A Travellerspoint blog

Lebanon - Beirut

Feeling scruffy in a fashionista city with a chequered past

sunny 20 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Despite numerous Western government warnings against travelling to Lebanon, we decided to spend a few days in Beirut, as it was only an hour's bus ride away from Damascus. We arrived at the Lebanese Immigration and asked the bus driver where we could change our Syrian Pounds into Lebanese ones - he pointed to a local money changer who was waving at us through a chain-link fence! Never before have we executed foreign exchange in that manner! Didn't get too ripped off on the rate though, which was both surprising and pleasing.

It turns out we need not have worried about Beirut - as soon as we hopped into a taxi to our hotel, we were immediately hit with a modernity and affluence not seen in the Middle East, even in Amman. Huge towering luxury hotels lined the waterfront and numerous English billboards advertising fashion brands greeted us. We pulled into our extremely modest hotel, Regis and wished we had been able to afford the Four Seasons instead our bright but plain-Jane room, with a view of wildly-overgrown brown grass and rubble out the back (but a smidgen of the sea, mind you!).

We set out for a walk of the University area of Hamra, firstly seeking out the heavily-scarred shell of the Holiday Inn. This hotel was never finished and occupied by snipers in the 1970s during the Lebanese Civil war - a war, where it seemed (in our semi-informed opinions) that everyone was fighting everyone: Muslims vs. Christian Phalangists vs. The PLO vs. Syria vs. Israel vs. Hezbollah, and loyalties and sides switched often. The Holiday Inn was surrounded by newly-built buildings but was was stark and empty, riddled with holes and craters. Many of the surrounding houses and were dilapidated and scarred, as if left as a reminder of the not-so-distant past.

We stayed in Beirut for two days but wished we hadn't already booked our flight to Cyprus, as we wanted to stay longer. Call us fickle, but it was a welcome relief to have a choice of eating options after three or so months of a mono-diet! (We even walked for two hours to get Thai food on the other side of the city.)

We spent our time walking all around the city. We went through the newly-opened Beirut Souq in the downtown area, which we'd read was razed during the Civil War. Interestingly the site was meant to be ploughed over to clear views to the sea, however according to lore (and our guidebook!) a council worker was about to dig the site but strangely his digger seized up and he felt tingling in his hands and could not go any further. This omen was taken seriously and the old souqs as well as the nearby mosque was saved from destruction. However this modern souq was a tad disappointing as it had been developed into a shiny, outdoor-mall development full of Western brand names, rather than the working market we'd expected.

We also visited the the hip Gemmaydeh district, which is lined with sleek bars, eateries and boutiques. Young Beirutians are a very fashionable and beautiful bunch, and we felt very out of place in our Tevas and well-worn travel gear! As one friend who has visited Beirut put it, "Even the guy that sells vegetables on the street wears Armani!"

While we walked everywhere around the city, we were careful to take heed of our guidebook's advice not to venture to the Hezbollah camps in the south and centre of the city, however even despite knowing there were still tensions quietly simmering in the city, we felt very welcome and at ease in this vibrant and modern city.

Peaceful road barriers
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The scarred Holiday Inn
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Dilapidated houses
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Chalky with his large Almaza beer
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Middle Eastern bread
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Inside the newly developed Beirut Souq
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Al-Omari Mosque
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Stylish Gemmaydeh
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Us with some tasty Lebanese vino
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Gemmaydeh
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A Church
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Locals near a mosque
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Posted by JacChalky 02:55 Archived in Lebanon Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Palmyra

A day wandering the Middle East's finest Roman ruins

overcast 12 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Jihad drove us through pelting rain from Qasr Ibn Warden to the sprawling Roman ruins of Palmyra. There were a few precarious times when we feared we might aquaplane as he sped through huge patches of standing water without slowing, but we arrived all in one piece two hours later.

We raced past the ruins in order to get to a couple of Roman tombs by 11:30am as two of the most impressive tombs are only open for 15 minutes at a time at certain times of the day. The first was in a rectangular tower, about 10m x 10m and four stories tall. It stood amongst other heavily dilapidated tombs in the desert, with the citadel overlooking on the hill behind. We waited about five minutes before the keymaster arrived, with a huge ring of big iron keys. All four levels had multi-level nooks inside for bodies - the tomb must had housed hundreds of deceased! There were some carvings of the 'inhabitants' still present.

After 15 minutes on the dot, we were ushered out of the tomb and it was locked once more. We next went to the tomb of 'Three Brothers', which was underground. This was also a tomb for the public and again would have housed hundreds of deceased, again in multi-level shelves. We overheard a guide say that bodies were interred on their sides in order to save space. This tomb had fantastically intricate carvings and paintings of Roman tales, but unfortunately no photos were allowed.

We again left after quarter of an hour, and after a tasty lunch of spicy, soft orange cheese rolled up in huge flatbread (thanks to Jihad) we were dropped us off at the nearby Temple of Bel, which was dedicated to the Semitic god Bel , or Malakbel in 32 AD, and also used in pre-Roman times. The ruins were incredibly well-preserved, with huge, intact columns greeting us as soon as we entered. We had to initially pry ourselves away from the several guides who approached us and insisted on us using their services, but then spent our visit marvelling at the amount of column segments and capitals lying around in the dirt, and intricate carved square stone pieces.

We then walked towards the Roman ruins, and entered through a huge, restored, arched gate. Palmyra was a huge site and for us (we now consider ourselves "advanced amateurs" at ruin hopping) probably the Roman ruins to beat all that we'd seen in sheer size and grandeur.

Palmyra originally was an ancient Aramaic city, and was a key Syrian city, having long been a vital caravan city "Bride of the Desert" for travellers crossing the Syrian desert. It was made into a Roman city in the 1st century and was an important trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman empire, before being captured by the Arabs some 600 years later.

The highlight for us was the huge Tetrapylon, a set of four groups of four pillars, each set bearing a huge slab of rectangular stone that purportedly weighed 150,000 tonnes... that's a lot of elephants! All except one pillar were reconstructions but we had to really look to spot the difference. Apparently the red rock was brought in all the way from Aswan, Egypt.

We ambled through the huge sites, pausing to admire carvings that were so fresh-looking they could have been done that morning and stealthily placed there just for us and climbed up piles of stones to pull some irreverent poses. A lot of time was spent searching among the column capitals and stones to find a small carved 'take-home-able' piece, but sadly this proved fruitless for us - but we both agreed later that we'd feel too guilty to enjoy it, let alone what it meant for Syrian historic heritage!

By and large the preservation and reconstruction efforts were fantastic (again we are advanced amateurs), but there were clearly tons of grass-topped stones that indicated further sites were yet to be dug up. We had to laugh at one reconstruction effort however - most rows of columns all had small shelf-like piece jutting out near the top, that once would have had a statue of an official sitting atop. However, the last column of a row had the last shelf hilariously sticking out on the opposite side of the column!

During our walk we had to precariously pass some baby camels and their on-guard parents, eyeing us as they munched on the fresh growth. There were some locals who lived in small shacks amongst the ruins and a man and his daughter ran out to greet us when we approached, their grins showing heavily browned teeth. It turned out though, that they only had come out to thrust their open palms at us and ask us for money and pens.

We had a great day exploring Palmyra. Hopefully the photos show what an epic site it is. Afterwards we met Jihad to see the ruins from above, by sunset at the Citadel. The wind again was icy and we shivered as he pointed out all the tombs dotting the landscape - there were literally dozens and dozens of them. We also got talking to the local Bedouin youngsters selling souvenirs near the entrance, and laughed along with them as they tried to trick and dazzle us with their multi-syllable names that we could not repeat to them.

After the sunset we requested Jihad take us to a good local restaurant for dinner and again he delivered. The restaurant was a tiny hole in the wall, with only two tables, and a huge sheep carcass hanging in the wall near a big, greasy wooden chopping board. We watched as our kofte was grinded right infront of us from a huge slab cut from the carcass, and sprinkled liberally with spices and parsley. Dinner was lamb and chicken kofte, cooked on huge skewers right outside the restaurant, falafel, baba ghanoush (father's favourite - roasted aubergine dip), hummus, salad and flatbread. We were glad Jihad didn't offer some of his specially-ordered treat - grilled lamb tail fat! It was a delicious meal to cap of a great day in Palmyra.

The next day we returned to Damascus, firstly passing the monastary of Mar Musa, where we were meant to stay, but given that it was so cold we decided against it (also you had to hike with your pack up the snow-capped mountain to the monastary). We also stopped into Ma'alula to visit the charming Church of St Baccus, and the nearby Gorge and Convent of St Thecla. We stayed in Damascus for a further three days before it was time to say ma'a as-salaama to Syria and head into Lebanon!

The Tombs
Jihad and his new baby outside a tomb
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Chalky checking out the tombs
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Inside the first of two tombs
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The Temple of Bel
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Palmyra
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Ancient clay plumbing
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Fantastically intact carving
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Jac all puffed up in the ruins
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Chalky: The Thinker or more Napoleon Dynamite?
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The Tetrapylon
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The Tetrapylon is THIS big!
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Chalky and the colonaded street
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Reconstruction fail
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The Palmyra Citadel looms over the ruins
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Views from the Citadel
Jihad and Chalky
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Us outside the Citadel
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Jihad pointing out views from the top
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The sprawling ruins and tombs
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Our last night with Jihad - the tasty local restaurant he took us to
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Posted by JacChalky 06:10 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Krak des Chevaliers, Hama and Qasr Ibn Warden

The one Castle to rule them all, ancient waterwheels, beehive villages and a sandstone palace

rain 7 °C
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The next day's outing with Jihad was to Qasr al-Hosn, better known as Krak des Chevaliers, and apparently the Crusader Castle of the Middle East, the epitome of childhood fantasies of jousts and armour. It truly was a magnificent castle, sitting on a huge hill, with rounded towers, a wide now-grassy moat and commanding views for about 10-15km over the valley and surrounding towns. It was built in 1031 and captured by the Crusaders in 1099 and became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers, who expanded it into the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land to house a huge garrison of 2,000. The castle addressed the only significant break in the Jebel (Mount) Ansariyya. Any force who held this breach, known as the Homs Gap, was virtually guaranteed control over inland Syria by controlling the flow of goods and people from the port to the interior.

In 1271 after much wresting for power betweenm Saladin and the Crusaders, the fortress was captured by the Mamluk Sultan Beybars, with the aid of heavy trebuchets and mangonels (both catapulty things). However, to conquer the castle, Beybars used a trick by presenting a forged letter from the Crusader Commander in Tripoli, Lebanon, ordering the defenders to surrender the castle. Otherwise, this immensely strong castle would probably never have fallen. Beybars refortified the castle and used it as a base, and he also converted the Hospitaller chapel to a mosque. Inside the castle we spotted a wide pillar which had an Arabic inscription of the Beybars' full title: "The Manifest King, Pillar of the World and the Faith, Father of the Victory". Modest guy it appears.

Even though we'd been to two Crusader Castles previously, our enthusiasm for exploring didn't fade and we wandered through the whole castle - down dark and slippery stairs to eerie underground caverns and baths, up turrets to see the acrophobic views below, and also around the moat. Krak des Chevaliers is unique in that it has Gothic, Romanesque and Islamic aspects - we spotted some faint reddish Crusader frescoes in an old bare chapel that had subsequently been converted into a mosque. Curiously, the vaulted hall was decorated in Egyptian theme, with white plaster pillars with hieroglyphs placed over original pillars. The setting for a school ball or historically inaccurate movie set perhaps? We later spied some actors near the outter walls, dressed in early 20th century military clothing, and film crew on site, so perhaps the latter guess was correct. Again, we were lucky to be virtually the only visitors that day, although it was a chilly and windy day.

Krak des Chevaliers
The exterior of the Castle
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Commanding views of the valley
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Exploring the halls and Castle inner
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Mamaluk sultan's pillar
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The chapel converted into a mosque
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A remaining Crusader fresco
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Around the courtyard and outer walls
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The remains of a Crusader church
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Ancient pottery oil urns
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Jihad next took us on a winding, 2-hour drive to the small town of Hama through some nice apple orchard scenery. We lunched in Hama and had views of the some of the famous old norias (waterwheels), which apparently date back to 1100 BC and were historically used for irrigation. We were lucky enough to see some guys turning the noria by hand, perhaps for maintenance and we also chuckled at a tourist wearing a Robin Hood green cape who was passing by and also captured the attention of the noria workers, who waved at him to come look at the norias up close. Hama was where Jihad was from, and he later disclosed to us that he unfortunately lost four brothers in the 1982 'massacre' by the Syrian Army who quashed a local revolt. Sadly, much of the town is featureless, contemporary building, as the majority of the old town was destroyed. We spent the afternoon and night in Hama and tried a local dessert, halawat al-jibn, which was a long roll of mild-tasting soft, chewy cheese dough, sprinkled with chopped pistachios. We tried two small pieces and it was pleasant, albeit a little bland to our tastebuds.

Old Norias
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Halawat al-Jibn dessert
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The next day Jihad took us towards the Roman ruins of Palmyra. We passed some conical mud 'beehive villages', and also kms and kms of olive groves and more apple orchards, then finally to desert. Interestingly after days of rain, the desert had been transformed from what is ordinarily dry and arid, to lush-looking, green fields.

We stopped in Qasr Ibn Warden, which is a 6th century Byzantine sandstone and basalt palace. It served many purposes and was a combined military base, palace and church, but in fact was probably built to impress the local Bedouin as to the strength and status of their overlords. We poked our head into the palace - it was largely empty but still had some carved stones in the remains of rooms, and flour mills in the courtyard. Jihad got talking to the caretaker, who shared some sweet chamomile tea with us as we sheltered from the cold and rain. The caretaker was a sweet guy and showed us his old school textbook with a map of NZ. Jihad loosely translated the text, which said something along the lines of us being a rich nation with tons of sheep. Jihad also had fun dressing us up in Bedouin garb, and got us to don very heavy leather and sheep-fur coats, and the traditional red-and-white-checkered headscarfs.

Our next stop - the epic Roman ruins of Palmyra!

Beehive villages
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Qasr Ibn Warden
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The happy Bedouin couple
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Posted by JacChalky 07:11 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Apamea and Serjilla

Temperatures plummet again...

rain 7 °C
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We set off pretty early in the morning and were greeted by icy rain and thick fog. Jihad drove us up Jebel (Mount) Ansariyya for some well-intended views, but instead we spent the trip squinting out the windscreen and feeling grateful he was a skilled and careful driver.

We pulled into Serjilla, one of the many 'Dead Cities' that were mysteriously abandoned about 1,500 years ago. It is theorised that the cause is due to migrational shifts when the Arabs conquered the region and discontinued merchant routes between Antioch and the Roman city of Apamea. Remarkably well-intact, its stone buildings and arches appear unweathered. It was freezing cold and wet, so we didn't stay long - Jac lasted a paltry 15 minutes wandering around, but thankfully Chalky stayed around longer to take photos. We opted not to explore any other of the Dead Cities (Serjilla was the most preserved of them all) and drove on to the Roman ruins of Apamea.

Founded in the 3rd century BC by a former general in the army of Alexander the Great, and was named after his Persian wife, probably to stave off jealousy, as he'd named an early city after his mother. Apamea was seized by Pompey for the Romans in 64 BC and at its heyday had 500,000 inhabitants and was notable enough to be visited by Mark Antony and Cleopatra. In the 6th century however it was seized by Muslims, and then some time down the track was flattened by an earthquake in the 1200s. The main attraction was the north-south running cardo (main street) lined with colonades, 2km long. The Roman road also had chariot ruts on the huge stone paving. Parts of columns, tops of columns (capitals) also lay alongside the road. The other parts of the site (remains of the baths, nymphaneum, mosque) were unrecognisable but the colonaded street was impressive. Despite the rain and our being virtually the only visitors we were approached by motorcycle touts, offering 'antiques' for sale.

After another great day of sightseeing with Jihad, and his trusty steed, his yellow Hyundai, we retired to the nearby town of Hama for the night.

Driving with ‘limited’ visibility
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The Dead City of Serjilla

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Ancient olive presses
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A two-storey tavern
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Open tombs
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Apamea

The colonaded street
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Jac grinning and bearing (the cold that is)
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Unique swirled columns
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[i]If only we could sneak a piece of that home in our backpacks...
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Inscription in the path
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Posted by JacChalky 07:56 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ugarit and Qala'at Salah ad-Din

Early alphabets and Saladin's castle

overcast 12 °C
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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)
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View from the inner walls
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Chalky exploring the dark depths
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The stables
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Chalky the archer
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Don’t look down!
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The man-made canyon
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The freestanding ‘needle’ that supported the drawbridge
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View of the courtyard... spot the ancient tombs on the right part of the hill
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Crystals in the rock
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Early 'spring' flowers
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The huge sunken cistern
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The lower courtyard, where the Crusaders failed to anticipate Saladin’s attack[i]
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Posted by JacChalky 05:50 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Qala’at Samaan

The Saint who lived on a pillar

sunny 15 °C
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A grinning Mr Walid met us with his dark green classic car outside the Baron Hotel in the morning. He told us he'd take us on the day tour to the ruins of Qala'at Samaan (church of St Simeon) in a "very nice car" and he wasn't wrong!

The Church of St Simeon is a short, 45-minute ride northwest of Aleppo. The landscape was an intruiging mix of low-rise rocky hills, with small tufts of grass and clusters of trees squeezed into the gaps between the well-weathered, light-grey rocks.

We read in our trusty guide book about St Simeon, who was an interesting albeit odd character. He was born in 386 AD, the son of a shepherd, and at a young age opted for a monastic life. However he found his life as a monk was not austere enough, so he retreteated to a cave in the barren hills for self-imposed severity. News of this secluded hermit caused admires to flock to his cave, but he hated visitors so much he built taller and taller pillars upon which to live so people couldn't touch him. His tallest pillar was 18m high and he chained himself to it so he didn't fall off during the night. He began to preach daily but wouldn't speak to women and his own mother was barred from approaching his column.

Apparently at the time of his death in 459 he was the most famous person in the 5th century. After his death a vast martyrium was built in his honour around the pillar, which had four basilicas (making a shape of a cross) radiating from the sides of a central octagon, and had an impressive 5,000 square meters of floor space.

The pillar was today just a smooth boulder, after having centuries' worth of pilgrims chipping away at it. We walked through the well-kept site and poked our heads into the adjacent abbey and cemetary. Again, we were lucky to not have many other tourists at the site, save for a small bus-load of Spaniards and young local boys who proffered small, wilted bunches of wild flowers for sale.

A intricately carved stone, c. 475 AD... looks as if it was carved only yesterday
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The abbey of St Simeon
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Chalky admiring the olive grove
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The remains of the bapistry
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The church
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Jac outside the church
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The remains of St Simeon's pillar
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St Simeon's pillar
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Mosaics underfoot
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Chalky dwarfed by the basilica
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The cemetary
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The rocky plain
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Posted by JacChalky 02:11 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Aleppo

Wandering the souq, dodging carpet salesmen, and trawling dusty copper workshops...

sunny 15 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

The bus ride to Aleppo from Damascus was both long and filled with sights of massive highway accidents: a huge haulage truck crashed through concrete median barriers; gigantic concrete cylinders strewn across the road in another. Once in Aleppo, we hopped into a taxi to go to our hotel, but not without experiencing the second blatant over-charging taxi ride of the day, despite both cars having meters.

We ditched our packs and, being beer o’clock in the evening, we headed to the nearby Baron Hotel, a famous haunt of Agatha Christie and TE Lawrence. We tried a bottle of delicious Syrian red wine, ‘Chateau de L’Oronte’ and were so enamoured we repeated the experience. We also got to see the aforementioned guest’s rooms. They were a little sparse, but still had an old world charm about them. We were approached by a suited, fatherly “Mr Walid”, who was a manager at Baron Hotel and enquired whether we had planned any tours in Syria. As we’ve mainly being travelling independently, we shook our head, and his eyes lit up as he handed us a folder filled with emails of thanks and recommendations by other travellers who have booked trips with him. We outlined the sights we wanted to see, but unfortunately the price for a six-day tour was out of our budget. We said we’d have a think though, as he was very affable and the testimonies were excellent.

The following morning, after the ubiquitous breakfast of bread, stringy cheese, olives, yoghurty labneh and hummus, we paid a visit to Mr Walid and informed him we were sorry but would not be taking a tour. He remained cheerful and asked us what was our budget for 6 days. We sheepishly disclosed the much lower amount, and after tapping on his calculator he delighted in telling us that he could lower the accommodation options and meet our budget, as we were like a son and daughter to him. We were touched and happy that we could relax in terms of planning and travel the next week.

We thanked Mr Walid and headed to Souq Bab Antakaya, and entered through a walled bab. Just like Damascus’ souqs, it is an atmospheric working market, filled with smells of spices, the bustle of locals buying their daily goods, and bright colours of handicraft stores. The market was closed in and the ceilings were arched with a balck and grey cobbled roof. We stopped to look at all the food and meat on offer - butcher shops had camel necks and carcasses hanging right by trays of pastries on sale - and saw a lot of honeycomb for sale, a sight we don’t often see at home. Many vendors greeted us as we passed their shops, and quite a few would eagerly tell us of relatives or friends they had who married or lived in Australia or New Zealand. One guy made us laugh, saying he lived in NSW, and when we asked him what rugby league team he supported, said of course it was the Bulldogs, as he was Arab…?! Another was quite taken with Jac’s green cotton harem pants and twice offered to buy them from her!

We exited the top of the uphill-sloping souq and hit the Citadel, an imposing structure upon a huge mound of earth. Apparently the mound is a natural feature that once served as place of worship. It was a surprisingly large site, all very preserved (well, from our amateur point of view) and had some striking features (pointed out by trusty Lonely Planet) such as a heavily fortified keep and a wide exposed bridge to ensure attackers were vulnerable. Defence here consisted of showers of arrows and boiling oil poured through the rows of machicolations. Also the first gate was set to the right, rather than right in front of the bridge, to prevent charges with a battering ram.

We had fun wandering the grounds of the Citadel - the huge halls, prison area, and the remains of an Ayyubid palace, characterised by the familiar black and white walls. We also saw a beautiful throne room with a marvellous decorated wooden ceiling. Also visiting the Citadel that day, was a class or two of cute 7 or 8-year olds, who noisily skipped through the site, and happily shouted “hello, hello, hello!” and waved as they passed us.

Afterwards, as we walked back towards the souq, we fielded another cheerful “Hello, where are from?” from a Syrian man. “Australian?” he added, before we even opened our mouths - good spotting! It turns out he was a Syrian-Italian (“No one is perfect!”) and owned a nearby shop, that Jac and coincidentally earmarked in guidebook to visit. For the next two hours looked at jewellery, lamps, mosaic boxes… and carpets. The owner and his assistant were more than happy to show us carpets, despite us telling him we weren‘t really after one, and taught us to say the informal instruction, [i]sheela, if we wanted to put away a kilm or carpet. As mentioned, we weren’t even in the market for carpets, but the skilful ‘no pressure’ pressure selling technique (and ample servings of tea) saw us actually narrow down all that we saw to two preferred options - a richly coloured red antique carpet (in the carpet business, ‘old’ means very expensive) and a muted beige kilim or mat. However the price for both was steep (think multiples of thousands) and we left saying we’d have a think about it, as it would cut almost a month off our travel plans!

After the narrow hit and miss, we re-entered the souq and sought out Khan al-Sabun, and Khan al-Jumuk, two old open courtyard travellers inns that now contained shops. We lunched on delicious street-stall wraps, farooj (chicken) for Jac, and felafel for Chalky. Aleppo is known for its aged olive soaps, so we also sought out the Aleppo soap factory - the door was closed, but upon knocking we were let in to roam the factory ourselves, gaping at the huge vats of chemical ingredients.

After wandering around the whole day we thought we should return to our Syrian-Italian’s shop to euphemistically tell him we weren’t sure about the carpets and needed more time… he was crestfallen to discover we hadn’t returned to buy both let alone one of his rugs. He then asked us about tours - we told him we’d booked one with Mr Walid, and he grimaced at that and told us, when we disclosed a ball-park figure, that we’d paid too much. Also he seemed of the opinion that we were also paying too much for our budget hotel. After that, we spent the next couple of days walking the long way around the area, to avoid bumping into the shop owner.

Another part of Aleppo we explored was the charming, Armenian quarter or Al-Jedidah. The Christianity stood out to us, having been in Islamic countries for near on 3 months, and almost felt like a European town, as we spied local shops selling croissants. There were lots of cute shops selling Oriental jewellery, and we focused on seeking out these small copper and glass lamps we’d seen earlier in an expensive shop, and walked and walked to find the copper quarter. After poking our heads into workshops, lured by the industrious clanking and hammering sounds, we almost gave up until we were approached by a worker to follow him back up the street. After initially declining and thanking him, tired after our fruitless search, we decided to follow him into his tiny workshop, which was dark and very dusty. We spent a while trying to explain with sign language and drawings (square body with glass panels and a small door to put candles through, an angular diamond-shaped bottom) he searched amongst his wares and pulled out various versions of lamps. None were what we were after, and we almost gave up for good when he miraculously pulled the exact one out! We motioned to him that we actually wanted 6, so the next ten minutes was spent playing eye-spy amongst all the piles of copper goods, and one by one we found all 6! Next was the negotiation - both parties sat down to some haggling with lots of headshaking by him and nodding by us at our offers, when finally a deal was struck and everyone was happy. Next task… how to send the darn things home!

Old Aleppo

Door and canaries near the souq
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An old souq door
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Exploring the souq
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Chalky under the terrific cobbled roof
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Handicraft market
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Aleppo's Citadel
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Inscriptions above the right-angled entrance
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Don't think that stone will fit through the arrow slit...
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Stone lions flanking an interior door
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Jac in the underground prison area
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"Hello, hello, hello!"
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The view of the moat and Aleppo
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The Throne Room
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A kilm and carpet we almost bought
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Some Syrian girls who wanted their photo taken with Tom, we mean Chalky
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Chalky in one of the Khans (Travellers' Inns)
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An intricate shoe-shine stand
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Feathery friends
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Standing outside the Soap Factory
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Inside the Soap Factory
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Syrian school boys near Bab (Gate) Qinnersrin
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Bab Qinnersrin
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The Armenian quarter of Al Jdeidah and its surrounds

On the way to Al Jdeidah
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Roaming Al Jdeidah
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Al Jdeidah - the Saahat al-Hatab area
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A stave of avian musical notes
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A Maronite Cathedral
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High Street - Sharia Al Tilal
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Jac with a tamarind juice seller
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Spot the specifically sought-after copper lamp
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Jac and the copper-lamp vendor, happy after the deal was struck
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Jac and Chalky with Mr Walid
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Posted by JacChalky 08:14 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Bosra

Roaming Roman ruins... and then scrambling for bus tickets

sunny 15 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Bosra is a Roman ruins site about two hours' bus ride south of Damascus. We arrived for a day trip, on a sunny but chilly day and immediately headed for the Roman Theatre, which uniquely, gradually had Arabic fortifications built around it (a Citadel). The caverns were dark and narrow in some places, and we had to use our camera flash to explore some places as we didn't bring torches. Thank goodness for digital photos that can be deleted by a push of a button!

We emerged into the sunlight at the top of the majestic Theatre's terraced seating. Again a perk of travelling off-season, it was almost empty. There were only a few of us clamouring up and down the multi-layered seating, and a small group of people sat and stood on the seats and were dancing to Arabic music blaring from a mobile phone.

After wandering the Citadel we headed into the 'Old Town' which was more ruins built in black basalt (as opposed to sandstone), both Roman and Arabic. We passed Corinthian columns, a nyphaneum, a Roman market and ancient mosque. The highlight was Hamman Manjak, which had a big pink-hued square basin and also small arched shower-shaped alcoves in the neighboring room walls. We stopped to snap small boys playing amongst the ruins - what a terrific playground to grow up with! - and also to peruse over the many brightly-coloured ceramic plates and vases on sale. We brushed aside any worries about postage back to NZ as we bought a couple of hexagonal vases with fish painted from a small local stall, and chatted with the amiable owner.

Unfortunately, once we went to book our return bus tickets home we discovered that all the seats were booked and we'd have to wait two hours for the next (last one), and even then that might be full! However we were a little sceptical of the restaurant boys, who had beckoned us to come inside with the lure of organising our seats for us, while they phoned the bus company at "no commission". A little unsure of what the catch would be (cynical but practical of us) we went to our ceramic seller, who phoned for us, but yes indeed our desired bus departure was full, but if we ran now, we could grab the last remaining seats on the last bus of the day. As the only accomodation in Bosra was a multi-star joint, we headed to the nearby ticket office quick smart.

We rejoined our new friend at 'Al Omari' stall and had pleasant tea with him, sharing our mush mush (apricots) with him and his friend who enthusiastically conversed with us in Arabic. Again, our pidgin greetings were taken to mean we had a much greater lexicon than we actually did!

After a pleasant day out we returned back to Damascus on the bus, but not before being told by the now less-friendly restaurant boys that they got us tickets but "gave to 'others' now". We are still unsure if it was genuine kindness and benevolence misunderstood by us, or we narrowly avoided an unexpected monetary surprise.

The citadel caverns leading to the Theatre
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The terrific Theatre
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Young Syrians dancing to a traditional tune - played via mobile phone
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Chalky ponders the stage
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Both smiling but secretly wanting to jostle for operatic space
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Wandering the Old Town
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Near the Decumanus (colonade)
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Public baths
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An exposed mosaic floor
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Hammam Manjak
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The showers?
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Cute local boys
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6th century cathedral
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[i[Some of the brightly-coloured ceramics on sale[/i]
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Posted by JacChalky 05:55 Archived in Syria Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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