Sunday, February 27, 2011

Syria - February 2011

At this point, we’re right in the middle of the so-called Jasmine Revolution. Tunisia and Egypt have flipped and every Syrian television is showing riots in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, so there’s certainly a degree of danger and worry in the air. As Saad, our guide, said, “It’s like a dream. It came from nowhere and still doesn’t seem real. And we can’t quite see where it’s going.” But he knew how ‘real’ it was and was fearful for his job and his family. Even to experienced travellers Syria remains a mystery. It’s seen as extreme and slightly dangerous but most in the west, me included, know little about the country and its past. Travel to these countries is fragile at best, and can dry up in an instant. That would be a great shame.

Castigated by Bush Junior as a member of the ‘axis of evil’, with a resolutely anti-Israeli stance under the Assad dynasty, it’s always been an ‘axis’ for some power or another. Syria is a modern construct, the result of a 20th century carve up by European powers, so what you see is a part of the much larger Levant, which has been fought over by the Hittites, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Sea peoples, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mongols, Mamelukes, Ottomans, Germans, British, French and Israelis (and a few more). From north, south, east and west, they’ve come to trade, conquer and meddle. Is it any wonder that the Syrian people are wary of outside interference?

You can visit a country for many reasons, but my aim was twofold, first to experience another Middle Eastern country and sample its culture and people, as I like this part of the world; second, to see the places I’ve read about for years in history books, especially Ugarit, Roman sites such as Palmyra, Crusader and Islamic castles, also Damascus with its Great Umayyad Mosque and Aleppo with its citadel. Syria gives you a massive, intensive dose of history. Its sites are complex as wave after wave of conquests have led to materials and buildings being reused many times. So it’s best to recall them in chronological order, rather than the order in which came across them on our travels.

Ugarit – first alphabet and musical notation

In Damascus Museum you peer through a small glass window to see the its most valuable piece, a small clay tablet about six by two centimetres with the world’s earliest alphabet. Only discovered in 1928, Ugarit sits on a coastal hill. Fortunate for us but unfortunate for the Ugarits, it was razed and burnt by the Sea Peoples in 1200 BC, and as clay is unharmed by heat, we have preserved tablets that show us detailed records in a writing system that was so superior to the previous syllabic systems, that it became the Phoenician, Greek then Latin alphabets. The fact that so many tablets were written in two languages, is testament to the trading relationships they had in many directions. The collection in Damascus Museum is worth looking at in detail, as they have large volcano-shaped seals on the front (fraud was obviously a danger). As usual, most were mundane lists, also contracts and treaties, and a few dealt with religion, art, astronomy, arithmetic, politics and administration. Administration gave birth to writing, not story telling. They also discovered the oldest musical composition on a clay tablet with the lyrics of a song followed by its musical notation. You can hear it here.

As for the site, if you’ve ever been to Mycenae or Tiryns in Greece, you’ll immediately recognise the corbelled arched corridor and defensive stonework. Beyond this is a palace, again reminiscent of Mycenaean culture, with flagged floor and underground tombs. These tombs are beneath homes and were used for feasts with the dead. You can clamber down into several of them and they are beautifully constructed.

Syria is largely limestone, a rock that is soft enough to quarry, cut and carve, light enough to use in building but hardens on exposure to air giving it longevity. The buildings at Ugarit already show sophistication that you see time and time again in this country, which is a huge architectural museum. We had glasses of blood orange juice at the site then headed to Latakia, the modern Ugarit.


The Hotel Xenobia was a half hour walk from central Latakia so we walked to find a recommended restaurant, the Old House, which was closed. However, a shopkeeper recommended The Last Station and we drank Lebanese wine, lentil soup, stuffed vine leaves, Kebbeh and Shish Tawook. The town’s a sort of Middle Eastern Brighton by the sea. We got lost walking back so hailed down the smallest taxi in the world, and all five of us (not one under 5’ 10”) piled in. The back scraped the road several times but the fare was around 30p. We gave him a 200% tip!

Palmyra – crossroads of the world

The clue’s in the name – a city of palms, an oasis which became the crossroads of the world. It’s halfway between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean and when the trade route to the north became too dangerous this shortcut across the desert turned Palmyra into a boom town. It is an ancient Las Vegas with a strip, theatre, shops, temples and big and lavish buildings.

We arrived an hour or so before sunset so set off to the north of the site past the temple of Baalshamin (the God of rain and storms and therefore fecundity). It’s almost Baroque in style with internal structures as fanciful as the outside. Flanked by large courtyards it’s clearly an overstated sign of patrician wealth. As the sun set we walked across to Diocletian’s camp past the funerary temple. Palmyra is self-assured and confident but got over-confident when it challenged Rome. They punished the city and the Diocletian ‘castra’ sits on the hill above it all making their usual point. The later Arab castle sits even higher, as threating a site as you’ll ever see, and as the sun fell it lit up. We walked back down the main street under the starlight, colonnaded along its entire length with huge pillars (and I mean huge). It had statues on each and every pillar, of local worthies and we stopped at points to look up at the stars, always at their best in the middle of the desert. Travelling doesn’t get any better than this.

After some Lebanese beers (Almaza) we had a sort of Bedouin meal (lentil soup, lamb/chicken on rice). Someone stopped me on the street and asked if I wanted to buy Iraqi notes with Saddam Hussein on the front. I wonder how long it will be before he’s selling the present currency with Assad’s picture on the front as souvenirs?

Up early and started at the southern end of the famous colonnaded street. It’s a kilometre long with over 300 pillars and the monumental arch is as delicate and finely decorated as anything you’ll see in Rome. The street was lined with shops and isn’t the usual bouldered Roman surface, but soft sand, as camels not carts were the trucks of the day. Every pillar has a statue of a senator, merchant, camel train owner or military figure. They clearly saw themselves as a power in themselves. But at one point the Greek and Palmyran inscription beneath the statue base has been defaced. This was Xenobia, who dared to defy Rome. The agora was similarly lined with pillars with statues perched halfway up on little stone platforms and in the hermitage Museum you can see the Tariff stele with the tax rates. It’s taxes that make cities rich and Palmyra was a crossroads, taxing traffic from everyone. The tetarpylon is the epicentre of this trade, and oval crossroads with four sets of four columns marking Palmyra as the centre of the eastern world at that time. The public baths fed by huge stone pipes gurgling with hot oasis water. The earlier Temple of Nabu, showing that this site had been around for a long time before it became rich. The perfectly formed theatre perfectly preserved beneath the desert sand. The stone benches for the senate still comfortable.

The Temple of Bel is the huge temple that lies at the end of the main street. It’s monumental. We walked round the perimeter before going in to get some idea of the scale. Even with much of the material reused by later Islamic defenders, the site is colossal. Surrounded still by palm trees, it’s the most important early Roman building in the Middle East. When you enter, the cella, looks dwarfed in the middle but as you pass the huge altar, it gets bigger and bigger. The steps, the surrounding colonnade of tall thin pillars, once capped with huge metal capitals (yes metal!), surround a cella with two niches and ceilings of fine astronomical and flowered designs. The entrance has reliefs, now on the ground, of camels and merchants in eastern dress. This is the east, they say, not Rome. The double colonnade round the temenus is enormous. So large that a double row of columns had to be used. Anyone visiting this site in the first or second century AD would have been blown away by the statement.

This monumental building in the Middle East is as strong today as it was then. The Gulf States, with their oil revenues (replacing tax revenues of the past) are being pumped into structures as tall and ornate as anywhere in the world. Huge hotels, museums, mosques, corniches are springing up from the desert. Revolts are not new; the crushing of those revolts by tyrannical power is not new, religious fanaticism is not new, martyrdom is not new. The Middle East is as fiery and productive a crucible as it’s always been.

The museum is well worth visiting, full of Palmyran limestone sculptures. The style is far from the grace and power of Greek and Roman sculpture, as it doesn’t have the chiselled sharpness, perfect curves and polished surfaces of bronze and marble. Most of the statues are funerary and formulaic; a sitting position on cushions, clutching olives, the dress not Roman but Persian. They have a peaceful and domestic charm. On the way out to Damascus, we went up to the Arab Castle. It’s all vertical lines on a conical rock.


The cardus maximus is a pillared street that stretches as far as the eye can see. This rich city was famous for its horses and was for centuries an important Roman garrison. Here we were, all the way from Britain in Syria, but I was reminded of the Syrian Archers who found themselves garrisoned on Hadrian’s Wall. There’s a grave stone of just such an archer in Newcastle’s Museum.


In the middle of the desert lies this square rectangular Byzantine fort, with rows of towers along its still intact walls. Remarkably, when you get up close, you see that it’s made of crystalline gypsum, which would have shone bright white in the sun, with shards of light glancing off the angled crystal surfaces.

It grew around an original Roman garrison aided by the cult of Sergius, a Roman officer who was martyred for his Christian beliefs. As his cult grew, the town grew to handle the crowds. Justinian fortified the town against the Persians in 527-65, the walls we see today. Not for the first time, would a major centre arise in Syria around a cult figure. Martyrdom is still a feature of the Middle East. We were witnessing a revolution that started with a young man in Tunisia who burned himself to death, followed by young people in Egypt and now Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. I suspect, we’ll see many more as the weeks progress.

We entered through the main northern gate, a fantastic Byzantine arched triple gate with a courtyard in front. The stonework is outstanding, vine leaf capitals, pilasters and rose patterns. Again it’s a Syrian take, with eastern flourishes on classical forms. As you enter the whole site seems like a series of craters, actually dug by Bedu searching for artefacts, but here and there stand churches, arches and other structures. As you walk up the main N-S street you hit an odd circle-within-a-square church, a Syrian form, built in the early 6th century. We climbed up a spiral staircase on the apse to get a better view of the site.

Further on is a dilapidated Byzantine caravanserai (Hotel and market) then the amazing cisterns. Water is what keept these towns alive and Rasafa has four colossal cisterns. You can view them from above, but we (me and the two lads) found a hole with some stairs and descended into complete darkness. It swung right and then, by crawling through a small hole, one could climb into the most southerly cistern. It’s literally the size of a small cathedral, tall arches soar above the flat bottom with openings at the far end, like windows where the water flowed inform the oasis springs outside of the town. It was wonderfully cool and even in summer, so the water must have been cold and refreshing.

Walk west and you hit the Church of St Sergius, the place that the pilgrims yearned for. Pilgrimage has long been a feature of religious life in this part of the world. The Christians came here in numbers to see site of the martyr Sergius and the actual, then site of, St Simeon. Today the Hadj is one of the pillars of Islam, but we saw pilgrims from India in the Grand Mosque of Damascus along with Shia Pilgrims in the same building. Christians, Jews and Muslims still visit this part of the world on pilgrimages, every bit a serious, and probably in far greater numbers.

It’s a standard basilica, with arched isles but the large arches have been filled in by smaller arches, probably due to earthquakes. Indeed the whole building seems to have been adapted over time, in response to needs and stresses. Earthquakes account for more damage to buildings than any raiders, apart from the Mongols. Yet the stone built buildings of Syria remain standing and in relatively good shape as they’re of simple but solid design. Block stone walls can flex, move and crack, taking the forces. Its roofs and arches that are at risk. A large Bema sits in the middle of the nave.

To the side of the church is a mosque. Churches adapted to become mosques are the norm in Syria, as Islam was, in most periods, respectful of Christianity. For a good account of this see William Dalrymple’s ‘Down From the Holy Mountain’. Mihrabs were often simply added to a wall within a church. There is little sign of desecration. Still today, it remains a country of some tolerance as Syria is a secular state with a large Christian population.

We had a picnic on a wonderful spot on the south west tower looking over the site in brilliant sunshine then a walk back across the site and around the walls via the small Ghassanid palace outside the walls, to get a sense of the scale of the place.

Rasafa is built as a fort, with its walls and fifty towers. As we drove round Syria we could see innumerable military sites, with tanks, gun emplacements and trenches. MIG fighters are propped up at the sides of major highways. This is a country in a semi-state of emergency at all times. These military establishments are the modern equivalents of the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic garrisons we’re seeing everywhere in Syria. Not for the first time have the people in this part of the world had to defend themselves from foreign-funded incursions and peoples from abroad. Whenever we passed a guard post I waved and in every single instance the guard waved back – who likes guard duty.

St Simeon’s Monastery

As we approached this site the yellow spring flowers had started to bloom on the grey limestone and as we climbed we saw the deserted towns that characterise northern Syria. This site, perched on a levelled hill was well chosen. There were lots of monastic aesthetes in Syria, at this time, who saw this life, and the body in particular, as something to be discarded and denied. The soul alone was the focus and suffering was willed and endured as a path to salvation. He buried himself up to his neck in summer, wore fur clothes, walled himself up then stood on a pillar for 37 years, a pillar that had to be raised as more and more people were drawn to him for advice. He wouldn’t speak to women, and even banned his own mother from visiting the pillar.

We have seen this form of sacrifice reverse over the ages to our modern obsession with the body as a form of earthly salvation. Keeping the body young, fit, tanned and even botoxed and reconstructed through surgery, is the modern equivalent. Our modern saints are the forever-young movie stars and celebrities. The Greeks has this right, I’m sure, with their healthy body and healthy mind; a matter of balance. Religion is always a distortion, an extreme imbalance in outlook, caused by the promise of something better, whether it’s reincarnation, the next life, paradise or heaven.

The basilica, built later to reinforce the Byzantine theological view, is stunning. Built on a levelled platform that looks out high across the valley, the site is stunning. A cruciform church with four arms, each with a nave and isles, all lead to the pillar, under a roofed octagon, now a single boulder denuded by souvenir hunting pilgrims. You have to keep reminding yourself that this is a fifth century church. It is in a remarkable state of preservation, a classical masterpiece. It’s really four basilicas all joined at their apses into a common point. The entrance is classical with lovely decorative features, and four arched windows framed in a meandering design.

The octagonal baptistery, which we walked down into, is stepped into a pool with steps on the other side to lead you out. It had to be designed to deal with numbers, a sort of drive through baptism service. We had a glass of pomegranate juice at the gate before departing. It’s good for thebody, apparently.


The oldest inhabited city in the world, they say, but what you see now is largely Islamic and therefore post-8th century. But let’s start with Straight Street, mentioned in the Bible; it follows the line of the original Roman decumanus. We walked its entire length and it ain’t straight but it is a thriving one way, car dominated shopping street. Beyond the Roman arch, in the Christian quarter, it feels different, with more women free from headdresses and shops selling alcohol (weird that we got this word from Arabic).

The highlight of the city is the Great Umayyad Mosque. Before wentering e popped into Saladin’s tomb, with its two graves, one the original, the other a diplomatic gift by the Kaiser Wilheim II who came to this part of the world in 1898. His legacy is this second grave and the railway. Once inside the mosque you can see one of the finest Islamic buildings in the world and remember that this was built in the 8th century. It’s built on a pagan site that was used for the Roman Temple of Jupiter, which in turn was used to build a Byzantine Basilica inside the current walls. This in turn was carefully demolished and used to build the mosque on the south side. There’s no way that the Basilica was simply converted into a mosque as some guidebooks claim. First, the nave and isles are all the same width, not a feature of basilica design, where the nave is wider. Second, no basilica is this long and narrow. Third, the northern wall is not a wall but built as piered arches on pillars, not a feature of a basilica. Fourth, the southern entrance is blocked by a pillar. The congregational space is designed to be wide and shallow, as this points south. Islam is not like Christianity with its separate areas for its hierarchy of priests, aristocrats then peasants. Everyone is equal and the mosque is the great leveller. In the main area a large crowd of Indian pilgrims were standing and sitting at the side of John the Baptists shrine, while a young man read the Koran. They were brightly coloured in whites and flowered dresses and headdresses, very different from the women mostly dressed in black.

The courtyard is a sheet of cream coloured, polished marble, with a treasury atop eight roman pillars, an ablution fountain and the Dome of the Clocks. The west side shows what the whole colonnade must have looked like before earthquakes and fire caused so much damage; delicate pillars and a second arcade of pairs of pillars. The architect has taken all of the structural features from the Byzantine basilica and cleverly reused them to form a mosque and colonnaded courtyard. The green and gold mosaics are clearly Byzantine in inspiration and present Damascus, paradise or both. In the north east corner all the women were dressed in black as this site is holy to the Shia, as it was where Hussein’s head was placed after being sent from Kerbala.


We stayed in the Armenian area of the city, a labyrinth of medieval alleyways, locked iron doors with huge locks, hiding houses with courtyards, basements that can;’;t be seen from the outside. It’s a fortress mentality, born of centuries of political strife. Aleppo and Damascus have seen pogroms and religious attacks within living memory, so everyone has a B-plan.

Our Hotel was a merchant’s house with a two storey, open courtyard and rooms off this. It had been decorated in some style with wooden painted roofs full of cultural references. Our room had the Ugaric alphabet on the ceiling. The area had a multitude of churches, Syrian, Armenian, Greek etc., all reflecting schism that took place centuries earlier in this part of the world.

Christianity is particularly adept at dendritic drift. If there’s the last theological disagreement, it splits, and every split produces more splits. Of course, Islam is not without its own schisms. In Syria you have Sunni/Shia/Druze, Amarite, Sufi…. And these are not politically trivial. The Assad dynasty is Alawite a split from the Shia. They ruthlessly put down a rebellion by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 killing 25,000 people in the town of Hama.

Aleppo’s crown is its Citadel, a towering structure with a moat, shiny glacis and walled castle enclosing a huge area that protected the city from its many invaders. The entrance is a castle in itself, and inside, the Byzantine basilica was converted to a cistern. The Sultan’s palace is a room of cool marble and wood that looks out and down into the entrance.

The Grand mosque is similar to Damascan Grand Mosque with a large marbled courtyard and pillared gallery, though simpler and the present structure built later. At a much smaller mosque, Ken and I wandered in and asked if we could see inside, as the door was locked. Once inside, the mullah allowed us to look around. He was quite surly, until football was mentioned and he high fived us in front of the minibar on hearing the word ‘Celtic’. Weird!

The souks here are the real deal and unlike Istanbul or North Africa, no one hassles you to buy. They’ve been calmly selling here for centuries and are in no hurry. You really can see the metal worker hammer out his calligraphy onto brass plates and see the spice merchant pile his spices into shaped pyramids with coloured patterns down one side. We bought some Aleppo soap, olive oil and Laurel oil, matured for four years, brownish green on the outside, dark green on the inside.

As I was clambering over the internal walls, a complete class of Syrian schoolkids, around 9 or 10 years old cornered me and started to ask me where I came from and my name. They were delightful and full of questions, especially about football. For half an hour after meeting them I could still hear them call ‘How are you?’ across the site. Everyone, and I mean everyone, who visits Syria, comments on the friendliness of the people.

The Middle East has a huge demographic bulge with millions of young people that need jobs in the future. The pressure is already on, as the current crop have been behind the revolution we’re seeing grow day by day. But the challenge is enormous. Education is important, but an education based on rote learning and conformity to fixed texts has not served the Middle East well. A tradition of Koranic recitation and memorisation has led to pedagogic models that erode the individuality and critical thought necessary for entrepreneurship and innovation. Syria is now embarking on a new five year plan in education altering the curriculum to introduce more critical thinking and autonomy in learners. The task is enormous.

Krac des Chevaliers

You rise and rise and rise, until you catch a glimpse of the grey battlements. It doesn’t look that impressive and even when you get up close, it seems like just another castle. But just wait, for that’s what the Mamelukes thought when they tried to siege it. After three months they managed to break through the curtain wall, and what they faced next made them give up; a moat, huge thick walls and towers, machicolations, and a smooth glacis that is impossible to scale. What’s more, it’s built on solid basalt, so impossible to undermine. With a year’s supply of food, it took only 200 people to hold. They gave up and resorted to trickery, sending in a false note promising safe passage to the coast.

The entrance is all murder holes, switchbacks and traps. Inside it’s a small town, with stables for dozens of horses, a refectory for hundreds, the biggest oven you’ve ever seen, the great hall, barracks, olive oil storage jars, huge latrines and a chapel. A young lad sang beautifully in the Chapel facing the mihrab. It was a recitation of the Koran. It was a joy to walk around this pristine castle and feel the strength of the place. When there a storm came and blew rain against the walls. They shrugged off the weather and inside you would hardly have known it was raining, such is the secure nature of the place. The view over the Homs gap was great. What would it have been like to have been from France or Britain, having come this far and to hold this place? Never taken by force, this is, without doubt, the biggest, baddest and meanest castle ever.

The modern Crusaders, the Zionists, continue with an expansionist policy of settlement, driven by the same level of religious zeal. Like the crusaders they have come with military weaponry, funded and produced by the USA. Modern knights are Black Hawks and F16s. Successive crusades, are mirrored by waves of Jewish immigration from Europe, USA, Russia, Yemen, Ethiopia and so on. Their target has been Jerusalem. Israeli Wars in 48, 56, 67, 73 made the second half of the 20th century as warlike as the crusader’s in the 12th century. The Golan Heights are more fortified now than they’ve ever been. The weapons have changed, some players are different, but the story is the same. From the castles and catapult sieges to cannons that made castles redundant, to rifles and now tanks, artillery and the ultimate nuclear arsenals. All does not bode well for this part of the world.

Saladin’s Castle

Originally a Byzantine castle, it was taken over and largely built by the Crusaders but taken by Saladin. Set on a spur between two wooded ravines it is in a wonderful site. You climb to the entrance and what faces you is more than astonishing. The spur has been cut straight through to isolate the rock upon which the castle sits. In fact, the removed rock was used to build the castle.

These crusader castles remind me of the Israeli settlements that sit atop rocky hills in Palestine. Walled up and heavily defended, they dominate the land for miles around. The Israelis, like the Crusaders used carefully selected sites, within line of sight of each other that could act as lines of defence in holding large areas of land. Hold the high ground and you own the valleys and plains.


The Euphrates dam was built with Russian help in 1968, at around the same time that Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Soviet style housing remains in the area but the blue water of the Lake looks great, apart free from even a single boat, fishing or leisure. I suspect they’re banned, for security reasons. The Euphrates is one of the great rivers of the world and when I flew over Iraq just two weeks ago, saw its meandering influence water and irrigate, through canals huge areas of the desert in Iraq. Similarly in Syria, although this time, we drove through the fields of wheat, maize, orchards, cotton and other crops.

War and trade are joined at the hip in the Middle East. As the trade crossroads of the world, countries could rely on levying taxes, still a huge revenue earner for Egypt on the Suez Canal. Now it is resources, namely oil. Another resource war is looming over water. The Euphrates Dam provides the electric heartbeat for Syria but the Euphrates supply has fallen by 30% making irrigation more costly. Jordan is in a perilous state as the Rive Jordan has all but dried up. The paradox is that future GDP must rely less on oil and more on tourism, industry and agriculture, which in turn need more water.

Modern Syria

To visit Syria is to learn a great deal about the Middle East and its problems. History has a great deal to teach us about how things are likely to evolve in this part of the world. Unfortunately, history tells us that we should not be too optimistic. The Middle East reveres Saladin but has been let down by its modern leaders, largely rapacious dictators who aggrandize their family and friends. This is what makes the current revolution, which is, uniquely, across almost the entire Islamic world, united by a common language and common grievances, such an interesting opportunity. If the next generation can provide leadership and unity, the future could be very different from the past. And what to say at the end of my journey? Good luck to Syria and its people - they deserve a break.