ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Asia: Middle East

FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE TREASURY, Petra, Jordan

2006.05.20.

At the ancient crossroad where Silk Road caravans crossed the trade routes of the Jordanian Rift Valley, the Rose City once thrived as a major trading hub between the Asia (China, India and Arabia) and the Mediterranean world, and the capital of Nabataean kingdom.  From 4th century BC to the 4th century AD, Petra flourished for seven centuries until the shifting of trade routes and the Galilee Earthquake of 363 AD, which led the city into a irreversible decline.   Petra was enlisted to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985 and has become one of the most iconic attraction in the Middle East, thanks to After a peace treaty was signed in 1994 between Jordan and Israel, tourism has thrived in Jordan ever since.  From 138,577 in 1994 to 918,136 in 2010, tourist numbers have skyrocketed until the Syrian Civil War broke out and greatly affected international tourism throughout the region.  Back in 2006, our two full days at Petra was definitely the biggest highlight of our experience in Jordan.

After a long day on the King’s Highway, we had some good rest at Petra Moon Hotel.  After an early breakfast at 6am, we quickly headed down the road for a 5-minute walk to Petra’s ticket office.  After obtaining our tickets, we walked over to the entrance of the Siq, a narrow gorge serving as the natural entry path into the lost city.  At several occasions, the Siq became so narrow and dark that made us felt like walking in a tunnel no wider than a car.  A water channel, at about 1m above ground, was carved on the cliff surface along the Siq, reminding us the marvelous engineering in the ancient times that brought water from flash floods into Petra for storage and daily use.

At the end of the Siq, about 1.5km from the gorge entrance, we arrived at the spot where every visitor would stop for the iconic photo of the rock-cut Treasury (Al Khazneh).  No matter how many times the Treasury has appeared on travel photos and TV travel shows, nothing could prepare us emotionally for our first encounter with the stunning view.  Groups after groups of tourists gathered in front of the iconic Treasury building to take photos.  Taking the iconic photo of framing the Treasury between the narrow Siq passage without any tourist required good patience.  Unlike how Steven Spielberg depicts in his movie, fans of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would be disappointed to find no deadly traps, fancy sculptures or glittering treasure behind the famous rock facade.  The interior of the Treasury is actually just an empty cave carved out from the cliff.  Legends have it that robbers and pirates might have used the building to store their looted objects.  Probably this explains the reason why the building is called the “Treasury”.  Though most archaeologists would agree that the Treasury was likely used as a temple and a royal tomb of the Nabataeans.

petra 2A sandy path led us towards the entrance of the Siq.

petra 3One of the first monuments we encountered was the Obelisk Tomb.  The four obelisks on the tomb facade are actually nefeshes, pointed pillars to embody the people buried in the inner chamber.

petra 5The rugged desert canyons at Petra is largely made of sandstone.

petra 7We followed a few local visitors to enter the Siq, the winding and narrow canyon leading into the lost city.

06ME36-32The 1.2km Siq passage provides the most dramatic approach to the lost city.

06ME36-36The Siq is formed by a geological fault split apart by tectonic forces.  The height of the cliffs range from 91 to 182m in height.

06ME37-01From aerial photos one can clearly see how narrow the Siq is – a split in the rose-red sandstone plateau no wider than 3m at some points.

06ME37-03Under the early morning sun, the rock cliffs along the Siq glowed in a golden colour.

06ME37-08Certain parts of the Siq are in shade for almost the entire day.

petra 9The 1.2km long water conduits along the Siq are still visible.

06ME37-09The water conduits and the pavement were built in the last decades of the 1st century BC.

treasury 4At last, the majestic view of the Treasury of Petra emerged between the cliffs.

treasury 3The famous rock facade of the Treasury was a prominent filming spot for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

06ME37-17The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, was carved out of the sandstone rock cliff as the mausoleum of Nabatean King Aretas IV in the 1st century AD.

06ME37-18_01In the 19th century, nomadic bedouins in the region believed the iconic structure contained treasures left by bandits or pirates.

06ME37-15Humidity from tourist crowds and years of touching and rubbing have caused damages to the sandstone building.


SHOBAK (MONTREAL) CASTLE, King’s Highway, Jordan

2006.05.19.

The King’s Highway of Jordan has been an important trade route from Egypt to the Euphrates River for thousands of years.  The route roughly runs along Jordan Rift Valley, from the source of Jordan River, passes through the Sea of Galilee, Dead Sea, Arabah Depression, Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, in Jordan, Palestine and Israel.  The Jordan Rift Valley lies in the crossroad of the tectonic plates, including the Arabian Plate, Dead Sea Transform Fault, Sinai Microplate.  The dramatic valley landscape is formed by the geological movements of the tectonic plates, forming an interesting backdrop for the historical King’s Highway.  Today, tourists and pilgrims travel on the historical backbone of the country, the King’s Highway, from Mount Nebo and Madaba in the north,  passed by the Crusader castles of Karak and Shobak, and arrive at the magnificent Nabataean lost city of Petra.

From Karak, our hired taxi brought us to Shobak Castle, the second Crusader castles that we visited in Jordan.  In 1115, Baldwin I King of Jerusalem ordered the construction of Shobak Castle, establishing the oldest Crusader castle in the region.  Also known as Montreal, the Shobak Castle is not as big as Karak, but the ruins and the surrounding landscape is no less impressive.  We met few tourists (except a local family of six) in the castle, despite the admission was free of charge.  We wandered freely in the castle ruins.  Apart from the ruins, what truly impressed me the most was the surrounding landscape of the Jordan Rift Valley.

shobak 1Castle Shobak is also known as Montreal, or Mont Royal.

shobak 3Baldwin I King of Jerusalem built the Shobak Castle to control the caravan routes between Egypt and Syria.

06ME36-07Tunnels were constructed in the castle to access two spring cisterns down the hill.

06ME35-26The tunnel access to water source allowed the castle to hold longer during a siege.

shobak 2Yet, in May 1189, the castle fell to the army of Ayyubid sultan Saladin.

shobak 7Probably for defensive uses, a number of stone balls are in display at the ruins.

shobak 6Some stone balls were placed on the defensive walls of the castle.

shobak 9The stone balls looked interesting against the blue sky.

06ME36-14During our visit, we met a local family who waved to us and posed for our photo.

shobak 10Despite mainly in ruins, visiting Shobak Castle was an impressive experience.

Shobak Castle 2Ayyubid force controlled the castle for 70 years and embellished the complex with carved inscriptions.

shobak landscape 3From the castle, we could get a decent view of the landscape of Jordan Rift Valley.

06ME35-21Down below, the landscape and ruined buildings blended into one coherent picture.

below Shobak Castle 2The pristine landscape surrounding the castle was a pleasant surprise.

below Shobak CastleWe spent quite a long while just to admire the impressive landscape.

below Shobak Castle 4Looking carefully into the surrounding landscape, we could find many ruined buildings.

below Shobak Castle 3The ruins and the landscape almost seemed like an abstract painting.

below Shobak Castle 5From Shobak, there are various hiking trails toward different directions, including north to Dana and south to Petra.


KERAK CASTLE, King’s Highway, Jordan

2006.05.19.

In a foggy afternoon of December 2016, gunfire broke the silence at the remnants of Kerak Castle.  Following a series of attacks on police patrols and station in Al-Karak, five ISIS terrorists seek refuge at the 12th century Crusader castle as the Jordanian force was closing in.  The government force besieged the castle and eventually killed all terrorists.  14 people were killed in the shootout, including one Canadian tourist.  Terrorist attacks are not common in Jordan, but the 2016 siege of the Kerak Castle and the unstable conditions in Syria have hampered tourism of Jordan in recent years.  Built in the 12th century, the former Crusader stronghold Kerak Castle was not stranger to military siege in history, with the siege of Saladin’s force in 1183 being the most famous.  The siege by Saladin, the Muslim leader from Damascus, coincided with the royal wedding inside the castle between Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem.  The siege ended when the force of Baldwin IV, the King of Jerusalem, came for rescue.  The historical incident serves as the background for the 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven. 

* * *

It was Friday, 19th of May in 2006, a weekend holiday for the Muslims.  At Wahadat Station in Amman, buses were running on holiday schedule.  It took us sometime to find a bus bounded for Kerak Castle.  Our goal for the day was to make our way on the King’s Highway from Amman to Wadi Musa, the popular base for tourists visiting the splendid lost city of Petra.  It was a two hour bus ride from Amman to the town of Al-Karak. When we got off the bus, the driver told us that there would not be any public transportation from Karak to Tafila on Fridays.  Our original plan was to visit Kerak Castle, take a bus to Tafila, and then hire a taxi onwards to Shobak and Wadi Musa.  Without public transportation, we had to settle with hiring a taxi driver for the day at 40 Jordanian Dinar, taking us uphill to Kerak Castle, and then to Shobak Castle and Wadi Musa.

Kerak Castle is one of the largest castles in the region.  Compared to Krak des Chevaliers, Kerak has a simpler design and rougher craftsmanship.  Kerak Castle has a nice little museum.  I enjoyed reading a little about the history of the castle, the Crusades and the Muslim conqueror Saladin at the bookshop.

Road to KarakWe were lucky to find a bus going to Kerak Castle that was running on the Friday holiday schedule.

Karak Castle 3The castle looked spectacular from the town of Al-Karak.

06ME35-19The scale of Kerak Castle is enormous when viewed from the town below.

06ME35-16The castle was empty, but a large portion of the structure remains intact for over 800 years.

06ME35-17Due to the large size, tourists dispersed all over the castle once inside the complex.

06ME35-18Kerak Castle contains many covered passages protected with thick defensive walls.  During the 2016 terrorist attack, most tourists were hiding in a separate part of the castle to avoid contact with the attackers.

below Karak CastleAl-Karak lies 140 km south of Amman, on a hilltop 1000m above sea level.  The Dead Sea is visible from the castle.  Beyond the Dead Sea, the Holy city of Jerusalem is just a short car journey away.


DEAD SEA, near Madaba, Jordan

2006.05.18.

We arrived at Madaba by a morning bus from Amman.  Madaba was a decent sized city during the Byzantine era.  Today the town is frequented by tourists enroute to the Dead Sea.  There are a number of archaeological sites still under excavation in Madaba.  What makes tourists (including us) to stop by Madaba is a 6th century mosaic map depicting the Holy Land of Jerusalem at the Greek Orthodox Church Saint George.  We stopped by the archaeological museum briefly to see other pieces of mosaic from the Byzantine era, before heading over to Saint George.  The church was packed with tourists, all crowded around the mosaic map of the Biblical World.  The mosaic map centered around Jerusalem, with other towns and geographical features such as River Nile, Mediterranean Sea, and Dead Sea, in the surrounding.

After checking out the mosaic map, it was time to get a dip in the salty water of the Dead Sea to get a taste of the floating experience.  After some bargaining, we hopped onto a taxi for the Jordanian Dead Sea beaches.  From Madaba, our taxi sped through the rough arid landscape towards the waterfront.  Along the way, the driver pointed towards the Moses Spring at Mount Nebo and Moses Memorial Church as we passed by the holy sites. At the waterfront, we entered a whole new world of luxury resort hotels.  The contrast to what we have seen in other parts of Jordan and Syria was phenomenal.  We knew we had arrived at the touristy Dead Sea coast. Our driver dropped us off at Amman Beach Resort.  We paid 4 Jordanian Dinar admission for entering the beach.  We took our turns swimming in the water.  Just for fun, we grabbed a bit of mud and apply it onto our skin, tried the unique floating experience, and took a few typical Dead Sea photos.  It was hot and humid at the world’s lowest point 422m below sea level.

As many researchers point out, the Dead Sea is in deep trouble, as less water from Jordan River is feeding the salty inland lake every year.  Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel all rely on the area’s limited water resources, such as the Jordan River, for their growing population and agriculture usage.  In matter of decades the Dead Sea may disappear altogether.  We heard that the Jordanian government is planning to divert the water from the Red Sea to feed the Dead Sea.  At the beach, we could clearly see traces of the old water level.  Just like seeing the retreating glacier on the Swiss Alps, witnessing the gradual death of the Dead Sea made a huge impact on me.  People in the developed nations may never have to worry about their water supply, and understand the alarming situation of the Dead Sea. Sustainable water management in the Dead Sea area is crucial, not only to the survival of millions, but also to the political climate of the region. Successful cooperation of water management offers the basis of peaceful co-existence of the region’s major players.  If that fails, dispute fighting over water supply may not be too far away.

800px-Madaba_mapThe magnificent 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem is the biggest draw for tourists coming to Madaba.  (Image: Public Domain)

road from dead sea to madabaIt was hard to imagine where grazing of the sheep could take place in the arid landscape near the Dead Sea.

06ME35-01The arid landscape at Dead Sea is actually susceptible to flash floods.

near dead seaThe Jordan Rift Valley is a long depression between Israel, Jordan and Palestine.  The valley’s lowest spot is the lowest point in the world, located in the Dead Sea at 790m below sea level.

06ME34-35Despite touristy, we amused ourselves in the salty water of the Dead Sea.


AMMAN CITADEL & CHAMPIONS LEAGUE, Amman, Jordan

2006.05.17.

For thousands of years since Neolithic times, the “L” shaped hill known as the Citadel of Amman has been inhabited.  Ruined temples, churches and palaces dated from the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad period stand on the citadel hill today.  Most of the site remains unexcavated, despite archaeologists have been working here since 1920.  The most impressive remain on the hill is the ruins of Temple of Hercules, a Islamic palace and a modest archaeological museum, in which parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display.  After dropping off our dirty clothes at a laundry shop, getting ourselves some stamps at the post office, and having a peek at the 2nd century Roman Theatre through the metal gate, we turned to the Citadel hill.  On the hill, we chatted with a group of cheerful girls who were playing on the street.  They spotted us from afar and seemed pretty curious about the three of us.  One of them spoke to us in simple English, and we ended up taking pictures with them in the midst of innocent laughter.

In the evening, we had dinner at a restaurant with a large balcony overlooking a busy street.  After dinner, I had a short break at the hostel before returning to the restaurant that we had supper to watch the 2006 UEFA Champions League final on their live TV.  There were 15 local men in the tiny restaurant watching the game.  I sat down at an empty chair behind a man and ordered a bottle of coke.  The large balcony window was opened and I could hear the noise and cheer from restaurants and tea shops down below.  It felt like everyone in the city was watching the game.  Almost all the other men in the restaurant were smoking cigarette or shisha (water pipe), and the place got pretty smoky.  When Campbell scored the first goal for Arsenal, the restaurant owner came out and teased all of us.  He yelled at me saying “Barca finishes, Arsenal good!”  Throughout the game, the men around me kept on sneaking out to the balcony and yelled down to people on the street.  I wasn’t sure whether they knew each other or they were just too excited about the game.  Assisted by Henrik Larsson, at around 76th minutes Samuel Eto finally scored the first goal for Barca, and then the second came 5 minutes later through Juliano Belletti.  It was the perfect night for the Barca supporters in Amman.  As I walked back to the hotel, I passed by groups after groups of joyful locals coming out from tea shops and restaurants after watching the game.  Some were walking home in laughter, while the others hopping on cars that packed both sides of the street.

06ME34-07The first impression of Jordan was clean and pleasant.

vernacular architectureAmman is a popular Arab city for international visitors.  It also receives the most medical tourists in the region.

06ME34-14Locals that we met in Jordan were all very welcoming and friendly.

citadel 1At the Citadel, the uncompleted 2nd century Temple of Hercules was the most prominent Roman structure.  Probably destroyed by earthquakes, it once housed a 12m stone statue of Hercules.

06ME34-19Lying mostly in ruins at the Citadel, the Umayyad Palace was built in the 8th century.

Umayyad PalaceA new dome was restored at the entrance hall of Umayyad Palace in 1998, though not all experts have agreed on whether there was truly a dome in the old times.

06ME34-16Looking down from the Citadel we could get a good view of the Roman Theatre.

roman theatreSituated at the foot of Jabal Al-Joufah opposite to the Citadel, The 2nd century Roman theatre could seat 6000 people.

06ME34-21The Raghadan Flagpole was once the tallest in the world. It is visible from allover the capital city.

big flagAs of 2015, the 126.8m Raghadan Flagpole is the 7th tallest in the world.  It flies a 60 x 30m flag.

ammanMainly cladded with limestone or sandstone, residential buildings in Amman are limited to 4 storeys above ground.

children on the hill 1At the Citadel hill, we stumbled upon a group of cheerful children.

children on the hill 2The young girls were quite curious about us.

children on the hill 3Amman is considered to be one of the most liberal cities in the Arab world.  Many children have been exposed to the global commercialism since very young age.

children on the hill 4One of the girls tried speaking to us in simple English.

06ME34-24I passed by Al-Husseini Mosque on our way to supper.  Erected in around 640 AD, Al-Husseini Mosque was one of the oldest mosques in Amman.  The structure was rebuilt in 1932 by King Abdullah I.


JERASH, near Amman, Jordan

2006.05.17.

After a rather heavy-hearted account of a brief stay in Syria, we move on to the next part of the Middle East journey: Jordan.  Although small and almost landlocked, Jordan is a country of a relatively high development with an “upper middle income” economy in the region.  It is also a major tourist destination, thanks to the ruined city of Petra, Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, the desert of Lawrence of Arabia.  After a little more than a week in Syria, my first impression of the Jordanian capital Amman was the reemergence of global businesses and commercialism.  We started our Jordanian route from the very north of the country at Jerash, one of the best preserved classical ruined cities in the world.

* * *

In the morning we took a minibus from Amman’s Abdali Bus Station (now closed) to Jerash, about 50km north of the capital.  Known as the City of Gerasa or Antioch on the Golden River in the Greco-Roman period, Jerash is now a major tourist attraction in Jordan.  Many have compared Jerash to Pompeii in terms of the extent and level of preservation.  To me, they are actually two very different archaeological sites.  Founded by Alexander the Great or by Seleucid King Antioch IV in 331 BC, Gerasa flourished in the Roman period as a trading hub.  The three of us entered the Arch of Hadrian, wandered around the site and visited the ruins of Temple of Artemis, saw many Corinthian columns, early churches, the Oval Piazza, and two theaters.  At the second theatre, a band of musicians, dressed in military uniforms, were playing ceremonial music on the stage and prompting us to stop for a while.  We exited the ruins through the north gate, and hired a taxi to the bus station.  At the station, we met an old man who claimed to be an experience tour guide.  He told us a bit about his journey to Hong Kong back in early 1970’s, and recommended a cheaper Amman bound bus to us.

Hadrian GateThe 22m high triple archway was erected in 130AD to commemorate the visit of Roman Emperor Hadrian.

oval squareThe Oval Forum and Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded road are the most recognizable features of Jerash.

06ME33-31 The Oval Forum is bounded by 56 Ionic columns.  The large square was probably used as a marketplace and a social gathering spot.

06ME33-18With the beautiful scaenae frons (stage backdrop) and proscenium (front face of the stage), the South Theatre is another popular attraction in Jerash.

06ME33-20Built between AD 81 and 96, the 5000-seat South Theatre is famous for its acoustics.

performers 1Just like many other tourists, we came across a band playing Jordanian Scottish bagpipe at the South Theatre of Jerash.

06ME33-21The Jordanian Scottish bagpipe is a legacy from Emirate of Transjordan, the years of British protectorate before 1946.

06ME33-34Artemis was the patron saint of Gerasa.  Built in the 2nd century AD, the Temple of Artemis was one of the most important building in the city, at least before the end of the 4th century when pagan cults were forbidden.

06ME33-37Temple of Artemis has several beautiful Corinthian columns.

06ME34-02Each column weighs over 20 tons and are 39 feet tall.

06ME34-04Built in AD 165, the North Theatre was used for government meetings in the Roman times. Many seats are inscribed with names of city council members.


THE SYRIAN CHILDREN, Damascus, Syria

2006.05.16.

Filmed and narrated by female Syrian journalist Waad Al-Kateab, the 2019 documentary For Sama followed five years of Waad’s life in war torn Aleppo with Hamza Al-Kateab, her husband who worked as one of the few doctors remained in Aleppo, and Sama, their baby girl who was born and raised in Aleppo during the bloody civil war.  Her first person account of daily life in the rebel held Aleppo, and in particular, documentation of how warfare was affecting the innocent children in the city was heartbreaking.  For Sama did generate some international attention at least in the film circles.  It was critically acclaimed worldwide and won a number of the year’s best documentary award, including the BAFTA and Cannes.  The documentary was a visual testimony for Waad to tell her story to her own child Sama, explaining to her what they were fighting for during the Syrian uprising, why they have insisted to stay in Aleppo to operate the only hospital left in the rebel territory, how they have attempted to support each other in the diminishing local community, how they have lived through the Russian and government bombardment in their neighborhood at a regular basis, and how they have witnessed death and desperation day in, day out for five long years.  For Sama reminds me of the Syrian children we have encountered during our sojourn in Syria back in 2006.  We could never fully comprehend and truly feel how terrible the situations must have been for each of these children during the decade long civil war.  Our hearts go out to every one of them and their families, and hope that they can return to Syria and rebuild their homes as soon as situation allows.

* * *

Before hiring a Jordan-bound service taxi from Baramke Station, we wandered in the old city of Damascus one last time.  In a narrow alleyway, we saw a group of school boys, all dressed in blue school uniforms, perhaps just finished their morning school.  We soon encountered another group of cheerful school children, this time they were all girls.  We followed the girls to a popular neighborhood ice-cream parlour.  How lucky we were.  After the girls picked up their cones, we got ourselves some of the best vanilla ice-cream we had during the trip, and each cone was only 15 cents USD.  Another group of school children arrived at the parlour as we were about to walk off.

At Baramke, we hired a taxi to make the trip to Amman of Jordan.  We picked a driver in his fifties.  Wearing a grey blazer despite the heat, the driver drove between the Syrian and Jordanian capital regularly.  It didn’t take us much time to go through the passport controls at both the Syrian and Jordanian sides.  After 1.5 hour we were already arriving at downtown Amman.  We dropped off our bags at Sydney Hotel, and headed off immediately to look for the guidebook-acclaimed Palestinian juice stand for a cup of refreshment.

06ME32-28Before leaving Damascus, we wandered in the old city one last time.

damascus streetscape 3Houses that have stood for centuries might have gone forever after the civil war, especially for cities like Aleppo where even the UNESCO World Heritage listed old city was bombarded by explosives, poisonous chemicals, and missiles from Russian warplanes.

06ME32-33It is always the most innocent and vulnerable people would suffer the most during wartime.  Seeing the deaths of families, the fleeing of school friends, and the destruction of neighborhoods, and living along with the deafening noises of gunfire and explosives everyday is just too much for the children to bear.

school children 2We followed a group of school girls to a neighborhood ice-cream parlour.

06ME33-08We were curious about the school children and so were they on us.

school children 4Scenes of cheerful school children buying ice-cream from a neighborhood ice-cream parlour was perhaps a regular daily scene in prewar Syria.  Now it may only happen in a handful of government strongholds.

06ME33-09For us, the ice-cream was delicious and affordable, but the most essential thing was the joy that it brought to everyone of us, school children and curious travelers alike, at that particular moment of spring 2006, in one of the narrow alleys of old Damascus.

06ME32-37No fancy shop decoration or special ice-cream flavours, just simple vanilla ice-cream has brought out the purest happiness from the Syrian children.

06ME33-02Every time seeing news of devastating destruction and haunting human sufferings in Syria would make me worry about all the children that we met during our visit.

06ME33-06Despite our brief encounter might only involve exchanges of eye contacts and smiles, these simple smiling faces represent the most unforgettable and precious imagery of my Middle East trip.

06ME33-10I sincerely wish that one day all Syrian children may safely return to their homeland, and have the chance, resources and freedom to rebuild a better country for their next generation.


LAND OF THE DIALECT OF JESUS, Maaloula, Syria

2006.05.16.

56km northeast of Damascus, Maaloula is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.  Considered by many Christians as sacred, the rocky terrains of the small mountain village is home to some of the world oldest Eastern Catholic monasteries, Greek Orthodox convents, churches, shrines, sanctuaries, etc.  The village is also famous to be one of the last places on Earth where Aramaic, the Galilean dialect spoken by Jesus, is still spoken by elderly villagers or priests.  Today, the Aramaic language is considered to be endangered, as it is only spoken natively in a few pockets in the Middle East, and most speakers are elderly.  Some scholars are racing against time to document the language before it extincts completely.  The population of Maaloula is also in decline.  The 2004 census recorded 2,762 Christian and Muslim villagers, compared to the 19th century, when Maaloula was a monastic town with 15,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and Sunni Muslims.  Tourism and pilgrimage have been bringing modern energy into the village.  But the Syrian civil war put an abrupt end to it.  In 2013 and 2014, Maaloula was a battle ground between the Syrian army and Al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in Syria), a jihadist organization active during the war.  During the temporary Al-Nusra Front occupation, monasteries and churches were damaged; Christian icons, including the Virgin Mary statue perched on the cliff above Maaloula, were destroyed; some Christian villagers were forced to convert to Islam or faced death penalty; and many more were forced to leave the village altogether.  Rebuilding has been ongoing after the war.

* * *

In the morning we took a minibus from Damascus to Maaloula, a small village 56km northeast of the Syrian capital.  Backed against rocky cliffs, Maaloula is a small place with rich history and deep spirituality.  We get off at a fork road.  Immediately we went up to the cliffside Mar Sarkis Monastery.  We made a short hike to tour around Mar Sarkis.  The gorge was narrow and looked like a mini Siq of Petra.  We reached a plateau with good views of the village before turning back to the monastery for a brief tour of the interior.  At the end, a priest offered us a special wine prepared from the monastery.

06ME32-02We got off the minibus at the fork road at Maaloula.

06ME32-01The surrounding rugged landscape and high cliffs define the character of the monastic village.

06ME32-03High above the village, a statue of the Virgin Mary stood on the cliff side.

06ME32-04From a distant, Maaloula looks similar to any other small towns in the region until one finds the rooftop crucifix and Byzantine domes of the Christian monasteries.

06ME32-05the rock plateau above the village is quite overwhelming.

06ME32-07Christian crucifix and dome structures stand out from Maaloula as we went closer to the village centre.

06ME32-08Continuous construction upon older structures or renovations every generation conceal the thousand years of Christian history in the simple stone buildings that blend in well with the rest of Maaloula.

06ME32-11Yet artefacts such as bronze bells or Christian icons in the interior would reveal the true age of the place.

village 2Aramaic, the language Aiken by Jesus two thousand years ago, is still spoken by some elder villagers or priests.  For many in Maaloula, the language would only be used in monastic rituals.  While the sound of the Aramaic prayers might pass on to the next generation as part of the rituals, the actual meaning could be lost in the future.

06ME32-17The cliff around Monastery Mar Sarkis is full of narrow and winding passageways.

06ME32-18Convent of Saint Thecla is home to the tomb of St Thecla, disciple of St Paul who came to Maaloula to escape from Roman persecution.  During the war, 12 nuns were taken hostage but eventually released as a prisoner exchange deal with the government.

06ME32-19Due to its proximity to Damascus, Maaloula is considered as a holiday destination by the locals.

06ME32-25Constructed in 325 AD, the Mar Sarkis Monastery, also called Saint Serge and Bacchus Church, was one of the world’s earliest church dedicated to the two Roman soldiers executed due to their Christian faith.

village 6 The Saint Serge and Bacchus Church at Maaloula predates its counterparts in both Constantinople or Rome.  Unfortunately many churches in Maaloula didn’t allow photography in the interior.

06ME32-26No matter where we were in Maaloula, the imposing rocky landscape was never far away.

village 5Pictures and photos of the former president Hafez al-Assad could still be seen in different places from Syrian cities to villages.

new housesWe passed by some new concrete houses under construction on our way back to Damascus.


A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Damascus, Syria

2006.05.15.

A number of foreign journalists have been allowed to return to some Syrian cities to report on the current conditions after a decade of civil war.  After witnessing the apocalyptic devastation, most journalists depict an upsetting “hell on Earth” picture made of miles of concrete ruins and overwhelming human suffering.  New York Times journalist Vivian Yee went a step further reporting on an uneven distribution of recovery resources as well as human suffering among different social groups and in different neighborhoods of a city.  As a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad, Central Damascus is largely untouched by the war, the 310 million shopping mall recently built in the capital stands as a friendly reminder of which side is the true winner.  A little further away in the suburbs previously held by the rebels, such as Douma and Ghouta, ruined neighborhoods and the lack of young men and the middle class illustrates a completely different Damascus.  No running water, no electricity, no intact infrastructures, no hospitals or schools not lying in ruins, it is a tale of oblivion.  Journalists describe the overwhelming noise of portable generators fill the streets of these neighborhoods, revealing a glimpse of hope that local residents are returning and attempting to move on with their lives.  While government reconstruction in these areas are virtually non existence, rebuilding efforts are largely laid in hands of the returning residents who just refuse to give up their homes.  A peaceful Damascus that we have experienced in 2006 feels like a fairy tale from ages ago.

* * *

Back in Damascus from Borsa, we decided to visit the National Archaeological Museum.  It has a fabulous archaeological collections from sites across the nation, from the region’s earliest settlements up to the Islamic times.  I was particularly interested in the ancient alphabet of Ugarit, the ancient port city in northern Syrian that thrived between 6000 to 1200 BC.  With 30 letters, the Ugarit alphabet was widely used in the area at around 1500 BC.  Although not a dominate culture, Ugarit’s central location in the ancient world (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, Crete, and Cyprus) almost ensured a certain level of interaction with the adjacent writing systems at a particular moment in history.  At the museum shop, I bought a necklace carved with Ugarit alphabet.  After the museum visit, a travel buddy and I decided to take a causal walk.  We ended up reaching Mezzeh, a wealthy district dotted with affluent mansions and foreign consulates.  Occasional French mansions flanked peaceful residential streets.  Floral shrubs, shading trees, trellis of climbers stood out from the private gardens.  The scorching Syria Desert felt like a distant world.  Through large windows, piano music could be heard clearly in the street.  For a moment we thought we were in a French suburb.

Back at Al Rabie Hotel, we bumped into a German photography student and an Australian Chinese traveler.  Similar to us, the German student visited Turkey before entering Syria.  He came in search for monotonous urban scenes to fulfill his black and white photographic quest.  He planned to travel in the Middle East until mid August.  The Australian Chinese traveler has been to many places in Asia, Iran, India, and Pakistan are among his favorites.  At 01:00am, three of our travel buddies took a taxi for the airport.  Their Middle Eastern journey had come to an end.  The remaining three of us would continue the second half of the journey to Jordan and Egypt.

Marjeh SquareAt Marjeh Square, Yalbugha Mosque and the concrete structure (some said Business Centre or Ministry of Religion) behind are famous for remaining unfinished for 25 years.  Recent news claims that the mosque has finally been completed.

streetscape 2After visiting the museum, we had a pleasant walk in central Damascus.

06ME31-30In Mezzeh, we had a relaxing stroll in a residential neighborhood under the soft piano music from the French mansions.

06ME31-32On our way back to the hotel, we once again entered the old city of Damascus.

06ME31-31There were many mosques around the area Al Rabie Hotel.

06ME33-11Before the civil war, Al Rabie Hotel was a popular budget hotel just a few blocks away from the Umayyad Mosque.

06ME33-12Ten years ago just before the war, Al Rabie Hotel has undergone a major renovation to keep up with the increasing number of tourists.  Back then, no one has foreseen the coming of the war.


A MEDIEVAL ADAPTIVE REUSE PROJECT, Bosra, Syria

2006.05.15.

Near Damascus, Bosra is probably one of the most popular destinations for tourist excursion.  As a unique UNESCO World Heritage site, Bosra preserves one of the best example of a Medieval adaptive reuse project, which converted an ancient Roman theatre into a defensive citadel.  In the 2nd century BC, Borsa emerged as a Nabatean city.  After the Nabatean Kingdom was annexed by the Romans under Emperor Trajan in 106 AD, Borsa became the prosperous capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.  By the 5th century, Bosra was turned into a Metropolitan archbishop’s seat for the Christian Byzantine.  The Islam Rashidun Caliphate captured Bosra from the Byzantine Christians in 634.  From then on, the city served as an outpost of Damascus, and a vital stop of hajj pilgrimage between Damascus and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.  After the Seljuks came in 1076, the thousand-year old city underwent a series of dramatic transformations, particularly the Roman theatre was converted into a fortress.  Then mosques and Muslim shrines were built to add some religious touches to the complex.  In the 13th century, the Ayyubid constructed eight towers at the Roman theatre to consolidate the city’s defense.  The various transformations of Bosra have given a unique character to the city, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.  Just like many other archaeological sites in the country, Bosra’s Roman Theatre was partially damaged in the civil war.

From Baramke Station in Damascus, we hopped on a minibus for Bosra.  After arriving in Bosra’s Agora, we were approached by a local who claimed to be an assistant of a French archaeologist.  As a temporary guide, he took us for a quick tour of Bosra, and led us to visit his “aunt” at a domestic home.  We took a picture with his “aunt” and parted with our temporary guide at the entrance of the Roman Threater.  A bridge led us across the moat into a entry hall of the citadel.  Walking through the Islamic citadel to enter the theatre was like walking through a labyrinth of defensive tunnels.  It was quite possible to get lost in the underground section of the complex.  Steep stairs and dark corridors led to the entryways of the theatre.  Under the bright sun, dark volcanic basalt, one of the main construction materials of Bosra, was quite obvious.  We stayed at the theatre for about half an hour, found our way onto the stage, and hurried out of the labyrinth-like tunnel to exit the complex.  We made it on time to the bus station for the 14:00 bus back to Damascus.

streetscape 1Less than 20,000 residents were still living in Bosra back in 2006.

streetscape 3Dark basalt rocks were used to construct the city of Bosra.

streetscape 5The construction of Bosra was simple and practical.

06ME31-02We walked around the ruins of Bosra before entering the theatre.

streetscape 2There were many examples of incorporating ancient Nabatean and Roman structures into medieval houses.

06ME31-08Ancient Roman materials were either reused or incorporated into new structures.

06ME31-09The fusion came under the Muslim rule when the citadel with eight guard towers was built to defend against the Crusade.

06ME31-13Our temporary guide led us to his aunt’s home, one of the Medieval stone houses.

womanWe said hello to the guide’s aunt before heading to the theatre.

06ME31-16Once a city housing 80,000 in the ancient times, in 2006 Bosra was a small town with less than 20,000 residents living among the ruins.

06ME31-17Crossing the stone bridge on the moat, we finally entered the Citadel Theatre.

06ME31-18The Citadel Theatre is the best preserved remains in Bosra, and a one-of-a-kind adaptive reuse construction.  Efforts were made from 1946 onward to clear the 3 storey defensive structures in the theatre area, thus the Roman theatre reappeared once again.

citadel 2The theatre construction began in Trajan’s time when a 9000-15000 seat theatre was built.

06ME31-26In the Medieval times, the theatre was transformed into a citadel.  A maze of covered passageways were constructed to connect the inner theatre with the outer section of the citadel.

06ME31-28The three storey stage backdrop was once filled with marble details and statues.  These doors were used for actors to enter the stage.


AL-HAMIDIYAH SOUQ, Souq, Damascus, Syria

2006.05.14.

Found in the 1st century at the site of an earlier Aramaean Temple, the Temple of Jupiter was the largest temple in Roman Damascus.  The Greco-Roman temple was renowned for its beauty and scale.  In the 4th century, Theodosius I transformed the temple into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.  In 705, the church was converted into the Umayyad Mosque after Damascus was captured by the Muslim Arab forces in 634.  Despite being transformed numerous times, remnants of the Roman Temple of Jupiter survived for another millennium until the present day.  The ruins have indeed interwoven into the urban fabric of today’s Damascus, serving as a 40 feet monument at the entrance of the central market, Al-Hamidiyah Souq.  Indeed, the Roman entry route to the former Temple of Jupiter has become the main configuration of the market.

Shops selling clothes, antiques, handicrafts, souvenir, and jewellery line along the main shopping arcade, while vendors of spices, dried fruits, miscellaneous household items and clothing pack the side streets.  Established in the Ottoman Era in around 1780, the 600m covered market has not been physically affected by the civil war, despite international tourists have largely disappeared.  Due to the war, the Syrian pound has fallen dramatically in recent years, and the supply chains of many merchandises have also been impacted by foreign sanctions.  Business is undoubtedly affected.  Back in 2006, the souk was a must-see for all foreign visitors, including us.

After Umayyad Mosque, we wandered over to the city’s main souk.  We discovered an unique shop that sells textiles, scarfs, bags, and embroideries made by local Syrian and Palestinian women.  After souvenir shopping, we went to a shop called Bakdash, which is Syria’s oldest ice-cream parlour.  Bakdash has been around since 1890, selling rosewater and almond ice-cream topped with fresh pistachio. Each of us had a delicious cone to end the day.

06ME30-13The ruined Roman Temple of Jupiter forms a dramatic entrance for Al-Hamidiyah Souq.

06ME30-09The souk is roughly 15m wide and covered with a 10m tall metal vaulted roof.

06ME30-37Political banner in support of the Assad regime was hung in the souk back in 2006.

06ME30-35In the evening, the ruined temple is lit up by flood lights.

06ME30-36In the evening, the Roman ruins give a strong atmospheric touch to the market entrance.

06ME31-34In 2010, Global Heritage Fund named the old city of Damascus as one of the 12 cultural heritage sites most “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction.  In 2008, World Monuments Fund put old Damascuson its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world.

06ME31-35Population decline and demolition plans of old buildings are to blamed for the risks that Old Damascus is facing in recent decade.

06ME31-37Outside of the main souk, vendors of all kinds have spread to many side streets.

06ME31-36Vendors selling produces and household items have turned the side streets near the souk into an open market.


UMAYYAD MOSQUE, Damascus, Syria

2006.05.14.

Five days after entering Syria from Turkey, we finally reached the capital city Damascus, after a quick tour of Aleppo, Crusader castles near Hama, and the ruins in the Syria Desert.  Also known as the City of Jasmine, Damascus is one of the most important cultural centre in the Arab world, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.  Large settlement within the city walls dated back to the second millennium BC. The city’s status rose to its peak when it was chosen as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, the centre of the Islamic world, from 661 to 750 AD.  Today, Damascus is the capital and largest city in Syria.  Since ancient times, Damascus has been a melting pot of different Middle Eastern cultures and religions.  While Islam is the prominent religion, Christians (Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Greek Orthodox Church, etc) represent about one fifth of the population.  There was also a small Jewish community dating back to ancient times.  Nowhere in the Syrian capital can illustrate the complex religious traditions better than Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest, oldest and holiest mosques in the world.

After checking in at Al Rabie Hotel, we ventured out immediately to explore Damascus.  We walked through the busy streets and congested traffic, passed by the citadel, stroll through a covered souk, and at last reached the Umayyad Mosque.  We took off our shoes and reached the huge courtyard.  The marble floor was clean and smooth but quite hot.  The Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque of Damascus) was built in early 8th century by the Umayyad Caliphate.  In the Roman times, the site was home to a large and famous Temple of Jupiter.  In the 4th century, Theodosius I converted the temple into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.  In 706 AD, construction work began to convert the church into Umayyad Mosque.  Christian and Muslim pilgrims continued to come and pay respect to St. John the Baptist. The small shrine which housed John’s head still exists today inside the mosque.

Adjacent to the mosque we found our way to the Mausoleum of Saladin, the famous and powerful Muslim knight who fought off the Crusades and recaptured Palestine from the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The Mausoleum is a small stone building in which Saladin’s coffin is covered with a green textile.

06ME30-14Probably built in the 10th century, the Minaret of the Bride on the northern wall is the first minaret built for the Umayyad Mosque.

Omayyad Mosque 1Located at the southwest corner, the 1488 Minaret of Qaitbay shows a strong Egyptian Islamic influence.

06ME30-20Completed in 715 AD upon alterations from the earlier church, the Umayyad Mosque was meant to establish a jama masjid (congregational mosque or Friday mosque).  With a height of 118 feet, the Dome of the Eagle sits atop the main prayer hall.

06ME30-15It was said that about 12,000 craftsmen and workers from Coptic Egypt, Persia, India, Greece and Morocco served as the main construction force.  Byzantine artisans were hired for the decorative and architectural details, including the mosaics.

Omayyad Mosque 7The Umayyad Mosque is a rare example of mosque architecture still maintaining the original design features and structure since the 8th century.

Omayyad Mosque 9In 1979, the old city of Damascus was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  Out of the 125 monuments in the city, the Umayyad Mosque is considered to be the most spectacular.

06ME30-30Mosaic was a common form of art in the Roman and Byzantine era.  Along with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque is one of the best preserved mosaic art of the Umayyads in the world.

Omayyad Mosque 5Due to various fire incidents in history, the surviving mosaics only represent a portion of the original mosaics.  Most mosaics we see today were plastered over by the Ottomans.  First uncovered in 1929, little has been changed to the mosaics since the 8th century.

06ME30-16There are three domes in the main courtyards, including the Fountain for Ablutions in the centre.

Omayyad Mosque 3Constructed in 780, the Dome of the Clock or Zeynel Abidin Dome at the eastern end of the courtyard.  Later erected by the Abbasids in 1247, the Minaret of Jesus (Isa) at the back is the tallest among the three minarets.

06ME30-27Built in 790s, the Dome of Treasury was used to house the mosque’s endowment funds and old manuscripts.

06ME30-29The courtyard is a pleasant open space even just for sitting around to absorb the historic atmosphere.

06ME30-21The outer columns of the main prayer hall contain some beautiful marble decorations.

06ME30-18Other than the main prayer hall, the courtyard is bounded by a series of colonnades.

06ME30-22Decorative marble inlays can be found at both exterior and interior of the mosque.  Some columns in the complex were actually recycled from the earlier church at the same site.

06ME30-24This early mosque borrowed a number of features from earlier Roman and Byzantine designs, including the dome, vaults and colonnades.  Beautiful windows provide another pleasant feature to the interior of the prayer hall.

06ME30-25The qibla wall with the mihrab niche indicates the direction to Mecca.

06ME30-26The main prayer hall contains three aisles stretching to east and west.

Omayyad Mosque 6Serving as a pilgrimage site for both Muslims and Christians, the shrine of Saint John the Baptist (Prophet John in Islam), almost like a small building within the prayer hall, situates at the central aisle.


THE BRIDE OF DESERT, Palmyra, Syria

2006.05.14.

Khaled al-Asaad, the most renowned archaeological expert on Palmyra, has devoted his whole life studying, promoting and protecting the ancient city.  Spent 40 years (1963 – retirement in 2003) as the head of antiquities and main custodian of Palmyra, the 82-year-old archaeological consultant played a major role in evacuating the content of the city museum as Palmyra was fallen into the hands of ISIS.  He was captured by the terrorist group, interrogated for a month on the whereabouts of hidden golden artefacts, refusing to give in despite brutal tortures, and beheaded publicly by the ISIS at the museum square.  His mutilated body was then brought to the ruins and hung from one of the Roman columns.  Asaad was loyal to his passion and destiny until his very last breath.  In his decades long career, Asaad organized archaeological expeditions in Palmyra, worked with different archaeological missions from around the world, curated exhibitions of Palmyrene artefacts, and promoted Palmyra to become a UNESCO’s World Heritage site.

Literally means “city of palms”, Palmyra was often referred to as the Bride of the Desert.  For ancient caravans, Palmyra was a vital stop along the Silk Road.  Palmyra lies on an ancient trade route between Homs and Dura-Europos.  From Homs merchants could go further west to Tyre, a large Lebanese port city connected to the Mediterranean; and from Dura-Europos, trade routes would extend eastwards along the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf, where access to the Indian Ocean and China could be made.  Palmyra gained significance after the Nabatean Empire collapsed in AD 106, where earlier trade routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean would converge in Petra.  In the first century AD, Palmyra became part of the Roman Empire and one of the wealthiest cities in Near East.  Palmyra was named by the Roman Empire a “free city” with tax exemptions for trading.  Merchants of Palmyra flourished along the Silk Road and in the  Roman Empire, bringing a large amount of wealth back for construction projects.  The desert oasis became a melting pot of cultures from east and west due to international trading.  Art and architecture of Palmyra blended influences from Greece and the Roman Enpire in the west and Persia and further beyond in the east into its unique culture.  In the 3rd century AD, Queen Zenobia conquered parts of the Eastern Roman Empire and established the short-lived Palmyrene Empire.  The legacy of ancient Palmyra is such an important world heritage that its cruel destruction by the ISIS was particularly painful to see.

Given the severe damages to the site, unstable security conditions in the region and the constant risk of landmines, it could take many years before the World Heritage Site can regain its former popularity as Syria’s top tourist attraction.  In 2006, we spent a fine morning at the archaeological site of Palmyra.  To avoid the desert heat, we get up 05:30 in the morning, and left Citadel Hotel to spend three hours in the ruins, checking out its temples, colonnade, theatre, road intersection, etc.  We left the ruins at 08:45, and headed to the post office to send postcards.  We dropped by the Palmyra Museum to see the mummies, and stood outside Pancake House to wait for our prearranged transportation for the closest bus station.  To our surprise a pickup truck came instead of a mini-van.  We all sat down at the back of the truck for a 5-minute journey in the desert.  The truck dropped us off at a local tea-house, where we hopped on a regional bus bounded for Damascus.  After 3.5 hours we finally arrived at the renowned Syrian capital, Damascus.

templeBuilt in 3rd century AD, the Funerary Temple no. 86 was the only tomb erected inside the ancient city.

temple and citadelBeyond Funerary Temple no. 86, the majestic Palmyra Citadel or Tadmur Castle stood proudly above the horizon.  Despite severely damaged, the castle is considered repairable by the Syrian government.

theatre 2In 1950s, the Roman Theatre of Palmyra was cleared of sand and extensively restored.  Before the civil war, the theatre would host folk music concerts during the annual Palmyra Festival.

06ME29-29Labelled as a “war crime” by the UNESCO, the magnificent central proscenium was purposely damaged during the ISIS occupation.

06ME29-32In 27th of May 2015, the ISIS used the theatre stage to execute 25 captives.

06ME29-28Adjacent to the Roman Theatre stood the Senate Building.

intersection and citadelOutside of the Senate Building stood the Tetrapylon.  Further down the Great Colonnade, the 13th century citadel overlooked the entire ancient city from a distance.

architectural detail 2Palmyra contains all kinds of components of ancient Roman architecture.

architectural detail 1Exquisitely carved portico could still be visible at a number of buildings.

06ME29-22Tetrapylon is a type of Roman monument built on a crossroads.  The Palmyra Tetrapylon was once the icon of the ancient city.

06ME29-20Unfortunately, during the second ISIS occupation in 2017, out of the four groups of pillars two were completely destroyed and the other two severely damaged.

columnsThe 1.1km Great Colonnade is also another iconic feature of Palmyra.

06ME29-13Named by UNESCO as one of the Palmyra’s most complete structure in 1980, the Temple of Baalshamin was blown up by detonating a large quantity of explosives inside the temple by the ISIS in August 2015.

06ME28-35The Roman Arch of Septimius Severus or the Monumental Arch was also destroyed by ISIS with dynamite in October 2015.

06ME28-37After the Syrian government recaptured the city, plans were made to restore the Monumental Arch.

archway 2Based on a 3D model from Oxford University, a 6.1m replica of the arch was carved in Italy and temporarily installed in London’s Trafalgar Square, then New York, Geneva, Washington DC, Dubai, and finally back to Syria to commemorate its existence before its brutal destruction.

06ME30-05Built in the 3rd century, the ruined Monumental Arch was restored in the 1930s and soon became one of the main highlights for the visit of Palmyra.


TOMB TOWERS & TEMPLE OF BEL, Palmyra, Syria

2006.05.13.

Deep in the Syria Desert stood one of the most splendid cities in the ancient world.  Due to its strategic location on the Silk Road with Persia, India and China on one side, and the Roman and Greek world on the other, Palmyra was a significant cultural and economic hub in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.  In 273 AD, Palmyra was razed to the ground by the Romans, and had never fully recovered since then.  The archaeological wealth from the ancient city was Syria’s most prominent tourist attraction and UNESCO’s World Heritage site.  Palmyra faced its biggest nightmare in May 2015, when the ISIS launched a huge offensive attack to capture the desert oasis.  Between mid 2015 to March 2016, Palmyra was controlled under the notorious terrorists when precious treasures and artefacts were looted or destroyed.  The Temple of Bel, Temple of Baalshamin, seven Tomb Towers including the Tower of Elahbel, and the Monumental Arch were blown up to pieces.  Uncounted artefacts were looted and smuggled into the black market.  Archaeologists were beheaded.  Before they were forced out by the government army, ISIS planted thousands of landmines and bombs in the ruined city.  On 15th April, 2020, two children were killed by a landmine in Palmyra, four years after the ISIS was driven out.  Despite the de-mining effort since 2016, Palmyra remains a dangerous place to visit and an endangered World Heritage site seven years in a row.  Memories of our 2006 visit seems so far far away:

At around 14:30 we finally arrived at Palmyra, the ancient desert metropolis since the times of Alexander the Great.  We checked in at Citadel Hotel.  The hotel staff arranged a car for our visit to the funeral towers.  The staff asked if we wanted to hire a car to visit the tomb towers.  At the village museum we bought the admission tickets for the tomb towers, and sardined ourselves (6 of us) in the little red car for the journey.

Our hired guide from the museum waited for us at the entrance of the Tower of Elahbel.  He told us some history of the towers, unlocked the door of Tower of Elahbel and led us in.  Many tomb towers in the valley were badly damaged by earthquakes throughout the centuries. The Tower of Elahbel was an exception.  Inside we could see the slots on the walls where coffins were once placed.  We walked up to the third level, saw a number of sculpted busts of the deceased, and the beautiful fresco of stars and constellations on the ceiling.  After, we visited an underground tomb with well preserved frescoes.  I was able to recognize scenes of the Trojan War with Achilles and Odysseus from one of the wall paintings.

After the necropolis, we moved on to visit the Temple of Bel.  It was the largest building in Palmyra, and one of the largest temples in the Classical world.  Bel was the main god of Babylon.  The temple was erected in the first century, with influences from Classical Greece and Rome, Ptolemaic Egypt, and ancient Syria.  We walked through the main gate into a huge courtyard that was once surrounded by Corinthian colonnades. At the centre stands the ruined Sanctuary of Bel, where we could admire the exquisite relief carving of the ruined building.

funeral towersTomb towers at Palmyra are unique examples of Classical necropolis.  Some tower tombs dated back to the Hellenistic period.  Most were found in the Valley of the Tombs below Umm al-Bilqis Hill.

06ME28-10Inside the towers, dead bodies were placed on landings and stacked stone shelves, marked with a sculptural bust.

06ME28-13Before its brutal destruction in August 2015 by the ISIS, the Tower of Elahbel was a great place to learn about funeral architecture of Palmyra.  Inside the tower there was a narrow staircase reaching the upper floors.

06ME28-11Some of the larger towers could hold up to 400 corpses.  Chinese silk yarns dated to 1st century AD were discovered in the tomb towers, revealing the evidence of Silk Road trading two thousand years ago.

Temple of Bel 1The Temple of Bel was the largest ancient temple complex in the Middle East.  Built upon pre Roman temples, the Temple of Bel was founded in 32 AD.  The temple was later converted into a church and then a mosque.

06ME28-31Most of the Temple of Bel has been blown up by the ISIS.  Now it has become a large pile of rubble.

06ME28-18Magnificent carving of the temple are probably gone even if archaeologists can restore the general structure of the building.

06ME28-19Walking around the enormous temple complex was a great pleasure.

Temple of Bel 3Ceiling details were particularly well preserved at the Temple of Bel.

06ME28-20Beautiful relief and rows of Corinthian columns once stood in the temple courtyard.

Temple of Bel 4Some of the relief carving of the central sanctuary were on display in the temple courtyard.

06ME28-22Handsome Classical columns stood proudly in the courtyard before the destruction.

Temple of Bel 5Our guide gave us a little talk on the temple’s history at the courtyard.

06ME28-26Outside the temple walls, we could see the palm trees east of the ruined city.

06ME28-29Along with sone other destroyed buildings, the government is planning to restore the Temple of Bel using original materials from the existing debris.

06ME29-07At last, our little red car drove us up to the citadel behind the ruins of Palmyra, where we could watch the sunset.  The citadel also suffered major destruction by the ISIS.

06ME29-04Up at the citadel we could fully appreciate the scale of the barren landscape in all directions.

06ME29-02Seven Tomb Towers are lost forever.

06ME29-01The Temple of Bel, the enormous walled complex east of the Great Colonnade of Palmyra, was almost completely destroyed by the ISIS.  As satellite images showed, there was hardly anything standing at the Temple of Bel.


BEEHIVE HOUSES OF TWALID DABAGHEIN, Syrian Desert, Syria

 

2006.05.13.

In February 2017, an Reuter’s article covered the story of displaced Syrians staying at Aleppo’s Jibreen shelter.  Coming from “beehive” villages in the countryside, these villagers fled their home when their villages were sandwiched between the forces of Assad’s government and the ISIS.  Having a hard time leaving their homes behind and staying in warehouses at an industrial neighbourhood of Aleppo, many displaced villagers have already longing for a return to their beehive houses, the   traditional vernacular dwellings famous for the natural thermal qualities, and to their former rural life.  Many of the beehive villages were damaged in the war.  Effort would be needed for returnees to restore these unique structures and reestablish their lives centred at sheep and goats.  In 2006, we got a chance to visit one of the beehive village on our way to Palmyra.

Our second stop in the Syrian Desert was Twalid Dabaghein, where we visited a family staying in one of the beehive houses.  The conical beehive houses are made with mud bricks being laid in a spiral configuration.  The mass of the masonry and the high volume of the dome works well to keep out the desert heat.  Traditional beehive house has no window openings, except the entrance door and ceiling oculus.  At the house, our host and we sat in a circle for a brief chat (with our guide as translator).  Chickens and sheep wandered in front of the house.  Our host showed us his guest-book and offered us mint tea.  As we passed around the sugar and tea pot, I noticed the decorations on the white wash walls, including a poster of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and a few textile works.  At the very top of the spiral brickwork hung a cooling fan.  As I finished putting my comment in the guestbook, the host’s neighbour and his young daughter joined us in the house to chat with us.  I took out my sketchbook and let the old man and his daughter to write something down.  I showed them a photo of Hong Kong and they showed great interest and appreciation.  We had some pleasant moments in the beehive house, which was actually quite cool despite the late morning sun outside.

beehive houses 1The conical beehive houses have been around since the 6th century BC.

06ME28-02In the Syrian Desert, clusters of beehive houses make up many beehive villages.  Villagers lead a peaceful life with their domesticated animals.

06ME28-01The beehive houses are famous for their “warm in winter and cool in summer” thermal quality.  The thick mud walls serve well as insulation to keep out the sun.

beehive houses 2Bricks are laid in circular orientation, with mud and straw applied on the interior and exterior.  Rain, if any, would shed off the house easily with the conical form, reducing the chance of erosion.

beehive houses 5With their domesticated Awassi sheep, many villagers engage in the wool business.

beehive houses 6The Awassi sheep is the most common type of sheep in the Arab countries.

beehive houses 7They have adapted well to the desert climate and environment.

06ME27-32Chicken and turkey roam free around the beehive village.

06ME27-34At our host’s home, we could appreciate the circular layout of the bricks.

06ME27-35Some beehive houses would have an oculus at the very top for daylight.  Our host preferred to have his blocked.

06ME27-37Traditional decorations were hung on the interior walls.  Maybe it was a “model home” to greet tourists, but the setting was actually quite simple.

06ME27-36The textile decorations stood out perfectly from the white background.


QASR IBN WARDAN, Syrian Desert, Syria

2006.05.13.

Covering 500,000 square kilometers in the Middle East, and spanning across parts of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the Syrian Desert (Badiyat al-Sham) is home to Bedouin tribes, ancient trade routes and ruined cities.  Parts of the Syrian Desert and other deserts in the Arabian Peninsula are considered to be some of the driest places in the world.  Yet, some Bedouin tribes continue to live nomadically with their livestock (goats, sheep and camels) in the area.  From Hama, Cairo Hotel arranged a van to take us into the Syria Desert towards the ancient city of Palmyra.  On the way, we stopped by the Roman ruins of Qasr Ibn Wardan and a village of vernacular beehive houses.

In the middle of the desert where ancient Romans marked their eastern boundary, Emperor Justinian built an enormous complex in the 6th century AD attempting to impress the desert nomads.  A mixture of local materials and Byzantine architectural styles imported from Constantinople created a magnificent building complex that once encompassed a palace, church and military barracks.  To the Romans, Qasr Ibn Wardan was a beacon at the border that separated the their empire and the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian dynasty.  Stripes of dark basalt and yellow bricks create a strong sense of horizontality against the desert horizon, connecting the structure with the imposing desert landscape and expressing the grandeur of Roman Empire in the middle of nowhere.

Qasr Ibn Wardan 2Although the original dome was long gone, the impressive remains of the church at Qasr Ibn Wardan has stood prominently against the desert horizon for 1500 years.

Qasr Ibn Wardan 1The palace is the largest remaining structure, with rooms distributed on two floors surrounding a central courtyard.  An inscription dated the building to 564 AD.

06ME27-19In terms of architectural technologies, the Byzantine style of the complex must have been quite fascinating for the locals 1500 years ago.

06ME27-18The basalt and yellow bricks should be considered high quality in the 6th century.

06ME27-23The lintel at the church’s main entrance also contains Greek inscriptions.

Qasr Ibn Wardan 3The Greek inscriptions “All things to the glory of God” was carved onto the lintel of the palace south entrance.

06ME27-24Many archaeologists believed that the columns used at Qasr Ibn Wardan came from the ancient city of Apamea.

06ME27-20The church of Qasr Ibn Wardanis a fine example of Byzantine architecture.

06ME27-27The dome is supported by pendentives sprang from an octagonal drum.


THE CITY OF NORIAS, Hama, Syria

2020.05.13.

In the city of Hama along the Orontes River, 17 splendid medieval norias stand as reminders of the city’s medieval past, when large norias were built to transport 95 litres of water per minute uphill to irrigate farms.  A looted mosaic from Apamea dated back to 469 AD depicted a large noria among with buildings and daily scenes of people suggested that norias have been around since at least the 5th century.  The oldest surviving norias in Hama dated back to the Ayyubid period in the 12th century.  These norias have no practical use today after modern pumps and piping have been installed.  As the icon of Hama, their presence is mainly for aesthetic and touristic purpose, maintaining the unique identity of Hama and attracting people to visit the City of Norias.  In fact, the norias of Hama are so famous in the country that they have appeared on Syrian stamps and banknotes.

06ME26-30Before the civil war, Cairo Hotel and Riad Hotel were two

Streetscape 2_01Exploring the medieval alleyways in Hama was an absolute delight.

06ME26-28At 6:30 in the morning, we headed out to visit the famous norias of Hama.  We followed instructions from the hotel staff to Um Al Hasan Park, one of the most popular spots for see the norias.

06ME26-32After a 10-minute walk, we reached Orontes River and the majestic Noria Mamouriya.

06ME26-33In 1900 there were more than 50 norias in Hama. Now only 17 still remain standing today.

Waterwheels 4A “noria” is actually a type of water wheel that raises water from a river to a higher level.

06ME26-31The Mamouriya Noria is a popular spot for local children to hang out.

06ME27-03Noria Al-Jabiriya and al-Sahiuniya, and the adjacent Nur al-Din Mosque together form the iconic picture of Hama.

noria 2Decreased water level due to population growth has increased the risk for preserving the norias.  When water level is low, the norias would cease to operate.  The longer the wood stay out of water, the more it becomes vulnerable to cracking and shrinking.

06ME27-07The norias of Hama have been submitted to UNESCO’s list of Tentative World Heritage sites.

streetscape 1Much of the old city of Hama was destroyed during the 1982 Hama Massacre, when the Syrian Arab Army and Defense Companies besieged the city for 27 days in order to crush an uprising by the anti-government Muslim Brotherhood.

streetscape 2Hama has always been a battle ground between the ruling Ba’ath Party and the Sunni Islamists since the 1960s.  In the 1982 Hama Massacre, tens of thousands of people were killed.  Since the, the government of Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) relied more on suppression for his ruling of Syria.

06ME27-14On 1st of July 2011, more than 400,000 protestors demonstrated on the street to stand up against Bashar al-Assad.  By August, over 200 civilians had been killed by the government force.

06ME27-11It was hard to tell the violent past from the tranquil streetscape of Hama.

06ME27-09We passed by a building named “Institu de Palestine.”  There was a statement and a map of the Palestine marked on the wall.

Institute of Palestine 2With a significant population of Sunni Muslims, it was not surprising to see a show of support for Palestine in Hama.

 

 


CASTLE OF THE KNIGHTS, Krak des Chevaliers, Homs, Syria

2020.05.12.

Just a few kilometres north of the Syrian and Lebanon border, atop a 650m hill in the Homs Gap between the Mediterranean and the Syrian interior stands one of the world’s best preserved Crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers.  Proclaimed by Lawrence of Arabia as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world,” Krak des Chevaliers was built by the Order of Knights Hospitaller, Saint John of Jerusalem, in the 1140’s after capturing an earlier fortress on the spot during the First Crusade.  Housing 3,000 knights to protect pilgrims and trading caravans in the Roman Christendom, the castle remained as the headquarters of the Knights Hospitalier until 1271 when it fell into the hands of Sultan Baibars of the Mamluks, and then to the Ottomans from 16th century onward.  The castle was abandoned in the 19th century, and soon the locals established a small village inside the complex until 1927, when the French bought and restored the castle.  Before the civil war, Krak des Chevaliers was a popular tourist destination for international tourist groups, cruise groups, independent travelers, art and architecture students, etc.   During the civil war, the castle was taken by the rebels in 2012, and was used as a military command centre, weapon storage and a transit base for Lebanese fighters.  The government force recaptured the castle in 2014 and allowed UNESCO and foreign press such to assess the war damages: blackened walls in the Knight Hall, bullet holes, graffiti, rubble allover the inner court, but the biggest loss was the destruction of the main stair.  After a series of ongoing restoration, the castle has reopened recently for visitors again.

Before reaching the castle gate, our van stopped by a roadside lookout for a distant view of the famous Krak des Chevaliers.  Even from a distance we could already appreciate the intact outer walls and well preserved guard towers.  The castle was protected by two layers of wall.  We entered the castle through an entrance on the lower level, then walked through a vaulted ramp, and reached the inside of the fortress.  Another ramp led us up to the core area, where the Knight Hall and Gothic church (later converted into a mosque) stood.  We climbed the guard towers one by one to check out the surrounding scenery.  Krak des Chevaliers was certainly the day’s highlight.

Carc des Chevaliers 1From a distant look, Krak des Chevaliers stands as the perfect Crusade castle out of a fantasy movie.  Situated in the Homs Gap between inner Syria and the Mediterranean, the castle location has always been strategic for the region.

06ME26-15The moat, imposing walls and talus of Krak des Chevaliers survived the civil war.

Carc des Chevaliers 5_01Inside the complex, the main Medieval stair is gone forever due to damages from the civil war.

06ME26-18The Knight Hall is one of the world’s best preserved example of Crusader architecture.

06ME26-19The gallery facade of the Knight Hall suffered damages from the war as well, including burnt walls and broken arches and columns.

06ME26-21The inner court of the castle was littered with rubble in 2014 when the castle was recaptured by the government army.

06ME26-23In 2006, the castle’s inner court was largely peaceful and intact.

Carc des Chevaliers 7Seen from the southeast tower of the castle, the village of Al-Husn dominated the scenery below the castle.  The word “Al-Husn” literally means “The Castle.”

06ME26-25Covered ramps connect the inner court is with the outer areas and main entrances.

06ME26-27Before leaving, we had one last photo of the castle.  The image lived long in my memories, especially when I acknowledge how delicate political situations could become in this part of the world, such that a 900 year old cultural heritage could be gone forever upon a few brutal missiles.


CASTLE OF THE ASSASSINS, Masyaf Castle, Hama, Syria

2020.05.12.

After Apamea, our van took us to Musyaf Castle, the legendary headquarters of the Order of Assassins.  Known to the Crusaders as “Old Man of the Mountain”, Rashid ad-Din Sinan led the Syrian branch of the Nizari Ismaili sect, or what commonly known as the Order of Assassins, from Musyaf Castle on a 20m high plateau 40km west of Hama.  In the 12th century, Rashid ad-Din Sinan controlled a part of northwestern Syria from Masyaf Castle.  Rashid and his followers were famous for imposing the military tactics of assassinations in the region.  In fact, the Order of Assassins was the origin of the modern word “assassination.”  Sultan Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty who controlled a kingdom stretched from Syria and Yemen all the way to Egypt and North Africa, was Rashid’s primary enemy.  A truce was made between the two simply because Saladin feared for the danger of assassination from Rashid’s network.  In 1191, Rashid was involved in the successful assassination of Conrad of Montferrat, the King of Jerusalem. Musyaf Castle was later occupied by the Mamluks and Ottomans.  After an extensive restoration in 2000, the legendary Masyaf Castle of the Assassins continues to dominate today’s skyline of the town of Masyaf.

06ME26-10Thanks to legends and folklore, books, graphic novels and video games, the mysterious Order of Assassins still lives long in people’s imagination after 800 years.

06ME26-11Funded by the Aga Khan Trust, extensive restoration of the castle was undertaken in the early 2000’s.

06ME26-12Appeared in the Assassin’s Creed game series as the base of the Assassin Order, Masyaf is actually a small peaceful city.

06ME26-13With a population of 22,000, Masyaf was inhabited since the 8th century BC.  The Crusaders first knew of Masyaf and its castle in 1099 AD, 41 years before the castle was conquered by the Nizari Ismaili force.

06ME26-14In the Syrian Civil War, Israeli air strikes hit an Iranian associated missile production facility in Masyaf.


THE TRAGEDY OF APAMEA, Hama, Syria

2006.05.12

From Aleppo we took a morning bus to Hama, a laidback little city between Aleppo and Damascus.  Under the morning sun, the combination of shading palm, olive and fruit trees, centuries old stone houses and winding alleys, Hama looked like a photo perfect Middle Eastern town.  At first we had trouble orienting ourselves.  A taxi driver came by and helped us for the right direction towards town centre and Cairo Hotel.  Cairo Hotel was clean and the staff was friendly.  We joined one of the tours they offered for the Crusade castles and archaeological ruins nearby.

Our first stop was the massive ruins of Apamea.  From the 2 km-long Great Colonnade, we could truly appreciate the enormous scale of the ancient city, which was once a major trading hub with a population of up to half a million as some researchers estimated.  After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Apamea was ruled under the Seleucid kings before the Roman arrived.  Because of its strategical location on the trading routes, the city continued to flourish in Roman times.  For all the wrong reasons, Apamea made news headlines in recent years as satellite images revealed the Luna landscape like destruction of the site due to massive looting.  Irreversible damages, especially along the famous Grand Colonnade area, were discovered after the government army regained control of the site.  During the civil war, thousands of holes were dug in the ground by treasure hunters.  Mosaics and all kinds of precious artefacts were brutally removed and sold in the black market by amateur treasure hunters, including desperate civilians from nearby communities who might not have other economic means to survive the war.  It was a story of how a local warfare would lead to a terrible loss for the entire humanity.  In the 21st century this should never have happened, but in reality these kinds of tragedies have never ceased to exist in our history.

06ME26-01Apamea withstood different challenges in the past two thousand years, but the recent destruction would probably be proven too much for the ancient city to bear.  “Once a great city, now just empty holes” was how University of Glasgow recently described the site in an article titled Count the holes: the looting of Apamea, Syria.

06ME26-05From the conquest of Alexander the Great to the Romans, Apamea thrived as an Hellenistic city, then a provincial capital during the Roman times.

06ME26-07Many remaining structures are dated to the Roman era.

06ME26-09Anything decorative or with artistic values are probably gone by now.

Apamea 5The 2km Great Colonnade was one of the longest in the Roman world, but sadly it also suffered the most damages during the civil war.  Thousands of holes were made in the area for treasure hunting.  Uncounted artefacts have been stolen, including many priceless mosaic floors that have gone into the black market.  Since 2012, Interpol has been involved in searching for the looted items.

06ME26-02It would take a long time to even comprehend how extensive the actual destruction was.

06ME25-36Ancient Roman Latin inscriptions and detail carvings might be gone.

06ME25-31Google aerial views reveal the site is now filled with holes all over.  Many of the unexcavated treasures hidden from our sight in 2006 are gone by now.

06ME25-34Let’s hope the tragic story of Apamea would not repeat again somewhere else.


A WALK IN DOWNTOWN ALEPPO, Aleppo, Syria

2006.05.11.

After our extremely lucky hitchhike back to Aleppo, we had a quick bite at a cafe across the citadel.  After lunch, I split with the group and headed back to the souq to get some souvenir, went to the main post office to for stamp collections, spent a bit of time at an internet cafe, wandered around the downtown area, and reunited with the group at the National Museum.  Before the Syrian Civil War, Aleppo was the largest city in the country with a population of 4.6 million as of 2010.  Wandering in downtown Aleppo offered me a brief moment to see the daily lives of Syrian city dwellers.  The National Museum was a delight.  One of the most impressive artefacts were the cuneiform tablets from Mari.  The cuneiform script is one of the earliest written language of humans.  Fortunately, the museum collection largely escaped the impact of the war.  Artefacts were either stored in the basement or moved to Damascus.  The remaining large statues outside the building were covered by sandbags for protection.

06ME22-14Without the overwhelming tourists of cities like Istanbul, the bustling downtown Aleppo in 2006 was the ideal place to check out the urban living in Syria.

06ME22-17Back in 2006, it was safe and pretty much hassle free to wander around downtown Aleppo alone.

06ME22-16In downtown Aleppo, it wasn’t easy to find a quiet corner to enjoy some lone time.

06ME22-15Except the souq, there were hardly any shops catered for tourists.  Everyone in the city was just busy with his or her own business.  As an outsider, I just took my time wandering around to take photos.

Bashar al-Assad 2In 2006, six years after Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria, pictures of Assad could be seen all over Aleppo.

06ME25-01Large government buildings occupied entire street block became obvious targets for the rebels during the civil war.

06ME25-04In 2006, Aleppo won the title as one of the “Islamic Capitals of Culture 2006”.  Cultural heritage were being restored and political propaganda from the Assad regime were put up at Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, including this spherical lighting feature.

new cityTwo blocks northwest of National Museum was the Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, the main public square in downtown Aleppo.  A metal ball claimed to be largest in the Middle East was erected as part of the Islamic Capital of Culture event.  Today, a large and colouful installation of “I Love Aleppo” has been put up along with significant restoration of the square after the battles of 2012.

06ME25-05At the National Museum, we got a chance to see the clay tablets from Mari, showcasing a kind of cuneiform script that was one of the earliest writing in the world.  On 11 July 2016, heavy mortar shells hit the National Museum of Aleppo, causing extensive damages to the roof and structure.  The statues at the entrance were covered in sandbags for protection during the war.

06ME25-06Aleppo City Hall is one of the tallest building in Aleppo.

06ME25-07Built in 1899, Bab al-Faraj Clock tower is a major landmark in Aleppo, with Sheraton Aleppo at the background.  Opened in 2007, the former 5-star hotel has been converted into military barracks during the war.

06ME25-08The 15 storey Amir Palace Hotel at the background in the photo was another prominent hotel in prewar Aleppo.  It was damaged during the war.

streetscape 7With significant damages from the Battles of Aleppo, it would take years to rebuild the downtown area.

06ME25-30In the next morning, we left the hotel early in the morning for our ongoing journey to Hama.


CHURCH OF SAINT SIMEON STYLITES, Aleppo, Syria

2006.05.11.

Simeon Stylites, a famous ascetic saint seeking for a spiritual life of extreme austerity, spent 37 years living on a small platform atop a pillar.  Probably born in 390 AD, Simeon was devoted to Christianity since about 13 years old.  His practice of extreme austerity led him to a pursuit of an ascetic life in seclusion.  In order to avoid the crowd of pilgrims seeking for his prayers, Simeon found a pillar from an ancient ruins and built a platform of about one square metre on top and started his 37 year living on a pillar.  He moved to different columns throughout his life.  The last was recorded to be more than 15m from ground.  Instead of isolated from the society, his fame grew even greater after living on a pillar.  He would talk to visitors from a ladder, wrote letters, instructed disciplines, hosted lectures for an assembly down below.  Even the Roman emperors greatly respected Simeon and his counsels.  He died in 459 AD after 37 years spent on a pillar.  After his death, stylites or pillar dwellers had become a kind of popular Christian ascetics in early Byzantine era.  Qalaat Samaan, or the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, is a 5th century church built on the site of Simeon’s pillar.  Before the construction of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Saint Simeon had the most famous dome in the world of Christendom. Over the last 1600 years, the basilica survived earthquakes and wars, but had met its fate of destruction being at the wrong place at the wrong time: at the crossroad among forces of the Syrian, ISIS, Kurdish, Turkish, Russians and other rebels.  Since taken by the ISIS in 2013, the complex had gone through several years of absolute chaos and madness, missile bombing and stone removal, all causing significant damages to the world heritage complex.  What believed to be the remains of Simeon’s pillar was damaged by Russian air strikes in support of Assad’s regime.  Along with the destruction of old Aleppo, Qalaat Samaan’s ill fate is another great loss to human civilization that no reconstruction work can ever restore.

Saint_Simeon_Stylites_the_Elder_(1664_icon)A 1664 depiction of Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.

From the bus station of Aleppo we hired a car to Qalaat Samaan, the famous ruins of the four basilicas built in the 5th century dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites.  The ruins was rather remote, at approximately 2 hour of drive north of Aleppo.  We were amazed by the grand scale of the complex, and found the ruined archways very photogenic.  We finished our visit at around 11:00 and didn’t have a clue of how to return to Aleppo, as our hired car only offered an one way trip.  No public transportation was available, and we were up on a hill far from the highway.  At the parking lot, I decided to try hitchhiking.   Since there were six of us it wasn’t easy.  I headed towards a tour bus in which the driver was reading newspaper.  I tried to communicate with him in English and luckily he understood my request.  He led me to the tour guide and the group of Spanish tourists.  They agreed to take us along all at once as they were leaving for Aleppo as well.  They were not a big group, around 15 of them, mainly in their 50s. The bus was the most luxurious tour bus we had ever seen, with large comfortable chairs and a banquette seating area at the back where we settled ourselves comfortably.  Their bus even dropped by one of the 700 sites of the Dead Cities along the way.  We were invited to go along with them.  On the bus, the Spanish group kindly offered us biscuits and snacks. The bus was so comfortable that at the end we all fell asleep.  When we woke up we had already back at the Citadel of Aleppo.  This remained as our only hitchhiking experience in the Middle East.

06ME23-19Saint Simeon was an influential figure 1500 years ago, prompting people to construct a large church complex shortly after his death at the site of his pillar.  The ruined complex is consisted of the main Church of Saint Simeon, Baptistry, and Monastery.

Qala'at Samaan 5The Church of Saint Simeon had about 5000 sq.m of floor space, almost comparable to that of the Hagia Sophia.  It was designed in a cruciform with four basilica centered at the octagonal courtyard where the remains of the pillar of Saint Simeon stood.

Qala'at Samaan 7Built in 490 AD, the church was one of the earliest churches in this part of the world.

Qala'at Samaan 6The massive archways are the most well preserved elements of the complex.

06ME24-08The fine details of the arches and column capitals are valuable artefact from the early Byzantine era.

Qala'at Samaan 8We could have spend a long time to study the fine details of the ruins.

06ME24-13Much of the walls of the four basilicas remained intact in 2006 when we visited.

Qala'at Samaan 10Along with the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, the church was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011.  However taken by ISIS in 2013, the church had entered a few years of absolute madness and destruction.

06ME24-15Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, strongly condemned the severe damage caused by an air-strike to the Church of Saint Simeon.

Qala'at Samaan 9The most important spot of the complex is the octagonal courtyard where the remains of Simeon’s pillar stood before the war.

06ME24-16What remained from the 15m pillar where Saint Simeon once lived atop had become less than 3m tall before the Syrian Civil War.  After the Russian air strike, the spot has become nothing but a pile of rubble.

06ME24-18There were hardly any explanations or signage at the ruins, but we were free to walk around the complex.

06ME24-21The Eastern Basilica was beautifully preserved.  It was larger than the others, and used to held all major ceremonies.

06ME24-22Since 2003, the complex had been regularly surveyed and scanned by the French.  Their 3D documentation prior to the building’s partial destruction in 2016 may prove to be crucial for its future restoration.

06ME23-35The octagonal Baptistery was a crucial part of the pilgrimage complex.

Qala'at Samaan 3The Baptistery is one of the best preserved Christian architecture in Syria.

06ME23-24Baptistry Baptistry was constructed shortly after the construction of the main church. The wooden roof, either a cone or dome, didn’t survive to this day.

Qala'at Samaan 2Since the complex was erected on the hill, there were spots where we could enjoy the surrounding scenery down below.

06ME24-14As of 2020, Idlib, the city near the Church of Saint Simeon Stylite, was the latest battle ground between the Jihadist forces, Turkish backed rebels, Russian backed Syrian government and Kurdish forces.


AL-MADINA SOUQ, Aleppo, Syria

2006.05.10

Not far from the citadel is the main souq of Aleppo, the Al-Madina Souq.  It is consisted of a series of interconnected covered markets.  Like other Middle Eastern souqs, the Al-Madina Souq is vast and labyrinth like.  Unlike the touristy Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, Al-Madina Souq was catered almost entirely for the locals.  We stopped often to talk to vendors and tried out the local snacks, including a tasty hot omelet from an old vendor. While picking up a few metal necklaces from a curious young vendor in the jewelery section, the curious vendor kept on asking us questions about Hong Kong and Canada.  There were a number of vendors selling colouful spices, as well as the famous Aleppo soap.

Since the trip to the Middle East, Aleppo soap has been on my occasional shopping list of personal care items.  No matter in Toronto, London, Kyoto or Hong Kong, we could always find some local stores that got some of these Syria soap bars on the shelves.  Although the exact origin of Aleppo soap is unknown, these handmade soap made from olive oil and lye has been around since ancient times.  The first Crusades brought this soap to Europe and greatly influenced the industry of soap making in Europe.  In Aleppo, the best place to shop for Aleppo soap used to be Al-Madina Souq.  With 13km of shops, about 4000 shops distributed in 37 specific souqs, Al-Madina Souq was one of the largest and oldest covered market in the world, and served as the commercial heart of Aleppo for many centuries.  Back in the days of the ancient Silk Road, Aleppo was a major hub in the area.  People from the region would come to shop for soap, silk, spices, jewelry, gold, ceramics, textiles, clothing, pure cotton, etc.  No one knows exactly how old the souq is, but some of the white stones in the market were cut and placed around 2500 years ago.  The souq remained as the city’s iconic shopping venue until the Syrian Civil War.  In September 2012, a fire caused by the fighting between the rebels and government army lasted for days and destroyed the majority of Al-Madina Souq.

06ME23-09Before the war, the Al-Madina Souq was the best place to shop for spices and soap.

souk 2Despite some visiting tourists, the Al-Madina Souq was largely serving the local poppulation.

souk 3Vendors were friendly to us despite many couldn’t speak English.

souk 1We watched an old vendor demonstrating the making of egg omelets.

06ME24-30In some occasions the vaulted ceiling of the souq made way to an opened rotunda.

06ME23-14Apart from the mosque, the Al-Madina Souq was the biggest loss to Aleppo from the war.

06ME23-17The souq lies in the middle of the old city of Aleppo.

06ME23-18Before the destruction of 2012, the souq pretty much stayed the same since the Medieval Ages.

06ME24-31Today, 60% of the old city was damaged in the world.

06ME24-32It was interesting to find our way through these narrow alleys surrounding the souq.

06ME24-34Before the Civil War, most of the old city dated back to the 12th century.

06ME24-35The unique old city of Aleppo was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1986.

06ME24-36Both the souq and the old city were being restored bits by bits in recent years.

06ME24-37Let’s hope the prosperous scenes of the Old Aleppo would return to the war-torn ancient city soon.


CYCLE OF DESTRUCTION, Citadel of Aleppo, Syria

2006.05.10.

From the Great Mosque, we headed east and arrived shortly at the gate of Aleppo Citadel.  Perched on top of a limestone hill at the centre of the old city, Aleppo Citadel is the most dominating structure in the old city.  We crossed the moat via the imposing stone bridge and entered the citadel complex, which contained restored stone buildings from the Medieval Ages.  The citadel was once a powerful stronghold of the Muslims to defend their homeland against the crusaders, and is today considered to be one of the largest citadels in the world.  Apart from its size and dominance of Aleppo’s skyline, it is the citadel’s complex layer of history and cycles of destruction and restoration that captivate people’s imagination.

Most of the remaining structures in the citadel were erected by the Ayyubids in the 12th and 13th century.   A 2009 excavation showed the citadel hill has a much longer history, as remains of a Bronze Age Neo-Hittite temple dated to the 3rd millennia BC was unearthed.  The hill was first used as a fortress and acropolis in the 4th century BC during the reign of Seleucus I Nicator.  Since then, the citadel had changed hands many occasions, and had been destroyed and restored many times due to warfare and earthquakes.  In the Medieval era, the citadel served as a Muslim stronghold, and a number of crusaders were imprisoned here.  Then the citadel was sacked by the Mongols two times before taken by the Ottomans in the 16th century.  After a mid 19th century earthquake that destroyed much of the complex, the citadel was first extensively restored by Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I, and then later by the French Mandate after the First World War.  The latest ordeal came from the Battle of Aleppo (2012 – 2016) in the Syrian Civil War, when 60% of the old city was destroyed.  The mighty citadel suffered significant damages from bomb and missile attacks.  The cycle of destruction and restoration has once again came to a full circle.  Let’s hope one day a long lasting peace would arrive and break the cycle of destruction once and for all.

06ME22-25Sultan Ghazi reinforced the Citadel in early 13th century.  His works included deepening the moat and constructing a tall entrance bridge / viaduct.

citadel 2_01As a famous defensive structure, the Citadel was guarded by a bent entrance complex where intruders would need to go through six turns up a vaulted ramp via a killing zone where hot liquids or stones would be dropped.

06ME22-27While the Outer Gate was damaged in the Battle of Aleppo, the imposing Inner Gate seems to be intact.

06ME22-29Sometimes considered as a city within a city, Aleppo Citadel contained dwellings, palaces, bathhouses, temples, mosques, as well as military barracks.

06ME22-30Originally built as a Byzantine church, the Mosque of Abraham has a tranquil little courtyard to welcome worshipers.

06ME22-32The amphitheatre in the Citadel is actually a modern addition from 1980s to hold concerts.

citadel 6_01The stone wall of the former palace is decorated with exquisite carvings of Islamic patterns.

06ME22-35Destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century, the Throne Hall built by the Mamluks is one of the splendid structures restored in the Citadel.

Streetscape 8Before the civil war, lookouts from the Citadel offered some fine views of the bustling Hawl al-Qalaa Street below.

06ME22-31The prewar Aleppo was long gone.  Photographs from 2016 and beyond show significant destruction of buildings surrounding the Citadel.

06ME22-34The Grand Serail served as the former governor house from 1933 to 2008.  The building was completely destroyed in August 2014 by an underground explosion.

06ME23-04Inside the Citadel, the main street connects the Entrance Gate to Ayyubid Palace, Mosque of Abraham and the Big Mosque with its prominent minaret.

06ME23-06Most buildings in the Citadel survived the war but significant damages were made at various parts of the complex.

citadel 3Walking in the Citadel before the war was a peaceful experience to learn about the history of the great city.

citadel 1Decorative stone details at a doorway in the Citadel.

06ME25-26During the Battle of Aleppo, the Syrian army used the Citadel as a military base, shelling the surrounding areas through arrow slits on the ancient walls.  A part of the wall was destroyed in the battles.

06ME25-29In prewar Aleppo, the area around the Citadel was the most peaceful and atmospheric in the evening.

06ME25-27It might still be years away before Aleppo can regain its peaceful atmosphere, rise up from the ruins and proudly showcase its cultural heritage to the world once again.