After an isolated retreat at Siwa Oasis, I once again headed back onto the road. This time, the destination was my home in Toronto. The journey from the Egypt’s Western Desert to Canada took me first to Alexandria and Cairo by land, and then Athens and Zurich by air before touching down on the North American soil. I took an 8-hour night bus leaving Siwa at 22:00, and arriving Alexandria in early morning the next day. I sat beside a friendly old lady who kept on offering me peanuts. After some snacks and chat, I felt asleep with my headphone music. When I get up, Alexandria was just minutes away.
Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria is the largest city by the Mediterranean and the second largest city in Egypt. In the Classical era, the city was well known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and its Great Library, the largest library in the Classical World with 400,000 scrolls. The city itself was once the largest city in the western world before overtaken by Rome. Alexandria remained as the capital of Egypt for a thousand years from Ptolemaic Egypt, throughout much of the Roman and Byzantine era until the Muslim conquest in 641 AD, when the political centre of Egypt was shifted to Cairo. By that time, the magnificent city that once rivaled Rome and Constantinople was already largely plundered and destroyed. In the modern age, Alexandria regained a part of its former glory as an important port of international trading, connecting Egypt and its products (such as Egyptian cotton) to the outside world.
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.
The first impression of Jordan was clean and pleasant.
Amman is a popular Arab city for international visitors. It also receives the most medical tourists in the region.
Locals that we met in Jordan were all very welcoming and friendly.
At 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.
Lying mostly in ruins at the Citadel, the Umayyad Palace was built in the 8th century.
A 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.
Looking down from the Citadel we could get a good view of the Roman Theatre.
Situated at the foot of Jabal Al-Joufah opposite to the Citadel, The 2nd century Roman theatre could seat 6000 people.
The Raghadan Flagpole was once the tallest in the world. It is visible from allover the capital city.
As of 2015, the 126.8m Raghadan Flagpole is the 7th tallest in the world. It flies a 60 x 30m flag.
Mainly cladded with limestone or sandstone, residential buildings in Amman are limited to 4 storeys above ground.
At the Citadel hill, we stumbled upon a group of cheerful children.
The young girls were quite curious about us.
Amman 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.
One of the girls tried speaking to us in simple English.
I 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.
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.
Less than 20,000 residents were still living in Bosra back in 2006.
Dark basalt rocks were used to construct the city of Bosra.
The construction of Bosra was simple and practical.
We walked around the ruins of Bosra before entering the theatre.
There were many examples of incorporating ancient Nabatean and Roman structures into medieval houses.
Ancient Roman materials were either reused or incorporated into new structures.
The fusion came under the Muslim rule when the citadel with eight guard towers was built to defend against the Crusade.
Our temporary guide led us to his aunt’s home, one of the Medieval stone houses.
We said hello to the guide’s aunt before heading to the theatre.
Once 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.
Crossing the stone bridge on the moat, we finally entered the Citadel Theatre.
The 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.
The theatre construction began in Trajan’s time when a 9000-15000 seat theatre was built.
In 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.
The three storey stage backdrop was once filled with marble details and statues. These doors were used for actors to enter the stage.
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.
Built in 3rd century AD, the Funerary Temple no. 86 was the only tomb erected inside the ancient city.
Beyond 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.
In 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.
Labelled as a “war crime” by the UNESCO, the magnificent central proscenium was purposely damaged during the ISIS occupation.
In 27th of May 2015, the ISIS used the theatre stage to execute 25 captives.
Adjacent to the Roman Theatre stood the Senate Building.
Outside of the Senate Building stood the Tetrapylon. Further down the Great Colonnade, the 13th century citadel overlooked the entire ancient city from a distance.
Palmyra contains all kinds of components of ancient Roman architecture.
Exquisitely carved portico could still be visible at a number of buildings.
Tetrapylon is a type of Roman monument built on a crossroads. The Palmyra Tetrapylon was once the icon of the ancient city.
Unfortunately, during the second ISIS occupation in 2017, out of the four groups of pillars two were completely destroyed and the other two severely damaged.
The 1.1km Great Colonnade is also another iconic feature of Palmyra.
Named 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.
The Roman Arch of Septimius Severus or the Monumental Arch was also destroyed by ISIS with dynamite in October 2015.
After the Syrian government recaptured the city, plans were made to restore the Monumental Arch.
Based 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.
Built 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.
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.
Sultan Ghazi reinforced the Citadel in early 13th century. His works included deepening the moat and constructing a tall entrance bridge / viaduct.
As 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.
While the Outer Gate was damaged in the Battle of Aleppo, the imposing Inner Gate seems to be intact.
Sometimes considered as a city within a city, Aleppo Citadel contained dwellings, palaces, bathhouses, temples, mosques, as well as military barracks.
Originally built as a Byzantine church, the Mosque of Abraham has a tranquil little courtyard to welcome worshipers.
The amphitheatre in the Citadel is actually a modern addition from 1980s to hold concerts.
The stone wall of the former palace is decorated with exquisite carvings of Islamic patterns.
Destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century, the Throne Hall built by the Mamluks is one of the splendid structures restored in the Citadel.
Before the civil war, lookouts from the Citadel offered some fine views of the bustling Hawl al-Qalaa Street below.
The prewar Aleppo was long gone. Photographs from 2016 and beyond show significant destruction of buildings surrounding the Citadel.
The Grand Serail served as the former governor house from 1933 to 2008. The building was completely destroyed in August 2014 by an underground explosion.
Inside the Citadel, the main street connects the Entrance Gate to Ayyubid Palace, Mosque of Abraham and the Big Mosque with its prominent minaret.
Most buildings in the Citadel survived the war but significant damages were made at various parts of the complex.
Walking in the Citadel before the war was a peaceful experience to learn about the history of the great city.
Decorative stone details at a doorway in the Citadel.
During 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.
In prewar Aleppo, the area around the Citadel was the most peaceful and atmospheric in the evening.
It 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.
Standing on a rock hill 120m above the old city of Jodhpur, many consider Mehrangarh Fort the most impressive fortress in India. Director Christopher Nolan must have the same feeling when he chose to shoot a scene of The Dark Knight Rises here back in 2011. Built in the 15th century by Rao Jodha, the king of Mandore who found the city of Jodhpur, Mehrangarh has impressed spectators for centuries with its massive defense walls and exquisite palaces. Since 1971, maharajas and princes in India were deprived of their privileges and remuneration. Maharaja Gaj Singhji of Jodhpur has since then became a politician in the parliament. In 1972, he found the Mehrangarh Museum Trust to restore and maintain his famous fort. Throughout the years, they have done a decent job in restoring the fort and establishing a museum to showcase the artifacts of former royal family. The Mehrangarh was the first place to visit during our stay in Rajasthan. We spent the rest of the day at the fort. We took our time to wander around the fort and listen to the informative audio guide, which was included in the admission of foreign visitors.
Built in the 19th century by Maharaja Man Singh, a chattri (umbrella dome on pillars) was a memorial of feudal lord Thakur Shyam Singh Chauhan welcome most visitors in front of the massive fort.
The impressive Mehrangarh is one of the largest forts in India.
After entering the first gate Jai Pol, we soon arrived at the gates of Dodh Kangra Pol (left) and Imritia Pol (middle) on our way up to the fort.
Through the Imritia Pol, we followed other visitors and walked up to the next gate Loha Pol.
At the Loha Pol Gate, music performers rested in a niche along with their traditional drums and instruments.
At Loha Pol Gate, we walked by a series of small hand prints on the wall. Those small hand prints or the sati marks were left by the wives and concubines before their sati ritual. In the sati custom, these women would dressed in wedding finery and joined their husband in death on his funeral pyre.
Beyond Loha Pol Gate, we entered a long courtyard where we had our first glimpse of the beautiful facades of Jhanki Mahal (Palace of Glimpses) and Phool Mahal (Palace of Flowers).
Through the Suraj Pol or Sun Gate beyond a set of steps, we entered the Shringar Chowk Courtyard, the first part of the admission zone.
The Shringar Chowk Courtyard was the site of coronation for the maharajas.
At Shringar Chowk Courtyard, a staff was performing the act of opium smoking.
From Shringar Chowk, we entered the second courtyard known as Daulat Khana Chowk (Treasury Square). Constructed by Maharaja Ajit Singh in 1718, the second courtyard was the perfect spot to admire the splendid palaces of Mehrangarh: Daulat Khana Mahal (centre), Phool Mahal (right) and Jhanki Mahal (left).
The Daulat Khana Mahal (Treasury) showcases some fascinating artifacts of the royal family, including a collection of elephant’s howdahs, the wooden seat covered with gold and silver sheets fastened on the elephant backs for riding.
The display at the museum was full of wonderful display of paintings, artifacts and furniture of the royal family.
The Phul Mahal or Palace of Flowers was a private reception hall constructed in the 18th century. It was used for private receptions or cozy music performances.
From Phul Mahal, we walked over to the roof of Daulat Khana Mahal, where we could look back down to the Daulat Khana Chowk (Treasury Square).
Takhat Vilas was the private chamber of Takhat Singh in the 19th century. All surfaces were painted or decorated with colours. The Christmas balls were interesting additions to the interiors, at a time when Western influences came as trendy articulations in lives of the wealthy.
At Jhanki Mahal, a hallway was converted into the Cradle Gallery to display the facy cradles of the royal family, many of which were used for ceremonies during festivals.
From the upper floors in the palaces, we occasionally encountered great spots to look down to the blue city of old Jodhpur.
The Holi chowk courtyard was where the Maharaja and his wives and concubines celebrated important festivals.
With more than 250 stone latticework designs, the impressive building facades at Zenana Deorhi Chowk (Women’s Square) provided the perfect finale for the fortress visit.
Posts on 2018 Rajasthan:-
Day 1: Jodhpur
DAY 1.1: IN TRANSIT TO RAJASTHAN
DAY 1.2: PAL HAVELI & THE OMELETTE MAN, Jodhpur
DAY 1.3: SPLENDOR OF THE SUN FORT, Mehrangarh, Jodhpur
DAY 1.4: SUNSET OVER THE BLUE CITY, Mehrangarh, Jodhpur
DAY 1.5: SADAR MARKET AND GHANTA GHAR CLOCKTOWER, Jodhpur
Day 2: Jodhpur, Osian, Jaisalmer
DAY 2.1: MARBLE CENOTAPH JASWANT THADA, Jodhpur
DAY 2.2: MEDIEVAL STEPWELLS, Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra, Gulab Sagar, & Toorji Ka Jhalra, Jodhpur
DAY 2.3: PILGRIM OASIS IN THAR DESERT, Sachiya Mata Temple, Osian
DAY 2.4: SUNRISE AT THE FIRST GATE OF GOLDEN FORT, Jaisalmer
Day 4: Jaisalmer
DAY 4.1: RESERVOIR OF THE GOLDEN CITY, Gadsisar Lake, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.2: ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 1, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.3: ARCHITECTURAL JEWEL OF RAJASTHAN, Patwon Ki Haveli Part 2, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.4: DESERT HERITAGE, Hotel Nachana Haveli and Thar Heritage Museum, Jaisalmer
DAY 4.5: LAST STROLL IN THE GOLDEN CITY, Jaisalmer
Day 8: Bhangarh, Abhaneri & Agra
DAY 8.1: ON THR ROAD TO AGRA
DAY 8.2: HAUNTED RUINS, Bhangarh, Rajasthan
DAY 8.3: CHAND BAORI, Abhaneri, Rajasthan
DAY 8.4: THE ABANDONED CAPITAL OF MUGHAL EMPIRE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 8.5: FRIDAY MOSQUE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Day 9: Agra
DAY 9.1: CROWN OF THE PALACES, Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.2: AGRA FORT, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.3: RAWATPARA SPICE MARKET, Agra, Uttar Pradesh
DAY 9.4: SUNSET AT MEHTAB BAGH, Agra, Uttar Pradesh