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Published: April 3rd 2008
It is fortunate that Travelblog does not limit the number of superlatives allowed within a single entry otherwise writing about the two powerhouses of Syrian historical sites – Krak Des Chevaliers and Palmyra – would prove a most difficult task.
Krak Des Chevaliers, or the Castle of Knights, was constructed between 1000-800 years ago by both the First Crusaders, and then the Knights Hospitaller. Nestled high on a vertiginous hilltop, the castle is visible from many kilometres distant, and its sombre walls stare grimly as you weave your way through the narrow streets towards its entrance. However, it is not until you stand beneath the towering outer walls that you realise the stupendous size of this castle that could house a garrison of 4000 soldiers. I have visited numerous castles and forts in many countries, but have never witnessed anything on this scale – the most diminutive enclosure in this complex would be the most spacious in any other castle – and everything was grander, larger and more imposing. Massive grey stones were used to build cavernous rooms and enormous passages that dwarf the visitor – it was akin to stumbling upon a castle more befitting giants than mortals.
The soaring walls of the inner fortress - Krak des Chevaliers
This is just the inner walls - the outer ones are even greater.
Further and further I climbed through the castle – and not being particularly enamoured of high places I was reluctant to travel further – but a recently retired chap from the USA (via Hong Kong) called Willy encouraged me to climb the south-western tower. I am much indebted for Willy’s suggestion for upon reaching the top of the stairs a panorama opened before me that was as staggering as it was breathtaking. The vista in every direction gazed down upon the villages and verdant fields below – as if the occupiers of this castle were indeed gods looking down upon their cowering subjects. The sun shone with a moderate warmth, and an occasional breeze whispered across the valley – the Krak Des Chevaliers felt increasingly more like a paradise only suited for divine beings.
At one point during my wanderings I discerned the sound of an Islamic prayer call – it wasn’t bellowing from a speaker, but from an intimate, finely tuned human voice. I searched for the source and wandered into a disused mosque where a young man in his early twenties was leaving. I questioned him as to who was praying and he humbly admitted that it
was he. I affirmed the beauty of his call and so we walked into the mosque where I stood beside him as he again evoked the prayer call to Allah. The purity of his voice resonated through the empty mosque and when the final echo faded, the ensuing silence was literally magical. We smiled at each other, shook hands and parted ways – it was yet another one of those brief encounters during travelling that can leave such lasting memories.
Not content to pay just one visit to Krak Des Chevaliers, I returned a few days later for another measure of this wondrous place. However, instead of clear and salubrious weather, I was greeted by dark, brooding clouds that swirled thickly around the castle, and a biting wind that made another ascent of the south-western tower impractical. The whole mood of the castle changed, and it was a small reminder of how bitter the winters would be at this exposed vantage. However, the capacious rooms and halls and the intricate stonework lost little of their charm and I can say with a large degree of confidence that this is clearly the finest crusader castle in the world.
also joined me for a brief expedition to nearby St George’s Monastery that housed an 800 year old church within riding distance of the castle. Much further away, we also visited the disused building of Qasr ibn Wardan, and then called upon the easily identifiable beehive homes in Twalid Dabaghein. I had seen these many years ago in Eastern Turkey, but what made this day different is that Willy and I were able to enter a domed home and sip sugary tea with one of the local residents. The houses were remarkably sturdy and their interior was considerably cooler than the outside environment.
The following day Willy and I journeyed to the great desert city of Palmyra. First settled over 3000 years ago, the city later developed and thrived as a crucial trading post along the Old Silk Road. Initially on the friendly side of Ancient Rome, it finally fell out of favour and was besieged by the Roman army who torched Palmyra in the 3rd Century CE. Though the quality of ruins is not spectacular, it is the quantity that impresses. This was obviously a city on a massive scale and it did beg the question, how was
the city able to establish itself so strongly in such a remote area? The drive towards Palmyra was characterised by some of the harshest landscape imaginable and it must have taken days if not weeks to traverse this inhospitable and dry terrain.
At the site I was fortunate to meet Ralph from the UK who was researching the site for a forthcoming article. Though his passion for history was not his profession, Ralph displayed enormous erudition on many matters historical and his knowledge of the ruins at this site was nothing less than remarkable. Willy and I joined Ralph in the Valley of the Tombs, which was reminiscent of the parched Valley of the Kings near Luxor in Egypt. We scrambled along the different areas of the Valley and then rested during the hottest part of the day and gazed at the ruined Palmyra sprawled before us.
During lunch I eyed a small but steep hillside that would command superior views of the whole ruins. I mused on this ascent, but decided to climb this hill, and so after lunch, I commenced the journey alone. The further I climbed, the decision of my fellow travellers not to follow
me seemed far wiser, as the scorching sun beat upon this exposed area with much ferocity, and the loose gravel kept slipping beneath my feet, threatening to topple me from whence I came. However, after much sweating and cursing, I finally reached the summit and jubilantly yelled out in triumph at the amazing view that lay before me. Unfortunately, the noise attracted the attention of an urchin trying to sell souvenirs at the bottom of the hill and to his credit, he too scaled the hill in order to secure a sale. He looked most distressed by the time he reached me so I provided him with some water on my possession. Though I didn’t buy anything from him, his effort was worthy of a small gold kangaroo pin – it was the least I could do.
Apart form the expansive ruins, there was another attraction at Palmyra – the camels. Though not great in number, there was still enough to keep me smiling. There were a few camels to choose from, but I would only pick one to ride – otherwise some would consider me a tart and such a tarnish on my image would be unacceptable. Finally,
I chose a long-limbed camel with a dusky coat called “Bob Marley” – he had no odour (surprising for a camel) but not surprising was that he was particularly cantankerous when rising and kneeling and his dental work was awful. The ride was brief yet memorable (as camel rides usually are) and after dismounting and watching the setting sun colour the columns with shifting hues, I proceeded to meet both Ralph and Willy for dinner. At the conclusion of a hot and dusty day amongst the ruins, the food and lemonade were especially delicious.
After dinner, I returned to my room for a much-needed hot shower that washed away the dirt and dust that had coated me throughout the day. The silence of an oasis town meant there was a peace rarely found in Middle Eastern villages, and so in this quietude, I lay in the darkness within the clean sheets of the bed, as the fresh desert breeze ruffled the curtains and wafted through the room. Travelling does not get much better than this.
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