30 November 2006

Syria: the Sequel

Rockin' the slides.

I returned from Syria at 1 in the morning on Wednesday. This time I went with my neighbors who will return to New York this weekend. This time I also saw more than Damascus. We had 4 whole days there, instead of 24 hours.

We took a taxi to the border and were dropped off there. This time the driver took us to the border crossing with a restaurant and a hotel. It was much better since we still had to wait over 5 hours for visas. I thought my Jordanian residency would speed things up for me, but it made no difference. Besides, my companions have US passports, so we were going to wait. We arrived on Thanksgiving, and found 2 other Americans waiting there. I lent them my phone so they could call home. One is from Kansas, but lives in Santa Barbara, and the other is from Santa Barbara. They’d come from Egypt, through Jordan, and were headed for Syria and Turkey. They had been there 3 hours when we arrived. They received visas about 3 hours after we arrived, and then they had to find a ride to Damascus. My neighbor went outside with them to argue with the taxi drivers (since the Californians spoke very little Arabic), and a Syrian couple who was coincidently headed back home to Damascus offered to take them. They refused to accept money, and welcomed the two guys as guests to their country. I can’t imagine that happening to Syrians in California. Well, maybe in Berkeley. We got our visas at about 1 in the morning and decided to get a hotel right there and sleep.

The next morning we set out for Damascus. Once L and I refused to get back in the taxi after seeing 4 icky hotels, we walked and found a place on our own that was really nice. We had an amazing lunch that made us all sleepy, but we decided to walk down to the Old City since “I” and L had not seen it yet. It was Friday by this point, and much of the Souk was closed; most of the businesses in the Christian quarter were open. That evening we took a taxi up to the top of the hill that overlooks the city. We’d seen the lights up there, and figured the view was amazing. (If any of us had a guidebook I could tell you what these things were called, but none of us planned this out at all.) We got to the top of the hill, and realized that none of us brought a camera! So, you have to trust me when I tell you that the view is amazing. It’s also cold right now. We headed back down and drove by the Four Seasons Hotel where the driver told us Dr. Asad was that very moment. We went to a café around the corner for Nescafe.

The next morning we set out to see as many mosques and shrines as we could. “I” is still a bit undecided about his dissertation topic, and the Umayyad Mosque was high on the list. We spent a lot of time there. This time is was much cooler, and my feet were freezing on the marble in the courtyard. We were there for the midday call to prayer, and we went inside. I think I forgot to tell you last time that inside this mosque is John the Baptist. Or, his head is there, I guess not all of him. This time I went up to the shrine and looked inside. I put my face up to the glass and it smelled sweet, like roses. It’s really beautiful there, and I can only imagine what the mosque looked like when it was covered in mosaics.

We had a wonderful day wondering around the city and looking at shrines. Toward the end of the day we went to a place in the Old City that I think is Byzantine. Again, forgive me, we had no guidebook. A bit tricky to find, this cluster of building and garden is absolutely serene. Each building has a lavishly decorated room, and there are displays of art and books there from the period as well. In one room we saw an egg that had part of the Koran written on it. Many of the artifacts there were miniature versions of something larger. One scroll had the word Allah written in beautiful script, but inside the word were probably hundreds of thousands of words that I could not read. They were so small! It was amazing. We wandered around until they threw us out. We left the Old City and went to a restaurant where I had breakfast a few weeks ago, and had an amazing dinner. I’ll say it again: You cannot find bad food in Syria. We pigged out, and had desert and tea and coffee and it cost us about 15 USD. You cannot beat that!

The next day “I” decided that we needed to go to Istanbul right away. We spent the day looking for tickets, and but nothing came of this. I did, however, get a case for my new contact lenses. Other than that the day was a wash. After intense dinnertime negotiations we decided to see about a trip to Aleppo. We decided to drive up there and back the next day unless we found a perfect hotel very easily, in which case we would stay there for a day or two. It was a great trip. Of course, it was rushed, but I’m thrilled that I got to see some of the countryside in Syria.

That morning a man picked us up, and we headed out at 8 am. I thought leaving Damascus for the day would give my lungs a rest from the smog, but I was wrong. This is the only thing about Syria that made me ready to leave. We arrived in Hama, where the water wheels are. As I stood there looking at the oldest surviving water wheels in the world, I must admit I also thought about what the city must have been like in 1982. Moving on we stopped for breakfast at a place on the side of the road that had amazing food. They served us cheese covered in honey. It was so good. Everything was good. The funny thing about Syria for me is that I love the eggplant, but usually don’t care for the hummus, whereas in Jordan I love the hummus and usually don’t care for the eggplant. Go figure. We went to an archaeological village site, the name of which I do not know. Several hours later we arrived in Aleppo. I didn’t realize until I saw the road signs that this is not the Arabic name for the town.

Aleppo deserves a paragraph of it’s own. I had wanted to see Aleppo for many years now. I have talked to people who have been there, and based on this I had an image in mind that turned out to be almost entirely wrong. I thought it would be a small town, and I thought it would be like small towns in NorCal, but made of honey-colored limestone. Wrong. The outskirts of Aleppo are filled with new and beautiful apartment buildings made of marble. The windows and doors are trimmed in a dark wood carved in art noveau-looking designs. It’s thoroughly modern looked, though. I cannot overstate how amazing it is to drive into a town constructed entirely of marble! Everything, even the gas stations, are made of marble. Marble paves the adjacent countryside, and mining operations are continuous. This, coupled with the fact that Aleppo is a big city with a lot of cars, made the smog situation analogous to Damascus. We drove by the Umayyad Mosque there, and it was beautiful. We continued on through a souk and arrived at the Aleppo Castle. This structure is amazing. The steps leading up to the entrance are ancient, and as a result they are polished. Walking up to the castle is thus treacherous as it’s like walking up a glass ramp. Inside, we saw many men working on restoration projects all over the grounds. In fact, all through Aleppo we saw infrastructure improvement projects. I suspect in a year or two, the city will be much easier to walk around. I saw a fleur de lit design over a doorway. “I,” who is an art historian, explained to me that much of what we now call European art is actually stolen Arab art. He said a lot of the motifs used in Europe were imported through Spain during Arab rule, but subsequently art historians have claimed that Europe exported these designs. We stopped at a café, and then headed west (I think) about 40 minutes to a castle on a hill. We drove through fields of marble. It’s really amazing. We arrived at this castle right before they closed, and though we were thrown out, we did have to place to ourselves for about 20 minutes. It was really beautiful there.

On our last day, we went to an Islamic Shrine about 10 kilometers from Damascus. “I” wanted to see as many of these as possible since this may become the focus of his dissertation. I don’t know how to adequately describe what it was like for me there. Both L and I were issued abayas, and then we were quickly separated from “I” who wanted to go in and see the shrine. He took my camera because it’s a bit better than his, and because I was uncomfortable taking pictures there. Besides, he takes better pictures than I do. L and I headed to the shoe check in place, and then we were in. The mosque is amazing. Inside, the room is covered in mosaics, but the tiles are all mirrors cut into different shapes. The place shimmers. Every pillar is covered in colored tiles. It’s really stunning. The women were kissing everything, and rubbing their clothing on the shrine and the doorway. Most of the women were weeping, and one woman got so worked up that she crawled outside and threw up. It was intense. We headed outside and picked up our shoes. We met “I” in the courtyard and he took dozens of pictures. We headed back to the Old City.

There, we headed down an alley and into a restaurant for some lunch. This is one of those restaurants that’s three stories tall, but really skinny. We shimmied up the stairs and had some chicken and cola. Then we went to a coffee shop that has a botanical garden attached to it. We sat in a lovely building with a wooden roof and a stone fireplace and had lattes. Then, we headed for the part of the souk where the yarn is. L and “I” chose several skeins of silk yarn. I told them I’d make them a blanket, and I had a choice of acrylic yarn or silk for the same price. That was a tough decision. I got 6 big skeins of silk for about 4 USD.

Then it was time to head home. We went to the bus station, next to which is a yard of taxis. The sign said (in Arabic) that Damascus to Amman costs 500 Syrian Pounds. The man told us it would be 600. 600 is still a bargain, but the sign indicated the prices were set. So, I pointed out the sign to “I,” and we were off for 500. The guy who drove us back is Jordanian. He told us he’d sat there in Damascus for 3 days waiting for a tourist so he could make some money and come home. Once we crossed into Jordan, he called his wife, and he almost drove off the road when his wife suggested she would bathe and be ready for him! He drove us back to our apartment instead of dropping us at Abdali, and for this I’m grateful. We shopped a lot, and “I” bought a huge suitcase to fit all their stuff, and switching taxis downtown did not sound appealing. It was a great trip. I can’t wait to go back next month!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on!! What's wrong with Jordan. Enough of Syria and its crap food and lets see more things on Jordan or even Lebanon/Egypt... Syria is a dump.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

Syria: come for the yarn, stay for the food! Your story is great, but the photos are amazing. I loved seeing the interior of the mosque with mirrors. That's something most American tourists probably never imagine. The pics of the ruins of the stone temple taken in slanting sunlight makes it look golden. But my favorite pic is the small city garden. It somehow makes the big world a little smaller to learn that it's not just my (spring-blooming) nasturtiums that are confused and flowering in November in So Cal, but that they're in bloom in Syria too. Hope you make it to Istanbul next time.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mountain in Damascus witht the great view is called Jabal Qasyoon - Mount Qasyoon.

Aleppo is named Halab in Arabic and what sounded to me like a cheese and honey dessert could be Halawt el Jebn - The Cheese dessert (loose translation).

Welcome to Amman!.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Steven Kesler said...

You mentioned St. John (or part of him) was located inside a mosque. I was under the impression it was fairly common practice in the early church to "divy up" the bones of dead Saints and parcel them out to various churches. It seems interesting these bones would be in a mosque (I assume you mean they were not found within a Christian mosque?) I wonder if at one time that mosque was perhaps Christian? Very interesting.

Sounds like you guys had a great trip! I would eat that food anytime instead of a Thanksgiving turkey!

11:02 PM  
Blogger Frances Goodman فرانسيس said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Frances, I suppose this means you missed the Prez in Amman? I believe you chose wisely. -Martha in Michigan

9:17 PM  

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