A Syria Roadtrip… Seriously?
An Indian, a Croatian, and an American were lost, barreling through villages in northern Syria.
“Peace be upon you! Sir, is this the road to al-Ghab, to Apamea?” Ali asked a bearded man on a motorcycle.
Even though Ali hailed from India, people often considered him Arab — khaleeji, from the Gulf.
The bearded man stopped, shook his head, and said to follow him. “Up this hill, my friends, is the shrine of Job.”
We drove up the green hill dotted with olive trees and parked our car near the shrine. It was a squat rectangle of old white stone with a low metal door, and its painted green dome sagged. There was a small military building next door, dwarfed by a radio tower.
We were trying to find our way to the Ghab, an irrigated valley split between these hilly villages around Serjilla and the coastal mountains. The Ghab had been home to a wild ecology in antiquity, including lions and elephants that were hunted by pharaohs. More recently in the 20th century, it was a swamp until the U.N. International Monetary Fund restored irrigation canals from the Orontes River and made a lake. Founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, the city of Apamea sits at the south of the Ghab valley and was Greek until Rome took it in 1st century B.C.
The motorcycle guide greeted us, introducing himself as the imam or religious leader of a village nearby. He spoke precise, formal Arabic and we walked to the edge of the hilltop, and looked down on the northern tip of the Ghab.
“It’s steep driving down there,” he said, and suggested that we visit his village instead.
But we were set on the valley, on seeing Apamea and reaching the city of Hama by nightfall. So we bid farewell, and careened down the mountain.
The area, with its meadows on the bank of the Orontes River, was known for its horses; a Greek historian wrote of over 30,000 in Apamea, and some 500 elephants. Apamea was one of the largest Roman cities in the Middle East with a population in the hundreds of thousands, a majority of which were slaves. But most of what was left for us to see was a long colonnaded avenue, a major thoroughfare similar to but much bigger than the Biblical Street Called Straight in Damascus.
We were also on the hunt for olive oil because northern Syria is olive country, with its Mediterranean climate of rocky hills and green mountains. In ancient history olive oil was the area’s principal trade; it was used not only for food but also the earliest street lamps. We’d driven from one small village to another before dropping into the Ghab, each village connected by groves of olive and almond trees, blooming wild and white in the spring over wildflowers. We’d stop the car and one of us would run into a shop or stall to inquire about olive oil, but all we’d find offered were metal canteens or big plastic drums.
Along one canal we found a man who agreed to sell us two large plastic water bottles worth. We stayed for tea and a crowd of fifteen — mostly bright-eyed kids – gathered around as we talked with the local imam, Mohammed Ali. We asked him the name of the village.
“Qalat ad-Deen,” he smiled to us. Fortress of Faith.
“What do you get from visiting ancient ruins?” he asked in return. Sigmund, the Croatian studying Classical Arabic literature, replied with a quote about the waystations of medieval Syria by Usamah Ibn Munqidh, a 12th century warrior-poet who chronicled the Crusades.
Mohammed Ali nodded, and insisted we stay for the night.
I thought of the abandoned Byzantine towns that we’d just seen: the “Dead Cities” — historic stone ghost towns that once thrived on the olive oil trade 1,500 years ago. Hundreds of them dot northern Syria, which was a Byzantine heartland around Antioch when Muslims invaded in 634 AD. Serjilla and al-Bara stand as two of the best-preserved settlements south and west of Aleppo, Syria’s second city and historic trading center on the Silk Road. At Serjilla the traditional male meeting-house or andron – the local tavern — is still intact, its columns looking out on rocky slopes and olive groves. We stood in the entranceway and imagined the wooden beams still intact for the second floor and the Byzantine men with beers chatting above us.
Historians cannot agree on why all these settlements were evacuated in the century or so following the Muslim conquest of Syria, although some theories focus on a decline or shift in the olive trade. The stone villages are bleached by the sun and history but intact and overgrown with green. It is the residential architecture of Byzantium, which is really Roman, so the scene could also easily have been rural Italy. A far cry from the campy “Axis of Evil” image applied to Syria after 9/11.
As UNESCO-protected World Heritage Sites, the historic centers of Aleppo and Damascus have seen a tourism boom in recent years. Traditional courtyard houses in Damascus in particular have been purchased and converted, sometimes quite cheaply, into boutique hotels and restaurants. It’s progress, to a certain degree, but these renovations threaten to turn old Damascus into a historic Disneyland. Still, everyone is getting in on Syria’s opening of its long-socialist economy – Gulf investors, Western European tour groups, even the Aga Khan.
Outside of the cities, however — beyond the cherry kebab, Lebanese wine and honey-soaked sweets associated with basking in a courtyard in Damascus or Aleppo — a different series of sights exist: huge castles from the Crusades, a tea and soda pit-stop in a hut called the Baghdad Café on the highway to Iraq, a kilo of grilled kebab from a butcher in any wayward town for about eight bucks, and history.
“All of Syria is ruins” is the constant refrain in nearly any conversation with a Syrian about what to see in the country. We had a car but if not would have used Syria’s cheap and extensive bus system. After getting a flat tire on the highway a few hours past the Baghdad Café, we stood on the side of the road cursing and wishing we hadn’t scorned a bus across the country, from Damascus to Deir az-Zor on the Euphrates, for around five dollars, one way.
But a service taxi — which people take to get from a village to a small town, from a city to a historical site — won’t go bombing down mountains and through the narrow, dusty roads of the Ghab that are crowded with farm trucks. You can end up taking most the day hopping from one servees to another, or waiting for one to fill up before it leaves, while in the car you can skip all that and speed from place to place.
There are few traffic laws in Syria, though the driving is saner and more orderly than Egypt. In the cities a moving violation might even be enforced. But on the highway driving is an easily understood system of left-lane speeding, headlight flashing, and horn honking. Coming from Boston, this could be a driver’s dream: to survive, or at least to make it places quickly and to fit in, you have to drive like it’s the Massachusetts Turnpike — just so everyone knows you’re there, and so an overloaded lorry that sounds like a lawnmower won’t slam into you.
The trip began in Damascus, as the city was emerging from a winter of rain, wind, and some hail. It rained on the desert drive out to Palmyra, another Silk Road center once ruled by Zenobia, a Syrian queen who rivaled Cleopatra in fame and beauty and led a revolt against Rome. Her city is huge colonnaded avenues and temples, like Apamea, only stretched out in the desert halfway to Iraq; the Baghdad Café is on the way. We stopped for an hour in Palmyra and had a lunch of roasted chicken at a restaurant down from a row of tourist shops near the ruins, served by a boy who had already adopted the gut and mannerisms of an old man. We sat at a plastic table near a spit cooker and ate the chicken with our hands and little pieces of bread.
Ali steered the car gingerly to the side of road on the highway past Palmyra, about halfway to Deir az-Zor, the main city on the Euphrates. A rear tire was flat. Sigmund had worried aloud in Damascus before the road trip – “but is it safe? What if our car breaks down in the middle of the desert?” Now, broken down in the middle of the desert, Ali and I looked sideways at him as he took pictures of the situation. All three of us struggled to loosen the wheel bolts until we noticed a motorcycle coming down the highway. I flagged it down and its three riders hopped off. One, an old man in a red keffiyeh, started walking immediately off into the desert. The other man, in an old officer’s uniform, helped with the jack and turned the crank right away. The young boy with them stood mostly silent and looked on at the three foreigners in the desert and their flat tire.
Having attached the spare with minimal words, the uniformed man hopped back on his bike with the boy and drove on to pick up the third rider. We continued down the highway, limited to 80 kilometers an hour on our miniature tire, and pulled into a rest house that we hoped might have a garage. It didn’t, and a group of Iraqi men inspected our spare, inspected our flat, and told us to sit down for tea.
They were from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, the oldest among them said, and asked what we were doing out here in the desert. Syria hosts some million and a half Iraqi refugees. Most of them are in Damascus, establishing whole Iraqi neighborhoods in refugee camps, concrete slums mostly, outside the city center. They have the best fish restaurants in the city, since the carp is cooked the Baghdad way, called masquf. The fish is split open and cooked slowly on sticks away from a fire for an hour, then covered in a spicy or sweet sauce that might be pomegranate.
We talked to the Iraqis about our trip, that we’d come from Damascus via Palmyra and were headed for the Euphrates — the next day, we said, to sites down-river near the Iraqi border: the river fortress of Dura Europos, also built by Seleucis, and the Sumerian ruins of Mari, 11 kilometers from the border. Mari’s golden age started in 2900 BC, but Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, sacked it in 1759 BC. Mari’s king Zimri Lim, though beaten by Hammurabi, had built an extensive mud brick palace that other kings of the region pined to visit. French archeologists from the Louvre first began excavating it in the 1930s.
The Iraqi men bid us well, and we drove in the dark to the city of Deir az-Zor. We got the tire changed the next day, after our regular breakfast of ful — broad beans in a bowl with yogurt, olive oil, and chopped tomatoes, which kept us going all day.
On the road down the Euphrates we played Frank Sinatra. “New York! New York!” he sang as we drove nearer to the Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal, site of an American cross-border raid last fall supposedly targeting some terrorist. The Syrian government maintains, and most foreign reporters agree, that the eight dead were civilians — a father and his sons, a guard and his wife, and a fisherman.
Since that raid in the last days of the Bush administration, things have thawed a bit in Syrian-American relations. Barack Obama hasn’t visited yet, even if President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma have both offered invitations, including one last summer on British television. George Mitchell and John Kerry have visited for photo-ops with Assad in the presidential palace where he doesn’t live. The meetings are always in rooms with rich wood furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There’s always a box of tissues on the table, a near requisite for political summits in the Arab world, I don’t know why.
The visiting delegations have made a lot of talk so far and less action. Internal politics, though, is barely opening in a country that has long repressed it. Photos of “our leader” are everywhere: either the father, Hafez, who ruled for thirty years until his death in 2000 or the son Bashar who succeeded him, or both, next to Basel, the “martyred” son who died in a car crash in 1994, or Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. But these reminders of rule are surface and even kitschy, a cult of the leader along the lines of Kim Jong-il.
Sigmund worried aloud about going so close to the border in his typical combination of paranoia and humor as we cruised down the Euphrates. “If we run into fedayeen (militants) who have jumped across the border to kidnap some foreigners, I’ll just say I’m Chechen or Bosnian Muslim.” Ali and I were confused, and turned down Sinatra. “And if they pull down my pants to inspect me, I’ll just say religion was repressed in Yugoslavia and that my parents were afraid to have me circumcised because they were members of the Communist Party.”
Balkan politics and jokes — I didn’t always know the difference — were an unexpected part of going around Syria. But Syrians seem to like Croatians, or at least one who recites classical Arabic poetry, and not simply because of their ties to Croatia — for example, INA, one of the largest oil and gas exploration companies in the country is Croatian.
We did not run into any fedayeen and later in the day drove back up the Euphrates toward the Kurdish northeast.
Syria’s Kurds are politically ostracized, and the questioning at the hostel check-in was more tense than usual. In Hassakeh, the region’s largest town, the interrogation at the Ugarit Hotel went like this:
“Where are you coming from? Damascus? Deir az-Zor? Deir. When did you leave? Five? But it’s a three hours drive here. You drove south first? To ruins? Dura Europos? Mari? But there are ruins in Tadmur. Palmyra, you know? So what time did you leave Deir again? And you live in Damascus? How many days do you have the car for? When are you going back to Damascus? What time are you leaving tomorrow? Going where? Aleppo? And then where? Welcome. How are you?”
An old white Peugot 504 followed us out of the town the next day after we’d attended a Palm Sunday service at the local Syriac Orthodox church. The police did a bad job of hiding surveillance, stopping when we stopped — we pretended to ask for directions — but they pulled away when we took the turn west for Aleppo and not for Qamishle, a grubby border town in the Kurdish northeast near Turkey. Sure enough down the highway, at the only checkpoint we passed through in all of Syria, a man with a Kalashnikov was smiling knowingly, waiting to check our passports.
Later that day, we reached the massive, artificial Lake Assad named after former president Hafez al-Assad. His son Bashar immediately succeeded him. The lake was made in the 1970s by damming the fabled Euphrates, though the project never produced as much electricity as promised.
We passed through military checkpoints crossing the huge dam to get to a crumbling medieval castle that used to look over the Euphrates valley. Today it’s surrounded by the lake.
The lake’s namesake, Hafez al-Assad, was known as “the Lion,” but in his youth was apparently called “the Beast.” His son Bashar is “the Doctor,” putting on a friendly face of economic liberalization and development as he maneuvers Syria out of a diplomatic cold. The young, soft-spoken and London-trained ophthalmologist is a strange dictator. Posters, billboards, framed photographs and stencils of his mustachioed image are everywhere, from the cities to roadsides in the middle of nowhere. His portrait is hardly imposing, though, unlike his father or his older brother Basil, the heir apparent who died speeding his car through fog in Damascus. Bashar’s elegant, British-born wife Asma was a banker at J.P. Morgan before marrying Assad and stealing some regional First Lady limelight from Jordan’s Queen Rania.
The first couple is young and the president apparently likes eating out and going to gallery openings and the theater. Syria economically is “virgin territory to explore,” the state’s central-bank chief told the Wall Street Journal recently. The tourism market looks to the five World Heritage Sites in the country, from the Old Cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Bosra to Palmyra and two Crusader castles. Egypt, the over-visited tourist hub of the Middle East, has six World Heritage Sites.
A line of Crusader castles, strongholds of the Knights Hospitaller, spread along the mountains on Syria’s coastal strip. The often-brutal knights held out after losing Jerusalem to Salahuddin, who couldn’t siege the imposing basalt fortress of Marqab on an extinct volcano above the Mediterranean. It finally fell to the Sultan of Egypt in the end of the 13th century. Today, when you look down from the towers at Marqab, the sea frames the smokestacks of a factory below and countless hothouses for growing tomatoes. Like most sites in the country, the crowds are usually Syrian and Arab families and tickets are cheap.
Syria’s most visited castle on the tour bus route, and one of its World Heritage Sites, is the mammoth Krak des Chevaliers near Lebanon’s northern border. Fortified for centuries by successive Christian and Muslim occupiers, the castle commanded the mountain gap into Syria from the sea. Lawrence of Arabia simply called it “the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.”
We set out for the Krak from Hama a day after driving through the Ghab valley. Hama is Syria’s fifth largest city and, before the 1980s, arguably Syria’s most architecturally idyllic, where huge medieval waterwheels or norias groaned on the Orontes River and narrow stone lanes hugged the banks. By the 1980s the city, long known for its religious conservatism, had become a base for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was engaged in a guerrilla war with the government. Hafez al-Assad responded by sending his brother, Rifaat, to shell Hama. Most fighters were holed up in the Old City, along with many more civilians, and the area was leveled. At the time no reporter could agree how many were killed: some said less than 10,000, others more than 30,000.
Today a narrow strip of the Old City has been restored, and the norias are moving. The city still produces the best hand-loomed fabrics in the country. We each bought a soft, handsome jelabiya robe from al-Madani, a family-run workshop founded in the 1850s, which makes towels, tablecloths, scarves and, I would argue, the world’s finest bathrobe in its Old City studio.
The stone alleyway that serves as the remaining spine of old Hama, lined with a few renovated cafés, galleries, and the palace of the former Ottoman governor, suggests the charm of the city’s past and the violent reprisal of a government that destroyed it.
It’s hard to consider the brutal story of Hama far out on the road, looking over a valley with an imam or changing a flat tire with Iraqis, running up the odometer from one ruin to another, where the rest of Syria — its mess of history especially — comes through, a past between conflict and cosmopolitanism.
On the drive from Apamea to Hama, perched over the Orontes River, we passed the castle of Shaizar, which in the 12th century was ruled by the poet Usamah Ibn Munqidh’s uncle. While Usamah was in Damascus as a diplomat in 1157 AD, an earthquake hit Shaizar and nearly killed his entire family, including his uncle the emir. Sigmund hopped out of the car and raced to the huge door, excited to see the castle of the poet he spent hours each week studying and translating, but the castle was locked since it was dusk. A few shabab, teenage boys, stood by the door smoking cigarettes and wearing T-shirts advertising Gauloises, the French cigarettes.
Driving south back to Damascus from the busy, fertile north, green gives way to dry, rough hills and the mountain range that borders Lebanon. We saw Syria’s capital as the natural oasis that it is as we drove south through beige mountains on a dangerously empty tank of gas. The rental company in central Damascus docked us for an additional cleaning fee, since our Kia was caked in dust and dirt from Deir az-Zur to the coast. With minimal arguing, they covered the cost of the flat tire.
We were ticketed blocks away from the rental office in central Damascus for breaking a half meter past a red light. We’d sped down dirt roads and highways and narrowly missed hitting wild dogs as we drove through the Dead Cities and in the Ghab. Back in Damascus, however, we couldn’t dodge the first traffic cop in our sights.
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