Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 2

Northern Syria

           << Part 1: Turkey    -    Back to Index    -    Part 3: Southern Syria >>

March 2nd-5th (days 7-10): Aleppo

Aleppo (Halab in Arabic) is Syria's second city with some 3 million inhabitants, but to be honest I had never heard about it before I planned this trip. I immediately loved it though, and it became one of my three favourite cities of this trip, along with Jerusalem and Istanbul.

I arrived in the afternoon of the 7th day of my trip, coming from Antakya in Turkey. On the bus I met Richard, a young British doctor who was making a detour around Syria on a big trip that will lead him to Hong Kong and from there to Australia to live with his girlfriend. We shared a hotel room and made day trips from Aleppo together, and I'd run into him again in Hama and Damascus. Yesterday (27th May) I got a mail from him, he's now in Pakistan and on his way to Afghanistan for a one month job with a medical aid organisation - now THAT is traveling.

During my first evening in Aleppo I first explored the christian quarter, a beautiful area with a lot of small alleys and some nice churches. Aleppo has a large christian minority, mostly Armenians who fled here after the Turkish genocide in 1915. The Armenian cathedral has a monument for the 1.5 million victims.

The Souq

Next I walked through the souqs, first the one in the christian quarter and then the huge one in the old city. A souq is a covered street market, typically a maze of narrow alleys that have been arched over centuries ago, to shield people against the sun I assume. I'd see souqs in many cities but the ones in Aleppo were easily the most atmospheric and authentic one I've seen, thanks to the old architecture and the lack of tourists.

In the souq you can buy almost anything. Shops of the same kind are typically grouped together though, so you have areas with dozens of little shops that buy the same product, e.g. there's a jewellery area, a clothes area, a meat area, a spices area, and so on. By coincidence (I swear!) I ended up in the lingerie area on my very first excursion, and it was huge.

What a strange sight to behold on your first day in the arab world: alley after alley full of lingerie stalls, crowded with fully veiled women checking out the wares! In true souq fashion these were hanging around everywhere so I had to push my way through curtains of bras, panties and see-through nightgowns. In the West we think of the Arabic world as the most prudish place on earth, and that is very true, but we forget that this prudishness only exists in public life; in private life they actually have a very sensual culture, and it showed from the items on sale.

Since the souq is also the main route through the old city center, I walked through it many times during my stay in Aleppo, and I usually got lost in the maze. It's a very long but not so wide area though, so it was always easy enough to find an exit and then figure out where I was. The souq is always crowded until late at night, so getting through is a slow affair, and every minute you have to step aside to let one of the mini-vans drive through which is rather annoying. In the morning when things were quiet though - Aleppo only starts waking up at 10am.

The Great Mosque and the Citadel

Still on that first night I also visited the Great Mosque and checked out the Citadel. The Great Mosque dates from the 8th century, its minaret from 1090. To make this picture I had to lie flat on the ground to see the screen of my camera (how I wish I had one of those rotatable screens!) which was standing on the mini-tripod on the ground. That drew attention and sympathy from the locals who seemed to appreciate the effort :) The Citadel was closed of course but I got nice pictures of the massive entrance gates.
After this nightly photography session I finally went to bed after being awake for 40 hours. The next day I made a day trip to the Dead Cities with Richard, but I'll tell you about that later. The next day, March 9th, I spent entirely in Aleppo, visiting the Citadel in the morning.

The Citadel is on a rather high hill that dominates the town. The fortifications date from the 12th century and are largely intact, including the monumental gate buildings, but the buildings inside the fortifications (a very large area) are mostly ruined.
The Citadel was being visited by hordes of Syrian school kids, and Syrian kids are always very eager to talk to foreigners. One group kept following me around like they were my personal fan club. They took some 20 pictures of me, posing with me one by one; I've never felt so popular :) I hope they weren't supposed to be taking pictures for a school project about the Citadel because I'm afraid they used up the whole film on me. I also had a picture taken of me with the whole bunch, after that their teacher drove them off thankfully.
The main gate building is a castle in itself, and being so high it has many floors. On top is the throne room which has been beautifully restored. I spent an hour there trying to get good pictures in the dark, mostly because one curious group of Syrians after another came up to me to start a chat.

Ba`ath and Bath

In the evening Richard was going to a hammam, a Turkish bath house. It was something I wasn't going to do but I decided to come along. On our way to the hammam we passed the HQ of the Ba`ath Party, the party of the Syrian dictatorship (and also Saddam Hussein's party since he ruled its offspring in Iraq). I'd already seen this building from the Citadel and had a Syrian explain to me what it was, so I pointed it out to Richard, who said "oh cool let's check it out!", walked through the gate onto the building's front courtyard, waved to the armed guards while yelling "Salaam aleykum!" and walked casually on to the other gate. This is what they call British phlegma I think :) I followed him through but was laughing so hard I could hardly walk straight.
The hammam was a hilarious experience; picture me lying on the floor of a huge bathroom with a dome, wearing nothing but a towel around my waist. Then picture a fat Syrian with a huge hairy belly, also wearing nothing but a towel, washing me and rubbing me all over, from fingers to toes and almost everything in between. I was giggling all the time coz I'm so damn ticklish; Richard on the other hand was mostly screaming in pain. We were both really glad we didn't go alone because it was all pretty gay. Fun for once, but if I'm to do this again it'll have to be pretty ladies doing the rubbing. The bath house was a beautiful old Ottoman building, but I couldn't take any pics of course.

On the streets

Here are some more pictures, taken on the streets of Aleppo.

March 3rd (day 8): The Dead Cities

South West of Aleppo lie the so-called Dead Cities, a large number of ancient cities built in early christian times and abandoned in the 7th century for unknown reasons. They now provide a huge collection of ruins (including hundreds of churches) in the Syrian countryside, and you can roam around them freely. Richard and I set out in the morning of our first day in Syria to visit two of the most interesting ones, Al Bara and Serjilla. Thanks to the beautiful ruins, the idyllic countryside and the friendliness of the local people this became one of the best days of my journey.

Getting to the first Dead City, Al Bara, was quite a journey in itself. First we had to get a minibus from Aleppo to the town Al Ma`ara. Interestingly, this is the town where the Crucaders committed the worst of their many atrocities. In 1098 they conquered it, massacred the entire population of 20000, and then, being starved and not finding provisions in the town, they ate the bodies of the 'pagans'. "In Ma`ara our people cooked the adult pagans in boilers, pulled the children onto spits and ate them roasted", a crusader wrote. This bit of history still gets brought up regularly when muslims and christians argue about whose religion has caused the more evil.

From Ma`ara we had to take another minibus to the village Kafr Nabl. From there it was still 6km to Al Bara, but when we started walking we almost immediately got picked up by a local driving in that direction. This soon became a common occurrence in Syria, you really can't imagine a more friendly people.
The countryside in northern Syria is gorgeous. The land is all green and orange, and everywhere you look are waist high walls of carefully piled rocks surrounding the little fields; the work of centuries.

We were dropped off at the side of a long country road, headed into the fields towards where we saw some ruins, and just roamed around from there. Except for a few farmers working in their fields there was noone around.
The eye-catchers in Al Bara are two pyramid-shaped tombs. We'd read about them but couldn't find them anywhere, but after a lot of sign language conversation with some farmers I found out they were among another collection of ruins on a hill in the distance. I'm not sure if both places were part of Al Bara or if they were two different cities; doesn't matter much either.

At the first tomb were some Syrians. One of them was a student and after talking for a while, mostly in sign language, he wanted me to read something in his Arabic course book. Decyphering it letter by letter I managed to read "Belzhika", yay. He didn't find a way to explain what it was about, hopefully it wasn't about crusaders :) I lost Richard while searching for the second tomb. I found it and met a friendly Saudi Arabian and his Syrian friend who was showing him around the country; they gave me a ride back to the first tomb where Richard showed up after a while.
From Al Bara we got a ride to the junction with the road to Serjilla, but from there we still had to walk for over an hour although the sign at the junction said "Serjilla 2km". It was a nice walk though and we were accompanied most of the way by two funny local kids on bikes.
Serjilla was not a desolated place like Al Bara, there was a caretaker and we had to pay an entrance fee, though he knocked off half the price and offered us tea.
When we'd finished visiting the ruins we didn't feel like walking all the way back to the junction, but there was no car to take us. However a Syrian had just come driving through the ruins on a scooter (see last pic), and he agreed to take us on the back of his scooter one by one. That was one fun ride :) I agreed to pay him 50 pounds (about a euro) but only had a 100; he took it and drove off and sure enough 10 minutes later he came scootering back to give me my 50 change.

From the junction we could soon hitch a ride back to the village Kafr Nabl (my fourth hitched ride of the day!), and two mini bus rides later we were back in Aleppo.

March 5th (day 10): St. Simeon's

In 423, a Syrian hermit called Simeon built himself a pillar and started living on top of it, preaching about ascetism to followers who visited him and depending on them to bring him food. He'd live on a pillar for 36 years until his death in 459, moving to ever higher pillars - the last one was 18m high. Simeon became the most famous person of his time, and pilgrims came to Syria from every corner of the christian world to see him on his pillar.

After his death an enormous church was built around Simeon's pillar, and pilgrims kept coming to see it. Since many of them chipped off a piece to take home as a souvenir, the 18m high pillar was reduced to a little rock.
We hitchhiked back to the nearest town and were back in Aleppo in the early afternoon. Richard was going to stay another night there in the famous Baron Hotel, in the very room where Lawrence of Arabia used to stay. I took a bus to Hama where I'd stay the next two nights.

March 5th-7th (days 10-12): Hama

Hama is famous as the town where the previous president Assad crushed an islamist revolt against his regime in 1982. To pose an example, the town was bombed by planes and mostly reduced to rubble, and some 20000 inhabitants were massacred. That's the official number; some foreign organisations say there were more victims, while others say that the Syrian dictatorship may actually have exagerated the numbers to scare the rest of the population. This site has pictures that give an idea of the devastation, but is very propagandistic so don't trust it as a source.

After the events of 1982 Hama was quickly rebuilt so there are no traces of what happened. It is an attractive place with one very interesting feature: the norias in the river which flows through the town. Norias are gigantic wooden wheels that lift water from the river onto aquaducts. Hama has about a dozen of them, dating from the middle ages. They still work and the pressures between the wooden parts produce a continuous creaking sound that you can hear from far away. The largest one is an impressive 20m high, most are 12-15m.
I used Hama as a base to visit Apamea, and since the hotel was so great - I had a clean room with a double bed, satellite TV and a private bathroom for 5 - I stayed another night and also visited Krak des Chevaliers from there.

March 6th (day 11): Apamea

Apamea was founded by Seleucos, Alexander the Great's general, in 331 BC on a grassy plain above the Orontes valley. It is named after his wife, a Persian princess. It was an important city through Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times, but got plundered by the Persians in 540 and 612 (try being nice to them by naming your city after a Persian princess and this is what you get!) and declined further in islamic times. In 1157 an earthquake finally wiped it off the map.

In recent decades Belgian archeologists excavated the site and reconstructed the city's Roman cardo (colonnaded street), which is perfectly straight and an amazing 2km long. It's a fantastic sight to behold; walking through it from one end to the other takes half an hour and all the time you're surrounded by ancient columns of various kinds. I was almost all alone on this huge site and had one of the best days of my journey here.
Apamea was excavated by Belgian archeologists, and apparently they were very popular coz whenever I told a local I'm Belgian they got all excited and wanted to tell me all about one Jean Balti who I assume to have been the head of the expedition. They even showed me his house as if he was a local saint. Walking back through the colonnade I ran into an old Syrian with a pick-axe who apparently worked on the site. When I told him I'm a Belgian he pointed to his axe while saying "Jean Balti! Jean Balti!" and then he actually kissed me :)
Next to the colonnade lies the fortified village of Al Madiq on a hill that was once the citadel of Apamea. The hill was fortified in crusader times. When I'd finished wandering around the ruins I headed over there and got a ride up on the back of a scooter.
Inside the village I started looking for a way to get through to the city walls and have a look at the colonnade from there. I didn't find it but some local kids helped me out; I had to climb on some stairs to get on top of one of the fort's towers. Somehow I expected a 2km long colonnade to look spectacular from far away but it didn't. The village was interesting though. What caught my eye is that although the houses looked rather poor, they all had satellite dishes, but I'd see that everywhere in the middle east.

When I started walking around the village, I soon had all the local kids following me around; I was the event of the day apparently. Admittedly, it's very easy to get popular with Syrian kids when you have a digital camera; not only can you satisfy their cries of "soura! soura!" (photo! photo!) at no cost, you can also show them the pic on the camera's screen, and that is always a hit. It was the same in Palestine where the children are equally enthusiastic about foreigners, probably because just like in Syria there are not a whole lot of tourists.

March 7th (day 12): Krak des Chevaliers

In the mountains near the border with Lebanon lies the Krak des Chevaliers, the most famous of all crusader castles and probably the most impressive medieval castle in the world. It was built in the middle of the 12th century and would be one of the last strongholds of the crusaders. In 1271, after a long siege by Sultan Beybars, the remaining 200 knights (in a castle intended for 2000) agreed to depart in return for safe conduct, so the castle never really fell.

The Krak is actually a castle within a castle. It occupies an area of 30000 m2. On a clear day the Mediterranean, 30km to the west, can be seen from the high towers. The castle has been almost perfectly preserved. Thankfully it has not been prettified and touristified like so many other castles, and no balustrades have been placed to make it safe (except on the highest tower), so it still looks pretty much like it did 800 years ago.

When I arrived at the castle, I didn't go in but started walking around it and climbed the hill next to it to get a complete view. While waiting for the sun to break through so I could take a good picture, I got talking to a very friendly (and very gay) Syrian. He was the owner of the hotel I was standing next to, and it turned out he's actually a bit famous in Flanders since he was interviewed in a famous Flemish TV program about the crusades ("In the schaduw van het kruis"). I'm not surprised, he was a very colourful character.
I was the last visitor to leave the castle, so the minibus drivers didn't want to leave unless I paid 5 times the normal price. I refused and just sat down pretending to have plenty of time. In the end one agreed to drive me to Homs for the normal price, hoping to pick up other people along the way. After 15' I was still the only passenger though, so he stopped in the middle of nowhere and indicated he wanted to turn around and drive back. Actually he just wanted me to pay more of course, so we had a long fight (always funny to argue with someone when he speaks 5 words of English and I 5 words of Arabic). In the end I just left the van and didn't pay anything and continued on foot. I was at some 20km from Homs so I didn't know if I'd manage to get home, but in the next village I found out where the minibusses to Homs pass and before long I was on my way.

Since I'd stayed a second night in Hama after visiting Apamea instead of staying in Homs, I did the following route this day: Hama to Homs, Homs to the Krak, Krak to Homs, Homs to Hama. Back in Hama I had just enough time to pick up my backpack before taking the evening bus to Palmyra, which went via... Homs :) In Palmyra I found a hotel right away.

March 8th (day 13): Palmyra

Palmyra lies out in the eastern desert of Syria, 130km from Iraq. In the first centuries AD, it flourished under Roman rule as a trading post halfway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. Then in 267 the madly ambitious Queen Zenobia came to power. She claimed descent from Cleopatra and extended her power to the west, even taking control of Egypt. Her troops also tried to take Antioch, but then the Romans struck back and she was defeated in 272.

Today Palmyra is Syria's most famous attraction, and as far as I know it's the most extensive collection of Roman ruins there is. In the morning I first visited the Temple of Bel, which lies a bit apart from the rest of the ruins, and then walked through Palmyra`s main street.
In the early afternoon I went back to the village for some food and then took a taxi to the valley on the other side of Palmyra where the kings and nobles built their tower tombs. These towers are sober compared to the monuments in Palmyra itself but their solemnity is impressive and wandering between them added a lot of flavour to my day. I also had fun looking for the entrances of the ruined towers. Inside one of them I found the stairs (using my flashlight); upstairs I got a nice view on the valley.
I showed the tower tombs nearest Palmyra first but I actually had the taxi drop me off at the farthest point and then walked back to Palmyra through the valley and over the plain, a very nice walk. Back in Palmyra the afternoon sun had given the ruins an amazing golden colour (compare the thumbnails with those above).
Palmyra was great, but it was the first time in Syria that I was faced with tourism crap: men selling camel rides, boys selling postcards, etc. It was very little compared to what you get in Egypt and Petra but so far I'd only seen a Syria completely unspoiled by tourism and I'd loved it. A nice thing about Palmyra though is that most of the site is freely accessible, so a lot of locals go there for a stroll rather than to harass tourists.

One Syrian boy who was selling postcards and who can't have been more than 10 years old amazed me with his fluent English, we had a whole conversation. He must be so smart, what a shame that a kid like that is selling postcards instead of going to school.

When the sun set I picked up my luggage at the hotel, got a taxi to the bus station and took the evening bus to Damascus. Thus ended my first 6 days in Syria. I consider these to be the best part of my journey because I got to visit a fantastic site each day, usually with no other tourists around, and met a lot of amazingly friendly local people. Southern Jordan was almost as good though, so keep reading :)

           << Part 1: Turkey    -    Back to Index    -    Part 3: Southern Syria >>

Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!! is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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