Hi everyone–Same old story: this is way overdue, it’s obscenely long, I’m sorry, I hope you read it anyway. Synopsis: Syria = staggering, thrilling, phenomenal…legendary.
ALEPPO (Halab): After a border crossing that included having tea with a Syrian officer as he attempted to “interrogate” us as to what we Americans intended to do in his country, Halab opened wide its arms to us and made us feel right at home. It certainly helped that we could speak the language. But aside from that, the people are so warm and welcoming–it’s quite humbling really. They were thrilled to talk to us, give us tea, share their nargila with us. At one point, I asked our hostel owner where he got a particular painting hanging in the common room because I fell a little bit in love with it, and he said, “I don’t remember, but you can take it, if you’d like. Anything you want, you can have.” Of course I didn’t accept the offer, but that just gives you an indication of how freely and wholeheartedly the virtues of hospitality and generosity are upheld over here.
As for the sites, Halab doesn’t have much to flaunt. It’s a very functional city, and in many ways it’s an exemplar of the city. The streets are busy and hectic and very lived-in; Halabis certainly don’t give themselves over to tip-toeing around ancient ruins and architectural masterpieces of yore simply for the sake of preserving antiquity. In any case, there is the old city fort, which dates back to the 3rd century–itself virtually a small town at one point, complete with 2 mosques, a theater, a ballroom-type thing, and other extravagances not usually appended to military outposts. There’s also the city’s oldest mosque, eponoymously dubbed “the Great,” which dates back to the 8th century but was largely rebuilt after an 11th century earthquake. Herein lies some vague relicry (some say it’s the head, others simply say it’s an organ) of Zaccarias, father of John the Baptist. It lies behind an austere-looking grille, which holds padlocks fastened temporarily by locals who believe that a few days soaking the baraka (blessings) from the tomb will lend them additional strength.
The most exciting feature of Halab is its sprawling souq, which would put any mall to shame. I’m a little ashamed to say it, but really and truly: here is where all your orientalist fantasies can come true.
Glittering gold, gossamer fabrics, the opaque aroma of spices, whole lambs skinned (dead) and dangling upside down, faded Qur’anic pamphlets and books, the latest vogues (apparently) in shoes, clothes, bags…the market seemed to rumble and tumble over and over itself.
It was like a sensory explosion, and afterwards, everything else seemed a little too normal.
HAMMA: We only stayed one night here en route to the crusader castle which I’ll get to in a minute. Not much to see in this desert-city, except the “citadel,” which is a bit of a misnomer since that only refers to what it once was rather than what it is now. What the locals call al-Qalaa’ or “the castle” is actually no more than a glorified crater that bores into a raised plateau. This is where Assad and his regime massacred the last stronghold of Muslim Brotherhood contingents back in the 80s (whose hands were also not entirely bloodless); they were hiding in the citadel, and Assad essentially bulldozed the entire site while they were in there. Not pretty. The site was pretty surreal b/c there’s no trace of that history anywhere. It’s been landscaped and developed into a picnic and recreation area, complete with small cafe and rusty playground, where families spend their weekends, having absolutely no choice but to turn a blind eye to the gaping and irrepressible reminder of their government’s brutality.
On a brighter note, Hamma is also known for its norias, or wooden water wheels, that sporadically adorn the Orontes River. They’re about 20 m in diameter and anywhere from 4 to 5 stories high. The surviving ones, which still operate and deposit water into the now-unused aqueducts date back to the 13th century. They’re covered in green slime now and are quite icky from a girl’s perspective, but their creaking and groaning sound like the yawns of ancient giants who, despite their grotesque and repulsive visage, are nevertheless disarming and hint at the possibility of friendship.
Just outside Hamma is Qalaat al-Hasan, or Krak des Chaveliers–the best-preserved and therefore spunkiest Crusader castle in the world.
T E Lawrence called it the “finest castle in the world,” and author Paul Theroux described it as the exemplar of the dream castle of childhood fantasies. I’m not gonna lie here: climbing all over its ramparts and clinging to its massive stone walls all for the sake of gaining a wistful gaze over the bucolic peasant scenery below definitely gave my imagination a good dose of quixotic relish. (And ok, our trio also could not help re-enacting some choice scenes from Monty Python.) Built between 1150 and 1250 by both Muslims and Christians at varying times, it housed a garrison of 2000 in its heyday. It held out against several attacks but was eventually lost to the Mamluk Sultan Beybar in 1271 after a peaceful exodus of its Christian itinerants (they were tricked into believing the Count of Tripoli had instructed them to surrender); that’s why it’s in such good shape today, because it was never lain completely under siege.
Despite its empty, echoing halls and moat filled only with moody, stagnant water, the Krak is still very much a live species of fantastic architecture and, I like to think, of incarnated chivalry.
I mean, the Tower of the Daughter of the King? It doesn’t get more song-of-roland-esque than that!
DAMASHQ (Damascus): As a serious contender for the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city (from as long ago as 5000 BC), I suppose it’s not too surprising that the first thing that always strikes me about Damascus is its incredible size and antiquity. Its walls (or what’s left of them) make me feel strangely ephemeral, as though they had seen people like me a thousand times, and had watched them depart over and over again. Its streets have a quality of patient omniscience. I could bend down and place my hand over that ancient stone, look up at the fragments of sky that glitter through the green canopy of vines that stretch from wall to wall, and feel dwarfed by the sensation that others might have done this very thing under these very leaves a millennium before.
In turn, I sense a quiet, resolute dignity of the Damashqis, as opposed to the rowdy and uncouth (albeit equally fascinating) sort that you might find in Halab. It comes with the history, I think.
Mark Twain comes to mind: “…no recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive news of it. Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus… She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies” (_The Innocents Abroad_).
There’s something weary and tamed about Damascus that, despite the distractions of the noisy bazaars and blind alleys, booming minarets, and genteel fountain courtyards, street-cart vendors and coffee/sheesha houses, makes you pause in seriousness (however fleetingly) and realize how small you are in the universe, yet how big a particular place can make you feel. It can either settle or ruffle your heart.
Most of our time in Damascus was spent simply walking around and getting lost. A lot of the sites were arbitrarily closed, but we did make it to the “Street called Straight,” where Paul (Saint) was to meet Ananias, and which, despite its superior name, is only slightly less crooked than its paved brethren. We also made it to the house of Ananias, which has been converted to a chapel “under the protection of the Holy Land.” It’s a quiet, peaceful, unassuming haven in the Christian quarter whose only misfortune is to have fallen into the hands of a guard who really creeped me out. St. Paul’s chapel also made our list; here, they built a chapel into the actual city walls, supposedly at the very spot where Paul was lowered from a window in a basket to escape persecution from the Jews. Whether or not its true, it’s a pretty compelling claim to space, especially given the fact that Christians in Syria today, while certainly not persecuted, are relegated to a muted presence.
And of course, we also visited the Umayyad Mosque–certainly one of the most magnificent buildings of Islam and the most important religious structure in all of Syria. Its architectural and decorative splendor place it among the ranks of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, and its sanctity is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina.
Its history is unequalled by all three. Worship on the spot dates back to the 9th century BC when the Aramaeans built a temple to the god Hadad. Upon the arrival of the Romans, the temple was dedicated to Jupiter, and with the advent of Christianity Jupiter was ousted in favor of Christ. After the Muslim Umayyad dynasty transferred the capital to Damascus, the Christians were eventually elbowed out, and the place was turned into a mosque. Besides its rich historical significance, it’s also a beacon of symbolic integrity for the whole of Islam: it’s the home of Saladin’s tomb (which is austere and fearful as the man himself), as well as Hussein, son of Ali, grandson of the Prophet, and hugely important figure for Shi’a Muslims.
My favorite part of the mosque was the expansive, open courtyard, which was flanked on three sides by a two-storey arched arcade (the fourth side is the facade of the prayer hall, dominated by a central section covered with a gilding of golden mosaics). The floor of the courtyard is made of white limestone, which they keep sparkling clean and polished with some kind of zamboni-type-looking thing that I found deeply gratifying–probably b/c it reminded me of hockey:) A larger expanse of mosaics also remains on the western arcade wall (it’s got to be probably 40 or 50 m long), executed in shades of green and lime on a background of gold. The mosaic depicts fairytale-like clusters of towers and domes, alternating with regally foliated trees. It’s absolutely breathtaking, especially when the sun hits it juuuust right. Everything shimmers. The brilliance is so intense, you can’t escape it and it resonates within you. Grand, eloquent, poetic–it was song incarnate.
DEIR MAR MUSA Our last excursion in Syria was to a monastery about an hour north of Damascus called Deir Mar Musa, named after a 6th-century Ethiopian royal named Musa (Moses) who favored monastic life over the throne. He fled his outraged family, finding refuge first in Egypt and then Palestine, and finally Syria. The monastery itself is a throwback to the 6th century heyday of Byzantine Christianity, when the deserts and rocky landscapes of the eastern Mediterranean hinterland provided shelter for thousands of tiny, isolated, self-sustaining and pious communities. Mar Musa is one of the very few of these desert monasteries to survive—probably b/c it’s way off the beaten track, 15 km from the nearest “town,” with the last stretch along a steep-sided rocky (purgatorial) gorge reachable only by foot.Entered through the tiniest of doorways, it’s not until you are standing on the monastery’s terrace that you realize the complex is perched high on the edge of a cliff, facing east over a vast piece of desert. Over the last 15 centuries, its presence has ebbed and flowed among the spiritual wayward, though it is now enjoying a bit of a revitalization. As well as being co-ed, Mar Musa is doubly unconventional, in that it is also ecumenical, with both Syrian Catholics and Syrian Orthodox Christians represented within the community.Though I myself preferred the sanctuary of the desert, the monastery’s pride and joy is its chapel, which dates back to the 11th century and whose earthy frescos are all entirely original. They are indeed inspiring–but probably b/c they are gazed upon by the spiritually earnest, as opposed to the venturing tourist. That’s what I especially loved about this chapel–that it was still in use!
But as I said before, the desert distracted me, and I spent as much time as I could outside. Of course, we weren’t in the heart of the desert, so there was still a little bit of plant and animal life.
Tons of crickets for some reason (and all laden with their musical carpentry); and the monastery raised goats (whose melancholy bells rang through the gentle chill of the night) and chickens (whose capricious joie de vivre turned my attempt to “meditate” and “be serious” into a bit of an absurdity, which I quickly appreciated in and of itself). They also had a turtle that liked to chomp at people’s ankles. Despite the near-full moon, the night sky was bejewelled with zillions (seriously) of stars. It was so lovely to be spoiled like that. And yes, I know that sounds a bit selfish, but the fact of the matter is that I never really got around to “connect” in any official-monastery-type way, whatever that might be; I was too overwhelmed by where I was, too relieved by where I was not, and, to shamelessly use the cliche, too wrapped up in the moment. It was perfect.
Ironically, upon our return to Damascus, the entire country seemed to have also come to Damascus for a huge parade/party/celebration in honor of Bashar Assad’s “re-election.” It was madness–the complete opposite of the prior 24 hours. The streets were packed, cars couldn’t move, people were yelling and waving their Bashar banners and singing songs; all the stores had closed, and the kids got the day off from school. So I guess this would be a good time to say a little something about the political situation in Syria right now. It’s pretty oppressive, and the people are suffering at the hands of only a few. Bashar’s picture is literally everywhere–on every lampost, every door, every billboard. Syria has taken propaganda and the cult of personality to a whole new level. Everyone knows it’s crap, but ask them anything about politics and they will tactfully change the subject. The fear is so rampant in Syria that no one can trust anyone else–because even your neighbor could be an informant, albeit unwittingly. And so the only way people can go about their lives in relative security is to act like they love Bashar–to go to all these parades, and wave flags, and sing chants. That way, the government won’t give you any trouble. No one believes in any of it. They all want democracy. They all want to emigrate. Mostly to Australia, for some reason.
As an American who knows her Revolution history, sometimes I wonder why these people don’t just stand up to their government and fight for their independence. I don’t think I’m alone in posing this question.
But when I think about the situation in Syria today versus the situation in the Colonies 230 years ago, the two simply can’t be compared like that. The Syrian government and the Baath party is much more oppressive, far more brutal, and certainly a lot closer to home (i.e. it’s basically in everyone’s backyard) than Britain was vis-a-vis America. If the Syrians were to revolt despite all this, they would face serious opposition from nearly all of their regional neighbors, not to mention the US, which certainly wouldn’t want another unstable country bordering either Iraq or Israel. And things could get really complicated with Lebanon. This is the political reality. It’s not a pretty one. At the same time, we can’t just condemn the way people have chosen to deal with their reality–especially because we have no idea what it’s like. What I do know is that, despite living under a “rogue state,” Syrians are far from being “rogue people.”
Well now that I’ve effectively bored and/or scared you all with my little political commentary, I just want to say that Syria is a lovely country and I’m so glad I finally got to go. I had been waiting a long time for this. It was well worth the wait. Next up is Lebanon, which I’ll get to at some point, I promise. Here’s a preview: most fantastic ruins in the world, complete with largest standing columns in the world; a cliff-hanging tale of hiking a la mountain goat through the Bekaa valley and the famous cedars; a military assault on a p.o.v. in Tripoli; exploring the South and all the devastation of last summer with a friendly local who drove us everywhere simply because he was bored; Beirut as eerie ghost-town.
The end. Hope all is well w/ everyone. Love to you all.