Early alphabets and Saladin's castle
25.02.2010 - 25.02.2010 12 °C
Today was the first day of our tailored trip, and we had to get up at an uncharacteristically early 6:30am to meet him and our driver. Mr Walid heartily greeted us as usual and introduced us to our driver, Jihad, and his yellow Hyundai Accent. Jihad spoke a little English and told us proudly that his car was brand new. Sure enough, after hopping in, the car still had most of its interior covered in plastic.
Our first stop was Ugarit, which was about 10kms from the port town of Lattakia. This ancient site was discovered by a worker ploughing a farm in the early 1900s (as you do) and unearthed was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan metropolis with palaces, temples and libraries. Interestingly, also discovered were intact clay tablets bearing inscriptions, which represented a Semetic language and one of the first alphabets in the world. These tablets allowed archeologists to decipher all sorts of records such as stock accounts, commercial records and descriptions of gods and religion. Furthermore Ugarit was also discovered as being the world's first international port.
We obviously had been spoiled by the fantastic Roman ruins we'd seen previously - Jerash, Bosra - and to our uneducated and unappreciative eyes Ugarit was not as captivating as expected and was more a field of stones than a heavily restored site. What did captivate us were a lot of interesting insect life as we ambled through the site - piles of dark brown furry caterpillars, gigantic snails and locusts and katidid-type green hoppers.
We returned to one of the two modest road-side cafes and joined Jihad, who was smoking and drinking tea with a friend. We'd politely rebuffed the owner's wife's attempts to sell us souvenirs - postcards, pirated Syrian music CDs and small stone tablets recreations - but accepted her offer of two juices. They were a sour but tasty mix of blood-orange and grapefruit, but she clearly made some profit from us, charging S£200 for the juice. (Note to selves: Must always check prices before ordering/buying anything). Considering a meal in a Damascene restaurant would cost between S£60-100, she probably ensured she theoretically sold us a few of those CDs.
The next stop Qala'at Salah ad-Din (Saladin's Castle). We drove through modern Lattakia to get there, which had lots of pleasant-looking Arab apartment blocks but little charm. The road down to the castle gave us fantastic views of the castle from afar, and as we closed in, of the huge, steep, man-made canyon around the grounds. T.E. Lawrence wrote of the Qala'at Salah ad-Din, “It was I think the most sensational thing in castle building I have seen”. The name Qala'at Salah ad-Din was only officially adopted in the 1950s and to Lawrence, the castle was Saone (Sayhun in Arabic), which is the name that the Crusaders knew it by.
It was perched on top of a heavily-wooded ridge with near-precipitous sides dropping away to surrounding ravines. The Crusaders built it some time before 1188, and they dug out a canyon to surround the grounds, and left a solitary freestanding 'needle' of stone that was 28m high and resembled an obelisque, designed to suport the drawbridge.
Just like Karak Castle near Amman in Jordan, it was the stuff of childhood dreams and fairy tales - slippery-smooth stairs, dim, dripping cavernous rooms and low, pillared halls. We peered over turrets at the stark, sheer drop to the canyon below, and gaped at the huge cathedral-sized sunken cistern which had two flights of stairs leading down to the bottom where metal drums, spades and other oddities were partially submerged. Interestingly, the keep had 5m-thick walls - it was always assumed that any attack would come from the ridge to the east (near the drawbridge). However, when the attack came, Saladin split his forces: half occupied the defences at the east, but a second force bombarded the walls of the lower courtyard with catapults from the hilltop across the valley. The Crusaders, who were undermanned, were unable to stop the Muslims streaming in and it only took Saladin two days to win the castle.
After our visit we chilled out at our hotel then joined Jihad for dinner, which was a huge feast (thanks to our eyes being bigger than our stomachs) of chickpea and rice soup, hummus, salad, grilled courgettes, baba-ganoush-esque dip, rice and bbq'd chicken. All washed down with big mugs of cold Syrian Al Chark beer.
The castle on the hill (lower court partially obscured)
View from the inner walls
Chalky exploring the dark depths
Chalky the archer
Don’t look down!
The man-made canyon
The freestanding ‘needle’ that supported the drawbridge
View of the courtyard... spot the ancient tombs on the right part of the hill
Crystals in the rock
Early 'spring' flowers
The huge sunken cistern
The lower courtyard, where the Crusaders failed to anticipate Saladin’s attack[i]