|Thursday, May 31st, day 332 we arrived in Damascus, Syria, in a service taxi, from Amman, Jordan at 1:00 PM. Crossing the Jordanian/Syrian border was an interesting experience. The Syrian border gurards are real anal about looking over your passports. If there is any evidence of a visit to Israel, or entering or exiting a country into or out of Israel, you will not get into Syria -- period!
The currency ın Syria ıs the Syrian Pound (Sp). The current exchange rate ıs 49.00 Sp to $1.00 US. There was no time change from Jordan to Syria and they speak Arabic.
Once we arrived in Damascus, we checked into The Al-Haramin Hotel. This budget hotel is located inside a beautiful old Ottoman house, complete with courtyard and fountains, situated in a lovely vine-shaped street. A double (without attached bath and no breakfast) was 395 Sp.
After checking in, John joined us for a trot through the Hamidiyen Souk, a lively and colorful street market in The Old City. We ended up at The Great Mosque (Umayya). Lisa had to cover herself completely, head to toe, in a brown robe and even John had to put on a skirt to cover his legs. Joel was the only one with pants on so he didn't have to "cover up". Later we had lunch and made our way back to The Al-Haramin.
After a shower and a short nap, John joined us for a pizza and ice cream and further exploration of Damascus. When we had our fill of food and walking we crashed for the night.
Friday, June 1st, day 333, we explored more of The Old City with John. Damascus is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth. People have been living in The Old City continuously for over 5,000 years. The age of The Old City is reflected in the curved and angled alleyways and the strange overhangs and catacombs. It has a real ancient feel. Being here makes it easy to imagine what city-life might have been like 5,000 years ago.
We had tea at an old Ottoman house, which was over 200 years old. Then walked through columned archways built by the Romans and explored the Jewish and Christian Quarters (St. John's and St. Paul's old stomping grounds). It was definitely an interesting experience.
Friday night we hooked up with a Brit from the hotel named Gavin, and John, and went for pizza. After dinner we did our own thing and went to a movie. At the movie the supression and censorship which is rampant in Syria became evident. The movie was totally hacked apart. Anything that was suggestive, sexual or semi-violent in nature was just cut out. It kind of ruined the movie -- and to think that much of the Arab world believes that the American media is controlled by a secret society of wealthy Jewish people. What a joke!
Another reflection of the "Big Brother" atmosphere in Syria is the status of internet access. Up until only a few months ago, internet access was banned throughout Syria. Just recently a few internet cafes (if you can even call them that, considering most of them have one computer) have opened in Damascus. If you can even get a connection (it usually doesn't work), it will be mind numbingly slow and extremely expensive. Plus "Big Brother" has put blocks on most of the major websites anyways. It is rumored that the government monitors all internet activity in an attempt to weed out "dangerous elements". For all practical purposes the internet remains effectively banned in Syria -- and to think this is the 21st century -- scary isn't it?
Saturday, June 2nd, day 334 of our travels, Lisa started off the day by going into The Old City to do some shopping. She found a beautiful wooden box and a unique wooden book stand.
Later, we hooked up with John and grabbed a taxi (50 Sp) and then a bus (100 Sp each) to Palmyra.
Once in Palmyra we checked into The New Afqa Hotel. A double with breakfast, AC and attached bath runs 500 Sp a night.
We actually stayed in Tadmor, the name which Palmyra was first known and which is now applied to the modern town that has grown up next to the ruins. The Second Book of Chronicles relates the founding of Tadmor, by King Solomon, during the 1st millenium BC.
Whether you call it Tadmor or Palmyra, the history of this area is old. Archaeological finds confirm that the oasis and surrounding area was settled as far back as the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, when the climate would have been much wetter and milder. (Man is it hot here!)
Many different power groups have controlled this area over the years. First it was the Assyrians, then the Persians, then Alexander the Great reigned supreme. Later, Palmyra was a buffer zone between the Parthians and the Romans.
Eventually, it was the Romans who oversaw Palmyra as it grew into the most important caravan city in the Middle-East. When the Romans annexed the Nabatean Empire and their capital in 106 AD, it meant that Palmyra overtook Petra as the most important trading city between the eastern and western worlds. It is this period, during the 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD, that Palmyra peaked in terms of wealth and power.
Gradually Syrian influence began to undermine Roman dominance, culminating in the reign of Queen Zenobia and her direct challenge to Roman authority. Eventually she was defeated and captured, but after this point Palmyra began to lose much of its status and importance. Although it continued to function as a city for at least a couple of centuries, it never regained its former wealth and power.
In 634 Palmyra was captured by the Arab Muslim General Khalid ibn al-Walid and with the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire, this meant Palmyra would remain in Arab hands into the 12th century. (Although during this time it was nothing more than a small desert outpost.) Eventually Palmyra fell into disuse and oblivion, becoming deeply buried in mountains of sand.
It was not until 1691 that Palmyra was "rediscovered" by a team of Englishmen led by Dr. Halifax. He brought back descriptions and drawings of the ruins which fueled further interest. In 1751 two Swedes, Wood and Dawkins, sent by King Charles XII of Sweden, did a systematic examination of the ruins. Just before WWI the Germans, who were closely allied with the Ottoman Turks, carried out a detailed inventory of the site. After "The War To End All Wars" work intensified. French archaeologist H. Seyrig worked at the site from 1929 well into the 1940s. He unearthed The Sanctuary of Bel, one of the most amazing structures of Palmyra -- at least of what has been found so far. Indeed, that is part of the magic of Palmyra -- imagining what treasures remain hidden under the sand is just as exciting as seeing the amazing structures that have been unearthed. Archaeological expeditions continue to this day, now carried out by the Syrian Directorate of General Antiquities.
Our first experience in Palmyra was climbing to the Arab Castle for sunset. The castle was built in the 12th century, just as Palmyra was "fading away", by the Arab General Abdul Hassan Yussuf ibn Fairouz.
Even at 6:00 PM it was still damn hot! The climb was tough, but the panoramic views made it well worth it. The ruins of Palmyra were illuminated to a golden color by the fading light as the sun set over the horizon.
After you cross the draw bridge, over a deep moat, you enter the castle gate to find several levels and numerous rooms to explore. We felt like little kids running from room to room, excited by new discoveries around every corner.
After returning from the castle, we had dinner with John and a nice Australian couple who were staying at the same hotel. (They were on a 2 month tour of the Middle-East.)
Sunday, June 3rd, day 335, we planned on getting out early to see the ruins before the heat hit. Our room was air conditioned and had no window to the outside world. The cool temperature and the darkness helped us sleep right through the alarm. We didn't even wake up until 11:00 AM.
It was just too hot to do anything mid-day. The temperature soared to over 100 degrees Farinheit! We waited until afternoon (it was still damn hot!) and ventured out to see the Palmyra Museum and two burial tombs -- The Tower Tomb of Elabel and The Tomb of The Three Brothers.
The Tower Tomb of Elabel dates from 103 AD. Inside there are tiers of compartments, which held the dead, and stairs that led up three storeys to an awesome view on the roof. (Did we mention that it was damn hot?)
The Tomb of The Three Brothers is a remarkably well preserved underground tomb dating from 160 AD. The T-shaped tomb contains impressive decorated and painted floral and geometric designs, frescos and busts. Plus, the temperature was nice and cool inside. (Did we mention how hot it was?) Our bus driver then dropped us off back at the museum.
After sunset we walked into the inner ruined area of Palmyra. Once within Zenobia's Walls (what's left of the fortification which once enclosed Palmyra) we walked to The Temple of Baal Shamin. This structure, which dates from 131 AD, was lit up with flood lights. Combined with a full moon on a clear night, the setting was enchanting.
We were totally alone, under the moon lit sky. The flood lights created shadows and abiguity. We could make out a tree inside the temple, which was using the wind to create eerie sounds like young boys whistling.
We worked our way to the start of the Colonnaded Street, which once was the backbone of ancient Palmyra, headed by the Monumental Arch, which was created in the late 2nd century AD, at the height of Palmyra's power and prominence.
We could just make out the remains of The Temple of Nebo. Were the strange shapes and sounds emitted from the shadows ghosts from the temple's inception, the 1st century AD, or just figments of our imagination?
As we walked back to our hotel we were struck by the sense of how alone we were. We did not see one other tourist on our entire walk. Earlier, the owner of the hotel, reflecting on his 10 years of service, stated that this was the worst he had ever seen it as far as tourist numbers go. When we were in Amman we read in the local paper that tourism in Jordan is down 90% year to date from last year. Why does it feel like we are the only ones here? Why is tourism down throughout the Middle-East? The answer lies in the troubles in Israel and The Palestinian Territories.
The temperature is very hot in the Middle-East right now (we mentioned that didn't we?) but mercury in the thermometer is not the only thing that is reaching a boiling point. Tension in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is starting to get out of control. Every suicide bomber that kills Israeli citizens (most of the Arab World doesn't even recognize Israel as a real country -- they are just people illegally occupying Palestine) and every apache helicopter that guns down Palestinians, brings things closer and closer to the brink of disaster.
It is really interesting to be so close to the eye of the storm. The Arab world believes that it is American muscle that backs the will of Israel. A Jordanian cab driver told us "America is the number one enemy of the Arab World, Israel number two!" Everyone seems to be on edge and glued to the situation, waiting to see what happens next.
Are we in any danger by being here? We don't think so. People hear about isolated spots of trouble in The Middle-East and they decide to stay away from the entire area. But strolling through the tranquil streets of Tadmor, we feel anything but threatened. We just try to maintain a low profile, and tell anyone who asks (and they all ask) that we are from Canada, and we avoid talking politics.
Speaking of politics, today we picked up a copy of the only English written newspaper in Syria, The Syrian Times. This flagrantly biased attempt at news is exclusively focused on the "genocide" and "war crimes" being committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians. Of course, according to the paper, the only way the Israelis can pull off this "crime against humanity", is with the backing of the US who are well aware of Israel's "true intentions". If there are two sides to every story, this paper is only telling one of them.
With the supression of the internet, monitoring of the phone and fax services, editing of anything "Western", the appalling conditions for women (who you only see literally covered from head to toe in black, sometimes including black gloves) and the presentation of "news" that is more propoganda than information, it feels like we are in George Orwell's 1984 instead of a country entering the 21st century.
Oh well, enough political rant for now -- we have some awesome ruins to explore!
Monday, June 4th, day 336, we went to the best preserved and most impressive of Palmyra's ruins -- The Sanctuary of Bel. This structure can be firmly dated at 32 AD, however, this was also the site of an earlier temple devoted to the worship of Bel, dating from the Hellenistic period and probably made of mud.
At 2:30 PM we said goodbye to Palmyra and grabbed a bus (65 Sp a head) going north, to Homs -- or so we thought. About halfway to Homs, 1 hour into the ride, the bus broke down. The only thing we could get out of anyone was, "Bus finished! New bus one minute." After 2 hours of "one minutes" we decided to "blow this popsicle stand" (they literally had popsicles right where we broke down) and we started hitchhiking to Homs. We got picked up by a local bus.
Once onboard we discovered that the local's grasp of the English language was even less than the 6 words mastered by the last crew ("Bus finished! New bus one minute."). Eventually we figured out they wanted 35 Sp (each) for a ride to Homs. Excellent! Here we go! "First class all the way baby!"
Once we finally arrived in Homs we talked a taxi driver down from 500 Sp to 300 Sp for a ride to Qalat Al-Husn (Krak Des Chevaliers).
The view from our balcony room, at The Berbash Hotel, provided a magnificent profile of the best preserved and most impressive Crusader castle anywhere in the Middle-East. We enjoyed a bottle of Syrian wine as the radiant glow from the setting sun was replaced by the cascading shine of a full moon, a waterfall of light filling the valley below the castle with shadows and mysterious movement.
Tuesday, June 5th, day 337 of our travels, we explored Krak Des Chevaliers. It was awesome! We had the entire castle to ourselves. Narrow, spiraling staircases, precarious towers, hidden chambers, impenetrable walls, menacing moats and beautiful rays of light shooting through narrow slits that once provided cover for archers. Secret passages, gates and locks, alcoves and tunnels -- it even has a draw bridge! Running around the castle made us feel like kids again. It was so much fun!
After experiencing "The Krak", we flagged down a minibus (25 Sp each) and got a ride back to Homs . In Homs we took a bus, north, to Aleppo (75 Sp each).
Once we arrived in Allepo we checked into The Al-Shark al-Awssat Hotel. The proprietors of this fine establishment could not speak a word of English. It required some amusing attempts at translation, which included something that resembled a game of charades, but finally we got the information cards filled out (although Lisa's profession was listed as "money-changer" and Joel was a "farmer"). A double room cost us 500 Sp.
There are no ATMs in Syria and you can not (legally at least) even get a cash advance on a credit card! Nowhere, nada, zip -- not even the National Bank of Syria! Some of the finer hotels and merchants can accept credit cards as payment for goods and services, but they can not legally give you back any cash above and beyond the cost of the purchase.
When you get to Syria you must have enough cash in convertible currency (good ole' greenbacks are best) or travelers checks (even these are tough to cash) with you to cover the cost of your entire trip. Also, after you convert into Syrian pounds it is almost impossible to convert back to anything else -- plus, you can't take Syrian pounds out of the country!
We had a stash of US dollars for "emergencies only", but things like the ferry from Nuweiba to Aqaba and changing money in Damascus had left us with a meager $66.00 US in cash. We have cash available on our credit cards, but, as you can see, we had no way to access the money.
Well, in addition to our $66.00 US we had 500 Sp -- just enough to pay for a bus tommorrow, to Antakya, Turkey, some dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. No problem right? We could just wait until we get to Turkey to hit one of their abudant ATMs and convert some Turkish Lira into US dollars (to increase our "emergency supply"). Oops!! We forgot one "small" thing -- our visas for Turkey. To our dismay we read in the guidebook that a Turkish visa is going to cost $45.00 US each! We don't have $90.00 and there is nowhere to get a cash advance and even if we could we would get the money in Syrian pounds which are impossible to convert back into US dollars and you can't take them out of the country anyway.
It looked like we were screwed! We racked our brains trying to find a solution to the problem. We could just head for the border and hope there is an ATM and money changer willing to sell US dollars sitting next to the Turkish border. Fat chance! We could go over the border from Syria into Lebanon (you can get a 48 hour transit visa into Lebanon for free) and hit an ATM there, hopefully be able to convert the money into US dollars and return to Syria and then go on to Turkey. That wouldn't work -- our visa for Syria is only single entry, we wouldn't be able to get back in.
What's a couple of broke world travelers to do? Simple, you find an underground, black market, Syrian mafia, money merchant who deals cash illegally. He should be able to give us a cash advance on our credit card and give us the cash in US dollars. Sound crazy? Well, believe it or not, that's exactly what we did.
The process which eventually led us to a fake jewelry shop, fronting an illegal, black market money operation, run by a Syrian version of the Godfather, went like this.
First we decided to go to a legitimate money changer (at this point we didn't even know there was such a thing as an illegitimate money changer) just to see if he would sell us US dollars for Syrian pounds. We didn't have enough Syrian pounds anyway, but we just wanted to see if it was a possibility, in case we could get Syrian pounds somehow. Nope, not going to work, but, he did give us a lead. He told us that a girl working the desk at the "snobby snob" Amir Palace Hotel might be able to help us.
After telling the cutish Syrian girl (who spoke excellent English) at The Amir our plight, she made a few phone calls (speaking in Arabic so we had no idea what she was saying). After getting off the phone she wrote some undecipherable Arabic on a piece of paper and said, "Give this to any taxi driver. He will take you to a "jewerly shop". They will help you there."
After a cab ride to the other side of town (we had no idea where we were), we found ourselves in a small "jewelry shop". Bizarro! That's the best way to desribe it. It was so obviously fake. There were a few gold chains hanging in the window, a lame attempt to front as a "jewelry store", but the main thing that went on here was MONEY!
During the 10 minutes we were in "the store", three different men came in and exchanged one bag of money for another. We know the bags had money inside because one was opened and at least 20,000 US dollars worth of Syrian pounds was laid out right in front of us. This is when the counting started. Two young boys came out of the back and just started counting, one stack of money after another. It was hard not to stare at the wads of cash, but our attention was turned away by the husky voice of a Syrian Godfather.
"Here's how it works. For every $100.00 US I charge your card you get $80.00 US and I get $20.00. Ok?" Under normal circumstances a 20% commission rate to get our own money would be a "little" steep, but we were in a jam and who is going to say no to this guy anyway?
After collecting our cash we scurried out the door and left the crew to the more important chore of counting all that money. When we got out the door, after our "jewelry shopping" we looked at each other and smiled. We were both thinking the same thing. Wow! Did that actually just happen?
Well, we got our greenbacks and tomorrow we are off to Turkey. Just wait, when we get there an ATM will be sitting right at the border or the price of our visa will be less than $66.00 US. Oh well, then we wouldn't have this amazing story to tell you, would we?
We finished off day 337 by walkıng around the impressive Citadel, an ancient castle casting a shadow over The Old City. The colorful souks of this part of Allepo were very interesting. Some historians argue that Allepo is an even older city than Damascus.
Wednesday, June 6th, "malaria day", day 338 of this wild ride and another "travel day", we jumped on a 11:00 AM bus heading to Antakya, Turkey. Look out Turkey! Here we come!
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