Syria and Jordan, part 2
At last, the promised continuation of our Syria/Jordan
trip. This will only be highlights; my
highlights, not those of an anthropologist, geologist, ancient historian,
student of Biblical history, or anything academic in the slightest. Our guides were a bit of all these,
especially the tour organizer, David Price-Williams, who has a Ph.D in just about all of the
above. However, this did not rub off on
me to any appreciable degree, although smatterings have remained in my consciousness,
so what you get is my ramblings.
We arrive from London under the cover of darkness. There seems to be no way to arrive in
Damascus earlier than 11:30 PM, which I worry about slightly, but the driver and guide are smiling and
friendly, and after a reasonably sane taxi drive we arrive at the Hotel
Semiramis. The name triggers dreams of tents and cushions and camels, but
we fall into very comfortable beds with all the comforts of modern plumbing and
power. I can even check my email.
Breakfast is all the usual hotel food:
eggs; scrambled, poached; omeletted; fried potatoes, toast, cereal,
fruit, for us, plus wrinkly black olives, bitter little pickles, dried beef,
yogurt and honey, and cheeses.. Let’s just get this over with. We had the same breakfast for 10 days, lunch was black olives, bitter pickles, yougurt, cheese and overcooked meat, and dinner was the same. Tourists are not targets for gourmet cuisine in Syria and Jordan. .
We meet most of the people with whom we will share the next
10 days, but get little more than a glimpse of them before we pile into a bus for
the museum in Damascus. The ride is
hilariously chaotic, but the museum is beautiful, with arching water fountains,
colorful tiles, flowers, green plants, and statues.
Inside, immense white ceilings and marble walls house innumerable artifacts from
the very long history of this part of the world. My favorites are little statues called the
Mari. Made from clay or carved in wood, they
all, male and female, have smiling faces and wide open eyes.
They are like pre-historic Positive Thinkers, I guess; I was enchanted, and too busy drawing them to
listen to our guide. I thought I could
look them up on the net but can’t find them.
So, more shall be revealed. Maybe
I can email our Syrian guide, Haitham, for more info, or some of my more conscientious tour mates.(I have since found some explanations, at least for who the Mari are. See www.geocities.com/
We visit the Ummayed Mosque, which is immense. It was built by the Ummayed
civilization on the
site of a Byzantine church dedicated to St. John the Baptist . The Ummayed captured Damascus from
the Romans in 636 AD, who in turn
captured it from the Aramaeon Kindom, who no doubt got it from somebody
We women had to borrow the brown robes provided for us to
enter the mosque and the tomb of Saladin.
The mosque was filled with people at their prayers, the men in a row
nearest the wall, the women several yards behind them, trying to pray and watch
the children at the same time. I asked
the guide why they pray separately. He
said, “when women look at men’s backsides, they are not tempted, but the other
way around is different.” Poor guys. No
control of themselves.
Saladin is the fellow who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th
century, as you may know, and his tomb is beautifully decorated and widely
visited, so it was crowded and stuffy. I
couldn’t wait to ditch the brown robe.
We trooped back through a shopping mall which predates most
cities in the US, filled with stalls selling everything from an ice cream, which
is said to be delicious, to fabrics, food, hookahs, children’s items. I declined to taste the ice cream, being slightly anxious about uncooked local cuisine, but nobody who tried it got sick, and I wish I had not been so squeamish.
Back to the hotel for our first lecture on what we have
seen, followed by dinner.This will be the pattern for 10 days. Our leader, David Price-Williams, is deeply knowledgeable about this part of the world, and is a fascinating lecturer. However, after 12 hour days some of us would have preferred a rest for an hour before dinner.
And that was just the first day.
Krak des Chevaliers
This crusader castle dates from 1144 . It lies near the Aleppo-Damascus road on a
high plateau with 360 degree views, and looks invincible. In fact, it was nearly invincible. Saladin, who knew his odds, never attacked
it, but managed to defeat enough of the other castles to win dominance. In fact, though, the Egyptian Mamaliks
successfully besieged it in 1271. The
knights were forced to surrender, but were given safe passage to the sea, which
was mighty decent, I thought, considering the indiscriminate slaughter
which the Crusaders inflicted on the Muslims.
The castle is perfectly preserved and maintained. You could almost live there. Huge storage areas, wine-making vats,
grinding stones and stables lie behind thick stone walls with arched windows,
and a mossy moat surrounds it. From the
parapets, the vast desert stretches away on all sides, a must- see even for
sufferers of vertigo like me. The poor little
Bedouin man helping me up the steps needed a cast on his hand afterwards.
To be continued.
- Syria and Jordan, Part 3
- Syria and Jordan Part One