From the Dead Sea into Syria

Trip Start Oct 11, 2008
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Trip End Feb 20, 2009


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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Madaba
When we left the Dead Sea we went into the fossil rich mountains of Libb. A new road climbs from below sea level to a lookout point. The turnoff is next to a police check and leads to an iron gate. We rather went on towards Madaba. We skipped Mt. Nebo where Moses (of Forty-Years Travel co.) set eyes on the promised land before he died. Instead, we wanted to try a little archaeological expedition near Madaba. We got the website from a Dutch family in Dana (www.pellamuseum.com) and after checking into the Mariam Hotel in Madaba set off into the hilly countryside in search of fossils. We only found a few fossilized shells but saw a fox, found a dead Little Owl (subspecies: lilith) and had a spectacular drive down a rugged valley.
Back in the hotel there was no activity in the restaurant so we decided to have snacks in the room. The same Dutch family, that gave us the link to the fossil site, was in the hotel as well.

Into Syria
The next day we visited the famous Greek Orthodox Church which houses a 560 AD Mosaic Map of the Middle East. Interesting, many of the places we passed such as Karak, the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, are on there.
Then the Destinator turned its nose north again. We went past Amman like a breeze, Jasper helping up front with navigation, good road signs did the rest. At twelve we rolled through Al Ramtha, two kliks before the border. This was the border crossing which after Sudan / Egypt we dreaded most, but in the end proved to be very straight forward. The guidebooks frighten you by saying that no visas are issued at the border, that you have to apply way in advance in your home country or at least need a letter from your embassy..... Not true, we arrived at the border, got stamped out of Jordan and entered the no man's land between the two countries. Then at the next check point we were waved through by a friendly official who said: "Welcome, Damascus straight ahead"! Of course it couldn't be that easy and a few hundred meters further were the actual custom offices. But again when we showed our passports it was: "You need an entry visa?", "Yes please", "Ok, fill in the forms". This we did and after a few back and forth movements between offices we were told: "Go and see the general under the umbrella". Strangely, we hadn't seen any general or an umbrella for that matter but we did find the big chief at last. It was the occupant of a room under a big concrete awning, adorned with multi starred epaulettes. With his signature on a great number of papers and after noting our car license plate number into Robert's passport, making sure that payment of registration and insurance (about 250 USD) were correct, he released us from his sphere of influence. We legally entered Syria. We had probably been lucky, it was relatively quiet.

Bosra, our first stop in Syria, famous for a beautifully preserved Roman theatre inside a 13th century Ayyubid fortress. Perfect acoustics and big enough to seat 30,000 people. Bosra was once the capital of the Nabatean Province of Arabia, (remember Petra). On our way to Damascus we saw the snow capped mountains of the Anti Lebanon range on our left and also experienced the first rain since Meru National Park in Kenya!

Damascus (or Dimasq, Damas, Damscus as it appeared on the roadsigns) is a beautiful old city with a very relaxed atmosphere, we tried a few hotels that were all fully booked by Iranian female tour groups (not sure why) and finally found a reasonably priced place to stay near the old city. Tourism is in its infancy in Syria and there is a lack of mid range hotels. Internet is just starting to pick up momentum and ATMs are spreading but not yet functional everywhere. In Bosra we had to stay in Cham Palace, one of a chain of hotels owned by a Syrian millionaire. Instead of camping as we had originally planned, we now have to carefully plan our route via better value hotel options. Jasper had planned the Jordan itinerary which worked out very well and Sander is doing the same for Syria.
Later Friday afternoon, we went into the old town. A maze of narrow streets and wide souqs. A souq is a part of town where traders or artisans group together. In some cases you have a whole street full of goldsmiths or carpet weavers. Better for the buyer, because it allows for easy comparison and fierce competition. It is not unusual to be accosted in such a street by almost each trader. The more you keep to the middle of the street, the less the harassment. In some souqs the roads are covered with a high, barrel vaulted roof, made of metal. One of these, Souq Al Hamadiyye, is still perforated by gunfire from a 1928 uprising against the French. The road is free of traffic, making for relaxed strolls. At the very end of the afternoon more and more shops raised their security gates and more and more shoppers were walking around. They were joined by the Iranian flocks of blackbirds. We passed the Hezaj railroad station, in a way ending our connection to Lawrence of Arabia. He blew up many a train on this Turkish held railroad and followed its tracks north from Aqaba to reach Damascus. His book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, ends in Damascus.
We found Damascus a very pleasant city, although maybe not the earthly paradise as stated by a 12th century Spanish traveller and even by the Prophet Mohammed himself. The influence of Greeks, Romans, Persians, French and Arabs has contributed to a cosmopolitan and easy going way of life. After an excellent lunch in restaurant 'The Old Town' in the middle of the old city we looked for a taxi back to the hotel and were taken to a little bus parked on the pavement. The driver then proceeded to drive at least 500 meters over the pavement dodging pedestrians and parked bicycles. Once, a pedestrian even helped him by moving a parked bicycle out of our way.... Easy going indeed!
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