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.
Apamea 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.
From the conquest of Alexander the Great to the Romans, Apamea thrived as an Hellenistic city, then a provincial capital during the Roman times.
Many remaining structures are dated to the Roman era.
Anything decorative or with artistic values are probably gone by now.
The 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.
It would take a long time to even comprehend how extensive the actual destruction was.
Ancient Roman Latin inscriptions and detail carvings might be gone.
Google 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.
Let’s hope the tragic story of Apamea would not repeat again somewhere else.
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.
Without 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.
Back in 2006, it was safe and pretty much hassle free to wander around downtown Aleppo alone.
In downtown Aleppo, it wasn’t easy to find a quiet corner to enjoy some lone time.
Except 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.
In 2006, six years after Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria, pictures of Assad could be seen all over Aleppo.
Large government buildings occupied entire street block became obvious targets for the rebels during the civil war.
In 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.
Two 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.
At 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.
Aleppo City Hall is one of the tallest building in Aleppo.
Built 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.
The 15 storey Amir Palace Hotel at the background in the photo was another prominent hotel in prewar Aleppo. It was damaged during the war.
With significant damages from the Battles of Aleppo, it would take years to rebuild the downtown area.
In the next morning, we left the hotel early in the morning for our ongoing journey to Hama.
Day 4 (2 of 3).
Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153–1186) is often considered as the greatest ruler of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom. Under his rule, Sri Lanka had entered a prosperous time. The ambitious king unified the island into one kingdom, expanded and beautified the capital city, constructed extensive irrigation systems, reformed the army and religious customs, and conducted in military campaigns in Burma and South India. Today, many surviving structures of Polonnaruwa, such as the Royal Palace, the circular Vatadage at the Quadrangle, the Lankatilaka Viharaya and the Buddhist statues of Gal Vihara, all could be traced back to the majestic ruler. King Nissanka Malla (reigned 1187 – 1196AD) continued the building spree of his predecessor Parakramabahu I, and spent much of the nation’s resources on construction. One of his most prominent projects was Rankoth Vehera Stupa, the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa and fourth largest in Sri Lanka. With a base diameter of 550 feet and an original height of about 200 feet, Rankoth Vehera was the skyscraper of ancient Polonnaruwa.
Our third stop in Polonnaruwa was Rankoth Vehera Stupa, the tallest structure in the ancient city.
Similar to the stupas in Anuradhapura, small shrines known as vahalkada were constructed at the four cardinal axes of Rankoth Vehera Stupa for offerings of worshipers.
Completed in 1190AD, the Rankoth Vehera Stupa was constructed in a similar style as Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, which was built over 1000 years prior.
An beautiful tree at the base of Rankoth Vehera Stupa provides a great spot for worshiper group to gather and perform Buddhist chanting.
Around Kiri Vehera, smaller stupas were also constructed as burial place for royalties and high priests.
On our way to Lankatilaka Monastery, the fourth highlight of Polonnaruwa, we passed by Kiri Vehera, the second tallest stupa in the ancient city. Kiri Vehera is believed to be built by King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186 A.D.) in memory of his Queen Subhadra.
Then we arrived at Lankatilaka Image House or Lankatilaka Vihara, the largest image house in Polonnaruwa. Unlike traditional stupas, the building focused on presenting the religious image, a large standing statue of the Buddha. Two tall pillars frame the entrance of the building. The original pillars were thought to be two times the existing height. The building was part of the Alahana Pirivena Monastery complex erected by King Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186).
Two beautiful guard stones mark the entrance of Lankatilaka.
According to some accounts, the building was originally five storey high, while the statue was 41 feet tall. The entire structure, including the main Buddha statue, was made from clay bricks.
Near Lankatilaka, we passed by an impressive pool in the Alahana Pirivena complex. This pool was part of a larger bathing and water storing network.
Gal Vihara, the impressive rock temple featuring four Buddha relief statues carved from a single piece of granite rock, was our last stop at Polonnaruwa. 15 feet of rock was carved away to create the surface where the statues were carved.
The statues at Gal Vihara are considered some of the best ancient Sinhalese sculpting art.
Some believe that the 22’-9” standing statue was not depicting the Buddha, but instead monk Ananda with a sorrowful look standing adjacent to the reclining Buddha at his deathbed.
The 46’-4” reclining statue depicting the parinirvana of the Buddha is the largest statue in Gal Vihara.
The Gal Vihara marked the end of our brief visit of Polonnaruwa by car. Ideally if we had more time, we would spend more time walking or cycling around the archaeological park to fully appreciate the scale, planning characteristics and other highlights of the ancient capital.
Day 4 (1of 3).
100km southeast of Anuradhapura stands the ruins of Sri Lanka’s second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. For two hundred years, Polonnaruwa served as the centre of the nation after Anuradhapura was sacked by the invading Chola Kingdom from Southern India in the 10th century. The Chola Tamils destroyed Buddhist monuments and monasteries, and established a new capital in Polonnaruwa. In 1070AD, Vijayabahu I of Ruhuna Kingdom (southeast of the island) drove the Chola out, unified the country, and established the second major Sinhalese kingdom and restored Buddhism as the national religion. Polonnaruwa flourished as the most important medieval city in Sri Lanka until the 13th century when the island was again invaded by the Tamil Pandya Dynasty from India.
Today, the archaeological ground of Polonnaruwa is a popular tourist destination in the Cultural Triangle (marked by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy), the region on the island dotted with ancient capitals and World Heritage sites. To save time, we hired a private car from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, with a detour to Polonnaruwa. At Polonnaruwa, our driver took us first to the visitor centre for the admission tickets and a brief visit to the museum, before driving us to the five highlights in the archaeological park: Royal Palace, Quadrangle, Rankot Vihara Stupa, Lankatilaka Monastery and the Buddha statues of Gal Vihara.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ) in the 12th century, the Royal Palace was once seven storey tall in its heyday.
The Royal Palace of King Parakumba was said to contain 1000 rooms. Now only a few dozens remain.
Much of the crumbling ruins is covered with lush green moss.
The Royal Bathing pool (Kumara Pokuna) near the Royal Palace was a delightful treat for visitors.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ), water would enter the pool through the two dragon mouths, and could be drained out after use.
The Audience Hall of the Royal Palace is another feature at the Royal Palace.
The Audience Hall is famous for the frieze of elephants, each has a unique pose.
Two stone lions guard the entrance of the Audience Hall.
The stone pillars of the Audience Hall have some amazing details.
The second highlight we visited at Polonnaruwa was the Quadrangle. On a raised platform, Quadrangle encompasses a cluster of religious structures erected by different rulers of Polonnaruwa. Atadage is the oldest building among them all. Built by King Vijayabahu the Great (1055 – 1110), Atadage is believed to house the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha. Adjacent to Atadage, Hatadage built by King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) was also a shrine for the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha.
Built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196), Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is an interesting structure with unique columns and a small stone stupa. The building was used for the king to listen to Buddhist chanting.
Built by Parakramabahu I to house the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha, or by King Nissanka Malla to hold Buddha’s alms bowl, Vatadage was an essential structure at the Quadrangle.
Because of its circular form and well preserved carving details, Vatadage is also the most famous building in Polonnaruwa.
Vatadage has two stone platforms and a small stone stupa atop. Steps and statues were constructed at the four cardinal directions. Stone pillars suggest that a wooden roof might have once covered the circular structure.
Monkeys are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
At all temples or ruins, including Vatadage, tourists would be reminded that taking selfies with their backs toward the statue of the Buddha is prohibited.
Completely built with bricks, Thuparama is about 84 ft long and 56 ft wide. Its brick walls are about 7 ft thick.
Inside Thuparama, the central seating Buddha statue was long gone. Yet the adjacent limestone statues survive till the present day.
Day 3 (3 of 4).
From 399 to 414AD, Chinese monk Faxian traveled to India and Sri Lanka in search for Buddhist scriptures. In his travelogue A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, he documented the places he visited in his journey, including Anuradhapura where he stayed briefly in 412AD. Faxian gave the following account on Abhayagiri, the largest Buddhist monastery in Anuradhapura: “A monastery, called the Abhayagiri, where there are five thousand monks. There is in it a hall of Buddha, adorned with carved and inlaid works of gold and silver, and rich in the seven precious substances, in which there is an image (of Buddha) in green jade, more than twenty cubits in height, glittering all over with those substances, and having an appearance of solemn dignity which words cannot express. In the palm of the right hand there is a priceless pearl…”
Founded in the 2nd century BC, Abhayagiri Vihara was once a world renowned Buddhist monastery and learning institution attracting monks from all over Sri Lanka and surrounding countries including Java, Burma and India. In the 4th century, the Buddha’s tooth relic was brought to Sri Lanka from India. Abhayagiri was selected as the shrine and designated venue to showcase this precious relic in public veneration. Supported by different rulers, Abhayagiri continued to serve as the main hub of Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism until the 12th century, when Anuradhapura was sacked and abandoned, and the national capital was moved to Polonnaruwa. The magnificent monastery fell into ruins for 800 years until late 19th century and early 20th century when excavation and restoration work began. Today, Abhayagiri has become one of the largest clusters of ancient ruins in Sri Lanka, where gigantic stupa, stone pools, brick walls, foundations of multi storey buildings, and exquisite stone carvings in the midst of lush green jungle reveal the bygone glory of Anuradhapura two millennia ago.
After lunch at Sanctuary at Tissawewa, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Abhayagiri Dagoba, the largest monument in the monastery vicinity.
Although not as crowded as Ruwanwelisaya and Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, Abhayagiri Dagoba is popular among local worshipers.
Believed to reach a height of 115m, Abhayagiri Dagoba was once the fourth tallest monument in the classical period, behind the Egyptian Pyramids in Giza and the Jethawanaramaya Dagoba.
The shrine in front of the stupa houses a reclining Buddha.
Abhayagiri Dagoba just went through a 15-year restoration at 2015 as a UNESCO project.
Devoted worshiper praying at the stupa.
The majestic stupa was the main focus of the entire Abhayagiri Vihara Monastery.
A group of Western Buddhists sat down and listen to the teaching of their mentor.
Another highlight at Abhayagiri Vihara is the ruins of Pancavasa palace hidden in the woods.
The Pancavasa was famous for its exquisite carvings.
Interesting carvings of Buddhist guardians at Pancavasa.
All these exquisite carvings are not the reason why tourists flock into the woods in search for the ruins of Pancavasa.
All tourists come here for one thing, the moonstone carving on the ground.
Moonstone is a unique architectural feature in Sri Lanka. It usually appears as a base landing at a set of steps. Moonstones symbolize samsara, the endless cycle of reincarnation and the path to nirvana. Each ring of animals represents a successive phase of one’s passage through samsara.
The last thing we checked out in the monastery area was the Samadhi Buddha Statue. The statues is believed to be part of a sacred Bodhi tree shrine.
The 7′-3″ Samadhi Buddha Statue was carved out from a dolomite marble. Sculpted in around the 5th century, the statue is considered one of the nation’s finest.
After the magnificent lunch bento at Innsyoutei, we followed the main path further into Ueno Park to reach the museum clusters. Here one can find the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Nature and Science, National Museum of Wester Art, as well as the largest of them all, the Tokyo National Museum. Established in 1872, the Tokyo National Museum (東京国立博物館) is the oldest and largest Japanese museum. We didn’t plan to see everything. We were a little tired from the flight, so we took it easy to explore the museum complex.
The Tokyo National Museum is consisted of several buildings: Honkan, Toyokan, Heiseikan, Hyokeikan, etc. We started with Honkan, the main museum hall. This present Honkan was designed by Watanabe Jin. The building was completed in 1938 to replace its predecessor designed by British architect Josiah Conder. The former building was severely damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
There are two main levels in the Honkan. We walked up the grand staircase to the upper level to begin our visit.
Beautiful amours of samurai and shogunate were some of the most impressive artefacts in the museum.
The “Fujin and Raijin”or the Wind and Thunder God by Ogata Korin reminded us our visit to Kyoto’s Kenninji Temple (建仁寺), the original location of the screen. At Kenninji, we saw a replica of the famous screen.
The Yaksha Generals (12 Heavenly Generals) is one of the most impressive display in the historical sculpture collection.
Architectural drawings by British architects from the 19th century reveal the popularity of Western culture in Japan during the Meiji Period.
Historical photograph of a Japanese samurai taken in 1862.
At Honkan, there is a room opens to the garden behind the museum. The room is decorated with exquisite mosaic and plastered motifs.
A traditional telephone matches well with the historical decor.
A garden of traditional pavilion and reflective pool provided some fresh air during our museum visit. Unfortunately the pavilion was inaccessible from the museum.
Apart from sculptures, paintings and photographs, historical textiles and garments also provided us a glimpse of the old Japan.
The museum shop at Honkan is beautiful designed. A gentle passageway ramps up to the upper mezzanine. Along the ramp stands a low wall of book display.
After Honkan, we walked to the adjacent Toyokan Building. Toyokan houses a few levels of artifacts and artworks from Asia and the Middle East.
The Chinese and Korean exhibits reveal the close linkage between the cultures of the Far East.
The Toyokan also contains some interesting pieces from Egypt and the Near East. After visiting Honkan and Toyokan, we had a little more understanding on the heritage of Japan, and felt it was time to check out the other museums in Ueno Park. So we exited the Tokyo National Museum, passed by a gigantic model of a blue whale in front of the National Museum of Nature and Science and headed towards the National Museum of Western Art.
In the morning, we headed to the main railway station of Xian. At the station’s east plaza, there were a number of municipal buses designated for major tourist attractions near the city. We hopped onto one of the several buses heading to the Terracotta Army (兵馬俑). The bus ride took roughly an hour to arrive at the parking lot, which was about 15 minutes of walk from the gate of the archaeological site. On our way to the gate, we passed by an alleyway full of vendors. An elderly woman selling baby woolen shoes beautifully handcrafted in traditional styles caught our attention. From the ticket hall it was another 15-minute meandering through a park until reaching the main site, where four exhibition halls housed the most important archaeological discovery in China in the 20th century. We started from Pit 1, the biggest and most impressive exhibition hall where about 2000 terracotta warriors were on display in rows of excavated ditches. There were over 6000 warriors in this pit alone. It was unbelievable that no two warriors have the same face. At Pit 3 a number of high ranked terracotta generals were unearthed, prompting archaeologists to believe that it was the vault for the commanders. However the pit had been partially damaged. We then moved on to Pit 2 that offer close-up encounter with different types of warriors: archers, infantry, chariots, troopers, etc. The extraordinary details of the warrior’s hairstyles and armour were captivating, leaving us plenty of clues to piece together an impression of what being one of the thousands of warriors protecting the mighty First Qin Emperor (秦始皇)might be like 2200 years ago. Before leaving, we dared not to miss the “Qin Shi Huang Emperor Tomb Artefact Exhibition Hall”, in which two bronze chariots and horses unearthed near the mausoleum were on display.
We have learnt about the Terracotta Army since early childhood in Hong Kong from books and school. We had seen an amazing traveling exhibition of the warriors at London’s British Museum back in 2008, but none could compare with seeing the real excavation site of the army. Discovered in 1974 by a well-digging farmer, the Terracotta Army belongs to the outer part of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Famous as a cruel tyrant, the First Qin Emperor was also widely recognized for his contributions on unifying China, not only militarily, but also the language, culture, economy and measurement units. Built between BC 208 to 256, the mausoleum construction began in the first year of his throne when the First Qin Emperor was 13 years old. The 8000+ terracotta warriors unearthed revealed the high level of sculpting skills and artistic craftsmanship of the Qin Dynasty, as well as the selfish personality of the First Qin Emperor. Legend had it that the First Qin Emperor had huge fear of mortality. Not only he sent out travelers to look for the medicine of immortality, he also commissioned a build a terracotta army to safeguard his tomb from his uncounted enemies in the Afterlife. Ancient texts also described the exquisite construction of the mausoleum, including river streams filled with mercury so they would never dried up. Before the actual digging of the mausoleum may take place one day in the future, our generation could only imagine the exquisite of the emperor’s underground mausoleum from ancient depictions and archaeological studies of the excavated terracotta army.
Like many railway stations in the country, Xian Railway Station is a huge building.
The old woman making traditional woolen shoes near the parking lot of the Terracotta Army.
Aisles of the Terracotta Army in Pit One.
No visitors were allowed to go down to the aisles, except archaeologists and occasional VIP.
Looking at the warriors, it was hard to imagine all of them were once fully coloured.
Built in 1976, the huge building covering Pit One felt like a railway station.
The terracotta warriors seemed like they were queuing for a train, but in fact, the warriors were facing eastwards and battle-ready to guard the Emperor’s tomb from enemies of the east, namely the six nations that Qin had conquered before unifying China into a single nation.
A number of the terracotta warriors were in different stages of conservation.
Terracotta warriors and horses at Pit 2.
Overview of Pit 2.
Scattered pieces of warriors and artefacts at Pit 2.
Photographs of the coloured warriors during excavation.
Several terracotta warriors were displayed in glass boxes at Pit 3.
All of them had different hairstyles, dresses, postures, and faces.
Terracotta statue of an high ranked official.
Belly of the high ranked official.
Archer without the bow. Some of the weaponry were also on display.
Cavalry and his beautifully carved horse.
The details of the horse’s headpiece was magnificent.
Closeup of a warrior’s head showing unique hairstyle of that time.
Two bronze chariots were discovered near the mausoleum. They are roughly half the size of the real objects. The chariots were unearthed in 1980 and took archaeologists years to put back together the broken pieces. These chariots are one of the fifty or so designated artefacts that can never leave the country.
Our posts on 2016 Xian and Jiuzhaigou:
DAY 1 – NIGHT ARRIVAL, Xian, China
DAY 2 – QIN EMPEROR’S TERRACOTTA ARMY, near Xian, China
DAY 2 – BIG WILD GOOSE PAGODA (大雁塔), Xian, China
DAY 3 – HAN YANG LING MAUSOLEUM, Xian, China
DAY 3 – SHAANXI HISTORY MUSEUM, Xian, China
DAY 3 – GREAT MOSQUE (西安大清真寺) AND MUSLIM QUARTER, Xian, China
DAY 3 – MING CITY WALL, Xian, China
DAY 4 -FIRST GLIMPSE OF JIUZHAIGOU (九寨溝), Sichuan (四川), China
DAY 5 – ARROW BAMBOO LAKE (箭竹海), PANDA LAKE (熊貓海) & FIVE FLOWER LAKE (五花海), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – PEARL SHOAL FALLS (珍珠灘瀑布), MIRROR LAKE (鏡海) & NUORILANG FALLS (諾日朗瀑布), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – LONG LAKE (長海) & FIVE COLOURS LAKE (五彩池), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – RHINOCEROS LAKE (犀牛海), TIGER LAKE (老虎海) & SHUZHENG VILLAGE (樹正寨), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 6 – ASCEND TO FIVE COLOUR POND (五彩池), Huanglong (黃龍), Sichuan (四川), China
DAY 7 – FAREWELL JIUZHAIGOU & XIAN, China