SYRIA & JORDAN 2004
Malaga Travel Blog› entry 8 of 10 › view all entries
I flew from Málaga by Air France to Paris Charles de Gaulle and then from there to Damascus. This was the first time I have flown Air France for quite some years and I was agreeably surprised by the service even though I was flying economy. The stewards came round first with small plastic pouches that contained a “towelette”, eye mask, ear plugs and ear phones. The ear plugs could have come in very useful since I was sat next to a mother with a screaming kid! Not only screaming but also with an electronic toy that kept repeating over and over again with a tinny electric voice “Let’s play that find that letter game”. Fortunately the screaming kid fell asleep and stayed that way most of the flight. After the plastic pouch the stewards then came round with toys for the kids and then drinks were served. I drank only water although champagne was also on offer.
I arrived at Damascus, a singularly provincial looking airport, and got through immigration fairly quickly but, there always seems to have to be a “but”, my luggage was not waiting for me. Reporting my loss I was told by Air France that it was in Madrid! I found out later that apparently Air France is fairly notorious for losing luggage and they certainly seemed to be prepared for the fact since without my making any request they gave me a voucher for 4,000 Syrian pounds, about £55 to be spent at Benneton (why Benneton I have no idea), and a toilet bag with some essentials in it, razor, shaving cream, a totally useless face flannel the size and as thin as a postcard, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a condom! Ah well, it’s a French air line.
I had arranged with the hotel to be picked up and the man was waiting for me as I came out. I had arrived in Syria with a couple of preconceived ideas given to me by a friend who had visited the country some five years ago. He had told me that the second language after Arabic was French and he had also advised me not to hire a car since there were very few road signs and those that were, were only written in Arabic. Well, just a couple of minutes in the car and all of that was dispelled. The driver spoke perfect English as did many Syrians, and the road signs were in Arabic and English. While we were driving the driver’s mobile rang and I surprised because his ring tone was one of the Bach Brandenburg concertos, the very last thing I expected.
Of the hotels in Damascus, my Lonely Planet guide says:
“The accommodation scene in Damascus is dire.
The first impression of the hotel was a little disappointing. Lonely Planet said:
Well, I suppose that that was an accurate description. Yes, the rooms were shabby with rather nasty plastic furniture and the bathrooms were very small indeed, with no shower stall so that when you showered the whole of the floor got wet.
The staff at the hotel seemed genuinely concerned about my lack of luggage and I received a tremendous amount of sympathetic help from them.
I more or less wasted three days in Damascus waiting for my luggage. It had been my intention to get my visa changed to allow me to go to the Lebanon, only a short drive from Damascus, to see Baalbek, the most important Roman city in the Middle East before Palmyra, something made impossible by my having to be in Damascus searching for my luggage. In those three days, apart from my daily visit to the Air France office, I spent exploring the old city.
The old city encompasses the “souk”, the market, spread out over a large area, most of it covered. The “souk” is actually divided in to quite well defined parts so that there is a leather souk, fabric souk, carpet souk, spice souk etc. Some of them were very uninteresting, for the visitor at least, since they sold things like household goods or ironmongery. The main street through the souk is very straight and very obviously lined with tourist shops that I ignored. Right at the end, passing through what remains of a 3rd century Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter it opens out in to a fairly large space where the central mosque is located. It seems that part of the temple was later incorporated in to the mosque and vestiges of Roman masonry can be seen from the outside. In Syria it is permitted for non-Muslims to enter mosques and, having paid my entrance fee and removed my shoes, that’s what I did. Western women are obliged to don an all enveloping robe with a hood to cover the hair. This is done in a special room which was indicated by a notice which pointed to “Putting on special clothes room”. The main mosque is surprisingly plain, very unlike some of the mosques I have seen in Morocco for instance. Before entering the actual mosque there is a very large patio and almost as soon as I entered I was surrounded by children indicating that they wanted their photograph taken. One of them even asked me in English: “What is your name?” and when I told him and then asked him the same question, it took time for him to understand but eventually he cottoned on and told me. The Syrian children are incredibly nice. They all seem to know at least on word in English: “Welcome”.
From the Mosque I went to the 18th century Azem Palace originally built as the private residence of the Governor of Damascus. It now doubles as the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions. But it is the palace itself that is the actual attraction rather than the exhibits inside which comprise mainly of scenes of daily life with wax models dressed in traditional costumes. The odd thing was that all the models seem to have been cast from the same mould and the only things that differentiated them were the clothes and the wigs. It gave a very strange effect, almost as if all the inhabitants of the Palace had been genetically cloned.
Traditional architecture of Damascus is interesting. The buildings are made of three types of stone laid in horizontal stripes; white, pale ochre yellow and black. Always a central patio with rooms leading off and the rooms decorated with wood panelling sometimes painted or carved. It wasn’t possible to take any photographs in the rooms so I can’t show you any examples but I did take one surreptitious photo of a beautiful carved stone basin in what had been the “hammam”, the bath house. Probably the old houses of Damascus are the most important things to see.
Lonely Planet has dire things to say about public lavatories in Syria but to my surprise, in Damascus at least, I saw public lavatories that were absolutely immaculate. A policeman looked at me very curiously when he saw me taking a photograph of one.
On the second day the Manager of the hotel accompanied me personally to buy some clothes since Air France had given me cash in exchange for the Benneton token. He did all the bargaining for me and I bought some underwear, very good quality cotton but incredibly old fashioned, some socks, two T shirts and a couple of pairs of cotton trousers. Later on, by myself I bought a pair of sports shoes since the shoes I had arrived in were too heavy for extended walking, and then also a sports bag to carry all of this in.
It was the Manager also who recommended a restaurant to me and wrote down on a piece of paper in Arabic: “I am vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, cheese or eggs.” The restaurant he recommended to me was modest and very inexpensive but one could eat relatively well. Most of the time in Syria I lived off street food though, food bought from stalls in the streets where on the whole, I seemed to eat better than in restaurants. The most basic stuff was a “sandwich” but nothing like the sandwiches that we know. These were something like a crepe which was filled with crushed up falafel and salad and topped with hummus. On the whole delicious and very filling. It was very funny on one occasion when I went to one stall in the souk and showed my note in Arabic. The man looked at it quizzically and seemed not to understand. He then passed it to another man who did more or less the same thing. In the end, another man behind the counter grabbed it and read it. I don’t speak any Arabic but I understood exactly what he said: “Hey, are you two stupid or something? It says quite clearly that he’s vegetarian and that he doesn’t eat meat, cheese or eggs.” That problem solved I got my two sandwiches, actually the best I had in Syria because in that particular stall they added some very thin slices of lemon that gave them a nice, subtle astringency. The other nice things were the juice stalls. Here you could get fresh juices of almost any type, fruit or vegetable and also, if you wished, they would make up cocktails of any combination for you. All I drank was grapefruit juice, a very large glass mug for a ridiculously cheap sum.
One of the very nice things in Syria is the total absence of multinationals. There were no MacDonalds, no KFC, no Burger King, no Coca Cola, no Pepsi Cola, in fact a total absence of junk food. It’s so nice to see a country retain its own identity.
That same morning, after my visit to the Air France office, I visited the National Museum, a rather poor national museum with the exhibits poorly labelled or not labelled at all. Perhaps the most important item in the museum was the smallest; a tiny clay tablet with cuneiform writing on it. From what I learned it was the earliest known form of writing. Of the other two things that occupied my interest was a reconstructed 2nd century synagogue which had been found elsewhere and brought to the museum and reconstructed. It is amazing since all three walls and the ceiling are painted and have survived so well over 2,000 years, apparently because the whole thing was buried under the desert sand for most of the time. The other was also a reconstruction. This time of a tomb that had been found in the Valley of the Tombs near Palmyra. It gives just some idea of what some of the tombs in Palmyra must have been like. Once again no photography permitted so I can’t show anything of what it was like but it comprised a large room lined with marble columns and arches and some funerary statuary in a remarkable good state of repair.
In the afternoon I took myself off to the “hammam”. So much walking and unable to really clean myself properly I thought that this would be an ideal way and also give my aching legs a little rest. I went to what Lonely Planet claimed to be the oldest and best “hammam” in Damascus. Having experienced a Turkish bath in Turkey I have still yet to find one to equal it. However, it’s always an interesting experience and I love the steam room more than anything. The thing that disappointed me about this one was that they also had a wooden Finnish sauna installed (hardly traditional), and the massage was on a plastic covered table (unlike the enormous round marble slab as in Turkey) and was more like just a body rub than a massage. Afterwards, relaxing and drinking tea, I started to talk to a young American, one of only three I met all the time I was in Syria. He told me he was in Damascus for two months studying Arabic. I had already asked several Syrians about American tourism and their reply was that no, there was very little. The Americans, according to them, were afraid. The young American in the “hammam” told me that initially he had told everyone he was Canadian but then had got fed up with the lie and then told the truth. So many Syrians told me that I should tell all my friends, Americans especially, to come to see the reality of Syria and in truth, the reality is that it is a very safe country. I walked by myself day and night and never at any moment felt threatened. It is a country refreshingly free of crime and extremely hospitable.
I’ve already mentioned that most of my meals were bought from street vendors and nothing happened to me. I seem to have a cast iron stomach. One thing the young American told me was that he had “finally taken the plunge, eaten some raw food to get it over and done with.” The consequence of this was that he went down with diarrhoea. Personally I think that he went down with diarrhoea simply because he was expecting to do so.
After the “hammam” I took a walk through more of the souk and at one point discovered what I thought was an old house but which in fact turned to be an old house converted in to a restaurant just as so many of the old houses in the old part of the city are being put to different uses now. It was a restaurant called “Al Khawali” and it didn’t figure in my Lonely Planet guide as one of the places to eat. It looked so beautiful and inviting that I thought I would eat there that evening and I did, accompanied by a young Syrian doctor I had met in the hotel. The reason that it didn’t figure in the Lonely Planet was because it had only been open for a year and even Samer, the doctor, didn’t know about it. As we entered, on the right was a waiting room, a fairly sumptuously decorated room panelled in wood and with rich brocade covering the seats that lines three sides. Further in was a large, central patio laid out with tables.
Syrians eat quite late and we arrived at the restaurant about 9.30pm and were shown upstairs to our table. From where I sat I could look down on the people eating in the patio while we sat under a beautiful coffered wooden ceiling.
The service was excellent and we both started off with “fattoushe” which was basically a salad with “fried bread”. I had better explain that the “fried bread” was the very thin Arabic bread cut in to small squares. They were very crisp and complimented the salad beautifully. Not ordered but put on the table in any case were “Al Khawali pickles” that, according to the menu, were rolled cabbage leaves stuffed with walnuts, garlic and crushed chillies. To be honest they didn’t look like cabbage leaves, more like vine leaves, and I couldn’t taste either garlic or chillies. They seemed to be stuffed with very crisp gherkins and walnuts. Whatever, they were sensational, they had texture from the walnuts and taste from the gherkins. For the main course I had some grilled fish and that was more than enough. A large dish of fresh fruit was put on the table as well as some sort of dessert, delicious looking Arabic pastries arranged round a plate with a small dish of melted sugar in the middle. Neither of us touched that. Well, for all of the marvellous service and equally marvellous food the bill came to the staggeringly small amount of £12.00!
Lonely Planet says that the best restaurant in Damascus is one called Casa Blanca which serves French cuisine. It is beyond my comprehension why anyone visiting Damascus would want to go to a restaurant with a Spanish name that serves French cuisine when an authentic Arabic restaurant such as “Al Khawali” exists. I will eventually get round to writing to Lonely Planet and will recommend it as the best restaurant in Damascus. I went back the next morning to take photographs and I was allowed in while the place was empty.
I explored more and more of the old city that morning, walking down towards what was known as the Christian Quarter. Probably the least interesting place I visited was the Chapel of Anaias. The Chapel of Anaias is reputed to be (but in all probability not) the house of Anaias, the early Christian disciple who was charged to “go in to the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul) so that he might be able to touch him and restore his sight”. The chapel is in a small cellar with a tiny altar and with kitch little framed explanations of the history in almost every possible language. At one point, stopping to take a photograph, a shopkeeper engaged me in conversation, inevitably invited me to take a seat in his shop and absolutely no attempt to sell me anything, in any case he was selling just groceries. This was one of the few times that I actually spoke about politics to anyone in Syria. He was naturally scandalised by what was happening in Iraq (so was I for that matter) and once again he was another person who said that the Americans should come to Syria to see the reality. Over and over again I heard Syrians say that they have absolutely nothing against the American people, only against the Administration. Eventually I managed to get away but I hadn’t got far down the road when I was stopped by an old me who asked me where I was from and then he too engaged me in conversation. He told me an incredible story about how he had known Montgomery during the war and how, after the war he had gone to live in England at the invitation of Montgomery to work as, of all things, a silk weaver. Of course Damascus has a long tradition of silk weaving as well as the famous damasks which incidentally, bear little resemblance to the damasks that we know in the West, the beautiful but mono-colour fabrics. The Damascus tablecloths that I saw were more like thick, highly coloured brocades. I did take some photographs so I hope that I will be able to post some examples with this account. Incidentally, I too met Montgomery when I was a kid and took an instant dislike to him. I have never heard one person use the first person pronoun so many times. It was as if he had won the war by himself without the aid of any troops.
After my lunch and a much needed siesta I received a call from my insurance company in Spain to say that they had located my luggage and that it was waiting for me in Damascus airport. Almost immediately I took a taxi out to collect it. When I was taken in to the warehouse where it was stored I was startled to see what seemed to be miles of shelves filled with luggage and when I asked about it I was told that it was all luggage that had been “lost”. First thing I did when I got back to the hotel was to go to my room, shower and change in to my own clothes. I had really become very pessimistic about my luggage and had become convinced that I would never see it again. My insurance company had asked me to make a list of the content and when I did I realised only then did I realise how much I would have lost. It felt so good to get my suitcase back.
The next day was Friday and I realised that staying in Damascus would be a waste of time. Almost everything was closed. So, I made the decision to leave one day early for Palmyra. The hotel was very helpful and telephoned the hotel in Palmyra to see if I could arrive a day early. No, they had no room. The Receptionist then suggested I try another hotel that he knew of and again telephoned for me. I was in luck this time. Almost immediately I was on my way with written instructions of where to go to get the bus, which bus company to use etc.
At the bus station I was “hijacked” by another bus company. A man told me that if I went with the bus company the hotel had told me about, I would have to wait for two hours but if I went with another then the wait would only be an hour. I learned afterwards that this was a ploy to get customers and didn’t fall in to the trap again.
The Canadian who I had met in Amman airport on a previous visit to Jordan had told me that he didn’t like Syria so much because of the bureaucracy. Well, to some extent I understood what he meant although it didn’t bother me too much. To get in to the bus I had to go through a police check and open my luggage for inspection. When I purchased my ticket I had to present my passport.
The bus was old but relatively comfortable as buses go, and the air conditioning worked. It was odd that as we started the journey, the driver’s assistant came round offering sweets to all on board and then, during the journey, served water or soft drinks free of charge. Another thing that I was enormously grateful for was that no one smoked on any of the public transport that I used and for the most part the use of mobile 'phones was forbidden.
The journey took two and a half hours through fairly monotonous country. Desert, but not the rolling sand dunes that we associate with desert, just stony scrub land relieved surprisingly now and again by a few stunted fir trees and at one point by the Baghdad Café, a solitary building in miles and miles of wasteland. When we arrived at Palmyra I was dumped quite unceremoniously on the outskirts of the town which has about 40,000 inhabitants. I had no idea where to go and there was no one in sight to ask so I started walking in the direction of what I thought was the centre. Fortunately a motorbike appeared and I signalled to the driver and showed him my piece of paper with “Orient Hotel” written on it in Arabic. Very kindly he motioned me to stay where I was, disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a taxi in tow, a very, very ancient and battered Mercedes. Behind the taxi driver’s back he signalled to me that I was not to pay more than S£50, about £0.65. The journey to the hotel took only a matter of minutes. This hotel was a little brighter than the Sultan where I had stayed in Damascus and I even had TV in the room where I could see BBC World. The hotel was situated just off the main street of the town and the views from the window of my room was a very uninteresting of dusty, flat rooftops adorned by very large, rusty dish antennas. Having checked in I walked a few hundred yards to the Heliopolis Hotel when I had book a room for the next day, Saturday. It seemed just as nice as the Orient Hotel but it had views over the palm grove to the ruins of the ancient city. I decided that I would stay just one night in the Orient and then the second night in the Heliopolis.
After lunch and a short siesta I walked to the ruins. It is difficult to describe Palmyra. The initial impression is of the colour of the whole landscape and the ruins which is a beautiful pinkish cream. I went first of all to what appeared to be the most prominent building I could see that turned out to be the Temple of Bel. Bel was apparently the masculine version of the Babylonian goddess Belili, the “Mother Goddess”. The temple dates from 32AD and it must have been incredibly impressive judging from the model in the small town museum. The whole area, a huge walled courtyard, measures 205 X 210 metres (222 X 227 yards). The walls were apparently 15 metres (48 feet) high and inside the courtyard a double colonnade ran round three sides and in the centre stood the temple proper. I arrived at the Temple at just 5pm and was told that it closed at 6. A guide offered his services but, given that I only had one hour, I was more interested in taking photographs than anything else so I declined saying maybe tomorrow.
I never cease to be amazed at how people so long ago could have produced such enormous buildings of such intricacy and beauty using what I suppose we would consider to be just primitive tools. Just before entering the Temple itself, on the right were two huge blocks of marble that I later found out used to be part of the roof of the colonnade. They were resting on other blocks and lying on ones back it was possible to look up and see the original, intricate carving that had adorned the ceiling, some of it still bearing small traces of the original colours of blue and red.
Leaving the temple I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the rest of the ruins which were unfenced and unguarded so that one could enter any time night or day. It is unfortunate that the main road from Damascus runs straight through the ruins cutting in half what would have been the main, colonnaded street with its triumphal arch. What had possessed the authorities to do this is beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, being Friday, the place whole site was crowded and it was impossible to take photographs without people in front of everything. Upsetting and annoying was the fact that motorbikes careered up and down the Colonnade and even in to the theatre and people were climbing all over the proscenium. Palmyra is Syria’s most important archaeological site and unfortunately they just don’t seem to have any money to care for it. Since my Lonely Planet book was published the Syrian government has halved the entrance fees to all monuments, no doubt in an attempt to attract more visitors, but it does mean that there is less and less money available for care and conservation.
I had expected the temperature to drop with nightfall but it remained pleasant enough to be able to walk around in short sleeves. There are few places to eat in Palmyra and I chose the Spring Restaurant which was very close to my hotel. There seems to be a battle raging between the Spring Restaurant and the Palmyra Traditional Restaurant which was just on the opposite side of the street. The battle is because the Palmyra Traditional Restaurant has Internet access which draws in quite a few people but at the same time, so I was led to believe, it sold fake student cards which allowed the holders for even cheaper access to all the monuments all over the country, thus depriving the Government of even more money. I was even drawn in to the battle when the owner of the Spring Restaurant asked me to help him write something that he intended putting on a large sign outside his restaurant warning people of what was going on without actually naming his rival.
Next morning, Saturday, I was up early hoping to be able to get some photographs of the ruins without crowds around them. Unfortunately it was an overcast morning and there was a chill breeze blowing. But photographs I had come for and photographs I took. The whole site is enormous and it is impossible to describe what it is like, or at least, my poor vocabulary won’t allow it. So I learned, the site is much, much older than the time of the Romans. Mention of it goes way back to the 19th century BC. What one is able to see today is just a ghost of what it must have been like. Some restoration has been done and now some 300 columns are standing which can only give a small idea of how magnificent the city must have been. What I found so incredible was the fact that the Romans must have marched across the desert for weeks before discovering this oasis and I wonder what possessed them to go there in the first place and stay there and build this incredible city. It was they who named it Palmyra after the palm trees but the locals retain the original name of Tadmor which apparently means the City of Dates. Even the Emperor Hadrian who was born in Spain managed to visit Palmyra. The city began its decline in 267AD when it’s then Governor, Odenathus, was assassinated and his place was taken by his wife, Zenobia. Rome it seems wasn’t at all keen to recognise her as Queen and sent troops to put her down. Unfortunately for Rome, Zenobia was made of stern stuff and defeated them in battle and then she went on to invade Egypt and declared her independence from Rome. She was eventually overcome and taken to Rome apparently bound in gold chains and died there. She must have been quite a lady. The city never recovered after that and it was sacked and destroyed in 273AD and then an earthquake in 1089 reduced the city to almost rubble. It was “rediscovered” in 1678 by two Englishmen who were living in Aleppo in the north and from then on during the 18th and 19th centuries a steady trickle of visitors came to marvel at the ruins. Only in the 20th century did any real scientific research begin and there is still a tremendous amount to do.
After my photographic expedition I returned to the town for some breakfast and then set out yet once again because by then the sun had come up. On the way I bumped in to the guide who had offered his services in the Temple the day before and he persuaded me that his services would add to my appreciation of the place. I took him up and we went to the Temple together. Yes, I did learn something more. Apart from the historical facts he told me that his grandfather used to live inside the temple together with many other families until French archaeologists had them moved out. It’s strange then that while it seems the French were concerned about the ruins, they also permitted a Frenchwoman to build an hotel quite close, possibly on top of some ruins. It still exists as the Hotel Zenobia.
One thing that the guide persuaded me to do was to take a taxi to two of the tombs in the Valley of the Tombs. It was possible to do it without the aid of a taxi but it would have been complicated. They key to the two tombs that one can visit is kept by the curator of the Museum and one has to coincide with him. So, it was easier to take a taxi (a 43 year old Mercedes) and then drive between the two tombs which are a reasonable distance apart. The first “tomb” was in fact one of the so called “Funerary Towers”, quite literally tall stone towers in which the dead were interred in niches. Immediately on entering the first thing that attracted my attention was the painted ceiling, still showing it’s original colours and in remarkable condition. There was no restriction of photographing here. The next tomb was called the “Tomb of the Three Brothers” and was well worth seeing. This had been discovered by Danish archaeologists in the 30s. One has to go down steps to get in to the actual tomb and immediately in front of you as you enter are some quite magnificent and beautiful frescos on the walls and ceiling. Frustratingly but understandably no photography was allowed and the only postcard I was able to find of it gave no idea whatsoever of the beauty of the colours. To the right was a small chamber which contained some beautiful marble carvings of the three brothers and their wives, unfortunately all headless, apparently the work of tomb robbers although the guide told us that the heads had been taken by the archaeologists and were now in the museum in Copenhagen. In the museum in Palmyra there was a collection of marble heads which had been recovered from elsewhere, some of them with touches of colour but unfortunately not original colours but of blue and green paint splattered from when they had painted the walls of the room where they are housed.
By now it was time to get back to the Orient Hotel to check out and go to the Heliopolis. My room was one of the largest I occupied in any hotel in Syria, very clean with a large, spotless bathroom and, just for once, adequate lighting. I don’t think however that it was worth the price I paid; some 60% more than I paid for the Orient.
Physically the Syrians in many cases, appear more European that their cousins the Egyptians and Jordanians. I saw redheads and blonds among them. Some of the younger women dress in Western dress but the majority I would say, wear the traditional headscarf and then some the veil so that one can only see the eyes and then there are the extreme cases where a woman is covered entirely from head to foot, alway in black. Pablo, the friend to had been to Syria some five years ago, when I got back, mentioned on how good a looking race they are and I have to agree with him. The young men are usually tall and slim and extremely good looking.
That evening I had dinner again at the Spring Restaurant sitting at a table on the pavement. I had always been led to believe that Japan was the noisiest country in the world followed closely by Spain but obviously the person who came to that conclusion had never visited Syria. The popular pastime seems to be blowing car horns. Not only that, all the motorbikes (not a crash helmet to be seen anywhere in Syria) seemed to be fitted with car horns and even the bicycles have something to make noise with. I even saw/heard a bicycle fitted with a police siren! In Palmyra I saw a strange form of vehicle used for transporting goods. These were odd little three wheeled vehicles fitted with little two stroke engines with a belt drive to turn the back wheels. Just they in themselves were incredibly noisy but they were also decorated in gaudy colours and even three or four coloured headlights!
I left Palmyra the next morning at 7.30 bound for Hama. Frustratingly for me, it was a brilliantly sunny morning and would have been perfect to have taken photos of the ruins. I had to go to Homs and change buses there. The journey to Homs was just two hours and as we got closer to the city, a city of no interests to tourists since it owes its existence to the oil refinery there, we began to pass out of the desert and into much more fertile country with a much more Mediterranean climate. Fields with different crops and then fruit trees that I didn’t recognise. They seemed to be maybe apricots trees but later on I found out that they were probably pistachio trees. I confess that I didn’t know that pistachios grew on trees.
Coming in to the city which seemed to be reasonably affluent, I saw masses of old cars just as I did all over Syria. There were lots of old American cars like Chevrolets, Studebakers etc. dating from the 50s. Most of them were pretty battered but just occasionally one saw one that had been lovingly maintained and I also saw a very old Mercedes that would not have been out of place in a museum, spotless and beautifully painted in dark green. The Syrians are if nothing else, resourceful and keeping things going. Ecology might perhaps not be high on their list but something useful is never thrown away. Some of the buses I travelled in were spanking new and modern but it was still possible to see very ancient buses on the roads.
Changing buses was relatively easy. I got off the bus and was directed to a minibus station a few yards up the road. There seemed to be hundreds of minibuses but it wasn’t all that difficult to find the one I needed. I either just stopped and looked lost or asked: “Hama?” They minibus system is that there is no timetable and a bus will leave as soon as it is full. I had to buy two tickets, one for me and one for my suitcase. Public transport in Syria is incredibly cheap. My two tickets for the 45 minute ride to Hama cost just S£50 or £0.65.
Hama is one of the prettiest towns in Syria. It has a river flowing through it and a large garden in the centre. Its main attraction are the “norias”, the very large wooden water wheels which make a very loud and distinctive groaning noise. Interestingly “noria” is used in Spanish to describe wooden water wheels, a linguistic legacy of the Islamic occupation of Spain so many hundreds of years ago. Apart from that, Hama has little else to offer and I was using it as a base to see other places nearby.
Once again Syrian friendliness showed itself. Just sitting in the park and eating my sandwich, two young men with practically no English, tried to engage me in conversation. They just wanted to know where I was from and what I thought of Syria. Fortunately another young man passing by came to our rescue and translated for a while. Before he took his leave he asked me if I wanted anything in particular in Hama because he could show me around. Another time just walking through the park I saw two young men, one about to take a photograph of the other. Without saying anything, the one posing grabbed me by the arm and wanted me to be photographed with him. I don’t like being photographed and ended up taking a photo of them together. Children especially said “hello” and “welcome”. It wasn’t superficial either; they genuinely seemed pleased to see foreigners.
After my necessary siesta I took a walk along the (rather polluted) river to see some of the other “norias”. At a bridge over the river many people had stopped to see two young men diving in to the river off the base of one of the “norias”. Then they started to dive off the bridge itself and then even more daring, off the roof of the building that overlooked the river. Talk about testosterone rising! They saw me with my camera and indicated that they wanted their photographs taken and then later on when I got out the video camera, they wanted me to video them also. I tried to talk to them afterwards but they didn’t speak English. I wanted to send them a photograph but an older man who did speak English explained to me that they were soldiers doing their military service and they couldn’t give their address and my attempts to get their home addresses was equally unsuccessful.
I was recommended a restaurant by the hotel, The Sultan which was by the river and by the side of some of the “norias”. It didn’t turn out to be such a brilliant choice. They décor was tacky and the atmosphere cold and although the food was acceptable I had to fill up on a sandwich afterwards.
For the next day I had arranged for a car and driver to take me to see some of the Crusader castles including the most famous, the Krak des Chevaliers. Unfortunately my driver spoke only very little English so I had to rely on my guide book for information on what I was seeing. In the end I decided that the Crusader castles were not my cup of tea. Yes, they are massive and impressive but that’s just about all. Size in itself doesn’t impress me. It’s not the type of architecture that attracts my attention. The one at Musyaf Baniyas was undergoing restoration but there were no signs whatsoever to indicate what one was seeing. The one at Qala’at Marqab, is built entirely of black basalt and was positively depressing. A further hours drive brought us to Krak des Chevaliers.
Lawrence of Arabia described the 12th century Krak des Chevaliers as “the finest castle in the world”. I wonder how many castles he had actually seen. Some of those in Spain can be pretty impressive also. Anyway, for my visit I took a guide to explain things to me. The original, inner part of the castle had been built by the Crusaders and had taken 75 years to build. Not surprising given its size. The outer walls had been a later addition by the Muslims and they were divided from the inner section by a moat. Architecturally the stables were amazing. They measured 60 X 9 metres (65 X 10 yards) and were just one continuous vaulted roof made of fairly rough hewn exposed stone. The original castle had been built in the 12th century and was well nigh impregnable. There were some very obviously Western elements in the inner part of the castle; things like the chapel with its gothic arches, some Latin inscriptions, traces of frescos etc, but the chapel later had been converted in to a mosque with the addition of a “minbar”, the staired pulpit from where the “imam” would preach. According to the guide they had five years of supplies within the castle to supply 2,000 people and when I asked him about this he explained that that included livestock like sheep, goats, cows, chickens etc. Other food would have been pulses that could be stored for a period of time and presumably some vegetables could be grown within the walls. He showed me the spot where olive oil had been stored in very large earthenware jars. The castle never was breached; even Salah ad-Din (Saladin) passed it up preferring to concentrate on more easy targets. It eventually fell after having been besieged for months. In spite of their supplies the castle must have seemed more like a prison than a castle and the Crusaders gave up under a truce of safe conduct.
Back in Hama that evening I tried a different restaurant but with more or less similar results to the previous evening. It was a large, echoing place with only a few other diners. This is why on the whole I preferred street food. Eating my sandwich sitting in the park was a more sociable and friendly experience.
The next day I was due to stay on in Hama but once again changed my plans and decided to leave for Aleppo. Once again I had to call the hotel in Aleppo to see if they could accommodate me one day earlier than planned. They could and so I took a taxi to the bus station. I had learned my lesson at the bus station at Damascus and I refused to allow myself to be hijacked on to another bus company this time. By 10am I was on the road and the journey took just and hour and a half along a new highway, at times still under construction. Most small towns we passed through had overlarge, very bad, heroic statues of the now dead President Assad. However his presence if felt in Syria, the Government I don’t think reflects in any way the people on the streets. Just as the Bush Administration doesn’t reflect the whole of America. The route took us again through some fertile country and at times passed some super modern, very large rest stops with lots of tables outside covered by awnings. I had to haggle with the taxi driver on arrive and he dropped from S£300 to S£50. Trouble was that he didn’t know the way to the hotel and had to stop to ask on two occasions. Even at the end he tried to get me to pay S£100 because he had had to go round and round but I held firm and just paid the S£50 I had agreed on. The approach to the hotel once again through a maze of narrow streets and finally, passing through one that seemed to be inhabited entirely by butchers shops, we came out in to a small square where I had to leave the taxi and walk the rest of the way. I later found out that this is considered one of the most chic areas of Aleppo.
In Aleppo I had decided to splash out on my hotel. I had been unable to get in to what the Lonely Planet described as the best hotel, the Beit al-Wakil which was a 450 year old house restored and converted in to a 19 room luxury hotel. Even so the guide says that the rooms aren’t up to much but that the patio is delightful. The hotel I had booked, the Dar Zamaria of which the guide said: “Perhaps the renovation hasn’t been as faithful as the Beit al-Wakil but only a purist would notice.” Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Yes, the entrance hall and the centre patio were very pretty but my room was small, had two very small windows with yellowing net curtains, scuffed walls and the furniture was very basic, made of pine and stained dark brown and there were large damp stains on the walls and the smell of damp pervaded it. And I was paying £56 a night for this? I couldn’t worry about all of this so soon since I was keen to explore the city. I asked directions at the Reception desk and was told it was about 10 minutes walk to the centre. Inevitably I got lost but finally found the way with the help of a young boy who spoke some French.
Undoubtedly the most interesting part of Aleppo, leaving apart the Citadel, is the “souk.” It is absolutely impossible to walk through the “souk” without being invited for tea. Of course the initial invitation is to invite you in to the vendor’s shop. In my case I just declined saying that I was sorry, I had absolutely no intention of buying anything. It didn’t matter, even if I didn’t want to buy anything they insisted that I take tea with them and just to talk. Of the four days I spent in Aleppo I think that I must have spent three in the “souk” just talking to people. The initial opening is always the same, in my case anyway; where was I from? The first invitation came from a young man, Mohammed, who owned a diminutive shop. He told me that he was studying chemistry at the University but that he loved Charles Dickens and wanted me to read a passage to him so he could hear how it was pronounced correctly. Over tea we discussed Dickens (not my favourite author), Oscar Wild, García Lorca and Shakespeare! He told me that “The Merchant of Venice, translated in to Arabic, was his favourite play. Just shows you how really universal Shakespeare is. I really can’t remember how many people I met in the “souk” but there was one other; Samer, who owned a wool shop that made blankets and mattresses. He helped my when I found that the strap of my camera bag was on the point of breaking. I had to go first of all to the rope “souk” to buy something similar to the strap and then he took me to a shoe repairer who removed the old one and sewed on the new one, all for the price of less than 30 pence.
One of the most curious conversations I had was with a man who, when he found out I was from London, asked me if I knew “Heaven”. No I said, but I knew of it. It is one of London’s oldest gay clubs. Then, when I told him that I didn’t live in London but in Spain he asked me if I lived in Sitges, a big gay resort near Barcelona. It would seem that Aleppo is the gay capital of Syria. One other encounter was with a young man just outside the “souk” who approached me and said “Squeeze me.” Squeeze me!? I asked him if he knew what he had just said and then he sort of corrected himself saying: “Excuse me.” From the short conversation that followed that I won’t repeat here, I think that he knew exactly what he had said. On another occasion I was told that I had beautiful eyes! At my age should I have been flattered!?
Talking to so many people I lost count of the endless cups of tea I drank and of the multitude of subjects we spoke about I tried to steer clear of politics on the whole but inevitably Iraq came up time and time again. I do understand the Arabs fury about what happened at the prison in Iraq and on the only occasion I mentioned the beheading of the American by Al Qaeda, I was told “What do you expect after so many thousands of Iraqis have been killed?” Actually I did meet up with one Iraqi when I was sitting one afternoon eating my sandwich out in the open. He approached and asked my permission to sit. He introduced himself as an Iraqi from Mosul. He was quietly spoken and spoke excellent English. He was in Aleppo on business just for two days and seemed very resigned to the situation in his country and just willing to leave things to fate. “In’ch Allah” (As God wills it.)
If I have one, totally overwhelming impression of Syria it is of the people. I never once heard a voice raised in anger, only in laughter. They are utterly charming, delightful people, only too willing to help and seemed so interested in talking to anyone about almost anything. Initially I thought that it might be because they felt so isolated from the Western world but then I changed my mind. Almost everyone seems to have satellite TV, the roofs are sewn with large parabolic antennas, and received BBC World, CNN, TV 5 from France, Rai from Italy, even Portuguese and Spanish TV. At times my choice of hotels was partly governed by whether I could see BBC World or not and in one case I turned an hotel down because they only had CNN. When I said that BBC was so much better than CNN I was told yes, the BBC gives the news straight. So, if it isn’t isolation then the charm of the Syrians must just be inbuilt and totally natural. They are the least pushy of all the Arabic vendors I have ever know, a far cry from the Moroccans and Egyptians who just go on and on and on. The Syrians in contrast just accept no for an answer and continue inviting you for tea.
I did in fact actually buy something in the “souk”, some of the famous olive and bay oil soap for which Aleppo is famous.
That evening I had dinner with Mohammed in the Jewish Quarter. Odd given the enmity between Israel and Syria that there is still a Jewish Quarter in Aleppo. Anyway, the dinner was abundant and good and we were in the middle of a conversation about how to make falafels when two men walked in. I glanced up very briefly and thought I recognised one but then I might have been mistaken since there are so many bearded men in Syria. Then Mohammed asked me for a piece of paper and wrote on it: “The men sitting behind you are secret police”. I was a little startled to say the least but we continued our conversation, finished dinner and then got up to go. Outside the restaurant I asked Mohammed what that was all about and he said that they could have been secret police and in which case, maybe he could expect a visit from them the next day. He asked me to destroy the piece of paper he had written on and I tore it up and was on the point of throwing it in to a waste bin when I had second thoughts and stuffed it in my pocket. I became quite paranoid thinking that had I thrown it away it could have been retrieved and pieced together again. Anyway, I am sure that any secret police would have been fascinated by our conversation on how to make falafels. I never did clear up the mystery and I still don’t know.
I had been concerned that I was running out of room on the memory card of my camera and Mohammed took me to a computer shop where I managed to buy a new one for more or less the same price that it would have cost me in Spain. I was relieved. I didn’t want to run out of space to take photographs and I had taken so many up until then. The new memory card was a sort of insurance. I gave me the possibility of taking at least another 200 shots. In the end I didn’t need it but I was glad to have had it. I wouldn’t have like to have run out of memory and been unable to take any photographs.
In spite of so much time spent in the “souk” I did manage to visit at least the main mosque in Aleppo. I liked this one most of all. Some construction work was going on inside so I wasn’t able to see it all and also I didn’t have to remove my shoes before entering. What I did see I liked very much. In spite of being called the Great Mosque it is in fact quite small. It was very plain indeed, even plainer than the Great Mosque in Damascus and reminded me of the cool simplicity of some English ecclesiastical architecture. I also visited the Citadel which dominates the city since it is built on a hill. Unfortunately once again, some restoration work was going on and the most interesting parts were closed and what was able to be seen didn’t absorb my attention so much.
On another visit to the “souk” I visited what had apparently been a mental asylum some 600 years ago. The caretaker knew no English apart from the word “crazy” but gave me a very graphic tour of the building which initially I found rather depressing. He showed me a tiny patio surrounded by diminutive cells where the inmates had been housed but then, by turning on the fountain in the middle of the patio demonstrated how the inmates had been calmed by the sound of the water. In another part he demonstrated by cupping both hands across his chest, that this was the part where female inmates had been kept. There was a raised platform on one side of this patio where I understood musicians had been employed to play to calm the patients. Music therapy 600 years ago! He then showed me a door where patients departed once they had been cured.
I spent an hour drinking tea with Samer after this and said that I had found it depressing but he went on to say that at a time when in Europe “mad” people were just discarded or locked up, in Aleppo, some treatment was given and in some cases very effectively. Made me think.
On my return to the hotel I asked if they served alcohol and I was shown the bar. The bar was hidden down in the basement. This reminded me very much of one of the crusader castles, the ceiling was vaulted and made of rough cut stone and the pointing in between was of black cement. This, combined with the not so much subdued as just plain dim lighting and the black wrought iron furniture, gave it all the charm of a dungeon!
The second night in the Dar Zamaria hotel was disturbed to say the least. There was a wedding party and the festivities went on until the early hours of the morning and there was no way that I could sleep. Earlier that day, Samer had told me of another hotel, the Diwani Rasmy, which he said was very nice and I went to have a look at it. It was situated just behind the Citadel and within five minutes walking distance of the “souk”. The Receptionist told me that the building had originally been two, the front part about 100 years old had originally been used as a “madrassa”, a Koranic school, and the other part was about 525 years old and had originally been used as a house and then later as Government offices. Now the two parts had been joined and turned in to an hotel. It was three stars as opposed to the four stars of the Dar Zamaria but to my mind, much, much nicer. The reception area was enormous and with a very, very high ceiling. Then there was an outside patio with a fountain and a lemon tree and other plants. I was shown one of the rooms which was much larger than my room at the Dar Zamaria and also much lighter. Not only was it much nicer but it was £20 a night cheaper! I decided to change. Reception at the Dar Zamaria was not too happy about my decision but I complained about the noise the night before and also the damp patches on my bedroom walls. I got a taxi and changed.
The room I was shown this time led directly on to the outer patio and had three large south facing windows. The room had some original features of the original building which although a little crude, added a certain authentic charm to the place and what furniture there was, was certainly better than in the Dar Zamaria. There was a roof restaurant with a panoramic view of the Citadel. Ok, there was a damp patch on the ceiling of my room but at least it was a cheaper damp patch!
While I was in Aleppo I tried a “hammam” there also. There was a very famous “hammam” dating from the 15th century but it has become somewhat touristy and I was informed that the service there can be a little abrupt. Mohammed persuaded me to accompany him to a “hammam” within the “souk” which was used by the local traders. It too was old but not very lovingly restored but it was efficient. Samer had arranged to meet us there so we could go to dinner together and in the end we ran out of time and didn’t have time for a massage. But I had given a little Shiatsu to Mohammed with which he was very impressed. Dinner was in the same restaurant as the night before but this time without the presence of any secret police.
The following day I had arranged for a car to take me to Qala’at Samaan and Qalb Lozeh. I was particularly interested in both of these places since there were examples of the earliest Byzantine architecture there, forerunner of the Romanesque style, perhaps one of my favourite architectural styles. Qala’at Samaan is the more important of the sites and one of the most important sites in northern Syria. Its history is fascinating.
“Samaan” is the Arabic version of “Simeon”, “Simon of the Desert”, a totally strange early Christian ascetic. He was born in 392AD and at a very early age decided on a monastic life. However, it seems that life in a monastery wasn’t sufficiently ascetic for him and he retreated to the hills to live a solitary life. Gradually word got around about this strange character and people flocked to see him and ask for blessing. It seems that he didn’t like this intrusion in to his life and to get away from people and stop them touching him, he started to live on top of a 3 metre high pillar. Over time he became more and more intolerant until eventually he spent almost 40 years living on top of an 18 metre (58 feet) high pillar. His very strange behaviour seemed to inspire other followers and all sorts of people started to live on top of pillars except in northern Europe where it seems the climate was too cold. After his death a huge basilica was built around the pillar where he has spent most of his life and it was this that I came to see. It really is in remarkable condition considering that it was built almost 2,000 years ago and it must have been absolutely magnificent in its time. According to my guide book it was then, the largest church in the world. There are plenty of beautifully carved pieces of masonry to admire although Simeon’s pillar is just a large rock now, apparently reduced to this state by pilgrims chipping pieces off as souvenirs.
I didn’t get to Qalb Lozeh. In spite of the fact that the driver had agreed on my itinerary and the price before we set off, once I had finished at Qala’at Samaan, he started to make excuses about how far it was to drive because the road was being repaired and he would have to take a different route. In the end I told him to just go back to Aleppo and to forget Qalb Lozeh. When we arrived back in Aleppo I had to argue with him again about the price and eventually paid him just half of the agreed figure.
The driver had the most alarming technique that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. He drove with just his left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand cradling his mobile ‘phone. in his right. (Don’t forget that this was a left hand drive car) No matter what speed he was driving at, to change gear he took his left hand off the wheel, leaned over, changed gear with his left had also and then put it back on the wheel!
That afternoon I walked to the bus station to buy my ticket to Damascus the following day. The journey to Damascus lasted for four and a half hours which included a half hour rest stop. At one point I had to bear the torture of the Mozart 41st converted in to an Arabic pop song! On arrival in Damascus I had an altercation with a taxi driver, the first time that I had raised my voice in almost two weeks. I got in the taxi and he started off and then he turned to me and said that it would cost S£500 (£6.60). I just shouted “STOP!” and signalled that he should pull in to the side of the road. I got out of the car and dragged my luggage out and started to walk back to the bus station with the taxi driver calling out after me: “What do you want to pay? 400? 300?” I ignored him and took another taxi that cost me just S£100.
Almost immediately I arrived back in the Sultan Hotel the Manager asked me if I had confirmed my flight to Amman, just an example of the care and concern they offered. He called the Royal Jordan office but the computer was down and in the end I had to walk to the office and do it in person.
The next day, Sunday I just took advantage to rest up a little since I had the start of a cold.
When I arrived in Jordan it was my intention to hire a car and drive straight down to Petra. I wanted to do as I had done the last time, buy a SIM card for my mobile so that I would have some form of communication just in case of emergency. Sunday however, my mobile refused to work. It was the famous mobile that had gone through the washing machine, worked in spite of that after having been dried with a hair dryer, broke down again and I was told that it was irreparable but it came to life again all by itself. I wondered what I could do. Went down to Reception and asked if they knew of anywhere where I might be able to get it fixed. They sent me to a shop around the corner and 15 minutes later my mobile was working again. It had been the battery. The man in the shop tested the battery and pronounced it dead and sold me a new one for S£275 (£3.50).
The next morning I had to be at the airport at 04.45. Before I left the hotel the Receptionist asked me if I had my passport and flight tickets. Just another example of the care they took of their guests. The flight was just 30 minutes to Amman and I spent more time going through immigration, getting my visa etc. Fortunately Mr Hallak from the car hire company was waiting for me when I came out and he had ready for me a two year old Nissan Sunny, not the Mitsubishi Lancer I had requested, but this had a larger engine and he let me have it for the same price as the Lancer.
Unfortunately the shop where I could have purchased a SIM card was closed in the airport and I had to wait until I arrived in Madaba some 25 klms. from Amman. Fortunately the girl in the shop spoke a little English and I got the SIM car without any difficulty. It was my insurance against any mishap. Calling on a mobile ¡phone. Seems to be remarkably cheap in Jordan. I had about £9 of credit and not only did I make some local calls but called friends in Spain and Greece and in the end still had credit on the card.
The drive to Petra was uneventful even though I managed inevitably to get lost on a couple of occasions, but quickly got back on route. There are three routes to Petra: the Desert Highway which is very quick but incredibly boring, the King’s Highway which is supposed to be the most interesting since one goes through a few towns and villages, and the Dead Sea Highway. When I had been in Jordan in December I had got down via the King’s Highway as far as Karak where there is a very large Crusader castle, and then I had got lost and found myself on the Dead Sea Highway. Correcting my mistake this time I realised where and why I had gone wrong. The correct turn off looked more like the entrance to a bus station. On this occasion, in spite of my small diversions, I managed to go all the way down on the King’s Highway. In the end I thought that perhaps the Dead Sea Highway had added some interest to my journey, the scenery had really been quite interesting and worth the while.
I arrived in Petra reasonably early and 3.30pm and not having driven very fast. The hotel that I had booked turned out to be clean but a little characterless. As soon as I got to my room I checked to see if I could receive BBC World, almost a criteria for me. Almost everything appeared with the exception of BBC World. I almost thought of checking out and going to the Marriot where I had stated last year, using this as an excuse, but they promised to have my favourite channel available for me that evening. The hotel was very quiet as was Petra itself. There seemed to be very few tourists. I had really liked the Jordanians during my first visit but, compared with the Syrians, they seemed almost reserved. There were far fewer “welcomes” and the children will greet you but then ask for money, something that never happened in Syria.
My plan was to spend the following day in Petra and then the next day I would drive to Wadi Rum. I telephoned the Rest House at Wadi Rum and made arrangements. I would spend the night there and the tour would take some six hours. That settled, for the rest of the day I just rested since the cold that had started on my last day in Syria was getting worse.
The next morning I was up early to visit Petra again. I thought that I was the first one there since I walked through the “Siq” all by myself again. Although it was slightly overcast, the light was different to that that I had experienced in December and it was for this specific reason that I had returned, to see Petra under a different light. I wasn’t by myself after all. As I neared the end of the “Siq” I could hear voices that turned out to be a guide speaking to a small group of tourists who had had the same idea as me. Fortunately they were out of sight and I was able to take a photograph of the “Treasury” without people in front.
My visit to the city was not as long as my first since I didn’t make a repeat visit to the “Monastery” that involves climbing up 800 steps. My photographs on the first occasion had been taken under good light conditions and I was satisfied with them.
When I had been in Petra the first time, walking across a piece of land where there were no ruins whatsoever, I had found a small piece of broken pottery, what had been part of the handle of a jug or something. On this occasion I wondered if I would find any more. Not remembering where I had found the original piece, I just wandered over waste ground and much to my considerable surprise; the ground was littered with thousands of pieces of broken pottery. I presumed that this must have been the city’s rubbish tip and there were so many pieces that I became selective and began to discard pieces that were not of sufficient interest. I found three or four more pieces that were obviously pieces of handles. Very small 2,000 year old relics of a past civilization. Fantasising, I imagined a scene of the lady of some house scolding her servant for having broken her best cooking pot or water jug.
The rest of the time in Petra was spent more or less in front of the “Treasury” waiting for the sun to come out. This time I managed to clamber up the cliff opposite and found a different view, but unfortunately, still with people in the picture.
By next morning my cold was much worse. In spite of that I set out at 6am. Mohammed, the man at the Wadi Rum Rest House had told me that the journey would take some two hours. In the end it took just and hour and a half. I picked up a couple of hitchhikers en route, both of them very silent. The first one was an old man who just occasionally muttered something to himself and the other was a younger man who when he left, offered me money of the lift. Refused, of course.
When I arrived and parked I was immediately surrounded by “guides” all claiming to be Mohammed. I solved the problem by calling the real Mohammed on my mobile. He was in the Rest House. He showed me a map and pointed out the points of interest that were included. Unfortunately I had arrived far too early. The end of the trip was supposed to be a view of the sunset and, if the whole trip were supposed to take six hours, setting out at so early would mean that I would be back long before sunset.
He suggested that I rest for a couple of hours at least before setting out.
At 10.00 I went to the car to get something and the guide who was supposed to accompany me suggested that I share the transport with two other people. I consulted Mohammed about this and he was adamant that I shouldn’t. A policeman also said that he was correct; sharing the transport would create problems he said. I didn’t quite understand the logic of this, surly sharing transport would have been more ecologically sound, especially in Wadi Rum which in all it’s publicity, lays a heavy emphasis on maintaining the ecological balance. Anyway, I accepted the policeman’s advice and eventually set off in a very rusty, 18 year old Toyota 4 X 4, just me and the driver.
I had had high expectations of Wadi Rum since I had heard so many people sing its praises and in the end maybe my expectations were set too high and I was a little let down. Or maybe it was due to my feeling unwell because of my cold. Looking at my photographs now, maybe I misjudged it. The desert of Wadi Rum is not the classic, beautiful rolling sand dunes that I knew from the south of Morocco where it is possible to listen to total silence. The desert of Wadi Rum is stony, pinkish coloured sand dotted with stunted shrubs and interrupted by large masses of wind eroded rock maybe six or seven hundred metres high. There did seem to be one dune and all the official publicity about Wadi Rum seems to have been photographed here and thus giving a somewhat false impression of what the desert is really like. The points of interest turned out not to be so devastatingly interesting. Lawrence’s Spring was a very small concrete channel filled with water. I had the opportunity to climb up the cliff to the source but by that time my cold had really come out and my head was thumping. Lawrence’s House was a solitary stone wall propped up against a cliff and half fallen down. The “stone bridges”, three in all, were small and singularly unspectacular. Perhaps the one thing of interest was the 3,000 year old drawing on one of the cliff faces but they seemed to be in competition with other, more recent graffiti.
My driver spoke some halting English and he told me that the wildlife in Wadi Rum consisted of rabbits, foxes, wolves, some types of deer and, to a lesser extent, snakes and scorpions. I think that he was a little disappointed when I declined a visit to a Bedouin tent. I tried to explain to him my reasons but I don’t think that he fully understood. Arabic hospitality is legendary and not a myth, as was amply demonstrated to me in Syria, especially among the Bedouins. They have a code that hospitality has to be offered no matter what the circumstances. This is from their nomadic desert existence and derives from the fact that this is a way that they know they can cross a desert safely at any time because hospitality will always be offered in the certain knowledge that it will always be returned. For this reason I am reluctant to accept hospitality from people to whom I know I will never be able to reciprocate. I wish there had been a way around this. Also, I don’t suppose for one moment they would have been pleased if I had passed my cold on to them.
Since, due to my cold, I felt disinclined to walk very much, eventually the trip took just three hours instead of six and we returned to the Rest House. The driver said that he would return at 6pm to collect me to view the sunset. One of my reasons for planning to stay overnight was to be able to see the stars. Without all the light pollution from any nearby town or city, they are supposed to be spectacular.
After lunch and a short rest, seeing that it was beginning to cloud over and thinking that there would be little of a sunset to view and given the fact that I had experienced the stars in the desert of southern Morocco plus the fact that my cold was now worse, I decided to abandon the idea of spending the night there and to return to Petra.
I did pick up one hitchhiker almost reluctantly because I was feeling physically low and he left me when I turned off the main road to Amman to return to Petra. 30 klms. before I arrived, my right rear tyre shredded. As I was changing the wheel a car drew up and two Jordanians got one and one asked me in perfect English if I needed any help. I thanked him and declined and after I had changed the wheel I telephoned the car hire company to ask what they wanted me to do, if they wanted me to have a new tyre fitted. No, he would have a new tyre delivered to me at the hotel in Petra and I could have it fitted the next morning before leaving.
I had three nights left in Jordan and I didn’t want to spend them in Amman which is a comparatively uninteresting city so, I decided to visit Ma’in, a hot spring. I had wanted to do this on my last visit to Jordan but had not had enough time. I telephoned the hotel there and was told that yes, they had a room available and that it would cost £56 including breakfast and dinner. Expensive yes but, I was on vacation. In the end it was a bit of a mistake. When I arrived I was informed that the price for the room was £76 with only breakfast! I protested and after some haggling they brought the price down to the £56 I had been quoted before and included dinner.
The hotel was opened in June 2,000 and it seemed that since then no maintenance had been carried out at all. Everything was in a very poor state of repair. It was a mistake for another reason also. It was a hot spring and by hot I mean very hot. There were two waterfalls with the temperature of the water at 63ºC! The outside temperature was about 40ºC and I had no intention of sitting in a pool of boiling water with the outside temperature as high as that. What would have been ideal would to have visited in the cold winder months when sitting under one of the waterfalls would have been a really pleasurable experience.
That evening before dinner I went down to the deserted bar. Deserted in spite of the fact that the hotel was fairly full, mostly more affluent Jordanians with large families. It took time to attract the attention of anyone but eventually I managed to get a beer. All the time in the hotel, apart from a small kid who asked me something while I was sitting at the bar and who I didn’t understand, no one spoke to me. What a difference between Jordan and Syria. Had I been in Syria I would have been almost surrounded by people. The one good thing about the hotel was the evening meal and the breakfast. The dinner was a buffet with masses of salads and some fish so I eat very well that evening. In almost all of the hotels I stayed in I didn’t have breakfast because curiously they served Western style breakfasts of things like cornflakes, white bread, jam etc. In this hotel there was a choice so I was able to have the healthier Arabic breakfast: Arabic bread, hummus, spring onions, cucumber (really delicious, crisp cucumber), olive oil and really very good olives.
I left after breakfast and drove slowly to Amman, only a short distance away. Much to my amazement I managed to find the hotel without stopping to ask anyone the way. The staff of the hotel remembered me from December and promised to provide me with an Arabic breakfast the next morning.
It was in a way just as well that I had arrived back in Amman earlier than I had anticipated since I had to confirm my flight with Air France. That evening I went to yet another “hammam” thinking that it might help me get over my cold. This particular “hammam” had a very good reputation. It was probably one of the most attractive that I have found outside of Turkey and also very clean. Unfortunately no one had told me that I should have gone with some swimming trunks. Unlike all the other “hammams” I have visited where a towel has been supplied to wrap round you, here one was supposed to go equipped with swimming trunks or shorts. They supplied me with some shorts which I was given and charged for at the end making it the most expensive “hammam” I have visited. The steam room was very hot. The steam came out of a pipe just above head level when one was sitting. Just raising ones hand was almost a dangerous experience and to get out if the room I bent double so as not to scald me head! The massage this time was totally different that any I have received so far. For one thing my masseur was Iraqi, one of the many Iraqis now living in Jordan having escaped from the war there, and it lasted for 40 minutes, the massage I mean, not the war. Not the type of massage that I really wanted, it was very gentle whereas I prefer something a little harder. But it was relaxing and the steam bath did seem to help my cold.
Next morning I was up at 5am to get to the airport by 5.30. Unlike last time, I managed to avoid the porters (last time the porter had demanded $5 to carry my suitcase), but I ran in to difficulties with passport control. The policeman looked and looked at my passport and then played with his computer a little and finally asked me to go to sit down. I asked if there was a problem and he said no. However, ten minute went by and a man came to see me and started to ask me questions: my nationality (as if that weren’t already obvious from my passport), my profession, (he could have checked that from the entry visa in my passport), what I had been doing in Jordan, where had I been etc. I asked again what the problem was and was assured that there was no problem, but he wandered off again with my passport and didn’t reappear again for another twenty minutes. He signalled for me to follow him out and I really began to wonder that was up. All that happened was that we returned to the check in desk again where he handed my passport to the man there who handed it back to me saying that they had been doing a security check. The other man followed me back to where I had come from and I asked him again what had been the problem. “No problem” he replied again to which I replied that if there had been no problem, why had they retained my passport for half an hour? If there had been a problem why had the issued me with a visa in the first place? He made no reply and just said “Welcome” to which I retorted rather angrily that no; it had not been a welcome!
The return flight was uneventful although yet again I was sat in front of a woman with another screaming child. At least Air France didn’t lose my luggage again.
One of the first things that I did when I get home was to write to the Manager of the Sultan Hotel in Damascus:
“Dear Mr Bouri:
I arrived back home after my three week trip through Syria and Jordan. You might remember that I spent some time in the Sultan.
I am just writing to thank you and all your staff for all the help and kindness that you showed me while I was in Damascus and especially to you for convincing me to stay on when I arrived without my luggage and was on the point of returning home. You were quite correct and I enjoyed my stay in your country immensely.
I have been travelling since 1960 and I have stayed in many hotels all over the world, including 5 star luxury hotels, but I have never found staff as efficient, as kind, and as helpful as those of the Sultan. You should all really be appointed as ambassadors of Syria!
Yours most sincerely”
To this I received a reply:
“Dear Mr Simon
It is a great pleasure for me and my staff to hear that.
I would like to thank you very much for your kindness. Your fax makes me so proud and happy. Be sure that is the standard service to all our guests and to promise that to keep this service as long as I am in Sultan Hotel
Accept sir my highest consideration
The journey has been unforgettable; more than anything because of the people of Syria are quite unforgettable. My next journey, whenever I might be able to do that, will maybe be to the Lebanon and Iran. That should be a fascinating combination.
If the situation in the Middle East were more stable, undoubtedly Syria would be a very good place to invest in. It really has tremendous potential and given the Syrians themselves, they would be the most incredible hosts in the Middle East. Very gradually the Government is opening up and in fact I did see a book while I was there that gave detailed descriptions of investment opportunities in the country. I just hope that the political situation improves………. for everyone’s sake.