Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Sat 29 May 2010 14:39

I have always been impressed by Ian’s ability to drive almost any vehicle in any conditions but touring Syria in our rented Kia Rio has been one of his most outstanding driving achievements so far.   The roads in the cities are crammed with a ramshackle assortment of mostly Chinese and Korean cars, with yellow taxis everywhere which are usually a brand called Sabah, made in Iran with a Taiwanese engine.  There seems to be no lane discipline, everyone charges around with horns blaring, traffic lights are not always obeyed, and curiously, indicators tend to show that the car will be heading in the opposite direction to the one we would expect.  Ian says he feels at home because that’s how he always drives, although I don’t agree.

To add to the challenge, none of our maps (bought at Stanford’s in London) appear to be accurate and most road signs are in Arabic.   The inaccurate maps could be because a paranoid dictatorship does not want to encourage lone tourists to tour around the country, or it could just be that they have never been produced.  We have come across many foreign tourists in all the famous sites, but they are always in tour buses – groups of French, German, Italians or Spanish.  Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of recent politics and wars, there are very few English or American tourists.  On the way to Aleppo, about 150 km north east of Lattakia we were constantly getting lost, but as a result saw a lot of the countryside and eventually found the city by navigating by the sun (‘as it’s north east we should heading towards 2 o’clock’).

Fortunately, the country roads are well maintained and usually empty.   Leaving Lattakia    we drove through a fertile and mountainous region as beautiful as anywhere we have seen in the Mediterranean.  There were forests of pine and oak on the mountainsides and orchards of orange, lemon, almond and pomegranate trees in the valleys.  We passed through many villages on the hunt for Lawrence of Arabia’ s favourite Crusader Castle.  In the villages most people wore the traditional dress of long brown or grey robes and keffiyeh  (checked headdresses) and we saw women in long black robes and coloured scarves, cheerfully carrying bales of hay on their heads.  This was in contrast to the women we had seen in Lattakia looking like a Middle Eastern episode of Sex and the City, wearing western clothes, drinking Mexican beer and smoking hookahs.

The castle, called Qala'at Salah ad-Din, because it was eventually captured from the Crusaders by Saladin is in a most gorgeous site.   It is perched over a ravine and we drove to it by a winding road up and down several forested hills.  The work involved in bringing huge blocks of stone to build what looked like unimpregnable 50 m high walls is astonishing.   Inside, the keep and several towers remain intact.  One vast hall with a low-pillared ceiling was the stable for the knights’ horses.  Although now hidden and secluded, the castle was once on the main road from Aleppo to the port of Lattakia. 

Aleppo in the north of Syria, and Damascus, 200 miles to the south, both claim to be the oldest city in the world.  They both stand on the edge of the desert and were on the ancient Silk Road, the route from China and India to the Mediterranean.  Aleppo is famous for its souk, thousands of years old and still an everyday market for the inhabitants of the city.  Our hotel, called Dar Halabia, ‘Hotel de Charme’ was in an 18th century house near the entrance to the souk, a short way down an ally off the principal street, the Sharia Antakya.  The house rambled around a courtyard and had a quiet shady terrace, overhung with a vine covered with green grapes, walls hung with carpets, and pots planted with succulents and geraniums.  It was a welcome respite from the crowds and clamour in the souk, and reminded me of the houses in the Arab villages in the south of Spain.

The Sharia Antakya is 1.5 km long and several alleys deep on either side, packed with tiny shops, each offering one product or service.   It was unfortunate for Ian, who is vegetarian because of compassion for animals, that we were near the food end of the souk, and had to pass rows of butchers’ shops where animal carcasses, usually sheep or goats, were suspended with their entrails hanging down, while butchers industriously chopped the meat into the popular koftas, kibbeh or kebabs.  There were shops devoted to spices, nuts, dried fruit, olives, coffee beans and vegetables and a scent in the air of mixed fresh meat, cumin and coffee.   Further on there was the soap souk packed with the famous Aleppo soap made from olive oil and laurel.  There were alleys of haberdashery, silver and gold jewellery, and bolts of cloth, many glittering with gold brocade.  There were shops selling canes and walking sticks, multi-coloured nylon brooms, tin kitchen utensils, scarves, antique or ‘antiqued’ lamps; barbers, shoemakers and repairers, knife sharpeners, at least one forge, and fresh fruit juice sellers.   With all the temptation, we were not in the mood for buying – just some soap, a scarf and two pairs of socks!   Everyone wanted to pressure us into buying something, starting with the question ‘where are you from – are you German?’  ‘No’, said Ian,’ we’re  Norwegian’.  I told one boy we were French, to which he replied ‘you don’t look like French, you look Dutch (Deutch?).

In some of the alleys only one person could comfortably pass through at any time, and the main street was constantly blocked with barrows which could contain anything from bananas to cloth bales or sheeps’ feet.  Young boys and teenagers worked alongside their fathers.  The atmosphere, though frantic, was very friendly.    After several hours of exploring the souk and a visit to the largest, oldest mosque in the city which was alongside it, we walked to another quarter, called Jdiedah, which was the Armenian Christian quarter, famous for its restaurants.   We had a delicious vegetarian dinner on the roof terrace of an Italian restaurant (Ian not wanting to eat Syrian food as he had seen too much meat).  It was wonderful to be outside, under a full moon, and we had a fine view of the city skyline – mostly mosques and minarets, but nearby was a Christian church.  I enjoyed hearing the peel of bells as a contrast to the chants of the muezzin.

After two nights in Aleppo we drove through the desert to Palmyra, but that’s another story which I’ll save for the next blog!