This is some journaling about a couple of days traveling in Syria near Palmrya and the Euphrates river. I had an incredible time in Syria, a lot of that due to the very warm and hospitable people and have been very saddened by what has happened there in the war.
Here are some photos from an old flickr account of my time there, and you can see photos there of much what I describe here.
My hotel in Palmyra is right next to the ruins, so I just get up, get in my car and drive round the corner to the ruins.
The ruins are basically the same sort of story as those of Apamea; except covering a much bigger site, which is really quite huge.
I find an arena where a few hundred people can watch wild animal wrestling and battles, which is still very much intact. I figure it would be an excellent place to make a video clip for a band!
Despite there being so many tourist buses on the road, I am basically alone in the ruins and it is not too early either! I only come across one group of tourists who I manage to avoid. The tourists you see in Syria are mostly the kind of people you would not look once at, almost excessively bland people.
I wander off into the area where there are all these towers and tombs, but don’t venture any further.
I go to the temple of Baal which is the most intact structure on the site, and take some nice photos. It is quite interesting how the Muslims have destroyed the faces on the frescoes, so no human imagery is left.
Palmyra itself has quite an interesting history. As its strength and size grew, eventually it was concluded by its people that it should break from Rome and become its own Empire.
The Romans decided this was not the way of the world and sent in their armies, which Queen Zenobia and her people defeated, thereby gaining power of all of Syria, Palestine and a lot of Egypt.
A few years later in AD 272, the roman emperor beseiged Palmrya and took Queen Zenobia back to Rome as a prisoner – thereby bringing Palmrya back into the empire.
After Rome fell, the city had no reason left for existing, as its primary source of money came as a center of trade in the route between the east and Rome – and so it fell into ruin.
As I come out of the Temple of Baal I realise it is about midday and I have seen enough of the ruins and so decide to go walking in the Oasis. But first I am tempted to ride a camel. There are about four of them sitting down outside the temple with their owners closeby. It is a very touristy thing to do, but something I had never done and the only opportunity you really get to ride them in short distances is as a tourist and so I feel to give it a go! Besides, even the somewhat dour Diana Darke, who writes the Bradt guide to Syria, says riding the camel from outside the temple from the reluctant camels is “rather fun”(!)
A young bedouin shows me his white camel and asks 2000 pounds for one hour. (about $50 Australian), which is really an enormous amount of money for Syria. I tell him that and he says they have to pay taxes and so on to the government which seems unlikely but plausable.
I bargain him down to 1800 pounds and say I want to take a tour of the Oasis. I try to pat the camel before getting on, but the beast is obviously quite misanthropic in nature and growls and then lunges at me! This doesn’t really deter me, as I hear that camels are just typically bad tempered in nature!
After I get on the camel, hold on as it gets up in a rocking motion, and the beast growls and moans as I am led toward the oasis and the palms.
He keeps growing and grunting for about 15 minutes until he finally stops. I am led through lanes where there are stone walls and olive and pomegranate orchards over the walls.
The bedouin boy, whose name is Hane (pronounced Han-knee) shows me the pumps and spring where the water is pumped up from. The water is literally silver in colour and Hane says it is because there is actually silver in the water and it is very good for the human body to drink it. I tell him we have collodial silver in Australia, which can kill viruses and so on and he says, yes, it is the same with this water!
We go back through the windy lanes and then go to Hane’s friends place, which is kind of like a little camping ground, swimming pool and restaurant. I take a swim in the swimming pool which is right behind the temple of Baal and then eat some food which is very, very good… but very, very overpriced!
Hane says he can take me out to see some springs, the desert and also the bedouin if I want. I ask him his price and he says, you decide how much you want to pay. I say okay and so we go to my car and we got into town to pick up his cousin who wants to come with us too.
Soon we are zooming across a dry sandy road, with Palmyra behind us, and just salt flats surrounding us. After about half an hour we arrive at this tacky looking touristy building in the middle of the desert. It looks like some kind of hotel.
Inside, I am shown these big bathing pools which they begin to fill up with water… which is from the spring and is apparently some kind of health giving sulphuric water. I am not really sure about it, but decided to do it anyway, the water is naturally hot and the bath is in this multilayered square bath made from slate.
The water is good and relaxing, but nothing too special. I get out, dry myself and over drinks I ask Hane what we should do next. He says we should go see the camel racing. He says it is about an hours drive from here. I say I am not too keen on that and maybe we should go back to Palmyra now. I was actually quite keen to see the bedouin, but as Hane isn’t mentioning it now, I don’t mention it – as I suspect he is not as tight with the bedouin as he has claimed!
Then, we go outside and look in this cheesy, touristy bedouin tent! Hane and his cousin are almost surprised there are not any Bedioun in there, in this conveniently located tent for the tourists! So at that point I drop the bedouin idea altogether.
So off we go, back down the desert track we come from, until Hane’s cousin says we can go see some baby camels, which are only a few kilometers away.
Soon, I can see herds of camels in the distance, quite a lot of them! Including baby camels. We get to the road and then I get out and go and take some photos of the baby camels, which are very cute.
As the car is a couple of hundred meters back on the road, Hane’s cousin asks if he can drive the car into the desert, so we can see the more distant herds and visit his relatives… I say, “what the hey!” looking at the desert, it is really quite flat and it looks like the car will be fine on this surface.
Soon, we are all in the car, the boys are really joyous, driving the car in the desert, zooming towards more herds of camels and we come across some of their friends, who seem to be out there herding the camels.
They all have a cigarette and chat excitedly while I take some more photos of the camels. (and them)
Hane says that his friends over there can offer some tea and points at more herds of camels in the distance, and also that he wants to drive. He says he can drive, but he has never driven an automatic before, so I have to teach him how it works. When we stop after a few minutes, he puts it into reverse while we are moving and the car complains quite loudly!
Soon, we are in front of a big tent, in front of a family, an old man, a middle aged man, a few children, and two women.
So! These are the bedouin!
As we get out Hane seems like he doesn’t know quite what to say! And they are clearly quite shy people. We are all in “looking at shoes” mode, until I say how I am enjoying taking photos of the camels. And I am wondering where is this famous bedouin hospitality!
I ask Hane if he can ask them if I can take a photo of them all in front of their tent. The middle aged man, says, it is better if we go to the other tent.
So he comes into the car, with Hane driving and me and him and his three or four year old girl in the back with him.
He looks different to the other Syrian people I have met, the way he moves is less pretentious and more still. There are no airs whatsoever in this man.
His child (I presume), stares at me curiously, sitting in her dad’s lap. Some of her hair is pulled into a tie with a kind of sparkly piece of jewelery, they themselves have obviously made. I recognise this, because I have seen the kind of tools and artifacts the bedoiun make in the shops the night before.
When we get to what appears to be main camp, we see about half a dozen camels tied up, various bits of clutter around the three tents and a few women sitting outside the tent, dressed in black, staring at us, not in any suspicious way, but in a kind of distant way.
As tea is being made in another tent, me, hane and his cousin, sit down with the elder of the camp (whose name I cannot remember!) and who I will call “He” or “the bedouin” for now!
We go inside the tent and it is completely empty, but on the sides of the walls are these most incredible wall hangings, pictorial wall hangings depicting Bedouin life – sewn in with different colours of clothe. They really were very impressive and had a vibrancy and spirit about them that reminded me of aboriginal art.
I ask if I can take photos of the textiles and say I would be very interested to buy one if it were offered.
Hane says the bedouin says, people have come and wanted to buy these textiles, but they have never wanted to sell them, even when 500 euros was offered for each piece.
Once they were offered a very large amount of money to just have the textiles shown in a film, as a backdrop, but they refused. He said the film people looked around at other bedouin camps and didn’t find anything nearly as interesting as these textiles.
He said at night, they would all make these textiles, and that it would take months to finish each one… and that for now, they were happy just keeping them for themselves.
Soon, tea is served. It is very strong here, always in little glass cups, usually with white sugar, no milk! It is quite good like this, but part of the ceremony involves waiting for it to cool down so you can even pick up the glass! This means quite some time is present for talking. And people here seem to have a better sense that the tea is really just an excuse to hang out with other people.
The bedouin tells of us that a french woman comes and lives with the group for months at a time. I get the impression she becomes one of his wives for this time! (but I could be wrong about this)
Soon, he picks up this bedouin instrument (the name of which I never really registered!), which only has one string, and begins to play it with a kind of bow. This version had a big olive oil sized tin as a resonator and main body, rather than the wooden one’s shown to me in the shops in the night before. The olive oil tin version actually sounded a lot brighter and interesting, and the Bedouin man actually plays it very well. The sound is very soothing and calming. Hane says it is very much designed to be a relaxing experience.
He passes the instrument to me and says I should play it now! with a sudden gentle cheekiness in his eyes. I actually manage to play some interesting stuff on it… like see saw David Bowie violin I’m sure!
Then Hane, who is of Bedouin stock, plays the instrument – quite well too!
I give the Bedouin some gifts – some kooky Australian tea and also some special incence which I burn for them.
At this time, the man’s son comes in and talks to us, as well as an old man who checks out the incense I am burning.
Then, after some time, of more chatter and jokes, I say it is time for us to leave.
As we leave, the Bedouin asks me when I am coming back to this part of the world. I say I don’t know, which Hane tells him. He says, well, if come back, be sure to come and visit us and stay some time if you want.
I say, that is extremely kind of him and thank him for his hospitality and we exchange good byes and get back into the car.
What impressed me about them is how natural they are, nothing is forced or put on. I am reminded of Osho strangely enough, when he talked about friendliness being one of the most important qualities to have. What I quite briefly experienced was such natural and true friendliness.
They reminded me of some of the tribal people I spent time with in the Amazon… everything is quite matter of fact, especially human relationships and present time dynamics which are recognised for what they are.
There is certain sort of grace in being with all in immediate directness, which is childlike, gentle and endearing. Whereas, western people in comparison (especially the rich!) seem to cultivate a kind of self importance, haughtiness, indirect distance as being worthy of respect – a perspective removed from the earth, from the natural, and what the majority of NDE survivors understand to be the most important thing in life – human relationships.
The simple, the direct, the matter of fact is often not valued in our world of compromise, complexity and sophistry.
However, more and more people are becoming attracted to the Bedouin because of what they have kept intact in themselves and as a lifestyle. Sadly though, this lifestyle is being compromised, like that of pretty much all of the people over the world, who have traditioanlly lived close to the land. I have read that such camel herds are becoming rarer and rarer, less and less needed and that the desert cannot support many grazing animals. (which is how the Bedouin largely make a living)
Strangely enough (or not so strangely), the group I visited are more aligned with a traditional lifestyle… while even the majority in this day and age are turning to the luxuries of television, motor vehicles and electricity – and therefore more and more becoming assimilated into the modern way of the world.
On the way back to Palmyra, we find a dead camel on the side of the road. Hane says this camel was in the enclosure with us while we are having lunch! I am not sure whether to believe Hane about this… as it seems unlikely, but he tells me he is for real, this was a very sick camel.
Hane and I drop off his cousin in Palmyra, then go to check out the citadel, to watch the sun go down and have a good view over all of Palmyra. Then we go back to his cousins place to look at the baby camels, one of them is 10 days old. It is grey and very cute and come up to us and whinnys when we pat it. Then the baby camel then suckles on one of the goats.
Hane’s cousin milks one of the big old camels and I am given some warm camel milk! It is clearly very nutricious going by its taste, which is very rich and somewhat sickly.The cheese and yoghurt I was given for lunch today was also from the camel, and was of very good quality indeed.
Then I say good-bye to Hane’s cousin and go drop of Hane to his house. His family are all there, sitting outside the house on plastic chairs. Lots of brothers and sisters, mum and dad.
It is getting dark, and they offer me coffee, which I am reticent to accept this time of night, but which it would be rude of me to not accept! Hane’s older spectacled, respectably looking brother says that the deal camel I saw, indeed did die today! And that its owner was now at home crying… and that this camel had actually won many races as well!
As I leave, I give Hane 50 euros, he seems disappointed… but I know it is a huge amount of money in his world… and I will let the Japanese tourists who can afford to give him excessive amounts, who are impressed with his Japanese, to give him more money to stroke his ego and bank balance! The boys had great fun driving the car, and had as much of a good time as I did.
So I drive back to my hotel and go to bed, grateful for a very full day of richness.
On the morning of Monday, I woke up at 9am, and as I walked outside, people mentioned my car had a flat tyre. It was the tyre I had to pump up a bit previously, so riding through the desert with Hane driving must have pushed it over the edge.
People considered it to be a big deal and many offered to help, I said it was no problem and would change it later, which baffled them actually.
I took my macbook air to the cafe and used the surprisingly fast wireless internet there for an hour and had breakfast.
Then as I walked back to my car, who do I see but Hane! He is surprised to see me too, he says we should have tea, but I say I’ve really got to fix my tyre and get out of here, as I have a big day ahead.
He says, we should go see his friend, and we walk five metres, turn right into a cafe and says his friend is a pro. I am a little bit doubtful, but go with the two of them, up the road and sure enough, to a little tyre shop on the corner.
It turns out there are three sharp pin like objects in the tyre, so I have to buy a new one and get it fitted, which they do very quickly indeed.
Hane’s friend wants to drive back, so I say, “okay” not so reluctantly. So we go back to the cafe and have some tea and something to eat. And we go cruising around for a bit, blaring out middle east pop hits from the stereo, from two tapes that they generously give to me.
As they are driving, Hane and his friend waving and getting surprised stares from people they know. We go get some petrol, I go into the sunglass shop and I would not be surprised if I set a world record for buying sunglasses. After stopping and entering the shop, it would have been two seconds at the most before then I say, “I’ll have a pair of those!” pointing into the cabinent behind the desk. (yes, there was actually a sunglass shop in Palmrya!)
So at about 12.30pm, I finally get going!
The first part of the drive is fairly unremarkable, just the desert for the most part. I stop and in Deir Ez-Zur, I pick up a thin gentle soldier hitching with his big negro coloured stereo system, then drop him off in a big town called Mayadin.
When I drop him off, some people working in the roadside service shops, invite me to tea. And as usual, I am the star and entertainment for about 20 minutes. As I leave I give them all high fives, which some of the men find weird and won’t do! While the boys are absolutely delighted and then I zoom off again.
I take a left turn over the euphrates, and end up on this road which I think is no longer the highway. It is a bit rougher and consists of continuos houses and villages along the euphrates.
Any time I see the river it effects me quite a bit, it is a gorgeous cyan/blue like colour, not mud coloured like I was expecting.
I keep driving and feel somehow refreshed, the women by the sides of the roads wear the most extraordinary and colorful clothes and the men often more minimal and you can see all these gentlemen walking on the footpaths counting their prayer beads… in fact, I have never seen so many religious fellows since I have been in the country.
The area around the euphrates is so lush, and it is quite incredible what a difference a river makes! but the funny thing is, the influence only extends at maximum a kilometer, and then it is completely flat and barren desert again!
Soon I reach a spot where I think I can walk to the river without anyone around or disturbing the crops… so I grab my canon g9 camera and go. People by the river are quite surprised to see me and as I walk up towards the river more and more people notice me.
The river is a very powerful presence, almost clear in colour, and has this nurturing quality about it, no wonder this river was what supported and brought about some of the first civilisations in our recorded history.
Soon, I am walking towards some water pumps and find this whole water pump complex, pumping water from the river into many different irrgation canels.
Boys gather around me, speak broken English and I take some photos of them and show them the photos.
Then I keep walking, into a village and am immediately swamped by kids and various people interested in my presence. I manage to take some good photos of some of the kids on a fence especially!
I doubt many of them have really seen a white person closeup before and they simply stare and stare.
Some of the women pose for my photos, while others scurry away shyly, while coming back when I down my camera to check me out more.
Soon I have been invited to sit in a courtyard outside a house, surrounded by children firstly, then women and the occaisonal man. They give me water, which they say is from the euphrates, and it is absolutely clear, and very nice tasting.
There are so many people around me, I get hot and sweaty, so one of the women begins fanning me! I take photos of them sometimes, and show them the photos on the digital screen, which makes them all giggle and laugh!
Some of the men come over and shake my head. One of the figure is the obviously the village mullah, as people tell me and he clearly approves of my presence.
Soon, I say I have to go, as I want to get to Mari, this ancient ruined city, one of the oldest in Syria, before sunset and it is already getting late.
Walking through the village, a boy comes up to me and speaks perfect English to me. He says he learnt it in school, and is the only one who speaks english to me. I say to him, get me an email address of someone in the village and I can email the photos to you all. He says okay, and goes into a house, as if to get the email address and I don’t see him again.
As soon as I get to the road, there is a couple of older guys blocking the way! They seem a bit grumpy, like I have wandered into some kind of protected area! And soon this very old guy come over. He puts his hand out and I shake his hand, but he holds onto to mine! At first I think he is just being friendly, but then I get a bit of a captive feeling. I ask him if it is alright to take his photo and he seems to be alright with it, then after I take a couple of shots, turns his head away and speaks arabic to the men! One of the men, pulls out some kind of what looks, super ID card, it looks like some kind of official authorised card.
I get the impression this old guy is some kind of super-mullah patriarch. They start asking me for my passport and I say I don’t have it on me, that it is in my car and they say, they don’t see my car. And I say, that is because it is around the corner. The old guy says he wants money, at least it is obvious that is what he is asking. But I profane total innocense. There is no way I am setting a precedent of gringos giving the locals money in order to just leave them alone! This seems to exasperate the old guy and so I show them drivers license, holding it in my wallet, as if that is my ID and about the only right they have over me is to see it.
The old mullah then seems to get a bit hard core, speaking arabic to me and making a cutting motion on his left hand.
At first, I just think he is just a silly old bugger, who has no power over me at all, but he keeps making this cutting motion with hand. And then I remember, the village mullah has the power to cut off people’s hand, if they have stolen something and the only thing I can think of, is that he thinks I have stolen something by taking these people’s picture. Which is clearly rubbish, as all had a good time and saw themselves in the camera and was a mutual cultural exchange.
I get a bit nervous at this point, as they are all now getting a bit hardcore, there are dozens of kids around me at this point and they are being stirred up by this old guy and the other men.
So I say to them, I need to go to my car to get the passport and they say, “we don’t see your car” and I say, that is because it is around there! I turn around suddenly and walk quickly towards my car, the men and all the boys shout “stop, stop!” but I have nothing more to say to these people.
Soon I get to my car and quickly get in, there is like a boy crouched in front of my car, as if to stop me from driving. So I turn the engine on, back off quickly, as another boy gets out the way as I speed back! Then I turn back into the road and speed off as the boys lunge toward the car and one of them hits the window, as they are all saying “Stop! Stop!”.
Again, it is a case, where they all think I am going to respect the authority as rebellion in this country is inconceivable it seems to me.
The men and boys are making some kind of road block, but speed up and make it clear I am not going to stop and they get out of the way quite quickly and off I go! My heart is racing at this point and I am a bit freaked. I don’t think it could have gotten too ugly as there was nobody there who could really restrain or stop me. I would have pulled some kung fu moves I have learnt from the movies and freaked them out enough to get out of there, but I feel their psychic claws and it was not a real pleasant experience.
There are idiots everywhere in the world, and Syria is no exception, unfortunately, this kind of opportunistic vampirism has to stop if Syria wants to become more visited by tourists. It has 3,000 historic sites, while most middle eastern countries have a few hundred. It is a perfectly good example of a stable middle eastern culture which respects tradition, but is also somewhat modern in outlook.
Yeah sure, I have enough money to get to Syria and travel around, but what I have is tiny compared to all the big black, top of line tinted windowed Mercedes Benze’s I see cruising past on this road, with number plates from Qatar or Kuwait. Nobody owes anyone money just because they have some.
It is said that the Bedouin will never accept money for their hospitality. But also, strangely enough, tourism may well be the only factor which enable them to survive living their lifestyle. How that will work out is anyone’s guess…
So I keep driving along this beautiful road and stop and ask one of the elderly prayer bead weilding arab gentlemen for direction to Mari, I show him the arabic my Bradt guide shows for the site. He tries to give directions, but eventually, just gets in the car and say in Arabic he will go with me!
These older guys have such a friendly countenance and I cannot think of anywhere I know where someone would get in the car with a “stranger”, and show you where to go! I am presuming he was already wanting to go to that area anyway.
After about 15 minutes we are very close to the Iraqi border and you can feel this tension and menace… the guide says there are check points along the way to the border, but I don’t see any. We get to the town, the old gentlemen gets out, talks to what seems to be a friend, an even older gentlemen and he then gets in.
Off we go again, down the road and after 10 minutes or so, he gestures that he wants to get out here! and also that Mari is just a kilometre further, then I should turn right. I thank him and he gets out.
I get the feeling these old guys are somehow compensating in friendliness for the bad example of patriarchic male I experienced near the river. And in general, this prevents me from generalising at all about such men.
So I get to Mari, as the sun is going down and I am the only one there as is so often the case in this country. There are some ruins covered in a tent and you can walk through them like a maze, the site is very dry and muddy. And walking around, you can pick up bits of pottery EVERYWHERE!
The site is from 3000 BC, and is said to be the most important Mesopotanian site that exists and existed for about 1500 years, until the Babylonians destroyed it. The site is not amazing or anything, but is a peaceful and interesting place to wander over for an hour or so. I am especially looking for bits of ceramic showing ancient cuneiform writing… but find none!
So then I drive back to Deir ez-Zur, which is the city on the euphrates. I find a good hotel, go into town, have some falafel and then go to sleep. In my dreams that night, I discover on the ground oranate ceramic pieces displaying elaborate cuneiform writings.