Cycling is a popular way to take in attractions that lie further afield from the oasis. Renting a bicycle was quite easy in the town centre. Under the scotching summer heat of around 45 degrees Celsius, riding the bike in Siwa means one has to get a drink every half an hour. That was exactly what I did. Without smartphone or a proper map, cycling by myself also forced me to interact with the locals to ask for directions. With a bike, I was able to venture out a little further away from the town centre to visit the Temple of the Oracle, the Holy Temple of Amun that Alexander the Great visited over two thousand years ago; Fatnas Island, a laid back and lush green area right by Lake Siwa and Gebel al Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead carved with many rock tombs.
Perched above the town centre stands the 13th century Fortress of Shali is the grand centerpiece of Siwa Oasis town. For centuries, the fortress stood to protect the local Berber community against all outsiders. In fact, few outsiders have ever set foot inside the fortress throughout history. In 1926, a three-day rain caused great damages to the kershif (local salt and mud) buildings of the Shali. The locals abandoned the centuries-old fortress and relocated themselves in new houses adjacent to the Shali. Since then, the mighty fortress was left for self decay and gradual erosion from wind and occasional rain.
In 2018, a joint effort by the EU and the Egyptian company Environmental Quality International began to restore the crumbling ruins of the Shali. The government was hoping that a restored fortress in Siwa would boost eco-tourism in the faraway oasis town. The EU funded project aims to restore traditional marketplaces, upgrades environmental services and establishes a child healthcare centre for the villagers. Not everyone agrees with the restoration. For some locals, the Shali is better to be left in its ruined state and the resources to be spent on something else.
After a rather heavy-hearted account of a brief stay in Syria, we move on to the next part of the Middle East journey: Jordan. Although small and almost landlocked, Jordan is a country of a relatively high development with an “upper middle income” economy in the region. It is also a major tourist destination, thanks to the ruined city of Petra, Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, the desert of Lawrence of Arabia. After a little more than a week in Syria, my first impression of the Jordanian capital Amman was the reemergence of global businesses and commercialism. We started our Jordanian route from the very north of the country at Jerash, one of the best preserved classical ruined cities in the world.
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In the morning we took a minibus from Amman’s Abdali Bus Station (now closed) to Jerash, about 50km north of the capital. Known as the City of Gerasa or Antioch on the Golden River in the Greco-Roman period, Jerash is now a major tourist attraction in Jordan. Many have compared Jerash to Pompeii in terms of the extent and level of preservation. To me, they are actually two very different archaeological sites. Founded by Alexander the Great or by Seleucid King Antioch IV in 331 BC, Gerasa flourished in the Roman period as a trading hub. The three of us entered the Arch of Hadrian, wandered around the site and visited the ruins of Temple of Artemis, saw many Corinthian columns, early churches, the Oval Piazza, and two theaters. At the second theatre, a band of musicians, dressed in military uniforms, were playing ceremonial music on the stage and prompting us to stop for a while. We exited the ruins through the north gate, and hired a taxi to the bus station. At the station, we met an old man who claimed to be an experience tour guide. He told us a bit about his journey to Hong Kong back in early 1970’s, and recommended a cheaper Amman bound bus to us.
The 22m high triple archway was erected in 130AD to commemorate the visit of Roman Emperor Hadrian.
The Oval Forum and Cardo Maximus, the colonnaded road are the most recognizable features of Jerash.
The Oval Forum is bounded by 56 Ionic columns. The large square was probably used as a marketplace and a social gathering spot.
With the beautiful scaenae frons (stage backdrop) and proscenium (front face of the stage), the South Theatre is another popular attraction in Jerash.
Built between AD 81 and 96, the 5000-seat South Theatre is famous for its acoustics.
Just like many other tourists, we came across a band playing Jordanian Scottish bagpipe at the South Theatre of Jerash.
The Jordanian Scottish bagpipe is a legacy from Emirate of Transjordan, the years of British protectorate before 1946.
Artemis was the patron saint of Gerasa. Built in the 2nd century AD, the Temple of Artemis was one of the most important building in the city, at least before the end of the 4th century when pagan cults were forbidden.
Temple of Artemis has several beautiful Corinthian columns.
Each column weighs over 20 tons and are 39 feet tall.
Built in AD 165, the North Theatre was used for government meetings in the Roman times. Many seats are inscribed with names of city council members.
Deep in the Syria Desert stood one of the most splendid cities in the ancient world. Due to its strategic location on the Silk Road with Persia, India and China on one side, and the Roman and Greek world on the other, Palmyra was a significant cultural and economic hub in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In 273 AD, Palmyra was razed to the ground by the Romans, and had never fully recovered since then. The archaeological wealth from the ancient city was Syria’s most prominent tourist attraction and UNESCO’s World Heritage site. Palmyra faced its biggest nightmare in May 2015, when the ISIS launched a huge offensive attack to capture the desert oasis. Between mid 2015 to March 2016, Palmyra was controlled under the notorious terrorists when precious treasures and artefacts were looted or destroyed. The Temple of Bel, Temple of Baalshamin, seven Tomb Towers including the Tower of Elahbel, and the Monumental Arch were blown up to pieces. Uncounted artefacts were looted and smuggled into the black market. Archaeologists were beheaded. Before they were forced out by the government army, ISIS planted thousands of landmines and bombs in the ruined city. On 15th April, 2020, two children were killed by a landmine in Palmyra, four years after the ISIS was driven out. Despite the de-mining effort since 2016, Palmyra remains a dangerous place to visit and an endangered World Heritage site seven years in a row. Memories of our 2006 visit seems so far far away:
At around 14:30 we finally arrived at Palmyra, the ancient desert metropolis since the times of Alexander the Great. We checked in at Citadel Hotel. The hotel staff arranged a car for our visit to the funeral towers. The staff asked if we wanted to hire a car to visit the tomb towers. At the village museum we bought the admission tickets for the tomb towers, and sardined ourselves (6 of us) in the little red car for the journey.
Our hired guide from the museum waited for us at the entrance of the Tower of Elahbel. He told us some history of the towers, unlocked the door of Tower of Elahbel and led us in. Many tomb towers in the valley were badly damaged by earthquakes throughout the centuries. The Tower of Elahbel was an exception. Inside we could see the slots on the walls where coffins were once placed. We walked up to the third level, saw a number of sculpted busts of the deceased, and the beautiful fresco of stars and constellations on the ceiling. After, we visited an underground tomb with well preserved frescoes. I was able to recognize scenes of the Trojan War with Achilles and Odysseus from one of the wall paintings.
After the necropolis, we moved on to visit the Temple of Bel. It was the largest building in Palmyra, and one of the largest temples in the Classical world. Bel was the main god of Babylon. The temple was erected in the first century, with influences from Classical Greece and Rome, Ptolemaic Egypt, and ancient Syria. We walked through the main gate into a huge courtyard that was once surrounded by Corinthian colonnades. At the centre stands the ruined Sanctuary of Bel, where we could admire the exquisite relief carving of the ruined building.
Tomb towers at Palmyra are unique examples of Classical necropolis. Some tower tombs dated back to the Hellenistic period. Most were found in the Valley of the Tombs below Umm al-Bilqis Hill.
Inside the towers, dead bodies were placed on landings and stacked stone shelves, marked with a sculptural bust.
Before its brutal destruction in August 2015 by the ISIS, the Tower of Elahbel was a great place to learn about funeral architecture of Palmyra. Inside the tower there was a narrow staircase reaching the upper floors.
Some of the larger towers could hold up to 400 corpses. Chinese silk yarns dated to 1st century AD were discovered in the tomb towers, revealing the evidence of Silk Road trading two thousand years ago.
The Temple of Bel was the largest ancient temple complex in the Middle East. Built upon pre Roman temples, the Temple of Bel was founded in 32 AD. The temple was later converted into a church and then a mosque.
Most of the Temple of Bel has been blown up by the ISIS. Now it has become a large pile of rubble.
Magnificent carving of the temple are probably gone even if archaeologists can restore the general structure of the building.
Walking around the enormous temple complex was a great pleasure.
Ceiling details were particularly well preserved at the Temple of Bel.
Beautiful relief and rows of Corinthian columns once stood in the temple courtyard.
Some of the relief carving of the central sanctuary were on display in the temple courtyard.
Handsome Classical columns stood proudly in the courtyard before the destruction.
Our guide gave us a little talk on the temple’s history at the courtyard.
Outside the temple walls, we could see the palm trees east of the ruined city.
Along with sone other destroyed buildings, the government is planning to restore the Temple of Bel using original materials from the existing debris.
At last, our little red car drove us up to the citadel behind the ruins of Palmyra, where we could watch the sunset. The citadel also suffered major destruction by the ISIS.
Up at the citadel we could fully appreciate the scale of the barren landscape in all directions.
Seven Tomb Towers are lost forever.
The Temple of Bel, the enormous walled complex east of the Great Colonnade of Palmyra, was almost completely destroyed by the ISIS. As satellite images showed, there was hardly anything standing at the Temple of Bel.
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.
Simeon Stylites, a famous ascetic saint seeking for a spiritual life of extreme austerity, spent 37 years living on a small platform atop a pillar. Probably born in 390 AD, Simeon was devoted to Christianity since about 13 years old. His practice of extreme austerity led him to a pursuit of an ascetic life in seclusion. In order to avoid the crowd of pilgrims seeking for his prayers, Simeon found a pillar from an ancient ruins and built a platform of about one square metre on top and started his 37 year living on a pillar. He moved to different columns throughout his life. The last was recorded to be more than 15m from ground. Instead of isolated from the society, his fame grew even greater after living on a pillar. He would talk to visitors from a ladder, wrote letters, instructed disciplines, hosted lectures for an assembly down below. Even the Roman emperors greatly respected Simeon and his counsels. He died in 459 AD after 37 years spent on a pillar. After his death, stylites or pillar dwellers had become a kind of popular Christian ascetics in early Byzantine era. Qalaat Samaan, or the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, is a 5th century church built on the site of Simeon’s pillar. Before the construction of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Saint Simeon had the most famous dome in the world of Christendom. Over the last 1600 years, the basilica survived earthquakes and wars, but had met its fate of destruction being at the wrong place at the wrong time: at the crossroad among forces of the Syrian, ISIS, Kurdish, Turkish, Russians and other rebels. Since taken by the ISIS in 2013, the complex had gone through several years of absolute chaos and madness, missile bombing and stone removal, all causing significant damages to the world heritage complex. What believed to be the remains of Simeon’s pillar was damaged by Russian air strikes in support of Assad’s regime. Along with the destruction of old Aleppo, Qalaat Samaan’s ill fate is another great loss to human civilization that no reconstruction work can ever restore.
A 1664 depiction of Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.
From the bus station of Aleppo we hired a car to Qalaat Samaan, the famous ruins of the four basilicas built in the 5th century dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites. The ruins was rather remote, at approximately 2 hour of drive north of Aleppo. We were amazed by the grand scale of the complex, and found the ruined archways very photogenic. We finished our visit at around 11:00 and didn’t have a clue of how to return to Aleppo, as our hired car only offered an one way trip. No public transportation was available, and we were up on a hill far from the highway. At the parking lot, I decided to try hitchhiking. Since there were six of us it wasn’t easy. I headed towards a tour bus in which the driver was reading newspaper. I tried to communicate with him in English and luckily he understood my request. He led me to the tour guide and the group of Spanish tourists. They agreed to take us along all at once as they were leaving for Aleppo as well. They were not a big group, around 15 of them, mainly in their 50s. The bus was the most luxurious tour bus we had ever seen, with large comfortable chairs and a banquette seating area at the back where we settled ourselves comfortably. Their bus even dropped by one of the 700 sites of the Dead Cities along the way. We were invited to go along with them. On the bus, the Spanish group kindly offered us biscuits and snacks. The bus was so comfortable that at the end we all fell asleep. When we woke up we had already back at the Citadel of Aleppo. This remained as our only hitchhiking experience in the Middle East.
Saint Simeon was an influential figure 1500 years ago, prompting people to construct a large church complex shortly after his death at the site of his pillar. The ruined complex is consisted of the main Church of Saint Simeon, Baptistry, and Monastery.
The Church of Saint Simeon had about 5000 sq.m of floor space, almost comparable to that of the Hagia Sophia. It was designed in a cruciform with four basilica centered at the octagonal courtyard where the remains of the pillar of Saint Simeon stood.
Built in 490 AD, the church was one of the earliest churches in this part of the world.
The massive archways are the most well preserved elements of the complex.
The fine details of the arches and column capitals are valuable artefact from the early Byzantine era.
We could have spend a long time to study the fine details of the ruins.
Much of the walls of the four basilicas remained intact in 2006 when we visited.
Along with the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, the church was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. However taken by ISIS in 2013, the church had entered a few years of absolute madness and destruction.
Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, strongly condemned the severe damage caused by an air-strike to the Church of Saint Simeon.
The most important spot of the complex is the octagonal courtyard where the remains of Simeon’s pillar stood before the war.
What remained from the 15m pillar where Saint Simeon once lived atop had become less than 3m tall before the Syrian Civil War. After the Russian air strike, the spot has become nothing but a pile of rubble.
There were hardly any explanations or signage at the ruins, but we were free to walk around the complex.
The Eastern Basilica was beautifully preserved. It was larger than the others, and used to held all major ceremonies.
Since 2003, the complex had been regularly surveyed and scanned by the French. Their 3D documentation prior to the building’s partial destruction in 2016 may prove to be crucial for its future restoration.
The octagonal Baptistery was a crucial part of the pilgrimage complex.
The Baptistery is one of the best preserved Christian architecture in Syria.
Baptistry Baptistry was constructed shortly after the construction of the main church. The wooden roof, either a cone or dome, didn’t survive to this day.
Since the complex was erected on the hill, there were spots where we could enjoy the surrounding scenery down below.
As of 2020, Idlib, the city near the Church of Saint Simeon Stylite, was the latest battle ground between the Jihadist forces, Turkish backed rebels, Russian backed Syrian government and Kurdish forces.
Communal baths and gymnasiums were essential components in the ancient Roman society. Records show that 952 baths of different sizes could be found in Rome in 354 AD. Apart from building up the body and engaging on social gossip, a bath and gymnasium complex might also house a library, a theatre, food shops and reading rooms. Erected right at the hot spring of Pamukkale, Hierapolis was a prominent Roman spa resort. Other than the usual bathing rituals, bathing in Hierapolis was also a form of medical treatment. Founded in the 2nd century BC as a thermal spa town, where doctors used the hot springs to treat patients. In its heyday, Hierapolis had bath houses, gymnasiums, temples, fountains, theatre. Thousands would come to visit the hot spring, including the Roman emperors. The city of 100,000 became a wealthy city prominent for art, philosophy and trade. Outside the city wall, the enormous necropolis suggests that many ancient Romans who came to Hierapolis for medical treatment actually died in the spa city. The recently discovered Tomb of Philip the Apostle and a number of historical sites in Hierapolis suggest Christianity had taken a strong hold in the city from Late Antiquity to the Byzantine era.
Many tourists come to Hierapolis to take a dip in a pool among ruined marble columns. The pool is, in fact, doing a disservice to the archaeological conservation. We just spent time wandering around the ruins leisurely and aimlessly.
Red poppy and yellow wild flowers covered large parts of the ground among the ruins of Hierapolis.
Built in 2nd century AD under Emperor Hadrian, the theatre at Hierapolis has 45 rows of seats that could accommodate about 15,000 spectators.
Tombs and sarcophagus of different sizes could be found in the necropolis. Some sarcophagus were elevated by a post and beam structure.
The extensive necropolis stretches kilometers and contains thousands of tombs from different era.
We once again passed by the travertine terraces of Pamukkale as we left Hierapolis.
Instead of walking down the travertine terraces in barefoot once again, we opted for another winding path to descend. The path is not for people who scares of height.