Palmyra (City of Palms) - Syria
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Syria Trip Journal from May 09 to 18, 2006 and May 27, 2006 (Transit)

Follow this link to return to the Syria Photos Pg. 1 and Syria Photo's Pg. 2.

Country: Syria
Duration: May 09 to 18, 2006 and May 27, 2006 (Transit)
Distance Traveled in the Country:  ~ 1500 km
Memorable Impressions of the Country: 
Syria, another country that positively surprised us.  Syria made us feel like home.  The people have been the friendliest and most helpful yet on our Middle East journey.  There hasn't been a day were we have not met a person that went out of their way to help us.  The border crossings were a breeze and well organized.  Riding the motorcycles on the wide open roads of Syria, without any hassle of military stops was just what we needed.  We spent eight (8) days, exploring the ancient Roman City of Boras, Damascus' Mosque and Souq, the man-made caves of Maalula, the desert Roman City of Palmyra, the Arab/Roman Castle Qasr al-Heir ash-Sharqi and Rasafa, Aleppo's Medieval Souq and Citadel, the 4000 year old settlement of Elba, the Four Norias of Bechriyyat in Hama, the Roman city of Apamea and at last the famous crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers.  Just a bit tired, but happy to have seen so much of Syria and its history, we say good-bye.       
Gasoline Cost: approx. $0.70CDN/litre for Super
Hotel Cost: On average about $12.00CDN/night
Food & Drink Cost: The cheapest country to eat and drink so far.

Special Thanks to: Abdul (Canada), Nora (Canada), Marcel (Canada), Osama (Canada), Abdul Jawad (Syria) and all the other helpful Syrian people that we encountered 

May 09, 2006.  It is 8pm as we leave Jordan behind and head through no mans land to the Syrian Border Crossing.  A sign welcomes us to Syria.  There is an Arrival building, signed in English and we enter to get our Visas.  All the concerns we had about getting turned away, because we didn't purchase the Visa in Canada or in Jordan or in Egypt prior to arrival, were unfounded.  The Visa for one (1) Canadian cost $56US.  We got approval for a 15 day stay in Syria and had all the stamps in the passport in no time.  Then we proceeded to the customs office, again everyone was very friendly and helpful.  The cost for getting the carnet de passage entry stamp and motorcycle insurance was $70US for both bikes.  By 9pm we were actually in Syria and pleasantly surprised by the efficiency and friendliness of the people.  From the Border crossing we head through Deraa and on to Bosra located 40km east.  Night driving is not our favorite, especially in a totally foreign country, but the roads are in excellent condition and well signed in both Arabic and English.  We arrive in Bosra and head for the citadel.  There is not much for accommodations in this town, except for the Bosra Cham Palace ($120US) or the option we took, sleeping in a Bedouin tent in a Restaurant opposite the entrance to the Citadel.  The owners were friendly and made us some late supper. Total cost for accommodations and food was 1200 Syrian Pounds ($24CDN).

May 10, 2006.  The Bosra's Citadel and surrounding Roman buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Citadel is actually the best preserved free standing Roman Theatre in the Middle East.  A fort was built around the 10,000 spectator theatre.  From the outside of the Fort, one is unable to see the theatre, therefore it is an amazing sight upon entering the fortified walls to realize that one is standing in the middle of a huge theatre.  In addition, just adjacent to the Citadel are the ruins of an ancient Roman town.  Excavation has been extensive.  Monumental gates, colonnades, Roman baths and a vast cistern have been exposed.  Some residential housing is built into the old columns.  Mosaic floors poke out from underneath the dirt, not yet excavated.  We spend a couple of hours exploring, realizing that there is so much more to this town. Abdul, is on holiday in Syria and we contact him on his cell phone.  We agree to meet at the Downtown Mall in Damascus at 1pm.  Damascus is a city of three (3) million people.  Driving in the city is the usual chaos.  We only get lost once and make it on time.  It is amazing to see a familiar face after almost three (3) months on the road.  Abdul and his brother Abdul Jawad take us for lunch.  Abdul Jawad arranges free accommodations for us in Al Kiswah, 20km south of Damascus.  Upon arrival we pull up in front of a machine shop, it looks like we are in the industrial area of the town, but a side gate leads us to the apartment in the back, with a swimming pool and a huge treed fruit garden (called a farm in Syria).  We are able to leave the motorcycles in a secure place and the flat has a kitchen, living room and even a TV.  We clean up and are picked up by Abdul and his brother at 8pm for supper and a social gathering.  They took us to the Damascus Gate Restaurant and we were joined by more of Abdul's brothers and brother in-laws.  Abdul Jawad ordered all traditional Syrian food and as the evening went on even a few pipes were smoked.  Syrian hospitality at its best.

May 11, 2006.  Abdul and his brother pick us up and Abdul Jawad drops the three of us in the old city of Damascus at the entrance to the main covered market the Souq al-Hamidiyya.  Walking through the Souq, we stop for croissants and pudding.  Passing through the remains of the western gate of the old Roman Temple of Jupiter dating back to the 3rd Century AD, the area opens up and we find ourselves in front of the Umayyad Mosque.  The Umayyad Mosque, built in 705AD, is a converted Byzantine cathedral and formerly the Roman Temple of Jupiter.  The colonnades of the Roman Temple of Jupiter were incorporated into the architecture of the mosque.  Most great mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims.  But the Umayyad Mosque allows westerners to enter.  I did have to wear a special gown and cover my hair, but it is worth a visit.  The central courtyard has three (3) domes.  The mosque itself consists of four (4) halls and three (3) minarets.  The courtyard displays gilded mosaic portraits.  In the sanctuary is Prophet's Yahya's shrine.  From the mosque we wander over to the Bab as-Salaama and Bab Touma Gates and our final destination is the St. Paul's Chapel.  The biblical significance of the Chapel is that St. Paul was lowered out of a window in a basket one night to escape the Jews.  In the afternoon Abdul Jawad picks us up and we head north to the town of Maalula.  Situated in a gorge between two mountains, the village of Maalula is built on the side of the mountain.  We climb the cliffs and explore man made caves that are 1000's of years old.  On top of the mountain is the St. Sergius Church.  The altar is unique in that it is half a circle and represents an offering table without the area of blood collection.  The painting of significance is Jesus last supper, where he sits at the end of a half oval table.  All other paintings represent Jesus sitting in the centre of a rectangular table.  From the Church we continue to a spectacular gorge.  At the entrance we stop to buy figs and almonds from the back of a pick-up truck.  Walking through the gorge we come to the end of another perfect day in Syria.  We can't thank Abdul and his brother Abdul Jawad enough for taking us under their wings and showing us around.

May 12, 2006.  Leaving early from Damascus, we make our way north-east to Palmyra.  Signage from Damascus to the ancient city of Palmyra is excellent.  Traffic is almost non-existing as we ride through the open desert.  Our first view of Palmyra is the Oasis, then the ruins of Palmyra appear and the main road leads directly through ancient pillars and temples.  All the hotels and restaurants are located on the main track.  The Palace Hotel for 750 Syrian Pounds ($15CDN)/night has secure parking for the motorcycles and actually is a block off the noisy main road.

May 13, 2006.  Just before 6am we are at the Palmyra (City of Palms) site, which is only 800m from our hotel.  The sun is rising and allows for some great picture opportunities.  Palmyra, dating back to the 2nd Century AD, covers approx. 50 hectares.  The architecture was influenced by the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.  In its most glamorous days it was ruled by Zenobia, a half-Greek, half-Arab queen around 267AD, but then was taken over by the Romans and finally destroyed by an earthquake in 1089. Excavation has been extensive, but it seems the task is never ending.  We enter through the Monumental Arch the Great Colonnade Street.  For more then 1000m the street is lined on both sides with columns crowned with Corinthian capitals.  Different from what we had seen at other Roman sites is that half-way up the columns are consoles supporting a public figure.  Most of the buildings are in ruins.  The Nabo Temple and Diocletian's Bath are the first ruins one can see.  Each important find is labeled in both Arabic and English.  The theatre, has been restored, but no comparison to Bosra's grand theatre.  There is no admission fee to the archeological site, with the exception of the theatre (75 Syrian Pounds/person), Temple of Bel (75 Syrian Pounds/person), Museum (150 Syrian Pounds/person), Ancient Tombs (150 Syrian Pounds/person) and Arab Castle (75 Syrian Pounds).  This is amazing entertainment for not much money.  The Tetraplyon has been restored beautifully and is the centre of the thoroughfares.  To the south-west the small pillars lead to the Agora (forum), Senate House and Banqueting Hall. Continuing along the Great Colonnaded Street we end up at the Funeral Temple and the Temple of the Camp of Diocletian.  Both are great to explore and show some resemblance of a time long gone.  Another difference from other Roman Sites we noticed is that the Colonnade Street was not paved by stone.  The Temple of Bel is a huge complex.  The outer wall was rebuilt by the Arabs using ancient pillars and Corinthian capitals.  It is quite a shame to see history destroyed in that way.  The courtyard inside the walled Temple of Bel has a few great surviving columns.  The Museum in Palmyra displays a Model of the Temple of Bel as it once looked.  The cella in the centre of the courtyard consists of two open chapels.  Each ceiling has a decorated single large slab of stone.  At the museum some of the sculptures found at Palmyra and Temple of Bel are displayed.  In addition it houses some of the mummies found in the ancient tombs close to Palmyra.  From the Museum we take a ride to the Valley of Tombs.  Different from those in Egypt they are large square-based tomb towers, housing 100's of coffins.  We entered the Elhabel family tomb built in 103AD, which had four (4) levels.  Coffins where stacked six (6) high and four (4)  across.  Each had a stone portrait of the buried person, now displayed in the Museum.  From the Elhabel family tomb, we continue to the three (3) brothers tomb.  Again different, as it is below the ground with the portraits of the buried person painted on the wall.  The coffins are still stacked six (high).  As if that wasn't enough walking and exploring, we decide to hike up to the Arab Castle for sunset.  The Castle overlooks the ruins of Palmyra and is situated on a steep mountain top.  The view is superb and the castle has been nicely restored and allows for great exploration.  Exhausted, we return to town and our favored restaurant.  The Spring Restaurant on the main track has it all, Mohammad, the multi-language owner, bends backwards to make your stay enjoyable.  His stuffed Zucchini/Rice dish, made by his mom (who's existence is questionable) are delicious.  We also had a traditional Bedouin dish called Mansaf consisting of rice, almonds, pistachios, chicken and sour yogurt.  He even had Diet Coke which is hard to find in the Middle East.

May 14, 2006.  We get an early start and head, with the motorcycles, to the ruins of Palmyra.  With no one around we are able to ride down the Colonnade Street and around the Tetrapylon.  It is an amazing feeling.  All good things come to an end as I notice a flat rear tire.  I must have picked up a nail when parking the motorcycle in the secure parking area.  We make it to the nearest gas station and get out our repair kit.  Within a minute a guy on a 125cc motorcycle pulls up and takes over.  This is another sign of the helpfulness of Syrian people.  With the air compressor out, we were back on the road in 15 minutes, plug and all in place.  From Palmyra we head east toward As-Sukhna and then turn north.  Here the road switched continuously from asphalt to big gravel sections with holes.  It was fun riding again in the open desert.  We hadn't been off-road for some time.  Only 20km up the road we turn toward Qasr al-Heir ash-Sharqi.  A palace in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sand and more sand.  Here we met up with three (3) Australian Archeologists, on their days off and exploring Syria.  From Qasr al-Heir ash-Sharqi, the road improves and signage disappears.  With only one paved road, we make our way to Al-Rasafa, a walled city rising out of the desert.  The city was fortified by the Romans.  Much larger then we expected we spent more then an hour exploring.  The Byzantine religious basilica complex is spectacular.  The north gate entrance is definitely the most spectacular, and is easily missed.  Unfortunately the sun was in the wrong spot and didn't allow for a great picture.  With the mid day sun burning down on us, we head toward Aleppo.  The second largest city in Syria with 3 million people.  Of course we get royally lost, stopping in front of a small shop, we draw a huge crowd of people.  After a few minutes an English speaking person asks us if we required help.  We point to our guide book and a hotel down town.  He flags down a taxi and leads us through Aleppo to the main strip of hotels.  At first he wants us to stay at his house and then he leads us all over town and won't take any money.  Just in case we get in trouble, he gives us his number.  Okay, where do these people come from?  The cheapest hotel with somewhat secure parking is 1500 Syrian Pounds ($30CDN)/night and called the Ambassador Hotel.

May 15, 2006.  Since check-out time is not until noon, we decide to explore Aleppo's old city and the covered souq (also called the Medieval Mall).  The vaulted stone ceiling covers several hectares of the souq,  some of them dating back to the 13th Century.  As we walk through the bustling souq, we realize that it will be the last one we visit in the Middle East and feel just a little sad.  The souqs' west exit opens up to the Citadel, sitting on a huge man-made hill.  The most impressive aspect about this castle is its entrance over a stone bridge into an imposing 12th Century Gate.  The Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and extensive excavation and restoration has been completed.  As always the dark cistern and vaulted ceiling intrigue us.  Since the castle is located in the centre of Aleppo, it has a great 360 Degree view over the city.  From Aleppo, it is south again toward Hama, but first we detour into Elba.  Elba is situated in midst of a hilly farmed area.  Pottery found in this ancient settlement has been dated to 1850 BC, one of Syria's oldest recoveries.  The ruins are well signed and lie off the beaten track.  Mid afternoon we arrive in Hama.  The Orontes River flows through the centre of the town and gives it a very green look.  Hama's main attraction, beside the cheap and excellent accommodation and closeness to the nearby excursions is the norias.  Norias are large wooden water wheels, which scoop up water from the Orontes River into mini aqueducts to water the surrounding fields.  Due to Hama's excellent location, we make the Cairo Hotel (600 Syrian Pounds or $12CDN/night) our home for three (3) days, parking the motorcycles on the busy city centre sidewalk.

May 16, 2006.  Our destination for the day is Apamea, located about 60km north-west of Hama.  If it wasn't for Palmyra, Apamea would be the star attraction in Syria.  Apamea, was built in 2nd Century BC by Seleucus I.  The Roman City has a very long Colonnade Street and stone paved Roman Road.  Its location and background setting so very different from Palmyra.  To the west the large Ansariyya Mountain Range and the east the Al-Ghaba plains.  A wild grassy moor covers most of the site.  Flowers and peace and quite greet us as we enter the site.  Cost is 150 Syrian Pounds ($3CDN)/person. Restoration and some excavation is visible, but unfortunately no signage or brochure.  In 1157 this old Roman City was flattened by an earthquake and most of it still lies in ruins.  After a relaxing breakfast in the centre of all the rubble we return to our motorcycles and find two more fellow motorcycle travelers parked beside us.  Johannes and Robert, two Germans on a three (3) week vacation to Syria and Lebanon.  They are the first motorcycle travelers we have met in three (3) months.  We exchange travel information and promise to be in contact via e-mail.  Our journey back to Hama, is much speedier since we know where we are going.  Okay we still got lost in Hama, trying to find our hotel.  In the late afternoon we walk approx. 1km east from the centre of town along the Orontes River to the most impressive wooden water wheels, called the Four Norias of Bechriyyat.  Since both the wheels and the mountings are made out of wood, they make a mournful groaning as they turn.

May 17, 2006. Approximately 90kms south-west of Hama, high above the valley lies the 11th Century Crusader Castle, Crac Des Chevaliers (Arabic Qala'at al-Hosn).  The outside wall has 13 towers and a main entrance.  The actual castle is built on a rocky platform.  The inner wall and outer wall are separated by a moat dug out of the rock.  We spent three (3) hours exploring the castle, climbing up every spiral staircase and descending into every dark hole.  The castle is very well preserved, unfortunately some of the secret passageways have been cemented closed.  The baths were of great interest to us, as they were well engineered to get water to them.  The warehouse had vases concreted into the ground for oil storage.  The oven was enormous, as it did have to feed 2000 people.  The vaulted room was attached to the loggia, which had some gothic architecture.  The Latrines rooms, which we figured out were the bathrooms were joined to the Chapel.  From the Warden's Tower we had a 360 Degree view of the surrounding area and Lake Qattinah.  Eight (8) days in Syria, every day was filled with Castles, Roman Roads and Pillars, Wooden Water Wheels, Mosques and Caves.  Syria has definitely kept us on the go. 

May 18, 2006.  We leave Hama behind and head south through Homs and past Lake Qattinah into Lebanon.  Checking out of Syria is straight forward and takes all of half an hour. 

May 27, 2006.  Entering at Aarida from Lebanon into Syria.  This border crossing seems a lot less organized.  We require a new visa for Syria, even though we are only going to be spending a couple of hours passing through the country on our way to Turkey.  The cost is the same as a 15 day visa, $112US. Definitely it is a rip-off.  Luckily the insurance for the motorcycles is still valid for Syria and we only have to pay another $7US to get the carnets stamped into Syria.  This takes a bit over an hour.  Our US dollars are depleted and we only have some Syrian Pounds left. Back in Syria the driving returns to normal and we receive the welcome we had gotten used to.  We decide not to stop in Syria for a night, but head directly to the Turkish border at Kassab.  It only takes us a couple of hours following the coastal road.  North of Lattakia, the road turns inland and we enter a beautiful area with lakes, mountains and trees.  The carnets are stamped out of Syria in no time, but we get some hassle from the officer who gives us the passport exit stamp.  He takes about half an hour and quizzes us on if we were in Israel.  Our passport exit stamp from Egypt clearly indicates Nuweiba Ferry Port and the Jordan Aqaba Port shows the entry stamp.  We believe he didn't know geography and we didn't really understand why he should care since we are exiting Syria. Next step was entering Turkey.

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