Hama Weekend, Part 1: The Ruins of Apamea

Sunday, July 31, 2005 | Hamah, Syria (map)

Apamea's collonade seems to stretch forever. Note the throngs of tourists.
This weekend was nothing short of amazing.

I took the bus to Hama (حماة), several hours north of Damascus, on Friday morning, and immediately switched to a service (minibus) to continue northward to my first destination—the ancient Roman city of Apamea (أفاميا), in the al-Ghab plain. After switching to a farmer's pickup truck at Suqeilibiyya, I was dropped off in the town below the hilltop castle of Qala'at al Mudiq (now just a ruin inhabited by a few families). However, I made the rounds of the town's mosaic museum, which houses many tile mosaics recovered from the ruins.

But I only lingered in the museum long enough to cool down—the real sight was waiting. Early afternoon, with the sun solidly overhead, I started trudging up the road from the town. After passing a few structures that clearly dated from an ancient era, I reached the top of a rise. Before

Golan Heights: Visit to a Disputed Land

Monday, July 25, 2005 | Al Qunaytirah, Syria (map)

With the exception of the Golan Hospital, "destructed by Zionists", the Syrians mostly let Quneitra speak for itself.
Yesterday morning the Language Center organized a trip for a dozen of us in the Summer Program to visit the Golan Heights (مرتفعات الجولان), the much-disputed region at the crossroads of Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.

The Golan had long been recognized as part of Syria in 1967, when Israel attacked and captured most of the region in the Six-Day War of that year. The narrow strip that Israel failed to capture, as well as a smaller segment that they later gave back to Syria, have today mostly been repopulated by those who fled during the fighting.

However, the Syrian government has maintained the town of Quneitra (القنيطرة), once the region's most prominent city, in its state of semi-destruction as a testament and a reminder of Israel's attacks. Outside Quneitra, the Syrians have established a visitor's center, where they are more than

Battling the Sun to Explore Bosra ash-Sham

Friday, July 22, 2005 | Bosra, Syria (map)

Bosra's impressive amphitheater
The streets of Bosra ash-Sham (بصرى الشام, that's the Syrian Bosra, not the Iraqi one) were empty, seemingly abandoned, today at midday. A few men dozed in the shade of produce shop awnings, concentrating studiously on moving as little as possible. The ground shimmered all around Julian and me, as it had among the tumbled columns and stone walls behind us. We trudged, panting, from the ruins toward town, in search of bottled water. Our checkered kuffiyehs kept our heads enveloped in a feverish swelter, but we preferred them to the direct sun.

For the past several days, the TV news reports have listed the high in Damascus around 39 degrees Celsius—that's 102 Fahrenheit. In the desert an hour's bus ride south of the capital, deprived of shade, Julian and I could have been walking through a furnace.

When Julian and I arrived in Bosra, earlier in the morning, the sun had not yet prevented all

A Castle, a Column, a Kurd: A Visit to Aleppo

Monday, July 18, 2005 | Aleppo, Syria (map)

Sweltering in the mid-day sun beside what remains of St. Simeon's column, in the center of what remains of his basilica
Friday morning, prior to the noon prayer, is a poor time to visit anywhere in Syria. I learned this lesson on Friday in Aleppo (a city known in Arabic as Halab, حلب) after catching a bus north from Damascus the previous evening.

After hearing tales of Aleppo's lavish souqs—the only markets in Syria that could rival those of Damascus—I found the passages deserted, the shopfronts shuttered, and the awnings flapping silently in the warm, pungent breeze. All of Aleppo was resting at home, preparing to go to Friday prayers.

I meandered through the covered alleyways, zigzagging through the markets until the passage opened into a wide boulevard surrounding my prime destination Aleppo—its massive citadel, which towers imposingly over the Old City. Aleppo and its citadel featured prominently in the story of the

To Ma'aloula and Deir Mar Musa, in Search of Spiritual Roots

Monday, July 11, 2005 | Ma'loula, Syria (map)

Deir Mar Musa, perhaps the most tranquil place in Syria, overlooks a broad and rugged plain.
Life hasn't slowed down much lately. This weekend I went with my Australian housemate Julian and two German friends, Marion and Christina, to two fascinating sites just a short drive north of Damascus.

The tiny village of Ma'aloula (معلولا) is famously known as one of the last places in the Middle East where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus and most everyone else in his day. We didn't notice anyone speaking Aramaic, but we were there!

Ma'aloula's colorful mix of pastel houses are built into a hillside, and dominated by rocky cliffs above. Among the cliffs are two ancient churches, which we visited. One is so old that it predates Christianity; it used to be a Roman temple to Bacchus, the god of wine. Its cryptic sanctuary holds several original pre-Christian altars, notable for the small lip running around their edge, which we're

Relearning Patriotism the Syrian Way

Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

The Presidents al-Asad: the fearless leader at right, along with his predecessor and father
A belated "Happy 4th of July" to everyone back home. A few friends and I celebrated last night with some beers and wine, just sitting on one American girl's rooftop looking out over the neighborhood. Here in Damascus, the weather is beautiful at night; it always cools down to about 70°F/21°C, with a great breeze, so it's very pleasant. No fireworks though.

On this occasion of great national pride back in the US, it's worth mentioning the strange ways in which Syrians express their own peculiar—and largely artificial, I suspect—patriotic zeal. Patriotism in Syria is required—not everyone really wants to have a picture of President Bashar al Asad in their living room, in their shop, in their classroom. But such is the cult of personality that the regime has built up—fail to worship the dear leader enthusiastically enough, and your life will be made very difficult.

The Ummayad Mosque: "Matchless and Unequalled"

Sunday, July 3, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Children play in the Ummayad Mosque's massive central courtyard. Behind the large doors lies the main prayer hall.
The Ummayad Mosque is the hub around which Damascus revolves. During my time here thus far, I've spent several afternoons and evenings propped against a column in the vast open courtyard, reading, people-watching, and enjoying what seems to be the one place in the city where I am permitted a measure of relative tranquility. The cool stones also offer a welcome break from Damascus' stifling midday heat.

Situated near the shores of the Barada River at the heart of the Old City, the mosque occupies grounds long revered. An Aramean temple once stood on the site, but was replaced by a grandiose Roman temple to Jupiter—the outer columns of which still stand in several spots around the mosque. Centuries ago, that temple was replaced by a Byzantine church, which Damascus's first Muslim conquerors shared with the Christians for several decades. Early in the eighth century,

Crac des Chevaliers: In the Footsteps of Crusaders

Saturday, July 2, 2005 | Safita, Syria (map)

Crac des Chevaliers and the surrounding valley, from atop the ramparts
Yesterday I spent the afternoon climbing around the majestic Crac des Chevaliers (قلعة الحصن, also spelled Krak des Chevaliers). The iconic hilltop citadel, located several hours northwest of Damascus, towers over the coastal plains north of Lebanon.

A fortress of some sort existed on the site for centuries, but the existing castle is the work of an order of Christian knights. During the Crusades, it was the Knights Hospitaller who conquered the hilltop and refortified it as a base of operations, and for obvious reasons. Looking around from the castle's walls today, the place appears completely impenetrable from all sides. Even the strongest of armies would have been hard-pressed to overtake it, and indeed, both Nur ed-Din's and Salah ed-Din's attempted sieges failed to breach the defenses.

Today the Crac still looks the perfect model of a medieval castle—it's every young Lego builder's