We dawdled a bit on the way out of Lattakia—getting up late, having a leisurely breakfast—mostly because we thought we’d have to take care of some bureaucracy to extend our visas, which meant we would want to leave after the worst of the mid-day heat had passed anyway. It turned out however, that we could wait an entire month before we had to renew our visas, despite what the entrance stamp and other sources said. We might have waited for another day, but our guide books indicated that our next destination of Qal`at Salah ed-Din was closed the next day. So, we made a stop for coffee and then headed up the hill to the castle at around noon.
It was hot and the traffic out of Lattakia was a pain, though the road was nearly flat for the first 25 km or so. After that, it climbed sharply to the village of al-Haffeh, to the extent that I had to walk uphill for a couple kilometers and we both had to take an extended break in the shade of what appeared to be an unfinished arch. We eventually reached the main part of town and had a sandwich at a local shop. A bit up the road, at the intersection with the turnoff to the castle, we asked to leave most of our stuff at the corner store. They were obliging and at 4pm we set off toward the castle with less weight in preparation for the insane climbing ahead. The road was as incredibly steep—both up and down—as I had been led to believe, and I was forced to walk the majority of the uphill sections. Between this and taking a couple calls from Adrienne, it took us 50 minutes to travel only 4km, leaving only an hour to see the place. The first thing to greet the visitor at the top of this crazy hill is the immense pillar that had supported the drawbridge for this castle. The engineering and sheer volume of labor accomplished by Byzantine and Crusader forces was genuinely astounding, and the ability of Salah ed-Din and his son’s forces to breach its incredible defenses was no less astounding.
We locked our bikes up at the bottom of the stairs to the castle and ascended to the ticket office. The agent at the counter asked if Elaina was tired from the climb up the stairs, which made us both chuckle. Aside from the fact that I was probably more worn out than she, the stairs had been refreshingly easy.
I spent the next hour trying to motivate myself to visit all the amazing little nooks and crannies of this place with precious little energy. The various underground chambers and grand halls were lovely to be in, and the amazingly cool air of the immense cisterns was a real pleasure, but climbing around on the ramparts under the sun was pretty draining, despite the beautiful views.
On our way out of the castle, the ticket agent assured us that we would be welcome to come back the next day to see more of the place without paying if we liked, and was keen to have us stay at a hotel on the other side of the gorge separating the castle from the town of al-Haffeh. Lovely as the idea of stopping here to spend the night, I wasn’t prepared to spend the €35 for the privilege. The knowledge that the castle was open the following day, however, once it dawned upon us, was irksome, considering we could have stayed another night in Lattakia rather than putting ourselves through these climbs in the middle of the day. Leaving the castle, a couple kids staffing the table of toys at the bottom of the stairs wanted us to give them a ride to town.
We carried on, hoping to reach the town of Slunfeh by nightfall. It was only some 20km away, but involved at least 700m of climbing. We found our stuff under the stairs of the corner store where we left it and put it back on the bikes. We went on for a while, but stopped only a bit outside of al-Haffeh at one of the many rest-stop/restaurants on the road to inquire if there was a place to camp. We were here surrounded by some lovely forested land and Elaina had seen a campground symbol a ways back, so we figured camping would be a real option. The owner of the place was quite obliging, though I was apparently unable to communicate what we were looking for. I in turn had difficulty understanding his dialect and his particular expressions, though I was able to pick out that he was offering his place (the open-air restaurant, that is) to stay. I insisted that we could sleep out in the woods, but he would have none of it and insisted that we should take the couch and the bed while he slept in the store-room. After a scorpion appeared in the restaurant, I was less inclined to press the issue.
In retrospect the situation was rather uncomfortable, and I wasn’t clear as the evening was unfolding, just how much we were going to be in the way. Some family came by at one point, and though I couldn’t discern exactly, it seemed that they were rather shooed away in deference to us.
I woke up a bit before dawn as the owner’s son, who was on night duty, was heating up the coffee pots. These sort of pots make use of hot embers (which are also used for narghile) dropped into a cylinder that runs vertically through the middle of the pot. After accepting some coffee and a bit of a snack, I got up to change the chain-ring on my bike in anticipation of the even steeper climbs ahead to Slunfeh and the 1400m summit. Elaina soon arose as well and we made haste to get on the road. We tried to say goodbye to our host, but he was not to be awoken, despite several attempts by his son.
The climbs were indeed difficult, but after passing through the sprawling suburbs of this ridge-top town, we eventually reached the main square by mid-morning and sat down for a small breakfast. While it was still somewhat early, we still had some 350m of climbing ahead of us, a very long descent, a lengthy road across the Orontes Valley (called “al-Ghab” in this area), followed by another steep 400m climb from a lower (and hotter) elevation before we could hope to find another hotel. Plus, I was still beat from the previous day’s riding.
Additionally, I figured that since Slunfeh was such a tourist destination, the hotels would likely take credit cards, so I would have less to worry about money-wise, as I had still been unable to withdraw money from the account that has money in it from any Syrian ATMs. So, we resolved to spend the night in Slunfeh. The “cheaper” hotel turned out to be anything but cheap, and not they nor anyone in Slunfeh would take cards, nor was there an ATM machine. Additionally, none of the several internet cafes in town actually had internet. Nevertheless, the resolution to stay had been made, and I was too worn out not to stay. I managed to hide this fact sufficiently to be able to bargain down the price to a level that still made me wish we had just stayed at the €35 place two nights previous.
I spent the day sleeping and doing laundry in the tub, while Elaina also spent the day doing laundry and not using the internet. In the evening, we went for a stroll in search of food and I then saw all the signs for furnished apartments for rent in the window of virtually every store (and all in Arabic). I’m not sure if they were available for only one night, but that seemed to be the purpose, and would likely have been a much better and cheaper option. Oh well, another wrong turn. It seems passing through tourist areas requires a different set of navigational skills than we had at our disposal.
The guy at the restaurant we visited really wanted to sell us hamburgers, but we insisted on a shish tawook sandwich and some mana`eesh with a yogurt drink. The food was decent, though I was not in a patient enough mood to easily tolerate the adjacent table of middle-aged Syrian dudes playing with their ridiculous and annoying ringtones as if they were 15 years old. The price likewise made me grumble.
I grumbled, too, when the alarm went off at 5am, but got up nevertheless. We set out not too much later and I was pleased to discover that I was able to do most of the climb to the summit without walking. It was quite hazy, so we couldn’t see out to the Mediterannean as we might have been able to at other times of the year, Al-Ghab was even less visible, even though it was only a few kilometers away. From 1400m up, we could only discern the shapes of the fields and could barely make out the hills on the opposite side of the valley. Between this and the fact that the sun was in our face, you’ll see no pictures of al-Ghab from here. You’ll be able to find plenty on Google Earth, Flickr or Panoramio if you’re interested. The views of the nearly sheer cliff all the way down to the valley floor are indeed striking.
The seemingly-endless descent that followed reminded me of that from Mt. Pinos to Ohai in southern California. Here I had the additional pleasure of the sweet smell of French Broom and a perfectly comfortable temperature and humidity. We missed a turn I had planned about halfway down the mountain because Elaina, who was able to coast more comfortably and descend more confidently, and was therefor a bit ahead of me, didn’t recognize the turn as I had described it. This is probably because it was a gravelly road at the intersection and wasn’t terribly recognizable as a turn. It’s most likely better that we stayed on the main road anyway, as a long steep descent on poor pavement might have been torture.
In any case, this put us a fair distance south from where I was expecting, so I suggested that, instead of heading north toward the “dead cities” as initially planned, we could head south to Apamea and north from there to the dead cities along what I figured to be a more gradual climb. We stopped near the bottom of the hill at a little spot where a woman was making mana`eesh in a tandour in the yard and had a couple loaves for breakfast. It was hot and delicious and we probably paid more than the norm for four loaves at S£20 (US$0.43), not that I’m complaining at all, just to be clear. We were of course invited for tea, several times, but we declined, explaining we wanted to avoid the heat. Upon explaining that we had just come from Slunfeh, some seemed incredulous, remarking about how hard the descent must have been, apparently unaware of what it takes to ascend a 1400m mountain without the help of fossil fuels. They also described the climate in Slunfeh as “cold”, and the change in temperature had certainly been remarkable as we descended the mountain.
The route through al-Ghab was delightful, as we rode next to canals and along what was likely once the main road through the valley, passing through a succession of villages. One seemed to have a very active environmental-awareness campaign going on, with numerous reminders to keep the environment clean along the side of the road.
Since it was still early and shadows were still relatively long, we spent much of the time in the shade once we reached the main modern highway that skirts the eastern edge of the valley, with cliffs hanging above the road. People, kids especially, were particularly eager to greet us on this road, which was a nice feeling.
We soon reached the town of Qal`at Madiq, named after the nearby castle of the same name. The town is the site of a government grainery, an immensely important facility in a country where the government is the only legitimate purchaser of grain. It’s importance was evidenced by the several-kilometer-long queue of tractors waiting to unload their produce at the grainery. Unfortunately, we had to ride at a fairly slow speed in this area because the queue blocked many of the intersections to the east, where we needed to turn to reach the ruins of Apamea, and it wasn’t easy to discern where the roads were.
The ascent up to Apamea was short but steep, with lovely views of the castle, obviously still used as a home for a great many locals and a playground for as many swallows, circling and swooping above. We reached the little ticket booth, where I discovered for the second time that having some facial hair compelled ticket agents to ask my age when I asked for a student discount. The discount apparently only applies to those under 26.
After a little break with some cold water and a snack, we mounted up and rode the broken ancient path through the historic metropolis. Having to pay so much attention to the path itself distracted me from examining the ruins around us, but we stopped often enough to take it all in. It was, indeed a grand place, but I got the most out of riding in the ruts in the paving stones, worn by chariots millenia ago, imagining what it must have been like then.
We exited from what most visitors would experience as the far end of the site, crossed a paved road and continued along the same line as the “Cardo”, the main road of Apamea. It was a gravel path, and turned out to be not much of a shortcut, given the existence of a paved road not far away. The road to al-Bara and the dead cities was a slow incline with gently rolling hills at first, but abruptly turned into a series of short, steep ascents and descents between neighboring hilltop communities. It was in my legs, therefor, that I learned a lesson in the geography of how communities were formed in this area. In most other places, I was accustomed to towns growing organically at the confluences of rivers and at the crossroads of the easiest routes between such places. Here, a premium seemed to be placed not on easy access for wheeled vehicles and sources of running water, but on defensible positions and places from which to survey the terrain and receive warning of approaching danger, pointing to the history of conflict in the region, with local communities buttressed about by the territorial ambitions of competing dynasties, empires and religions.
I found myself cursing that history, mostly for purely selfish reasons, as I would have been suffering less on a road that wound its way through valleys and around steep hills, rather than over and between them. The day wore relentlessly on as we passed from one perched town to the next, stopping occasionally to ask for water and resting in the shade of olive trees. Under one such olive tree, a fellow on a motorcycle stopped by to chat, then came by again later with a couple popsicles. Such persistent kindness and hospitality made it hard to stay in a bad mood about the terrain. As the heat of the day descended, we took an extended break at a sandwich shop in the town of Hazzarine, a place that we will most likely remember for the tendencies of its kids to gawk endlessly at us and hang around watching us as if we were zoo animals. The owner of the sandwich shop, Taha, invited us to his place for a while for tea and conversation, most of which revolved around money issues as he asked about how much people in the US earn and what the cost of living is like. It was a bit difficult to convey that Elaina and I don’t live like most people in the US from our social class.
We said our goodbyes and made our way the short distance to Kafr Nabbul and beyond to al-Bara in search of the hotel Taha had mentioned. The series of ups and downs continued and I stopped at the top of a hill in the midst of some conifers just before the turn to the ruins of ShinsHara. There was a fellow in a nice galabeya and a late-model car on the side of the road, and he seemed to be preparing to make a picnic. It was a lovely spot of sparse forest, so I couldn’t blame him. He beckoned us over, but we politely declined while we discussed whether we should continue straight on to al-Bara or to take the scenic route past the ruins. We had just decided to go straight to al-Bara when the gentleman came over to offer some water, which we declined, as we had some already and didn’t want to carry more. He insisted, however, and we eventually accepted, then he insisted we join him at his picnic spot, and we eventually did after he insisted “only 10 minutes.” He mentioned that he had “lunch” there every afternoon with a bunch of other guys, but no one else had shown up that day. He asked about our plans and we mentioned getting to a hotel in al-Bara. He responded that he didn’t know of a hotel in al-Bara and offered for us to stay with him, then he called his brother-in-law, a Fullbright scholar, to have him show us around the ruins. Just then, a number of dignified middle-aged and older men showed up one after another in their galabeyas and nice vehicles. A gas stove and numerous dishes of food were produced, along with a yogurt drink. We learned that we were in a circle with some of Kafr Nabbul’s notables. Our original host, for instance, was the president of the hospital. Ahmed, the Fullbright student, about to depart to the US for his studies, arrived on his motorcycle and sat with us, though he didn’t eat. He told us of our options: that we could stay with his family or find a hotel in Ma`arat an-Numan some 20km away. Given the lateness of the hour, we said we would prefer to stay with him and his family. He then suggested we could go visit the ruins of ShinsHara in his brother-in-law’s car. Still feeling pretty worn out from the days of riding under the sun, we agreed to a ride through the hills. The ruins were definitely striking, and it was difficult to imagine how they had been constructed without heavy machinery. I pondered for a while the arrangement of interests and incentives that made it possible to combine and concentrate this much labor to engineer, cut and move these giant stones into these huge buildings, particularly the grand arches. In our basic history lessons and in museums, we tend to get the stories related to the exploits of great rulers, great armies and great empires, but the details of how those exploits related to the exploitation of labor is rarely a part of the story. “The culture of the ancients” is constructed as quaint relic of a bye-gone era or a glimpse into our own roots, but rarely is it analyzed as a process of social and material production and reproduction.
The ruins’ status as a destination for western tourists was taken advantage of as a political billboard by someone who had spray-painted “USA + [star of David] = [swastika]” on quite a few of them. It had been spray-painted over, but there were a couple that had been missed.
We went back to the picnic site so that Ahmed could return the car, and we followed him as he rode to his family’s house on his motorcycle. We were of course well taken care of here, and Ahmed and his brother Wael took us around their village to show us some sights. We spent much of the next day with Ahmed and his brother showing us around the ruins, as we had awoken too late to miss the mid-day heat. Ahmed’s brother-in-law had invited us to a back-yard kebab barbeque that lasted a bit too long into the afternoon for us to get to Hama as we had planned, so we stayed the evening, during which Ahmed took both Elaina and I on the back of his motorcycle to hang out once again at ShinsHara talking about language, culture and literature. This was actually one of the highlights of my time in Syria, with its combination of intimacy, comradery and communal travel. It was also wonderful to see the locals out enjoying the outdoors similarly, with married couples and pairs of boys on motorcycles (many of the latter joy-riding in the same way American kids of the same age do), despite the sandstorm that had blown in from Egypt. We went for a ride around the forest of conifers planted with UN funding and stopped for a view of Kafr Nabbul from an adjacent hilltop. On the way back to town we rolled past the picnic spot (which they refer to as “the mountain”) and were beckoned by the daily gathering of elders there. After a little debate, we went back to join them briefly, in an encounter that we learned was rather uncomfortable for Ahmed owing to the presence in the group of a certain person of low morals and integrity.
Elaina and I had planned to turn in early to be able to get up early, but found ourselves wide awake, so we stayed up talking with Ahmed and—to a lesser extent—Wael. Wael’s command of English is not so great, and Elaina stills knows only about 25 words in Arabic, so English was our default language. Additionally, my command of colloquial Arabic is still poor, and Ahmed is loathe to translate in general, so Wael was left out of much of the conversation. We again spoke about language and culture, and also about some of the practical realities of living in the US, as Ahmed would have to fend for himself at times without the assistance of his State Department handlers. Especially for someone with Edward Said in his reading list, I was a bit surprised by Ahmed’s tendency to essentialize “western culture,” and I made some attempts to convey that not all Americans are privacy nuts, especially when it comes to private property. I related to him the English axiom “good fences make good neighbors” and tried to communicate my contempt for it. I think (or hope, at least) that living in Portland will give him some sense of the communalist tradition that also runs through American culture.
Elaina was not feeling well when we went to sleep, and was still in a bit of a bad way when the alarm went off at 5am, so we slept until 8:30am and said our goodbyes for a second time. Ahmed escorted us to the turn to the next town (back through Hazzarine, as it turns out) and we made our way through more hilly terrain to al-Ghab.
The main road made a turn at the village of Sfuhun, and then turned downhill for the descent into the valley. I kept going straight at first, and then turned back to the intersection. There, I asked a couple guys hanging out in the shade if I could share the shade with them while I changed my gear. They answered me with the typical perplexed Syrian response, “wein?” I don’t quite get it. They never seem to ask “min wein?” (where are you from?) or “liwein?” (where are you going?), just “wein?” (where?), as if I’m supposed to read their minds. I generally have to discern from their body language if they’re just being friendly and asking about me, or if they’re simply verklempt by my presence in their village and assume that I’m lost. The latter was definitely the case here, and despite repeated attempts to communicate the idea in different ways that I just wanted a little shade to change my gear in, I eventually gave up and just rode to the next patch of shade, unpopulated by people who assume that just because I’m a western dude on a bike in a small village in Syria, I don’t know where I’m going. I can’t claim that my Arabic is superb, but it nevertheless frustrates me that some people just don’t care to try to understand anything other than what they already assume to be true.
Just as I was about to finish changing my chainring and cog in preparation for the downhill ahead and kilometers of flatlands after that, a couple kids who had previously passed me on their motorbike came back again and tried to help with what any sensible person would assume to be mechanical problems. I was perhaps a bit snappy in relating to him that his help was just getting in the way, with my mood colored by my previous interaction with the men who could think of nothing but to tell me repeatedly how to get to Hama. The kids took off rather abruptly (while some younger ones continued to look on), and I felt bad. They soon came back, however, before I had finished reloading the bike, offering cookies, and we had a bit of a conversation that I think made us all feel better, although I did once again have to disabuse someone of the notion that riding a bicycle downhill is really not very difficult at all, and is in fact usually the funnest part.
The brisk downhill was indeed quite fun, and we then rode south along that same highway that skirts the eastern edge of the Orontes valley. It was later this time, though, so we weren’t able to enjoy the shade of the mountains. People were as friendly as before, though, since it was a Friday, there were more of them, especially the kids, almost all of whom were swimming and playing in the canal that runs alongside the road. It looked filthy to me, but who knows. Nearly the entire ride to Qala`at Madiq was accompanied by the noises of loud engines pumping water out of the canal and the screams of kids excited either by our passage or playtime in the canal.
We stopped for an over-large and over-priced meal of barbequed chicken and mezza in the town of Sqalbiya, then looked for a park to rest in to digest and avoid the heat. The park I had seen on the satellite turned out to be a private one that was closed, and all the trees seemed to be next to houses, which would require more social engagement than we were ready for. We rode for quite some time before we stopped at a citrus grove to rest for a couple hours. A short distance later, we caught sight of our first “noria,” the waterwheels on the Orontes river that once formed part of the vast irrigation schemes of the Orontes valley. They seem to be kept operational primarily as a tourist attraction, and the local kids were taking advantage of the one here at Shizar, with the Citadel of Shizar in the background, to cool off on a Friday afternoon.
We eventually arrived in Hama, riding past kilometers of residential towers. I had to wonder if these hadn’t been constructed after Hafez al-Azad’s forces in 1982 razed much of Hama in retaliation for an assassination and secession attempt on the part of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. After a series of wrong turns, we eventually got to the hotel downtown, crossing over a couple of the bridges and passing a number of norias along the way. Just as we were dismounting, we were taken aback by a peloton of sports cyclists riding through the main square—certainly not what we expected.
There are two backpacker hotels next to one another here, and I went from one to the other to check out the prices. The second lowered the price after I said they were cheaper next door, and have been comfortable with the accommodations at Hotel Riad in the past few days since then. Elaina has not been feeling well, so we’re sticking around while she recovers.
In the meantime, I’ve done some sightseeing. The first night, I walked around what little remains of the old city, surprised at how dead everything was a bit after midnight on a Friday night. A couple families were out, and a few more groups of men in the cafes, but it was not nearly as lively as I had expected. The creaking, groaning noria (ناعورية) in the center of town was particularly loud at this quiet hour, and even a bit creepy, an impression accentuated by the bats flitting about near the river (see video at the top of the next post).
The following day, I got a well-needed haircut and did another walk through the old city, though there was more going on now. I visited an old Ottoman palace, Qasr Azem, that had been beautifully refurbished. It was like what I had seen at the Citadel in Aleppo, but in a smaller, easier-to-take-in scale. There were also a number of rooms with creepy dioramas (if that’s not a redundant statement) that qualified the place as a Museum of National Heritage. I had planned to sit down at a cafe to read the day’s paper (there was a headline about more injuries at the weekly anti-Apartheid wall protests in Ni`lin and Bil`in in the West Bank), but found it as closed as the night previous. So, I went in search of the Hama museum, walking through the barren part of town east of the river that I’m guessing had been the part razed in 1982. There were mostly residential towers, a big hotel, a large police station and a large branch of the Ba`ath Party headquarters (as if the older one on the other side of the river weren’t enough), along with this poster warning you, Brother Citizen, against diverting electricity illegally.
The museum was interesting enough, but what I found most interesting was the display of the “tell”, the large mound upon which the Citadel had once rested (and which still bears its name). It is the size of a mountain, but is entirely man-made, constructed of millenia of rubble from successive generations of buildings erected on top of the previous generation’s rubble.
I came back to the hotel for a while and then Elaina and I went for an early dinner at the restaurant that I had twice previously found closed. They had only one kind of beer (Tuborg), but it was pretty decent. While there, we caught sight of the peloton rolling through once again. More remarkable, however, was the avian wildlife swarming above us. The air was positively thick with swallows and pigeons, causing me to wonder if the locals eat them like they do in Egypt.
We went back to the hotel where I set about writing this missive, the end of which you have now, at last, reached.