Faces of Syria

I knew that Syria is in the middle of the world, but I was not prepared for the variety of faces I would see in what is statistically reported to be a fairly homogeneously Arab country. Some of the people below may belong to various minority groups (I have identified a couple), but I imagine most of them, if asked, would simply answer that they are Arab. Cleary, Arab ethnic/cultural identity is far more complex than many others–not all these people are “pure” descendents of Arabs from Arabia, as a simple comparison with Gulf Arabs reveals. Syrians, belonging as they do to a country that lies at a crossroads, must have ancestry that traces back thousands of miles both east and west. As I have said before, there are no doubt descendants of Crusaders and Mongols in Syria (along with descendants of Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians and Romans), whose ancestors have intermarried with each other and with, perhaps, Arabs from Arabia.

Reading, within a mosque just off of the main souk in Damascus.

Selling coffee and tea, Damascus.

At Bekdach, the famous ice creamery in the Damascus souk.

I am not sure what his Arabic title is, but this man’s job is to tend to the nargilehs (or sheeshas/hookahs). Most restaurants/cafes have a designated specialist.

A bedouin girl at Apamea. I much admired her lambskin jacket!

Abdullah found us at a historical madrassah next to the Aleppo Umayyad Mosque, and then escorted us all around town for hours, helping us find buildings and introducing us to his family. Of seven siblings, he and one of his brothers have fairer features, while the others have darker hair/complexion. Abdullah didn’t speak English, but was clearly exceptionally bright and curious (knowing finer details of many parts of the Old City and rummaging through the contents of each of our bags and pockets). He exuded a bold confidence unexpected in a young boy.

Nighttime, Aleppo souk.

A Kurdish woman we met at St. Simeon.

Part Syrian Turkmen, part Kurdish, part Armenian. And a fine salesman!

A bedouin wife shopping at a blacksmith near the eastern gate of Aleppo.

Don’t you think his looks are rather wasted in the cotton candy business? He belongs on CNN with Anderson Cooper!

A (tourist) camel driver in Palmyra.

A bedouin young man.

A bedouin woman.

In the Christian quarter of Damascus. Note the rosary.

A druze (Muslim religious minority) man in Shahba. Shabha is largely populated with Druze who moved in following conflict in Lebanon.

A young shopkeeper in Damascus, enjoying a nargileh while awaiting customers.

Syria: A Police State?

Is Syria in 2008 a police state? Hard for us to say, but on a daily basis it does not seem to me that people feel under the thumb of the authorities. When asked about domestic politics people seem to speak freely (and generally favorably), there aren’t too many routine police checks on the streets or highways and the police/military presence is not overbearing, considering that there is compulsory military service (and therefore a lot of soldiers). It certainly feels freer than some other places we’ve been to, and generally not oppressive.

That said, we had an interesting experience today, and thought I would share it. It doesn’t exactly argue for Syria being a police state, but it does show that, under some circumstances, the police are quite active in keeping track of people and places.

We had a choice of a few different routes for our trip from Aleppo to Palmyra. For a desert change of pace, I thought that we would head all the way out to Deir ez-Zur, located on the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, where we would overnight and then visit the Seleucid/Roman ruins of Dura Europos the next morning. We took a four hour bus to Deir ez-Zur, arriving late at night (and wandering for the next hour looking for a hotel that wasn’t full).

The next morning, we headed to the microbus station, where our eager taxi driver helped us locate the right minibus (the one to the town of Abu Kamal, which is on the Syrian/Iraqi border). However, the minibus driver wouldn’t let us in right away, saying that we needed to check in with the police, which had a small office at the station. We found this pretty peculiar (we never had to do it before when getting on a minibus, although regular bus and train rides generally required a check of identification), but guessed that it was because of course this was a sensitive border area.

There were three men in the small police office, and all were exceedingly friendly when we entered. There were “ahlen wa-sahlens” (“welcome,” by the far the phrase you hear most often in Syria) all around, followed by a few short questions (where we were from, where we were headed, and so forth). We were taken a bit aback when they named, in a casual though almost boastful manner, as if proudly offering proof of one’s own intelligence, the hotel we were staying in (there are at least seven or eight in town). The police officer wrote our details into a big register (not dissimilar from the process of checking into a hotel in Syria) and then handed us back to the minibus driver. We got on.

We noticed before we left that the identification numbers of the other passengers were also recorded, similar to the process for a regular (big) bus. We were somewhat surprised though, when, after all the paperwork was complete and right before leaving the station, our minibus was held up for a couple of minutes for an extra passenger, a rather fit young man, dressed casually yet vaguely seeming official, who sat in a space that is not usually occupied by passengers (at least not at the start of a route). Intuitively he seemed like ununiformed police or military, though at the time it was not clear.

[photo actually taken near Palmyra]

Dura Europos lies about a kilometer off of the main road from Deir ez-Zur to Abu Kamal, about twenty kilometers before Abu Kamal and the Iraqi border. A bit over an hour from Deir ez-Zur, we were dropped off on the main road outside of the ruins. When we got off, the young man got off the minibus as well, and asked us a few questions in English that was surprisingly good. Even given the nature of the questions (where are you from, where are you going, and so forth), the delivery seemed too perfunctory and without any apparent personal curiosity for our responses. When the minibus drove off (with him back on), we began wondering whether he wasn’t put on the minibus at the last minute to keep track of us, to make sure that we got off at our stated destination (a Roman ruin) rather than somewhere else (sensitive border areas).

From the highway, facing Palmyra Gate

We shrugged it off and toured the site. Dura Europos was founded by the Seleucids, one of the heirs to Alexander the Great’s adventures in the Near East. The city was then occupied by Parthians and then Romans, before being destroyed by the Sassanid Persians in 256 AD. The great discoveries at Dura Europos included incredibly rich, well-preserved frescoes located inside a synagogue (now in Damascus), a church (now at Yale in New Haven) and a Roman pagan temple (scattered in various places). These temples were mere blocks apart in the city, the Jewish synagogue being located literally across a small street from a temple to Adonis. And we think that we’re multicultural and tolerant now!

Within the city walls

Euphrates River valley, seen from Dura Europos

Anyway, toward the end of our visit we noticed that a local man was also looking around the site. There were very few tourists at Dura Europos (while we were there, we saw only one other pair of tourists, and some archeologists working in the brutal midday sun), but it wasn’t too suprising to see someone, and we didn’t think anything of it. Eager to get out of the sun, back to town and out to Palmyra, we started walking the kilometer or so back toward the main road, to pick up a minibus or hitch a ride.

When we were almost at the main road, we noticed that a white car had pulled up behind us. It was being driven strangely slowly (I had seen it coming a few minutes before), but we asked if they were headed to Deir ez-Zur, to see if we could get a ride. The answer was no–they seemed to indicate that they were headed the other way–and so we continued walking. When we got to the main road, however, the car, which had two occupants, just sat there at the intersection.

We were pretty annoyed because, naturally, having a car next to us, even if not ours, was likely to make it much harder for us to pick up a ride. The white car stood still at the intersection, the occupants chatting away, while a few cars passed by (including one that almost stopped for us, but then inexplicably sped up and drove by). After about ten minutes, we walked forward about a hundred meters along the main road, to put some space between us and the white car. Eventually, a minibus came, and we got in.

As we were getting situated (putting Derek and his knees in a minibus takes a bit of time), the white car drove up to the minibus flashing its headlights. The driver of the white car asked the driver of the minibus to come out, and there was a brief conversation and a paperwork exchanged. The minibus driver then read out a telephone number that was written on the minibus to the man in the white car. When the minibus driver got back in, he asked us in English, “Problem with the police?”

Our escorts

That’s when it became clear–we were being tracked by a series of ununiformed police officers (or delegates) ever since we left the bus station: first the man who road out with us, and then another man who kept an eye out for us in the ruins to ensure we got back on a vehicle to town. When we returned to the bus station, we were again temporarily detained at the police office (while our route was confirmed?)–again, all in the most friendly manner.

We mentioned this to our hotel owner in Deir ez-Zur, and he indicated that this was pretty standard practice. Because the city is located so close to a sensitive border, the police, we were told, do a daily circuit of all of the hotels to check guest registers. And, when tourists venture out of town in the direction of the Iraqi border, they are kept track of. The hotel owner said that the main purpose is, and I believe that it is, to make sure that foreign visitors (I suppose especially Americans, given potential problems we may face) are safe and out of danger. But I suppose a secondary purpose is to make sure that we’re harmless tourists, not engaging in any sinister activities.

Does our experience mean Syria is a police state? No, but the experience was surprising, a tiny bit unsettling and a first for us.

The Dead Cities

Syria has its great Roman-era ruins (foremost among them Apamea, Palmyra and Bosra, the latter two being UNESCO World Heritage Sites–post to come), but as an independent traveler perhaps even more enjoyable are the smaller Roman and Byzantine ruins referred to as the Dead Cities. Located primarily in the Belus Massif around the city of Muraat al-Numan (which is itself located an hour south of Aleppo and is the infamous site of cannibalistic atrocities by the Crusaders) and in the Hauran Plateau south of Damascus, the Dead Cities have survived in large part due to their sturdiness of construction (the stone building materials in those areas being particularly durable) and historical happenstance (relatively sudden decline and abandonment of the towns leading to a good time capsule-like state of preservation).

The Dead Cities, which number in the hundreds (!), are uniquely interesting historically because they include intact domestic and minor small-town buildings in addition to the larger, civic buildings that also survive in larger ruined cities. In the Dead Cities, you can find small churches, homes, olive presses, tombs–all the trappings of a small prosperous (Byzantine-era) country town. To the independent traveler, the Dead Cities provide endless opportunities for exploration (we spent a few days in total but a traveler with greater historical background and time could easily spend weeks). At one site, we saw that the Swiss government had aided in putting together a small circuit of a few of the Dead Cities–as a trekking/camping route, such a trip would truly excel in its opportunities for appreciating the beautiful Syrian countryside, interacting with rural locals and walking through history with essentially no other tourists in sight. We ourselves saw other tourists in only two of the Dead Cities that we visited, even though the ones we visited were among the most popular, and easily accessible by bus and taxi. In a country with fewer sites, these would be major, crowded attractions!

Another, somewhat wild, feature of the Dead Cities is that many are inhabited. After a period of what must have been total abandonment, many of the cities have been resettled in the recent past. While at some sites there is a separation between the old town and the new one, in other cities people live right among or in the ruins. In a few places we saw almost entire Byzantine-era homes, complete with paved courtyards and walls, being lived in, and in the Hauran town of Shahba, Roman-era shops still sell merchandise along a Roman paved street. It is quite incredible to see buildings nearly 2,000 years old still serving their original purpose–the original architects and construction companies would be so proud! The reuse is quite a sight, of course (as at Tartus–see my post of 4.14), but in some cases one wonders whether clearing out modern residents may be better in order to preserve the sites for future generations.

Church, Deir Samaan. Deir Samaan, located downhill from Qalaat Samaan, or the St. Simeon Church Complex (cf. my post of April 21), was founded to service pilgrims. (Sort of like Tirupathi to Tirumala, cf. my post of March 27.) Deir Samaan includes among its ruins many churches and pilgrim lodgings.

Detail of a column in Deir Samaan.

A local man pointed out to us this elaborately decorated crypt, which was not mentioned in any of our fairly detailed guides (note the stone grill on right, mostly covered by dirt and plants). The uncovered portion of the opening was just big enough to pass inside and see places for five sarcophagi, which have been removed. The man who showed us the crypt spoke very little English, but was very excited and insistent on speaking with us, repeating, “One house, one, two, three, four, five; two houses, three houses, four houses, why?” The sun was setting and for a while we had not a clue what he meant, but he was very persistent, and finally with many hand gestures and walking around we finally understood that he was asking us whether we thought that there might be more, unexcavated crypts, along the side of the same hill on which this crypt was found. I’m not quite sure why he thought we would know, but, looking at the terrain, it seemed quite possible, which we conveyed to him (many, many sites in Syria are not fully excavated). He suggested that we fund a dig!

The town of Jeradeh had towers, which may have had a defensive function (cf. my earlier post on the Diaolou of southern China).

The tower above had a cute and still-functioning stone door (note the hinges). We saw stone doors at a couple sites–they move surprisingly well, considering that they’re made of stone, and have obviously stood the test of time, but still seem rather impractical.

A well-ruined building in Jeradeh. Note the rocky terrain of the Belus Massif.

Much of the charm of the Dead Cities is that people still live in and among the ruins. In addition to Byzantine-era houses that are still lived-in, there are larger ruins that have been converted for new uses. This church in Ruweiha is now a pen for animals.

Laundry line-drying.

A monastery or lodging house, with well-preserved porticoes, outside Dana.

Street in Dana. Much like in Tartus (cf. my post of 4.14), you can make out masonry from different periods of construction.

On the left side of the street pictured above, an old arch used as the entrance to a home.

In Bara, an ancient olive press that looks as if it could restart production tomorrow. Bara is overgrown and half-hidden in forest and olive groves, giving the place a sort of Angkor Wat atmosphere.

A pyramidal Roman-era tomb, Bara.

Sarcophagi inside another pyramidal tomb, Bara. Note the crosses–while the pyramid form is originally a pagan design, its builders and occupants were Christian.

Overview of the central town square of Serjilla, fronted by a bath (left) and a tavern (right). Note the well-preserved paving of the square itself. Serjilla is the largest (and most popular) Dead City.

Christian detail, Serjilla.

Carving fragments, Serjilla. Although the best pieces have been carted off to museums, beautiful carvings lie in situ all over ruins in Syria.

Aleppo Souks

The most famous sight in Aleppo is its markets, or souks. Covering miles and miles of covered alleys (sometimes it feels like the whole old city is souk), the souks sell everything from food to fabric to hardware (and of course also souvenirs for the tourists, but those shops make up a very small portion of the markets as a whole). Some photographs:

Closed for business on Friday.

This sweets shop was located in a broader, uncovered area, allowing for this huge display.

A less crowded moment. The souks are generally quite congested during the day. Note the meat hanging for sale on right.

There are, surprisingly, still donkeys being used for transport about the souk.

Ground spice, artfully presented.

Entrance to Khan al-Sabun. The khans, or caravanserais, acted as both warehouses and lodging for traveling merchants. In Aleppo, most still serve their commercial function, and are crowded with shops along and sometimes within their courtyards.

Near closing time.

There is of course food for sale within the souk as well, for the merchants and the shoppers.

Note the built-in hooks. Other meat for sale was hung on the great doors within the souk.

This is just a photo post, for the most part, but if you have a few minutes try googling some other travelers’ blog entries on the gay vendors of the Aleppo souk. There are two shops in Aleppo being run by highly visible (even flamboyant) gay men. They seem quite open about their sexuality, at least to tourists (one young man wearing while we were there a t-shirt that said “Free Sex”), something that is quite surprising to see in the middle of conservative medieval Aleppo.

St. Simeon Stylites, or On Asceticism

Faith is a funny thing. Ideas that are laughable on any other level become absolute truth and sacred with the addition of religion. Picture yourself as an alien, or someone unaccustomed to civilization on Earth–how would the stories of some of the major religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, etc.) sound? Likely, at least some of them sound implausible to you already.

Similarly, man in his worship of the gods has done some strange things. Horrible things, too, of course, but setting those aside, the devout have concocted ideas that are simply bizarre. One of the oddest acts, perhaps, that man has performed to be closer to the gods is memorialized in the Byzantine ruins of Qalaat Samaan, or the Church Complex of St. Simeon, outside of Aleppo.

St. Simeon “Stylites” (390-459) was born in Syria and entered a Christian monastery at age 16. From the start of his monastic career, he showed a taste for athletic asceticism, including fasting for extended periods of time and fitting himself into tight spaces in which he could only stand upright (note the similarity to forms of torture!). Eventually his feats of privation led to fame, which he tried to escape by climbing and living atop a pillar. As his fame grew, so did his pillar, which grew to a peak height of 15 meters, at the top of which sat a railed platform that was his entire living space. From his pillar, he would speak to his adoring crowds, who made pilgrimage by the thousands to his pillar outside Aleppo. St. Simeon by the end of his career was famous throughout the Roman world, even the Emperor seeking his advice on theological matters. By his death, he had lived 37 years (!) on his pillar, and sparked hundreds of copy-cat stylites, or pillar-living ascetic monks.

The rock visible through the left central door is said to be what remains of the pillar, which has been cut down by souvenir-hunters. The large church complex was built around the pillar after St. Simeon’s death.

My introduction to this post aside, I like to think that had I been born in a different time and place, I might have been a monk, and asceticism appeals to me. It makes perfect sense to me that to seek retreat into the nonphysical realm one must withdraw from the physical, including by refraining from pleasures of the body, which act as distractions, focusing one’s attention on the senses and placing one more in the body than within the mind. For a shorter-term example, think about the darkness and silence that is standard for many places of worship, or libraries, for that matter. I have never been in a sensory deprivation tank, but I think the fundamental idea is the same–by placing yourself in darkness, as far as the inputs of the material world are concerned, you concentrate on the mental/spiritual. Asceticism also contributes to the spiritual life in terms of longer-term life goals. Vows of chastity and poverty, for example, seek to eliminate from a person’s agenda perhaps mankind’s two greatest personal pursuits, leaving more time for contemplation and the life of the mind. Asceticism, by shifting priorities, creates time and energy for different kinds of accomplishment.

Original floor tiling in the main basilica.

The asceticism of St. Simeon, however, seems to me somewhat different than the monastic ideal that I describe in the previous paragraph. Rather than mere withdrawal from pleasure, this is a type of asceticism that is focused on the creation of pain. Instead of quieting bodily signals, in order to focus on thoughts disconnected from the body, this second type of asceticism seeks to generate a bodily response, to a spiritual end. Living on top of a narrow and exposed pillar, starving for extended periods of time, wearing deliberately uncomfortable clothing, whipping oneself–these are all methods of this second kind of asceticism. Why? Doesn’t this have the opposite effect, distracting oneself with pain and discomfort, similar to the distraction of bodily pleasure? One might answer that the pain punishes the body, which is essentially evil, or that the discomfort acts to stimulate/guide thoughts as a reminder of the power of god (and perhaps his ability to damn us to eternal pain should we not conform to his teachings) or the suffering of martyrs. Or, in the case of shorter-term discomfort, such as the daytime fast of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the breaking of the fast each night can serve to heighten our appreciation for god’s gifts to us (of life and food). [I also suppose in an anticlerical mood one could argue that certain individuals actually derive perverse pleasure from the self-generated pain.]