A turret and wall at Saladin Citadel, Latakia, Syria seen from below

Syria - The Highlights - In Memoriam

Author: Sue
Date: 29th December 2010
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In Memoriam

When I went to Syria (on a group 'adventure' tour) the sandstone was glowing against the brightest of blue skies.

Krak des Chevaliers

The castles were magnificent. Eleventh century Krak des Chevaliers, the epitome of crusader castles, towering above them all, described by Lawrence of Arabia, in the early twentieth century, as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world’. We march round the ramparts and peer down on the Homs Mountain Pass, falling away far beneath us.

Krak des Chevaliers - in a Nutshell

  • Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world.
  • The site was first inhabited in the eleventh century by Kurdish troops, but in 1142 it was given to the order of the Knights Hospitaller, by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, which was the name of the state, formed after the First Crusade.
  • The Hospitallers began rebuilding the castle in the 1140s and were finished by 1170, when an earthquake damaged the castle. It remained in their possession, unconquered, until the Crusaders were tricked into surrendering to Baibars Mamluk, Sultan of Egypt, in 1271.
  • At its peak, Krak des Chevaliers housed a garrison of around 2,000.

The Castle of Saladin

But Krak des Chevaliers is not the only UNESCO Crusader castle in Syria. An exhausting journey east of Latakia, sits the Castle of Saladin, in high mountainous terrain on a ridge between two deep ravines, surrounded by forest. It was intended to guard the route from Latakia to Antioch. There has been a castle here since at least the mid tenth century. It was controlled by the Byzantines and then the Franks, until, in 1188, it fell to the forces of Saladin after a three-day siege. After the Ottoman conquest in Syria, the castle became an Ottoman fortress. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) visited the castle, and described it as "the most sensational thing in castle building I have ever seen'. I'll leave it to you to decide if the two comments are compatible.

More arches to peer though. The keep has walls five metres wide and inside a Crusader tea house, a Crusader church and two Byzantine chapels. A lonely 28 metre high needle once supported  the drawbridge.

Homs

Close to Krak des Chevaliers, is the city of Homs, established, on the River Orontes, as a link between the Mediterranean and the interior of Syria. It was, originally, a centre of worship for the sun god El-Gabal, It later gained importance in Christianity under the Byzantines. Then it was conquered by the Muslims, in the seventh century and has since often been a centre of conflict, because of its strategic position. (Only too evident today.) Homs grew into a major industrial centre, still home to Sunni and Alawite Muslims, and Christians, with both historic mosques and churches in the city.

The Water Wheels of Hama

Homs was choked up with traffic and we had even further north to go, to Hama, the fourth largest Syrian city, also on the banks of the Orontes. We were almost too late to see the 17 giant norias (water wheels) churning slowly in the dusky mist. (I'm told that most of them are still intact) This incredible hydraulic irrigation system dates back to the early Byzantine period and is still in use today. At one point, there were 80 such wheels, along the Orontes.

Aleppo

Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria (it was the largest city when I visited). It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; Aleppo may have been inhabited since the sixth millennium BC. It was the end point of the Silk Road, until the Suez Canal was inaugurated in 1869. After that, most trade was diverted to the sea and Aleppo began its slow decline.

Aleppo had possibly the most atmospheric souk I have ever seen, totally authentic and thronging with locals, trundling carts, buying and bartering. Much of the city (and the souk) has now been destroyed in the Syrian Civil War.

A Brief History of Syria

  • Civilization in Syria dates back a very long time. Mesopotamia is the only area where civilisation is definitely older. The name "Syria" historically referred to a wider region, than the present day country, broadly synonymous with the area known as The Levant, and called al-Sham, in Arabic.
  • The most ancient Syrian ruins are at Ebla. It began as a small settlement in the Early Bronze Age (c. 3500 BC), developed into a trading empire and went through two more incarnations, until its final destruction by the Hittites in 1600 BC.
  • The modern state encompasses the sites of many more ancient kingdoms and empires, as it was invaded and subsumed numerous times: including the Old Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Hittite Empire, Mitanni Empire, Egyptian Empire, Middle Assyrian Empire, the Phoenicians, the vast Neo Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Greek Macedonian Empire and the Roman Empire. hat only brings us up to the first millennium.
  • It was the Greeks who introduced the name 'Syria', for the region. although they also included the Assyrians, under this umbrella.
  • Control of Syria eventually passed from the Romans to the Byzantines, with the schism in the Roman Empire.
  • In the Middle Ages - the Islamic era, Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt.
  • The modern Syrian state was established in the mid-twentieth century, after Ottoman rule, which commenced in 1516. After a period as a French mandate (1923–1946), the newly created state represented the largest Arab state to emerge from the formerly Ottoman-ruled Syrian provinces.

Ancient Civilisations of Syria

So, I'm embarking on a tour in which I get to see the remnants of some of these ancient kingdoms.

Ugarit

On the coast, close to the city of Latakia, is the old port city of Ugarit, which dates back to the Bronze Age and was at its height around 1450 BC. This ancient city of Ugarit had close ties to the Hittite Empire. It was destroyed around 1185 BC, but no-ne is quite sure who (or what) was responsible.

Apamea

Apamea (shrouded in mist) was an ancient Greek and Roman city. (Wikivoyage says, 'Because of its high elevation, the area is frequently foggy and wet leaving a unique haze in the area,'

This was a strategic location , ata cross roads, for eastern commerce and it's thought that Apamea was founded as a Macedonian military camp around 320 BC, after the area was conquered by Alexander the Great. But then it was named Pella. When the Seleucids took over, from 300 BC, the city was fortified and renamed ‘Apamea’ in honour of Seleucus’ wife, Apama. It was later enlarged , in order to house the military's transport - 500 elephants and 30,000 horses.

The city thrived commercially, under the Romans, and became the capital and Metropolitan Archbishopric of the late Roman province Syria Secunda. But was partially razed, in the wars between Pompey, Caesar and Cassius. When the Muslims arrived, Apamea was partly rebuilt.

Today, there are plenty of Roman ruins and a few Seleucid remains., There's the Great Colonnade which runs for over a mile, making it among the longest in the Roman world and the Roman Theatre, one of the largest surviving theatres of the Roman Empire. It has an estimated seating capacity in excess of 20,000.

On the Euphrates

The River Euphrates flowed calmly on the border, evoking memories of school Bible study.

There are three ancient sites to visit here:

  • Al Rusafa Fort, which began as an Assyrian camp in the ninth century BC and was known in the Byzantine era as Sergiopolis. Justinian built the ramparts, which are are over 1600 feet in length and about 1000 feet wide
  • The Royal Palace of Mari at Deir ez-Zur, the royal residence of the rulers of the ancient kingdom of Mari in eastern Syria. Mari acted as the “middle-man” to the surrounding larger, powerful kingdoms, sited on the Euphrates trade routes. It flourished between 2900 BC and 1759 BC, with its heyday under the rule of the grandly named King Zimri-Lim, in the eighteenth century BC. The most important archaeological find was nearly 25,000 clay tablets, stored within the palace rooms. These were kind enough to explain what most of the rooms were for.
  • Dura-Europos was a Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman border city built on an escarpment 90 metres above the eastern bank of the Euphrates. It was captured by the Sasanian Empire after a siege in 256–57 AD. The inhabitants were deported, and after it was abandoned, it was covered by sand and mud. So it's an archaeologist's dream, with its mixed cultures and architecture. One of the star exhibits is the world's oldest known Christian church.

Saint Simeon Stylites

There was more to see at the church of Saint Simeon Stylites. Simeon the Stylite, was the ultimate hermit in the fifth century. He lived and prayed on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years. he started a trend and his imitators became known as Stylites, from the Greek word for pillar. The pillar and this basilica were destroyed during the Civil War.

Palmyra, the Jewel of Syria

The ancient city of Palmyra was glorious from above and below. This is what UNESCO says:

'An oasis in the Syrian Desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the first to the second century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilisations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.'

Archaeological finds at Palmyra date back to the Neolithic period. Like so many cities in Syria, it Palmyra changed hands several times, between different empires, before becoming subject to the Roman Empire, in the first century AD. trade caravans made Palmyra wealthy and outposts were established to consolidate merchandising. This funded the construction of colossal projects, in the city, the ruins of which, I'm admiring now: the Great Colonnade, the Temple of Bel, and the distinctive tower tombs. After several incursions the city was reduced and destroyed, over the centuries and finally all but destroyed, by the Timurids, in 1400. Under French Mandatory rule, in 1932, the remaining inhabitants were deported to a new village, so the ancient site could be excavated.

It was midwinter and a little chilly. Walking around was challenging as I had brought a new pair of walking boots, without trying them on again (foolishly). It turned out that I had left the shop with two left boots. That left my new black leather UGGS. They didn't stay black very long.

Damascus, Capital of Syria

Historic Damascus was a joy. It was also a UNESCO heritage site. Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Damascus, the capital of Syria is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East and arguably the oldest inhabited city in the world. In the Middle Ages, it was the centre of a flourishing craft industry, specialising in swords and lace. It gets its name from the rich cotton fabric, damask. But it's also known as The Jasmine City.

The Citadel of Damascus is in the northwest corner of the Old City, but it's almost impossible to excavate the many layers of history here. Nevethtless, Damascus has some 125 monuments from different periods of its history. One of the most spectacular is the highly decorated, eighth-century Great Mosque of the Umayyads, It is one of the largest mosques in the world and also one of the oldest sites of continuous prayer since the rise of Islam. A shrine in the mosque is purported to contain the body of St. John the Baptist.

The Hospice (or Takiyya ) Sulaymaniyah, one of the first Ottoman buildings in Damascus, is another Mosque Complex now partly used as a history museum. Its showing evidence of wear and tear. And the Al Azem Palace is now another history museum. This was another Ottoman building. constructed, in in 1749 to be the private residence for As'ad Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus. The largest souq is Al-Hamidiyeh, inside the old walled city of Damascus next to the Citadel and clsoe to the Umayyad Mosque plaza. You have to walk through ruins of the ancient Roman Temple of Jupiter, to get in.

I'm curious also, to see the The Damascus Straight Street, made famous by the conversion of St. Paul, in the Bible. It was known as the Via Recta, and was the main (decumanus) of Roman Damascus, extending for over 1,500 metres, though renamed again today. Just round the corner from the Madhat Pasha Souq (named after an Ottoman governor). This is just scratching the surface. There are also, most notably, St George's Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the House of Ananias, the mausoleum where Saladin was buried and more ruins, mosques and churches (of course.)

Syria Today

  • Damascus is the beleaguered capital of the modern Syrian state, which was established in the mid-twentieth century, after centuries of Ottoman rule and a brief French mandate.
  • The two stars in the Syrian Flag represent the previous union between Syria and Egypt.
  • Today, Syria struggles with ongoing conflict and corruption. Half the country's pre-war population - more than 11 million people - have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Families are struggling to survive inside Syria, or make a new home in neighbouring countries. Damascus has gone from the oldest inhabited city to the most uninhabitable city in the world.

Syria Summary

  • The food in Syria was a delicious mezze style spread of flatbread and herby vegetables, sprinkled with pomegranate. There was Sufi dancing, all whirling skirts, for entertainment.
  • We were 'encouraged' to dress in local style clothing too
  • The people were overwhelmingly welcoming, friendly and helpful.
  • Very little of the above remains - it is unutterably sad.

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