Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Fri 4 Jun 2010 15:21

On our second evening in Aleppo we took a taxi to the Baron Hotel, once one of the grandest hotels in the Middle East, when Aleppo was the last stop on the Orient Express.  A little of the grandeur survives, although now the hotel is in a busy street and not in large gardens on the outskirts of the city.   We read that when the hotel opened in 1911 it bordered on a swamp and duck shooting from the terrace was offered as a divertissement for the guests.  Agatha Christie used to stay here in the late 1930s when her husband, the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan spent several years excavating sites in the Kurdish region of N. Eastern Syria.  Agatha Christie travelled to and from Aleppo on the Orient Express from London.  Her famous novel,  ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ begins in Aleppo.

We ordered gin and tonics in the bar which was decorated with a wonderful, dusty collection of old advertising paraphernalia for White Horse, Black and White and Johnny Walker whiskies, a poster for Pan American Airways, and in the Smoking Room, a framed bill signed by T. E. Lawrence, but according to a Syrian guide we met, still unpaid.

On the wall of the lobby there was a fascinating map, yellow and slightly foxed, showing dozens of ‘Archaeological Sites of Syria’, and under a table headed ‘Legend’, there were the categories ‘Hittite-Assyrian, Greek-Roman, Byzantine, Crusader Castles, Arab”.  This summed up the attractions which still bring travellers to Syria.

We visited two outstanding Greco-Roman sites, Afamia and Palmyra.   Afamia was built and named after the wife of Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who took control of Syria and Babylonia on the unexpected, early death of Alexander in 323 BC.  Afamia was enlarged after the conquest of Syria by Pompey in 65 BC and continued to flourish into the Byzantine period during the 5th and 6th centuries AD before being almost destroyed by two severe earthquakes.   During the time of Jesus, when the near East was governed by Rome, there were half a million inhabitants.  Now what survives is a striking paved road, called the Cardo, lined by graceful grey granite columns which stretch for nearly 1 kilometre.   There are ruins of baths, temples and houses as well as Byzantine churches.   It stands on a high plain with the desert on one side, and a low-lying swampy area on the other, called Al-Ghab.  The Al-Ghab is irrigated with canals and aqueducts.   Wheat, potatoes and corn grow there, and many flocks of sheep and herds of cattle graze.   The cattle are black with curved horns like buffalo, and we saw a lot of them bathing in a lake, presumably to keep cool. Once Afamia was famous for its horses.  Perhaps this is where some of the famous Arab horses, ancestors of our race horses came from.   (To find Afamia we descended from the high coastal plateau into the Al- Ghab plain, but our maps misled us and as the road gradually turned into a dust track we found ourselves driving between two flocks of sheep going in opposite directions.  The sheep, which have long brown hair and look more like goats, were being led by a group of farm workers, the men wearing flowing robes and checked headdresses and the women in black robes, colourful headscarves and straw hats.  They grinned at our approach and whistled and shouted at the sheep in order to clear a path for our car.   These were the first of many nomadic people we saw on the edge of the desert.  They live in large white tents put up in scrubland not far from the road.   Each encampment has a few tents, flocks of sheep, a tethered donkey or mule, a barking dog, but instead of a camel, a pick up truck. 

I was hoping to see some camels, and we had one sighting of a line of about twenty of the marvellous beasts, walking along the top of a sand dune, followed by a young

herdsman carrying a cane walking stick.   Once camels and their Bedouin riders were essential as guides and guards in the desert, but in Syria they have been replaced by paved roads, cars and planes.  An exception was in Palmyra, where there were many Bedouin with their camels.  I made friends with a beautiful young camel who is on the cover of the lonely planet guidebook.   As I posed with his groom for a photograph the camel gave my arm an affectionate lick.

We had to drive for 200 miles into the desert to arrive at Palmyra.  En route we wanted to visit Rasafa, a walled city, established in the Assyrian period,  (1000 – 600 BC) and later inhabited by Romans and Byzantines before being abandoned.   Once again a collapsed road sign and misleading map took us many miles in the wrong direction and by the time we found the city the wind had created a sand storm which made visibility very difficult.   Through the sand haze we could see the intact outer walls measuring 550 x 400 metres, well fortified with watchtowers, a bastion and elaborate gateposts.   Inside there are some Byzantine churches and we would have liked to have entered the extraordinary abandoned city in the middle of the desert, but it was very difficult walking into a hot, sandy wind.   A tourist bus was preparing to leave the site.  The French- speaking guide helped us with directions to Palmyra, but we decided to follow the bus rather than risk being lost in the desert during a sand storm.  The bus set off at a fast pace, with us in pursuit, although it slowed down when cornering and over badly made roads.  Driving through a village, an old Bedouin man banged on the window, opened the car door and got into the back seat.   I tried not to be slightly alarmed but Ian said the same thing happened in the Scottish Highlands or the Australian Outback where hitchhiking is normal.   The old man sat quietly in the back for a few miles until we passed a lonely trailer on a sand dune at which he got out. 


Palmyra was so-called by the Romans (City of Palms) although to Syrians it is known by the more ancient name of Tadmor.  Our first sighting was of the pleasant but unexceptional Arab town which has grown around it and it was not until we had checked into the hotel – the Zenobia Cham Palace – which is an elegant, unobtrusive building on the edge of ancient Palmyra, that the beauty of the site became apparent.    From the terrace of the hotel the ruins stretch as far as the eye can see: a colonnaded avenue, temples, a market place, an amphitheatre, baths, a military camp and outside the city, the burial towers.  Everything is built of golden limestone, which looks pink in the rising and setting sun.  To the west an Arab castle overlooks the city from a high mound, and to the east is the oasis of palms which gave the city its Roman name.  I have rarely seen a more astonishing site and I would recommend it to everybody (including the Zenobia Cham Palace).

We explored the ruins early the next day.  Most impressive was the Temple of Bel, built in honour of a god of a much older date than the Greek or Roman gods, (also known as Baal or Beelzebub) who belongs to the ancient Hebrew civilisation from the Old Testament in the Bible.   The inner sanctum is almost complete and housed the altar and a banqueting table for feasts after animal sacrifices.   Part of a cupola in the ceiling, decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac, survives.   The capitals of the columns surrounding the temple were decorated with gold and silver.

The road between the colonnades, which in many places are carved with elaborate decoration, was not paved, as camel caravans had to pass along it.  Palmyra was very rich as a result of taxes paid by the caravans.    I could have stayed longer as Palmyra was such a magical place, and I have to admit I enjoyed the oasis of our hotel room, decorated like a Bedouin tent with striped material on the walls and ceiling, and including such luxuries as a stand-in shower and starched sheets.

Before leaving the desert we drove east to look at the mighty Euphrates River and visit an Arab castle built of bricks in the Mesopotamian style.   On our way back to the coast we visited the most famous of the Crusader castles, the Crac de Chevaliers, or Krak of the Knights.   The marvellous name came from the Kurdish word for castle, as the Crusaders won the castle in a battle during the first Crusade in 1110 from a group of Kurdish defenders.  The Knights rebuilt and enlarged the castle, creating a stone fortress which dominates the landscape for miles around.  In 1142 it passed into the guardianship of the Knights of St. John, who were great architects and masons and great fortress builders as we know from their creation of the Grand Harbour in Valletta, centuries later.    The castle remains intact as it was surrendered to the Arabs in 1271 in the last days of the Crusader kingdom of Outremer and has not come under attack since then.

Visiting the castle you first enter by a long high covered ramp big enough to take two horses side by side, and curving into a large open assembly space, bordered by stables, storerooms, dormitories, including what are quaintly called ‘rest rooms’, a kitchen, a hospital, and the unexpectedly graceful appearance of a gothic chapel, a prayer room and meeting hall for the Knights.  Below are the dungeons and above there are two upper floors each made of a vaulted curving corridors leading to defensive towers and ramparts.    The castle once housed 4000 soldiers.  The moat was designed to fill with rainwater.  One gate from the moat into the inner wall of the castle is decorated with two lions, said to have been carved in honour of Richard the Lionheart.

Returning to Lattakia we prepared the boat for our onward journey to Lebanon.  On the day we left we heard about the Israeli attack on the relief boats to Gaza and were brought up to date with the modern world.  As a solitary yacht we do not expect to attract hostile attention, but we take care to obey the rules for sailors in this region, which are that you don’t sail within 12 miles of the coast without permission from the authorities in each country.  Leaving Lattakia at noon we sailed in perfect conditions on a calm sea, with just enough wind to fill the mainsail, until we were 12 miles off the coast and turned south.  We were 12 miles off Lebanese waters at 2 am, and called the Lebanese Navy Operation Control (known as Oscar Charlie), gave our name and position and were given permission to sail into Lebanese waters.  The radio crackled all night with messages from the Lebanese Navy, Israeli Navy and United Nations.    Although we had permission, this did not prevent a visit from a Lebanese gunboat as we approached Beirut early in the morning.  The boat circled us, lined with stern-looking armed young soldiers, until we had been interviewed over the radio by an English speaking officer.  After the interview was successfully completed, the boat left us with a greeting of welcome to Lebanon and a friendly wave from the soldiers.