October 06, 2010

30 and 31 August 2010

We were up this morning at 6am to make it to Palmyra as early as possible. We drove about two hours and reached the Roman ruins – well, kind of Roman but not entirely as the site has been occupied since pre-Christ to the 1930’s when the government moved everyone out. The area we covered and looked at is only about 30% excavated based on what archaeologists believe to be there.
The tour guide was really good. I can’t remember his proper Arabic name to let’s call him Doug. He led us around the site explaining the history of the buildings. We went into a large stone building that had started life as a temple to the Roman gods, a church and a mosque. Inside, in three separate areas you can clearly see the remains of the three usages.

Christian. Look hard, you can just make out the motif.


Doug showed us the banquet hall where Romans would sacrifice animals (sheep, goat, horse, camel). The size of the animal decided on the size of their needs. The canal they had to build for the blood and the entrance of the animals is quite large, so it makes me think of animals plural rather than singular. Around this area, they know, are the remains of other levels of occupation, houses etc, but their location so near the temple means they can’t excavate. If they excavate there is the risk the temple will fall down.

A distance away is the main road into Palmyra. People would have arrived on camels to trade, meet, organise, socialise etc. Palmyra was on the old Silk Road until its destruction.

The road leading into Palmyra
A well repaired/remaining Roman amphitheatre is also on the site. It’s the same design as Amman but half the size. Doug was telling us about how they used it for plays, animal baiting etc and that when the theatre is used today, cushions are put out for people to sit on. We were allowed some free time to wander around the theatre and some silliness ensued with the singing of Celine Dion and Ange pretending to be a tiger.

Tour group on the top of the ampitheatre
At the end of the tour we re-boarded the truck, bound for Aleppo. The journey took about five hours. Life on the truck is a bit boring. I can’t ride backwards or read and so can’t socialise with anyone that well. Plus the heat saps you of energy incredibly fast so you seem to spend a lot of time napping. It’s an inbetween kind of world.

When we came into Aleppo I started to think even more so, “oh God, what have we done”. The road rules are pretty much non-existent. People do what they like, as they like and I have no idea how there are not multiple car pile ups every minute. Drew spent a lot of the afternoon blasting his horn at people, much the same as everyone else.

On reaching Aleppo proper my negative opinion started to improve. This is a city of about 2 million people and the older architecture is beautiful. It’s very different to what I’ve seen so far. The area also starts to look tidy – as though there is some pride in the area.

Coming around a corner you can begin to tell that this is where people live as well as work. A few of the “hotels” look a bit rough and ready and I was a little worried that one of them would be ours. We cruised past the 2007 built Sheraton and parked in a construction site. Drew led us across a road and down an alleyway. I marvel at how trusting we are because even though we’re on an organised tour, we don’t know these people.

A "jelousie" - designed so women could sit at the window without being seen.

But we reached the hotel, and with the help of staff we hefted our bags up three flights of stairs. The room I write this entry from is small, with three single beds, a coffee table and a hard sofa. It is clean enough and best of all has air-conditioning.

Teegan and Drew took us for a dinner of street food. We had deliciously spicy kebabs. As they were wrapped up the guy would bash them hard on the table. Pretty sure that was just for theatrics. The guy making them was sweating like crazy. I always feel sorry for people in these jobs.

We went then to a pub (name already forgotten) where D.H. Lawrence and Agatha Christie stayed and wrote. About ten-ish Ange and I found our way back. It was an odd sensation to be a Western woman walking around because everyone stops and openly stares at you. It’ll take a while to get used to that.

31 August 2010

Woke up after the coolest and best nights sleep I’ve had since leaving London thanks to the air-con.

Flitted around the room for a while, washing some really stinking clothes, then went downstairs for breakfast. It seems to be staple fare to have chapatti, jam, tomato, cucumber and soft cheese for breakfast. I think this is a diet that would suit me. I drink my tea black with 2 teaspoons of sugar and it is divine. Eastern tea doesn’t have the same bitterness as what we’re used to. You don’t need to spoil it with milk.

At 9 Ahmed met us to take a tour of the old city. He’s so cute. He’s 70 something and his first question to us was “Please explain Susan Boyle”. Had to laugh. Helen found it amazing that even in Syria “SuBo” has a reputation.

Ahmed led us down some side streets to show us parts of the new city and an intersection that made no sense and was kind of scary. Once across we were next to the walls of the old city. He showed us the eucalyptus trees that had been burnt in the heat of 48 degree days.

The wall itself has an interesting history. I can’t remember all of it now but in one section they’ve build a buttress of sorts in front of the main gate – this protected the door from the use of a battering ram. Such an ingenious solution.
Wall of the Old City

This led into the souk. I can only describe it as a maddening cacophony for the senses. It’s light and dark at the same time, the various spices overload your sense of smell and the noise is constant. It seems to be more the noise that’s easiest to deal with because there’s already been so much of it everywhere. The shopping area is exactly as you see it on tv programs. I didn’t take many photos because I didn’t want to annoy or tip the locals.
We headed out of the souk and went to the old hospital. It was built in an area chosen because of the way a lump of meat decayed – speed wise. The theory being that there was enough good, fresh air in the area to aid in healing and recovery.

In the court-yard there are ten rooms surrounding a small fountain and a little enclave where it is cool in the summer for visitors to sit (when it was in use obviously). The rooms in this area were used to treat headache, backache etc and smaller ailments.
Down a corridor you come to where they kept the most dangerous psychiatric patients. There are 4 cells around another small fountain. Very little light reaches here. They believed that a couple of years (2-4) of semi darkness and the fountain was a good curative of the mind and spirit. They were also dressed in green, as was my shirt for the day, so there was a little bit of amusement at that. As the length of stay progressed, the room, light, and fountain increased in size. Records show they had a very good success rate.
From here it was back into the madness of the souk. Ahmed took us to a shop where they sell pashmina’s and scarves etc. I got a beautiful cashmere pashmina and a rug I’m thinking about using as a bed cover maybe. Got to remember weight limits from here on in, not that I’d swap it.
Most of the walls are in this style. It's visually stunning.

Ahmed showing us how to pick good soap. Perhaps it was a hint.

While we were in the shop we were helped(?) by two men. Both of them are incorrigible flirts. I had a shirt on with a keyboard across the chest that one of them kept wanting to play. Unfortunately there is photographic proof. But they loved all the girls. Or more aptly, they loved our boobs. Our “personalities”. The chest playing guy also asked Penny if her arse was real and Bruno was kissed on both cheeks. The chest playing guy was also asking everyone what their star sign was, exclaiming on multiple occasions, “oh my god, we’re so f*^#ing compatible”.

Eventually we were all finished in the shop and shortly after the tour itself was finished. It ended up being a really long day because in all, this tour took about 6 hours where we were told it’d go for about 2. It was a shame really, because while the tour was really good, there was only enough to see in 3 hours. Plus we had Ramadan on, so while we could stop and eat, or drink, it didn’t happen so I think a few of us were about ready to pass out, or snappy.

Agnes had her birthday today so we all went out for dinner. So much food was delivered to our table. After dinner, Ange and I went to check our email and facebook instead of going to her party on the roof. I think we were so tired from the day we wouldn’t have lasted long anyway.

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