I had many preconceived ideas about Syria. It is called a "rogue state" by the Americans (however it seems that any country which does not agree wholeheartedly with the American way of doing things is "rogue") and is subject to US sanctions. The US has imposed sanctions because Hamas (which Syria sees as a legitimate resistance to Israeli
bullying) has a home there, and for being too friendly to Iran. So would we experience hatred on the streets towards the west? Would we see a harsh Islamic country with downtrodden women in traditional dress and men in the arab dishdasha? Are you thrown in jail for thinking about a beer? As (nominal) Christians would we be subject to abuse?
As we drove through the night, the scene seemed familiar. Single fronted shops selling food, household goods, fruit, kebabs and nearly all with one, two or three men chatting and watching the world go by. It seems a requirement that any shop needs a shopkeeper plus at least one other person to chat to. Even upmarket hotel shops were the same. All the shops were bathed in the strong artificial light of neon strip lights. This was a night scene we had seen all over the middle east.
We arrived at the Sheraton 5 star hotel which is situated in the hills outside Damascus and our first preconception of a conservative Islamic society was dealt a swift blow. We were met in the hotel foyer by a large poster of a very busty belly dancer revealing most
of her assets, and also by giggling girls in tight trousers and skimpy tops who were attending some sort of family party. We also found that drink was freely available in the hotel bar (actually not "freely" available because it was hard to find the bar tender). Things got even better when we found we could get free wifi for internet access. This is not the closed, conservative country we had expected! Sunday
There was no chance for a relaxing lie-in to recover from the traumas of yesterday because we had an early morning call. In fact we had early morning calls every morning of the whole trip except for the very last day. We even had an early morning call on the one day we we had decided not to take a trip in favour of a lie-in and a swim. Very annoying. I think the earliest call was 5.45 and the latest a lazy 7.30. We even had one which should have been given to a different tour group!
As we drove into Damascus we were struck by the forest of satellite dishes perched on a jumble of concrete habitations. Most of the houses had been
built illegally and were either half finished or half falling down. But they all had a nice satellite dish. Apparently the reason for the multitude of uncompleted houses is that if you build a house in Syria you only pay tax on it when it is finished. So people live in unfinished, unpainted houses with with bare concrete columns sprouting out of the flat roof which marks out the upper storey which provides further evidence of its un-finished and therefore un-taxable status. Furthermore there are very many unfinished buildings of all types blighting the countryside because of the laws of Islam. Islam does not allow the earning of interest on a bank or savings account (called ‘usury’) so people look to property as one of the few ways to invest their savings. An investor will buy a property, generally unfinished, and will sell it a year later, still unfinished, for a higher amount. Understandably there has been a boom in building and the country is littered with unfinished grey hulks of apartments, shopping arcades and houses. It does not make the countryside very attractive, especially with the impressive amounts of litter everywhere. So the road into Damascus was not particularly
pretty, but it was fascinating none-the-less.
We were surprised to see the vast majority of women in standard jeans and trousers. Another surprise was the complete lack of men in Arab disdashas (the long shirt-like garment). All of them wore trousers, shirts and jackets. I saw one man in a robe, but then I discovered he was a priest.
Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world with over 4000 years of continuous habitation. We stopped at the walls which were a hotchpotch of Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Ottoman and modern repairs. A complete history of the last 2000 years in one place! Through the gate and we were in the street called Straight, mentioned in the Bible. It has changed since then of course, but not much. We walked into the Christian quarter and visited the house of Ananias where Paul went to after his conversion on the road to Damascus. The house is a museum but down some steps is a small church with just enough space for a dozen worshipers. This was indeed experiencing history first hand!
As we wandered through the streets of Damascus we didn't encounter any hassle at all, except
from over-enthusiastic shoe shine boys. So different from our experiences in Morocco and Egypt. Many people would stop and welcome us to Syria and everywhere we were met with smiles. In fact our guide announced that Syria was the 3rd safest country in the world. I couldn't find facts to back up his claim (in fact Norway is 3rd by the latest study, behind New Zealand and Denmark) but Syria does have a very scary and ubiquitous secret police so woe-betide any pickpockets or muggers. We also noticed a few women in black dress and a very few in the full burqa which surprised us because we had been told it was not traditional for Syrian women to wear such clothing (the burqa, of course, is not Islamic dress but is cultural tradition). Apparently these black clad women ("known as crows") are Iraqi refugees or Iranian pilgrims. In fact at the airport we had seen a huge flock of them which had flown in to see the many important Islamic sites in Syria. The Iraqi refugees, though, have put a strain on the economy, increasing both unemployment and house prices, so they are not very popular.
One of the
joys of travelling is to sample the local food and drink, and in Syria coffee is probably the main social drink. We stopped for a break in a cafe and cut our way through the smoke from the hookahs and industrial strength cigarettes to get into the back room where we ordered the local coffee and some tea. The coffee was challenging. An egg cup size cup needed plenty of sugar and a holding of your breath in order to get it down. It had a thick, gritty, spicy aspect to it. Four of us managed to drink one cup. The tea was like nectar in contrast. No alcohol in the cafe but with the smoke and the unique strong coffee I am sure they don't need it. We left the cafe and wound through the streets and passed mosques and churches dating from Roman times onwards. It was interesting to hear that Christianity and Islam has lived in relative harmony for many years. Damascus, of course, started with local religions, and has passed through Jewry, Roman gods, Christianity and Islam and is now mainly Islamic but with numerous Christian buildings and people. As our guide said "We are Syrians
first and Moslems/Christians second"
This multi faith influence was in evidence at Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. The site has been a religious site since 2000 bc when it was a temple to Hadad, the Aramean god of rain and fertility. The Romans then used it to worship Jupiter. When the Romans decided to become Christian it was dedicated to John the Baptist. In the 7th century the Arab Armies of Islam defeated the Byzantines and the huge building was split into a church for the Christians at one end and a mosque for the Moslems at the other end. What a perfect solution! Now it is the one of the most holy sites in Islam. It is a fascinating to walk through and we could walk down the middle, noting how women were kept to the back of the mosque. The shrine of John the Baptist, who is revered as a prophet by both Moslems and Christians, contains the poor man's head which was separated from his body by Herod. In the grounds of the mosque is the tomb of Saladin who united the Arabs against the Crusaders (or "Franks" as
they were called by the Arabs because most of them were French). Saladin defeated the crusaders and he was known, not only as a great warrior, strategist and politician, but as a chivalrous man and he won the respect of many of the crusaders, including King Richard the Lionheart. He was born in Tikrit, Iraq which is where Sadam Hussein was born. Apparently Sadam Hussein liked to compare himself with Saladin! More about Saladin later.
Damascus museum, understandably with 11000 years of history on its doorstep, has an awful lot of exhibits which are not always displayed to best effect. For me the best exhibit was a tablet, about the size of a pack of cards, which had imprinted on it the very first example of a letter of the alphabet. It wasn't A. In fact it was hardly recognisable as a letter but according to those who know it was the start of the development of our modern alphabet. Before this letter was invented information had be recorded by hieroglyphics and pictures. It was found in the city of Ugarit. The museum staff are always on the look-out for ways to part the visitors from their money and
are keen to show you, for example, currency notes which have museum artefacts on them. Or they will, with a nod and a wink, let you take a photograph in places where you shouldn't. I even saw our guide slip a member of staff a folding note just for borrowing his pointing stick. Tips are an important part of life in Syria and it is a minefield for the tourist. Fortunately our guide handled all the necessary baksheesh. Anyway, back to the museum, Apart from the first letter, there is a 3rd century synagogue which was transferred and rebuilt in the museum. It is unusual because it includes pictures of people which goes against Islamic rules. And there are tombs which gave us an introduction to the tomb-laden part of the tour. More on tombs later. All in all the museum has world class exhibits in a less than world class display. Excellent, nevertheless.
As we drove up into the hills for a view over the city, our guide pointed out the infamous Golan Heights which Israel appropriated in 1967 during the six day war. What amazed me was how close they were to Damascus. It is as if,
at the height of the cold war, the Russians occupied the Chilterns. It is no wonder that the Syrians are not very friendly towards the Israelis. The whole world (except Israel) say that the Golan Heights are Syrian. But the Israelis are staying put and there are now thousands of settlers in the disputed territory and the numbers are increasing daily. This is a problems which is not going to get solved anytime soon.
The reluctant president of Syria is Bashar al-Assad who seems to be quite popular and a sensible sort of chap. Unfortunately, his advisors and the powerful military are rather more belligerent and ruthless, consequently Syria remains on the Americans' list of rogue states, though recently there have been overtures to end the isolation. He does have a nice presidential palace on a hill over-looking the city. It is very big and understandably well defended.
As a rule we avoid ethnic events (they can be cheap, tawdry and patronising) but in the evening there was to be no escape because we were to have a group meal with a whirling dervish man as entertainment. So to fortify us before the unmissable entertainment we eventually found
a well concealed bar and drank an expensive beer. A sign at the entrance to the bar warned us that gentlemen on their own would not be allowed in. Did it mean single men, or groups of exclusively men? And why? I would love to have discovered the reason for this sign.
After sufficient fortification we made our way to the large restaurant. It obviously specialised in groups of tourists but nevertheless the meze starter was delicious. The second course, as so often happened, never quite matched the meze. I think it was chicken and rice. Beer and wine was available and we were realising this Muslim country was liberal in many surprising ways. Then the whirling dervish arrived to whirl in a small space between us and the next table. Apparently the whirling is all to do with death. The brown cap represents the tombstone and the white full gown is a symbol of death. His cloak, which ours didn't have, represents the grave. He starts by walking slowly in a circle as if, literally, winding himself up then he starts spinning on one foot. His gown flies out and makes a conical shape. It also creates quite
a draft for those nearby. As he spins he makes shapes with his hands and head which symbolise a spiritual journey in which he finally ends up as a "perfect" man. Our dervish can't have been very good because he had to have three attempts at becoming perfect. Monday
It was slightly unnerving to leave Damascus on the road which leads to Iraq. We were actually heading to Palmyra which is inland and not far from the Iraqi border. The situation in and around Iraq is much more settled than it was, but nevertheless following a sign post to Baghdad does create a certain frisson. We stopped at the Baghdad cafe and fell into the trap of having our photo taken in front of the evocative sign. A few kilometres down the road was another Baghdad cafe. No doubt there were many more.
We turned off the Iraq road and heading further into the Syrian desert. The road ran alongside an austere range of rocky hills and the few people we saw were Bedouins in their tents and pick-up trucks. Shepherd boys attended flocks of sheep and goats. It all looked very arid and biblical (apart from
the pick-up trucks) but I found it quite desolate and gloomy.
Before we reached Palmyra we visited some tombs. Some tombs were towers and some were buried underground. There were lots of them. Some were ancient commercial ventures and in these, where you presumably bought a yourself a space (but you couldnt afford your own tomb), you were packed tightly with the other bodies lying on your side , presumably to maximise space utilisation. So modern yet this was 2000 years ago and it demonstrates that basic grasping human nature doesn't change.
The first records of Palmyra date from 3000 years ago and, like all cities in the area, it was occupied by many different peoples including Assyrians, Persians, Alexander the Great and Romans. The city grew and flourished in the desert because it was situated on the important trade route to the far east, so anyone controlling Palmyra controlled the trade route and could levy taxes. The height of its power came under Queen Zenobia whose over-reaching ambition annoyed the Romans that they defeated her in battle and burnt the city down. It never flourished again and crumbled to the vast area of ruins it is today.
The sanctuary of Bel is a enourmous temple and complex, over 2000 years old and parts have been re-constructed. Much animal sacrifice was practised on a massive alter, which had efficient drainage to take the blood away. At the height of its glory and power the temple must have been a very impressive and imposing sight. From the temple a long colonnaded street runs through the centre of the city. Off the street is a theatre, a market where goods arriving on camels from the east would be sold, the senate and all the shops and infrastructure a thriving city would need. The site is huge, about a mile from the temple of Bel to the end of the colonnaded street and most of it has not been uncovered. A theatre has been reconstructed which, according to our guide was badly done and a disgrace and devalued the whole site, but according to a guide book was "carefully renovated". It didn't look too bad to me. It did emphasise how important entertainment was to these ancient civilisations. Apparently wrestling was very popular.
We saw very few, if any, beggars in Syria, but we were targeted in Palmyra by persistent
young sellers of postcards and jewellery. Sometimes they were very young and very persistent. They generally spoke very good English except they continually mistook "No thank you, I do not want any of your wares"" for "If you try a bit harder I will buy whatever you are selling at whatever cost you are asking". I was not surprised when the guide told us the literacy rate was very high in Syria.
We had a pleasant lunch in a recommended restaurant and drank lemon juice with mint which was available just about everywhere. Some of this speciality drink was delightfully refreshing but other examples were so mouth puckeringly tart it was difficult to drink after the first sip. But it was always fresh.
I always enjoy coach journeys (when I have enough legroom) because some-one else is driving and I can watch the world go by, so I looked forward to the 3 hour journey through the rocky desert to the city of Homs which is near the Mediterranean coast. Grey scrubby bushes dotted the ground, with occasional green patches which attracted the Bedouin and their sheep. We passed oil and gas installations and sometimes military areas which
we were warned not to photograph. Suddenly we were among orchards in bloom and green fields and then just as suddenly we were in Homs. Homs is relatively new city in Syrian terms, being first mentioned only 2000 years ago. Now it is an industrial city of 1.5 million people and has a diverse population. But we were only staying in Homs because it has good hotels such as the Hotel Safir, which is where we stayed for two nights. The meze in the evening was superb. It even had, unlike the Sheraton in Damascus, a functioning bar. Tuesday
We drove 2 hours along the coast to Saladin’s castle. As you travel through Syria you notice that the roads, although reasonably smooth, generally do not have road markings where you might expect them. At busy junctions for example. But even more you notice the litter alongside the road. The UK is not the most litter free place in the world but Syria has biblical amounts alongside the road. Even in fields growing whatever they grow, the ground is covered with bits of plastic. In fact one field I thought contained little plants with blossom. The blossom, on closer inspection,
turned out to be shreds of plastic bag The guide explained that people are not yet in the mindset to look after the countryside, and it would take time. A very long time I suspect
Driving in Syria is not too bad but we had recently returned from India so we knew what really bad driving could be. Our coach driver seemed very competent and careful. In fact we had applauded him when he reversed 500 metres up a hill at speed. Unfortunately his reputation took a hit when he reversed into a stationary car in an otherwise empty restaurant car park. He was understandably distraught. The restaurant we lunched gave us another mouth-watering array of meze but the best thing was the wonderful view across the valley to Saladin's castle, or Qalat Saladin. Actually it was a Phoenician fortification from 1st millennium BC which was next occupied by the Byzantines. The crusaders took it in the early 12th century and made substantial changes to it, giving it the overall shape it is today. In 1119 it was entrusted to Robert of Saone, so it was known as Saone castle until recently. Saladin captured it in 1188 after a
short siege. It was then handed to the Marmelukes (who were a powerful military caste of slave origin), and then to a rebellious governor before returning to the Marmelukes. After 1287 it declined into obscurity. Perhaps the most impressive part of it is the man-made canyon, about 30 metres deep, between the castle and surrounding hills. A needle of rock has been left to provide support for a bridge. After many steps up you enter the castle gates and immediately see all the many buildings from different eras and occupiers. The huge tower built by the crusaders is particularly impressive and the view from the top enables you to see many miles over the surrounding countryside - and you can see why they put a castle in this strategic position.
Next stop was Ugarit, which is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East, if not the world, because in it was found, if you remember, the very first letter of the alphabet. It is also where the first known written musical note was found. Occupation on the site started 9000 years ago but the era which archaeologists get excited about is 6000-3000 years ago. This
is when the Mesopotamians occupied the site. 4000 - 3000 years ago was a golden age for Ugarit when copper skills and trading made it extremely rich and important. But as always things never last and due to changing skills needed in iron work and invasion by "Sea Peoples" the city declined and everyone moved out. The buildings collapsed to the pile of rubble it is now. In fact it was only rediscovered in 1928. But what you notice most when you enter is how overgrown it is. Nothing much is standing and the signage is next to non-existent. You definitely need a guide or how else would you know that a carved stone held hay for horses? It was possible to see the palace and surrounding streets and a cellar was particularly well preserved but the site is generally just a huge area of pretty flowers with building rubble poking through the undergrowth. One day, perhaps, more money and effort will be put into studying and improving this important site. Wednesday
As we travelled through the towns and countryside I was struck by the number of failed businesses. There were so many cafe's and restaurants, shopping arcades, garden
centres, garages all built by optimistic entrepreneurs which are now empty and forlorn and victims of the desperately weak economy. It was really quite sad. And everywhere there are the unfinished houses. It is as if the country is one big building site but the builders have moved on to other projects, probably in another country. And everywhere looks like it needs a lick of paint.
Krak de Chevaliers, or Castle of the knights, is probably the most famous of all crusader castles. It is very well preserved and a marvel of crusader fortification. TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) said it was the finest castle in the world. The Knights Hospitallers were responsible for building it (although there was a pre-existing fortification) and they occupied it from 1144 to 1271. They were a military order of huge wealth, along with the Knights Templar, and made the castle impregnable and it dominated the surrounding countryside. In fact Saladin gave up after just one day of siege in 1188 and went on to easier prey, including Saladin's castle we had seen before. When it fell in 1271 it was through trickery, not military defeat. As you walk around it you understand
why it was so formidable. The entrance is much more than just a strong door and portcullis as so often seen in Hollywood films. If you do manage to fight your way through the first doors you would then have to fight up a long steep corridor just to reach more doors. When you get through those doors you are faced with an even tougher inner castle. It is, apparently, a masterpiece of castle design. The stables, kitchens, dining areas are all on a suitably grand scale with lots of gothic features you only normally see in Europe. It would hold 2000 troops, though when it fell there were only a few hundred. When the Marmelukes occupied it they built a mosque in the old church and in it we had a most impressive sung rendition of an Islamic prayer by a young man. It was very atmospheric and beautiful and he certainly earned his many tips.
Homosexuality isn't officially allowed in Syria, and the Koran is not keen on it, so it was quite a surprise to be served by the "gayest" owner of a restaurant I have seen for a long time. Fantastically good at his job,
he is very well known in Syria and people come to him to see how to run a very successful restaurant. We were recommended to have the chicken which purports to be the best in Syria and we were not disappointed. He is brave man and long may his success and his openness last. On our way to our next stop I was fascinated, and not in a good way, by all the tax-saving, grey, unfinished houses so in one village I counted them. Unbelievably 90% of the houses in the main street were unfinished. They should really do something about the tax laws, but if they did there would surely be riots in the (unfinished) streets. Earthquakes are not unknown in this area and someone in our group enquired how we would know if there had been an earthquake!. As always (and this seems to apply around the world) the best maintained item in Syria is the mobile phone mast.
Another amazing fact that came to light as we drove through a valley, was that 99% of the inhabitants in the region were Christian and only 1% Muslim. We had a quick look at St George’s Monastery, parts
of which date back to 500AD. The vast majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox so the dark churches are full of icons all looking very flat and, of course, lots of gold. As you travel you see the most unexpected sights. For example as we drove from the monastery we saw two shepherds grazing their sheep on the central reservation of the dual carriageway. I presume grass is in short supply. Further on we passed caves in the hillside which were inhabited 50,000 years ago. Sometimes you get overwhelmed by the history in this country!
Jesus spoke a form of Aramaic which, apparently, is only spoken in three villages one of which we visited to see the old church which dated from 500AD. These old churches are very atmospheric rather than impressive and in this one a local girl spoke the Lord's Prayer in the language of Jesus, not that we would have known if she wasn’t. But we all smiled and nodded. The church also had a unique font which dates from before the treaty of Nicaea in 325ad when font design was standardised. The shop at the church was giving out free glasses of interesting (but a
little challenging) wine. We didn't buy any. Sometimes it was difficult to believe you were in the Islamic Syrian Arab Republic.
The food has been consistently very good and the meze and in particular the humous has been fabulous. The service has generally been good but sometimes it goes awry. And it did at our evening meal which started, as always, with the meze. A dozen delicious bowls of humous, vegetables, a little meat, salad and so on. We piled our plates and chatted away happily. The lady next to me was the last to finish and the waiting staff were keen to get the next course in front of us (after the meze the next course was always a little disappointing) but my neighbour was still chatting and enjoying her meze. What happened next I have never seen anywhere. The waiter just grabbed her plate, while she was eating and started to take it away. But she was quick and grabbed it back and a sort of tug-o-war took place. The waiter won and triumphantly placed the next course in front of her. We had to laugh.
After the meal we thought we might like a drink
in the very fancy bar which was all stainless steel and expensive furniture. We were the only ones there. Literally the only ones because there were no bar staff. When a waiter wandered in (probably lost) we grabbed him and gave him our simple order of 4 small beers. He looked rather shocked and said he would go and get some from somewhere else, so off he went, returning sometime later. It was bizarre. A 5 star hotel but not quite 5 star service. Thursday
Our last day in Syria. We drove through a Druze area. Druze people are sort of Islamic but have a very separate identity and have some fundamental differences with mainstream Islam. For example they drink alcohol. There are probably 2 million in the world and 500,000 in Syria. Like all minority groups in the area they have a proud but difficult history though they seem to prosper relatively well in present day Syria. As we drove through the towns it was common to see a mother and daughter walking together, the mother in traditional robes and the daughter wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Will the daughter wear traditional robes when she becomes a mother?
I suspect not. Its a sign of changing times, even here.
Our last place we visited in Syria was, in many ways, the best. The Roman town of Bosra was a large and very prosperous provincial capital, but the unique thing about it is that people still live in the houses. Square houses line the cobbled streets, and as the women go about their business in traditional clothes, it is easy to imagine you were back in Roman times. Obviously the houses have been repaired in the last 1500 years but the houses and streets still probably follow the same Roman layout. A large mosque, with a tin roof, was built about 1400 years ago (not the tin roof) on the site of a Roman temple. Most of the large buildings are ruined, but there is a fabulous theatre which is in such good condition you could imagine that a Roman play is just about to start. It has 37 tiers and can seat 9000, in strict class hierarchical order. It is in such good condition because an Arab fort was built around it, thus protecting it from all the invaders this area was susceptible to.
we travelled to the Syrian/Jordanian border which took us about an hour to get through. Firstly our passports were taken to an office on the Syrian side for the obligatory stamps, signatures etc and then we drove some way through, I presume, no-mans land to the Jordanian border. Smuggling must be a problem because there was a long line of cars and taxis, with all their belongings laid out on the tarmac for inspection. We had to get off the coach, find our luggage and walk through a airport-style detector. Our luggage was put back onto the coach then there was another delay while the paperwork was completed. Our Jordanian guide met us and the unrelenting pace of the tour started again.
So what impressions did I have of Syria? A fascinating country, full of history but it has been dealt a bad deal, not only recently but over the millennia. It is a land of builders who have all left unfinished buildings to start the next job. The sanctions must be hurting and there is strain put on the people and the economy by the many Iraqi refugees. The people are very friendly and there surprises everywhere. Go
if you can!
Our very knowledgeable and efficient Jordanian guide wanted to take us to Jarash which is known as the Pompeii of the east because of its fine state of preservation. It is also huge and our enthusiastic guide was determined to cover all of it before the sun went down. I think he was testing us to see how far he could push us. Anyway, he set off at a cracking pace and we did our best to keep up. Triumphal arch, hippodrome for horse races, temples, piazza, more temples, colonnaded street. It must have been more than a mile from one end to other and it was a fascinating and impressive site. We left just as the sun went down, very tired but glad we had done it.
Jordan appears to have a significantly higher standard of living and more development than Syria. This is immediately evident in the roads, which actually have road markings and signs and in the houses which are generally completed and well maintained. Our very smart hotel in Amman was well run, but you had to pay for wi-fi whereas in poorer Syria it was free (perhaps
an indication of a more “commercial” attitude in Jordan) . We had eaten a week of Arabic food and, while we loved it, sometimes you need a change so we fell into the "Champions" bar and ate hamburgers surrounded by photographs of American sports stars. At that point we could have been almost anywhere in the world. It was a sort of "grounding" for us. Friday
The view from the Citadel over the city is fantastic. Jumbles of houses cover all the surrounding hills but the clear sound of the city floating up to us was the aspect I remember most. The citadel site has a history which goes back thousands of years, but the best excavated sites are from the Roman times onwards. The museum on the site is small but has some interesting items, including fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is due to move to a new building soon which should show of the artefacts to much better effect.
We travelled to Madaba which is known as the city of mosaics because there are Byzantine mosaics everywhere. The most notable mosaic, and the one we visited was the mosaic of the world created in
the 6th century in the Greek Orthodox church of St George. It covers the entire region from Jordan and Palestine in the north, to Egypt in the south in quite some detail. Fascinating, but the place was filling up with Russians and we were due to be at the Dead Sea for lunch.
You don't just wander down to the Dead Sea and jump in. Not with our tour you don't. You go to Movenpick hotel (Swiss run) have a nice lunch, use the changing rooms and then go to the hotel's beach where you are gently helped by an attendant into the water. In fact it is a good idea to be helped in because it is a very strange sensation and it is too easy to lose your footing owing to the extraordinary buoyancy of the water. And if you cut yourself on the sharp lake bottom, it stings an awful lot. So you lie back and just float. You can't actually do much else in fact. You certainly can't swim. Luckily you are only supposed to be in the water for 15 minutes (apparently the very salty water de-hydrates you) because any longer, when the novelty
has worn off, would start to become boring. Nevertheless it is something you have to do. To add excitement you can also rub Dead Sea mud all over your body. From personal experience this stings like hell if you get it on your lips. When you wash the mud off you are supposed to feel younger. Yeah, right.
Jordan has just a couple of "national" dishes. One is a dessert dish which I think is served upside down (the food, not the server) and mansaf which is basically lamb and rice with a yoghurt sauce. It takes much preparation and we went to a restaurant famed for its mansaf. To start we had yet another fantastic meze which included: 3 subtly different smokey humus dishes, nan-type bread, chapati-type bread, broad beans in something, sausage, pickles, salad, citrus salad, hot harissa type dish, potato salad and some other dishes I can't remember. After all this the mansaf course was, to be honest, a bit underwhelming. Perfectly nice and tasty but, after all, it was only lamb and rice. Saturday
And so it came to pass we went up to Mt Nebo where Moses did find water for the children
of Israel (the Moses spring) and where he did die. As you know, Moses is a major character in the Koran, so the site is significant for Moslems as well as Jews and Christians. There was a monastery on the hill, and there is still a particularly fine mosaic from the church completed in 578AD.
The coach ride from Mt Nebo was particularly spectacular. There is a breathtaking valley where the road winds down one side, wanders across the bottom and climbs slowly back up the other side of the valley. Views throughout the journey were dramatic, and where there were shepherd boys tending their flock it looked really quite biblical. Lunch was yet another wonderful meze with 20 different dishes, and we ate it on a balcony looking out over the valley. Magical! What was not magical was the one and only tummy upset of the trip which followed. Fortunately it lasted just a few hours, but the worst part is waiting to see which way it goes. Mild or Volcanic. Luckily mild.
Kerak is another crusader castle which was in the centre of the action in the 12th century. It is perched on a ridge in
an excellent strategic position. In 1183 it was occupied by Reynald de Chatillon who was a thoroughly bad egg and little more than a pirate. He did many despicable things but was eventually captured by Saladin who reminded him of all his misdeeds and cut his head off. Again the castle is formidable and it is easy to visualise standing on the battlements staring out over the barren rocky plains and valleys, looking for enemies. Sunday
When anybody mentions Jordan, the next sentence normally contains the word "Petra" and today is the trip to this famous world heritage site. We had been warned by the guide that the day is particularly arduous. From the entrance gate there is a 1km walk to the entrance of the gorge. On this walk we passed many tombs, the first of over 800 monuments in the Petra area. After walking for half an hour or so we reached the start of the gorge (or siq in arabic). Any picture of Petra, or Jordan for that matter, is normally composed of the Sandstone treasurey taken through the narrow gorge. What you don't realise from this picture is that the gorge is 1. very narrow
2. very deep 3. very windey or 4. very long - about 1.5 kms. There are various carvings, tombs and altars as you move through the gorge but what was most interesting to me was the sophisticated methods of capturing scarce rain. Along the wall were gutters carved into the walls which caught and directed the water along the length of the gorge to reservoirs for the use of the city.
As we approached the exit of the gorge, our guide told us to look directly sideways at the wall, NOT ahead, until we had maneuvered ourselves to the correct place, at which point we were told to look ahead. And there was the fabulous treasury, bathed in sunlight and framed by the dark gorge walls. In fact it was the picture which is familiar everywhere. It was a very stunning sight. The treasury is not actually a treasury but a tomb and legend said that the urn at the top of the monument contained treasure. It was built about 100 BC for a Nabatean King. The Nabatean Arabs founded Petra and it was a rich and powerful trading centre which became a cosmopolitan centre of people and ideas
from the four corners of the (then) known world.
As you leave the Treasury the gorge opens up to a valley where each side is covered in tombs, none of which were individually quite as impressive as the treasury, but there number and variety took your breath away. There is also a well preserved theatre. Everywhere there are people selling you camel rides, souvenirs and books (including the lady who wrote about moving here from England and marrying a Jordanian) and of course there are cafe's of varying attractiveness. Luckily our guide didn't like crowds (not that there were many at this time of year), so he took us up a rocky path and along the valley side to some remote tombs. The tombs were basically rooms for dead people carved in the sandstone, but what made them memorable were the beautiful natural stripes of strata in many different shades of red which swirled round the walls and ceilings. We clambered up to a later byzantine church, and I think one of my enduring memories was walking (unavoidably) over millions of 2000 year old shards of pottery. The Great Temple is one of the few free standing structures in the area (most are carved into the sandstone) and covers a huge area of over 7000 sq m but, apart from the temple area, it is not clear what the rest of the complex was for. The tougher and hardier of the group continued on and up (via donkey) to a monastery but I and J found a horse and trap and had a very exciting bumpy white-knuckle ride though the gorge and back to the entrance. After the very tiring day, that was some of the best money I had spent on this trip! Monday
Back on the coach for a visit to Wadi Rum which is a vast desert of pinnacles and ramparts of rock rising up out of a sea of sand. TE Lawrence described it as "vast echoing and godlike". TE Lawrence fought with the Arabs when they revolted against the occupying Turks in the first world war and we were taken to a place where they had a base, and you could see why they were difficult to detect. We sped through the sand in the back of pick-up trucks, looking not unlike a group of insurgents/resistance fighters/ terrorists/heroes (delete as applicable) speeding to an dangerous operation, but minus the kalshnikovs and rocket launchers. It really was a fantastic experience and the view was breathtaking. We had to see the sun go down (being told we are going to watch the sunset has a similar dispiriting effect on me as announcing we are going to see ethnic dancing) and although it went down successfully as planned, it got very cold very quickly, as apparently it does in the dessert.
And finally to Aqaba on the Red sea, tightly sandwiched between Israel and Saudi Arabia. What nice neighbours! We didn't see much of Aqaba but from what I heard, I won't be rushing to return. After a night in a very nice hotel we flew, thankfully uneventfully, home.
We thoroughly enjoyed this trip and, more than any other trip, it made me want to learn more about the places we visited. If you get the chance, GO!