Six years before the handover of Hong Kong to China, Taiwanese songwriter and singer Lo Tayou (羅大佑) published a song called “Queen’s Road East” (皇后大道東) in 1991. Emerged as a satirical reflection of Hongkongers’ collective feelings in the eve’s of the handover, the song became an instant hit. Even today, the song still offers an interesting cultural reference to understand the city’s unsettling moment before 1997. In the face of Hong Kong’s social uncertainties and imminent changes in near future, lyricist Albert Leung (林夕) made use of a wide range of symbols in the song, from “portrait on the coin” and “noble friend” to signify Queen Elizabeth II, to “waves of pedestrians” to suggest the mass exodus of Hongkongers. But the biggest symbolism is in fact the name “Queen’s Road East” itself. Physically divided into three sections, namely Queen’s Road East, Queen’s Road Central, and Queen’s Road West, Queen’s Road was used in the song to symbolize the three main players in the city’s story: “East” for Hong Kong, “West” for Britain, and “Central” for China (in reference to “Middle Kingdom”, the Chinese name of China). While “Queen” is unmistakably a reference to the city’s colonial past, the historical and economic significance of Queen’s Road has suggested a meaning way beyond colonialism. It is in fact a symbol of the city’s success story. As Hong Kong’s first main road, Queen’s Road was home to the first city hall, first post office, first luxury hotel, first bank headquarters, first residences of government officials, first business district, etc. After almost 180 years of urban transformations, its importance in the commercial heart remains vital to this date. The rich history and symbolism of Queen’s Road has made it a sensible choice for Lo Tayou and Albert Leung in their iconic song, and a reference point to tell the story of Hong Kong.
For its architecture and luxury shops, Queen’s Road Central is indeed a popular destination for both foreign visitors and local Hongkongers. Constructed between 1841 and 1843, Queen’s Road was originally named Main Street (大馬路). It ran through the first business district in the city between Sai Ying Pun (西營盤) and Central (中環). The road was soon renamed as Queen’s Road in tribute to Queen Victoria. As the road further extended in the west and east direction, Queen’s Road was eventually divided into three main sections: West, Central and East. Connecting Sheung Wan (上環) and Central along the island’s original shoreline, Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中) has long been considered as a synonym of Downtown Hong Kong. Subsequent land reclamations in the next 180 years pushed Queen’s Road Central further and further inland. The business district has long extended way beyond its original extent around Queen’s Road Central. Yet, buildings along the road continue to be sold, torn down and replaced by taller replacements, from the 19th century Neo-classical structures to the 20th century Modernist buildings, and then to the contemporary glassy skyscrapers. Due to its historical significance, Queen’s Road Central is probably one of the most documented street in Hong Kong. Having the historical photographs in hand while taking a brief tour of Queen’s Road Central offers a fruitful way to understand the tale of constant changes, and endless cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction in one of the fastest growing metropolises in modern history.
The former Victoria Prison or Gaol is the third main component of the Tai Kwun Centre of Heritage and Arts. Built in August 1841, some say the prison was the first permanent Western architecture constructed in Hong Kong. It served as the city’s first prison until 2006, when the complex was decommissioned for good. Today, the prison halls are largely preserved as listed historical buildings. Some are opened to the public to showcase the history, while some are being converted into restaurants and bars. But it’s the Prison Yard, the tranquil courtyard in the midst of the prison compound that is the real gem. Under the shade of Frangipani and Candlenut trees, movable beach chairs are provided for relaxation. In the evening, the courtyard is dimly lit to maintain a peaceful ambience.
At either end of the Prison Yard, renowned architect Herzog de Meuron has left their mark by erecting two cubic structures that appear to be floating in mid air above the prison walls. Serving as a theatre, one of the cubic structure is known as JC Cube. The other cube, named JC Contemporary, is a sleek looking museum of contemporary art. Beneath the JC Cube lies the stepped plaza Laundry Steps, where movie screening and live performances would regularly be held. Echoing the brick and stone masonry of the heritage structures, the cast aluminium facade of the cubic structures offer a dramatic contrast between the old and new.
If the Parade Ground courtyard at the lower platform is reserved for the vibrancy of retail and dining activities, the Prison Yard at the upper platform is all about the venues for cultural exhibitions and performances. While the Central Police Headquarters on Hollywood Road and Central Magistracy on Arbuthnot Road were all about establishing an authoritative image to the public, the unpretentious buildings of the Victoria Prison, which have been walled off from the city ever since 1841, offers the perfect setting for contemporary culture and architecture to establish a new identity for the compound. Converting the cold prison blocks into a welcoming urban oasis has so far proven to be successful.
After the Treasury, we turned right and walked towards the centre of the former Nabataean capital city. On the hillside of El Nejr, a splendid theatre was carved out from the red sandstone in the 1st century. The 45 rows of seats could accommodate an audience of 8,500 people. Standing at the theatre offered us one of the best view of Petra: numerous rock cut mausoleums, commonly know as the Royal Tombs, carved into the great massif of Jebel Al Khubtha. From the theatre, we made our way uphill towards another icon of Petra: the Monastery (El Deir). It took us roughly an hour to reach the Monastery from the theatre. The Monastery was an important ceremonial temple for the Nabataeans. Similar to the Treasury, the Monastery is a rock-cut building carved out from the cliff. There is a large forecourt in front of the Monastery, probably a venue for religious ceremonies. Many believed the building was used as a church during the Byzantine era, which explained where the name Monastery came from. We sat down at an open tea shop across from the Monastery, where we rested for an hour with the iconic front elevation of the Monastery.
We visited two more lookouts uphill to see the arid valley scenery surrounding Petra. On our way out we stopped by more royal tombs and small cave dwellings. We were exhausted from the hike and heat, and our attention had shifted to the unique rock patterns that could be found allover Petra. From the centre of the lost city, it was another 2km before we returned to the visitor centre. Everyone seemed to be leaving at the same time, by horses, by donkey carts, on foot, etc. In the evening, we had a Bedouin cuisine dinner at Red Cave Restaurant and stayed a bit at the Internet cafe in Wadi Musa.
Probably constructed at around 70 AD, the Urn Tomb is one of the first Royal Tombs that we encountered in Petra.
Many believe the Urn Tomb was the final resting place of Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 AD.
The main chamber of the tomb was converted into a church during the Byzantine era.
Beside the Urn Tomb stands the Silk Tomb, a mausoleum well known for its rich sandstone patterns.
Nearby, the Corinthian Tomb resembles the feature of the iconic Treasury.
The facade of the Palace Tomb is three storey high. Some believe the Palace Tomb was inspired by Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) in Rome.
Most of the tombs, caves and tunnels in the “Rose City” was built between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD.
15m in height and 8m in width, Tomb BD 70 is one of the few freestanding structure in Petra.
Both Tomb BD 70 and BD 69 are typical Hegra type tomb structures.
All the rock-cut structures have gone through two thousand years of erosion.
The main theatre of Petra faces east, and was renovated by the Romans during the 1st and 2nd century.
The seating area was entirely carved out of the rock cliff.
From the theatre, we could take in a fantastic view of the Royal Tomb cluster.
Qasr El-Bint (Temple of Dushares) is the largest freestanding structure in Petra.
Lion Triclinium was built in the 1st century intended for ritual banquets. The name obviously came from the two weathered lions at the entrance.
The trail up to the Monastery involves an uphill climb of 850 steps.
The walk to the Monastery took about 45 minutes to an hour.
Scenery of the arid valleys of Wadi Araba was one of the biggest rewards for the hike up to the Monastery.
Apart from the Treasury, the Monastery is probably the most famous structure in Petra. Dedicated to the Nabatean King Obodas I , the ancient temple was built in the 1st century AD.
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.
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.
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.