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.
Although 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.
The palace is the largest remaining structure, with rooms distributed on two floors surrounding a central courtyard. An inscription dated the building to 564 AD.
In terms of architectural technologies, the Byzantine style of the complex must have been quite fascinating for the locals 1500 years ago.
The basalt and yellow bricks should be considered high quality in the 6th century.
The lintel at the church’s main entrance also contains Greek inscriptions.
The Greek inscriptions “All things to the glory of God” was carved onto the lintel of the palace south entrance.
Many archaeologists believed that the columns used at Qasr Ibn Wardan came from the ancient city of Apamea.
The church of Qasr Ibn Wardanis a fine example of Byzantine architecture.
The dome is supported by pendentives sprang from an octagonal drum.
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.
Before the civil war, Cairo Hotel and Riad Hotel were two
Exploring the medieval alleyways in Hama was an absolute delight.
At 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.
After a 10-minute walk, we reached Orontes River and the majestic Noria Mamouriya.
In 1900 there were more than 50 norias in Hama. Now only 17 still remain standing today.
A “noria” is actually a type of water wheel that raises water from a river to a higher level.
The Mamouriya Noria is a popular spot for local children to hang out.
Noria Al-Jabiriya and al-Sahiuniya, and the adjacent Nur al-Din Mosque together form the iconic picture of Hama.
Decreased 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.
The norias of Hama have been submitted to UNESCO’s list of Tentative World Heritage sites.
Much 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.
Hama 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.
On 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.
It was hard to tell the violent past from the tranquil streetscape of Hama.
We passed by a building named “Institu de Palestine.” There was a statement and a map of the Palestine marked on the wall.
With a significant population of Sunni Muslims, it was not surprising to see a show of support for Palestine in Hama.
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.
From 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.
The moat, imposing walls and talus of Krak des Chevaliers survived the civil war.
Inside the complex, the main Medieval stair is gone forever due to damages from the civil war.
The Knight Hall is one of the world’s best preserved example of Crusader architecture.
The gallery facade of the Knight Hall suffered damages from the war as well, including burnt walls and broken arches and columns.
The inner court of the castle was littered with rubble in 2014 when the castle was recaptured by the government army.
In 2006, the castle’s inner court was largely peaceful and intact.
Seen 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.”
Covered ramps connect the inner court is with the outer areas and main entrances.
Before 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.
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.
Thanks 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.
Funded by the Aga Khan Trust, extensive restoration of the castle was undertaken in the early 2000’s.
Appeared in the Assassin’s Creed game series as the base of the Assassin Order, Masyaf is actually a small peaceful city.
With 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.
In the Syrian Civil War, Israeli air strikes hit an Iranian associated missile production facility in Masyaf.
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.
Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians who are still going through the civil war, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman during the trip have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.