Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Reflections on the Middle East

My Middle East includes Egypt, Jordan and Syria because those are the countries we went through. Turkey doesn’t really make this list for reasons I’ll describe in my next post.

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Aleppo

President in mosaics

Aleppo is Syria’s second centre, and like Damascus it also claims to be world’s oldest continually-inhabited city. With the city’s modernization and congested street traffic, it’s kind of hard to believe. But the signs are there. Although nothing much to look at from the outside, the hostel we stayed at must have been over 300 years old — and it was located in the new town! A short walk away was the ancient citadel (12th century AD) and the Great Mosque (Al-Jamaa Zacharia) from the 7th century AD. Most other traces that date back a few more thousand years are now long gone. To me, Damascus felt more ancient, with ancient Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. But that’s just my opinion — I’ll leave the experts to argue over which claim is more correct.

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Oh no! (cont’d)

The day after we dropped off the van, the Toyota garage rang Toon in Palmyra. Bad news: aside from whatever problem was causing the engine to overheat, Vyv needed a new cylinder block. With a quick band-aid solution, they suspected Toon might be able to drive a few thousand kilometers on the old cylinder block. Considering a new cylinder block would cost 100,000 Syrian Dinars (ouch!), he decided to take the risk. They said that the van wouldn’t be ready for two more days, mostly because of the shortened working ours imposed by Ramadan. We kept our fingers crossed and waited.

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Roman Ruins in Syria

Palmyra

With the yellow van laid up in Homs for servicing, the three of us took a bus to Palmyra to visit the ruins there while waiting for news from the garage. Luckily for us, Homs happens to be kind of a central hub in Syria, and our plans to visit Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra would have taken us through there anyways. It was even on the way back and up to Aleppo. Besides, if you have to wait anyways, what better way to kill some time than by visiting a famous, enormous, and ancient collection of Roman ruins?

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Oh no!

Vyv the van

After leaving the Krak des Chevaliers, we noticed Vyv’s engine was really starting to heat up. (Btw, Vyv is the name for the van since her license plate contains the letters VYV). We pulled over and tried to cool it down, but to no avail. The closest town was Homs, only a few kilometers away. We made it to Homs, maintaining a steady rpm, where she could get checked out by a mechanic in the morning.

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Krak des Chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers

While in Jordan, we visited the ruins of two old Crusader Castles: Shobak Castle and Karak Castle. While both were fascinating in their own right, they were only appetizers before the main course in Syria: Krak des Chevaliers. This is the best preserved Crusader military castle in the world, and it dates back to just after 1000 AD. Crouching agressively on the top of a 650 metre hill in western Syria, it commands a stunning panoramic view of the countryside in all directions. The location is at the only historical crossroads between Antakya in Turkey and Beirut in Lebanon, and was a position of strategic importance during the Crusades. We only had time to make a stopover at the castle on our way to Palmyra, but it was worth the detour.

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Monastery in the Desert

Mar Musa Monastery

While staying in Damascus, we met another traveler who had just come from the nearby Mar Musa Monastery, where she had spent the night. None of us had ever heard of the monastery, but we were intrigued by her story, so we decided to leave Damascus one night earlier than planned in order to check it out. We discovered that Mar Musa Monastery, or Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (literally The Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian) is a one thousand year old monastery tucked in the barren hills about two hours north of Damascus. It is still an active monastery, although it had been all but abandoned for several centuries before being reactivated in the 1990s. Driving there was an uninspiring event — the landscape is desolate and littered with garbage from the nearby townships. But at the last moment, we pulled off of the main road and a small cleft in the hills came into view, along with about 350 steps winding their way upwards to a small collection of buildings crouched on the cliffs above. We parked the van and sweated our way up the stairs, with no idea what was in store for us.

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Damascus!

souq scene from above

After a fantastic week in Jordan, our northerly heading would take us into Syria. We weren’t sure how the border crossing would go because Syria’s official policy is that you are required to have obtained a visa from your home country prior to arriving. For obvious reasons, we didn’t have one. Word of mouth told us they might issue visas at the border; a risk we were willing to take. The risk paid off. The crossing went as smoothly as can be hoped for. We made it through with the van and were even able to stop at duty free for some much desired alcoholic beverages (very elusive during Ramadan). Next stop: Damascus.

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Huh?

We are in Syria now. Behind the immigration desk was a sign,

“Welcome to Syria. Syria is a land of history and cintioruity.”

Huh?