Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 5

Southern Syria again

            << Part 4: Lebanon    -    Back to Index    -    Part 6: Amman to Israel >>


March 17th (day 22): Back in Damascus

After 6 days in Lebanon I arrived back in Damascus at 5pm and checked into the backpacker hotel right next to the one I'd stayed in before, just for variety. I'd stay in Damascus for three more nights, making day trips to Maalula and Bosra (see below) before moving on to Jordan.

During my stay in Syria I had mainly lived on falafel, falafel and more falafel (that being the only food without meat I could find), but after having enjoyed excellent food (mostly sandwiches with fish and fries) in Lebanon for a week I really didn't want to eat falafel again. I asked the hotel guys for help and they gave me the address of a little restaurant near the Al Merjeh square. It was a busy and dirty place, but I ordered lentil soup, rice and some dish of vegetables of which I forgot the name and it was excellent, so I returned there the next two days to have the exact same meal.

Another daily ritual during these last three evenings in Syria was listening to the call to prayer coming from the mosque near the hotel. I've heard this chant a hundred times during this trip and I usually hated it because most imams are horrible singers, but not this one: he sang with a very high (falsetto) voice, very slowly and emotionally (whereas many imams are obviously bored with it themselves and just rush through it), and I loved it. He always sang more than just the call to prayer, going on for some 20 minutes, and I'd just lie on my bed in my tiny room and enjoy the concert while resting. I wish I could get it on CD, it was that good.


March 18th (day 23): Maalula

Maalula is a village in the Anti-Lebanon mountains 30km north of Damascus. It houses several monasteries and its population is mostly christian. I read that it is also one of the few places where people still speak the ancient language Aramaic (the lingua franca of Jesus' time) but I didn't get to hear that. The main reason to visit though is that its a charming place where the houses are almost piled on top of each other against a cliff face - or so the Lonely Planet said. I arrived rather late (12:30) and found the village charming indeed but hardly more vertical than any other mountain village.
Behind one of the convents I entered a narrow cleft cut out of the rocks by a little stream. It went on for 200m or so and despite all the grafitti on the rock walls I thought it was pretty cool - but I hadn't been to Petra and Dana yet.
After exiting the cleft I continued along a path that brought me to the top of one of the rocks that surround the village.
After wandering around the top of the rock for a while, I thought I'd seen everything there's to see here since the LP didn't mention anything else, so I prepared to go back to the village and catch a ride back to Damascus. I decided to go down the rock on the other side though, and that turned out to be a most fortunate decision.

While climbing down I noticed a big rock that had broken off the next mountain. It was a cool sight so I took a picture of it and thought no more about it. A bit later I saw a family climb up to that rock though and since they didn't seem to be coming back, I figured there was something to see there. So later I climbed up there as well to check it out. I got under the big rock but there was noone there and everything seemed blocked by smaller rocks. I wondered where the family had gone to, until I suddenly saw an old Syrian appear through a small opening behind a rock. It's only thanks to him that I found it!
And now it turned out my day was just beginning: this small hidden opening was the entrance to a beautiful canyon! I was already very enthousiastic about this discovery and didn't even know yet that it went much further.
In the second picture above you can see a tiny figure on top of the rock in front; it was an old woman who lived in a cage up there or was at least spending her day there. She was the last person I saw, I didn't meet a single soul as I explored the rest of the canyon. It was an amazing walk; can you believe this place isn't even mentioned in travel guides? Unfortunately the sun had disappeared and it got rather dark, but perhaps that just added to the atmosphere.
There was a fork about halfway the canyon. I chose to continue on the higher side and that was the right choice because it went on a long way after that, always rising higher and higher. When I reached the end of the canyon I climbed out of it and got a superb view on the landscape beyond the mountain.
As you can see on the last picture I was at the end of the canyon but not anywhere near the top of the mountain yet. A bit to the right of that picture I started climbing up. It was a very fun climb; challenging but not impossible. At one point I had to leave my backpack behind to climb up a rock. I continued some way after that, but after a while decided I had to stop. It was already past 4pm and I didn't want to miss the last ride back to Damascus. It was also freezing cold up there and very windy; I was shivering hard.
I'd really like to go back there a bit earlier in the day and with better weather and try climbing all the way to the top. I actually considered spending an extra day in Syria to do just that, but decided against it because I liked traveling fast and seeing something new every day. It kept gnawing on me that I didn't make it to the top though, and it's the reason why on the very last day of this trip, eight weeks later in Thermessos in Turkey, when I discovered a climbable rock late in the day, I did push on all the way to the top.

Anyway, so I scrambled back down the mountain, found my backpack (not so easy since the whole mountain surface looked the same) and walked back down the canyon. Walking down the road back to the village, I saw this herd of sheep on the rocks next to the road. Apparently the caves in the rock served as stables. With ladders going up to some of the higher caves, it reminded me of the rock dwellings of the Indians in northern Argentina.
What a great day this had been! Exploring a beautiful place is even twice as much fun when you'd never heard about it and only discovered it by chance.


March 19th (day 24): Bosra

Bosra was already known in pharaonic times and in the bible. Later it was a leading city of the Nabateans (the Arabic tribe that founded Petra) and in 106 AD it became the capital of the Roman province of Arabia. During the early christian days it was the seat of an archbishop. Tradition has it that the young Mohammed came here regularly to talk religion with a monk before starting his career as a prophet. During Ottoman times Bosra fell into decline, and it is now little more than a rural village. However, this village is still scattered with ancient ruins, including a big Roman theater.

Bosra lies 150km south of Damascus, almost on the border with Jordan, so I wanted to make a stop here before heading to Jordan, but there is not a single hotel in the town. From a hotel guy in Damascus I got an address of a restaurant in Bosra run by a friend of his where I'd be allowed to stay the night, but in the end I decided I'd rather spend the extra few hours on a bus back to Damascus and sleep in a bed.

Getting to Bosra turned out to be quite hard because this was a Friday (the muslim holiday) and there is hardly any transport that day. After 45' of waiting I got on a minibus from Damascus to the Jordan border. I was dropped off in the border town Der'a, where I found the bus station completely deserted. I ended up renting a whole minibus by myself for the 40km ride to Bosra. Luckily, this was Syria, and renting a minibus and a driver for a 1 hour ride cost only 2.5 euro :) I didn't know if I was also gonna make it back to Damascus but at least I made it to Bosra.

Roman Theater / Arab fortress

I first headed for Bosra's main landmark, the 15000 seat Roman theater, which dates from the 2nd century and is the best-preserved Roman theater in the world. Unlike all other big theatres I visited (this was already the 5th) it was not built against a hill but from the ground up on a plain, which makes it that more impressive. Incredibly, this huge theater was turned into a fortress by the Arabs in the 11th century, which makes it even more special. The fortress resisted attacks by crusaders in 1146 and 1182, but was taken by the Mongols in 1261.

Since I'd had such a hard time finding transport I expected to find Bosra deserted, much like Apamea had been (cfr. part 2), but in front of the fortress I saw busloads of Syrian tourists. At the fortress gate I was assaulted by a legion of Syrian school kids who were coming out. In typical Syrian school kid fashion they all wanted to greet me personally and shake my hand, so I stood there for ten minutes shaking a 100 hands, not being able to squeeze through the narrow gate before they'd all come out.

The theater was not the most beautiful I've seen (that would be the one in Aspendos, cfr. part 1), but indeed very well preserved; not just the seating area like in other theaters but also the catacombs below through which the spectators reached their seats. Combined with the corridors of the fortress they formed a big dark maze; it was fun wandering around it.
Inside the theater a Syrian girl came up to me and asked "are you Belgian?" I asked how she had guessed but all I understood from her little English is that she could just see it on me. A very pleasant occasion on a trip during which I was asked at least 200 times whether I'm Dutch or German!

Around Bosra

Bosra doesn't have any other striking monuments, but as a whole it's a very interesting place. It is so littered with ancient ruins that you can hardly make out the modern town between them, especially as the new buildings in the ancient town use stones taken from the ruins. Since these stones are all black basalt, ancient Bosra has a very distinctive colour, just like Apamea with all its white granite and Palmyra with its yellow sandstone.
The Omar Mosque, built in the 8th century with material taken from ancient buildings, was locked, but the warden appeared and after some negotiating he went off to get the key. He was also going to take the key of the 15th century Mameluk bath house opposite the mosque, but while he was gone I already climbed over the wall.
At the far end of Bosra's colonnaded street stands the Nabatean gate, built before the Roman conquest.
There were many more ruins - e.g. of a cathedral and a palace - but it's the totality of the site that impressed rather than the individual buildings.

When I'd finished visiting the city I asked around for a bus to Damascus and eventually found one, but I had to wait for two hours. As I was strolling around I met a young guy who was studying English in Damascus. He was kind of sticking to me and in any other country I'd suspect he was a tourist leech, but this is Syria and sure enough he just wanted to practice his English. So I talked about Syrian culture with him and it was pretty interesting. What I found funny is that he was planning to emigrate to the USA and seemed to have no clue that his country is kind of having a problem with the US; I guess that with all the media controlled by the state, people here are not even aware of that.


March 20th (day 25): Damascus to Amman

On my last day in Syria I went to the center of Damascus again and visited the Azem palace, but I already described that in the Damascus chapter in part 3. At 3pm I got on a bus to Amman where I arrived at 7pm.


Epilogue: About Syria

I'll finish this part with some general impressions about Syria.

Politics

Because of the dictatorship of the Assads (Hafez Assad from 1971 until his death in 2000, since then his son Bashar) and their Baath party, Syria is a country with a very bad reputation. I'd expected it to be a stalinist police state with Big Brother like portraits of the leader everywhere, like Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but found it to be less so than I thought.

There are many portraits of both Assads on the streets, but not nearly as many as there were in Iraq. They're also just plain portraits, not heroic scenes.
The army and the police don't have much of a presence; I hardly ever encountered either, certainly much less than in Egypt for example. I was never stopped at checkpoints except when going to the Golan. Instead, when I took a bus I had to fill in my passport information on a paper that was passed around (but it was never verified) and hotels also collected that information (but that's the case in all countries I went to). It's a relatively unobtrusive system of state control.

Since Bashar came to power, the government has become a bit more relaxed, allowing internet for example which has resulted in cybercafes opening everywhere. The state blocks certain domains, including yahoo.com and hotmail.com for some reason, but every single PC I've used, be it in a cybercafe or a hotel, had programs installed to circumvent those restrictions. So people are very openly breaking that government rule, which I think is significant.

Economy

Syria's economic situation seemed much less bad than I expected it to be. Almost everyone seems to be selling stuff on the streets or has a little shop to make some extra income, which indicates a lack of jobs, but I didn't see real poverty. Income seems to be rather equally distributed. There is a lot of construction activity going on, which shows there's some life in the economy. The roads were generally okay and the highway was in excellent condition. Overall, the Syrian economy seems to be on the same level as that of Egypt, which is an ally of the USA, so being on the USA's list of evil countries doesn't seem to be hurting Syria that much.

People

The Syrians are the friendliest people I've ever met. Everyone who's been to Syria says the same, so this is not just a personal impression. People are helpful and genuinely interested in foreigners. People keep coming up to you for a chat; after a while it can become a test of patience. Where there is no public transport, hitchhiking is a snap, especially in the north: if the first car doesn't stop then the second or the third will. The children are especially friendly, and if you take a picture of them you're their hero. What surprised me was that teenage guys are just as open and friendly as anyone else; I sort of expected them to have a macho attitude.

All this genuine friendliness is probably due to the lack of tourism; in many ways Syria is 'unspoiled' by it. If ever Syria becomes a popular tourist destination, as it should with all its historical sites, I'm sure that any locals you meet on those sites will be annoying tourist hasslers, just like in Egypt. I already encountered a little of that in Palmyra and Damascus, but everywhere else meeting Syrians was an almost idyllic experience.

One thing partly ruined this impression though: when I realised that it's not the same for female travelers. Syria is still an isolated islamic country, and I wouldn't recommend females to travel there alone; sexual harassment is to be expected. The German girl I met in Beirut (but who was living in Syria) told me that when she goes outside of Damascus, to places where people don't see foreigners often (so exactly the places where I liked people the most) she was often harassed by men, some of whom just assumed she was a prostitute though she doesn't look anything like one. This is just a nasty aspect of islamic culture and not specific to Syria. The same goes for hospitality to strangers which is an islamic and not just a Syrian virtue, but that virtue can really shine in Syria because it's not flooded by tourists yet.


            << Part 4: Lebanon    -    Back to Index    -    Part 6: Amman to Israel >>






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!!....it 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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