Friday, April 17, 2009

The Last Crusade

It's been a while. Sorry for my total disregard of communications recently, a combination of both my lethargy and the occasional lack of any connection to the world wide web. I must also apologise to anyone hoping to read the political opinions of a traveller passing through the Levant, the fertile crescent. The title of this post alludes not to the despicable actions of a bunch of religious neo-cons (the precursors to Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld!) during the 11th-13th centuries but rather to a more modern, and less sinister source. I am not willing to delve into history and politics here. Many of you will know my stance on the issues that have dogged the history of this region and all I will say is that they remain the same, if not stronger, for the experience.

It took us three bus rides to leave Turkey. The first, from Goreme to Kayseri, was remarkable only because there was a group of Turkish transvestites on board, in full battle gear, accompanied by a posse of young Turkish lads following in admiration. The conductor banned them from speaking to us, the only foreigners on board, was he protecting us or them? In Kayseri we had to wait a few hours for the bus to Antakya, close to the Syrian border. This bus was full of really provincial (read "villagers") Turkish families, from whom the pungent odour of goats emanated, masking even the smell of my hiking boots! And finally from Antakya to Aleppo. A really strange journey in which we were 'sold' from our first bus to a second when the first decided to go to Damascus and not Aleppo, and then from this second bus to a small minibus just across the border because over 3/4 of the passengers had been stopped at Syrian customs and were refused entry because they were trying to smuggle too many bed-sheets and blankets in!

Aleppo was a fine introduction to the warm Syrian hospitality, cries of "Welcome to Syria" greeting us from every street we walked along. We enjoyed walking through the bustling souqs, admiring the impressive citadel and relaxing in the grounds of the Grand Mosque. The other main highlight of Aleppo for us was the introduction of Syrian cuisine. We had begun to tire of doner kebabs morning, noon and night in Turkey and it was with relief that we tucked in to pitta sandwiches, bulging with falafel, aubergine, chips, omelettes and salad. Sometimes all at once.

We did sense a conservative outlook to life in Aleppo so it was fascinating to move across the mountains to Lattakia, on the Mediterranean coast and experience a much more relaxed, Western looking side to Syrian life. Perhaps it was the sea breeze but people here seemed to live their lives several paces slower than those in Aleppo. This made the people even more friendly, free coffees and juices, salads and hummus in exchange for afternoons spent chatting in the shade. It wouldn’t do to have to tight a schedule in Syria, then you would not be able to take up the myriad offers of tea, a chat, a look in the family albums or a bit of telly.

From Lattakia we made two day trips. The first to Ugarit, an ancient city which was apparently the home of the first written alphabet. Unfortunately there is not much left of the ruins but surrounding them is a maze of orange and lemon groves, perfect for an afternoon stroll, as long as you don't stray into the military area that separates the groves from the coast. The second trip we made was to the Castle of Salah-ad-din, the famous warrior fighting the Crusaders. It is perfectly located, on a hill jutting into a canyon, giving it natural protection alongside the walls and battlements. We did not go inside but preferred to marvel from the opposite side of the canyon, in the same way many of his enemies must have done as they caught sight of the castle.

I enjoyed Lattakia immensely, not least the local delicacy of spit roast chicken with chips, bread and garlic mayo, it was a nice place to slow down a little bit but soon we had to leave. We headed back over the mountains to the small town of Hama. This is a clean and pleasant place, although most of the old town was destroyed in the riots of 1982. Despite this a small part survived, included one of Syria's oldest hammams and the towns hallmark, its wooden water wheels, several are spread along the river through the town. There is not much to do in town but again it made a good base for further excursions. A long day trip out the famous ruins of Palmyra in the desert was the first of these. It is Syria's most well-known site and probably the most visited. It is justified as the setting of this ancient city in the middle of the desert is incredible, especially when the sun is shining. During the two brief sandstorms we experienced it was not so amazing, but they only lasted about twenty minutes each! The negative effects of mass tourism rear their ugly heads here however. Fed on a diet of tourists paying over the odds for everything, or even just giving stuff away, the town is full of touts and hangers-on and the taxi drivers swarm like flies on shit.

Probably Syria's second most visited destination is the Crac de Chevaliers, another crusader castle on a hill, this one in incredible conditions, much more preserved than Salah-ad-din. After visiting Paul Theroux was moved to write - "Crac de Chevaliers is the epitome of the dream castle of childhood fantasies; of jousts and armour and pennants", whereas TE Lawrence could only state "the finest castle in the world". We were not quite moved to such superlatives, we are probably too spoiled by the fine specimens we have visited in the Czech Republic, but still it was very impressive. Again however, it was blighted by touts and cheats, not the least the minibus drivers, holding tourists to ransom for double the fare back as they charged to for the journey there!

Finally we took a trip out to the beehive houses of rural Syria. Akin to the architecture of West Africa these strange buildings were the traditional homes here, but now they are used primarily for keeping livestock or storing grain. We had been told of them by a Czech guy and assumed they were a special secret, the photos on the wall of our hotel in Hama put paid to that myth, but the fact that we were accosted by kids with their palms out, begging for money was still a shock, especially in a country that otherwise treats its visitors so well. We also saw another castle along the way, Ibn-Wardan, where we met a friendly group of Bedouin, who became hysterical with giggling as they dressed us up in their clothes. This more than made up for the reflections of damage cased by uncontrolled tourism that we had witnessed.

It was already time to leave Syria, for now at least. We headed into the Lebanon, another country with a chequered past. From information I had gathered I expected Lebanon to be much more developed than Syria, especially the transport infrastructure. This was not the case, there was no discernable change at all, perhaps apart from the paintwork of the military checkpoints changing from boring camouflage to the bright colours of the Lebanese national flag. At our first stop, the well-preserved and compact Roman ruins of Baalbek, a guy outside was selling Hezbollah t-shirts.

We did find the developed and 'civilised' Lebanon by the time we reached Beirut. A congested city under perpetual development, although this isn’t entirely their own fault. Beirut is famous for its nightlife, but I am not really sure why. Although to be honest I am never really sure why anywhere becomes famous for its nightlife, surely its what you make of it, not where you are? If you like wandering in glitzy, designer shopping malls instead of crowded souqs, or if you like eating in Michelin starred restaurants and not from a street stall, or your idea of a good night out is a glitzy nightclub with loud music and louder clothes rather than a coffee shop with a bunch of old men playing dominoes, then Beirut is probably for you. Personally I found it to be crass, impersonal and soulless. The people, both locals and visitors all seem to be slaves to fashion. And fashion is a word I abhor. Maybe I am doing Beirut a disservice, but it just didn’t click with me, and the only visitors it seemed to click with were those who perhaps shouldn’t be holidaying in the Middle East to begin with.

One aspect of Beirut life I did appreciate however was taking a Sunday stroll along the Corniche, the promenade, watching the world go by. Watching the immaculately turned out denizens of Beirut see and be seen. But a closer look revealed a sinister trait, behind ever posh woman, tottering on her heels with her nose upturned, was a housemaid (always from either the Philippines, the subcontinent, or Ethiopia), dragging the overweight, spoiled Lebanese children behind. These domestic helpers really don’t have it easy, the embassies of these few countries are always clogged with women escaping violence or sexual assault from their employers.

Other parts of the Lebanon were far more pleasant, once you had battles through the hour or so of traffic that snarled up the routes north and south out of Beirut. Sidon (Saida) the port town to the south with the castle on the harbour, the labyrinthine souqs and the immaculate soap museum was a highlight. Travelling north to Tripoli we stopped in Byblos, kind-of a well-off cousin to Sidon, it to has a harbour castle, but it is surrounded not by souqs but by holiday homes, churches and yacht moorings, very picturesque though. And Tripoli itself, Lebanons second largest city, though more Syrian in appearance, again, here it more about the souqs and mosques and markets. Finally to Bcharre, the birthplace, and final resting place of Kahlil Gibran, a beautiful village overlooking the stunning Qadisha valley. The last remaining forest of biblical cedars and a modern ski resort are just kilometres away. The snowy peaks and mountain air seemed worlds away from the smog and pollution that greeted us as we returned to Beirut in order to transfer to a bush taxi to Damascus, obscuring our views of Beirut until we were right back in the centre.

It was a relief to get back to Syria, akin to loosening your tie at 5pm on a Friday. And it was a pleasure to reach Damascus. Although I was not quite as taken by it as Monika, who now has it in her top five cities worldwide, it is a lovely city. It is a cliché but it does have bags of character. The souqs, the old town and the Ummayyad mosque are all beautiful enough to hold ones gaze a moment longer than expected. It is a poster pin-up of the typical middle eastern city and, in my opinion, a thousand times nicer than Beirut.

Soon it was time to head down into Jordan, stopping first in Amman. From what I had heard and read I was expecting a clean and modern yet somewhat staid city, something like Dubai, or at least Brunei. But no, Amman is not so modern and not boring. It is set on a series of hills which makes for remarkable scenery, as well as making it that much easier to get lost! On the top of one of these hills lies the old roman Citadel, and from here the panoramic views are stunning, especially those gazing over to the giant Raghadan flagpole, with its equally huge flag flying from it. The third-tallest free standing flagpole in the world.

Many people visit the ruins of Jerash in northern Jordan. We did visit Jerash but did not enter the ruins as they seemed quite disappointing and over-priced, instead we simply walked around the perimeter of the site, we could have snuck in through any of numerous open gates but it really was not worth it, plus our moral fibre is tougher these days. More exciting was visiting the Dead Sea from Amman. We hitched to a small, deserted public beach with an adjacent hot spring. We just managed to fight our way in (the water seems to constantly try to push you out!) and take the obligatory photos of us floating on top in unusual ways before several packed buses of school boys turned up and found great amusement in chanting "hello, how are you? What is your name?" at us in unison several thousand times a minute. Needless-to-say we quickly packed and left.

Of course the highlight of Jordan for many visitors is Petra. For once I think the hype is justified. It is every superlative you can think of. Immaculate buildings carved into the rose red rock. It is unbelievable that they were able to create such a place of wonder and beauty back in 100BC. I doubt if it would be manageable today with all of our modern technology. Around a thousand people a day visit the sight and as they charge a whopping 21JD entrance (about twenty quid), that’s a hell of a lot of money. To put it in perspective, a bed in a hotel in Jordan costs from 3JD, a meal from 0.5JD and a three hour bus ride 3JD. In fact almost everything costs 3JD in Jordan (except for Petra!) so much so that you soon feel like an extra from Star Wars addressing a droid, going around muttering "3JD, 3JD" all the time. So, 21JD is a lot of money to pay. To avoid the crowds we got up early, as in 4:45am, only to find the ticket clerk had slept in. The gate was open however so we could have just walked in. We didn’t however (those pesky morals again). With such a high influx of tourists the hotels have to work pretty hard to stay ahead of the game. Our hotel did so by offering a fantastic All-You-Can-Eat dinner buffet for just 4JD (it was worth more than 3JD!) and nightly showings of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was partly shot at Petra, that’s the Treasury that the Holy Grail is supposedly hidden within.

Perhaps even more impressive than Petra, honestly, is the desert landscape around Wadi Rum. Intrinsically connected with the experiences of TE Lawrence (of Arabia) the rock formations, canyons, dunes and other sights here are simply breathtaking. Seeing all this whilst the dry desert air scorches your throat only adds to the experience. There are expensive tours of "sights" – Lawrences spring, Lawrences house, a bunch of Neolithic drawings, etc – but we decided just to hike around by ourselves. The first day we walked around 10 miles or so through the desert, stopping at the aforementioned canyons, rocks and sand dunes before we found ourselves on the other side on the mountain to the village of Rum. A group of hikers advised us of the route across the mountain, telling us it was easy. After several delays whilst we waited to be "found" and several sections of quite treacherous climbing, I was petrified in places, we finally made it down, about 8 hours after setting out, bruised and battered but feeling utterly invigorated. The next day however we took a more pedestrian route, a short 3 hour jaunt around "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" a rock formation named after Lawrence's famous book. There were also some more impressive dunes here.

So, despite the overall warmth and friendliness we experienced in Syria I have to say we saved the best for last, Petra and Wadi Rum are amongst the most impressive sights I have had the pleasure of seeing anywhere, not just in the Levant. All that was left was to make our way to Aqaba and take the over-priced ferry to Egypt.

For photos (this post is already long enough!) check out the Picasa web album on the right hand column, and look for the 'Road from Prague to Cape Town - Allans Photos' web album.


  1. I enjoyed reading that. I was there almost exactly a year ago, and I too looooved Damascus. It's a fantastic city. And Syrians are just incredibly friendly.

    I think the nightlife in Beirut might have something to do with comparisons to countries like Syria and Jordan. Compared to Damascus and Amman you might call the nightlife in Beirut fantastic.

  2. BTW, here are my photos: I think I went to the Umayyad 4 times in about a week in Damascus. I simply loved the place.