Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Explore ! !

Surprisingly, the company whose trip I went on - Explore - have added a link from its website to this blog.  It has included it in its section entitled "Emerging Destinations" - even though Lebanon & Syria isn't in its list of such destinations !

Perhaps I'll be given an even bigger discount off my future trips with the company ! ! !

At the end of February I'm off to Bangladesh, India & Bhutan with this company on its "Inside the Hidden Kingdom" trip.  I'll try to do another blog covering this trip - the initial work is still work in progress but it will eventually be  here.

As I've put elsewhere, please feel free to leave a comment / feedback here - if nothing else, it shows that I'm not talking to myself.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Photographs 2

I've now finished playing with my snaps and they are now available here .

They are split across several albums as there were too many to be accommodated in one !

A confession !  I've added some photos from my last visit to Syria to fill gaps in those I took this time - the additional ones are usually the ones with blue sky !

Monday, 3 January 2011

Random Terminal Thoughts and Impressions

Just a few random thoughts and impressions from the trip :

  • Snow in the Chauff mountains and the hostel in which we stayed (Australia)
  • Byblos's town & harbour's character & atmosphere
  • Street food : fresh & tasty - a round pitta bread (warm from the cooking stone) filled with meat carved straight off the kebab, a bit of salad and some chips rolled and folded into an overgrown sausage roll with mayonnaise or gravy oozing from the bottom.  All for 20p each - especially good with orange juice squeezed as you watch.
  • As ever, the joy of sitting and watching the population flow past. 
  • The incongruity of a young girl in a plain fully modest clothing covering almost everything flashing trim ankles supported by Jimmy Choo high heels.
  • The privilege of seeing Baalbeck with nobody else there and a covering of snow.
  • The chaotic organisation / logic of the local traffic - so many near misses but few actual collisions : we didn't see one in two weeks.
  • The ant heap bustle of the bazaar and souks - ranging from the grand vaulted ceiling of the main thoroughfare of Damascus's bazaar peppered with bullet holes to the narrow alleyways just wide enough for two donkeys to pass.  Through small doorways the courtyards of large khans (caravansaries) that hosted merchants plying their trade along the fabled Silk Road.
  • Snow on the oranges still on the trees
  • The melancholic calls to prayers by the Muezzin - always moving but I wish that they would all synchronise their watches instead of different mosques starting at different times : the resultant competition is cacophoconic !

My next trip is now two months away and, as soon as I arrive home, I must attempt to obtain the two necessary visas.  Both are for countries that are notorious for the inefficiency of their Embassy’s visas sections : Bangladesh and India.  Luckily, there is a Bangladesh Assistant High Commissioner in based Birmingham who say they will issue a visa within five days - without having to resort to the perils of the Post Office.

The Indian visa is made more complicated in that they have now 'out-sourced' the process to a private company and that I need a visa specially endorsed for multiple visits - they now only issue single entry visas with which you are not allowed to re-enter within six months.  To follow this visit, go to my main site, see right hand column.

Across the Desert to Palmyra

Doura Europos
Christmas Day started over breakfast with a few desultory wishes of "Happy Christmas" but not much other evidence of the season of good cheer - but that was, ostensibly, one of the reasons I came on this trip :Bah Humbug !

We drove South to what been the caravan city and great Greco-Roman fortress at Dura Euopos.  During a decisive battle against the Sassanians, the town’s inhabitants piled up sand against the Western walls as a defence against the under-mining of the walls.  Although the battle was lost, the paintings were beautifully preserved and we had seen some in the National Museum - it was here that the synagogue in the museum had been found buried.  Apart from the walls there was little left of this large site - what it did offer was the opportunity to pick over the thousands upon thousands of pottery shards littering the site.  The high vantage point of the walls looming over the Euphrates River gave us an eagle's view of the valley floor and its extensive agriculture - neat little fields bounded by small bunds to contain the water, the regular lines left by the plough, the background rhythmical thump of a pump raising water from the papyrus lined river and small figures walking up & down their fields hand broadcasting seeds or fertiliser.

We then moved on to the royal city state of Mari – once a great trading centre and important for the production of tin, an essential ingredient of bronze.  However, hosted four civilisations over the millenia, there is little there bar some sketchy ruins and a large cover excavation of a palace.  These archaeologists must have vivid imaginations to reconstruct detail of building design & use and everyday life from the barest fragments, shards and degraded walls.  Today my imagination finally failed me and I could see any of the lives and peoples being described.

From Mari, we continue our journey into the one of the towns at the heart of the Syrian Desert - Palmyra - "Bride of the Desert"-  one of the most famous caravan cities in the world.   The bankers of this highly developed oasis financed the camel convoys moving between the East and West, and Palmyra grew so rich that, under the leadership of Queen Zenobia, it became a challenge to Rome itself.   Roman legions razed the city walls in 271AD and carried the spirited lady off to Italy in golden chains.   Its former glory can still be seen in the colonnades, triumphal arches, monuments and temples dyed pink by time and sun (or more mundanely, from the rusting iron oxide in the rock  !).


Tuesday, 28 December 2010

. . .and back to the UK

. . . and so we say farewell to the exotic, interesting and flavoursome Levant & my travelling companions and head back to the UK with its late December weather - only marginally worse than we had experienced over the past couple of weeks.

At check-in a couple of our party decided to pay for an up-grade to Business Class - even with two for the price of one - it was an expensive choice.  It was a questionable decision in retrospect when we found that the plane was more than half empty and we all had a row of three seats to ourselves.

The journey back home to Brum from Heathrow was as long as the journey from Damascus - the wonder of British public transport.

Now I have to quickly sort out the various visas that I require by late February when I'm off to Bangladesh, India, Sikkim and Bhutan.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Palmyra and drive to Damascus

Antipodean Hijab
OMG - whatever possessed me ?  Up at 0500 to walk down to the ruins to see them as the sun rose.  At least I had the warm Santa hat to keep my head warm, as the temperature was early-morning made worse by a cutting wind.  There were seven of in total who probably needed our collective bumps read to volunteer to sit on cold stone for 45 minutes waiting for light - in retrospect, it was quite a primitive ritual - but we didn't have anybody appropriate to sacrifice.  The darkness gradually gave way to shade of grey until the colours gradually started too leach back into the ruins suffused with pink when the sun, at long last made an appearance.  The antipodean hijab made its final appearance this morning !

After returning to the hotel just in time for breakfast, we returned to the site to spend the morning exploring.   Looking down over Palmyra, colonnaded streets draw the eye towards the impressive monumental arch and onwards to the great enclosure and the white limestone Temple of Bel, built around AD32.   With many walls missing, the lines of Corinthian columns and tetra pylons link together like the bare bones of a skeleton.   The barren desolation surrounding the city is broken on one side by the palm oasis of Ain Eafa Spring, the main water source for the 200,000 inhabitants who lived in Palmyra at the pinnacle of its economic power in the 3rd century AD and now the only date oasis in Syria.

Just down the road were a number of tombs - a number were tall towers and one was subterranean.  Both had held a number of sarcophagus in a stack system like a filing cabinet.  The underground version had the remains of a number of wall paintings - one describing the Achilles story - that must have been stunning when in their vibrant prime.

Back in town for a brief lunch stop and took the opportunity to visit its small museum.  On reflection we wished that we had more time to inspect its contents : many of the fine heads that had been 'rescued' from the tombs and lots of exquisite little bits & bobs.

This afternoon returned, through the stark Syrian desert to Damascus, for a short stop at the Damascus Cafe and a photo stop at a Damascus to Baghdad road sign, for our last night in Syria.

There were 5/6 of us that had been in both Lebanon & Syria, had got on well and spent some good times together - we went out together (with a couple that joined us the previous week) to celebrate our experiences and wish bon voyage to the three that still had another week to go exploring Jordan.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Seasonal Greetings

A happy Christmas to all my readers.

To prove that I'm not talking to myself, please either become a 'follower', leave a comment or e'mail me.

Towards Mesopotania

Moving east, we travelled through the arid, barren desert with short stops en route to visit Euphrates Dam and Lake Assad. The former of rubble encased in concrete built by the Russians in a 'S' design which they had perfected during the Second World War.  The lake is Syria’s largest lake with a maximum capacity of 2.8 cubic miles with a maximum surface area of 240 sq miles.  Leading from it is a vast network of canals which irrigate lands on both sides of the Euphrates. In addition, the lake provides drinking water for the Aleppo and supports a fishing industry  Unfortunately, when we arrived there was thick fog and we could barely see the water from the cafe at its edge.

Euphraties River
After a short drive we came upon the imposing walls and bastion towers of the pilgrimage town, Rasafa.   The large site and bounded by an almost continuous wall - within the site were the remains of just a couple of buildings - a basilica, a palace and a couple of water systems - but the ground look like the Western Front must have during World War I, hundred of craters where the locals had dug to find coins to sell the tourists.  It was here that Sergius, a Christian commander in the Roman Imperial Guard, was horribly martyred after refusing to offer sacrifices to the Roman god Jupiter.  He was marched through the streets in a woman's dress, scourged severely, led to Rasapha on foot with boards nailed to his feet and, eventually beheaded.    Later he became the patron Saint of Christians in the Roman Army and among local desert nomads. 

Further on we visited Halabiye on the banks of the Euphraties River,  It was largely derelict but your could just about make out its shape and there only a couple of buildings left above ground.  Its function was as a border defence and, when successive invasions moved the Empire’s border, the town was largely abandoned.  Now the stone’s glitter has dulled but the site remains impressively intact.

Both Rasafa and Halabiye were a frontier fortresses constructed from shimmering white gypsum, a strange and frightening vision for invading forces. Today, some of the blocks that retained some of their original dressed surface looked as if they were made of ice - opaque with lots of cracks & fissures.

The road continued down the side of the wide river flood plain and it was bounded on one side by cliffs cut into former sand dunes by the annual flood water.  Since the dam was built 35 years ago, the annual inundation does not happen.  This, like the one of the Nile, used to bring nutrient washed down from Turkey's Annotolian mountains - without the flood nutrients are leaving the soil leaving salts that are running the solid.  The farmers flood and drain their fields five times but this, evidently, is only 50% effective.

Armenian Church
We stopped for the night at Deir ex-Zor on the banks of the fabled Euphrates River  It was a cotton town but is now Syria's oil capital.  Next to the hotel was the town’s Armenian Church which contained a haunting memorial to the 1915 genocide . In the heart of the Syrian desert the town was a great killing center where many thousands of Armenian refugees were forced by the Turks onto death marches during the Armenian Genocide. There were many harrowing pictures of the event when men, women & children died on death marches or in concentration camps - the stated aim was to wipe out the Armenian people.  One book on display was entitled "The First Genocide" - unfortunately it wasn't the last and my mind was taken back to my visit to Cambodia a couple of years ago.  If I ever go to Rwanda, I think I may well skip the memorial there - it would be just another reminder that man doesn't learn lessons easily !

Bridge to Mesopotamia
After our evening meal, we walked across the suspension bridge built in the 1930s across the Euphrates River and entered the ancient land of the two rivers (the other being the Tigris further West) - the fabled Mesopotamia.


Revisiting Aleppo with its Citadel, Souk and old Armenian Quarter was one of the many attractions which tempted me to book this tour to revisit the 'best' bits of Syria

On the trading routes with Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Aleppo has grown and flourished since the third millennium BC.   Following its Greco-Roman plan, the vaulted bazaar winds through an amazing 15km of passages with beautiful adjacent caravanserai or khans.   A particularly fine example is the Khan al-Wazir whose archway is formed of elegant traditional black and white alternate bands of stone. 

This morning most of the group drove to the monastery of St Simeon, where a strange mystic and holy man spent 42 years of his life preaching from the top of a column, advising emperors and commoners to mend their ways.   After his death, a beautiful church was built around the sacred column.   However, we had spent a long time there on my previous visit and I decided to spend more time exploring the town.

After wandering around the new town for a while in search of one of the town's scarce ATMs, I headed into the souk to wander aimlessly through some of the small alleyways - with no real objective, it was good just the saunter through the routine daily life of the locals as the purchased their needs. 

Meeting up with the others on their return from the monastery, we had the opportunity to explore the mighty Citadel, whose awesome walls dominate the highest point of the city and resisted many fierce attacks.   Surrounding the citadel is a moat and a steep bank of stones around the base, prevent the enemy from sustaining any direct hold on the bottom of the walls designed to 40 rectangular towers crown the battlements.  Inside is a mix of a low ruins and a few complete buildings - probably the most impressive was the palace in which there was a large reception room that had been restored to show part of its former glory.  It was a large space but with only a few pillars obstructing eye lines, the ceiling and walls were richly decorated with wood panelling and large glass lanterns dropped from the ceiling.  The lights in the lanterns were switched on especially for us and their soft glow, together with sun light through the small stained glass windows, gave an impression of what it must have been in its prime.

We were told the story of the Aleppo Trojan sheep - when the Citadel was taken by men donning sheep skins to disguise themselves as animals as they climbed the glacis slope - chewing stale bread as a convincer as sheep are always chewing the cud - before scaling the wall and opening the gates.  During our visit there were hundreds of schools kids there who used us as an ideal opportunity to practice their development English.  When some said Salaam Alike to a little boy he was stunned into silence and rushed off to the teacher and it was clear from what he said to her, even if it was in Arabic, that he was gabbed-smacked that  one of the strange foreigners had said 'Hello' to him in his own language.

 On leaving the Citadel, the more primeval urge for food took over and we started the search for food.   We found a small shop that sold what had become our staple lunch over past days.  A fresh flat / pita bread wrapped around a filling of your choice - the common dominators were a small amount of salad & pickle, a sauce/gravy and the filling of your choice - vegetarian or carnivore : mine was chicken straight off the rotating kebab.  These kebabs are similar to the ones in the UK seen in all chippies but differ in that they don't hang around for days and are totally consumed within a couple of days.  To get served you elbowed your way into the shop's packed throng, ordered your choice from the cashier, who gave you your order written slip on a small slip of paper - the major task was then to squirm further into the crowd to the counter where your exchanged the paper for freshly prepared delicious food.  Like fish & chips, it tastes best eaten directly from the paper on the street.

One of many tourist places of pilgrimage in Aleppo is Barons Hotel - in its time it was one of the city's prime hotels and accommodated such names as T E Lawrence and Agatha Christie.  Its walls are still adorned with posters proclaiming the virtues of the train journey from Europe on the Orient Express and Taurus Express, new piston engine KLM aircraft and BOAC's fledging intercontinental routes.  It is has now suffered from the ravages of time and you really have to exercise your imagination to see its former glory.  We were taken on an unofficial tour by the porter to see Lawrence's room (twin beds, large bathroom and imposing heavy furniture) but were unable to see Ms Christie's room as it was occupied.  In the high ceilinged room with damp stained walls, we sat in well used deep armchairs drinking Turkish beer (they had no other) and watched a parade of other tourists come in to pay homage.  So came for a quick look at Lawrence's unpaid bill (framed in a small bookcase with a few other bits of memorabilia), others sat with us to absorb what had been.

Dinner was a less stressful affair tonight in another restaurant close to the hotel - good food with live music in the background.  One of our number, a musician, was enthralled by the lute music and then almost when into a trance when he started to play the violin at our table.

Some went straight to bed but four of us went for a wander to give the food time to settle and to do some shopping: two get food for tomorrow's picnic (I was happy to pay for the one provided by the local guide) and another for money - or to be exact, an ATM.  All was going well until we saw a clothing shop whose goods were spilling on to the pavement.  On a detached pair of legs was a set of indescribable leggings.  They were made of some sort of furry nylon and came in a range of garish colours in horizontal stripes.  Somewhere vaguely Tigerish and another was remisent of Dennis the Menace -others were beyond description.   I've tried a number of approaches to obtain a photo of these being modelled by those who made the purchases but, in either modesty or embarrassment, I have been rebuffed.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Hello to Joan Weatley of Sydney

The local guide's basic explanation of the history and workings of the Syrian sites we visit is OK but my understanding has been greatly increased by reading a book brought along by one of our travelling companions. It has been very useful to many of us in providing a detailed insight into many of the other sites we visited.

So many thanks to Kathryn's Mother : Joan Wheatley of Sydney.

. . . and thanks for reading my ramblings !

To Aleppo via Saladin’s castle, Hama and Apamea

This morning we supposed to be joined by another three of the 13 that were supposed to have joined us in Damascus but they had decided that they wanted to visit Krak de Chevalier first, so we- should see them tonight in Aleppo !

We drove out of town into the mountains and were told that they had once been covered in trees but that gradually they had given away to citrus orchards - Syria does not export any of its harvest but consumes it all internally - and very tasty they are too.  The Government has now banned all felling of "natural trees" (or local guides description) and has banned barBQs because of the fire risk - there appeared to be some new planting to restore the original ecosystem.

The dramatically located Citadel of Salah Ed-Din was our first stop - evidently it is referred to one of the most romantic of the Crusader castles.  Its  strategic position goes back in history to the Phoenicians who controlled this site in the 1st Millennium BC, and were still holding it when Alexander the Great arrived in 333 BC. It fell in the hands of the Crusaders at around the beginning of the 12th century. In 1188 Saladin succeeded in occupying it and it stayed in Muslim hands from Saladin to Baibars to Qalaun.

One of the most magnificent features of this fortress is the 28m deep ditch, which was cut into living rock probably by the Byzantines (it might have been completed by the crusaders) - the rock was reused as construction material. This ditch, which runs 156 meters along the east side, is 14 to 20 meters wide and has a lonely 28-meter high needle to support the drawbridge.  The top of the pinnacle was made to be destroyed if attacked so that besiegers could not span the gap with beams.  Despite it being almost impregnable, it was not the castle’s main entrance.

The larger main entrance castle is through on the south side of the fortress. On the right of the entrance is a tower which is a crusader bastion. There is a cistern for water storage and some stables just next to a massive keep that overlooks the ditch. This keep has walls of 5m thick and it covers an area of nearly 24 sq meters.  As for the Arab additions to the fortress they include a mosque, which dates back to Sultan Qalaun and a palace, which includes baths with courtyards and iwans.

Despite being less known than Krak de Chevalier, its footprint is larger and it sits in a much more impregnable position - it was taken only because that when it was attacked, via a breach caused by a mine in the NW curtain wall , there were not enough people to defend it and an internal ditch was unfinished.  If the external wall were complete, it would easily compete with Krak as the most imposing castle.

Heading into the Ghab depression, one of Syria’s most fertile areas, irrigated by the Orontes River, we visited the  great city of Apamea, founded here in the 2nd Century BC by Seleucus I.  

This was a martial town whose intellectual twin was on the coast at Antioch.  The town housed a vast stud of 30,000 mares and 300 stallions and the Seleucids also kept 600 elephants after Hannibal trained them in the art of elephant combat.  Other distinguished visitors to this crossroad city were Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, after the campaigns against the Armenians.

It was here that we completed our metrological set with fog shrouding the long column of columns (straight, fluted and spiral) - the columns were really the only recognisable remains of  town that once covered over 4 sq kilometres.  They lined a 2k long street lined with shops that led in one direction to Damascus and Northwards to Antioch.  The only recognisable remains were those of the public toilets - two rows of people facing each other with no privacy and runnels of fresh water taking away their deposits.

The damp fog again brought out the antipodeans hijab !

Next we visited Hama, famous for its 13th century wooden waterwheels, many of which are still used today to irrigate surrounding farmland.  There are a number of wheels up to ones as high as a three story house.  They revolve stately, powered by the river, lifting water up to little aqueducts taking the liquid off to irrigate the fields.  The wooden axles of the wheels sit on wooden bearings, so one of the enduring impressions of these gentle dripping wheels from my last visit was of the noise - a constant squeal which changes pitch as the wood on wood rotation sticks and suddenly releases.  Unfortunately, the river was too low to operate the wheels, so we missed both the movement and sound effects.

From there we travelled to Aleppo along the highway that was dark by now - after the fog lifted we were treated to a full Moon low on the horizon as a backdrop to the constant wizz of roadside shops and workshops each with a garish selection of illumination.

Our hotel was in the Armenian quarter - the coach stopped in a thronging shopping street and we disembarked into the throng. Our bags were loaded onto a minivan and we set  off on foot, through the shoppers -  diving through a narrow archway into a small alleyway, we passed a number of small mysterious doorways - who knows what was behind them.  Suddenly,- we ducked into one and found ourselves in a little courtyard - our hotel for two nights.  The rooms were around the edge some looking down on tables & chairs and a little raised alcove with soft furnishings on which we could lounge like Pashas holding court.

And our adventures continue with a BANG !  We had gone to eat at a local restaurant and got as far as negotiating the menu with no prices and were starting on our beers, when there was a muted wooof, a wave of heat and a soft orange glow.  I really only took real notice when people sitting opposite started to move at a rate of knots.  What they could see over my shoulder was, through a hatch in the wall, was a ball of flame enveloping the kitchen.  Evidently, the gas supply to an oven had ruptured and ignited - luckily nobody in the kitchen suffered anything but scorching and one of our number a bruised hand as they had jumped away.  So, we sat down to continue our conviality until smoke started wafting along the ceiling prompting staff to rush up stairs with extinguishers.  At this point we took the hint and headed for another venue.

To Latakia via Krak des Chevaliers and Ugarit

A morning’s drive took us Northwards out of Damascus with the Anti-Lebanon mountains just to our left.  Although the land through which we passed had once been the 'orchards' of Damascus, it was now, unfortunately, a typical urban ribbon development of car showrooms, light industry, offices and small eateries - only the occasional olive grove remained of the original cultivation.

Today's highlight - at least for me- was the formidable Krak des Chevaliers – the best preserved Crusader castle in the Middle East.   It is a castle of a boy's (and many men's) dreams perched brutally on top of high cliffs, with layers of high thick walls, portcullis without number, murder holes, hidden slits for archers, round & square towers and dark dank passages.

With its dramatic setting atop Jebel Khalil, it was the guardian of the strategically important gap through the mountains - one of the Crusaders' principal supply routes.  The impregnable turrets and towers stand as a defiant reminder of the holy crusades against the forces of Islam by Christian knights from northern Europe, who established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1100-1290).   A history that is coming back to haunt us with many seeing the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as modern crusades - driven by petrochemicals rather than religion.  The negative West -v- East or Christian -v- Muslim aspect of this, reinforced by Bush Snr's description of the first Gulf war as being a 'crusade' is now being fuelled by many Islamic extremists in their recruitment of new recruits.  The term 'crusader' has now morphed in many extreme perceptions to a very negative term.

After visiting this imposing castle we travelled along the coastal road to Ugarit or Ras Shamra, mentioned in texts from the 14th century BC found at Mari on the Euphrates.   A large number of engraved terracotta tablets were recovered from the Palace area - we had seen many of these in the National Museum.  They had been inscribed in the Ugarit alphabet of 30 cuneiform letters - we were told that this was the world's first alphabet but there is also an argument that, like many inventions, this happen at similar times in several locations.  The ruins of the city emphasised the level of local social and architectural sophistication during the Bronze Age when compared with that in Britain at the same time.

We were there just as the sunset and, although this cast soft shadows, there was a keen cold wind cutting across the site and through our coverings.  Some colonials from warmer climes were so dressed up with layers that all you could see of them was a narrow eye strip - probably less exposure than in a hijab.

Our overnight stop was in Syria’s main port - Latakia, named by the Greek leader Seleucus I after his wife.  Befitting a commercial port, our hotel was adequate and in a rather run down residential / student area with a lack of a great choice of food outlets.  We found a small bakery not far from the hotel, that had part cooked pasties and pizzas.  You pointed to what you waned - the young couple running it had limited English, and they put it back into the pizza oven to warm up.  With a can of pear juice, the mini-pizza + 2 pasties I consumed came to less than a £1.  A couple of doors away there was even a patisserie, so something sweet, chocolaty and sticky was taken back to the hotel foyer to be taken with a glass of black tea.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010


Today was spent reacquainting myself with this ancient and intriguing city, steeped in fascinating history.   It has sat for many hundred of years at one of the world's major crossroads.  To the East is Afghanistan and through there the Silk Route and the mysteries of the far Orient.  To the South is the cradle of some major religions and, of course, ancient Egypt.  To the East, by sea, and North by land are the relative now civilisations of Europe
Today, whilst lots of its history is evident or just below the surface, it is a thriving and bustling capital city of 5 million.

Our hotel was, whilst close to a massive 8 lane flyover, within 15 minute of the older parts of town.  It was slightly faded but the room was large and had a balcony.  By this stage in the journey the issue of laundry was looming large in many people's minds.  I was ambushed by the floor factotum who whisked my few bits off me.  Others were harder and declined his services, preferring to take their plastic carrier bags of dirty unmentionables to the laundry around the corner.  However, as they trooped in they met the factotum leaving having deposited mine !  Mine was delivered to my room within a couple of hours and there was the opportunity for the slightly damp bits to dry on the radiator - the external laundry came back the next afternoon without as much time for the final dry.

We walked down to the National Museum to find that it was undergoing a major refurbishment - this made for a much shorter visit than last time with more limited time looking at interminable glass cases.  It was disappointing that the synagogue that had been dug out of the sand was closed for restoration - the sand had preserved its colourful interior and it had been a truly amazing place of vivid colours and images.  Instead, there was an opulent interior of a reception room from a rich Damascus house - quite dim but full of inlaid furniture.

. . . and so to yet another highlight, the Hammadiyeh bazaar.  A wide barrel vaulted thoroughfare lined with a selection of well lit shops selling mostly clothing but with the occasional sweet and ice cream shop.  Off each side will alley ways that diminished in size the further them went from the main thoroughfare.  The tiers of the buildings gradually came in towards each other until there was often only a narrow slit of sky visible.  This must have been what Medieval cities in England must have been like - but without the street being an open sewer and night soil being emptied from windows on to those walking below.

I skipped the visit to Saladin's Tomb - it wasn't that impressive the first time I saw it but it was notable for him having two coffins : one in which he was deposited and one a gift from the Kaiser when he didn't feel the original was impressive enough for one of the Arab world's major heroes.

Ommayad Mosque
Across the way was the Ommayad Mosque - one of the World's oldest and largest.  The only hurdle here was that all the girls had to don properly demure garb borrowed from the authorities - no matter that they were already fully covered.  The mosque is massive and has a large marble covered courtyard that was very cold on our stocking feet - it must have been terrible in the recent snow.  Within the courtyard was a former treasury on stilts with a very small & secure door and a central fountain for the obligatory ablutions before prayer.  The other element was the equally big prayer hall - its floor was covered with a deep red carpet into which you could curl your toes.  Its pattern set out individual prayer area for each worshiper - where possible they are supposed to pray shoulder to shoulder with their companions.  To the rear of the hall was a separate area set aside for the women - not so much as a sign of inferiority but because it was thought that the mosque should be a solemn place of worship, not one for flirting with the opposite sex.  Apart from the slim columns supporting the roof the interior was clear with the only blemish being the tomb of St John the Baptist's head - or at least one of them.  A number are claimed around the world but this is the one to which the Pope came to pray.

We reverted to our favourite alley side eatery for lunch before returning to the hotel via the back alleys - the one that stuck in my mind was quite industrial with stoves, riding saddles and halters for sale but also fish and fruit

I met up with the others as they walked to a restaurant located in the courtyard of a large old house.

One of the unexpected things that struck me was how close the Golan Heights are to the city.  They loom with in a few miles - well within artillery range- it's easy to see why the Syrians were so jumpy when the Israelis took control of them

Monday, 20 December 2010

Into Syria and on to Damascus

Into Syria and drive to Damascus
Today we finally left those of the group that had just come to explore the Lebanon. The original plan was to say goodbye to them yesterday evening as their flight was at silly o'clock in the morning - well before we were scheduled to emerge for breakfast. However, there they were in the breakfast room where they had been for several hours - their flight to London had been cancelled because it was buried under a mountain of snow.

So we said goodbye to them again as we headed to Syria and its capitol Damascus. I'd visited Syria in 2008 as a part of my trip from London to Aqaba - mainly by train through Europe & Turkey and by road through Syria & Jordan. I was looking forward to revisiting Aleppo and Krak de Chevalier and to visiting Palmyra for the first time.
Roman Arch in Bazaar

Damascus is said to one of Islam’s great cities, a thriving modern metropolis that is filled with a myriad of mosques, bazaars and captivating back streets. The conservatism of the desert and of the Islamic faith have helped to preserve a sense of historic continuity in a city that during the 7th and 8th centuries was the centre of the Islamic world, and even today there are many memorials to the golden ages of Saladin and the Ottoman Turks.

We retraced our route through the Bekka Valley to the Lebanese border post where we had to disembark to show our face to the Emigration official and then through no-man's land, past a couple of miles of truck waiting to be processed into the Lebanon, to face the Syrian formalities. To our surprise, we didn't even have to get off the bus - the local guide took our passports and had them stamped - visa and all ! This rather upset our colonial cousins travelling with us who had paid good dollars (Aus, Canadian & US) for personal visas, only to be included on our free group visa !

Once in the city and checked into our hotel, we set off to explore the souk and old town. We marvelled at many ancient buildings and artifacts but the things that caught many people's attention was the garments openly on display : spangly belly dancing costumes and novelty underwear seemed to be the favourites : bra & panties made up of three bearded Father Christmases seemed to be quite out of place in a Muslim country.

Lunch was taken sat on little stools on the edge of the flow of humanity in one of the narrow streets : chicken, pickles, chips and gravy in a wrap : very tasty.

In total contrast, dinner was taken in a bright modern restaurant thronging with locals - but with men and women seeming to sit on separate tables.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Return to Beirut

The excellent weather of the last few days broke with the arrival of the system that had been lurking further West in the Med. The clouds gathered and just before we left, the heavens opened and played percussion on the glass roof of the reception area.

Modern Cathedral
Despite yesterday's prediction, after heading back towards Beirut, we twisted back up the hills just inland from the coast. The objective was a medium sized statue on top of a massive plinth. This was the Lady of Lebanon - aka the Virgin Mary. She is venerated by both Christians and Muslims - the latter celebrate 25th December as her day. The plinth has a spiral staircase on the outside by which a small balcony at her feet can me accessed. We were told that this spiral effect also made it look as if she was blessing all around her rather than just in front. Close by was a massive modern cathedral which was supposed to invoke an image of an upturned boat or ark - unfortunately it seemed to be securely locked up.

Further down the road we visited the Stele of Nar El Kaleb which were situated between a motorway fly over and a slip road. They were a series of inscribed stone tablets in the hill side celebrating great events in Lebanon's history. The ones we could see - there were others but the wet steps made them too dangerous to visit recorded various milestones - most seemed to have military aspects - freedom from the Ottomans, freedom from the Turks, there had been one for Ramases - one of the Egyptians Pharaohs - but the bumptious little Sicilian Emperor had replaced it with one of his own ! The most mundane was one commemorating the completion of the Hyfa to Tripoli railway by the Australian Railway Company.

Roman Glass
No visit to a country would be complete without a visit to its National Museum. This one is quite small, airy and well lit - with enough artifacts to make a visit interesting without becoming boring - there was some equisite Roman glass. What perhaps made it stand out from others of its ilk was the fact that it had stood on the Green Line that had separated the two sides during the Civil War. After the cease fire, the columns at the front entrance looked as if they had been subject to thousands of years of wheather rather than just a few years of gun fire. Evidently many of the exhibits had been encased in conecrte by the staff to protect them from harm & looting - it's a shame something similar wasn't done in Bagdad !

Some of our number are heading back home tomorrow - some of our current number are just visiting Lebanon, some Lebanon & Syria and some Jordan as well. Or so they throught until news filtered through that both Heathrow & Schipol airports had been closed because of snow. The seven who are heading on to Syria have an early start and most stocked up with nibbles in case we get delayed in the two sets of mountains we have to cross to get to the border. The other speculation is whether the people flying in to join us in Syria will be able to escape Europe !

So far WiFi has been readily available but in Syria it may be more sparse - as a consequence bulletins from the Levant may stutter a bit - we shall see.

Walking the Qadisha Valley

This will be our last day exploring the mountains - although we do return to them on Sunday when we have to traverse both set and the Bekka Valley on the way to Syria.

Again the snow has modified our plans for today as we were supposed to walk up the Qadisha Valley to discover its Maronite sites. However, it was deemed that the original approach by steps might be too slippery and, instead, we were driven into te floor of the Valley.

The Valley is a steepsided gorge cut over many many melennia by millions upon millions of gallons of water wearing away the Limestone. It is a rugged, remote area which must have provided ideal protection for the early Maronite Sect, originallly from Syria, sheltering from persecution by mainstream Christians.

Today Qadisha’s valley slopes and cliffs are strewn with red roofed Maronite villages, monasteries built into the sides of cliff faces and hermitages where the 13th century frescoes remain on the walls. Nowadays Maronite services are conducted in Syriac, which is a language closely related to Aramaic, the language of Christ. The traditional Syriac translation of Qadisha is ‘Valley of the Saints’.

The first part of the walk was an easy down hill one visiting a couple of religious establishments before stopping for lunch at a remote cafe where the owner had driven in especially to open up for us. The walk back up the track was an excellent opportunity, after days of semi-inactivity - to get some exercise by yomping up at a respectable rate of knots.

We returned to Byblos for a meal at Pepe's resturant which has in the past been the haunt of the rich and famous - evidenced by the hundred of photos on the walls. Now Pepe is long gone and the establishment is overseen by his septigenerian son - to an extent it is still living off its establishments and, although we had a good time, it wasn't a culinary extravaganza !