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April 22, 2004


Click to read about my 2 weeks in Syria


The 2nd of April I crossed the Syrian border on my way to Aleppo, the longest conitinously inhabited city in the world (over 5 thousand years). The first thing that struck me was the traffic: incredibly messy. There are no rules both for cars and pedestrians. Drivers respect no lane, no red lights. The horn is beeped CONSTANTLY as a greeting sign, turning sign and emergency brake. There is no passing 10 seconds without hearing a car hammering the horn. Pedestrian deal with the chaotic traffic like a bull fighter deals with the incomming bull. Scary stuff. On the other hand, taxis are very cheap, and with as little as one euro you can get across the whole town, so they are very convenient. No wonder there are hundreds of yellow taxis flooding the streets everywhere you go.

Lookout of the busy Aleppo

Traffic is chaotic, with yellow taxis all over

Anyway, my first destination in Syria was Aleppo, in the northern part of the country. This is a very large city (pop. over 3 million). Three million worth of dirt, mess, stink and confusion. Yup, I am afraid I did not like Aleppo very much at all. There is something about arab cities that drive me nuts. I guess it is the over dose of "humanity", for the lack of a better word. Accomodation there did not get any better, and I enjoyed a roman-alike orgy in my hostel: me, myself, and a horde of bed-bugs that'd sucked the bejesus outta me nightly. Food and restaurants were on the downies too unfortunately. In spite of the excellent arab cuisine, it was very very difficult indeed to find a decent restaurant that would serve anything else than chicken, lamb or humus. Do not get me wrong, I love humus and chicken and stuff, but after 2 weeks eating the same mother fucking shit twice a day, I found myself crying over a plate of fresh fish or grilled vegetables, or hell even a plate of spagghetti would do it.

Anyway, you get the point, Aleppo was sort of a letdown. The Souq (bazaar or market) was extremly apealling though. Similar to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul but much more real. You could actually get to see locals in stead of tourists trading and buying merchandise here.

Aleppo Citadel, an ancient arabic fortress

Aleppo christian quarters, where the christian population and churches take shelter


Few days later I left Aleppo and arrived to Homs, a mid-sized town in the center of the country. Same deal here: traffic, thundering horns, dirt, taxis everywhere, polution, etc. You name it, you get it. Bingo!: I did not like Homs much either hehe. The only good thing that happend during my three days in Homs where three girls that kind of rescued me. I will explained that out: There I was, lost in the traffic like a good tourist, when this girls came up to me and pointed me to the right direction. They where studing english literature at the college, and since they wanted to practice their english with a foreigner, they offered themselves as my own personal turist guides for a whole day, paying up for all the drinks and stuff we'd had and walking me around Homs as long as we would speak english. I of course signed up right away and we had a great fun that day, exchanging opinions and chit-chatting while walking around their town. Surprisingly, these three girls turned out very open minded, and even though they were muslims, they were very alike to any other western youngster, with similar doubts and wishes. It was very enlightning.

Mei and Raheb, my personal tourist guides in Homs

And this is something that leads me to my main lecture about Syria: we westerners really know squat about arab people. We know what the CNN headlines show us, but that's far for truth. They ain't the violent, extremist, fundamentalist gang that carry a copy of the Coran in one hand and a ticking bomb on the other. They are very welcoming, very humble, and extraordinary curious and hospitable towards foreigners. I had received tons of offers to have lunch and private homes, for free, just for the sake of speaking with me and having me hanging out with them for a while. When would that ever happened to any of you in Europe? when, after asking some random person in the street for a near-by restaurant, would he offer you a meal in his own house for free? Never! I think we westerners have forgoten what hospitality is about. And I mean free-of-charge hospitality. You know, very few people here speak good english, but everybody can say "welcome to Syria". I wish we had more of that back home...


Sixty kilometers west of Homs there is a XI century castle erected by the Christian Crusaders during their "holly quest" in the middle east, almost a thousand years ago. The Crak de Chevalliers was their most imponent fortress at the time, and T.E. Lawrence (also known as Laurance of Arabia) labeled it as "the finest castle in the world". It is a massive medieval castle as those we dreamt of when we were kids. It has a double defensive wall, forward-proyected towers that'd provide the defender with a wide defensive shooting range, a tall central bastion, a chapel, stables, and all the features we Camelot-mongers could thing of. History tells us that this Castle had never been conquered by invaders as long as the crusaders defended it.

The Crak, impossing from the inside...

And the outside


Oh boy, here it comes... the country's number one international attraction... (Drumrolls playing) Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honour to present today before you the explendorous, magnificient, superlative and exhuberant Palmyra!

Palmyra was probably the wealthiest location during the III century AD. It is an oasis right in the middle of the ancient silk route from orient towards the Roman Empire, and it quickly arose as a trading hotspot. Wealthy businessmen were magneted in and soon this oasis evolved into a massive trading hub. Temples and avenues were crafted, and ornated funeral towers were dedicated as rich men's tombs.

Palmyra reached its high-point in 267 AD when Zenobia, supossedly a decendent of Cleopatra herself, became Queen of Palmyra. Zenobia was a smart and ambitious woman, and tried to fight her way free against Rome. Of course, here along came this dude called Emperor Aurelius and tore the whole place apart as an exemplary punishment. It was the beginning of the end for the once all-mighty Palmyra.

History aside, Palmyra is seriously breath taking. It's right in the middle of the desert (152 km away from the Iraqi frontier, by the way). Only a 10% of what once was stands still, but it's enough to show how massive and opulent this site became. As I entered the Temple of Baal (Baal was the babylonian God of gods, like Jupiter for Romans or Zeus for Greeks), I sort of pissed on my pants in awe. I wonder if one can get acustomed to all these world-wonders without getting wet in the no-no spot.

Baal's Temple courtyard with its massive pillars

Palmyra's main street

Same street, another angle, and a bedouin sitting down

Are you up for a hike in the desert?

There is also an arab fortress of later contruction two miles away atop a steepy hill where locals and turists gather up at sunset to enjoy the cromatic spectacule.

The arab fortress overlooking Palmyra ruins

Sunset over the Syrian desert

And what's more important, I found a good hotel and a reassonably good restaurant. Wooohooo! I had started to believe that they did not have those in Syria.

Anyway, the funniest thing that happened during my staying in Palmyra was meeting Francois and Guillermo, two mid-twenties crazy frenchmen on a six months trip from Turkey to China. The porpous of their jorney was sort of elaborating a sociological research about the different wedding procedures in the different countries they'd cross along. So, basically, they'd hit a new town, ask around in search for a local wedding, ask for permision to get invated in (which they usually did), and film the whole event to upload it afterwards on the net. They even got sponsors back in France helping them financing the project. I think it's an extraordinary beautiful project, and a great excuse to travel around going from celebration to celebration. I seriously encourage all of you to visit their website, which of course is still being under development as they still haven't finished their work. But non the less visit that URL. Good stuff indeed.

Like I was saying, those two are nuts, man. They were all the time playing silly games, and taking chances on each other. For example: whenever a beautiful lady would pass next to us in the street, if any of them had dirty thoughts about her, he'd put the back of his hand up and ask the other one for a nasty slap, while claiming solemnly "I deserve punishment". Hahaha! oh man I loved those two, I had a great time with them. They also tought me how to play a cards game called UNO, and I beat their collective french asses. Francois and Guillermo, if you're reading these lines... Spain is the winner! Hahaha!

Anyway, after few days in Palmyra, the three of us took a bus to Damascus, the capital of Syria.


Damascus lies in the southern region of Syria, and hosts over 6 millions of souls in its belly. Damascus is, other than the "old city", more of the same ole that I have been growing used to as far as arab cities is concern, so I will stick to the old city center here.

The Old City, the equivalent to the Sultahnamet in Istanbul, is where all the sites of turistic interest take place. Firstly there is the magnificient mosque, the most significant worshipping mosque in the arab world after the one in Mecca and Medina. The building's courtyard is a delight to the eyes, and the praying hall does not fall behind either.

Damascus mosque's impressive courtyard

Inside, muslims pray mind-absent of the people around them. These blind believers are supossed to have special faith and people tend to gather around them and listen them, and donate money too

Women got their own cell dedicated to study the Coran

There are also the christian and jew quarters, where people from those religions live in peace and harmony with muslims. The christian quarters are mostly made of narrow, stone-pavemented streets, with glass balconies overlooking out, very similar to those streets you could find in any city-center in Castilla Leon.

The souq, the place to buy anything you want


Francois, Guillermo and I, desperate for a beer (remember this is a muslim country), could not for the live of us find a pub or bar serving spirits. Eventually we found a supossedly gay restaurant or something along the line when they served beers with the dinner, so there we went. Dinner was so-so, but oh man the Heinneken tasted like Vega Sicilia 1982.

We also took one evening off and decided to relax about in a Turkish Bath. For those who do not know, a turkish bath is a public bathhouse where males go get cleaned up with a wide range of side-services. My friend Miguel from Spain (my ex-boss) had once related his experiences in a turkish bath in Istanbul, and ever since I had been meaning to go into one myself. Ok, here is the drill: firstly you get naked and roll a towel around your waist. You also get provided with a soup brick and a spounge. Then, you walk into this steaming room with water taps all around where you wash yourself. Kind of tricky to wash yourself where the sun ain't shinning with a towel in the middle of way... Anyway, the temperature in this steaming room is so high that at the beginning it's dificult to breath. Seriously, I thought I would sofocate myself to death there. Anyway, after 30 minutes of sweating, rubbing and rinsing all over your body, then this fat ass arab man walks up to you as thunders across the room: "you! massage time!". Thanks god I told him to take it easy with the massage, or else I'd been judo'd down to a pulp on the floor. Seriously, these guys are strong, and the massage does get painful at times. Then he lets you go loose (literally, as your body hardly responses to you anymore), and another fellow grabs you along: sandpapper-glove time. He rubs off all the dead skin cells with a nasty sandpapper-glove which really hurts. After that, you drop yourself on the floor and let the flowing water rinse away whatever the hell is left of you. Afterwards, new dry towels are provided and you are served with a wonderful tea as you come back into sense. I have never felt cleaner than I had that evening.

Francois, me and Guillermo after a day in the Turkish Bath

The day after I took a one-day side-trip to Maluula, a small village 60 kms away from Damascus. The town is built on the cliffs and there are some nice scenary to be viewed.

Maluula at my feet!

Day after that, Francois, Guillermo and I took the bus to Mar Musa, a monastery in the middle of nowhere, literally. The monastery is a supossedly a meeting point of arabs and christians where, via seminars, they exchange points of views, praying rituals, and overall religious-related knowledge. The place is directed by a frenchman called Frederick, a former backpacker himself who once arrived to this spot two years ago and have never set a foot outside ever since. Freaky, isn't it?

In fact, the place is closer to a hippy comunity than what you'd envision as a monastery. There is a resident group of people (5 to 10) who welcome any visitors for as long as they want, as long as they help with the monastery daily activities such as feeding animals, do the laundry (that was my duty), cooking the dinner, etc. No payment is needed, as they get funds from EU, Vatican and private donations. So, the monastery is mostly populated by few believers, and a bunch of backpacker that spend a while there (like myself). It's a quite and relaxing place, and excellent to spend few days at if you need to escape away from everything. There is a great and friendly atmosphear in the air. Very hippy'ish indeed.

Scenary from the monastery over the valley

Nice valley indeed

Playing instruments in the evening

We spent the night in the monastery, and the day over I bowed my good-byes with the crazy french couple. They are travelling eastwards going throught India and Nepal this summer, so I might meet them again there.

And, without anything left to do in Syria, I picked up a bus that would carry me right into what was in the 80's the hottest war-spot in the planet: Beirut, capital of Lebanon...

Posted by Hector on April 22, 2004 02:29 PM
Category: The Journey


I'm sitting here eating hummus while I read about your travels, and I'm more than a little amused that you had to eat this everyday! :) ehehe

Its SOOOO fun to keep up with what you're doing, seeing, thinking - REALLY REALLY COOL.

Your tour guides and French wedding voyeurs sounds Incredible - its funny...but, I'm sure I'll remember your stories about those people more than I'll remember what you said about ANY of the places you saw.

I'm going to go check out the rest of your countries too!

Take care buddy,

Posted by: mark on April 23, 2004 03:56 PM

Lo q daría por estar ahí...

Posted by: Nico on April 23, 2004 08:29 PM

Hola Hector! Soy Edmundo, el oscense de Estambul que volvió a Dublin para cumplir con sus obligaciones rutinarias.Que tal tus aventuras? Me parece que el viaje esta siendo una experiencia inolvidable. Espero que todo te vaya bien y decirte que me voy a Zimbabwe un mes, de mitad de junio a julio a un campamento de refugiados, eso si, si Mugabe me lo permite, ja!ja! Seguimos en contacto y me alegro de saber de ti. Sigue escribiendo y disfruta!!
Edmundo Monsonet

Posted by: Edmundo on April 27, 2004 05:49 PM

genial, genial tus aventuras por siria, ensimiasmao m has dejao. q gracia lo d los franceses, es buena idea esa d la financiacion :D. mañna m leo Jordania y el siguente paso en tu ruta, apasionante. n dejes d colocarlas tio. yo tb cambiare d escenario pronto y tus paginas alientan.
un saludo

Posted by: koba on April 29, 2004 07:03 PM

genial, genial tus aventuras por siria, ensimiasmao m has dejao. q gracia lo d los franceses, es buena idea esa d la financiacion :D. mañna m leo Jordania y el siguente paso en tu ruta, apasionante. n dejes d colocarlas tio. yo tb cambiare d escenario pronto y tus paginas alientan.
un saludo

Posted by: koba on April 29, 2004 07:03 PM
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