Today we say goodbye to Jordan and head off to Syria.
Syria has a coast line on the Mediterranean. It is bordered by the countries of Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
Syria is a dictatorship. The previous president (Hafaz) was a true dictator and ruled with an iron fist. In saying this he also brought stability to the country as for thirty years prior to his rule there had been many coups. Not long before his death the President's eldest son and heir, which he had been grooming for the role was killed in a car accident. He then hurriedly commenced grooming his second son, Bashar Al-Assad (which means the lion) to take over as President. He has made some major changes to Syria for the better, including opening up the country to the world, although, it is still a dictatorship. For a small example noticeable to Westerners, Facebook is blocked for access to prevent any unwanted propaganda be spread against the government or information from the outside world.
We are warned by our leader that passing through the borders can be very time consuming and a waiting game. Well
we have heard that before and luck was on our side. So we pack up our three international taxis and head off on our 1 ½ hour drive to the border. There are four of us in our taxi. We stop at a small truck stop along the way to change the last of or J Dollars into Syrian Pounds. Angie changes 20JD and receives a 1000 pound note.
Exchange rate here is to our benefit. 33 SP = 1 AUS or 47 SP = 1 USD. approximately
We are driving along the highway. The pollution from the trucks and cars is terrible. We don't think any of these vehicles have ever had a service. They all spew thick black smoke. The air conditioner in the taxis don't work. So the driver has his window down for some fresh air and we have our faces covered with scarves to help avoid the pollution. It's all part of the experience.
We arrive at the first checkpoint near the border, the driver hands over our passports to the guard checks them out and we move on. We arrive at the second checkpoint with the drivers racing off to have
The cars here really need a service
their paperwork stamped. It's a little unnerving to see our drivers run from the taxis, leaving us like sitting ducks, kinda like a scene from the Godfather movies but luckily no one blows up the cars or are we hit with gunfire. We arrive at the third checkpoint and we all alight from the taxis. The guards proceed to ask our taxi in front to remove all the bags from the boot. Oh no, here we go. Then the drivers and our leader sweet talk the guards and all the bags are put back in the boot. Our leader takes our passports and $5JD and heads off to pay our departure tax and passports stamped.
We then arrive at the Syrian border checkpoint. We all alight from the taxis and file inside to have our visas stamped. We had sent off our passports to the Syrian Consulate whilst at home. $100 AUS $131 USD. Then, because of the swine flu epidemic we have to have a medical check by a doctor. We head off to the Helth Centre (Syrian spelling) and proceed to see the doctor. He asks our name, age and fathers name as it is on our
entry form. Takes an ear thermometer which he has cleaned with a pre used cotton ball and sticks it in our ears. Thankfully Francine's hair was over her ear and he only stuck it on the outer edge of her ear. Ewwwe. We are all given the all clear for swine flu and head back to the visa office. All passports stamped and we are on our way. Again luck is on our side and apart from the small amount of extra time for the health check things moved very fast.
1 ½ hours we are on the outskirts of Damascus. Our international taxis are not allowed to take us into the city. We move all our luggage from the taxis into a local taxis and we are off to the Hotel Afamia. Our rooms are lovely and recently renovated.
It is 2.30pm. We freshen up and head straight to the Museum, about a 5 min walk from our hotel. We had to walk with our heads averted directly through the souk to the museum. The museum is lovely with relics dating back to about about 2500BC.
Next, of course is the souk. We wander through the
painting, fabrics, leather and jewelry shops. The last jewelry shop before existing the souk is the best. It has so many different pieces. We are the first in our group to discover this place and madly look around before the other girls arrive. May has a good knowledge of gem stones and when she arrives we all get into the different gems. The shop owner then takes more rings, earrings and pendants from the storage area and we all in heaven. Ahmed the owner also thinks he is in heaven having his shop so full of women buying his jewels,
There is a stone called Mystic Topaz, it has many different colours and depending on the cut and light it sparkles those different colours. Angie chooses about 11 pieces and it cost her $5500 SP, about $119 USD. Francine chooses about six pieces. We are running late for our group meeting and have to leave before she completes her transaction. Angie leaves a deposit and takes some of her goods and he holds Francine's goodies until tomorrow when we can return and spend more time and enjoy. Jess, our tour leader finds this funny and has never heard of
Bullet holes from 1945 in souk roof
anyone in Syria allowing layaway(layby).
The stones local to Syria are turquoise and agate. We try to find some of items to buy but cannot find settings we like. Maybe tomorrow.
We have our meeting for Syria and head off on our city orientation walk and dinner. Tonight is cheap night and dinner was great. Lamb shishkabab, salad & flat bread. Delicious. Total cost 250SP about $7AUS.
By the way, we have been having Coca Cola with most of our dinners. Francine and Angie can't believe that she has been drinking it. At home we only drinks it about once every couple of months with a pizza.
This morning is a city tour of Damascus. Francine decides not to go and to give her foot a rest. It has been aching and so has her knees as she has been walking with a bit of a limp. She instructs Angie to take many photos to show her.
Angie heads off at 9am to take the tour of old Damascus. Walking through part of the Souk Al Hamidieyeh (bazaar) The entrance is covered with a curved metal sheeting that has numerous holes in
SYRIAN LEGAL OFFICES
Attourneys come to you outside the court building
it. We are told the holes are from gun fire from the l945 Arab revolt. The roof was never fixed.
Our first stop is a small plaza that has the remainder of the Roman Arch right in the middle of the merchant shops and right in front of the Umayyad Mosque. The mosque is the 4th most important Islamic site. This mosque has inspired architects for many centuries to build it's equal. It was built in 705AD, upon the site of an ancient temple of the Syrians and then a roman temple of Jupiter. Then a Christian church called St. John the Baptist. Legend has it that John was beheaded here in this church and that his head is still somewhere on the church grounds. Another legend is that one of the minarets is called the Jesus minaret by the Moslems because they believe Jesus will come back to earth through this minaret. Sorta like the stairway to heaven!?!
All the women even though properly dressed have to don robes with hoods. The men have to have long pants on or they are given material to wrap around their legs.
The inside of the mosque walls
Still in use
is a very large courtyard that has 3 domes, one being over a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. The walls are covered in gilded mosaic portraits and beautiful inlaid marble floors.
The 2nd mosque was built by the Iranians and is a Shiite mosque(Saidah Rukaiyah), very strict and there is total separation of men and women. The entrance has bling bling!! tiny little mirrors and beautiful chandeliers, the women go to the left and the men to the right. The women have a shrine that they worship, the shrine is the daughter (11yo) of Al Hussein who died just after receiving word that her father had be murdered and saw his head put on a stick for all to see. The women in the mosque was pushing and shoving to get to the crypt so they could touch it. The were rubbing items over the tomb. It was difficult to get through this group of women. Angie was able to touch the tomb but nothing happened, no lightening nor enlightenment of any kind.
The greatest experience was going to the bathroom in the mosque. You had to go through a marked off area and behind an
enclosed sheeted area and take off the robe then go to the entrance of the toilets and don slippers (we were barefoot in the mosque) then go to the bathroom, come back and take the slippers off and redress in the robe. All the while women are pushing and shoving trying to get ahead of you. There is no such thing as a line / queue. The survival of the fittest rules the bathroom.
Walking throughout the old town we came upon a elementary school letting out for lunch and the children were very friendly and especially the girls were anxious to practice their English and to say hello to us all.
Fran has a lazy morning at the hotel before heading off to the jewellery shop. Well Francine sees more delights and needs more SP to pay for them. And time to think what she really should buy. Luckily it is time to meet the group and head off to the hamam.(women's bath house).
It was a local experience for sure. Similar to Morocco except there were more of us there so the time was not as personalised and no appointment was required, so it was a
ROMAN ARCH RUINS
In old town Damascus
bit hurried. The hamam is in an older building with the arched ceilings of concrete with coloured glass inlay and marble on the floor, and being over 800 years old.
None of the women working there spoke English (of course not expected to either). We were given instructions to undress and given a cotton wrap to wear. Most of us wore our knickers as well. We were ushered into a room and very warm water poured over us. Then into the steam room. Very steamy and hot.
Next we were herded in for the body scrub. Three of us sat in a small room with the lady. She grabbed one of us at a time and lay us on the floor and started to scrub our bodies with the mitt (we were sure it was made from sandpaper). Washed us off with more warm water and directed us to the next little room.
Shuffled along we lay down on the tiled floor and were given a very rough two minute massage a few karate chops along our backs moved on. Francine got this Angie did not.
Then on to the next room where we sat on
THE CLOAK ROOM
Mandatory just for women
the floor and had our hair shampooed. The treatment was rather rough and the only thought was to be able to breathe during the frequent drenching of water.
Leaving was rather chaotic as Angie had given her money prior to commencing and the woman in charge refused to acknowledge that she received it but Francine came up to verify that the money indeed had been paid. We then had a tea and talked via sign language with some of the local women. They were intrigued by us and were so lovely and took photos with some of us.
The staff then began to play a drum, sing and dance for us. It was such a pleasant lively atmosphere. When we focused on the women we realised that drum was actually a bucket tipped up side down. It made a great sound though.
Even with all the issues involved it was still a nice experience. But the rewarding ourselves wasn't quite finished. We decided to get an ice cream from a very famous place that specializes in homemade ice cream covered in pistachio nuts. Fran goes for vanilla and Angie gets the chocolate and Angie made the better choice
Practicing for the next Star Wars Movie
according to Francine. But all was refreshing after a long day.
We made it back in time for dinner. We went to a really nice posh restaurant, that was the former family house of an important Ottoman Turk. We had one of the second floor rooms to ourselves.
The restaurant is frequented by the President of Syria. Other heads of state have been there such as the King of Spain. Whilst we were there, a dinner of some of the UN members / staff was being held on the third floor.
TRUE STORY. The King of Spain asked for the recipe for the lemon juice and mint drink.. The chef refused to give out his recipe to anyone. The King laughed it off, all ok. The next day the restaurant received a call from a Syrian Presidential official advising the chef that he would be giving his recipe to the King of Spain. Of course they did. To this day the King of Spain has not opened a chain of juice stores and the recipe is still a secret.
After dinner we headed off to a cafe in the old town that has
DOES IT COME IN HOT PINK?
Compulsory women's wear at the Mosque
the best shisha (flavoured tabacco smoked through a water pipe). When in Syria do as the Syrians do and our group leader too. Jess says smoking a full shisha is like smoking 40 cigarettes, if you draw the smoke into your lungs.
Angie, Francine and Frangie decide to give it a go. Mint tea ready in case we choke. We puff away and quite enjoy the flavour and atmosphere of the moment. We didn't smoke it all as we were getting light headed. We did cough and splutteer a bit as we were not used to it. We had a nice time with Jess, Dianna and Jim and it was nice to sit around for the chat and lots of laughter whilst reveal travels stories and disasters. Hilarious.
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