The strong scent of spices filled the air in this part of one of Damascus's endless souqs.
I left off after an inadequate description of one of the world's finest castles, though I had already started my new adventures in Damascus by then. It's all a bit of a blur. Time for more catching up.
After the castle, we were dropped off by a bus station in Homs, which appeared to be a rather uninspiring city. After using what we unfortunately discovered later were not actually the worst toilets in Syria, we grabbed some quick eats. For about $0.60 we bought fresh falafel sandwiches rolled up in thin pita bread. They hit the spot. We effortlessly hopped on our next bus to the exciting capital.
After some lukewarm reports from other travelers, I was expecting good, but not great, things from Damascus. Within a few hours I was so blown away by the place that I wondered if we had been talking about the same Damascus. It is a brilliant city!
By the time we checked in to our simple room, with large, un-lockable windows (though for some reason we didn't feel uncomfortable about leaving our stuff there), it was early evening. It had already been an incredible day of sightseeing, so we felt that
finding a good dinner and wandering would be sufficient activities for the rest of the night.
We chose a restaurant in the Christian Quarter and took a long walk through some beautiful parts of old Damascus (emphasis on the word "old" here) in order to get there. We entered the restaurant and found a large courtyard-ish room that looked far swankier than what we had expected. A quick glance at the menu, however, showed that the prices were comparable to those of a lousy fast food restaurant in the States, if not cheaper. We let the man in the tuxedo show us to our table and listened to the saxophone player next to the fountain. Soon, our table was filled with superb mezes, and we ate until it hurt.
Skeptical of what was listed as "local beer" on the menu, I decided to give it a shot nonetheless. I was brought an incredible unfiltered beer, with a flavor that could hold its own against similarly-styled beers in Europe. This is not what I expected to find in Syria, of all places! A closer look at the label on the bottle showed that despite its smooth taste, it had
If you like fresh juice, you will be happy in Syria. It is incredibly inexpensive and little shops like this are all over the place.
an 11% alcohol content. I was in disbelief as beers stronger than 5% or 6% usually taste awful to me. Though, by the end of the bottle, sure enough, it felt like the end of three bottles. I was shocked as we walked back to the hotel, me floating after a single beer. Syria is full of surprises.
The next day we once again did a ton of sightseeing. We visited the Umayyad Mosque, the third most important mosque in Islam following only others in Mecca and Medina. We entered through the vast courtyard, marveling at both its grandness and at the dizzying array of human activity throughout it. An emerald-colored chamber within the mosque was a particularly popular place for visitors. Reportedly it houses the head of John the Baptist.
Next we wandered to the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, an impressive but gaudy structure built by Iranian money. Never before had I seen a religious building completely overflowing with mirrors and bling. A slot machine, oddly enough, would not have looked too out of place there. Like at the Umayyad, this mosque was bustling and crowded, filled mostly with people who seemed to have other things to do
Next, we decided to head over to the Azem Palace, but found that it is closed on Mondays. Around the corner from the palace, a group of tourists was pouring out of a building that looked rather interesting (Khan As'ad Pasha). I asked them what it was and if it was worth entering. While they were answering that yes, it was worth a look around, their tour guide interrupted. With a dramatic billow of cigarette smoke and a thick Aussie accent, she proclaimed to me that it was "only the finest example of Khan architecture in the world..." I tried to nod convincingly as though I had some idea of what that meant. I decided that I was happier not knowing than knowing and being in that woman's tour group...
It was indeed a handsome building, striped throughout with alternating black and white stones, a large fountain in the middle and some type of art display around the perimeter of the bottom floor. After that, we wandered some more and eventually found ourselves at a great rooftop restaurant late in the evening. We feasted again for a mere pittance, utterly satisfied with Damascus. The next morning
massive columns at the Temple of Bel
The incredible collection at the Temple of Bel alone would be reason enough to visit Palmyra. However, it is just one small sliver of the extensive sites.
we made it to the attractive Azem Palace before skipping town. It was sandwiched in between so many other spectacular sites that we probably weren't as impressed as we should have been by it.
On the road to Palmyra we watched a brown, barren countryside pass outside the bus windows. We arrived in the heat of the afternoon and had a long wander around before settling on a cheap, pleasant hotel, run by the first of three interesting Mohameds that we would meet while in Palmyra.
We waited out the rest of the day's heat in an internet cafe, a restaurant and anywhere else where we could find ceiling fans and cold drinks. At dusk we ventured out to the ruins and were joined shortly after by a rising full moon. Syria's prime tourist attraction is awe-inspiring, to say the very least. It was like visiting a much grander version of Efesus, nearly on an Angkor Wat scale. Our first impression of it, illuminated by the moonlight, will be truly unforgettable. Our plan to take a few pictures ended up taking several hours and we made our way back to the hotel quite late. This gave us only
a few hours of sleep before rising again at 4:30, to take pictures of the sunrise.
Palmyra becomes an oven fairly early in the morning. We returned to the hotel for a bit more shuteye before having a late breakfast. This we had at our second interesting Mohamed's place, where we had dined the night before. This Mohamed is fluent in seemingly dozens of languages, and he speaks them all at lightning-fast paces. By the time we left the city he had given us gifts of Bedouin clothing and told Jen that "all of the camels in the world are not enough for your eyes..."
Our full day in Palmyra continued with a camel ride for Jen and a lot of walking around in the sun for both of us. The camel man seemed a bit upset that he couldn't sell me a ride too, but I had a very good reason for not wanting to buy one: I don't like riding on camels.
We made our way to the castle on top of the hill that overlooks Palmyra by late evening. There we met an interesting American couple and watched a spectacular sunset.
Me at Palmyra
I had a lot of fun playing with the full moon and long exposures...
We met the Americans later and listened to their tales of life in Kuwait, where they teach - it sounds quite boring, actually. They raved about Yemen though, where they started their international teaching careers a decade or so ago.
Our last full day in Syria was rather underwhelming after a week of sensory overload from the rest of the country. We took a few bus rides until we reached the dusty border city of Al Qamishli, the eastern-most crossing back into Turkey. We didn't explore the city too much but found an absolutely charming restaurant near our hotel. There we ate our final delicious meals in Syria, served by a friendly staff that seemed shocked by our presence.
At the border we were shuffled into a chaotic little office with tall stacks of papers, files, and other things that probably haven't been moved for a hundred years or more. Somebody had taken our passports off to some other place. If we understood correctly, we would have to wait for the electricity to come back on, and I assumed that this would possibly take days. Thankfully it took only about ten minutes or so, and before we knew
Tetrapylon at night
My pictures do not capture the immense scale of Palmyra. Here, I tried to jump and touch the base of the columns, but could not come close to clearing the tall platforms that they are positioned on.
it we were walking past a fence towards a blue sign that read "Türkiye."
Tot: 2.507s; Tpl: 0.05s; cc: 8; qc: 36; dbt: 0.03s; 2; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.3mb