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The Middle East (Part 3/8) - Syria - Before the Flood

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Monumental arch, Palmyra, Syria
Monumental arch, Palmyra: destroyed by ISIS in 2015

Hama: nailed on

I had a short stop in Hama next. The town itself is pleasant enough, but I had stopped mainly as it made a convenient break on the way south. The town is famous for its 'norias', or water-wheels, and for this one thing alone it is surely worth a visit. These magnificent wooden constructions are said to be the largest - and oldest - water wheels in the world (said to date from Byzantine times). Used for raising water from the river for drinking and irrigation purposes, there were originally twelve of these wooden behemoths, but only two survive as functioning water wheels today. Just watching them is quite hypnotizing, and the very odd sound that is created by the whole process is quite unlike any other I've heard - a strangely haunting, creaking, echoing effect that can be heard across the city. Having a meal in a restaurant sat opposite these wheels that evening was a memorable and atmospheric experience.

Hama: Noria by night, Syria
Hama: Noria by night. These waterwheels are a unique sight

Sarouj - Beehive houses

An excursion I did from Hama took me to some traditional 'bee-hive houses' nearby. In order to get there I was forced to push the boat out (or so I thought) and hire a driver, since tourist facilities and organized trips didn't really abound. I was found one by my friendly English-speaking hostel receptionist, and it surpassed all expectations. A gleaming white Pontiac Eight pulled up outside my humble abode and a grinning guy in with a head cloth jumped out, shook my hand and told me to get in. Which I did of course, gladly. I negotiated the price for a four hour trip before doing so: $20 was the agreed price. Syria, like Cuba, seems to be full of old classic cars,many American, dating from the 50's or 60's, and this was not really a rarity. Why this is so I never found out, but it was a strange and delightful quirk of the country. We arrived at a small village called Sarouj after a pleasant drive along completely deserted roads. It was quite a weird sight: a living community made up of little mud conical-shaped constructions that wouldn't have looked out of place in Star Wars. Known as 'beehive houses', these traditional homes are constructed from dirt, mud, straw and stone in a rounded conical shape. These attractive homes are a common sight in the arid countryside east of Hama. Built connected to each other around a central courtyard, they are designed to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter. While these days most of them are only used for storage purposes, some are still lived in by the poorest families, and though basic, would have the advantage of providing a cool abode during the boiling summer months. On the way back to Aleppo, we came across a totally empty and ruined castle called Ben Worden. Another castle dating from the Crusader era, it was mostly in ruins, but wondering around it in the glowing red of the setting sun was special, with nothing but the occasional lizard scuttling by for company.

'Beehive houses', Sarouj, near Hama, Syria
'Beehive houses', Sarouj, near Hama

Ramadan days

Ramadan started around this time. This affects you as a tourist indirectly, in the sense that you are not always able to eat when and where you would like - a lot of restaurants are closed during daylight hours - and also, public transport becomes very difficult or even non-existent after sunset, as everyone goes to madly stuff their faces or quench their thirst. Ramadan is a real test of one's faith, I would say. I can imagine refraining from eating during the day - it's actually not that difficult if you stuff yourself at night (which the devout do); but not being able to drink when the temperatures are pushing 40 degrees must be maddening. The result is that people really don't do very much doing the day - and certainly nothing active which would induce a thirst - so you get things even more to yourself. It is quite amazing to watch people come 7pm - shops are left unattended, cab drivers flee their cars, leaving their passengers still in their seats, and people gather in homes and restaurants to feast and guzzle on endless courses of food to sate their hunger and slake their thirst. It is said that there are more fights, divorces and murders at this time of year than any other in the Arabic world - hardly surprising, really. Even lighting up a cigarette during daylight hours can induce ire on occasion, so you have to tread carefully where and when you eat and drink.

Agora, Apamya Roman ruins, Syria
Agora, Apamya: not another tourist to be seen

Apamea & Palmyra: deserted beauty

I went to Apamea and Palmyra, two stunning Roman sights that are near the top of the 'things not to miss in Syria' list. Apamea first, about 50km distant from Hama. I caught a bus from Hama, and was dropped off near the ruins - no one appeared to be about (a recurring theme) I had the entire site to myself. No ticket booths, no lines. The only sign of life was the distant village a couple of kilometres away, and a solo goat herder with his goats on the scrubby grass fields. I had the entire Roman ruin as my personal playground. Apamea has one of the longest and most well-preserved avenues I've seen anywhere - it's full length is 2km, and it is collonaded for long stretches of that. It was a true find and one of the great highlights of Syria for me. Searing heat made it extremely fatiguing to walk round, but it was worth the effort. I doubt there is another Roman ruin in the world which is so well-preserved and so utterly devoid of tourists - maybe only in Libya or Algeria. I happily tramped around the ruins for an hour before the heat got the better of me and I headed to the village to try to find a bus back to town - not an easy task. An organized trip might have been a good plan, if there was such a thing, which is doubtful. Palmyra, my next stop, is the largest and most complete Roman city I've ever been to, along with Ephesus and perhaps Hierapolis in Turkey. It's in the middle of the Syrian desert, and so one of the hottest places you can imagine sight-seeing. You are advised to start early, even in mid-September; the temperature was in the low 30's by 11am. I was glad I did. Palmyra is a massive site, and takes at least two to three hours to look around thoroughly, and it's massively draining in mid September. I was astonished by some of the mostly intact intricate monumental arches, avenues and columns which made the city look like it could have existed only a couple of hundred years ago rather than the 3000 plus it did in reality. The crowning glory of the place was a huge amphitheatre, with a beautiful backdrop of the Palmyran mountain range. It really must have been quite a special place when this Silk Road city was in its pomp. Although the site wasn't totally free of tourists like Apamea had been, there were only a trickle. One of the funniest sights of the trip was watching a French woman trying to grapple with an errant camel near the amphitheatre - she spent ten minutes squealing and screaming in French as its owner battled manfully to get the disobedient creature to heel - before it obstinately sat down in the collapsible-table manner that camels do and refused to budge. Note to self: never be tempted to ride a camel. Still, it would have saved a bit of energy - walking around there was incredibly sapping and my 1.5 litre bottle of water disappeared within half an hour. By 12.30, I was so tired and thirsty after traipsing around the theatre, sacrificial temple of Ba'al and agora that it was all I could do to stumble into a garden-cafe by a pool and slump down for the next hour. A taxi drive to the nearby citadel above Palmyra affords stunning sunset views over the ruins and surrounding desert. It was indeed, an unmissable sight. Shame that the surrounding town (Tadmur), as so often with tourist magnets like this, was so scruffy and uninteresting - and full of annoying touts trying to sell overpriced tat.

Roman amphitheatre, Palmyra, Syria
Roman amphitheatre, Palmyra - Citadel in the background

The 'road to Damascus' moment

My last stop in Syria - and arguably the best and most interesting - was the capital, Damascus. All roads, as they say, eventually lead to it, and Moses is said to have looked down on the city from the surrounding hills and refused to enter, insisting that he only wanted to see heaven once - when he died. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that Damascus is heavenly in its beauty, it is definitely one of the great cities of the Middle East - more important than Aleppo, more historic than Beirut or Amman and more serene than Jerusalem - it might just be my favourite city on the trip. My first stop in the city on arriving late in the evening and checking into a cheap but decent hotel close to the old city was an ice cream shop called 'Bakdash'. This place had been given such a glowing write-up, and I'd heard so much about it from other travellers, that I had to head there to sample the legendary creamy vanilla ice that is made on the premises and has been for over a hundred and twenty years. Located just inside the city walls, on the main drag in the souq, the place was packed as I walked in and was pointed to a queue to buy a token for a cone. Priced at reasonable 50 syrian pounds a for a large scoop - 40p - I purchased and sat down on a long crowded table to enjoy my pistachio-topped delights. It was indeed worth the reputation it had - it had a faint flavour of almond or rice pudding and was very creamy. Utterly delicious. I went back for two more. Ok, so the nightlife of the city wasn't up to much, but you've got to get your kicks somewhere.

Minaret, Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria
Minaret, Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Damascus old city, as I discovered the next day, is a veritable warren of streets leading in every direction; its fabled fields and orchards may have been replaced by urban sprawl, but there is still plenty of magic in the air. The old city is filled with bazaars and blind alleys, minarets, mosques and fountain courtyards. Street vendors with their packed carts jam the narrow alleys and smoke fills the air from kebab or corn on the cob vendors. Old men sit lazily outside coffee houses and smoke their nargileh, playing backgammon and sipping endless cups of sweet tea; others sit and talk politics animatedly. The coffee houses, which often double as art galleries, are great places to sit and people-watch. Time seems to have stopped in these old streets, and like Fez in Morocco, it's an ancient, organic city which functions now as it has done since medieval times. Life goes on, nothing changes. The muezzin calls rise mellifluously above the city five times a day and the pious go to pray in their masses. The rhythm of the city revolves around these times when people pause from their work and put down their prayer mats. I purchased a huge bag of cashews and pistachios and munched on them as I got happily lost in the labyrinthine streets and alleys, taking countless pictures of the street life and higgledy-piggledy buildings that were propped up with old beams and leaning at precarious angles. Damascus is the old city; outside of it, like Jerusalem, there is the vast majority of the population, and the suburbs stretch for miles. But the old city is the beating heart and soul, and contains everything that is essential to Syrian life. The main mosque, the Umayyad Mosque, is the focal point of the city. It is huge and impressive and contains not one but three fine minarets and a huge central courtyard. Spending some time here, watching the devout come and pray, is an essential Damascene experience. I happily whiled away an hour here, padding around in my bare feet (no shoes allowed) in the cool, shady mosque interiors, fascinated by the insight into Muslim culture. What impressed me most though were not the ancient arches or minarets, but what was below my bare feet: the polished tiles were gleaming, and practically clean enough to eat your dinner off.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus: a polished effort

But the main point and greatest joy of a trip to Damascus is just wandering aimlessly around it and getting lost; immersing yourself in its smells, sounds, sights and tastes. (and there are some awful stenches, jarring sounds, ugly sights and unusual tastes, so you should take an open mind too).The souqs will keep most people interested for a few hours - even families with children. I got quite into a Syrian soap opera that was playing for entire time in the country (and later, Lebanon and Jordan) - it appeared to be on, usually on large wide screen TV's, in all the restaurants we went to, often on repeat or omnibus editions, every day. Although of course I didn't understand a word, it became oddly compelling for some reason. Its portrait of upper-middle class society and its aspirations were fascinating. Two weeks after I left Damascus, I heard there had been a bomb there. It is such a shame that tourists will continue to be put off visiting Syria because of its perceived danger and security threat - but I couldn't have felt safer wandering around its old streets, and I'd have no qualms about going back - if I didn't have an Israeli stamp in my passport*, which will prevent me from doing so until 2016. I headed in a taxi to Beirut in Lebanon about two weeks after we entered Syria - one day before my visa expired - extremely happy and genuinely enlightened by a lovely, welcoming, relaxing country. I struggle to think when I have encountered such hospitable and welcoming people. I was curious to see if the tiny country of Lebanon, my next destination, would be equally pleasing.

Hired car and driver, Syria - Pontiac 8
$20 gets you a driver and a Pontiac 8 for the afternoon in Syria


* The 'Travel Stamp Dilemma' when travelling in the Levant can be boiled down to the following: If you have been to Israel, and have a stamp in your passport to prove it, you are barred from entering Syria and Lebanon (and Iran), but if you have visited Syria or Lebanon and have a visa in your passport, it is not a barrier to entering Israel, though it might make your entry less smooth. Therefore, it is advisable to visit Syria or Lebanon first, or ask the border guards in Israel not to stamp your passport - they will stamp a separate piece of paper you can attach to your passport if requested. This should preclude the whole problem.

Here is an article from the Guardian on the current state of Palmyra:


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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, please go here:

2/8: Syria - Aleppo, Latakkia, Hama, Crac des Chevaliers

4/8: The Lebanon

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