After some confusion about how to buy our tickets, when they were available for sale, whether we could take a proper bus or a microbus and where exactly we were going, we finally managed to get ourselves on the way to Homs. Ninety minutes on the bus, half an hour in a taxi across Homs to the other bus station, and forty minute more on a microbus saw us to our destination for the day, Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, which was conveniently sited right in the middle of a whole bunch of fabulous archaeological sites. We planned to base ourselves there for a few days, making day trips out of town.
The grand collonade at Afamya with some of the pretty purple flowers that grew everywhere there.
Our first trip was meant to be to several abandoned Byzantine cities, but due to some confusion about which bus station we needed to go to, plans were changed along the way, and we headed for Apamea (Afamya in Arabic) instead.
Afamya. The site consists of some spectacular Roman ruins (most notably the impressive grand collonade) overlooked by an Arab castle on a nearby hillside. This might sound rather familiar, as it would be a pretty good description of Palmyra as well. We’d noticed this similarity and wanted to avoid seeing them in quick succession, hopefully avoiding getting ourselves “ruined.”
A stretch of the 2.2km long collonade at Afamya (considerably longer than the one at Palmyra… Though the other ruins on site weren’t quite as numerous, it was definitely worth a visit, even the day right after being in Palmyra.)
Fortunately there was nothing to worry about. Afamya was very different from Palmyra in terms of construction, setting and level of visitation, so we managed to thoroughly enjoy it right on the heels of its more famous counterpart.
Sheep with the Afamya castle. There were loads of them grazing all around and throughout the Afamya ruins. Aside from them, our only company at Afamya were occasional tour bus groups that came and went very quickly and men on motorcycles who kept trying to sell us “antiques.” I wanted to, but couldn’t explain that if they were real then exporting them would be illegal, and if they weren’t then we didn’t want them.
A big Portico at Afamya and some of the lovely blue sky and breeze that accompanied our visit. Yes, I know you can’t see the breeze in the picture, but it’s there, trust me.
The afternoon of our trip to Afamya illustrated some more of the Syrian sense of hospitality that I’ve spoken so glowingly about in previous entries. We took a little walk away from the ruins, and within a few hundred metres were invited in for tea at the rough and simple home of a local farming family. Our walk continued with further refreshment/chat stops with the local veterinarian, a much more well-to-do farmer’s home, and finally at a convenience store back down in town. This last was particularly notable, as the proprietor had met us up at the ruins, offered us a drink there, then later offered to give us a ride down on his motorcycle and then finally (after we’d said we weren’t really comfortable riding down the steep, winding road on the back) rode down to town, got in his minivan and came back up the hill to get us.
The local vet’s office. I tried to tell him that my Aunt was also a vet, but given the language barrier I eventually had to settle for saying that my MOM was. It conveyed the SPIRIT of my message anyway Interestingly, lots of the medicines on the shelves carried silhouettes of the animals they were suitable for use with. Cows, Sheep, Horses, Deer and… Uh… Camels!? Clearly we are in the Middle East.
Once there, he offered us tea, coffee, chips, beer, sweets, postcards… Indeed, almost everything that he had available in the shop, and concluded his generosity by giving us a ride to the next town for our bus back to Hama.
More Afamya Ruins. More pretty purple flowers.
Whew. The people around Afamya were SO friendly, SO happy to see us, and SO eager to perform any and every little favour they could that it began to feel vaguely claustrophobic!
Daytrip into the mountains. After Afamya, our next daytrip took us west into the Anti-Lebanon mountains, first to the town of Mussyaf. The Mussyaf area in general, and the Muyssyaf citadel in particular were home to the Assassin sect during the 12th and 13th centuries. The Assassins were a small group of Shiite Muslims stuck in the middle of an area dominated by Sunnis and, at times, by the Christian crusaders. They shrewdly played the two sides off against one another, regularly resorting to the murder of Saracen or crusader of leaders who threatened their position. (There’s quite a bit of interesting etymology surrouding the Assassins. As is fairly obvious, the name of the sect gave English it’s word for a politically motivated killing. Less obvious but almost as interesting is the fact that the groups name comes from the Arabic word “Hashishim,” meaning “smokers of Hashish,” which the Assasins supposedly did before going out on their deadly missions.)
Mussyaf from the Citadel. I actually think Mussyaf was the prettiest town we visited in Syria, though most Syrians would pick one of the locals’ vacation spots like Qadmous or Kassab.
Anyhow, all of this history was the main point of our visit to Mussyaf, so while it was disappointing that the citadel was closed to visits, it wasn’t the end of the world, especially since a nice local man we met suggested taking a bus ride up to the town of Qadmous. The drive up was pretty, though the town itself was a bit of a more run-down looking version of Kassab with residents that (to our surprise, and in direct contrast to the Afamya-folk) were completely indifferent to our presence. We ended up not staying long, which was actually fine, as the drive back to Hama was just as impressive as the trip up.
The view from the balcony of our hotel. Every night, flocks of pigeons and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Swallows would appear, squeaking, chirping, soaring and diving, turning the early evening outside our room into an aerial circus.
Hama itself. We really enjoyed our stay in Hama. The hotels were nice (if not QUITE up to the spectacular expectations given by our guidebook,) the people were friendly (but not overbearingly so) and the food was amazing.
Our first meal at the Yummy Syrian Restaurant (I capitalized that because I don’t know what it’s ACTUAL name was.) Hummus, Tabbouleh, Fries, Shish Taouk (grilled marinated chicken) and Raspberry-cream soda kind of pop.
Our first day in Hama we went to make some inquiries about visas, and spotted a restaurant that looked promising. We returned for dinner that evening, and ended up returning every night we spent in town. The food was probably the best we’d eaten in Syria, the presentation was lovely (if a bit ostentatious) and the service was very friendly, despite the language barrier. If anything, our meals improved each time, partly because of the novelty of foreign repeat customers, and partly because of the 100 Syrian Pound tip we left on our second night. At first 100 pounds may sound like a lot. Then it may sound like a little when you realize that it’s slightly less than $2. Then it may sound like a lot when you realize that it was 40% of the price of our meal in a place where tipping isn’t all that common Anyway, if you’re planning a trip to Hama, e-mail me and I’ll give you directions to the place. It’ll be worth your while.
Sarah with a big tray of sweets. The Syrians make absolutely delicious pastry-like sweets. They’re often incredibly sugary, but these particular ones (gifted to us by the staff at a shop we went in to look around) were quite restrained (but still super-tasty.)
Aside from the food and lodging, Hama really had only one major sight to see. Most of the others were destroyed during the fighting in 1982 when the Syrian army nearly destroyed the town in the process of “pacifying” a group of armed resisters to the government’s harsh rule. Surprisingly, several of the Norias survived. Constructed roughly 800 years ago, the Norias were (are) giant wooden waterwheels that scooped water up from the Orontes river, depositing it into aqueducts high above the steep, rocky banks that made more conventional transportation of the water impossible.
The Noria of Hama. They’re pretty sights, but the most amazing thing about them is the SOUND they make as they rotate. It’s a sort of creaking, clicking, roaring sound that occasionally changes into something like a distant riding lawnmower… Sadly I can’t seem to upload sounds here anymore
Transport. Our time in Syria was fairly short, so there was a lot of quick moving about in order to see as much as we could. This necessitated the use of all sorts of transport. A few observations about getting around in Syria:
1. It’s very cheap. Prices range from abour $0.005/km on the train through $0.008/km on luxury buses and $0.01/km on local microbuses, to about $0.025/km in private taxis.
2. It can be pretty pleasant. The luxury buses and the train were very pleasant surprises in that they had assigned seating, comfy seating, and generally left on time. (and the Syrian luxury buses finally answered my question about what happened to all the coaches in Turkey once they got to be about 5 years old) And while the microbuses weren’t the height of comfort, they were rarely over-filled, and often provided interesting travel companions.
3. I never want to try and drive in Syria. Road rules are almost entirely absent. I saw people passing two abreast on blind corners. I REGULARLY saw vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road, and even going the wrong way around traffic circles. I even saw one (microbus) driver cut another one off as they were both driving in reverse the wrong way down a divided street.
Actually, that’s a bit unfair. There ARE road rules. Just rather unusual ones. From what I can divine they are: Honk when you’re coming up behind someone to let them know you’re there. Honk when you’re turning on to a street for the same reason. Honk when people don’t start moving the instant a light changes or a gap appears in traffic ahead. When driving at night, substitute a flash of your high beams for the honks above. Other than that pretty much anything goes. Though for all that, we didn’t see a single accident during our time in Syria.
Krak des Chevaliers
Our final trip (entirely) within Syria was from Hama to Krak des Chevaliers. Krak is the stuff that dreams (at least mine) are made of. It’s an almost perfectly preserved crusader castle sitting on a hilltop with a commanding view of the best mountain pass into the interior of Syria. It was designed to hold a garrison of 2000, and though repeatedly attacked and sieged, was never breached. Krak was one of THE reasons that I was so excited to visit Syria.
The walls of the inner keep at Krak
Me in the main entrance hall at Krak. Way back when warhorses would be ridden down here two abreast…
Very obviously Gothic vaulting in the interior of the castle. Krak wasn’t quite as BIG as I’d expected, but was much more beautiful than I’d imagined.
Though the weather wasn’t the best, our visit there was all around fabulous. We camped almost within sight of the castle (there was a hotel in the way) and spent several hours visiting the castle itself, exploring dark secret passageways with a headlamp, climbing up to the highest towers and ramparts, and wandering around in the (now mostly dry) moat.
The town of Al Hosn seen from high above in Krak des Chevaliers.
This was definitely a fitting spot for our last day in Syria. Those of you that have loved hearing about the place need not fear; we should have a few more days there later, when we will hopefully visit Damascus en-route to Jordan. Until then however, you’ll have to content yourselves with the story of our adventures in Lebanon, which will be up next.
The Inner Keep at Krak des Chevaliers seen from the tower of the warden, which was once home to the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller
Tags: Apamea, Hama, Krak des Chevaliers, Llew Bardecki, Syria, Travel