Whenever I flew with Cathay Pacific, I often selected Wong Kar Wai’s (王家衛) Chungking Express (重慶森林) from their entertainment system when I was about to take a nap. Indulging myself in the repeating music of Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’, and Christopher Doyle’s dynamic shots of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central always relaxed my mind. Chungking Express is undoubtedly one of my most favorite Hong Kong films. Chungking Express is lighthearted, complex, ambiguous, and beautiful. There are two stories in the film. The first story follows policeman 233 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a female drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) at Chungking Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui. The second story follows policeman 633 (Tony Leung) and a female staff (Faye Wong) at Midnight Express, a snack bar in the entertainment district of Central. Released in 1994, three years before Hong Kong was returned to China, the film did capture a mixed bag of sentiments and mood of that era: sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, loneliness, loss, affection, impermanence, desire to change, hope for a brighter future, etc. Without pretentious shots of the city’s famous skyline, Chungking Express is a visually dazzling film that captures the daily life of Hong Kongers happened in wet market, snack bar, old tenement apartment, convenience store, and the Chungking Mansion, a huge mixed use complex in Kowloon where new immigrants and tourists gather and stay the night. Director Wong Kar Wai describes the film as his love letter to Hong Kong. 27 years have passed. Chungking Express remains as an icon of Hong Kong cinema, and an exquisite documentation of the ever-changing city in that particular moment in history.
Perhaps it is because both protagonists Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Faye Wong (王菲) are two of my favorite Hong Kong stars back in the 1990’s, or The Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is too overpowering, or the filming locations in Central are just a few blocks from where I spent my childhood, I always like the story of Midnight Express more. Every time watching the film would remind me the old Central before the disastrous urban renewal projects that have torn apart Graham Street Market and gentrification that have wiped out uncounted tenement apartments and small shop owners who can no longer afford the skyrocketed rent. 1994 also marked the first anniversary of the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator (中環至半山自動扶梯), a 800m escalator system from Downtown Central up to the Mid-Levels. Wong Kar Wai chose the escalator and an adjacent apartment unit (home of Christopher Doyle, the legendary cinematographer of many Wong’s films) as the major film set for Chungking Express. Wong’s selection prominently imprints the escalator in the cultural atlas of the city, and introduces such unique urban feature to the whole world. In fact, the success of Chungking Express has consolidated Wong Kar Kai’s name onto the stage of international cinema, paving the way for his triumphs in the later half of the 1990’s, including Happy Together and In the Mood for Love.
Today, the 800m escalators system remains the longest in the world, and a popular tourist attraction. In 2015, CNN website picked the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator as one of the coolest commutes in the world. The idea of building an urban escalator system began in early 1980’s, when the Hong Kong government considered various options to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation between Central, the business district of Hong Kong, and Mid Levels, the residential neighbourhood on the slope of Victoria Peak. Cable car and monorail were also considered, but an escalator system was eventually selected. After 2.5 years of construction, the system was opened to the public in 1993. Wong Kar Wai seized the opportunity and became the first director to shoot a movie there. The escalator soon became popular among residents and office workers in Central, and led to dramatic gentrification of the surroundings. Buildings along the escalator system were torn down for new apartments. Small shops were replaced by bars and upscale restaurants, forming a vibrant entertainment district that we now call Soho. For both good and bad, the Central – Mid-Levels Escalator has been a major catalyst that wipes out the old Central I have known as a child. Yet on the other hand, the convenience it brings us who live in the area has undeniably become an inseparable part of our daily routine.
39 days had gone by. My Middle East journey had came to an end. Back in 2006, political situations in the region was relatively calm. No hiccups in transportation, no encounter of theft or any form of danger, no unwanted aggressive behavior from anyone we met, our trip went pretty smoothly from beginning to the end. I spent my last day in the Middle East wandering around Islamic Cairo, indulging myself one last time in the midst of historical streets, laid-back teashops and souvenir stalls. A collage of Islamic Cairo composes the last bits of my memory of the Middle East. After my walk in Cairo, I met up with my two travel buddies just returned from Luxor. We then hopped on a taxi to the airport for our flight to Athens.
If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.
As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.
In 1996, British director Anthony Minghella adapted Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient into a box office hit and critically acclaimed movie. In the film, the 1940’s Historic Cairo appears to be an untouched medieval Arab city. In reality, the scenes were filmed in Tunisia, as the real Cairo is a much more developed city. Nonetheless, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Historic Cairo, or commonly known as Islamic Cairo, is the “Cairo” that most travellers and audience of The English Patient desire to see: a vibrant neighbourhood full of winding alleyways, souks, fountains, medieval mansions, hammans, and most of all, mosques of different sizes and with them, a thousand minarets that make up the city’s skyline. Established in 969 AD, Cairo was the capital city of the Fatimid Caliphate until the 12th century. Then the city changed hands from one Islamic empire to another, including the Ottomans. Throughout centuries, Cairo was situated in the midst of caravan routes between Africa and the Middle East. From spices, Yemeni coffee to Indian textiles, Cairo has always been a trading hub in the Arab world.
Just like many old Arab cities, my first impression of Islamic Cairo was noisy, chaotic, disorganized, crowded, disorienting, and confusing. However, at certain moment when I stood under the shade of a minaret or took refuge at a tranquil teashop near the souk of Khan el-Khalili, I felt being miles away from the hectic activities and could easily imagine myself being in the Old Cairo of The English Patient.
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.
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.
Probably built in the 10th century, the Minaret of the Bride on the northern wall is the first minaret built for the Umayyad Mosque.
Located at the southwest corner, the 1488 Minaret of Qaitbay shows a strong Egyptian Islamic influence.
Completed 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.
It 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.
The Umayyad Mosque is a rare example of mosque architecture still maintaining the original design features and structure since the 8th century.
In 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.
Mosaic 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.
Due 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.
There are three domes in the main courtyards, including the Fountain for Ablutions in the centre.
Constructed 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.
Built in 790s, the Dome of Treasury was used to house the mosque’s endowment funds and old manuscripts.
The courtyard is a pleasant open space even just for sitting around to absorb the historic atmosphere.
The outer columns of the main prayer hall contain some beautiful marble decorations.
Other than the main prayer hall, the courtyard is bounded by a series of colonnades.
Decorative 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.
This 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.
The qibla wall with the mihrab niche indicates the direction to Mecca.
The main prayer hall contains three aisles stretching to east and west.
Serving 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.
A looming sense of loss comes to my heart when writing about a Syria that no longer exists. Revisiting the brief travel experience in Syria consolidates my feelings and fragmented memories of places that we visited and faces that we encountered. It was sad to revisit the photos of Syria, knowing that much of the cultural heritage we visited have been destroyed and people we met have gone through a painful decade. Nonetheless, we thought it would be a valuable thing to share on our blog a little account of the prewar Syria, when the Middle Eastern nation was a fascinating country to visit as a backpacker, despite it was labelled by George W. Bush as part of the so called “Axis of Evil”. It was the least touristy country among the nations we visited in the region, and had a great wealth of cultural heritage and friendly people. Our Syrian story began in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria before the war and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
We arrived at Antakya of Hatay near the Turkish and Syrian border at 08:00. Immediately we hopped onto another bus for Aleppo in Syria. Going through the customs and passport control was easier than I thought. Once crossed the border into Syria, I felt that I had finally arrived in the authentic Middle East, a desert nation still out of reach from global commercialism. Aleppo is about 100km east of Antakya. The city was noisy, dusty, crowded, and unique. A few minutes of rest at Spring Flower Hostel was enough for us to revive our energy. We walked to the Old City towards the famous Great Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, the 8th century World Heritage Site that is the largest and oldest mosque in Aleppo. Before visiting the mosque, we picked up some kebabs on the way. At the gate of the mosque, we took off our shoes and entered the marble courtyard, where pilgrims and tourist agents mingled. The beautiful courtyard had two roofed ablution fountains. Beyond one side of the surrounding colonnade stood the famous minaret. Built in 1090, the minaret had been the icon of the mosque for more than 900 years. In April 2013, the news of the minaret being reduced to rubble shocked the world. Apart from the minaret, much of the mosque was also badly damaged. The most iconic religious monument of Aleppo was turned into a bloody battlefield, and now a large restoration site closed to visitors.
The 923 year old minaret was one of the most notable cultural heritage casualties from the Syrian Civil War.
The 45m minaret was cladded with pinkish beige stone and Arabic inscriptions. Now it only exists in old photographs and collective memories of Syrians.
With two ablution fountains and marble stone flooring, the beautiful courtyard was badly damaged during the war. Both the rebels and government blamed each other for the destruction.
Despite the heat, the courtyard was a lovely place to hang around for people watching. According to online news, restoration work has begun in 2017 to repair the World Heritage Site.
Inside the mosque, we found the coffin of Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist.
Outside the mosque, local shoppers were busy chatting with vendors. Such bygone vibrant scenes may take a long time to recover.
The street right outside the mosque was lined up with a series of well-preserved traditional houses.
In the evening, the main street was a great place to take in the lively atmosphere.
The timber mashrabiya of houses around the mosque were quite spectacular.
The busy shops around the famous mosque may not exist anymore.
We had a brief encounter with a young cheerful vendor outside the mosque. It is sad to imagine the fate of all the Aleppo citizens we met.
According to World Vision, 5.6 million Syrians have become refugees, another 6.2 million have been displaced, and nearly 12 million need humanitarian assistance, and more than half are children.
A peaceful evening outside the Great Mosque of Aleppo has become a memorable image in my heart. A battlefield for almost ten years, Aleppo would take a long time to return to the former liveliness.
The majestic minaret of Great Umayyad Mosque fell amid heavy fighting between rebels in the mosque and the Syrian army 200m away. The destruction of the minaret was a tragedy for all.
After 1300 years as the religious centre of Aleppo, the Great Umayyad Mosque is currently closed for restoration. Whether it could return to its former glory remains to be seen.
Originally a Greek agora during Hellenistic period, and then the garden of the Christian Cathedral of Saint Helena in Roman era, the Great Umayyad Mosque was erected in the 8th century during first Islamic Dynasty. 1300 years on, no one can be certain how its story will continue to unfold.