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Published: April 14th 2011
Greetings from Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city at 2 million people, situated in the north of the country. And what a beautiful city it is, with some great sights and as usual very friendly people. Still having a great time travelling in this fascinating region of the world, and have spent the last days travelling through the Syrian heartland from Tartus on the coast, through Homs and Hama in the centre, to here, Aleppo, my current stop before I head out east into the desert. Will try to upload some photos of the past few days, having been to some amazing places, though this internet café is a tad on the slow side – we’ll see how it goes…
Last I wrote I believe I was about to leave Tartus, which was good timing as things seemed to be kicking off a bit on the coast – you may have heard about the recent happenings in the town of Baniyas about 30km to the north of Tartus. I will save comment on this situation until I arrive back in the UK, but things have seemed pretty normal on my route to here, Aleppo.
First stop was
Hama, a lovely quaint little city situated spectacularly on a meandering river called the Orontes, along which are found numerous large creaking waterwheels called “noria”. These huge wheels were originally used from the 13th Century onwards as an irrigation method bringing up the water from the river to the surrounding farmland 10-20 metres higher than the river, but seem now to be just beautiful decoration, although still functioning. Hama also served me well as a useful base for exploring numerous sites around, as well as being the location of the fantastically friendly Riad Hotel, my room having the first bath tub on my trip so far – a blissful couple of evenings were spent in there, thanks to my fantastic universal plug adaptor (while many hotels in these regions of the world lack baths, those that do have them, also annoyingly lack plugs, rendering them useless if it weren’t for this handy piece of rubber I always carry with me!).
Thus, after a good night’s sleep upon arrival in Hama, I spent the next day chartering a taxi for the morning to take me to the nearby ruined Byzantine fortress of Qasr Ibn Wardan, built by the Emperor Justinian
View over Aleppo from Citadel
in the 6th century, via an amazing little village called Sarouj where the inhabitants live in beehive-shaped dwellings not dissimilar to those of Western/Central Africa. After a morning of luxury being driven around by my friendly non-English speaking taxi-driving chauffeur, and improving my Arabic, I spent the afternoon negotiating public transport and a dodgy local who wanted to take me to his house rather forcibly, grabbing my hand while we crossed the street. Perhaps a bit too hospitable for my liking, I hailed the next passing minibus to take me to a striking set of Roman ruins called Apamea. Nothing much remains of this ancient city of approximately 500,000 inhabitants at the time of Christ, apart from the most splendid colonnaded street of Roman columns I’ve ever seen – the street goes on for over one kilometre, and is situated on a bleak and barren moorland crossed regularly by shepherds and their flocks – very beautiful and atmospheric, albeit rather windy, and I was the only tourist there during my visit - I had the place to myself (and thankfully no wild dogs this time!).
The next day, yesterday, did a very useful tour with the Riad hotel, which
took me and a friendly Christian couple from New Zealand through a region known as the Dead Cities, originally founded during the Byzantine era, but mysteriously abandoned soon thereafter. Also onto the Basilica of St Simeon, which again was built during the Byzantine period and lies in ruins today, around the very pillar upon which St Simeon himself spent 40 days of his life as a hermit in the 5th Century AD. The pillar apparently remains today as a large boulder, and the great thing was that while we were there, a French pilgrimage group was celebrating mass which I joined very gratefully, having not been to mass since the start of my journey. They were most welcome, and it was definitely a blessing to celebrate mass in that special place. Also bumped into my Russian travelling friends again there, Andrej and Zhanna, who seem to be following the same route as me apart from a recent detour to Lattakia (which I for one avoided…) And finally, after these two places, the tour took me to Aleppo, here, my current staging post, and a fine city indeed!
Aleppo vies with Damascus as being the oldest continually inhabited city in
the world, and is in many ways its rival. It seems rather quieter here in terms of tourism (though this may be due to less and less tourists visiting Syria since the start of my trip…), and I feel I had many of the places to myself. The best thing about this city is its amazing hilltop citadel, very well-preserved since the Muslims built it in the 12th Century as their power base against the Crusaders. Fine views from the top, meeting again by chance with the Russians – I think we’re meant to be travelling together here! And the first protest I’ve encountered on my trip so far – this was very much pro-government, pro-Syria and pro-Bashar Al Assad, though involved loads of groups of school kids centring on the citadel – a bit bizarre, but lovely to see such happy faces in support of their country.
Which brings me now up to date, currently in an Internet café in the newer part of Aleppo, not far from my hotel which is a bit shabbier than most so far. All the places in the LP seem to be fully-booked, strange considering the lack of tourists over recent days,
so I ended up in a more local option, which is actually very quiet but more towards the lower end of the cleanliness scale, including shared squat toilets… will not divulge much more, though still had a decent night’s sleep.
Here for one more night, before my journey takes me eastwards into the desert, and the same route as the Russians also – we said “see you soon” when we parted today, I envisage us meeting again at some point in the near future!
Will leave this one for now, and try to upload some photos – though I really don’t think I’ll be able to here, I may have to do it in the next few days from another Internet place somewhere else.
Speak soon, ma’asalaama!
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