SYRIA: Aleppo, Crusader Castles, Hama, Palmyra, Damascas, Dara, Mar Mousa Monastery

LEBANON: Baalbek; SYRIA: home-stay with Firas, Aleppo

July 2001

(NOTE: This travelogue was written in July 2001, just before the September 11 attacks on America by militant Islamic terrorists. What we have to say about safety in the Middle East should be re-evaluated in the light of those events.)


Syria was one of the safest countries we've visited. We attributed our safety to the military regime's tight control of the country. Army bases were in evidence everywhere, and crime was dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. We couldn't take a bus between towns inside of Syria without showing our passports and each hotel had to register our passport numbers. The trade-off for such safety is, of course, freedom of opportunity and choice for the Syrian people. As travelers, our movements were not restricted in any obvious way. However, like most Syrians, we couldn't access our e-mail. (The only other country that restricted our access to the Internet was Myanmar - another police state.)

During the past forty years, we've traveled in some fifty countries. Of all the people we've met, the Syrians are among the friendliest and most welcoming. We were overwhelmed with kindness when we spent the night in a Syrian home. Minute by minute our hosts stuffed us with delicious food and tea, until we nearly popped trying to be gracious guests! Everywhere we went, we were made welcome with wide smiles. People gave us seats on crowded local buses, gathered around trying to help us - in Arabic! when we were lost and even walked us many blocks along this passage to our destination.

As soon as we crossed the border from Turkey into Syria, we noticed big differences. Along the coast and in the big cities, Turkey is more Westernized in its architecture and evidence of wealth. Syria reminded us of Morocco - its language is Arabic, its adherence to traditional Islamic customs more obvious than in Turkey and its architecture more suited to the desert. Muslim women are veiled in Syria; in Turkey most are in Western clothing.  Below, Lou's wearing the traditional garb of a Syrian patriarch:


The day we arrived in Aleppo, a young man we met near the bus station hustled us into a small travel office, where we arranged for a car and driver to take us to nearby historic sites. A French couple came in while we were there, seeking the same services. She spoke good English, he very little. Having the same general itinerary, the four of us decided to share the costs of a car and driver to see ruins in the surrounding countryside the next day.

The ruins of an early Christian church, built around the spot where Simeon, an early Christian, sat for some 30 years atop a pillar, were particularly impressive. A boulder marks the spot where the pillar once stood.

During that day Michel and Dany became our friends - and our companions for the next fourteen days of travel around Syria and part of Lebanon. Michel is a medical doctor in a working class area on the outskirts of Paris; Dany teaches English in an elementary school in the same community. They are a gentle, charming couple, with a delightful sense of humor. During our two weeks together, Michel’s English improved far more rapidly than our French — we often conversed in what can only be called "Franglish."


Syria's foremost attraction is the beautiful ruined city of Palmyra, a huge sandstone complex way out in the desert. Zenobia, the ancient queen of Palmyra, was a fascinating woman who claimed to be descended from Cleopatra. She murdered her husband, the King of Palmyra, and created an empire independent of Rome by marching her armies off to conquer most of Syria, Palestine and part of Egypt - wresting control of them from the Roman Empire. She was planning to march on Rome itself when Emperor Aurelian got fed up and destroyed Palmyra. Zenobia was taken captive to Rome, where she either lived out her days in a villa or starved herself to death rather than endure captivity.

Queen Zenobia apparently was a ruler with a sense of humor. She once summoned to the Palmyra amphitheater a merchant accused of overcharging his customers. He stood alone in front of the queen and a big crowd - trembling as he awaited death from a ferocious animal. When the beast was released into the arena, it proved to be - a chicken! The crowd roared with laughter, and the merchant was left to live out his life as the butt of jokes.

We spent the night in a pension in Palmyra - getting up at 5 a.m. to see the sunrise over the ruins. The luminous color of its pink columns and walls was astonishingly beautiful. Lou had great fun that morning, donning his kufeyye (red-and-white checkered headdress, such as Arafat wore), shouting "Courage, mes amis! Allons-y!" and rushing headlong down the colonnade, kufeyye flapping in the early morning wind.


The four of us visited several Crusader castles. Our favorite was the hulking Krak des Chevaliers, which Lawrence of Arabia called "the finest castle in the world." It conjured up visions of Crusader knights and of dungeons and dragons.

Lou pretended to bathe in a stone basin in one of the massive baths installed by the Muslims after the Crusaders were routed from this castle.


The ruins at Ebla were an unexpected treat. Although there isn't as much visible as in other ruins, this is a site of great significance. Ebla is where evidence of the world's first written language was found - 15,000 clay tablets written in Sumerian were unearthed here. A fascinating sheik/guide captivated us - he had assisted Italian archaeologists on this site for 20 years and spoke four languages (often in the same paragraph), totally confusing us as well as firing our imaginations.



Joan's Story:  While this may not be as catchy a song title as "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," it’s more biologically accurate. Aleppo’s citadel dominates the city from its place on a high mound in the midst of the ancient souqs (markets). As early as the 10th century BC. this mound was used for worship, and the first fortifications date from about the 4th century BC. Most of what is visible today dates from the 12th century AD, when it served as a power base for the Muslims during the Crusades.

We had a good time climbing around the citadel ramparts, imagining it as it was 800 years ago. As we were about to leave, five young Muslim women dressed in high heels, slender blue jeans and fashionably-wrapped head scarves called out to us. "Hello! How are you? What is your name?" We talked for a few minutes, as one of them spoke a bit of English. Then they beckoned us around the corner to meet two of their mothers, who sat on some stone steps at the top of the fortress - wrapped head-to-toe in black chadors (voluminous, all-concealing robes) with only their hands and faces showing. The two women welcomed us with shy smiles and gave us tiny glasses of thick, sweet coffee. 

As we sipped and chatted, using broken English and our ever-more-fluent hand gestures, one of the young women examined my errant hair. (We’d been on the road two months at this point, and my short haircut was becoming seriously shaggy. I’d been unable to find a hair salon for women and was reluctant to breach the strong gender lines and ask a male barber to trim it.) She pulled a pair of scissors from her purse and mimed that she was a hair stylist.

So there I sat - having my hair cut in the 12th century citadel above the city - surrounded by an extended family of four small boys, five young women and two veiled mothers - in full view of many bemused Muslims and a few startled tourists! An inch of my hair is now scattered across the top of the fortress; samples of my DNA will be in Syria for decades! "I Left My Hair in Aleppo Citadel…." (Can anyone think of the next verse?)


Lou's Story:  In the Middle East, men openly show affection for each other. I realized this right away when the owner of a Turkish pension locked my head between his two hands and attempted to plant a goodbye kiss on my lips! I managed to escape fairly gracefully, feeling both awkward and quite touched by this sweet man's gesture of friendship.

When men greet each other in Syria, it is almost always with kissing on the cheeks. When men walk together, they do so with arms locked or holding hands. When they sit and talk, their faces are closer than in the West. Uniformed men in the Damascus immigration office repeatedly fondled each other's earlobes while kissing on the left cheek, right cheek and neck. By the time I got to the Mar Mousa Monastery, I had become accustomed to this - so when an engaging young man squeezed my hand, I could comfortably squeeze back! 


In Damascus, Joan and Dany could not go into the famed Umayyad Mosque until they donned voluminous brown hooded cloaks. Along with the Muslim women, they sweated and steamed in the hot interior of the mosque, surrounded by bare-headed Muslim men wearing lightweight Western-style short sleeve shirts.


It was explained to us that men’s desires are inflamed by women’s arms, legs, faces, etc. - so the women must be covered up. We try to be respectful of local customs and Joan wears long-sleeved shirts and baggy pants to avoid inflaming too many men. But the traditional Islamic attitude toward women continues to gall her. She wonders why women living in this hot climate must be punished for men’s supposed failings.


While riding a long-distance Syrian bus, we sat behind a man whose wife was totally concealed from view by her chador, which covered even her mouth - revealing only her nose and  lively eyes. We were thinking about her terribly restricted life, when she startled us by turning around in her seat and speaking to us in fluent English. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist and had completed part of her medical studies in England; her husband was a soils engineer with more limited English. They invited us to go to dinner with them in Aleppo the next night. They took us to a noisy outdoor restaurant, so our conversation was split in half. Lou had a good time discussing careers, travel and the Palestinian situation with the man, while Joan and the woman talked together.

Joan's Story:  Maha was both extremely friendly and extremely opinionated. (Those who know me will be amused to learn that I had a difficult time completing a sentence, as she did most of the talking.) We spent a couple of hours discussing a wide range of subjects - including parenthood, traveL and Shakespeare - she referred to his play "The Merchant of Venice" to bolster her aversion to Jews! When we got around to discussing Islam, she said the "only way to truth is through science."

Finally, I asked her how she reconciled her scientific training with the strict version of Islam she practices. (She is so modern that their twin sons were conceived by in vitro fertilization in a petri dish!) Specifically, I asked her how she reconciled the science of evolution with her religious beliefs. She flat out contradicted evolution, saying "such mutation is impossible." She said, "If you want to know the truth of how the world was made, you have only to look at the stars to know it was made by God." Then I asked, "But what about the evidence of carbon dating and the sequencing of skulls and bones from chimpanzees through hominids to Homo Sapiens?" Despite her modern scientific training, Maha denied the entire body of evolutionary evidence. I didn't say this to her, but - since she believes only what her eyes tell her - she should also believe the earth is flat!

I was truly shaken by this discussion, as I have long felt that reasonable, educated people will eventually come to some acceptance of modern science. Even the Catholic Pope believes in God as the creator of life that unfolds through the process of evolution. Many scientists are either religious or at least have respect for the mystical beauty and wholeness of the universe. I wondered from this discussion if Islam denies the most basic concepts of contemporary science. Perhaps such denial is one reason the Islamic world is now so far behind in science and technology. At one time Middle Eastern scholars were well in advance of the West in mathematics, astronomy and the sciences. This conversation with Maha was the most unsettling of any I have had during our travels.


Lou's Economic Analysis:  The streets here are overflowing with vintage cars - many of them American. There are hulking Chevys and Pontiacs, tail-finned Cadillacs and toothy Buicks. Why all the old cars? And why are the newer vehicles mostly pickup trucks which have been converted to sedans by enclosing the truck-beds? (Notice two of these in the photo below.) The strange assortment of vehicles is due to an ill-conceived government policy. Between 1964 and 1994 the government prohibited the importation of new cars. Old cars had to be maintained for years beyond their normal lifespan. Since 1994, the government has allowed new car imports with a whopping tax of 200% and new pick-up trucks with a tax of only 25% - if sold to farmers. City dwellers quickly found a loophole. In order to qualify for the lower tax rate, they bought one cow or a tiny patch of land and became instant "farmers." Then they bought trucks and enclosed the back to create family sedans!


(Lou's story):  Leaving Joan in Damascus with Dany and Michel, I took a microbus packed with 14 other men on an hour's drive up to Nabk. The ride itself was lots of fun as I tried to communicate with the Arabic-speaking passengers with language fragments and mime. Along the way, I received two highly competitive invitations to lunch and accepted one from a gentle Muslim named Mehmet. We went to his house, where his wife served us a large tray of traditional food: humus, yogurt, eggplant dip, cheeses, olives, pita bread, apricot preserves and watermelon. During lunch, a dozen of Mehmet's curious neighbors filed in. We were able to communicate with the help of a couple of the younger guests who spoke a few words of English. After lunch, one of the guests drove me 14 km out into the desert to the end of the road, from which point I hiked the remaining two km up the steep, rocky path to the Mar Mousa Monastery.

Perched high on the edge of a cliff overlooking a rocky gorge and the barren plains to the east, this sixth century monastery looks as much like a stone fortress as a place for either Byzantine or modern-day Christians to hang out. It was exactly as I had always envisioned a monastery - isolated and austere, with thick walls of stone, small arched doors, narrow winding stairs, a church filled with icons and gorgeous frescoes (dating from the 11th century), and outside a small garden and a barn for livestock.


The monastery has just a few modern conveniences, such as the solar energy system that lights a few small bulbs and operates a phone for half of the day. But life is austere for the two priests, two nuns and five monks who reside here. There were around 25 day visitors at the monastery when I was there, including archeologists from Oxford and Cambridge, students of Arabic from Paris, and Firas (below) - a young Syrian engineering graduate whose home we would later visit.

This was an extraordinary group of people with interesting points of view on history, culture and technology. They had different viewpoints on Israel, the Palestinian problem and America's role in the Middle East. In the evening while the residents were in meditation, I watched as the desert night was lit by flashes of gunfire and tracer trajectories from the Syrian artillery's distant firing range. In the morning, the chickens, sheep and donkeys awakened me at 4:30 - and I lay in the dark enjoying temporary monkhood. While I'm not about to join the Syrian Orthodox Church, I had an incredibly satisfying visit. It was heartening to see the ecumenical mix of residents - Roman Catholics as well as Orthodox Catholics, nuns as well as priests and monks - live here harmoniously in a part of the world where extremist views prevail and there is a great need for tolerance between religions and genders. 




We hurled ourselves into Lebanon on a 48-hour transit visa, traveling there with Michel and Dany in a hired taxi - a 30 year old un-air-conditioned Mercedes that thundered ponderously across the dusty Syrian borderlands and into the well-watered, fertile Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

Until recently, this area was a no-go zone for tourists because the radical Muslim group Hezbollah is headquartered here. (After September 11 it again became dangerous for tourists.) The area has strong ties to the Ayetollah of Iran, whose portrait  hangs everywhere - including from lines strung across major streets. When we arrived in Baalbek to see its great Roman ruins, we were surprised to see about 200 armed soldiers coming into town on military trucks. The militia was brought here to protect the international festival from a terrorist attack, perhaps by some of the angry young men who roared around the town in low-slung black cars with huge Hezbollah flags hanging out the windows.


Baalbek, with its focus on the god Baal, is a stunning ancient city. Some experts consider it the most important Roman ruin in the Middle East; it was well worth the two-day detour from Syria. Each summer, a month-long international cultural festival is held at Baalbek. We always seem to miss festivals as we travel, but this time we were in luck. The rock star Sting had a concert here a few days before we arrived, and the Paris Opera Ballet was scheduled for the night we visited. We aren’t avid ballet fans, but decided anything performed in this magnificent temple was worth seeing - even at $30 a seat, an extremely high price in the Middle East.

It was a truly magical night. We sat in the balmy darkness under a starry sky, with the gently floodlit ruins on all sides of us and the six 70-foot columns of the Jupiter Temple towering overhead.

We settled in to watch, and were unexpectedly entranced by the contemporary French ballet Clavigo. First performed in 1999, it beautifully blends classical ballet with avant-garde dance movements similar to those in the work of American choreographer Twyla Tharp. This moving, amazing, mesmerizing tragedy was inspired by a work by Goethe and wonderfully performed by dancers in flowing white garments moving gracefully about in the shadowy ruins. Wow! We sadly parted from Michel and Dany the next day - they went on to Beirut while we headed back to Syria.



After loud negotiation (taxi drivers tend to be exceptions to the general rule of Middle Eastern hospitality!), the two of us climbed into another old Mercedes - this one with dusty velvet curtains rolled up on three sides - and were driven at a terrifying 85 miles an hour through small villages to the Syrian border. Here we climbed aboard a ramshackle local bus whose crammed-together passengers graciously gave up seats for us. Unexpectedly in this Muslim country, the bus was decorated with pictures of the Virgin Mary and of Christ Jesus with a lamb. Plastic crosses bounced on cords from the ceiling above the driver. Only 8% of Syria is Christian, whereas in Lebanon it is 40%.) In this part of the world, your religion is of major importance. It could cost you your life.


The great thing about independent travel is you never know what the day will bring - there's no tour guide to herd you through a set itinerary. A few hours after we arrived back in Syria, Lou was driving a tractor through an almond orchard!

We spent a wonderful day and night with young Firas (whom Lou had met at the monastery) and his family in a small village near Homs. They are almond farmers and Christians in a country that is predominantly Islamic. Everyone in the extended family turned out for our Sunday arrival. We met his handsome mustachioed father and luminously brown-eyed mother, as well as his brother, sister, uncle, cousin and grandmother. They treated us like royalty - with traditional food, good conversation and many expressions of love, respect and goodwill.

Sunday afternoon, Firas let Lou drive his tractor along the rough farm roads and weave slalom courses through the family's almond orchards. Afterward, we sat on floor cushions, and ate at a low table: lamb and eggplant casserole, tomato and cucumber salad, olives, pita bread, an assortment of meze and many tiny glasses of tea. Later, we were given watermelon and chilled juice from their own grape vines. We were truly touched by this Syrian family's warm hospitality.

Back in Aleppo, Joan had a second haircut by her Muslim friend - this time in the young woman's tiny hair salon. Lou was not allowed to come in because the women's heads were not covered.  Instead, he waited in the corner real estate office, where he had a  friendly visit with three realtors - one of whom spoke a little English. Later he returned to the salon, and the stylist (standing) and her sister donned scarves for this photo:


Remember Lou's Law of Tightwad Travel? His law: "The less you spend, the closer you come to the reason you came." Joan has  developed a corollary: "The happier Lou is, the more uncomfortable we are." That is, the closer we come to his ideal of authenticity, the more likely we are to be in a situation that is hot, crowded, noisy, lacking English speakers - AND we're probably lost!

(Joan's story):  We spent four hours going from Syria back to Turkey. In accordance with Lou's law, we took: 1) a rickety, un-airconditioned bus stuffed with hot people; 2) a dirty, rickety, un-airconditioned 1955 Dodge taxi whose windows wouldn't open; 3) an un-airconditioned 1957 Oldsmobile taxi with only the driver's window operable; 4) another un-airconditioned local bus; and 5) an un-airconditioned mini-bus. THEN we walked several blocks to our hotel - in 95-degree heat wearing our 40-pound backpacks! Fortunately for our marriage, the next hotel room was three-star (by Turkish standards) with a toilet that didn't leak, a real bathtub, towels, satellite television with CNN, and (ta-da) air conditioning!

From Aleppo we headed back into TURKEY



GUIDEBOOKS:  Istanbul to Cairo; Syria (both by Lonely Planet)

(2001 Prices)

ALEPPO:  Hotel al-Jawaher. Character-full, well located. Double $14 with a/c, bath.

HAMA:  Cairo Hotel - the best budget hotel in Syria; $15 double with a/c, bathroom, fridge. Very good English spoken.

PALMYRA:  Al Faris Hotel $14 double with a/c, bath, breakfast. Serves good dinners in courtyard.

DAMASCUS:  As-Salaam Hotel; double $16 with a/c, bathroom.




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net