Arabs, Markets, Castles, Ruins
13.08.2009 - 17.08.2009
Syria has been probably the dirtiest and dustiest place on the trip so far (and easily the hottest), with most of the places that we've stayed at having some nasty odor or other. But, on the bright side, we've also had some of the cheapest accommodation of the trip here, which makes up for the more than questionable hygiene, and a few bad squatter experiences.
We've so far been making our way south from Aleppo down Syria's developed side, and Syria's main north-south artery of Aleppo to Damascus, so far we stopped by at Marat An-Nama'an, Hama and now Homs. But soon we'll venture off the beaten path and bust east into the desert...
The sights so far have been mainly ruins, highlighting that this is an old, old place. Civilizations have come and gone, since the very beginning, and great powers have always vied for the region. We've seen many impressive ruins from all eras, the leftovers of the massive colonnades of the Roman city of Apamea (first built by the Seleucids though), which had enough of a main street left to inspire the imagination to envisage the legions walking in under the eagle banner. The size and solidity of the stones was very impressive.
From the byzantine era, we saw the Dead Cities, large Byzantine towns that were left abandoned for some unknown reason. Although most of the building are ruined, with quite of few of the stones taken by locals for their own houses, there is still a few buildings and walls fully intact, and more than enough to show that there was a proper town there. Again, it was all built out of huge stone blocks, giving the impression that these ruins would be here forever (or until people steal all the stones). The current theory on why they were abandoned are "demographic shifts", people moved out to better places, perhaps to escape marauding armies, of which there have been many.
Personally though I prefer the medieval ruins. Today we saw the Assassin's castle at Musyaf. The Assassins are the stuff of legend, but were definitely badass. Since they were Shia Ismailis, they were constantly at war with the Sunnis, who generally controlled the region. When Saladin besieged their castle, he one day woke up with a cake, a dagger and a note by his bed saying "you are in my power" signed by the Assassins. Obviously, he crapped his pants and lifted the siege. When a crusader came to the castle, the leader, just for kicks and a display of power started shouting at his acolytes to start jumping off the ramparts, which they did until the crusader begged him to stop. The castle itself is pretty intact, and we spent a good few hours climbing around it.
The local people have been pretty nice. There seem to be tourists around, but mostly of the tour-taking variety, so when we take public transport around the place to small towns and villages to see the ruins, we get many surprised looks and mobbed by cute and scruffy children. This is good as we also get invited for tea, but the language barrier is proving quite hard to break through. Some communication is possible though, about pretty random topics. With one old man (who lived in a house in the ruins of an old castle), who spoke no English whatsoever, we managed to "talk" about world war 2 (I got the distinct impression he still though the Soviet Union still existed), and about how he stole stones from the ancient roman ruins nearby to build his home. Somehow, just with our hands and tone of voice, this got through. Although he tried to explain for about 20 minutes how he was a farmer and it didn't really click until he took us into his shed and showed us his plough.
I've also been surprised at how many men still wear the traditional robes and headwraps. The streets are filled with the guttural tones of heavily stubbled men in the red kiffieyeh, hijabied women and street urchins selling bread and shining shoes. There is a lot of heat around too in the cities, not just from the baking sun, but from the streetside kebab shops cooking outside, and men carrying around coals for the nargilehs. A very vivid and intense culture, lots of loud body language, people hawking things on the street, as well as shouts of "hello and welcome" to us as we walk by. Most of the younger people we've met seem to be fixated on leaving the country though, as there a few jobs, and no money here. Money is all important around here, you need to to get a wife (or the bride's family will refuse), to get a house (or you wont be able to live with your wife, or even marry her), to buy your wife jewelery, and all the other usual expenses. One guy who invited us for tea and coffee, Saddam (woohoo!), thought that all Europeans are rich, and a job in Europe would land him a jackpot, but with his level on English I doubt he would have an easy time getting a job.
The Axis of Evil this is not, however they do block facebook...