2005 Time-out Diary
Wandering around Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

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04-07 December 2005

Sunday 4th December 2005    day 146     whereami     Satellite view

Hama, Syria
Up and slowly out at 10:30 - visiting Apamea today - 50km north west.

Apamea was founded around 300BC and was another major trading post between the Mediteranean and Persia. When the Romans took over in 64BC it became a garrison town expanding to pop. 500,000 - 75% slaves. Large parts of the town were rebuilt in the 2nd century following earthquake damage. It declined during the Byzantine years, then was occupied by the Crusaders until it was largely destroyed by earthquakes in 1157 and 1170 and was abandoned.

I walked to the minibus station and soon found a minibus going to Skailabeyeh. My friendly neighbour chatted with me all the way - pointing out some sights along the way. When we arrived he pointed to my connecting minibus and apologised for bothering me - it's ok, thanks mate. Onto the Apamea minibus for the last 10km and I was dropped in the village. No signs or anything so I asked around and got pointed up a steep lane heading into the hills - 2km walk to the site. It's high up in the hills and into the low clouds too - quite misty. The mist was gone an hour later.

Bought my 150SP ticket and walked around - it's a big site again. The main colonnaded roads have had their columns rebuilt and the flagstone roads are mostly excavated but most of the rest of it is original ruin, big stones lying around half-buried. It's a great place - the main road, the cardo maximus, is about 1.5km long with columns most of the way down both sides - really impressive. Off to the sides there are a few excavated areas but most of it is random collections of stones. The local farmers plough the surrounding fields in twisty lines around the odd big block or protruding column. I spent ages there just slowly walking and climbing about.

Apamea   Apamea   Apamea

Apamea   Apamea   Apamea

Apamea   Apamea   Apamea

I only saw about 8 or 10 other visitors all afternoon - and 4 or 5 "genuine antiques" sellers flogging coins, stamps and a small bust that they'd unearthed - or made in their workshops! I love these places when they're quiet, it's very remote and desolate here - it's just great. As I stepped off one wall a fox darted out from the bush right underneath me. Lots of hawks about too. I spent far too long just mooching about and the sun was soon setting - early at 4pm as it went down behind high mountains.

Apamea   Apamea   Apamea

Apamea   Apamea   Apamea

In the twilight I walked up to the remains of some Roman houses and a cathedral. Lots more columns and lots of shoulder-high walls, and even more remote.

Apamea   Apamea   Apamea

Apamea   Apamea   Apamea

Started back towards the village as it got dark and hadn't gone far when a motorbike stopped and the bloke offered me a lift. I said no thanks, I was enjoying my walk, but he insisted - "I am your guardian". I wasn't aware that I had a guardian today but it seemed I had little choice so I climbed on and we coasted all the way down the hill into the village. He waved me into a shop where his friend tried to sell me postcards - and then we just sat there. I couldn't work out what was going on, what we were waiting for, or how obliged I was to stay. I got up and said I was going to find a minibus and they just said goodbye - I dunno? They did say there were no more minibuses today but I said I'd have a look anyway.

Went and stood opposite where I was dropped off but no minibuses came along. A few locals also said no more minibuses and helped me get a taxi. 100SP, down to 75SP to Skailabeyeh. An ancient but fairly tidy Mercedes that just purred along. Found the minibus for Hama, got in and waited while it filled up. Chatty crowd who all wanted to talk to me through the one lad with very little english - lots of handshaking when we parted. Walked up through town and went straight to the internet café David told me about last night. Emails, website, and downloaded some more good stuff on Lebanon - need to plan that final leg very soon.

Picked up a felafel sandwich, some oranges, some nuts and seeds and went back to the hotel about 8:30.

Another great day. Apamea was terrific - very big and impressive, very remote and very quiet - just great. And pretty good journeys both ways with friendly and helpful people.

      High: Apamea was great
       Low: getting collared by my guardian - it was nice out in the wilderness

Monday 5th December 2005    day 147     whereami     Satellite view

Hama, Syria
Up, showered, shay'd and out at 10:30 to see Hama. Headed straight out to see some of the famous water wheels.

The water wheels were first developed in the Byzantine era, the remaining examples are from Marmaluke and early Ottoman times. The Orontes River flows right through Hama and the water wheels were used to raise the water into aquaducts that fed water to the city and the crops. They're known as "the groaning water wheels of Hama" owing to the mournful sound they make - somewhere between a cow's moo and a chainsaw. The arabic name for them is "norias"

They don't all turn these days but there's a big one in the nice gardens that does, and I soon found it. It's at least 15m diameter and turns slowly emitting a surprisingly loud groan. The whole wheel must be reverberating to make so much noise. The speed is not consistent so there's higher pitched whining followed by juddery rasping in the slower bits. It's a great sound.

Noria   Noria   Noria

I walked through the gardens to some more wheels but couldn't get very close. Only one of the three was turning and it stopped for 10s on each rotation, slowly juddering and grinding back into motion each time.

Noria   Noria

Then off to have a look around the old city.

Hama is infamous for some incidents that occurred here in the early 1980's - known as The Hama Massacre. There was rising opposition to the Assad regime in the late 1970's due to corruption, human rights abuses and Syria's military intervention in the civil war in Lebanon. Hama was a stronghold of the extremist Moslem Brotherhood who launched a series of terrorist attacks in the main cities. In 1981 they ambushed a security checkpoint on the outskirts of Hama. The government responded by shooting dead around 350 men in the Hama streets completely at random.
In 1982, sensing a building revolution, the government sent special army units into Hama to arrest members of the Brotherhood and to seize weapons. The Brotherhood were ready though and fought them off - calls for a jihad were broadcast from the mosques. About 100 policemen and party officials were killed in the uprising and the old city was barricaded. The Syrian army, commanded by the president's brother, brought 30,000 troops in and bombarded the old city with shells. They regained control and flattened most of what was left of the city with bulldozers. An estimated 5,000-25,000 people were killed and 70,000 were left homeless.

I found the old city and the adjacent An-Duri Mosque (1152). Many of the walls around here still show their battle scars - bullet and shell pockmarks all over the place.

bullet-marked minaret

Had a quick look in the museum housed in the Azem Palace that was the home of the Ottoman governor in the 1700's - 75SP. Quite an interesting place but no photos allowed inside. Shame, the artwork on the walls was really good.

Azem Palace - museum   Azem Palace - bullet marks   Azem Palace - museum

Headed north west along the river to the biggest water wheel - 20m. It wasn't turning, the surrounding area was knee-deep in litter and the nice-looking café was closed - I didn't stay long.

noria   noria

Back into town to find the souq. Excellent place, almost zero hassling as it's not aimed at tourists. Did a little bit more shopping for a couple of hours. Got a 50SP haircut and went back to the first great noria for another look and listen.

noria   noria

Picked up a 10SP felafel sandwich and back to the hotel about 5pm.

Yet another great day, very interesting sights and sounds, great souq with some successful shopping and a cheap haircut - can't be bad.

I'm hoping to borrow a Lebanon guide from someone this evening - get some hotel recommendations. I'm now thinking of going straight into Lebanon from here, tomorrow - not returning to Damascus as originally planned. Some fast reading and planning to do tonight.

Sat in the communal area reading my guidebook until David turned up and we caught up on the past couple of days. I did a very brave thing - I swapped a book with him - one that I wanted to keep! Paul Theroux's excellent Dark Star Safari gone for Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. I've had to face up to the fact that if I'm going to live this travelling life seriously I'm going to have to give up my book-collecting habit - or my back and wallet will both fail me.

Nipped out for a look at the nearby noria by night but it wasn't very spectacular. Went to the internet café, updated the website and looked for Lebanon hotel tips - not very successful. Noticed on the news that there was a bit of a shoot-out in Aleppo a couple of days ago, and one in Hama a week or so ago.

I've decided now that I will go back to Damascus after all. I didn't get to the museum there and they've got some good stuff from several of the sites I've visited - Palmyra, Dura Europos, Mari and Ugarit. It'll be good to see the exhibits in context. Also, Lebanon's a lot more expensive and I don't want to wreck my budget now. I'll work out a plan that gets me to all I want to see in minimum time.

Ok, sorted. Lebanon on the 9th, straight into Beirut as a central base and buy a Lebanon guidebook. Then 3 trips - north 3 days, east 2/3 days and south 3/2 days, returning to Beirut each time and with a full day there on the 18th. That gives me a few more days in Syria - I'll stay here in Hama one more night, I like it here, and visit another local site.

      High: the amazing sound of the norias
       Low: all this researching and planning is terribly hard work!

Tuesday 6th December 2005    day 148     whereami     Satellite view

Hama, Syria
Decided to try and visit Qaalat Shmaimis, an Ayyubid castle ruin from the 13th century - 20km south-east. The Ayyubid dynasty was set up by Saladin - the local hero that finally booted out the Crusaders. The book says there's not much left but the main attraction for me is it's desert remoteness. This will be my last chance to see some desert.

Sorted out some laundry and my gear in general. Knocked on David's door to see if he was interested in joining me. He is but he needs to go and get his visa extended first so I said I'd wait around the hotel. Spent my time eating a 10SP felafel and reading up some more on Syria and Lebanon.

David showed up around 12:30 and we went round the corner to look for a minibus. Found a bus going to Salamiyeh and jumped on - 10SP. Straightforward journey with the bloke in front repeatedly trying to strike up a conversation with his 10 words of english. In the end he resorted to telling David he loved him, over and over.

The castle came into view 6km before Salamiyeh - it looked great perched on it's volcanic cone. We signalled to the driver but he pointed onward, we carried on, signalled again, he pointed onward and the conductor was talking about a taxi. We said no, we get off here and walk - I think they wanted to take us right into Salamiyeh, probably got mates with taxis there. The bus stopped and we jumped off.

It was a 1-2km walk to the base of the cone and a pretty steep climb but ok really. A motorbike stopped while we were walking and we were asked some questions about nationalities, where are we staying/going etc.

Qalaat Shmaimis   Qalaat Shmaimis   Qalaat Shmaimis

Qalaat Shmaimis   Qalaat Shmaimis   Qalaat Shmaimis

The place was deserted as expected - it's pretty remote and it's free access. There's not a lot left, mainly just some walls. Inside the castle is just a high mound of earth and rock that seems to be a natural continuation of the cone. It wasn't clear but I suspect there's more castle buried underneath. We wandered around taking photos, gazing at the great scenery (not really desert, mostly agricultural) and generally enjoying the place.

Qalaat Shmaimis   Qalaat Shmaimis   Qalaat Shmaimis

We spotted a bit of a hole in one corner, about 3m across, and went to investigate - maybe we can get into the castle buildings? The edge of the hole was steep and gravelly so you couldn't get very close - and surprisingly we couldn't see the bottom. I threw a rock down and we waited a good 3s for it to hit the bottom! It must be 40-50m deep!

We went round to the other side where the ground was rockier and looked in - we had no idea what the hole was - even how old it was, or whether it was natural or dug. I think it was probably dug (but how?) fairly recently but I haven't the faintest idea why. There's no mention of it in my book. It's bloody dangerous really, it looks like a harmless dip but you could quite easily slip off the path and be gone forever. It was very strange - I'll be trying to find out what it's about.

Qalaat Shmaimis - BIG hole   Qalaat Shmaimis   Qalaat Shmaimis

Bit more wandering, picking up shards of ancient pottery and generally mooching about. We decided to go down the north side and head back to the road by a different route.

We needed to pass through a little farm and of course ended up saying hello to the 2 bedouins, and having a shay with them. We watched their pigeons flying around and returning when called. Had a look in their living quarters tent - it was really nice and cosy. The younger bloke insisted on being photographed next to his pride and joy pictures of a singer and Che Guevara. They were good blokes, we shook their hands and went as the sun was getting low.

remote farm   remote farm   remote farm

remote farm   remote farm   remote farm

remote farm   remote farm

We walked back to the main road and flagged down a 15SP minibus after a 10 minute wait. Straightforward journey back, grabbed a 30SP kebab, bought 1/2kg of tangerines 10SP and back to the hotel.

Another good day, and the afternoon out cost just 25SP for transport, about 28UKpence, that's pretty good value.

Sat around in my room and wrote my diary, went down to the communal area about 9:30 to be a bit sociable. Not many about and I just made a start on my new book. David showed up about 10:30 and we chatted mostly about good books to read on the various countries we're heading towards. The hotel guy told us that the big hole was a well! We also chatted about the possibility of our paths crossing again next year - we've both got pretty vague plans for routes and times but they do roughly coincide around July/August. Packed up at 11:30.

Back to Damascus tomorrow.

      High: good afternoon at Qalaat Shmaimis - and David's good company
       Low: I'm getting very worried about my left shoe lasting out - I'm down on me uppers and I got no sole

Wednesday 7th December 2005    day 149     whereami     Satellite view

Hama, Syria
Up and sorted and packed and checked out at about 11am. Hotel Riad is one of the very best places I've stayed - cheap, friendly, helpful, good communal areas - very good.

Walked 1-2km to the bus station - the pack's not too bad with the added shopping. Got my 90SP ticket but the bus isn't until 12:30. Had something to eat and a shay, joined by a young local describing how keen he was to leave Syria as he saw no future for himself here - he was ok.

Got my bus and sat fairly comfortably reading my book for an hour. The view was surprisingly desert-like and I hoped I wasn't on the bus to Palmyra. The tv was turned up louder so we could all enjoy the stupid fighting scenes in some ridiculous american subtitled movie set in the 2nd world war - full of overly-muscular super-heroes and a pathetic pretty heroine. After 45 solid minutes of full blast blam, pow, thwack, aargh, thump, shoot, stab, aargh, rat-tat-tat, thud, aargh I'd just about had enough. The only break was my neighbour's mobile phone that rang every 3 minutes for the entire journey. The journey took longer than I expected and we didn't get to Damascus until gone 2:30. It seemed even longer.

Usual chaos of taxis to fight through and I went looking for a minibus to the centre. I wasn't sure where I was but after a walk I realised it was a different side of the Harasta bus station that I left from on my way to Palmyra a while back. I flagged down a minibus and asked for the city centre "wasat el medina", no, tried again, no, again, no, again, no - and they look at me as if I've made some embarrassing faux pas, I don't get it. I rechecked my map - all ok - and tried again but kept getting the same. A girl helped me in the end - I need one with a green sign on the roof - so obvious! - should have guessed that! - I feel such a fool!

We flagged one down and I climbed aboard taking up too much space with my big pack. There was a fair bit of huffing and puffing going on 'cos I was in people's way, and we made slow progress through the heavy traffic. I shouted to get off when I thought we were in the right place. Nobody moved an inch and several were grumbling when I dragged my pack past them or over them. It's one of those silly situations where you might expect a little help, or at least some consideration, and you get neither. It's as though I'm carrying a big bag just to annoy them. And yet, other times people are almost too helpful.

Walked around the corner and I was right by Hotel Al Rabie - bang on target. They only had a double room for 500SP. Tried Hotel Al-Haramain just a few metres away and I've got a basic little room for 350SP. Both these places get similarly good write-ups in my book. It's a friendly little traveller's hotel (and I'm a friendly little traveller so it's perfect!) in quite an old building tucked away down a narrow cobbled lane. The stairs are great, each step slopes down by 7 or 8deg to the left as you climb, the whole staircase creaks and moves, and the balcony seems to just about support itself - it feels like the whole lot could come crashing down at any moment. It's got a lot of character - I like it. No power in my room though - that's not ideal.

Had a quick shay and went food shopping. Bleedin' felafel sandwich again, a giant one for 15SP, some super-sweet-sticky-cake-things and another 0.5kg of oranges. Back to my room for food and diary duty.

A boring statistic - tonight I'll be sleeping in the 50th bed of my journey.

      High: another nice hotel
       Low: blam, pow, -ring-ring-, thwack, aargh, -ring-ring-, thump, shoot, stab, aargh, -ring-ring-, rat-tat-tat, thud, aargh

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