Hama Weekend, Part 1: The Ruins of Apamea

Sunday, July 31, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

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
me was a vast, rippled plain of what looked like wheat fields, studded, a few hundred meters from me, by a long colonnade of grey granite—Apamea.

I trekked across the fields, then climbed atop a tumble of gigantic blocks at the ruin's northern end, where I paused for a rest and some water. The ancient city's Antioch Gate, beside which I sat, looked intact. But its arch had probably been rebuilt—Syria has weathered too many earthquakes over the centuries since the city's construction (over 2,200 years ago) for it to have survived intact on its own.

In front of me, columns stretched along a perfect line for a mile, maybe two. Many were upright, topped with ornate Corinthian capitals. Others lay shattered and strewn across the site. Once I'd gathered my strength and had a chat with the friendly caretaker in the ticket booth, I picked my way slowly down the broad colonnaded avenue. I photographed the columns high over my head, and studied the details of those on the ground. Strangely, some were smooth, others had vertical ribs, and still others had diagonal ribs that spiraled upward like candy cane stripes.

A shepherd boy brought his flock through the ruins, and stopped to chat for a moment, too.

After sharing a cup of tea offered by the caretaker and his postcard-selling friend, and discussing the usual topics (America, Iraq, international politics, etc.), I headed back to the road to return to Hama.

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