Camping in the Axis of Evil

Beirut Travel Blog

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The guy from Apamea, Syria

At least twice a year, the whole family, plus two Rhodesian ridgebacks, would pile into our first-generation Range Rover �" with Union Jacks plastered all over it, so that we weren’t mistaken for the dreaded secret police, who drove the same vehicle �" and head off into the desert.

I have warm memories of driving up the highest sand dune in the middle of the desert to try to get better reception on the BBC World Service so that we could listen to the Grand National. I remember playing cricket on an enormous salt lake just outside the magnificent ruins of Palmyra, and clinging excitedly to the bonnet of our car as we made our way rather gingerly down interminable dusty tracks to nowhere. It was all gloriously odd and exciting, and oh so English. The light, the people, the dry, dry heat, have always remained in my blood, and a couple of weeks ago, I went back.

I decided to retrace one of the most ambitious of our expeditions, driving over the Chouf range of mountains from Beirut, down into the Bekaa Valley, then off into Syria. I wanted to incorporate as many of the places I could remember from my youth as possible: the breathtaking crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, the amazing Roman colonnades of Apamea, the Byzantine Dead Cities that surround the beautiful chaos of Aleppo, and Palmyra, a place with so much resonance for me that I regularly navigate my way through it in my dreams. It’s an astonishing sprawl of Roman remains that surrounds a hot-springed oasis in the middle of the desert. This was always my family’s final destination: to spend a couple of nights in a much-loved fleapit of a hotel set right in the middle of the ruins. The hotel is called the Zenobia, named after the Boadicea-like Syrian queen who ruled Palmyra and put up a seriously good fight against the Romans.

Just before I left Lebanon, I revisited Baalbek and the ancient Roman ruins of the Temple of Jupiter. In its time, it was the Roman equivalent of Ibiza, with mass fornication, drinking and partying being fairly standard pastimes. It was made even odder by the fact that Baalbek is now the home of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the history of the site sat rather uneasily with the heavily armed man selling Hezbollah T-shirts right outside the deserted entrance. An hour and a half later, two T-shirts in my bag, I was in Syria.

Syria is one of the countries named in Bush’s famous “axis of evil” speech, and it’s a fully functioning police state. Like Saddam’s Iraq, this is a country in the grip of a powerful personality cult: that of President Assad and his late father. Dodgy watercolours and semiheroic statues of them are everywhere. The young president looks a lot less authoritative than his father, as he suffers from a rather weak jaw line. He very much resembles the former opthalmology student, forced into the succession after his elder brother died in a car crash, that he is. And yet, as if to prove how unrepresentative their government is of the population it rules over, the people are hospitable to an almost criminal degree. I have never been to a more friendly country. The warmth I encountered was so pronounced that it felt like some subversive political statement.

I’m fairly sure that Syria was not in the top 10 options for your next holiday, but it really should be. Time after time, day after day, you come across places that put anything you’ve ever seen before in the shade. The most extraordinary thing is that you have these places to yourself. Standing alone in the middle of Apamea, a fabulous mile-long Roman colonnade on a hill overlooking a lush green valley, was so odd it was almost creepy. I’m so used to destinations a quarter this impressive swarming with umbrella-toting tour bores that it just felt wrong.

One afternoon, I parked my car by a river near the town of Hama, in which stood a gorgeous Roman water wheel still lifting water up from the river into an aqueduct used to irrigate the nearby fields. In any other country it would be encased in Plexiglas, but here it was just what it had always been, an agricultural tool.

In Aleppo, I managed to get a room at the Baron Hotel, one of those places that travel is all about, where you can almost touch the hem of those, far greater, that came before you. As I sat at the old bar and sank a large, wet gin and tonic in a sub-Ice Cold in Alex scene, Amen, the Armenian son of the original owner, showed me some of the old visitor’s books. It was a veritable Who Was Who of the Middle East: Lawrence of Arabia, General Allenby, Freya Stark, Lady Jane Digby, Patrick Leigh Fermor. On one particular night, you could have shared the bar with Amy Johnson and Agatha Christie. I found my last visit inscribed in the book: July 28, 1985. Coming from: Beirut. Destination: Palmyra. It was good to be back.

IT WAS Ramadan, and I felt a touch guilty about munching away on my Spam sandwiches (my staple diet on the road) while most of the country fasted, so I decided to give abstinence a go for a day. I chose a particularly bad day. I was going to drive up to the Euphrates, then down through the dusty, dry desert to Palmyra. The Spam was fairly easy to forgo, but water, oh my God, water. Getting to the Euphrates didn’t help, as torrents of the stuff roared down beneath me towards Iraq, and the drive through the desert was torture. My mouth became a dust bowl, complete with tumbleweed and mini sandstorms, and I actually started to hallucinate about a bottle of Evian.

My pathetic suffering did help to make my long-awaited return to Palmyra all the sweeter. Sitting under the olive trees on the terrace of the Zenobia, staring out at the sun-baked golden-orange stones, I racked up three beers, two Cokes and a huge bottle of Evian, downing the lot the moment the cannon went off in town to indicate the end of fasting.

One of my most powerful memories was of some magnificent cliffs about an hour into the desert from Palmyra. As a kid, I used to scramble up the steep, rocky shale to their base, where I’d explore three caves that had been carved into the stone by Bedouin hunters. A long, long time ago, I’d scrawled my name on the wall in one of these nomadic dormitories. The next day, after a blissful two hours in the ruins of Palmyra, I set off to find my juvenile graffiti.

Unbelievably, after all these years, my desert nose took me straight there. The place reeked of family memories: my hippie sister meditating on the top of the cliffs, the ridgebacks chasing each other through the wadi, the extraordinary echoes that rebounded again and again round the cliff faces as I’d shout out my name over and over...

I made camp beneath the cliffs, happy to savour the moment. I lay on a Persian carpet, smoked an apple-flavoured nargileh and drank seriously good Lebanese wine that I’d picked up at Ksara, in the Bekaa Valley. It was a full moon, and the entire desert plateau was rippled in streaks of white as it flitted in and out of clouds. From a distance, the patches looked like huge clouds of mist, sweeping up the hills towards me like armies of the moon. I slept the sleep of kings.

Come the dawn, I scaled the loose-rocked slopes and found the caves. After a brief hunt, I found my scrawl: “Dominic 1975”. It was an oddly moving moment: my peculiar adult media persona meeting the excited little boy who’d scrambled up these cliffs so many years ago in search of flints and a closer look at the majestic desert eagles that swooped around the summit. I spent 10 minutes on the same rock that I’d sat on as a boy, gazing out over the unchanged desert.

Omar Khayyam said that “the desert is a place where we go to remember ourselves”. For those fleeting moments, I had total recall.
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791 km (492 miles) traveled
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photo by: vulindlela