Crusader Castles

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
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Trip End Dec 12, 2005


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Flag of Syria  ,
Monday, November 7, 2005

And so we had our first Syrian bus experience. Needless to say, we can't read the bus signs or much on the bus ticket because it is all in Arabic script. At least the time and seat numbers were in Latin numbers. Martin said it was interesting watching them fill out the ticket - writing part of it in Arabic from right to left and the rest of it (the part we could understand) from left to right.

Pouneh happened to be on our bus. She was heading back to Damascus and will be flying from there back to Cairo.

The land seems fairly flat here, the soil much redder than Turkey. We noted many rock/marble quarries and the silvery green leaves of olive trees.

Syria has a population of 17 million, 90% of whom are Arabs. (I was also told that there are 20 million Syrians living outside the country!) The remaining 10% consist of Bedouins, Amernians and Turks. We were surprised to see so many people here with red, red hair, fair skin and freckles. I was under the misconception that all Syrians are dark complexioned.

The President of Syria is Basher al-Assad who inherited the post from his father. We've seen their photos frequently here, even though we've only been in Syria for two days! Al-Assad is western educated (he's an opthamologist) and there are high hopes for him being able to bring Syria into the modern age. If the technology is an indication (e.g., computers, ATMs - we saw one being installed), he's well on his way.

One of the questions we had to answer when filling out our visa applications for Syria was whether or not we'd even been to Israel or planned to go there. Syria has tense relations with Israel, mainly due to Israel's presence in the Golan Heights and Syria's resistance in keeping Hezzbollah in check. Israel is not popular with most Muslim countries; it is often best to ask that your passport not be stamped if you go into Israel, particularly if you think you may be going to any Muslim countries in the near future.

Hama, located about two and a half hours south of Aleppo, is the third largest city in the country and, purportedly, one of the most attractive. Located on the Orontes River, it is famous for its "norias" or huge wooden water wheels used for irrigating farmland via a series of aqueducts. They norias make a horrendous sound - "mournful groaning" as our guidebook called it; to me to sounded a some strange exotic musical wind instrument or a huge creaking wooden door. Martin said it sounded like "wood on wood". He has no imagination!

There are many beautiful parks along the river's edge (though the gates of most were locked when we were there for some reason) with lots of trees and flowers: roses, zinnias, marigolds, calla lilies and rhododendrons. These areas look like wonderful places for families to come on a weekend (weekends are Fridays and Saturdays here); Mom and Dad can watch the children from the park benches and there are plenty of playgrounds for the children. The only thing spoiling it all is all the garbage - and the river is polluted and smells of sewage. We've certainly seen more garbage by the roadsides here than in Turkey.

Thus far we've found Syria to be less expensive than Turkey. Meals, accommodation and buses and entry fees (recently reduced because tourists were complaining) are about half the cost. Student rates are extremely cheap at 10% the cost of an adult entry fee! (We should have bought fake student ID cards in Bangkok!) Our hotel room in Hama was only about $20 CDN. Hotels always ask to keep your passports until you leave as security against payment (just as they would ask for a credit card number in Canada).

When we changed money at our hotel in Hama I noticed once of their young employees watching me. He looked incredulous when I pulled out a US $100 bill, like that was more money than he could ever fathom. It made me wonder what they think of these tourists with all their great gobs of money.

Once again we hit a falafel/doner stand for supper one evening. There was chick pea flour all over the flour. It sticks to everything and you see it all over the place - tracked down sidewalks and up steps. Our meal, consisting of a chicken doner, falafel sandwich and two soft drinks cost us less than $2 CDN! There were three little boys in the restaurant who were very curious about Martin - particularly about his long hair. I took a few pictures of them and then other people came up and wanted to have their pictures taken, too. It was a lot of fun.

Lots of restaurants in Syria don't serve alcohol, but, where it is available the local booze of choice is arak, much like raki. There are never any napkins on the tables; rather, they provide you with a box of tissues. It's a challenge to get a tissue out of the box with mucky hands without ripping the tissues to shreds. Tissues also don't stay on the lap too well!

Martin is finding it cheap to smoke in Syria. At 60 cents CDN for a package of 20 cigarettes (even cheaper than Vietnam) there's not much incentive to quit! There are cigarette sellers all over the place.

A typical Syrian breakfast is similar to what you get in Turkey, minus the tomatoes an cucumber. Usually you get bread (but not as good as the bread in Turkey - it's usually pita bread), butter, apricot jam, a hard-boiled egg, cheese (La Vache Qui Rit is popular), tea or coffee and sometimes yogurt (a bonus!). What I wouldn't give for a bowl of cereal . . . . Our diet at home is so varied that it's easy to get tired of certain foods.

People here are very friendly, but Martin seems to elicit more responses than I do, no doubt a result of the gender factor. The cultural mores here are such that men are not allowed to interact or talk with women who are not their wives/relatives, so they tend to ignore me unless they have a good grasp of English and an understanding of Western culture/women. As we walked along the street, Martin in the lead, men would call out, "Hello, hello, Welcome to Syria, Welcome, Welcome." Arabs are very effusive, as is the Arabic language. For instance, the most common greeting (in English) is "peace be upon you" to which the correct reply is "and upon you be peace". I understand that a single encounter with someone can be a long-drawn out affair. We have been struggling to learn some Arabic - thus far about all we know is "salaam" (an abbreviated version of "hello") and "shukran" which means thank you.

Our hotel arranged a day tour to Apaema and Crac des Chevaliers for us. Omar was our driver and the car was an old 1967 Mercedes Benz. Omar was quite the character; he introduced himself with, "Today I am Omar; tomorrow I am Omar Sharif". In broken English he explained that he had been a truck driver, then a bus driver for seven years spending a lot of nights away from his family, so he decided to drive for our hotel instead. He has been working for the Cario Hotel now for 10 years. He had no formal schooling and had learned what little English he knew from tourists. Once I managed to get him to turn off the heat and cracked the window for a little fresh air (to tone down the jasmine air freshener), it was just fine bouncing away in the back of that big old boat. (I had my nose up against the open window just like a dog might do.)

(We later found out from the owners of our hotel just what a kind person Mohammed was. The car that Mohammed drives belongs to a woman whose husband died. After the hotel takes its cut, he keeps only a small portion - about $6 US - and gives the remainder to the widow so that she has some sort of income to support herself and her children.)

Most vehicles are diesel-fuelled here; the more modern ones run on gasoline which is three to four times the cost. As a result we've seen a lot of old diesel cars here, many of them old Mercedes Benz. Lots of people will stop and ask you if you need a ride, though I understand the offer and agreement constitutes that you will help pay for fuel.

Our first stop was Apaema, a grey sandstone city founded in the 2nd century AD about an hour's driving distance north of Hama. A guide named Kahlil met us at the entry gate and, although his English was not very good, we did glean quite a bit of information from him as he had worked as an archeologist at the site and was very knowledgeable. There is currently an archeological team from Belgium working at Apaema excavating a hamman (bath) and cement factory.

City upon city was built there as with so many of these historic sites. Originally, there were 1,200 columns; only 400 still stand because of earthquakes. In its heyday, Apaema boasted a population of 500,000 people, 3,000 camels and 500 elephants. There was quite an intricate water system connecting the various buildings in the city.

Following our walk through Apaema we met Omar at a restaurant where we was sharing a water pipe with the other drivers. We spoke with a tour guide who made reference to Jonathan Swift's opinion that religion makes us hate one another. He preferred to say that "religion should make us love one another" and called himself at the "terrorist of love". That could be interpreted many different ways . . . !

We were scheduled to visit another castle en route to Crac des Chevalier, but I persuaded Omar to return to Hama. I had forgot my spare camera battery at the hotel and didn't want to miss out on any photo ops! Later we found out that the first castle was closed as venues often are here on Tuesday. Who knew it was Tuesday? When you're travelling you lose track of what day it is and it usually doesn't matter!

From Hama, we travelled south and west to Crac des Chevalier, one of Syria's premier sights. Our guidebook describes Crac as "the epitome of the dream castle or childhood fantasies" (a quote from Paul Theroux). The castle was build in 1031, but it was the Crusader knights of the 12th century that expanded it to what we currently see today. In fact, it has probably not changed much over the last 800 years. It was a sight to behold, but it's difficult to get any really good photos inside gloomy castles/dark and dingy underground cities. (On our way up the road to the castle - a road with many hairpin turns - we almost had two accidents. Omar pulled over and reamed out one driver, then apologized, "Omar drive slowly, slowly". I was glad I was in the back seat! The vehicles driving towards us on the shoulder - on divided highway - were also a little disconcerting.)

At Crac we met an interesting couple from Munich, Germany who were just finishing off a three and a half year adventure travelling all over their world in their bright green Mercedes motorhome. They had had many wonderful adventures and were all set to return home and earn enough money to go touring again.

The drive between Apaema and Crac was interesting. We saw Bedouin people who move to the Hama area from Palmyra for five months of the year for the green grass to sustain their sheep. They are nomads roaming from place to place in their trucks and living in tents. There were farmers harvesting their cotton and potatoes crops; trucks loaded with bags of potatoes and bales of cotton were along both sides of the road. We saw fishponds for growing fish that men were selling to passing motorists.

Because we have a Middle East guidebook that covers many countries, there is not a great deal of detail provided about Syria and Jordan. I always wonder if we were missing out when we don't buy an individual guide for each country we visit (we had the Turkey Lonely Planet book), but books are mighty heavy to pack so in this case I decided on the condensed version.
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