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Syria 2005

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mosquitos in Damascus

Do you have any idea on what this is for? It's not just a fluorescent light tube. This is a mosquito killer. Bugs are attracted to light at night. So are mosguitos. When they come close to this light tube...


They get exploded as high voltage electric current is running in the tube.

Damascus in the summer is plagued by mosquitos. You sometimes see a government car spraying a large amount of mosquito-repellent gas, which actually repel Syrian people. My hotel room has no air-conditioning. So I open the window. Alongside the chill wind come mosquitos...

The mosquito killer in the above photograph is placed at the entrance of the hotel. During the night, it keeps making bangs. Countless mosquitos - and sometimes fries - go to heaven (or hell?).

I haven't seen this before. After coming back to London, though, I showed this photo to Cheyok, a Singaporean friend of mine. She immediately guessed what it was. She saw it in Malaysia. This suggests that it is widely used in Muslim countries. Does anyone see this somewhere else?


Day three in Syria is spent on a day trip to Bosra, a town 100km south of Damascus. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bosra is an intriguing place: you see historical ruins from various periods of the town's history. Plus, it's not yet to be "touristized": the townspeople are very laid-back and hassle against tourists is kept at minimum.

Let me show you around a wide variety of ruins in Bosra chronologically. We met a local guy who has joined the excavations by European archaeologists in Bosra and now studies archaeology at Damascus University. He guides us around the town's ruins. His explanation nicely supplements what's written in the Lonely Planet. (All pictures below can be cliked to enlarge.)

This is the gate of a Nabataean palace. The Nabataeans are pre-Roman civilization in Arabia. Bosra was the capital of the Nabataean kingdom for a short period in the 1st century AD.

Behind the gate spread the ruins of what is thought to have been a Nabataean palace. According to our guide, a Byzantine complex was built upon the ruins sinking in the sand. So we see something like this:

Below a Byzantine column lies the ruins of a Nabataean palace.

When Romans conquered Syria and the surrounding region, Bosra became the capital of the Province of Arabia. They built their characteristic colonnaded straight roads like this:

What makes Bosra beautiful is the use of black basalt blocks for buildings.

A paved plaza of the Roman market

The basement of the Roman market

A public bath behind the Roman market

The Gate of the Lantern - a Roman triumphal arch dating from the early 3rd century. What's seen behind the gate is a modern house, built with stone scavenged from the ruins, where a Bosran family lives.

By the way, we see a friend of our guide sitting under the triumphal arch. He may be a resident of the modern house next to the gate. He calls himself Haga Kenji, a grade-B celebrity in Japan (one of those only appearing in tabloids). How could he know such a low-profile-abroad celebrity in Japan? A Japanese tourist must have told him he looks like the guy (and he actually does, which makes me laugh hard).

Birket al-Haj (meaning the Pool of the Pilgrimage), created as a reservoir during the Roman era. As the name suggests, Bosra was a popular rest stop for pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Four towering Corinthian columns upon which an aquaduct to the public baths was thought to pass during the Roman era (according to our guide).

The ruins of the Roman public baths, with a view towards the north of the town.

After the east-west split of the Roman Empire, Bosra fell under the rule of the Byzantine Empire and became "the seat of a primate overseeing 33 priests" (the Lonely Planet, p.123).

The ruins of a Byzantine cathedral (built in 512, the largest in the region at that time), which Emperor Justinian used as the model for cathedrals in Constantinople and Ravenna. The place is now surrounded with fences and the locked door. You have to pay a bit of money to the guard to enter.

A mosaic found in the ruins of the Byzantine cathedral (according to our guide), now hung on the wall of the theatre-cum-citadel (see below).

The facade of the monastery (built in the 4th century) where Mohammed met a monk named Boheira who revealed his future as the Prophet. Because of this legend, Bosra is a bit sacred place for Muslims.

After the advent of Islam, a couple of mosques were built in Bosra, which became part of the pilgrimage route to Mecca.

The minaret of the Mosque of Omar - some say it was built by Caliph Omar, who conquered Syria in 636, while it was actually constructed in the 12th or 13th century (according to the Lonely Planet).

Inside the Mosque of Omar, which is still used as Bosra's main mosque.

Columns inside the Mosque of Omar. The left column was built during the Byzantine time - the mosque had been a church before the advent of Islam - and the right one was built by Muslims - they extended the exisiting church to use it as a mosque. What's interesting is that Muslims iminated the Roman-style columns.

The minaret of the Mosque of Fatima, built in the 11th century and named after the Prophet Mohammed's daughter - probably because next to the mosque stands the monastery where Mohammed was told he was going to be the Prophet.

Inside the Hammam Manjak, built in 1372 to serve as a bathhouse for pilgrims.

Okay, now it's time to visit the famous Roman theatre in Bosra. This is a unique construction because Muslims later fortified the theatre by surrounding it with thick walls and eight towers.

This is a view of the theatre-cum-citadel from outside. Slits on the wall are where arrows come from against enemies (what Muslims had in mind were Crusaders).

After entering the citadel, walking through dark fortress halls, and climbing up staircases, what suddenly comes into my view is... (click here).

That is a view of the arena and the stage from a backseat.

Seats of the Roman theatre, divided into three parts - the lowest was for the noble, the middle for citizens, and the highest for slaves.

A view of the seats from the arena. The columns on the top were used to support a canvas(?) roof of the theatre (according to our guide).

Bosra became a desolate town during the Ottoman times. The theatre-cum-citadel was deserted and buried under the sand. That's probably why the theatre is well-preserved. The accoustics inside the theatre is amazing. Your voice and the sound you make in the theatre is naturally amplified and echoed. The theatre is back in use once every other year (in odd years) as a venue for Bosra Festival. Two weeks in October see various performances from all over the world. If you plan to visit Syria, bear this in mind when you decide when to go.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Restaurants in Damascus

After exploring the Old City, we go back to Misao's place, where we meet her neighbour Sarah, a German girl studying Arabic. Three of us go to Sarah's favorite restaurant Al-Shami House for very early (by Syrian standards) dinner around 6 pm. No doubt there is almost no one but waiters in the restaurant.

There are quite a few restaurants in the Old City, and most of them seem to renovate 18th-century Damascene houses, characterised with the combination of a very sober facade and a magnificent courtyard inside with decorated walls, marble floors, a fountain in the centre and quite large trees with lush green leaves. Al-Shami House restaurant is no exception as seen below.

Tonight I order kafta. According to Lonely Planet, it is "made of minced lamb, onion, spices, topped with a tossed salad of parsley, onions, olive oil and sumac (a tangy, lemony spice)." What I'm served with is this:

It is actually an ordinary gratin with a minced lamb meatball (left) and an eggplant and onion ball (right). Probably this is arranged in Western style. But it doesn't matter as it's very delicious.

What's interesting about restaurants in Syria is that there is a complete division of labour. Guys taking orders only take orders; those serving drinks and dishes never take orders; and there are guys only in charge of charcoal for narghile. In general, they are very friendly - quite opposite to many restaurants in London.

Another good thing about restaurants in Syria is that your bill almost never exceeds 500 SP (US$10 or 5 UK pounds) for excellent meals - utterly different from London, where 5 pounds buy you only a sandwich and the average bill for mediocre (or terrible) dinner is 20 pounds. Tonight three of us pay 270 SP each.

But if you love drinking, you may not be happy with Syrian restaurants; many of them do not serve alcohol. Yes this is a Muslim country. Even Damascus is quite conservative. As I'm not so keen to drink, I don't care about this respect, though.

Tonight I try narghile - what's called shisha in (probably) Egypt. As I'm not a smoker, I'm unable to enjoy this nicotine-free smoking. But almost every Syrian in any restaurant seems to have a chat over narghile after dinner.

Over delicious meals, by the way, Sarah, a relatively devout Christian, explains the difference between Christianity and Islam, something that non-religious Japanese people are not familiar with at all. I understand why these two groups of people don't understand each other. By definition, each religion denies the other: both believe that there is only one God; and the God each of them believes in is different from each other. They get upset by the other's belief very understandably.

The Old City of Damascus

The second day in Syria is devoted to touring the Old City of Damascus. First built by the Romans - Syria became a province of the Roman empire in 64 BC - and later transformed by Muslims, this part of Damascus still maintains the atmosphere of a medieval Islamic city (or so says the Lonely Planet). Let me show you several photos below.

A very narrow alleyway typical of the Old City of Damascus

Sharia al-Qaimariyya, a high street stretching straight to the east of Umayyad Mosque, is arcaded by vines, providing a pleasant daytime walk.

Souq al-Hamidiyya, an arcaded market street stretching to the west of Umayyad Mosque. The vault of corrugated-iron roofing, constructed in the late 19th century in honour of the visiting Ottoman sultan Hamid II, has lots of random bullet holes made by French planes during the nationalist rebellion of 1925, through which shafts of sunlight reach the cobbled pavement, an unintended decoration of the souq (as seen in the photo below).

Now it's time to visit Umayyad Mosque, built in 705 by the Umayyad Caliph al-Wahid ben Abdul Malek (at that time, Damascus was the capital city of the Umayyads, an Islamic Empire). Muslims are allowed to enter for free from any of the three gates while non-Muslims have to pay 50 SP (US$1) to be let in through the north gate. Women in Western gear need to put on a horrible khaki robe provided at the entrance, which deters Misao from getting into the Mosque till the present time. So I enter the Mosque alone. Oh, yes, you need to get off your shoes and take them with you as well.

The courtyard of Umayyad Mosque (click to enlarge). The marble floor and the walls surrounding the vast courtyard provides a tranquil atmosphere; many locals are dozing in the shade.

The Mosque has three minarets. On the north wall towers the Minaret of the Bride, the oldest among the three.

On the southeast corner, the Minaret of Jesus, the tallest.

And the most beautiful Al-Gharbiyya Minaret on the southwest.
(viewed from ouside)

In the courtyard, two golden mosaics can be seen. One on the facade of the prayer hall (on the south of the courtyard).
(Click to enlarge.)

The other on the western arcade wall (click to enlarge).

The Dome of the Treasury in the courtyard (with Al-Gharbiyya Minaret on the left).

Let's get into the prayer hall. Here you can't put your shoes on the carpet; long wooden boxes are prepared. (Someone admonishes me...)

Maybe it looks somewhat out of place (as the Lonely Planet says), but a beautiful shrine sits on the floor of the prayer hall: the Shrine of John the Baptist.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Syrian eating experience part I - Haretna restaurant in the Christian Quarter, Damascus

After getting off the bus at Bab Touma, Misao takes me to her favorite restaurant, Haretna, located in the middle of the Christian Quarter (the northeastern part of the Old City).

It's past 10 pm when we arrive. But the restaurant is just beginning to get crowded. No, this is Syria. I should say, "Therefore" instead of "But". Syrians have dinner after 10 pm until well past midnight - even kids stay awake. It's kind of a mystery what they do after finishing working until dinner.

I try three of the so-called mezze (starters). The first one is famous: hummus (made of chickpea and tahini).
The second is tabbouleh (a salad of bulgar wheat, parsley and tomato, with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, lemon and garlic).

I had these two in Lebanese restaurants in London. I didn't like them at that time. Now they are superb. I just realize that those Lebanese restaurants are not an exception in London's eating industry - they lower the standard of foods they serve in order to cater to Britons.

But the most impressive is baba ghanoug (an eggplant salad with diced tomato, onion, parsley, garlic and lemon). Like hummus, it's eaten with Arabic bread used as a scoop.

I didn't expect much about foods in Syria, based on my experience of Lebanese cuisine in London (Lebanese and Syrian are similar). But the first dinner in Syria is just the beginning of unanticipated pleasure...

By the way, Haretna restaurant is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Here's how to get there. From Bab Touma, walk down to the south along Sharia Bab Touma - a "high street" in the Christian Quarter. Turn left at the first corner. A short walk takes you to a signpost with a pale green arrow indicating that you need to turn right here. Then turn left at the next signpost. Haretna is on your right.

Damascus City Bus Ride

I check in the Al-Haramein Hotel, a hotel frequented by backpackers (more on this hotel later). Then we take a bus from Saahat Yousef al-Azmeh, a crossing near the hotel where five streets meet, to Bab Touma (Thomas's Gate), the northeast gate to the Old City of Damascus.

Damascus city bus

Taking a city bus is what visitors find it difficult to do in a foreign city. Damascus is no exception. Destination is written only in Arabic. Passengers have bus carnets in advance - Misao says bus drivers sell them - and insert one piece of ticket into a ticket checker machine that cuts the edge of the ticket.

The ticket checker (the orange box behind the bus driver)

The fare is 3 SP though nobody uses 1 SP or 2 SP coins anymore. One ticket serves two rides. So if you finish using it, it looks like this.

Mt. Kassioun at night

A half-hour bus ride takes us to Karajat Baramke, one of the two main bus stations in Damascus. It's already after dark. Misao says that the green lights indicate the location of mosques. I see quite a few number of green lights. It seems to me that one neighbourhood has more than one mosques.

Halfway down to the bus terminal, I see a cluster of glittering white lights. "Is that the city centre?" "No, it's Mt. Kassioun," says Misao. It becomes clear to me when we get off the bus and walk to the city centre. On the northwest of Damascus looms a mountain (1200m) called Jebel Kassioun. Apart from the very top, it is covered by myriads of houses. As a result, the mountain looks like the inside of a jewel box during the night. The best view of the mountain is obtained from the crossing of Sharia al-Jama'a as-Suriyya (the road from the Baramke bus terminal to the north) and Sharia Mousalam al-Baroudi (the street from Hejaz train station to the west) - near the southwest corner of the National Museum. This is one of the second most beautiful scenes in Syria (the most beautiful comes later). Unfortunately, the photo below does not reflect exactly what I actually saw...

Arrival in Damascus

I arrive at the Damascus Airport (DAM) at 7 pm. Flying with Air France (from London to Damascus via Paris) took only 6 hours (plus 2 hours for transit). It was a rather comfortable journey: the seat was wide for the economy class; flight attendants were cheerful; and inflight meals were quite good.

Immigration officers give me an entry card, which you need to return to them when you leave Syria. From my experience, I believed that only one person could stand in front of the immigration counter. In Syria, there are two officers in the booth. While one guy (yes, all of them are guys) deals with some procedural things, the other guy calls a next person. I feel kind of weird by standing next to someone else in front of immigration officers.

Misao, a Japanese friend of mine living in Damascus for learning Arabic, has come to the airport. After a brief greeting, she immediately takes me out of the airport as she says, "A Syrian crowd will stare at me if I'm with a guy." Welcome to a Muslim country.

I see no - maybe a few, but certainly not a lot - dodgy taxi drivers offering a ride to the city centre, a common scene when you arrive at the airport in a developing country. As will be repeated again and again in this travelogue, Syria is yet to be victimised by tourists from rich countries.

Once we get out of the airport building, Misao takes me straight to the bus stop to the right. From here, the state-run Karnak bus takes people to the city centre. It costs 20 Syrian pounds (20 UK pence or 40 US cents). If you take taxi, it will be 500 Syrian pounds (henceforth SP), the most expensive transport in Syria aside from domestic flights (you'll see why later).

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

STA Travel Insurance

Buy travel insurance at STA Travel. A premium differs depending on whether you travel to Europe or the rest of the world. So I was expecting to pay 37 pounds for standard insurance plan (12 day trip). I was wrong. "Europe" includes Madeira, Canary Islands and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. I'm shown a map of Syria at the counter, which tells me Syria does border the Mediterranean Sea. So I end up paying just 17 pounds.

I do not understand why premiums are the same for Europe and Syria. I feel I'm lucky.