September 14th, 2007 - Nathanaels Travelogue
Sep. 14th, 2007
This summer's trip was short compared to my previous wanderings but the impression it left on me was no less significant. Syria is not like any other place I have seen, and a visit to the country is like no other visit I have ever made. This was a summer of surprises. I was surprised to by the Syrian people and their generosity. I was surprised by the diversity of cultures I encountered there. I was surprised by how sick the food made me. I was surprised by how much the Internet has affected young people there, and I was surprised by how fantastically different the climate is as you move around.
Through all of these surprises, I was left with the impression that Syria is significantly more complex than I had been led to believe. I knew better than to believe it was a nation of Muslim fanatics who supported terrorism and had a blanket hate for the West; I am not talking about those kinds of generalizations. I mean that Syria is a catchall for a great many things. They are a people with such a dense history and confluence of cultures that every individual you meet will be impressively unique, often in ways that they themselves pay little attention to. In Syria, words like Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Armenian, Druze, Alawi, Aramean, Shami, Badew, Iraqi, Halabi, and so on, are used with much greater frequency than cultural terms in other countries I have visited. Syria is the great melting pot, or at least stew bowl, of the Middle East.
It was deeply meaningful to me, on a personal as well as professional level, to stand in the ruins of so many ancient sites this summer. As an ancient historian, I spend a great amount of time thinking about what life was like "back then," but it is an entirely different experience to actually stand in the heart of an ancient city. I do not think I needed the lesson, but it made it more real to me, if such a thing was possible.
But there was another level of history that affected me this summer, and one that is equally important. The current events in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular, are having a tremendous impact on the lives of millions of people. This number is barely recognizable to most minds, a million, but to actually stand in front of dozens of destitute refugees and know that they represent a miniscule fraction of the amount of suffering and hurt going on is a very jagged pill to swallow.
For me, the most astonishing thing was the simultaneity of the two feelings. To stand in an ancient city pondering the lives of people who lived four thousand years ago one minute, and then to walk through a city that is completely transformed by the Iraqi refugee crisis another minute, and to try to understand both situations from a humanist and humanistic standpoint, is rather overwhelming.
Thanks to Jiihad for all the help you gave me whilst traveling to Aleppo. Thanks to Davide and Gabriella for showing us around Ebla. Most of all, thanks again to Nora, my beneficent traveling companion, for yet another place I could not have reached without your assistance.
I accomplished all of my goals for this summer. I successfully found every archaeological site and museum that I had hoped to visit, and I managed restore my Arabic to the level I was at in Tunisia. Thanks to Nora's tutelage, I also made serious strides into learning the Syrian dialect, which will certainly be more valuable to me in the future than Tunisian. I improved, but I still have a long way to go.
I had a wonderful time in Syria, and the Syrian people are some of the kindest and most generous people I have met in the entire world. Some of the people we spoke to asked me to go back and tell the West, "See, we are not terrorists. We want only peace." I am not naive enough to suggest that things are as simple as that, but I do believe that the Syrian people themselves feel that they have been represented falsely by the media. I personally enjoyed the company of the Syrian people very much. I did not just enjoy the country, I enjoyed the company of the people that live there as well, which is a distinction too few western scholars make. I think life is difficult in Syria, for foreigners or otherwise, but I would certainly go back if I get the opportunity. There is history there, both ancient and modern, that feels very important.
Excerpt from the Hittite-Egyptian Treaty following the battle of Qadesh
Behold, we will create our peaceful brotherhood, far better than the peaceful brotherhood of Egypt and Hatti from old times. Behold, Ramesses, Great King, King of Egypt, is in good peaceful brotherhood with Hattushili, Great King, King of Hatti. Behold, the children of Ramesses, Beloved of Amon, Great King, King of Egypt, will also be in peaceful brotherhood with the children of Hattushili, Great King, King of Hatti, forever. Following our understanding of peaceful brotherhood, they, along with Egypt and Hatti, will be peaceful brothers like us, forever.(lines 17-21)
Nora’s apartment is in a quiet neighbourhood just north and east of the Old City near Bab Thuma, and there are several snack shops and food sellers within walking distance. We returned from the road and settled in, and for the next ten days, Damascus is where I stayed. Besides seeing a few things in Damascus, my primary goal was to improve my Arabic and to write.
The souq of Damascus has more products and more bustle than the one in Aleppo, but it lacks the sense of tradition as well. The nightlife is much more alive here and, at times, the city itself feels like a city for young professionals. I managed to check out both Ananias’ chapel and the chapel of my namesake, St. Paul, the “so-called” straight street, as well as the Umayyad Mosque and the mausoleum of Saladin. The museum here is about like the one in Aleppo: some beautiful and amazing artefacts but set out in a disappointing display. My favourite activity was the night we listen to traditional hakawati story telling as told by Abu Shadii, the last traditional oral storyteller in Syria. I learned to play Syrian pool, and have generally done my best to keep my health up and avoid getting sick, after spending another two days feeling ill. The dining in Damascus is fabulous, and many restaurants, especially those in renovated traditional homes, provide beautiful and intimate settings for dinner. A short trip to Syria would still be worthwhile if one did nothing but dine.
Damascus is a major crossroads in the Middle East and one of the most “happening” places in which I have stayed. I think that I prefer the slightly less urban, slightly less modern Aleppo, but only because the chaos here still does not make sense to me. I might change my mind if I had to live in Syria for six months, so perhaps after I spend more time here I will change my mind.
The desert of Syria is famous because it is the northern tip of a much larger desert extending south, which once separated the ancient and modern societies further east, from those that line the Mediterranean. The traditional path between these two regions is to travel the Euphrates River and go around the top, along the middle of the Fertile Crescent. Following the domestication of the camel, however, things began to get more interesting. When trading organizations were no longer interested in paying tariffs to the various powers that controlled the Euphrates, they could hire caravans to cross the desert. It is in this way that the desert became more than just a wasteland. Of all the sites associated with the rise of the camel caravan, few sites, indeed few ruins on Earth, are more famous than Palmyra.
Palmyra is located at a large oasis roughly halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia (Modern Iraq), at the heart of the primary desert route that cuts through the northern tip of the desert. This placed it in a powerful position to exploit various economic circumstances and during the 2nd century AD, while the Roman Empire was at its height, Palmyra became extraordinarily rich providing access to goods from Persia and further east. The rise and fall of the city are an important part of Roman, as well as Syrian, history, and the famous queen Zenobia has been one of my favourite characters of all time.
We travelled to Palmyra by bus, arriving at the hottest point of the day. One must experience the height of desert heat in the summer to understand truly the definition of the word hot. After that valuable reminder, and checking into a hotel, we went up to the nearby hillside to watch the ruins at sunset. It is said that the ruins are most attractive during the sunrise and sunset hours and it is hard to disagree after having seen it. The next morning we woke before dawn and spent the rest of the morning touring and exploring the ruins and museum. It was not nearly as physically challenging as some of the other sites we had seen, but then, there is an entire town there catering to the tourists’ needs.
Palmyra was indeed, very beautiful, but it was beautiful in the way mass-tourism sites typically are. It looks just like everyone else’s pictures of it. I did not have any expectations for my visit there, but I had few genuine surprises as well. Some of the magic is taken out of a place when one has been pre-conditioned by so many images of it. Regardless, a beautiful place is still beautiful and I am very glad to finally have had the opportunity to see my queen, Zenobia’s, city.
We departed Palmyra by bus and travelled east to Deir ez-zur, the easternmost city in Syria.
The bus driver politely dropped us off at the police station upon our arrival. This was hardly surprising, so we answered their questions and they wished us well on our journey. You see, Deir ez-zur is on the Euphrates, and it is the last major settlement before one arrives in Iraq. Entering the small city, I noticed several things that made this place different from all the other places we had been. The Arabic dialect was noticeably different, Nora explained that it is much closer to the Bedouin dialects, and I have read of heavy Iraqi influences. The people are different as well. They seem more rural than in the west – like life was slower and simpler. There is a large hinterland of small “suburbs” up and down the Euphrates where people farm the land, and the city is basically a glorified trading post for these settlements. We saw a noticeably large military and police presence throughout the city, and in the souq, we came face to face with a great many Iraqis. The imprint their faces left me will stay with me the rest of my life. Deir ez-zur is not like the other places I have been.
So I made it to the Euphrates, the glorious Euphrates, one of the two arms that held our civilization in its infancy, and one of the centrepieces of my studies. She was larger and more beautiful than I had expected her to be, and she flows much faster than I expected. We watched some local children who were jumping into the river. I spent more than a few minutes staring into the water and dreaming of the ages that have looked upon it with the same reverence.
The following morning we rode out to Dura Europos, Mari, and Terqa, three sites along the Euphrates to the south. Dura Europos is a Hellenistic site that rose to prominence in the same age as Palmyra. Mari is an exceedingly important site from early Mesopotamian history, while little Terqa was another Mesopotamian city but one far less distinguished than Mari. Each site had its own character but the Euphrates played an unmistakable role in each of them.
Dura Europos was certainly the most attractive archaeological site I visited in Syria. A ruined citadel sits atop a ridge overlooking the river and a large city wall that is still defined in several places bounds the entire site. Numerous temple remains dot the site but virtually nothing remains of any of them, with the notable exception of the Christian church, which I was able to find. This is rather exciting because it is the oldest church of certain date in the world. Overall, the site is really quite impressive, and aesthetically, it was my favourite ancient site in Syria.
Mari was amazing but for completely different reasons, and it certainly the ugliest site I visited in the entire country. The city once had a ziggurat, two enormous palace complexes, and several temples in two different religious sectors, but today, it looks like a great big pile of mud. I travelled hundreds of miles across Syria and the desert, endured daily temperatures in the upper 30’s (c), in order to stare at, yes, a pile of mud, and it made me very happy. Two generations of work have been done at the site and we have learned volumes from their labours. Restoration efforts are better in some areas than others, but to the casual visitor, I doubt they could make sense of most of what they saw. Personally, I learned much from the visit but little that is of general interest. Having the opportunity to walk the halls of both the Third Millennium and Second Millennium palaces was a special experience, as was climbing the mound that remains of one of Syria’s only ancient ziggurats. Most of all, the greatest impression I was left with was the simultaneous reverence for both the age of this ancient place, and the amount of work done to understand it.
Terqa was a cute site that we stopped to see on our return trip to Deir ez-zur. The site itself was not especially notable but the exploration of the site was a great bit of fun. There is a modern town in the middle of the excavation and several local children came out to help us find everything we were looking for. Their excitement was contagious and they did make it much easier to find everything. Terqa was largely forgettable, but it was useful for me to identify its location along the Euphrates.
We returned to Deir ez-zur from our excursion south and made a dash to see the city’s museum before closing. We made it with time, but the staff had closed for the day for reasons I did not quite catch. Fortunately we made sad faces and said please enough that they reconsidered and we were allowed to briefly tour the galleries, and what a surprise! Yet another minor museum that turned out to be in better condition than the great national museums in Damascus and Aleppo. The museum in Deir ez-zur was my favourite for its presentation of information and the broad range of its ancient collection. I highly recommend it.
Thus, the nomadic part of our journey concluded. We purchased train tickets in Deir ez-zur to ride a train all the way back to Damascus. The trip took an entire day but was comfortable and pleasant.
Our driver’s family, as it turned out, lives in the area so he invited us over for tea, and after leaving the castle, we head over to his home. Our visit caused quite a stir in their household and neighbourhood, but they were all very kind and sweet, but also quite shy. Naturally jokes were made about “marrying their daughter to an American”, and the youngest boy asked if he could have my “head-scarf”, meaning my handkerchief. I am disappointed to admit that my Arabic is entirely inadequate for situations like this, but fortunately, Nora was able to cover for lacking. I dream of the day when I can fully exploit such an opportunity for cultural discussion.
We returned to Lattakia and found a southbound bus to Tartus.
Tartus (Tartosa to the Crusaders) is the other major port of Syria but it is tiny compared to its much larger sibling. The Phoenicians built it as a service station for the much more important Arward (Arados), an island 3km off the coast of Tartus, which was a centre of both international trade and boat building from Canaanite times. After a less than impressive night at the Daniel hotel (which is clearly abusing its long outdated recommendation by Lonely Planet), we explored the coastline and then head out to the island for a seaside dinner of grilled fish and salad. I love harbour cities and Tartus had a charm that I found endearing. The pace of life is a little simpler, a little quieter, there. There are no ruins in the city worth mentioning, but I was very excited to see much of the western side of the island still committed to shipbuilding. During our walk, I was able to see dozens of hulls in varying stages of completion. That night, the moon, my Lady Luna, showed her full face to guide us back to the mainland.
Over the next couple of days, we saw a large number of sights throughout the region between Tartus and the Homs, in the Orontes valley (the region between Aleppo and Damascus). The Phoenician temple and tombs at Amrit were eerie; I nearly fell into a pit in one of the grave shafts. The Crusader monastery tower of Castel Blanc, in Safita, pleased me for personal reasons, but then subjects relating to warrior-monks usually do. A roman temple with giant rocks had some pretty giant rocks. The famous Crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers was much less charming than many other places we visited but it is a remarkable sight. The monastery of St. George is identical to the traditional presentations of it, but unfortunately, there was no dragon corpse to be found. Finally, guidebooks give the impression that Homs, the small city between Hama and Damascus, is not necessarily worth a visit, and while that might be true, the lifestyle and standard of living there are better than anywhere else I have seen in the country.
Having moved directly eastward, we were now squarely inside the Orontes Valley. I wanted to visit two more sites before moving further eastward, into the desert. These sites were not in the guidebook and were significantly more difficult to find. Qatna, another major city-state in the region during the Bronze Age, and Qadesh, a smaller site but one that was the location of the most epic battle in the Near Eastern Bronze Age. We sought them both out on the morning of day eight.
The site of Qadesh is located in modern Mishrefeh, a small village 2km northeast of Homs. There is an excavation going on there and some restoration work has been done, but the most interesting feature of the site is the mounds that recall the ramparts of the ancient city. The skeletons of hundreds of early modern buildings still fill the top of the site, but standing on top of the ramparts, they actually help to invoke a sense of the scale in the city. Otherwise, Qatna was particularly un-photogenic.
Qadesh, modern Tell Nebi Mend, was even less photogenic. The primary reason for my visit to the site was to investigate the topographical circumstances that dictated the battle that took place there in 1274 BC, when the armies of Ramesses II (Egypt) and Muwatalli (Hittite) fought one another. According to the Egyptian depiction of events, the Hittites fielded some 47,500 men, and from the Egyptian account, we even have an outline of the troop movements that took place on the field of battle. Since we know that, in reality, the Egyptians seem to have lost the battle, in contradiction to their description of events, I wanted to see how similarly the actual site resembled the Egyptian portrayal of it. I am pleased to say that every major feature of the area is identifiable and they are all in the correct places.
The mountains of western Syria are such a sharp contrast to the steppe and deserts of the east that you can hardly believe you are in the same country. You drive over winding roads that dangle you precariously close to deep valleys before finally delivering you to the coast. The air changes driving westward, filling with water, and after mountainous ridges, the brush changes to trees and then forests. Long, narrow valleys meander between these ranges – one can almost see the Assyrian armies marching through those corridors in their annual campaigns down the coast.
Lattakia is the major city of the Syrian coast. It was only a minor port for much of history but took on much greater significance following the formation of modern Syria. Because of its ties to the Mediterranean, Lattakia is much more outward facing than the rest of the country. Culturally, Lattakia is a very different place from the rest of Syria: much fewer women wear headscarves or veils, men may even wear the occasional tank top, and the signs in storefronts feature a variety of languages including Greek and Turkish. Nora informed me that a great number of Saudi families maintain homes in the area and move north for the summer as well. We did not spent much time in the city however, and just used it as a jumping point to make our way to the nearby sites and then southward.
For me, the primary reason to come to the region was Ugarit. Ancient Ugarit shares many things with modern Lattakia and during its height - 800 years after the height of Ebla’s influence - Ugarit was probably the most important commercial centre in the world. The city is famous for its monumental palace architecture, its sculpted ivories, and the correspondences it shared with the Pharaoh in Egypt and the Hittite king (in Turkey), but it is probably most well known for the invention of an alphabetic cuneiform script. Although there is little evidence that this script inspired the more widely distributed Phoenician and Aramaic scripts, the Ugaritic “alphabet” is the oldest one known in the world. Finally, I have a personal affection for this ancient city because I wrote a paper about it as an undergraduate that became a contributing reason I chose this field of study.
Unfortunately, we were on a tighter schedule than I would have preferred, so I was not able to wander the entire site extensively but I was able to examine the four major locations within the site. The site itself has been poorly maintained. Many regions of the site, even reconstructed regions, have become overgrown, and the educational signs are difficult to find and have faded or rusted heavily. I was disappointed by how little remained of the monumental structures on the acropolis but I was pleased by how well preserved the masonry in the royal palace was. The entire layout of the royal quarters of the city was clearly identifiable. I was really surprised by the city’s distance from the coast. In the Bronze Age, Ugarit was a coastal city, and although we were near the coast in a cartographical sense, I certainly would not want to haul goods regularly over such a distance. Leaving Ugarit, I did not feel the sense of awe that I had felt at Ebla. I also realized that I know much less about the archaeology of sites this far away from Bablyonia (southern Iraq), but I was still very pleased to have visited the ruins. I think it will take more reading before I am able to embrace fully what I saw there… reading, and time.
I met up with Nora in Aleppo at the historic Baron Hotel, the famous hotel built in 1911 which once served as the terminus of the Orient Express and where many notable guests stayed including Theodore Roosevelt, Lawrence of Arabia, Max Mallowan, and Agatha Christie. The accommodations have not changed much in its 96 years but it had a unique charm that made it an appropriate first base in Syria.
Aleppo is a wonderful city. Like Damascus, people will tell you that it is the longest continually inhabited city on Earth. It is actually very difficult to find evidence to prove such things, since a living city usually makes excavation impossible, but the earliest cuneiform texts to describe the region do indeed mention a city called Hal-pa-pa in the region. Aleppo has been one of the great transit cities on Earth, catering to the needs of people and goods coming and going in every direction. Although it is less of a crucial junction in today’s trade routes, the city still preserves some of its original character and I found it to be one of the most charming places I have ever visited. To me, the most surprising feature (though it should not have been), is how multicultural the city is. Aleppo is a great Middle Eastern melting pot filled with a catalogue of peoples and heritages. I enjoyed being there very much.
My Syrian “initiation” began on my second full day in the county. Most of the people we know who go to Syria come down with some form of Traveller’s Diarrhoea when they first arrive. I was, apparently, no exception, but fortunately, I overcame it after a day of bed rest and a long night’s sleep, and I was on the move again the next day. One point worth mentioning, however, is that foods and liquids here have varying degrees of clean and they frequently have nothing to do with appearances. Usually after an hour or two of ingesting something, one learns if it was of a lesser degree. I have been receiving quite an education.
I visited the Aleppo museum but I have few positive things to say about it. It has an astonishing collection of Third Millennium material, many attractive and unusual Neo-Hittite bas-reliefs, and a few panels of Assyrian wall painting, but unfortunately, the museum is in such a disorganized state that it is virtually incomprehensible to anyone but a specialist. The case labels, when present at all, are usually in the excavators’ language, which is not helpful to people who speak less than seven languages. The tablet displays are very haphazard: many pieces are upside-down or hang diagonally. Major construction is being conducted near the front entrance of the building; I can only hope that this is the beginning of a major renovation.
From Aleppo, we set out to see the major sites in the region. A countless number of historical sites fill the area, but since many of them are Medieval or unexcavated, we focused on the oldest and most attractive ones. My personal favourite was the Neo-Hittite temple of Ishtar at ‘Ain Dara. It is small mound overlooking a fertile valley of orchards and fields, atop which sits the remains of numerous constructions including a temple of basalt blocks. Basalt last much longer than mud-brick so the site is impressively intact for its age. The outline of the temple is fully coherent and many monuments remain, including a guardian lion that my mother would love. Another impressive site was the Apamea, a Seleucid city with a largely intact (though heavily restored) colonnade overlooking the beautiful valley al-Ghab. At the end of our excursion, we settled into Hama, a modern city at the site of ancient Hamath, famous today for its large water wheels, or "Norias," that carry river water into the aqueducts, which continue to serve the city.
The following day we set out for Tell Mardikh, the site of the ancient metropolis Ebla – one of the most powerful cities of the Third Millennium BC and the site of one of the earliest archives of cuneiform tablets ever found. We had a few challenges getting there but after patiently listening to a lecture on foreign policy, we arrived at our destination. Thanks to a reference provided by my undergraduate professor, I was able to contact two of the Italian archaeologists excavating the site. They were Gabriella and Davide, and they were very hospitable and kind. We shared lunch in the dig house and then drove out to the site where they provided us a wonderful tour and history of the excavation. Although I have read quite a bit about Ebla over the years, standing in the ruins of an Ancient Near Eastern city is entirely different from reading a map. The city was enormous, measuring at least 50 hectares in area, and since excavations have been ongoing since the sixties, one is able to see many different phases of excavation and reconstruction. Before visiting the site, I assumed that seeing the site of the cuneiform archive would be the most exciting part of the site, but instead the uniquely Syrian dimensions and forms of religious architecture at Ebla were much more captivating. I could write a great deal about what I learned from visiting this site, and what impressions it left me with, but they would make for poor reading unless you are passionate about Ancient Near Eastern history. Suffice to say, this visit accomplished one of my primary goals for my trip.
Taking Gabriella and Davide’s advice, we returned to Aleppo in order to stop off at the Ebla site museum in the small town of Idlib.
I had nothing more than a first taste of Turkish culture so I cannot say anything particularly remarkable. I immediately noticed how diverse and multicultural Turkish society is, but I was also struck by how much more middle-eastern the social behaviors appeared to be. While many people’s fashions and the commercial spaces are similar to Mediterranean styles, the people’s mannerisms and their radius of personal space seem more middle-eastern.
The Aya (Hagia) Sophia was, in my opinion, rather underwhelming. The building has undergone several waves of damage and reconstruction and was used for different purposes over the years. Most recently, they call it a museum. To be honest, it would be more appropriate to call it a mostly empty space with a few modern copies of ancient mosaics. Istanbul, on the other hand, unlike the great Aya Sophia, was very exciting.
I had little trouble reaching the bus station and purchasing a ticket. Fortunately, since I had a Syrian destination, I found a company that spoke Arabic and we were able to confirm the details. The entire bus trip took about 22 hours, but this was longer than normal due to last minute “changes” in the scheduled route by the driver.
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