tour of the Middle East
Tuesday, November 21 - David Hill
We began with an early start by bus from our hotel to Ataturk Airport and a quick 70-minute flight to Gaziantep and were met by our Turkish local guide, Mehmet, who was a resident of Antakya. Mehmet had been a career Turkish Army officer and retired to his hometown to purse a business career and was soon bored. He decided to become a tour guide specializing in his home area and really enjoyed showing off this area world famous for mosaics, fruits and especially nuts such as pistachios. He had a son 18 months of age that was his pride and joy. Mehmet had spent a year at Fr. Lee Virginia where I had spent my military service and now Steve and Kathryn Thomas live in the immediate area so we had experience to share with our guide.
Our tour focus was the second largest collection of mosaics in the world, 35 mosaics from Zeugma and a statue of Mars unearthed in Roman villas some 10 Km east of the city and moved to Gaziantep museum for preservation and protection from flooding. Our guide had excellent detail of Roman and Hellenistic themes immortalized in some 1000 sq meters of mosaics that were very well displayed on walls and floors.
For lunch we ate in a well known local restaurant. The meal began with ayran served in individual large bowls and lahmacun, a type of meat pie. Dessert was a memorable pistachio stacked and stuffed baklava that was really excellent and not too sweet.
We continued onto Antakya through fertile fields of olives, fruit and nuts to historic Antioch. The city was founded in 300 BC by Seleucos I, a follower and general of Alexander the Great, on a site well chosen as future intersection of multiple trade routes. The city prospered from commerce and remained center of Seleucid Kingdom until 60 BC, when the conquering Romans who made it their capitol of the Syrian province. The Romans had added architectural splendor of palaces, marble streets, temples and theaters to make it 3rd in magnificence to Rome and Alexandria. In the 1st C, Antioch became the largest center of Christianity outside of Jerusalem. There the name “Christians” was first used referring to converts of Paul. At dusk we visited the museum to see the 2nd and 3rd C mosaics inside and some outside in a side garden. I was particular impressed with the detail of the Roman Sarcophagi preserved indoors. We closed the museum and retired to the interesting Hotel Savon that had been a soap factory built around a courtyard and of historic note.
The energetic walked into town for dinner and others ate in the rather elegant dining room downstairs which had great local food. What a great introduction to what would be a truly fabulous trip!

Wednesday, November 22 - Antakya (Antioch) to Aleppo, Syria - Cynthia Kenyon
This day started in a special way for Jessie Graham and I as we had a little time in the morning to walk around in the area of our hotel. We talked with the old man shop keeper who sold us water, then investigated the inside of a Men’s Social Club which was not as busy as it was when we passed it the night before. On the club walls hung pictures of the city center from 1900. But the best part was trying to talk with a brave and curious 16 year old girl who was waiting for the van/bus to go to work. We finally understood that she worked in a supermarket.
Cave-Church of St. Peter: The early believers in Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch. Above the city we visited the cave, which is said to be the earliest place where Christians met and prayed secretly. Tradition has it that this cave was the property of St. Luke the Evangelist, who was from Antioch, and that he donated it to the burgeoning Christian congregation as a place of worship. Peter and Paul lived in Antioch for a few years and are thought have preached here. When the Crusaders marched through in 1098 they constructed the wall at the front and a narthex.
To the right of the altar faint traces of fresco can still be seen and some of the simple mosaic floor survives. The water dripping in the corner is thought to cure sickness. We also saw a tunnel in the basalt rock starting in a small room at the back which went to the other side of the mountain at one time. Olive and cedar trees were planted around the site to give it a peaceful sense.
We drove through the fertile Asi (Orontes) River valley to the Syrian border crossing at Cilvegozu and then on to Bab-al-Hawa on the Syrian side. It took us 2 ½ hours to complete the crossing. Mary Ann Cameron counted 103 trucks lined up on the Turkish side. It could take up to 25 days for a truck to cross!
Our Syrian guide, Hussein, came aboard sharply dressed in a blue blazer.
We drove through a rich agricultural region of northern Syria, a limestone plateau, with nice looking farm homes built of limestone or concrete block. The region produces wheat, sugar beets and olives. 63% of Syria is desert. Marriages are arranged in the country to keep lands within the family. We learned that children study English in school from the age of 6, and start French at age 11.
There are two oil refineries in Syria. The government subsidizes oil prices so it costs only $3 for 20 Liters of diesel. Several days later when we drove into Jordan the bus driver said that he made sure to have less than 100L in the tank, even though it could hold 500L. There is a huge tax/fine if a bus comes in with more than 100L in its tank. This is because the price of diesel is much higher in Jordan.
Lunch Purchases at Daret Azze, “the town of glory”: We very much enjoyed our shopping expedition for lunch items in this small town. Tankut bought freshly-baked bread and cheese. We purchased fruit and nuts. I was so excited to find the ripe red round persimmons to enjoy. I had previously only tasted them in Brazil in April. I was told they grow in Yemen and are ripe this time of year.
Lunch at Saint Simeon (Qal’aat Sa,’aan): We shared lunch and ordered drinks at the souvenir stand. It was a lovely relaxed time in the shade. Hussein did an admirable job of walking us through the ruins of three buildings on the hilltop, and then giving us free time to roam. There was a very peaceful, spiritual feeling about the site. It overlooked rich farmlands and the ancient village of Deir Samaan where the pilgrims stayed.
Born in AD 392, Simeon was the son of a shepherd who opted at a young age for life in a monastery. Being more ascetic, he retreated into a cave. Word got around of this extremely pious individual and people began to visit to seek his blessing. Simeon apparently greatly resented this invasion of his solitude and was driven to erect a 3m pillar on which he took up residence so that people couldn’t touch him. The legend goes that as his tolerance of people decreased he erected ever higher pillars, the last of which was 18m in height.
When he died in 459, Simeon was possible the most famous person in the 5th-century world. An enormous church was built around the famous pillar. Two additional buildings included a monastery and a large baptistery with mosaics on the floor of the lowered baptismal area so that older children could walk through for their baptisms.
Aleppo: This city of two million is the second largest in Syria, with another million in the surrounding region. Aleppo was an ancient stop on the Silk Road. It vies with Damascus for the title of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. The major local industries are silk-weaving and cotton-printing. It is famous for wool, hides, dried fruits and pistachios which many of us purchased at the souq.
Our small boutique hotel was in the heart of the old city. We walked several blocks to get to it, past interesting shops displaying many long skinny women’s coats. Not my size! The hotel was an 18th-century house lovingly restored, with rooms arranged around a beautiful yellow-and-black striped courtyard. The two part doors were so narrow that I had to take off my back pack and turn sideways to enter our room. The second courtyard served as the attractive restaurant with fine decorations of all types. We felt pampered as we dined there. A musician played a traditional instrument for dinner music.
Evening Walk through the City of Aleppo (Al-Jdeida): After our evening meal we had a tour of the basement of the restaurant and learned about the extensive tunnel system underneath the area. We were amazed at the 50’s automobile décor of the basement lounge. We then walked in the clean narrow streets near our hotel, lined with studded black doors. This area was developed for prosperous traders who were largely Maronite and Armenian Christians. We saw several of the churches. In the courtyard of the Greek Catholic Church was a statue of the Virgin Mary which according to legend drips oil from her hands which helps heal people.

Thursday, November 23 - Thanksgiving Day, Aleppo - Paula Opperman
It still surprises us that we are finally in Syria! We have wanted to come here since Tony’s parents were here during the 1966 revolution. Due to our government policies and our initial problem with our visas we thought we would never get here.
We are traveling with an experienced group, many who have been to Turkey and other places in the East. Of course we are completely confident traveling with Lale and Tankut and you often hear from our tour group members, “Lale and Tankut, we will follow you anywhere”.
Our guide, Hussein, has a full day planned for us. At the Aleppo Museum at the entrance we see copies of some basalt statues that were originally in the Pergamon Museum of Berlin. The originals were destroyed in World War II in the final days of the war.
We get a short geography lesson about some of the ancient cities of Syria that were important to local and world history. We learn about the city Mari on Euphrates River which had a huge palace of 200 rooms and see the small statues that were fashioned to leave in the temple so that the statue could pray continuously for the owner. Hussein told us about Ugarit, another city from 1250 BC inhabited by Semitic people who became known as the Phoenicians and gave us the first alphabet. We looked at the model of Arin Dara Temple from the 10th century and learned about the “giant footprints” at the temple entrances.
The Citadel of Aleppo which Hussein explained is a classic example of Islamic military architecture. It is built on a high hill that is man made and it was built on top of other fortifications. The Citadel is unique because it contained a compound for the sultan to live and receive visitors, mosques, barracks, a bath for both the troops and other residents and one for the sultan and his family. The castle was fortified by a deep moat and bridges that could be drawn up, a narrow zig zag entrance to slow the attacking forces down and several places where boiling oil could be dropped on the attackers.
We visit the Mosque of Abrahim also in the citadel and learn about some of the architectural requirements for a mosque; a water source, 3 portals, a courtyard, water source for ablutions and a minaret. While visiting the mosque, Hussein sang a call to prayer for us. It was one of the highlights of the day for Tony and I and as stirring as the signing we heard in the old St. Gregory church in Guzelyurt Turkey. The call was “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet, come to make your prayer”.
During our visit to the Citadel, our group was surrounded by young school children; they were talking to us, we were talking to them and taking pictures all the while. Despite the efforts of our guide and the teachers, for a while it was chaos and in the process we lost 3 member of the tour including my buddy, my husband Tony and Mike. They all missed out on some of the tour of the baths and the Sultan’s receiving room. Hussein had arranged for us to experience what it would be like to be shown into the magnificent room and to be impressed with the power and status of the man who was the sultan seated on the throne and whose face could not be seen.
We met some lovely young women who were studying art and making drawings of the Citadel. They were gracious and let us take their pictures. Their names were Rahaf, Hana, Eyman, Enas, Gamina, and Rasheem. Cynthia got email addresses for two of the girls and Lale asked us to send pictures if possible. We hope these addresses work.
Next we went to the Grand Central Mosque of Aleppo. The original building were from the 10th century but had suffered damage from several earthquakes and that there had been a recent restoration of the building. Hussein explained that the mosque was not only a place for praying but a center for study and reflection and when we entered there were many people reading and studying the Koran and there were extra copies of the Koran on book shelves for us. We learned that the central mosque of the city set the time for prayers and that signal lamps or flags where used to signal the times for the call to prayer.
This day was stimulating for our minds with new things to see, learn, and experience but we were not without nourishment for the body. We had a great lunch at Kan Zaman (Once upon a time) and a wonderful dinner, complete with Turkey spam brought all the way from Florida by David and Sarah. The rest of our Thanksgiving dinner included humus, eggplant fixed several different ways, Pomegranate salad and sausage and bulgur, carrots and potatoes and fish with two different kinds of sauce. The dessert was “special Aleppo dessert”, a pastry with a white sauce that looked like marshmallow cream. The sauce provoked several jokes from our table mates about glue and duct tape but we all tried it and it was pretty tasty. The day, this trip and our fellow travelers made this an extra special Thanksgiving Day.

Friday, November 24 - Sue Larsen
We departed our hotel in Aleppo, Syria on a sunny cool morning destined for the Palmyra oasis. During the drive Hussein our guide gave us a well-needed Arabic lesson. We learn sabah el khier means “good morning” and sabah el nour is the proper response. We are also encouraged to respond with la shukran to vendors we will meet in a polite refusal of their wares. We were given the Arabic tongue twister “this apricot is not our apricot” or hayda mishmish mish mishmishna. Sarah seems to have some success but the rest of the gang produces enthusiastic but basic blather.
During the drive Hussein points out some very famous Arabian horses. They must be as fast as reputed, as I was never able to see them. Did anyone catch a glimpse of them? They reappeared many times during our trip.
On the route to Apamea Hussain holds a Question & Answer session interspersed with commentary on what we see along the roadway. We pass out a UN sponsored project which tests dry agricultural research fields. It has been proven that the Syrian Desert will grow wheat if properly irrigated. In fact the desert can be quite productive if supplied by water, which is currently a scarce resource for the area.
Syria (as related by Hussein) became independent from colonial powers in 1946. From 1946 until 1963 a liberal government headed it. In 1963 the Baath party took over the country with a pan Arabic socialist party that is nationalistic in nature.
Hafez Assad became president in 1970 after a coup. The Assad clan is Alawite, which is of the Shi’a sect of Islam. Assad led the country with the aid of strong Soviet ties. In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed Syria lost their sponsorship and began a slow movement towards capitalism with more open expression. This is true only if there is neither official party opposition nor criticism of Assad. In 2000 Bashir Assad succeeded to the leadership upon the death of this father Hafez. (The oldest son of Hafez and named successor Basil died in an auto accident in 1994.) Hussein described Syria as secular in nature.
There is a 7-year cycle for elections. Elections slate only a single candidate, Assad. Voters are given a Yes or No option. Yes means “yes” for his candidacy and No means “no objection” to his candidacy.
Syria was a member of the United Arab Republic (UAR) for several years along with Egypt. The UAR was a short-lived dream of Nasser of Egypt. (For details read “Nasser: The Last Arab” by Said Aburish.)
Syria has its own oil source, which supplies the country with their necessary energy. They are a non-OPEC producer. Their income is based on exporting foods, vegetables, wheat, etc to other Arab countries.
There followed a brief discussion on US policy in the region. Suffice it to say, it is seen as “complex” by Syrian observers.
We arrive at Apamea or Afayma as known to the locals. Apamea is located on the banks of the Orontes River about 55 km to the north west of Hama. It was built in 300 BC by Seleucus Nicator, the first king of the Seleucids. He named it after his wife, Afamea. Most of the uncovered ruins in it date back to the Roman and Byzantine ages. It is distinguished for the main thoroughfare (over a mile) surrounded by columns with twisted fluting. Its colonnade (The Cardo Maximus) is 145 meters long. Erected in the 2nd century, it was destroyed in the 12th century by two violent earthquakes; some columns are still standing nevertheless. Fierce battles with Crusaders attempting to conquer it took place in the 12th century, and Nour al-Din finally surrendered it in 1149.
After great photo ops, we begin our journey to Hama. We see tobacco drying and growing; potatoes being harvested and transported; pistachio trees; Bedouin tents for the seasonal harvesters.
Lunch is at the Al Sairan Restaurant just before arriving at Hama. We have assorted mezes and the regional specialty frike (pronounced freekay). Frike is made of spiced bulgur wheat and pistachios. It is quite tasty.
Hama Syria is famous (or infamous) as the city where Hafez Assad attacked the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1981 civil war, which resulted in 20,000 civilian deaths.
Today we visit the water wheels on the Orantes River in Hama. The date for the wheels is not recorded but is reputed to be old as they were there during the Roman era. (The Orantes River is called the “disobedient river’ as it flows north to south when all others flow south to north.) The wheels are not in motion today. The area is tourist-friendly complete with camel.
Back on the bus and we head toward Homs via the Al Hosn Citadel better known to westerners as the Crac de Chevaliers. The citadel is approached by a steep narrow road winding up through congested city streets. Our driver proves quite capable.
The Crac de Chevaliers was the strongest military installation of the Crusaders. It was built in order to control the so-called "Homs Gap", the gateway to Syria. It was through this passage that Syria communicated with the Mediterranean. In ancient times the importance of this strategic corridor was immense. It was of crucial importance to the Crusaders and other foreign invaders in their conquest of the coast. After the battle at Hattin in 1187 and the defeat of Richard Lionheart, Sal al-Din wisely bypassed the citadel. Conflict over the Crac des Chevaliers continued through the ages. It was a fierce and bloody dispute, but in the end, Sultan Beybars managed to recover it in 1271 through a military trick. He attacked the citadel from the backside and after one month of fighting was victorious.
Crac des Chevaliers was built on the site of a former castle erected by the Emirs of Homs to accommodate Kurdish garrisons; Crac is a modification of the Arab word Qal'a, which means citadel. The citadel covers an area of 3000 square meters and has 13 huge towers, in addition to many stores, tanks, corridors, bridges and stables. It can accommodate 5000 soldiers with their horses, their equipment and provisions for five years.

Saturday, Nov. 25 - Sarah Hill
Night falls in the late afternoon at this time of the year in Syria. We headed east from the city of Homs into the Syrian desert and arrived in Palmyra after dark. We struck out into the desert on a lonesome road toward Tadmor—the Arab and ancient Semitic name for Palmyra. It was exciting to see a sign pointing to Damascus to the south and Baghdad to the east.
When you arrive at this desert oasis in the dark, the first thing you see is the Arab fortress on a promontory overlooking the whole flat oasis. It is brilliantly lit and very impressive. The Muslims built it in the 17th century. There has been a fortress there probably forever. It is known in Arabic as Qua’at ibn Maan.
Our hotel was at the edge of the oasis and we could see the lighted fortress above us to the West. We arrived in time for dinner and made our plans for the next morning. Our guide, Hussein , as well as Lale and Tan, encouraged the hale and hearty get up well before sunrise to go up to the Arab fortress to watch the sun rise over the oasis and the desert.
Several of us did get up about 4:30 and loaded into a van for the ride up. It was cold, dark and windy. The reward came as the sun rose revealing the ancient city of Roman ruins at our feet. We also were aware of the vast oasis full of date palms. We could hardly wait to see these ruins in more detail after breakfast.
Palmyra (the Roman name) is certainly full of history and perhaps, has the most history in the smallest place. Because it is an oasis, it has been on every east-west path connecting the mouth of the Euphrates with the Mediterranean Sea. It was part of the Silk Route. It has always provided water and respite in a rather bleak, stony desert.
It’s history goes back through the millennia but the most colorful part of its history is what is still visible today and actually starts just before the Christian era when the Euphrates was the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. It became a very wealthy center because it collected customs duty on all the products which were traded on the east-west route. It also was very attractive to the Persian Empire and many of the riches still depicted in their statuary reflect this influence.
What we see today are basically Roman ruins, which have been quite carefully restored and have not suffered too much from pollution. The desert air has preserved a lot.
Going back about three thousand years, there has been a tell of special significance in this area. Today, there is a big sanctuary area dedicated to the most important god, Bel. Our travels through the ruins began here and Hussein did a terrific job pointing out all the magnificent details and explaining how these early sanctuaries were built, used and the significance of all the architectural details. Only animals were sacrificed here. After a sacrifice, a huge feast would be held. These sacrifices were gifts to the gods.
The architectural detail represents some of the earliest and most beautiful examples of symbols still used today. There are pomegranates, grapes, dates, palms, pineapples and some frescoes. There are also lotus flowers, symbols of the sun and moon (also gods) and evil is depicted as a snake. The decorations are really luxurious and show the richness of this crossroad of civilization.
Next, Hussein led us along the Roman structures, which are magnificent and big. It is amazing they were able to build something of this scale in a desert setting. Many stones came from places like Egypt and were often reused. There is a beautiful arch dedicated to Hadrian at the eastern end of the great colonnade. This dates back to about the second century BC. This was a full city with the baths of Diocletian, other sanctuaries, a restored theatre, which is used today for festival productions, a senate building and a very impressive tetrapylon. Much of the statuary is no longer here but the columns make a strong statement.
The next important feature of Palmyra is the area to the west, which is a necropolis. These were built in the third century AD. There are at least 150 tombs that are underground and well preserved by the desert climate. There are also funerary towers. These Semitic peoples believed in life after death and built elaborate structures to house the bodies. The tombs here held large numbers of people. You could buy spaces in them and they are beautifully decorated with frescoes and statuary. Hussein used some keys that are about 12” long to open the gate to the most impressive tomb and we descended into it. There are beautiful vaulted ceilings and pictures depicting people in lavish Persian style clothes. I found these tombs similar to the Etruscan tombs in Italy.
The history of this desert oasis is full of wonderful stories. The Arab queen Zenobia fought against the Romans and was taken hostage at the Euphrates and spent her last days in Rome after 272 AD. She had been the Queen of Syria, Palestine and part of Egypt. This marked the end of Palmyra’s heyday.
These desert peoples were a buffer between the Persian Empire and the Romans. They actually spoke Aramaic and were not Latin speaking. They wrote in an alphabet that looks a little like Armenian today and reads from right to left. They devised an early use of letters which represented sounds as opposed to the pictorial hieroglyphics of Egypt.
We were reeling after such a rich morning and Hussein suggested we might enjoy lunch in the town of Palmyra. We quickly agreed to a local specialty called “mensaf” which was prepared in big round covered trays. It is a Bedouin specialty and consists of rice with lamb and yogurt, peas and almonds. It is delicious. We enjoyed fresh orange juice. This little town featured fresh oranges from the oasis and also had dates hanging everywhere. We also ate dates and they were delicious. The restaurant had carpets on the walls and red fluorescent bulbs in the lights. Most colorful.
There is a strong Bedouin influence here now and the shopping was alluring with carpets, necklaces and other jewelry. The other special feature had been camel rides for the most hearty. Lots of fun.
After lunch we headed west again toward Damascus. We had hoped to see some horse racing while in Palmyra but there was none that day. It does have a very nice racetrack and the Arabian horses are certainly, world famous.
We passed phosphate mines and grazing sheep. The desert is pretty bleak. There is electricity along these desert roads and an important railroad line that goes into Iraq. There were many Bedouin, black tents that are close to the road. They don’t wander much anymore—trucks bring them sheep and supplies! Also water is brought and kept in tanks.
The grand finale of the afternoon was a stop at the Baghdad Café. They sell olive oil and its products, desert coral and beverages etc. There was an oud (a lute) made of an olive oil can. A colorful end to a wonderful day.
We arrived in time for dinner in our Damascus hotel. This was an abrupt return to the 21st century.
To me, this day was a dream come true.

Sunday, Nov. 26 - Harry Ries
Our day in Damascus starts with a sobering reminder of how very important we as travelers are. Our contribution to the places we visit and the people we meet must be as ambassadors of the world, and not just of our own culture. I am ever reminded that although cultures can be strikingly different, people of different cultures are essentially the same. We are all trying to survive in a world that at times makes little sense, make a living, support our families, and treat each other with dignity and respect.
Carol and I stopped at the front desk of the hotel to check on our laundry. As I was talking to the man at the desk, Carol struck up a conversation with a man at the other end of the desk. He was a very pleasant man in his forties. He asked us where we were from and we told him “America”. He told us he was from Iraq. He was an agricultural engineer with the Ministry of Agriculture. He had been in Damascus on business and now was trying to return to Baghdad, where he lived with his family. His parents lived in Mosul. He had been unable to return for three days because the Baghdad airport was closed due to bombing. He could not get to Baghdad and did not know the status of his family. They lived in an extremely dangerous part of the city.
We tried rather inadequately to tell him that we were sorry for the condition that his country was in and the plight that he, his family and country men were in. He told us that America had ruined his country. He said that Iraq had been the wealthiest country in the Middle East and now was without proper water, food or electricity. He told us that he did not blame us, but blamed our government. He said, “This is a war of governments.”
We are constantly amazed at how most peoples of the world, no matter what condition they may be in or what condition their country may be in, can separate government from people. It is probably one of the greatest gifts that traveling has given to those of us who do so. Whatever we see and experience in our travels, the most important thing it does for us is open our eyes and minds and make us realize that while peace on earth may be a naive concept, it is nonetheless a concept that must always govern the way we interact with all other citizens of this planet.
On to Damascus, the oldest capital city in the world (5,000 years ±).
As we cross the street on our way to the National Museum of Damascus, Hussein points out the Hejaz Railway Station, where Lawrence of Arabia departed for points south. The building no longer operates as a railway station, but as I looked closely at the building I was sure that I saw Peter O’Toole, dressed in Bedouin garb, enter the station on his way to Wadi Rum. The railway station was once the northern terminus of a railway line that took pilgrims all the way to Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The National Museum of Damascus – Façade from 8th Century desert hunting lodge. Of particular interest in the museum (aside from the motorcycle of Lawrence) are the Ugaritic tablets from the 14th Century BC which record stories of the Old Testament in one of the earliest known alphabets.
The Christian Quarter and Church of St. Ananias - St. Ananias, first Bishop of Damascus is said to have cured Saul (later St. Paul) of blindness when Saul was stricken by a bright light and heard the voice of Jesus. Saul was later baptized into Christianity and took the name of Paul of Tarsus.
The Citadel of Damascus – Was used to preserve Damascus against the Crusaders and the Mongols.
Souk Al Hamideyeh – Most important market in the Old City. Runs 500 meters to a Roman Arch and then to the Umayyad Mosque. The wide hall covers shoppers as well as worshippers heading to the mosque.
Azem Palace – Nationalized in 1952 and a prime example of Damascene architecture. Learned about Ugly Fruit.
Burial Place of Saladin – Beloved Muslim leader, born in Iraq, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. (Depicted in the movie, “Kingdom of Heaven”)
Umayyad Mosque – 4th most important in Islam. Was first a pagan temple, then a Roman temple to worship Jupiter, then the Christian Cathedral of Damascus, finally a mosque. It purportedly holds the head of John the Baptist. The mosque is the only mosque with three minarets – one Turkish, one Egyptian, and one Damascene.
Sayyida Ruquaya mosque – named for the granddaughter of Mohamed. Shi’ite holy place. A pilgrimage site for Iranian Muslims.
Dinner in the Old City – What can I say about the food – another gastronomical delight.
Finally, after another exhausting day, we returned to the hotel. I know that we will soon leave Damascus and I am saddened by the fact that while we have seen many things, we do not have the time to truly get to know this fascinating city.
Our day ended as it had started. We ran into the man from Baghdad and spent some time talking with him. We were saddened by the circumstances of his life. In the end, all we could wish for him was that his life would change for the better and that he and his family would remain safe. Of all the things that we see and all the places that we visit, it is, in the end, the people that compel us to continue our travels.
As I reflect on my notes of this day and the many photographs Carol and I took, I cannot say that my memories are any less a blur now than was the actual day. While we saw many wonderful things, it is always the people that highlight our journeys. Damascus is a city of several million people with no public transportation. Every day on every street is rush hour. But it is this chaos that gives it so much of its charm. The gracious people of Damascus have existed in this chaotic state for centuries.
As we leave this day, we are reminded that the people of this troubled area of the world do not exist in the turmoil, hatred and religious fanaticism that our media and government wants us to believe. Syria is absolutely awesome. Lale once told us that if we thought the people in Turkey were nice, wait until we visited Syria. I’m not sure that I will downgrade Turkish people to the second nicest people of the world, but I will say that the Syrians are certainly up toward the top. Now, if we can only convince.

Monday, Nov. 27 - Kathleen Lynch
Were we being fools to cross into Lebanon today? Several of us admitted to qualms and to a certain shaky feeling in our insides -- before, during, and after today’s visit. I was really concerned when Tony’s papers turned up unaccountably “missing.” Going as Americans (we were told no one would recognize us -- ha! Or ha-ha!) into the Beka’a Valley was a calculated risk that we were anxious to take. At least our heads were.
We met our Lebanese guide, Elissar Baalbeki when she boarded the bus near the border. The spelling is a guess -- she said her surname meant person from Baalbek, although her family no longer lives there. Elissar was a charmer -- young, attractive, extremely intelligent and fluent. The name Elissar refers to Dido, Queen of Carthage, whose second name was Elissa in English. Elissar is a Christian, but her political allegiance seems to be to Hezbollah, the Party of God, which has its main power source in the Beka’a Valley. She sees them as heroes for their 1982 defense against the Israeli invasion. We could see where her support came from: part of her country is in enemy hands. She was passionate in her explanation of the Farms and Flowers of Shebaa-- it’s not on my map-- next to the Golan Heights, in Israeli hands.
Immediately we could see the bomb damage -- craters and destroyed bridges resulting from the Israeli bombing. And when I searched the map for the Flowers of Shebaa, I found instead Qiryat Semyona, the site in Israel where reporters had covered the bombing. It was just a “marker-width” away from what I think is the Shebaa site. And maybe it’s not in Israel at all -- nothing is quite so certain as it seemed before we visited that complex tangle of imaginary political borderlines and real human territorial attachments.
Lebanon’s only natural resource, Elissar told us, is water. Rising air wet with Mediterranean moisture hits the mountains and dumps its rains on Lebanon, leaving Syria on the other side of the range arid in the rainshadow. Now that hashish is illegal, apples are the number one money crop, but we visited another agricultural site: a vineyard established in the nineteenth century by French Jesuit monks. Several of us had enjoyed the wines of Ksaara in Damascus, preferring them to the more astringent products of Syria. Those Frenchmen know their wine! And the locals who sheltered in the wine-storage caves during WW I learned the business well.
Chateau Ksara wines are really good, as the buying frenzy which followed the winetasting amply demonstrated. Despite the weight of our luggage, we were willing to add two bottles to the collection, as many of us did. How much made it to the US Customs desk is a matter for idle speculation.
The rifles (an AK-47 and an M-16) we saw in the arms of Lebanese soldiers on opposite sides of the bus when we entered Lebanon reminded me, that even as weapons from the Cold War’s “East” and “West” exist side by side, Lebanon’s people have long been drawn to opposite power poles outside the country, and no outside power group has a lock on this country -- today.
From the bus windows Lebanon appeared more “like me” than Syria, less alien. There was little trash, the homes were neatly painted and some even landscaped. And yet, it’s close to Syria in blood. Elissar told us, “Everyone has Syrian relatives.” And there are other ties to the region. For example, Istikbal, a Turkish furniture firm, operates factories in the Beka’a. But economic connections and blood tie the area to the wider middle east while politics divides them, from Syria, from Turkey, from the international commercial world. They look like “us” -- they’re economically connected to “us” -- and yet the divisions and hostilities are deep and implacable.
During the same noontime as our crossing into Lebanon (but apparently slightly earlier) an incident occurred of the sort that we see on the evening news at home, representing this area. An armed Syrian identified in the Jordan Times as Omar Abdullah, a leader of an islamist group called “Tawheed and Jihad” attempted to cross into Lebanon using bad documents. He fled when questioned, and about half a kilometer later the Syrian border guards caught up to him. Some reports were circulating in the restaurant at lunch. This story was reported in Wednesday (Nov 25)’s Jordan Times. I couldn’t even begin to summarize their analysis -- the situation was so complex. But Elissar (perhaps knowing about the event, perhaps not) said that unknown, unidentified “people” want to get Lebanon into a civil war. She said, “We don’t want war again -- we know it, from 16 years ago. “ She said, with a kind of despairing hope, “Think before you take action.”
Carved stones and broken monuments pale beside events of such immediacy. After lunch overlooking the Baalbek ruins from a sixth floor window, we set out to try to make those ancient stones live in our imaginations. Baalbek dwarfs description.The site is not so extensive as Jerash, nor so developed and reconstructed as Basra, but it exudes power in the same way some Christian cathedrals do. “Know that I am God” is probably not a fair quote, but it rumbled though those rocks in my imagination. No wonder statues of Baal in Hebrew territories were destroyed! Huge roundels of stone were once part of the tallest pillars in the world, and it makes a human feel puny.
Half-expecting lightning from Zeus or Jupiter or Baal, our crowd crawled over the stones and positioned ourselves for maximum photographic value at sunset.
Despite my eager anticipation of Baalbek and the Beka’a Valley, it was a bombed-out bridge on a major street, with its UN replacement -- or maybe it was Cynthia’s purchase of a Hezbollah t-shirt-- that will stick in my memory. Politics trumped history today.
Peace roses, yellow with a red heart, grow outside the winecaves of Ksara. I think they express our hope too.

Tuesday, Nov. 28 - Steve Thomas
I woke up at 5:30. It was a clear cool day. I missed the cereal and yogurt we had had in other hotels. We left the hotel heading south on Syria Highway 5 enroute to Bosra. We passed through the bread basket of Syria where they raise grapes, olives, pistachio nuts, wheat and vegetables. Many migrants were working in the tomato fields. The migrants are Bedouins who live in nearby tent camps. They may have two wives and they have many children to help in the fields.
At 9:45 we arrived at Bosra, formerly Nabatian but occupied by the Romans in 67 BC. The Romans built the amphitheater in 106 AD to honor Emperor Trajan. It has 15,000 seats and is still in use. The main theater is basalt (volcanic rock) but the columns and the stage are limestone. There were three tiers of seats: Nobles sat in the lowest section, Plebians in the middle section and women in the worst seats in the highest section.
I was surprised to see Morning Glories blooming when we made our WC stop upon entering. We entered through a statuary museum with an interesting hunting mosaic on the wall with all sorts of odd looking animals. One scene showed men trapping falcons. David and Sarah posed behind two headless statues—just like Disneyland or Nemrut. The stage brought out the ham in us: we sang “Happy Birthday” to Ben and David gave a bit of oratory from high school Midsummer Night’s Dream (he wanted to be an actor but flunked out of acting school and had to settle for medicine). Long after the Romans left, the Muslims fortified the theater by raising a wall around it. Bosra was on the main caravan route and was a trade center.
Soon after we left Bosra, we arrived at the Syria/Jordan border at Dara. We said goodbye to our excellent Syrian guide, Hussein Henna. We got out of the bus. Passports were collected and stamped. The men were instructed to walk through on the right side of the border gate house. The women were told to go to a Women’s Area on the other side of the gate house. In the Women’s Area, Lale was asked how many women were in the group and what their nationalities were. Something was scribbled on a piece of paper and she was told to “give it to the man.” Our bags were unloaded from the bus, scanned, and re-loaded onto the bus (by our men). While we waited, we found a bank and exchanged Syrian pounds for Jordanian dinars.
Back on the bus we met our Jordanian guide Adnan. Adnan was educated as an aircraft mechanic but couldn’t find work in Jordan so he worked for his brother in St. Louis, Missouri for 10 years. Now he has a 5000 sq. ft. home near Amman and he invited us to come to visit him.
Our next stop was Jerash ruins. French archaeologists began rebuilding the ruins in 1929 and it is still a work in progress. Our first stop was the Hippodrome where races are still held. We visited the Temple of Zeus and the oval plaza and then the theater. It is basalt with 3000 seats and it is cut 600 feet into the hillside.
As we started to enter the theater, Adnan held us back then went ahead. He returned and a mighty noise arose from inside. There was a boom, boom, boom and rat-a-tat-tat and a bagpipe band struck up “I Love a Lassie.” There ahead of us, marching around the orchestra of the theater, was a 4-piece Arab band. They were British trained and long retired from the Jordanian Army. The four man band consisted of a bass drum, snare drum, and two bagpipes and they put on a grand show. They played “Yankee Doodle” and “The March to Finchley” and other Scottish airs. Finally they stood in place and played “Happy Birthday” to Ben Cameron. Other parts of the ruins included the Temple of Artemis, the Propylaeum Church (Byzantine), and a huge column that Adnan could move slightly. It was getting cool by 5 PM when we got back to the bus.
We arrived in Amman (ancient Philadelphia) at 6 PM. We sang “Happy Birthday” to our Syrian bus driver Immad and told him goodbye. Dinner included a birthday cake for Ben.

Thursday, Nov. 30 - Jessie Graham
After a bountiful breakfast buffet replete with eggs cooked any way you want, we head out to see Petra with our guide. On the way are several Indiana Jones trinket shops which, somehow, seem very appropriate. At the Petra Visitor’s Center, we have our last WC stop for two hours. Our guide buys our tickets and we enter this magical, mystical place that has been home to many ancient peoples. Petra was “lost” to the general public for over 1,000 years but, thankfully, rediscovered. In the meantime, the Bedouins continued to live in and around Petra and carefully guarded the site.
Our tour is over about lunch time when we arrive at the lunch buffet deep in the canyon amid the Roman ruins. Some of us return to our hotel while some choose to explore the carved sandstone buildings higher up in the canyon. After dark, some return to the canyon which has been lit with luminaries all the way to the Treasury building which is lit with over 2,000 luminaries. Magically, a bottle of celebratory wine appears and our fellow travelers celebrate their day in Petra.
Humans first set foot in the area in the 8th millennium BC but the region’s occupants didn’t enter the written record until Edomite King Bekem unwisely denied Moses and his follower’s passage through his territory on their way to the Promised Land. The Nabateans arrived in the 6th century BC. Originally nomads, they settled down in the canyon because of Petra’s abundant water resources. Over the next three centuries, they carved temples and various other buildings out of the sandstone in and out of the canyons of Petra. Later, although the Romans were everywhere around Petra, they didn’t occupy this special place until 106 AD. Then they did what the Romans did so well: built streets, erected buildings and shops, built rain collection systems, etc. After an earthquake in 363 AD, trade routes shifted and the 30,000 inhabitants of Roman Petra drifted away and Petra fell into rubble, guarded over by the Bedouins.
Petra defies accurate description but surprises and assaults one’s eyes and spirit with its colors, light and shadow. Who knew that sandstone came in so many colors? The areas of colored sandstone appear to be ancient petroglyphs. And the ancient Roman ruins of a city that once held 30,000 people reminds us of the Roman’s engineering skills.
With visitors from many countries, locals and the Bedouins selling donkey, horse and camel rides, life arrives anew each day in the canyons of Petra.
Mother Nature did a fine job of creating this beautiful canyon in Jordan which the Nabateans improved upon.

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