Haitham, our Syrian guide, led us up to a small chapel capping the castle. Rather, it used to be a chapel and became a small mosque or prayer room after the crusaders were thrown out. Stairs led up to a platform where the Imam would have spoken, and a niche in one of the walls next to it contained, on this occasion, a small boy. We lined up in front of him, a captive audience. A sweet, strong voice filled the chapel, enveloping us, compelling silence, as the boy chanted his song. We all stood enraptured by the sound, shivers prickling our skin and tears glistening in our eyes.
This treat was to demonstrate the extraordinary acoustics of the room, and when the song was finished, Haitham tipped the child, who wanted more, but then gracefully retired until we left the room. He then followed us with his hand out. I'm afraid I tipped him, too; it was worth a lot more than the pittance he received.
Palmyra is a well-preserved late Roman ruin. Columns and walls and lintels over a vast area give you an idea of how large a city it was. Sellers of jewelry, fabrics, and camel rides descended upon us when we stepped out of the bus, but among them was a family of the most beautiful children I've ever seen. The eldest sold jewelry, the second, camel rides, and the little one, maybe 5 or 6, postcards. The camel boy saw how I gushed over his little brother, and asked me how much I would pay for him, a little joke between us, so eventually, after we had looked around the site, I had to ride his camel. It was my first ride, and hardly graceful, but now I've done it, that is that.
Somewhere along the way we used the facilities of the Baghdad Café, and passed within a few kilometres of the Iraqi border.
We crossed the border into Jordan after a long delay. All our passports had to be presented to the border police, and one of our number had joined us late so didn't have her group entry stamp. Fingers crossed that she would be allowed to continue with us, but a little bakshish seemed to solve the problem. Even Haitham was a little nervous, though, and he was visibly relieved when he turned to say goodbye to us.
Our new guide, Walid, joined us later. We saw so much that was wonderful – Jerash, another Graeco-Roman ruins which gave the best idea I've seen of how large the towns were. It stretches over many acres, was as large as present day cities, and is a repository of many cultures; Persian, Nabatean, Byzantine, Jewish, and Ummayed. Walid showed us why it wasn't completely destroyed by the earthquakes which periodically ravaged the town. San Francisco engineers, take note: The columns were built to roll with the movement of the quakes and so not break.
We visited an ancient hunting lodge in the middle of the desert, where the men went to frolic with toothsome young women, and a nearby caravansary which sheltered traders and their animals on their way to sell their goods. We went to Mount Nebo, the memorial of Moses, to Madaba and a Byzantine church with an ancient mosaic map of the region. And much more.
But the highlights for me were Petra and the Wadi Rum.
- Syria and Jordan, the end
- Syria and Jordan, Part 2