Monday, August 27, 2007

Horse Crac Castle

You definitely start noticing some recurring themes as you travel through the dozens upon dozens of Syrian villages and cities - and that is garbage and dirt. Syria has a lot of amazing ancient ruins to see, but nothing very impressive has been built in the last few centuries. I think it's safe to say that anything built or lived in since about the 11th century you can pass on.
We started our trip on the coast up along the "cote d'litter" and visited a dozen or so castles, Roman ruins, and trash strewn beaches. Our favorite castle was the Crac du Chevalier, or horse crack castle that reminded me of something out of Lord of the Rings. Since we couldn't find a babysitter for Bastawisi, my turtle, we ended up taking him along with us and of course couldn't leave him in the baking car while we toured sites, so we walked around with a baby, stroller, diaper bag, turtle in a cage, and Vanessa insisted on bringing her laptop everywhere so it wouldn't get stolen. It was like a walking circus.
Once we got to our destination of Latakia, we stayed for only one day and had to leave because the bugs were so bad and the muddy beaches that smelled like sewage just weren't worth it. The fully veiled women and kids seemed to be enjoying themselves, it kind of reminded me of Ocean City or the Jersey coast, a vacation spot for those of sunburned necks.
Next we went to Aleppo, stopping on the way at another string of castles, and staying just outside the old city for two days. Aleppo was wonderful, the food was excellent, and the old city charming. The people tended to stare a bit more than in Damascus, but were very nice, and we really got into the different types of olive oil and laurel soap they make there, the most expensive being aged over a process taking 3 years!
I soon realized that the days of cheap backpacker hotels are over now I have a baby, when we'd go to the hotel of my choice Vanessa would just give me a look and look at the baby, and I knew we were not staying there. Alexa loved the trip however, as long as she got her naps. The way it worked out though, we'd always be out and about in the middle of the heat of the day and we'd just keep her doused with water and she'd sleep while we were carrying her around. It was over 100 degrees every day, but luckily we had AC in our car and hotel.
After Aleppo, we went down to Hama, stopping along the way at a bunch of cities of the dead, huge Christian cities (over 800 of them) that were all abandoned almost a thousand years ago when trading routes changed. They are beautiful, and are full of huge stone churches, villas, bath houses, etc. My two favorites were St. Simeon's in the north, and Serjilla and Bara in the south. In this picture I'm sitting on the pillar that St. Simeon sat on for 37 years.
Then we stayed for two days in Hama, visiting the surrounding regions. Apamea was particularly cool, an old roman city that has a 2km long colonnaded street still standing. In Hama there were originally 200 of these waterwheels in the Orontes river that provided water and irrigation to the city, but now only 11 are still functioning. They make this really eerie squeaking sound like an angry whale that you can hear from a distance.
Then we went back home to Damascus and had dinner up on the top of the mountain overlooking the city, overall it was a great ending to a great week.

Check out the web album for more shots:

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I think she remembers me

My wife I mean. I'm pretty sure Alexa had forgotten all about me. In any case she's happy to have me now - Vanessa and Alexa arrived last week and we've been having a good time seeing Damascus, eating, walking, sleeping, eating, walking, sleeping, etc. Alexa has changed a lot, she does a lot more tricks, and is crawling around spilling and tearing things and starting to stand up without any help from people or couches.

We took a small day field trip to Bosra (thus the small picture), a pretty old Roman ruin made out of black basalt rock, with supposedly the best preserved Roman amphitheater in the world, along with the third mosque ever built and the third Christian church ever built - but I think I mentioned previously how Syria mysteriously lays claim to the top five of everything that happened in the world. The thing that makes the amphitheater so interesting is that is is surrounded by an Ayyubid castle.

We found a pretty good house in Shaalaan for more than it's worth, but everything is nearby. This next week we are renting a car and traveling within Syria for a bit, Vanessa also got a good contract job with the World Bank that she'll be able to do from here, so we'll take our time and I'll tend Alexa while she works.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mar Mousa

I spent this weekend in a hermits cave up at one of the most spectacular monasteries I've ever been to. It's only about a hour and a half out of Damascus, set up in a rocky outcrop of high mountains in the middle of a huge desert plain. After finding someone who will drive you to the foot of the mountain from the nearest city, nabak, you have to hike your way up a long, steep rocky trail towards what looks like a medevil castle built right into the face of the rocks above. The monastery was discovered by an italian monk abandoned since the 13th century, who found donors to restore it to it's former glory, and it is now a fully functioning monastery. The only difficulty for the monks is that it has become a destination for spiritual hippie europeans who make a sort of pilgrimage to the site and stay for weeks at a time meditating and living a sort of communal existance. Everyone helps prepare the food, everyone cleans up, there are 'silent hours' where nobody can talk for hours at a time, and most people sit in the restored chapel that has amazingly vivid frescoes from the 11th century and read scripture or look very reverent. There are rooms available to visitors at no charge, however when they fill up, the only other option is to sleep in one of the dozens of caves that surround the monastery, complete with mattresses and heaters (for the winter).

We decided we wanted to get home for cheap, and so hiked back through the mountains to the nearest village, about 8km away and ended up getting lost, asking some bedouin shepards for directions, finding a cement factory and hitching a ride back with a cement truck.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Iraqi Refu-g

I thought I could escape the Iraq war by coming to Syria, ok, not really, but I didn't think it would have such an impact on my wallet. I've been unsuccessfully looking for aparments this last week and can't believe the prices! The 2 million extra Iraqis have driven up the prices for everything from rent to potatoes. Last night I waited 1 hour for a taxi, which these days is a luxury, I would even have welcomed a microbus with an empty seat, but it's no use, everything is so crowded there are 50 people on the same corner as me all trying to get a ride. The apartments I've seen - which aren't necessarily in the nicest areas, are way beyond my price range, and are small, dingy, and dirty. The cheapest I have been able to find so far is $700 for a one bedroom on the roof of a 6 story apartment building with no elevator, and that's in Arnoos! Don't get me started with Sha'alaan, Mezze or Abu Romana. It looks like I might be staying in the old city after all, but even there the cheapest I've been able to find for a seperate apartment is $400. Most of the two bedroom apartments downtown are just as expensive as an apartment in DC! Power in all of Syria is also shut off for 2 to 3 hours a day due to the demand. It is pretty miserable in 115 degree weather with no fan or a/c. I feel especially bad for the ice cream sellers that have to try to sell tubs of melted goo.


If you thought Palmyra was just a place famous in Mormon history in upstate New York, you are not only uninformed, you're also uncultured. I went on a weekend trip to Tadmur this last week and was able to see one of the largest standing ancient cities in the world. It was mentioned in the old testament as having been built by King Solomon, and successively passed from Greeks to Persians to Romans as a major city on the silk road from China. When Queen Zenobia of Palmyra decided to create an idependant state and sent armies as far away as Palestine and Egypt rome decided they had had enough and captured her, whereupon the city rebelled, and was consequently razed to the ground by the Roman Army. If what is standing today is only the remnants of what used to be there it must have been quite an impressive city. There are hundreds of columns still standing over a huge area, hundreds of arches, you can't kick the dirt without unearthing a column, peice of a statue, or pottery shards, and intricately carved column heads lie around the city fields and sides of the road like so much rubbish. It didn't take me more than a few minutes and the right questions in the Tadmur (Arabic name of the city) market before merchants started taking out their hidden caches of "illegal" artifacts that they apparently go out and dig up at night. Of course their concept of their worth is inflated past the bounds of reality, although I bargained a small glass "tear catcher" bottle from $600 to $30, my meager stipend still doesn't allow me those kinds of extras. One of the other impressive sites in Tadmur are the above and below-ground tombs that keep being discovered by the dozen every year (a few years ago they were putting in another natural gas line and happened upon 30 new tombs). They are large and ornate and most of them haven't been touched for 4k years. We got special permission to visit one of the tombs that is off the tourist track that had a fully stone door that we pushed open and creaked and let out a bunch of dust and really made us feel like indy's.