A Travellerspoint blog

Black Brooding Bosra

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I had a whole day free so decided to head down close to the Jordanian border and visit Bosra. This is an old Roman theatre from the 2nd Century AD, but appended with an Arab citadel from the 1100s.

All this was rather unusually built with black basalt rock, apart from some Roman columns (built with the usual lighter rock).

Around Bosra were many ruins from that era and some ruins have formed part of people's homes ... either the rock had been recycled ... or people have built up against any historical structure that's still standing.


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On the road to Damascus

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large_5550_12794585982347.jpgIraq ... that's the 2nd country beginning with "I" that I won't be going to ... the first one shall not be named while in the region!
Getting to Damascus [Damascus-travel-guide-1184988]

My hotelier offered to give me a ride to the bus this morning (for a small fee of course). Strangely he didn’t take me to the bus station but to the various restaurants (rest stops) for various intercity buses. It would have been a couple of hours waiting at the first restaurant but fortunately he found me a bus departing immediately at a second restaurant.

Along the way I managed to get a shot of “Iraq” road signs that we missed out on much closer to the border when we were in Deir Al-Zor.

Visiting the Umayyad Mosque

As I only had a dorm bed on the roof top of a hotel in Damascus, there was little to detain me there .large_5550_12794585982179.jpgDmascus souq... except for the beautiful courtyard. I soon hit the souk and streets to absorb the Damascus atmosphere. To me, there’s nothing more special about Damascus than the Umayyad mosque.

I expected that I’d be given a cloak to wear since I was in shorts (which just covered my knees) and an Indian cotton shirt which was translucent. Wrong! They insisted that I go through “as is”. Seems wrong to me! I did notice that men with shorts above the knee level were given the cloaks.

It is a beautiful and tranquil place. It had its beginnings as a pagan temple about 3000 years ago but became a basilica then a mosque in 636 AD. Most of what we see now was built by the Umayyad rulers in the decade following the conversion into a mosque

The Umayyad mosque has a shrine to John the Baptist (Prophet Yahya, peace be upon him, to Muslims). He’s supposedly buried in the mosque ... I’m not too sure if that’s with or without his head as he was decapitated.

There is also an unofficial believe that Jesus (Prophet Isa, peace be upon him, to Muslims) will descend through the tallest minaret in the mosque ... so it is called the Jesus minaret.


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Spectacular Palmyra at Sunrise ... and Sunset again

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large_5550_12790279049452.jpgPre-dawn ... wind-swept morning at Palmyra.
Sunrise at Palmyra [Palmyra-travel-guide-1308235]

We decided to wake before 5am so we could catch sunrise at the ruins. The wind had built up over night ... it wasn’t so pleasant having a mild sandblasting.

In the cool of dawn, I better appreciated the beauty and magnificence of Palmyra. My first time had been as a day trip of Hama [Hama-travel-guide-1185297] and the heat was too much to allow a leisurely exploration.

I had always declared Baalbek near Beirut as my favourite Roman ruins. With my new-found and enhanced appreciation for Palmyra, I’m now town between the two. Perhaps Baalbek wins in terms of the height and degree of preservation ... but Palmyra wins in terms of sheer expanse.large_5550_1279027904135.jpgSunrise at Palmyra.

Underage bartenders and pimps

Last night we had drinks at a bar staffed by a 9 year old and a 14 year old. They’re probably Muslim too. It just seems so weird that people who cannot drink can sell alcohol ... but I get over things like this. I have a very wide spectrum in terms of accepting things as “normal”.

But this morning, while I had to wait for the Temple of Bel to open. Three Bedouin boys (about 10, 10 and 14 years of age) came up to sell me scarves. When I expressed my disinterest, one of the younger ones started pimping the older one to me for sexual favours. The older boy smiled.

Terrible! I promptly said “Aib” (shame) to them but they seemed undeterred.

They younger boy said to go around the corner (behind the Temple of Bel). I wonder if it is a trick to rob unsuspecting dirty old men. One of them had felt my knee-height pockets in my cargo shorts, probably looking for cash.

So how do children learn these things! And how do they get themselves (seemingly by their own choice) into the world’s oldest profession? Especially in such a conservative area.

Viewing the Sunset from On High

In the evening, we (Ammi, Salome and myself) climbed up to the Arab Castle to watch sunset over Palmyra. It was hard work but it made us appreciate the sunset better!


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Palmyra in time for Sunset

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large_5550_12790267391034.jpgPalmyra ... sunset behind the Baal Shamin and Arab Castle.
Deir Al-Zur Museum

We heard reports that the local museum is the best in Syria. However unlikely that sounded, it did not disappoint. Even though I’m not exactly a museum person, I was rather captivated ... every item was labelled with numbers and referenced to a brief description. The whole museum was organised by era, starting from ancient to modern. Every collection or era was accompanied by large explanations.

When did “Arabic = Hebrew”?

In the language section of the Museum was a language classification tree diagram. Interestingly, “Ancient Hebrew” was translated in the Arabic script as “Arabiah Qadimah” ... meaning Ancient Arabic. “Ancient Arabic” was translated similarly.large_5550_12790267402866.jpgDusk at Palmyra.

Likewise, “Modern Hebrew” and “Modern Arabic” had the same translation into Arabic!

So, there is a political element to the Museum but it was nice to see that it did not permeate the entire building. Somewhere else in the Museum was a display explaining that Armenian, Jewish and Kurdish refugees had contributed significantly to the development in Mesopotamia. I note that the Arabic version did not leave out the Jews.

Getting a walloping

A few kids had been saying “F**k You” to us ... may have learnt it from TV or from visitors. One of these boys ran out of luck when he said it to Ammi who chased him all the way home to his dad. Instead of protection, his dad gave him a severe bashing. He’ll never do it again.

Palmyra Sunset

Palmyra is the jewel in Syria’s tourism crown. Despite that it gets a trickle of visitors. Now, you understand the scale of tourism in this beautiful country.

The ruins from the 2nd Century AD cover a massive 50 hectares. Two row of columns line the main street and these are still visible today (not sure how much of it is due to restoration).

Punishment for crimes committed abroad

While having a beer before dinner we noticed an Arab man walk past with some tinnies and sheepishly hop into his Saudi-registered Mercedes Benz. Ooooh! That would probably have earned him a death sentence (or a whipping) at home.

But I wonder if they have penalties for such offences committed abroad? I’ve read that in Singapore, they can punish their citizens for taking drugs while in other countries. There is the possibility of a “Welcome Home” urine test.


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Ruins near Iraq

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large_5550_12790264122180.jpgMari under protective cover.

Today we explored two ruins (Mari and Dura Europos) near the Iraq border. If we were able to cross into Iraq we would probably find plenty more ruins ... more contemporary ones caused by man-made situations. Sad but true.

It was another 7am start to avoid the heat of the day. Our driver Nader drove us down over an hour to the ruins of Mari about 20km away from the Iraqi border, near the town of Abu Kamal.

Even though we tried, we didn’t get around to having a photo taken with an “Iraq” road sign at the outskirts of town. It was too difficult at times with baggage and the heat.

Ruins #1 - Mari

While Mari is not visually stunning (eg. tall, elaborate etc), it is utterly amazing to see and be amongst ruins from old Mesopotamia from 5000 years ago.large_5550_12790264122961.jpgWhile not visually stunning, Mari is amazing ... it is 5000 years old.The Royal Palace belonging to the Syrian eader, Zimri-Lim (must be related to my mother’s side of the family) was enormous measuring 200m by 120m and had over 300 rooms. Unfortunately most of it has weathered away and a plastic roof is there to reduce further deterioration.

Ruins #2 - Dura Europos

Backtracking a little, we then went to the ruins of Dura Europos, which is a walled city high on one bank of the Euphrates. This, in contrast to Mari, is much newer at about 2000 years old and also Roman instead of Syrian.

The border

Our hotelier explained that the border at Abu Kamal is only open to Iraqis. Syrians need special permission. Other nationalities can’t get through. There doesn’t seem to be any presence of refugees.large_5550_12790264123618.jpgWhile not visually stunning, Mari is amazing ... it is 5000 years old.He tells me the main crossing into Iraq is in the north-east of Syria.

Note: While I knew there weren't any specific travel warnings (by the New Zealand government) for this area, I didn't realise till days later that the US helicopters had encroached into this area about two years ago and made some bombings which killed 8 people (per Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Abu_Kamal_raid])

The desert heat

Upon arriving at Deir Al-Zur, it felt like an oven ... I could feel the hot desert air even though it was evening. The air temperature on Salomi’s watch indicated that the air temperature was around 30 degC during our stay but the readout at the town square went up to 42 degC ... that’s probably the direct temperature in the sun.large_5550_12790264129486.jpgMari not under cover.

Then came the night ... you know, it’s not always cold in the desert at night. It wasn’t cold outside.

In the hotel it was worse. The concrete, mattress and wooden bed head (and everything else) had absorbed heat during the day and warmed up. I could feel them smile as they unloaded and radiated their heat to me as I lay in bed sweating. My pillow was wet from the sweat running down my neck.

To make it worse ... the hotel had given me a synthetic sheet and pillow case.

If there is one consolation, one doesn't have to keep running to the loo despite drinking lots of water. Hehehe ... no need to jump out of bed early in the morning bursting to go, or be apprehensive about using unfamiliar loos while out on the road.


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