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Syria travel notes

Author: Pēteris Cedriņš4 COMMENTS

Syria travel notes


Syria still stands apart - much of what you can see there would be swamped with tourists were it anywhere else.

My wife and I were quite nervous crossing into Syria from the Turkish province of Hatay - we didn't have visas and had decided to attempt to obtain them at the border (which you're theoretically allowed to do if Syria has no diplomatic representation in your country... practically, it's become easier). We risked this because this method is cheaper than going to the Syrian embassy in Ankara (and in some ways less complex - at embassies, consular officials reportedly require a letter of recommendation from your embassy, and since we have no embassy in Turkey...).

Foto: Syria travel notesFoto: Syria travel notesFoto: Syria travel notes

Clerks at the bus station in Antakya (what was the ancient Antioch; Hatay being Turkish isn't recognized by Syria, by the way) had exchanged money for us, claiming that it's difficult to get cash in Syria (which isn't really true anymore - there are even ATMs, though not long ago a withdrawal might be watched by large crowds of Bedouin children who then try to see if they can accomplish the same magic by sticking sticks in the card slot), we tried to familiarize ourselves with Arabic numerals (the true Arabic numerals are different from our "Arabic numerals," you see -- the coin that looks like it's worth zero is really a five), I avoided the people offering to "change money, euro, dollar, money, change money," whilst in the lavatory... and finally we set out through lovely ancient olive groves in a dilapidated bus. A Palestinian who explained that the Syrian authorities do not often know English fortunately befriended us. I'd hoped to get by with French - but these days that won't get you very far, either.

And so we arrived at a massive Soviet-style building with a huge sign proclaiming WELCOME, BROTHER TRAVELER and spent a couple of hours attempting to communicate with various uniformed persons, surrounded by hordes of chain-smokers with visa problems, eventually meeting our first general. Syria seems to have a surfeit of generals. We also discovered that my wife was irrelevant - "sister traveler" is seen as an appendage of the husband, her eyes avoided out of politesse, so I got to run down long marble corridors to get various incomprehensible papers stamped and checked and signed and stamped again, then signed and stamped and signed again - and I got to change money, since one needs to pay for the visa in Syrian currency but needs to have gotten this currency from a Syrian bank, and they require a receipt to prove it - while my wife sat nervously in a circle of chain-smoking officers.

The general berated his underlings for not ever having heard of our country, I tried to smile a lot, the underlings incorrectly entered our passport information into antediluvian computers (holding our passports upside-down, which seems to make it easier to read from left to right, to which they are not accustomed), I ran obediently down more long corridors thronged with more uniformed chain-smokers, and we were at last given visas consisting of stamped turquoise stamps with the image of another Soviet-style building on them.

After this, we could relax - really relax, as the country is so safe that when I paid far too much for our visas, people interfered to give me my money back. The country is extraordinarily friendly, too - no one on the bus seemed to be the least bit perturbed by the long delay we caused. I could go on and on about how wonderful the Syrian people are - children ran to the store to buy us gifts, stopping to look at a map meant instantly being encircled by people trying to help, etc. In fact, Syria is so friendly it's scary - you're far more likely to need to escape from offers of hospitality than you are to be in need of it. You must learn to put your hand on your heart and explain that you'll accept the dinner invitation another time, insh'Allah.

The bus deposited us in the middle of Aleppo. It was our first taste of the, er, fabled Orient. If you're looking for this fabled Orient, I highly recommend searching in Syria - it was by far the most exotic segment of our four-month journey from Istanbul to Cairo, and the main reason for this is that it's not so very touristed. I'd love to see "the real Egypt," but found it impossible - most of the "friendliness" we experienced in Egypt bore a distinct relationship to the fabled contents of our wallets, and cities like Luxor seem to exist for the sole reason of emptying the wallet by hook or by crook. Combine that with the apparent fact that large numbers of tourists in Egypt are there because there's an unwritten rule stipulating that one must see Egypt shortly before death, disgorged from an air-conditioned bus and hobbling after a guide holding aloft the number of the tour group, past unspeakably awful T-shirt shops selling expired film, and you'll soon realize that the closest you shall get to any latter-day Egypt of any authenticity, either romanticized or (Allah forbid) real, is either accidental or perhaps the result of bribing the tourist police to let you slip out of their lazily guarded cordon into some isolated slum.

I'm being unfair, of course - you probably go to Egypt to see things Egyptian, as in pre-Islamic, and these things really are there, and you really can suffer the touts and the ostensible modernity of a rather dysfunctional country to see these wonders. But I bring up the negative side of Egypt because Syria is pretty much the opposite - with six hundred or so "dead cities," numerous fabulous ruins that in any other country would be swamped by tourists but are here more likely inhabited by goatherds, two of the oldest cities in the world (Aleppo and Damascus - though there are more than a few cities claiming the title "oldest" on our planet), villages still speaking Aramaic, and... totalitarianism so rare it's almost quaint, military museums that seem to be at a loss for what to exhibit since Glasnost (well, they get by with that old standby, Zionist savagery), and secret policemen so obvious you could have a ball...

Of course, totalitarianism is not at all amusing to those who live there. We did not expect to talk about politics - though the subject is unlikely to be dangerous to you, it can be to them - but such conversations are inevitable, and many people were in fact eager to talk and even insistent (at the latter, do be careful), often exhibiting the bitter cynicism that characterizes the oppressed. There was quite a lot of black humor - "Osama bin Laden welcomes you to Syria!" The country is on the cusp of reform - or it takes one step forward and two steps back, depending upon the view of those who benefit or suffer under its system. The Internet runs through government servers - Hotmail, for instance, couldn't be accessed when we were there, and recently Facebook has presented difficulties - but everybody knows the latest open proxy and in some cases the availability of restricted sites is openly advertised in the windows of cybercafes. Perhaps the saddest people in Syria are the Kurds. They're not exactly overjoyed in Turkey, of course, but their situation in Syria seems to be far worse, their discontent much deeper - hundreds died at the hands of the government shortly after we left the country. On the other hand, there is no apparent friction between the Christians and Muslims, though the Armenians are often very obviously wealthier than the Arabs. A taboo subject is what happened in Hama in 1982 - a substantial part of the old city, now being rebuilt and featuring a luxury hotel - was destroyed by shelling. The regime's conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood resulted in a massacre in which some 20 000 people died, some by poison gas. So you may have the surreal experience of touring the beautiful town of Hama but not being told why much of it is missing.

Syria is no Soviet Union - you can go wherever you like - and repression has its benefits for the tourist; anybody bothering you may well be whisked away by the ubiquitous soldiers. Compared to most any Western country, Syria is very safe. You will encounter the omnipresent portraits of the Assads, some in neon and some on late-model cars (why not flaunt support for the regime if you're rich), especially of Basil "the Martyr" (he crashed into a tree in 1994), but signs of anti-Western attitudes are few ("every dollar you take is a bullet through an Arab's heart," on a wall in Damascus). I would be a bit more wary by the Euphrates, though - would-be kidnappers tied up a backpacker we met, and there's a palpably electric atmosphere in some of the areas nearer Iraq.

I'll continue this review of the country in reviews of places in Syria (Aleppo first), mixing the general with the specific - so I'll close this section with some practical advice. Unless you are truly on a shoestring budget, this may be a country in which you'll be better off getting a car (or microbus) and driver (do not under any circumstances attempt to drive yourself - see my comments on driving in my review of Aleppo). You can do this for 30 euros a day or less if you bargain hard (bargaining hard is a skill you shall acquire, unless you are on the opposite of a shoestring and intend to have your pockets emptied). You can use public transport - it's plentiful - but it is confusing unless you speak Arabic, and many of the places you must see are out of the way and difficult to reach if you intend to return to your lodgings by nightfall. It is not at all hard, especially if you are staying in a backpackers' type of place, to find others interested in joining you - so if you are a couple and find another couple, you've whittled that down to 15 euros a day. You don't need to pay for the driver's accommodations - they usually know people they can stay with, or the hotel they take you to gives them a bed. Which latter possibility brings another thing to mind - even if you don't learn how to bargain, I strongly suggest that you do learn not to obey your microbus driver like a whipped dog. Make that very clear at the outset, or you are likely to be stopping in terrible restaurants in the middle of nowhere to pay outrageous sums for stale pita and bottled water, from which bills he gets a cut. Almost all of our drivers were friendly and knowledgeable, but most tried to dominate us - it's up to you to decide how long you wander about in a dead city, not him. Once they realize you won't be taken advantage of, they're even friendlier. It's almost a game.

Bargaining is not a game - it's a way of life. For some in the Levant, it's a compulsion - they verge upon tears if you don't go through the ritual at length, even if they get more money that way. It's absolutely imperative that you find it in yourself to take some pleasure in it - look upon it as an education. The thing to realize is that a shopkeeper's desire to make money doesn't mean he can't be genuinely friendly - these are inseparable in the merchant class. It can actually be a valuable interaction for you, too, now and then - try to cut through "special price for you," and "how do you like my country," to real conversation. The tea is good, too.

Many Arabs see Syria as the most refined land in the Mashriq, and so it seems to be. This is an extremely cultured people (or peoples), and the difficulty for the traveler is getting to know it in even a fleeting way, which is an impossible task if you don't speak the language. Tourists must of necessity stay on the surface - and Syria has very sensual surfaces, from the date palms of Palmyra to the bright-eyed crowds shopping in sheer glee at four in the morning on the night before Eid el-Adha, to the lonely colonnade at Apameia. We extended our visas (another general, more corridors, many more stamps and stamped stamps), and I could envision living there for a while, learning Arabic, and soaking in the atmosphere of Old Damascus or the rotting French colonial structures of Aleppo.

My main piece of advice is to go and go soon - its isolation cannot last, and it may hold the last fabulous ruins in the Mediterranean where you can feel you're among ruins and not at a knock-off of Disney World. Some of the dead cities can be visited as they were visited by "gentlemen" in the 19th C - it's almost insufferably romantic to stroll through the remains of a Byzantine town with no one but a fearful child whose father turns the venerable stone houses into sties for company. You can plop down on a fallen lintel and dream, undisturbed, and it sometimes seems as though Julian the Apostate might wake you if the fog were only thick enough.



We loved Aleppo -- we've named a cat after it-- but it was our gateway to the "Arab world," traveling from Istanbul to Cairo. A place to savor culture shock.

Foto: Syria travel notesFoto: Syria travel notesFoto: Syria travel notes

Aleppo traditionally offers the first whiff of the East to the Western traveler going overland - it was for a time the terminus of the Taurus Express, the famous train featured in the first chapter of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (the Taurus still runs, theoretically, from Istanbul to Aleppo, once a week - don't count on it, though; sometimes it terminates in Hatay). A portly gentleman offering to help you to the hotel of your choice will likely meet you at the bus station. He's after a commission, but he's a nice guy - if you intend to try to disassociate friendliness from profit motive during your sojourn in the Levant, you are probably doomed to despair, so go with the flow.

You can choose from a fairly vast array of accommodations, ranging from the local branch of the Cham chain of supposedly five-star hotels (big, boring, and worn) to the classic Baron and the very cheapest (Zahrat ar-Rabie, actually quite nice for the bottom of the barrel - nice staff, basic rooms, hard beds, dirt cheap [ca. 10 euros for a private double with bath - I kid you not], located very near the Baron in the Sharia ad-Dala -- please note that the transliteration of the Arabic for anything varies wildly; I try to choose the most phonetic to my ear but sometimes substitute the most common). I would strongly suggest staying at the Baron, in Sharia Baron, if you can afford it (though they will claim you can't bargain, we got them to go as low as 30 euros for a double in winter) - it was the choice of those arriving on the Taurus Express long ago. It hasn't changed. I mean, it really hasn't changed - so if you're very demanding, do bear that in mind; your bathtub can be the same one Agatha Christie enjoyed, but the very same bedsprings probably creaked back in her day, too. We're talking character here - and considering what modernization has done to many a famous hotel (the Old Cataract in Aswan and the Cecil in Alexandria were both utterly ruined by Sofitel, for instance), the Baron's being frozen in time is a blessing. It even has a restaurant serving mediocre "continental" food out of the 'Fifties.

If one usually visits Egypt because of the ancient Egyptians, and incidentally to see the Islamic and experience an Arab country and the Copts - in Syria, one's main focus is likely to be Mediterranean - the Roman, the Hellenic, the Byzantine - and then the Islamic and the modern (which is not so modern, having the odor of the Cold War clinging to much of it), with the Crusaders thrown in for spice. In our era, when so many seem to clamor for a "clash of civilizations," seeing Syria will help to dispel many a myth; you will find that the Mashriq is actually closer to the Hellenic than what we tend to think of as the West. As in Egypt, you'll also discover the dubious pleasures of the colonial period - there are quite a few corners that have changed little since the 1940s, and even if you don't stay at the Baron, you simply must visit the bar! It features bottles that were almost certainly brandished by many a vanished James Bond. Lawrence of Arabia drank here, too. You must demand the local beer if you don't want cans of Heineken - though Syrian beer is barely drinkable. There are two brands, one of which is named after the stinking river that runs through Damascus (Barada), but in the north you'll usually get Al Shark. The beer is less of a poison than Syrian spirits, however - don't touch the hard stuff, even if you find that you can get a bottle for less than water costs at home. I lived to tell the tale, but my liver does not love me.

Aleppo - Khalpe and Beroea to antiquity and Halab in Arabic, meaning fresh milk (according to legend, Abraham milked cows on the hill where the Citadel now stands); ash-Shahba' means "the Gray One," a reference to its limestone structures - is chaotic. I'd say it's chaos incarnate. It's much, much smaller than Cairo - it has about two million inhabitants - but we found it to be crazier than Cairo. We thought it absolutely crazy - but in a most wonderful way! It has a certain je ne sais quoi, if you will - an almost mystical energy that makes me believe its claim to being the oldest city in the world over that of Damascus. If you use dated guidebooks like we did, you'll be warned about being trampled by horses in Istanbul and weep at the fact that even the fabled East has turned to Toyotas, but in Aleppo you can still encounter the odd donkey at the interstices of globalization - and there's considerable faux globalization, too, like fake "Golden Arches" and various knock-offs of things forbidden to the Syrians (fried chicken with the KFC logo but called Sinbad's -- the Colonel wears a turban -- was my favorite). You will also encounter many a classic car - before a recent liberalization, the duties levied on imported cars made them prohibitively expensive, so all around you there were museum quality Buick Eights and sleek white Jaguars from an era that is no more. There are still many of these machines about - and if you talk to the bartender at the Baron, you can perhaps get a Studebaker for your visit to the dead cities.

Traffic - donkeys, taxis, classic cars, and fully veiled women on mopeds weaving between Suzukis - is as thrilling as the scariest ride in an amusement park. Get a good driver - by hopping into a "hop-hop," one of the many packed minibuses that ply the streets with their doors open - and you can see the accelerator floored. Oh, look, I think there's a millimeter between that Bedouin changing his tire in the middle of the highway and that overloaded Turkish truck! There's not? I predict there will be by the time I pass that oncoming horse-drawn garlic cart by swerving to the opposite side of the road! As long as I honk. Honking is an art form here - we even found a descriptive brochure explaining the vocabulary of the horn - find such a vade mecum and hope you interpret correctly between the toot that means "go ahead" and the one meaning "get out of the way" - hand signals act as modifiers.

The market - it's chaotic, of course - is one of the few non-touristy old markets you will find in a journey from Istanbul to Cairo and is famed throughout the Arab world. There are parts that are aimed at tourists, but with perhaps 13 km of covered passages it's still mostly a functioning thing. The city is legendary for its traders, and instead of settling for playing second fiddle to Damascus, Aleppines are vociferously proud of these traditions - another wonderful thing is that you are much less likely to be bothered by touts than you are in more touristy markets, so you can truly explore it (by getting lost in it, an unavoidable pleasure). The dimly lit souk also offers some exquisite architecture in its khans, the finest dating to the 16th and 17th C. We were there at the time of Eid el-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice, so much of it was reminiscent of a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch. The Citadel that looms so dramatically over Aleppo is a remarkable fortress, and few afternoons could be better spent than wandering about and looking down upon the faintly honking city from far above its chaos.

The Christian Quarter is being restored, in part with EU and especially German money, but it's still a mysterious place in which you can wander back in time. This area contains one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten at anywhere (and I've been to some amazing restaurants in Paris and New Orleans...), the House of Sissi. We were on a rather tight budget, and you can eat for almost nothing if you restrict yourself to street food (five people can feast on falafel for under a euro, for instance, and even if each has a Syrian cola it can still come to under a euro!) - but a splurge at Sissi is definitely worthwhile. I recommend the local specialty, lamb with stewed sour cherries. The mezze are mind-boggling - try the strange, sharp cheese and the peppers with pomegranate juice and walnuts - and the setting is terrific, in an ancient house and its courtyard, with fountains and antiques and that very frightening thing, no prices on the menu. Don't worry - it's not exactly cheap, but the bill will still be a very pleasant surprise (perhaps 25 euros for two, depending on how many mezze you have and what you imbibe). Such a meal in a so-called "free" economy would cost a fortune. Nearby Beit Wakil is similar, its supposedly more authentic food a little less refined to our taste - it's also an expensive hotel with an excellent location (Al-Jdeideh, which is what you should say if you get lost and wish to return to the Christian Quarter).

The Great Mosque was closed for renovations, but it has since been reopened. There are some other fine mosques and churches. One of the riveting things about Aleppo is the interaction between peoples - there seems to be little friction between the Armenians, who form a significant segment of the population (I'll call their percentage "unknown" and leave demographic researches up to you - estimates vary) and the dominant Muslims. Sadly, this tolerance does not apply to the Jews, almost all of whom are gone, as you will probably figure out at the Syrian border (a friend of ours was held half a day because they thought his Korean visa stamp was in Hebrew - do not even think about going to Syria if you have anything related to the "Zionist entity" in your passport, and that means that if you are clever and have the Israelis stamp a piece of paper instead, you will still have to explain how you got from A to B without passing through the country; watch out for trick questions, too, as you won't be admitted if you so much as suggest the possibility of setting foot in Israel in the future). You might be able to find the renowned Central Synagogue, whence the "Aleppo Codex," which was the 10th C text of the Old Testament proclaimed "most perfect" by Maimonides; it's near Al-Jdeideh. The synagogue, which has inscriptions dating to the 800s, was burned in the riots of 1947, but today you will meet a small note asking you to call a number in Damascus to see it - don't call, unless you wish to have a conversation with the secret police. Further, we were told that informers living within view reported our presence.

Though Aleppo is not a very large city by world standards, we found ourselves walking in lazy circles for several days, as though it were a maze, gawking at the variety of Aleppines - from smartly dressed nouveaux riches (the men sometimes in designer suits and ties, the women elegantly managing to gaze at the displays of Armenian goldsmiths without revealing their faces except to the window-glass... which can act as a mirror to infidel passers-by, which was no doubt what their husbands were whispering) to jalabiya-clad Bedouin. There are two museums, neither of which is recommended (more on the sorrows of Syrian museums coming in my Damascus review). If you follow the nouveaux riches when lost, you will probably end up in a district that surrounds the public gardens and holds some of that decrepit colonial allure, with sagging mansions surrounded by citrus. The gardens themselves - I haven't been able to discover their name, but look for a large park with plenty of fountains - are a fine place to while away the gloaming. Go just before the gaudy lights come on in the splashing water - find a plastic chair and order a water pipe and coffee (demand Arabic coffee - i.e., Turkish coffee with cardamom -- or suffer Nescafe). People promenade with their families, sultry music blaring except when it's cut off for the muezzin's calls (also crackling through loudspeakers). We were treated like royalty at these crude juice and coffee stands - they rarely see tourists here, and so you can sit and soak in an atmosphere where simple pleasures like eventide are still taken seriously, socially, simply.

Posted 2010

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