10.04.2010 - 13.04.2010 15 °C
So, I've been reminded by a few people that I haven't posted a blog in a really long time, well don't despair because here begins season two of Joshua's World Odyssey which should quench those vicarious travellers out there.
After my visit to the ancient ruins of Palmyra in the eastern desert of Syria, it was a long trip to Hama where I'd have a good base to visit various sightseeing spots in the west of Syria including the city of Hama itself.
A while out of Palmyra, I started spotting road signs pointing to Iraq, that's probably as close as I get to "intrepid" in my travels.
The east of Syria definitely lived up to the mental image one has of the country, desolate, rugged deserts with its bedouin camps, camels and goat herders. The west on the other hand, came as a surprise, lush green fields and young forests - the change in landscape was quite dramatic. Some of the forests were very young, which leaves you with the impression that they are trying hard to reclaim the desert.
Once in Hama I was greeted at the Riad Hotel by the manager Abdullah, who curiously had a strong Aussie accent, his first words to me were, "Gidday mate". I can only assume he'd been taught English by an Australian or perhaps he'd been watching Home and Away on Syrian satellite TV.
For me Hama turned out to be a nice little town to visit, well I say town but it has a population of 1.6 million, so it's a decent sized city but it felt more like a city of fifty thousand. It is most famous for its creaking wooden norias (Roman water wheels) which were used to deliver water from the Orontes river (which also powered the wheels) up to the top of the aquaducts which in turn delivered water to the town's inhabitants - quite a clever design if you ask me.
I walked along the entire stretch of the river through the middle of town where the norias were located - the biggest one I came across had a diameter of 20 meters.
The Al-Mammuriyya Noria in Hama
The norias have been around since the 4th century AD, but the surviving ones today were built in the 13th century. My favourite thing about the norias was the eerie creaking and moaning sound they made as they turned which was caused by the wooden axles rubbing on the wooden blocks they are mounted on.
Creaking norias in Hama, Syria
Norias next to Al Keilani Bridge and An Nuri Mosque, Hama
Perhaps it was the season or I just chose the right days to visit, but Hama didn't feel touristy at all and even in the Old City I was virtually the only tourist walking amongst the few locals along the narrow cobbled streets.
Old man walking towards small mosque in the Old City
An "arty" shot of my reflection in mirror of small cafe in the Old City
The clocktower in the center of Hama, behind the tower you can see a portrait of President Bashar, his portrait appears all over the place - just like Jordan they are there to remind you who's in charge
A long day of walking around Hama was followed by an excursion to Apamea and some of the Dead Cities. The best way to get around these tourist sites is by doing a tour so I opted to join one organised by the hotel I was staying at. Luckily the tour only included a driver so I didn't have to put up with a guide boring me to death and as a bonus our group was only small consisting of myself and two girls, Cami a Belgian and Iza who was half English, half Moroccan.
Our driver, Abdul, was quite proud to show us a book which had been written about him by an English man. Abdul had been the English man's guide and driver as they toured extensively throughout Syria.
The book which had been written about Charles Roffey's tour of Syria with Abdul
Photos inside book about Abdul - actually, the book was more of a photo album rather than a memoir
Our first stop was the Mosaic Museum of Al-Ma Arra, which we were not expecting as it was not listed as part of the tour - there was a small cover charge so I think Abdul was receiving a small commission - nevertheless we went in and they did have a large collection of ancient mosaics so in the end it was probably worth it... just. We were the only tourists there, which meant we got our own chaperone to make sure we didn't take photos inside.
Mosaic of former President Assad in Mosaic Museum of Al-Ma Arra - yes he's still watching
Next was the Dead Cities of Serjilla and Al-Bara, two of the lagest of some 700 abandoned settlements scattered along the limestone hills that lie between the Aleppo-Hama highway. They date back to before the fifth century B.C. and apparently it's a big mystery why these villages were abandoned (though my feeling is that stone buildings and earthquakes don't mix well - heavy falling rocks hurt!)
Some ruins in the dead city of Serjilla
A church in the dead city of Al-Bara
We saw ruins scattered all over the place as we drove around the narrow winding roads. They appear to lie mostly undisturbed alongside olive, nut and fruit orchards. The feeling I got once we got out and walked amongst them was a mixture of both spookiness and tranquility.
After the dead cities, we headed to Apamea, an ancient city much like Palmyra but smaller and built out of grey granite instead of pink sandstone; it was also built in the middle of lush green hills rather than in the desert which was quite a contrast. When we visited, the site felt deserted with only a handful of other tourists wandering about.
Most of the ruins of Apamea have disappeared, but the 2 km long grand colonnade is still highly visible with columns running from one end to the other. Parts of the cardo (main street) still retain the original paving which are visibly grooved by the wear of chariot wheels.
View from one end of the 2 km colonnaded cardo in Apamea
A column at the center of the grand colonnade
Cami and Iza admiring the columns at the north end of the grand colonnade
View along the deserted grand colonnade
The next day I embarked on my second day trip from Hama to Crac des Chevaliers, a castle built by Crusader knights in the 12th century. I used the same strategy to get to the castle that I employed in my trip to Apamea and the Dead Cities, and that was a tour organised by the hotel. This time I travelled with three French women, Emy, Clemence and Simone. Again, the tour only included a driver and not a tour guide, unfortunately the driver suffered from suicidal tendencies and I couldn't help but tell him off after he overtook a bus on a blind corner at high speed. He just laughed, but his driving became noticeably tamer so I think he got the message - I think the French girls sitting in the back seat were also quite relieved I said something.
To say Crac des Chevaliers is an impressive castle would be an understatement. It was huge and there were plenty of places to explore, both below ground and around the various towers dotted around the outer walls and within the castle proper.
Me inside the main stables - It was a huge room and it was pitch black except for a few shards of dim light eminating from some holes in the ceiling - I didn't really intend to pose like this as I was just positioning myself under the light beam while the camera timer was running, but I think it turned out ok.
The only section of the vast mote around the castle which was filled in with water - the rest of the mote had been filled in over the centuries.
A wall at the baths, presumably the holes were where water was somehow piped in
A view of the filled-in mote along the length of the castle
My biggest problem that day was the wind which was gale force-like - this made climbing up on to the roofs of the tall towers a little tricky, especially since there were virtually no barriers to stop you being swept off the edge. I stupidly decided to climb up one of the taller towers and up to the roof just when the wind got at its worst. Once up there it was so strong I had to hold on to a vertical spire at the center. Then I had to crawl on my hands and knees just to get to a hole on the ground at the edge of the tower which led to the stairway. I must have looked ridiculous from the lower parts of the castle where it was far more sheltered.
Windy day at Crac des Chevaliers, Syria
A view of the roof tops inside the castle proper - it was pretty windy up there so I was quite thankful for my camera's "steady-shot" feature
A large chapel in the castle, it had been turned into a mosque when the armies of Islam took the castle in 1271.
One of the more impressive internal buildings of the castle, the loggia, with a fancy looking Gothic facade was ruined when I was there by some cheap looking Pharoic-era wall decorations. This castle had little to do with the Egyptians and was built over a thousand years after the last pharoah had ruled Egypt, so we all wondered about the out-of-place decorations. It was only a few weeks later when I spoke to another traveller that I learnt that they were actually shooting a movie there.
Some out-of-place Egyptian plywood movie set decorations
A stone bridge to a side entrance of the castle
A view of the entire castle from a nearby hill just before we returned to Hama
Master Cola? Thought it was something else when I bought it
It was a brief stop in Hama, but it was a good one. I still had one more stop to make in Syria before I headed out of the country and that probably deserves a small blog of its own which I'll be posting soon (I promise).
Until next time!