Day 3: Trip to Souj, Qasr Ibn Wardan, Rasafah and Qala'at Ja'abar (3)

Al Asad Travel Blog

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you know a desert when you see one!

And then we entered the desert... Well, perhaps I should explain the word 'desert' to some readers first, because I doubt many people will know what a desert is. I mean, I didn't know it myself. I always thought a desert would be sand dunes, yellow sand stretching on to the horizon, with a hot sun burning on your head. A mindboggling vast ocean of sand, stretching from Syria all the way to India.
Well, it's nothing like that at all. No, a desert consists of green grassy hills full of bright red poppies, grazing sheep and pouring rain. Pretty much like the Scottish counrtyside so to say.

Yeah, that was a bit of a let-down. We were at the end of winter, so we expected we might get a droplet of rain here and there, but not that the entire Syrian desert would turn into a friggin' meadow!
Sure, must be nice for the people living here, that their herds are able to graze, but for a couple of Dutch guys expecting to go playing in the largest sandbox in the world it was a tad disappointing.

Posing with Omar and the car at Rasafah

Two hours driving later the surroundings got a bit more sandy. According to the Lonely Planet this part of the country looks like Mars, because of the red sand. Well, for us it was Mars with a lot of grass halms and bushes here and there. And rain, lots of it.
I blame Derk for this. We've travelled through Scotland and New Zealand together. Both are countries characterised by the amount of rainfall, but when we were there we had the best weather in the world. So it is only logical that when we're visiting one of the driest regions in the world it is piss-pouring down.

Our next stop was the ancient city of Rasafah. This city was built somewhere in the third century and fortified in the Byzantine era. The entire outer wall of the fortress, some 2 kilometres round, is still standing (though partially restored).

Not much left of Rasafah these days
The rest of the city is mostly buried under several metres of desert sand, blown into the city over centuries.
Some of the ruins have been excavated and most impressive were three underground water reservoirs which you could enter. These reservoirs, some 10 metres high and completely underground, and the dark and eerie walls reminded us of the Mines of Moria.

The trip continued to the Euphrates river. The name of this river alone makes it worth a visit. I mean, the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is basically the cradle of all modern civilisation. We arrived at the river at the legacy of the former president, the al-Assad dam and storage reservoirs of the same name.
As hydro electrical dams are of utmost importance for a country like Syria, the dam was guarded by the army.

We had to go through a passport check, after which we were to drive straight across the dam, without stopping and it was absolutely forbidden to take any photos.

At the other side of the dam lies the castle Ja'abar, which is situated on a small island, connected to the shore via a small road. Impressive from a distance, but not worth a visit - as we would soon find out, when we visited the castle.

Basically the castle is just a pile of rocks, and it was absolutely packed with tourists. No, not Westerners, Syrians! This is the Easter weekend which is a holiday weekend for Muslims as well. So hundreds of Syrians flock to lake al-Assad to have a picnic or sail around in little boats.
All this sounds cute and fun enough, were it not for the amount of trash.

Qala'at Ja'abar
Like the traffic there is another thing that seems to deteriorate the more sun hours a country gets: people don't seem all that fussed about deposing of their trash, so the beaches of lake al-Assad resembled a refuse dump rather than a national reserve. And those cute little boats were all equipped with a ghetto blaster playing very loud Arab folk music. Not as idyllic as thought then.

In hindsight we could have done without castle Ja'abar. It was almost an hour from Rasafah, which meant that we had to drive for more than three hours back to Hama. And as it was still raining it wasn't much of a scenic fun drive either. Oh well, eyes closed and slowly dozing off, the trip back to Hama went remarkably quick in the end.

We had planned to have dinner in a restaurant in the old town, but it looked very closed and very out of business when we arrived there. No worries, across the river was the excellent Le Jardin restaurant we ate yesterday, so we simply went back there.

pms70 says:
Your experience with the desert sounds very much like mine driving through the red centre of Australia, it had rained for the first time in years and everything was green and the rivers flooding! I felt very cheated....
Posted on: Jan 25, 2009
aotw says:
Ok, I've got the answer to my previous question, you went on tour with those old Mercedes...
Posted on: Jan 14, 2009
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you know a desert when you see one!
you know a desert when you see one!
Posing with Omar and the car at Ra…
Posing with Omar and the car at R…
Not much left of Rasafah these days
Not much left of Rasafah these days
Qalaat Jaabar
Qala'at Ja'abar
no one returns from the mines of …
"no one returns from the mines of…
best not take the train then...
best not take the train then...
Al Asad
photo by: Biedjee