Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Palmyra, Damascus

Having seen the best around Hama, our little group headed a few hours east into the desert to Palmyra. Palmyra is one of the best ruins in the middle east and enjoys a spectacular setting. The town itself is small and exists solely for the tourism and with a lack of them right now it is really suffering and quickly becoming Palmindia with everyone fighting for business. It is a must see though. It became an important city on the trade routes in Roman times. Its most famous character was Queen Zenobia who at one point threatened Rome so the Romans marched over and put the city to the torch. From a distance the ruins (which are open and free to run around in) don't look like much but once you get in there crawling around the rubble and ruins it is huge. The pink sandstone really comes alive at sunset too. The main attraction is the remains of a temple to the God Bel (think Bible bad God) but I liked running over, under and between random standing and fallen columns, walls and temple facades better.
From Palmyra we went to Damascus and split up as I had some couchsurfers to meet. Great group of guys, I've been taken all over the old town and we hang out in the evenings. Damascus claims to be the oldest inhabited city in the world, which could be true. It is refered to in the Bible all the time and there is tons of history here as it has been the capital of numerous local empires over the years. It has seen a huge population boom in the last 50 years and is now pushing 7 million. It is busy, crowded, polluted and terribly interesting. There is a huge religious history and a large Christian quarter in the old city including many churches and sites related to St. Paul. He was converted here and I've now seen the church that he was lowered out of a window to escape the Jews. Contrary to popular belief, the different groups enjoy a peaceful and easy coexistence. The Umayyad mosque in the old town is also one of the oldest and most important in the Islamic world. The Umayyads were the first major Islamic empire and had their capital here so they converted the church into a mosque. In the first years of the empire, Christians and Muslims prayed side by side at the site. Inside is a shrine to John the Baptist (also a prophet in Islam) containing his head. Damascus also has one of the largest covered markets, or souqs, in the middle east. Very nice for a wander and the hassle factor is very low. It's just business as usual as it has been for a very long time.
One of the nights I went to a free concert program of traditional Palestinian music in the national theatre. I don't know how traditional it is when played on piano, sax, violin and drums but it was very cool. The singer is great. Arabic is a pretty soft language and easy to listen to even if you don't understand it. The Palestinians are very supported here and the biggest issue in their beef with Israel is what to do with all the refugees. They won't accept peace unless they are taken care of and of course Israel won't accept them so it is a stalemate. You see photos of the leader of Hezbollah all the time around here too.
The couchsurfers were not really able to host me but I was invited on a hike this past friday so I had been stalling and hanging around for that. I made a trip down to Bosra, very close to the Jordanian border to see some more ruins. I was hoping to stay the night there but there are no hotels. I ended up sleeping in a large dining tent with a guard of a restaurant. Bosra is famous for it's excellent Roman amphitheatre, unique for its being build freestanding and not carved out of the side of a hill. It was later fortified and turned into a citadel. A bit odd but impressive. The ruins are scattered around the old town as grey and black rock which has been partially reused for the current "houses" there. Funny how people will live in horrible areas and under really strange conditions and still be happy because they can set up a satellite dish..... It has cooled down and started raining these last few days.
In the end I didn't go on the hike because the plans changed at the last minute. Oh well, I guess I can get into the life here a little more. Have finally found some annoying people or at least some cheating bastards that didn't like me much. Nothing I couldn't handle......
On friday I went to a town called Maalula instead. It is one of only three towns in the world that still speaks Aramaic (the language of Christ). It is a small Christian town stacked with very old convents and churches. All are Greek orthodox and I ended up staying in one of the convents with a bunch of nuns because there was nowhere else. It was cool. They have a local saint there and some legends around it. One of the ladies in a different church did the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic so we could hear it. Cool. The old town itself is pressed against a small mountain cliff with houses that are so crammed together and piled above one another that the small pathways around them are actually mostly tunnels under the houses above. Very strange effect. As with Bosra, there is just too much garbage lying around. It was actually snowing this morning when I left Maalula.
I am back in Damascus for another day. I am at the end of my visa so I am leaving for Lebanon on monday. I know things there are at a tense level and I am watching it but honestly, if I don't survive it I don't deserve to lead Africa later..... It won't be a problem.


At 2:36 PM , Blogger huggybigbear said...

Hey Ammon,
Glad to hear you are back on the road, and still maintaining you BLog. Recently was up to Yellowknife, was very cold, but cool ( is that a pun?)
Anyways, needles to say it took me a couple of days to catch back up on the blog. I am glad you enjoyed your time at christmas, and got fed a bit before you hit it again.
Thanks, for the most excellent descriptions, and history of the places.
Surf on Dude!!!!
Big Bear


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