More Castles, en Route to the Syrian Riviera

Monday, August 8, 2005 | Latakia, Syria (map)

Self portrait while exploring Salah ad-Din castle (قلعة صلاح الدين)
I'm back from another somewhat fun weekend out and about. It wasn't quite as exciting as last weekend in Hama, where the people were much warmer and friendlier, but it was good nonetheless.

Traveling with a friend from Arabic class, Cristin, I saw Salah ad-Din and Marqab castles, supposedly Syria's second and third best behind the Crac des Chevaliers. From Marqab, an imposing fortress built entirely of black basalt rock, you can see the Mediterranean. Salah ad-Din was even more spectacular, perched on a ridge in the middle of a long valley, covered in trees and vegetation. (My first thought? Wow, the color green! We haven't seen that in a while in brown, dusty Damascus.) In the morning light, the sight was even more beautiful. Salah ad-Din also sports one of the most impressive castle entrances I've seen—the Crusaders carved a chasm from solid rock to separate their fortress from the nearby cliffside, leaving just a single pillar of rock upon
which to hang a drawbridge. Despite their Herculean efforts, the abyss was not wide enough to deter the Muslim armies of the general whose name the castle now bears.

The next day we hit the beach. The town of Lattakia is "Syria's Riviera", and I had been hoping to travel there by plane at some point this summer. (For $12 one-way from Damascus, why not?) But we were in the area, so for an afternoon Cristin and I checked out the beach—the Arab beach, not the fancy, groomed hotel beaches for European tourists. On the Arab beach, there were Syrian and Saudi guys running around in speedos, yet almost all the women who swam wore hijabs to cover their hair. Many waded after their kids, slogging into the shallows in full head-to-toe garb—it didn't look comfortable. Several Arab guys who struck up a conversation with me and Cristin tried to convince us of the "logic" of that situation. (Needless to say, we were both a little flabbergasted, but I got the sense that they were somehow equally shocked that we didn't understand their point of view.)

On the long bus ride back to Damascus, I finished The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, after having conquered only half of Syria's castles. So, after staring out the window for a few minutes, I took a deep breath and opened the book back up to page 1. It's proving even better the second time.

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