Aleppo Citadel

I read somewhere that the Citadel of Aleppo, topologically, started as a small rise, and grew to the relative mountain it is today through numerous phases of construction, as succeeding generations and empires constructed their temples and forts upon it, each by breaking down and filling in, or adding upon, the deposits of their predecessors. The Citadel thus represents thousands of years of human history, layer piled upon layer.

Within the walls.

And so, I believe, does each of us, or rather the imprint of culture on each of our minds. Most everything we know and believe and feel comes from the past: ancient, even pre-human, biases and tendencies; the wisdom of prophets, philosophers and scientists, passed down from parent to child, professor to student, priest to acolyte; ideas in various states of preservation, from integral cataloged wholes to mere fragments, the history and genesis long forgotten; ancient thinking persisiting and integrated into new frameworks, innovations on foundational edifices long standing, concepts grafted onto others. How often is it that you read a work from hundreds of years ago, and feel it personally, feel that it expresses thoughts you’ve had or ideas you didn’t know how to express?

This is why it is worth studying history, for it explains not only the origin of peoples, places and things, but of ourselves, the structure and content of our minds, why we think the way we do and how we have come to believe what we believe. For yes there are some absolutes, but much more is a construction accreted over time, many layers of the past supporting even the loftiest towers.

Child Labor

Children have of course been used as a source of labor for time immemorial. Whether helping with the harvest or performing more domestic chores, they act as a pair of hands that eases the burden on the adults of a household, whose responsibilities are multiplied by the existence of the children. Even today, to watch a boy herding sheep does not spark outrage, and such work does not seem a crime to their youth and innocence.

But seeing children work in more commercial settings–on streets, in stores or in factories–this brings out a sense of pity. Sad to report, we found many instances of child labor in Syria, some more objectionable than others. What we saw here is not the horrific, industrialized abuse that one imagines when hearing similar reports in other parts of the developing world (although in all our travels in Asia we have almost never witnessed such use of child labor), but smaller scale. To our eyes and hearts, however, each such sight was still a depressing and at times even shocking encounter.

As night falls. This small child was selling sweets on an overpass outside of the old city of Damascus.

We found these three boys in a small candy/sweets factory. Of the fifteen or so employees, most were boys between the ages of twelve and eighteen or so, giving the whole place a Willy Wonka feel. The youngest ones are separating out little paper cups that are used for packaging.

This young cobbler was working in a shoe workshop with two adults. I suppose he may have been one of their sons (or perhaps a nephew), but the somewhat grim basement setting, along with the assembly-line nature of the work, left us uneasy. [Given the medieval setting of Aleppo, it’s not hard to think of some of the child labor as apprenticeships. In medieval Bukhara, Uzbekistan, we ran into a small furniture workshop staffed with young men/boys described as a woodworking school and in Cambodia and South India, we have seen crafts for sale made by “young art students.”]

Ferrying goods into a khan, or caravanserai.

On a lighter note–kids helping tend the shops of their parents. Part child labor, part cheap daycare. (I sometimes helped my parents as a young boy, though certainly not as a regular “job.”) We frequently saw the boy juicer minding the shop alone; the boy grocer looked more like he was visiting after school. It was cute, I must admit, when little children would ask us what we needed, trying to explain the price of the merchandise.

Crusader Castles

For almost two hundred years, from the late 11th to the late 13th centuries, western Europeans maintained a presence in the Levant through the Crusades. A series of Christian holy wars triggered largely by the Seljuk Turks’ Anatolian advances (that is, a Muslim empire encroaching on the Byzantine capital of Constantinople now Istanbul), the Crusades before they were over resulted not only in decidedly un-Christian atrocities in the Holy Land, but also in a perverse attack on Constantinople itself, the western Roman Catholics pillaging in the Fourth Crusade the Orthodox Christian imperial city. (Constantinople would finally fall, to the Ottomans, in the 15th century.)

Brief chronology:

1096 – Crusaders arrive in the Middle East.
1099 – Crusaders take Jerusalem, taking advantage of a lack of unity in the Muslim forces. Residents of Jerusalem (including many Christians) are slaughtered. Several small Crusader states are formed in the Levant.
1171 – Saladin conquers Shiite Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and forms a stronger, unified Arab force.
1187 – Battle of Hattin. Saladin captures Jerusalem, reducing the Crusader presence to a string of coastal cities, principally Acre.
1260 – Ayubbid dynasty (founded by Saladin) is replaced by the Mamluk Sultanate. The Mamluks were a slave military class of Turkish origin and rose to power by coup. The first Mamluk Sultan was Baibars, who fought off not only the Crusaders but the Mongols, stopping their advance in Syria.
1291 – Fall of Acre (and Tortosa).

Some of the greatest architectural remnants of the Crusaders are their forts. Some built on preexisting Byzantine or Arab forts, and all eventually controlled by the victorious Arabs, the castles are some of the world’s finest, not only in their magnificent structure and use of military technology but also in their spectacular locations. We visited several sights, but will focus on a few below. [Please also refer to my earlier post on Tortosa]

Krak des Chevaliers (Qalaat al-Hosn)

Undoubtedly the greatest of the Crusader castles, and in a fine state of preservation, the Krak was the site of a castle since at least the early 11th century, but was expanded by the Crusaders in the mid-12th century, when it was under the control of the Knights Hospitaller. The Krak formed part of a defense network that spanned the Crusader coast and the hinterlands, and was twice successfully defended. Mamluk Sultan Baibars led a final siege of the castle in 1271, after which the Crusaders surrendered.

Machicolations at the top of the tower, a defensive structure allowing the dropping of missiles or hot liquid on an attacking force. Note the band of Arabic inscription.

Entry to the castle, a gradual slope allowing for horses to make their way to the giant stables.

Moat and glacis, or protective slope, of the central keep, all within the outer walls. The glacis is 25 meters thick (!) at its base.

The gothic loggia. Crusader castles are generally devoid of ornamentation, making it all the more striking to see this beautiful entry to the great hall. The gothic style is a very tangible reminder that the Crusaders were, in fact, European. Outside the window you can see the central courtyard of the inner castle.

Close-up of door of loggia to the great hall (on right of picture above).

This cavernous space behind the great hall connects the kitchen area to the chapel. The open stalls visible on the left are old latrines.

The chapel was converted into a mosque in the Arab period, when the mihrab (prayer niche, to the right) and minbar (pulpit) were added on the southern (Mecca-facing) wall. The chapel, of course, faces east.

Chastel Blanc (Safita)

On a peak visible from both the Krak and Tortosa, Chastel Blanc was a link in the Crusaders’ defense. After it was damaged in an attack by Saladin in 1188, the Knights Templar took control of Chastel Blanc (along with Tortosa), and refortified it into the seemingly almost solid cube it remains today. The castle was also won by Baibars in 1271. The central keep, which acted as the chapel of the fort, survives and is now an Orthodox church.

Margat (Qalaat Marqab)

On a breathtaking ridge overlooking the Mediterranean, Margat, originally an Arab fort, was strengthened by the Knights Hospitaller in the late 12th century. After successfully withstanding two sieges, the castle was surrendered to Sultan Qalaun (successor to Baibars) in 1285.

Remnant of a fresco (uncovered in 1987) of Jesus and his disciples visible on the ceiling of a side chapel of the fort’s chapel. (This photo was obtained by Derek squeezing his camera arm up to his shoulder through a very small open window and clicking blindly at the ceiling, the same way he confirmed that these frescos were indeed there.)

Saone (Qalaat Saladin)

Saone is an earlier construction, and has been renamed for Saladin, who took the castle in 1188. While not in the same state of preservation as some of the other castles, it is unique in having many identifiable works from the Byzantine, Crusader and Arab periods, and is located in beautiful woodland, with two canyons running up each side of the narrow fort.

Remnant of rock-cut support to the drawbridge. On the left you can see a metal platform that indicates where the drawbridge entered the castle.

A giant cistern (note the steps on the right).

The outer walls, but on top of solid rock.

The Real Syria

When we tell people that we’re American, one of the things we are told is that we must go back and tell people what Syria is like, to combat ignorance and misperception. This post aims to fulfill this repeated request.


Coming to Syria, I had of course done some research. I knew the basic history of Syria, at least from ancient times to the Ottoman period, and knew which historical monuments I was most interested in seeing. We also very much looked forward to our reception by the Syrians, who we were told were, even by Middle Eastern standards, famous for their hospitality and the genuine warmth with which they treat foreign visitors. But there were, I am embarrassed to admit, many things about Syria I didn’t understand, and for purposes of this post I must explicitly address my ignorance. Travel at its best acts to lift such veils from our eyes, and I am thankful for my newfound understanding and hope that you find it a worthy read, even if you do not suffer from my prior shortcomings.

Syria has a secular government.

Because Syria is so often mentioned in the same breath as Iran (in U.S. foreign policy and media), and because it has supported Islamist groups outside its borders (most famously Hezbollah, the Party of God, in Lebanon), I was under the mistaken impression that Syria was politically Islamic. I didn’t think that it was a quasi-theocracy, but I did think that its government would have a more Islamic bent than other Arab countries and that its people would be more rigidly orthodox.

This could not be further from the truth. Syria’s government is almost totally secular and Islam has no special status under Syrian law (contrary to most other Arab countries). The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is, like his father Hafez (president, 1971-2000), an Alawite, a religious minority that is derived from Islam but which some Muslims believe to be a heresy, and the Assads have given a fair amount of power to Alawites and other religious minorities in the Syrian government. If anything, Islamists have been viewed as a threat to the regime, and Syria has already fought and won its war against Islamist militants: In 1982, in a huge show of force called the Hama Massacre (and a massacre it was, with up to 20,000 dead), the Syrian government wiped out the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood–even today, they are active in almost every Islamic country but Syria.

The Assads even use pagan iconography! Bashar as Sun God. [More images of Assads Sr. and Jr. to come in a future post]

Every Christian we have spoken to in Syria (and we have spoken to many–although a 10% or so minority I think they speak English or choose to speak to us disproportionately) states unequivocally that all religions are equal under Syrian law and that they have no issues whatsoever with freedom of worship. In this regard, they truly feel themselves fortunate to live in Syria rather than other Arab countries. People of different faiths seem to get along perfectly well and there are many interfaith friendships, even if they do not intermarry.

Mass, Armenian church, Aleppo

[A secular, developing Arab country, firmly governed–as a couple Iraqi refugees explained to us, Syria must be what Iraq was like, before we attacked. If we’re so keen on stopping Islamofascism or whatever, why are we targeting the secular countries?]

Arab does not equal Muslim.

Because the religion of Islam arose out of Arabia, and is so closely connected to Arab ethnicity and the Arabic language, it is easy to fall into the misunderstanding that all Arabs are Muslim and most Muslims Arabs. Of course the latter is not true (from Iran westward lives a huge percentage of the world’s Muslim population, including Iranians (who are not Arabs), South Asians, Indonesians, Central Asians and Chinese Muslims), but it’s also important to keep in mind all of the Arabs that are not Muslims.

Orthodox Christian procession, Aleppo

In Syria there are very large numbers of Arab Christians (some 10% of the population), belonging to numerous faiths (Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Maronite perhaps foremost among them). They form a sizable and visible minority in major cities and even a majority in certain towns. Syria has some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, given its proximity to the Holy Land, including in Maalula, where the local population still speaks Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus. My namesake Paul was famously converted in Damascus, many important early saints and theologians lived their lives in Syria and Syria was a core part of the Christian Byzantine empire until the time of the Arab Islamic conquest (a testament to this being, in addition to the living churches, the huge numbers of religious sites and churches that lie among the Byzantine, and older, ruins).

Statue of Mary and crosses, Maalula

Even after the region came under the control of the caliphs, Christians prospered (freedom of worship for Christianity and Judaism is a core Islamic practice, as the three faiths all worship the same god) and formed a significant percentage of the population. In the twentieth century, because of Syria’s continuing tolerance and secular government, many Christians (ranging from Armenians fleeing Turkey to Iraqi refugees fleeing war) have sought refuge here, expanding the local Christian population.

Many faiths are represented in the Christian district of Aleppo.

Syria excels in the amount of apparent harmony there is among different religious groups, but there are also large Christian populations in other Arab countries. Lebanon was originally created by the French to be a majority Christian Arab country, and the Copts form a sizable minority in Egypt (one of my closer friends in high school came from a Coptic family). Christians make up a significant minority in Palestine as well. This may be stating the obvious, but Arab Christians are just as Arab as Arab Muslims, culturally (although Christian women may dress less modestly), linguistically (using the Arabic language for worship, including the Arabic word for god, Allah) and ethnically (that is, you cannot “tell them apart”).

[It is important to note here, although the topic really merits a separate post, the extent to which Christian and Muslim Arab opinion on the issue of Israel is essentially the same–for Arabs, the Israeli issue is not fundamentally a religious one but a national and political one; in fact, given that Israel grants citizenship to all Jews regardless of national origin, enlarging the Israeli population and arguably displacing both Muslim and Christian Arabs from their ancestral homes, some people we have spoken to see the Jewish position as the fundamentally religion-based one, perhaps somewhat contrary to what people think in America, which is that the Arabs must be the ones who are religiously driven. Especially seeing the bizarre support by some American evangelical Christians for Israel, it is tempting to agree that Zionism is far more faith-based than the Arab position.]

Syria is as much a part of the Mediterranean world as it is a part of the Middle East.

Though I, not having traveled much in southern Europe, cannot make this observation definitively as to lifestyle, it seems to me evident in the diet and character of the people, the terrain and of course history, that Syria can be viewed as part of the Mediterranean world. The staples here include olives and cheese, and the cuisine is of the universal mediterranean variety that one finds in the Levant, Turkey and Greece. People are expressive and in appearance (and often dress, as far as the men are concerned) no different than southern Europeans. [Post on this to come.] The hillsides surrounding the Crusader castles reminded me far more of southern France than I thought they would, leading me to think that the Crusaders may not have felt so far from home after all. And, historically, the region has been oriented westward toward the sea (as part of the worlds of the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders) as much as east- and southward toward Iran and Arabia (and has often been a balancing point between the two).

In the souk

Countryside near Krak des Chevaliers (in upper right)

Syria is ethnically diverse.

There are two points here. The first is that there are significant and visible ethnic minorities in Syria, including Kurds (2 million, or about 10%) and Armenians (100,000). While they all speak Arabic and are integrated into the country (identify themselves as Syrians), they often know their ancestral tongue and participate in their own cultures. One Kurdish driver we hitched a ride with (Kurds are sometimes quick to identify themselves as Kurds, even unsolicited) proudly blasted loud Kurdish music. Other Kurds we have met were eager to discuss our perception of Kurds. Armenians are united not only by ethnicity but by their faith, and can be seen attending church services. Unlike the Kurds (who to us are not easily identified by appearance), Armenians tend to be fair in coloration and somewhat easier to distinguish. One Armenian woman explained to us how flights from Aleppo (the main home of the Armenian community in Syria) to Yerevan were always full and hard to book.

A Kurdish woman

Armenian youth outside an Armenian church in Aleppo

The second point, and I think the more interesting one, is that “Arab” ethnic identity is far more complicated than I imagined. Unlike in the Gulf, where Arab carries with it a certain homogeneous outward appearance, Arab people in Syria have very diverse appearances. This must be because of the many, many peoples who have flowed in and out of the area over time, and gradually become assimilated to Arab language, culture and identity. The Arab armies at the time of the Arab conquest, after all, did not massacre and replace the local population–it is that the (largely already Semitic) people who were here became Arabized over time (not to mention the people who arrived after the Arab conquest–presumably there are descendents of Crusaders and Mongols in Syria). Color in terms of skin, hair and eyes varies widely, far more widely than I expected–so much so, that there are people here who could pass for almost any caucasian ethnic group, from Indian to northern European (who knew we would see so many redheads in the Middle East!). [Post on this to come.]

Traditional dress does not indicate a puritanical mindset.

Does not really illustrate the point, but a fun picture–the women apologized for getting in the way, although of course they were an essential part of the composition.

I think, before coming here, I had a sense that people who dressed in very traditional Arab Islamic clothing must take themselves (and their religion) very seriously, and so were so pious as to be un-fun. It seemed that people who wanted to set themselves apart from the modern world in such manner must want also to keep their distance from outsiders and their ways. While it is true that a woman wearing a burka is likely to be fairly reserved and cautious in her interactions with a foreign man, many people we’ve met in what in the West would be considered some form of Islamic dress have not at all matched the stereotype that I held.

At play in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Aleppo

A friendly cleric outside the Grand Mosque in Aleppo

In terms of behavior, wearing a veil here in Syria seems to predict almost nothing. Young women in Syria wear all sorts of modern western clothing (often tight, though not exposing much skin), and sometimes accessorize with a sexy scarf to cover the head (often topped with a pair of trendy sunglasses). The “veil”, though perhaps dictated by custom, merely becomes another accessory and not one that defines their modern outlook. And some of these young ladies are among the most flirtatious in the world!

A modern Syrian woman, Aleppo

A group that we met at Apamea. The young ladies, though dressed in black, were very made up and sexy. As they passed us, they asked us (in Arabic) to take their pictures (as many Syrians do). When we took the camera out, however, the older woman who was with them (a teacher?) scolded them and tried to block us, while the girls kept trying to evade her and get photographed. Even after they passed us, they kept looking back and giving us very, um, warm, smiles.

Similarly, we’ve met older women in full black dress who are incredibly friendly and even playful, sometimes encouraging their children and even daughters to interact with us and practice the English they’ve been learning. Derek swears that a woman in a burka shot him with a squirtgun at the Aleppo Citadel.

Waving hello, Aleppo Citadel

Enjoying an ice cream in the Damascus souk (incidentally, the ice cream, which is from a very famous store called Bekdach, is horrible). This woman posed for Derek for what must have been at least thirty clicks.

Amrit, or Encounter with the Bedouin

So often in travel (and perhaps in life) you set out to do one thing, and end up discovering something else en route, an experience that ends up overshadowing your original plan. Travel at its best is often this way, when sightseeing plans end up acting as a mere framework for you to have a genuine cultural experience, the kind that cannot be planned on an itinerary.

Finding ourselves on the coastal town of Tartus (former Tortosa, city of the Knights Templar–please refer to other post) with a morning at our disposal, we set out for the ancient Phoenician ruins of Amrit a few kilometers south. The Phoenicians, in the centuries before Christ, dominated the Levant and controlled cities all over the Mediterranean. While their other cities, including Arwad, an island just off the coast of Tartus and the final base of the Crusaders, were subsequently inhabited and redeveloped by other civilizations, Amrit remained a ruin after the Phoenicians’ departure, providing a more time capsule-like view into their culture. I knew that Amrit was more of a religious center than a great city, and that the ruins remaining are few and scattered, but I was curious to see the site from having always seen mention of the Phoenicians in history books and atlases, but not knowing much about them (perhaps because, despite their great seafaring prowess and wide distribution, they, unlike the Romans, the Greeks or the Persians, do not remain as a nation).

We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to Amrit, and thought that we were on track as we headed south on the coastal road out of Tartus–but much more quickly than I expected we ended up at a dead-end, a roundabout terminating in a military base. The driver stopped the car to inquire directions of the soldiers. Now, I had read in guidebooks that the ruins of Amrit are mixed in with military installations, which makes access to some of the ruins impossible and photography problematic, but I had not thought that we would run into soldiers before we got to any of the ruins. But no problem–the soldiers were friendly and a particularly well-built one, fresh from swimming or diving in a wetsuit that was now half off, instructed us in his hearty voice to proceed on foot through the military area. A local farmer (?) who happened to be nearby set off with us, and we bid our taxi farewell.

After the first few hundred meters, it became clear that the driver had taken the wrong road, but having faith in the soldier who said that the ruins were reachable by foot, we proceeded forward with our non-English speaking impromptu guide. He briefly stopped to point out to us a giant sarcophagus dug out in a trench, and we knew we were on the right track. Soon we came to a dirt road and a sign and within sight of the ruins of the main temple complex. We bid our farmer goodbye (with baksheesh, or tip) and walked toward the temple, which we had read was dedicated to a local god who was something like Hercules. Built from the sixth century BC, and in active use for centuries afterward, it consisted of a small central shrine within a large compound which is said to have been flooded. Nearby was a extremely long and skinny (230x30m) largely rock-cut stadium, presumably used for very narrow games (running?) and according to tourist literature able to seat over 10,000 spectators.

Central shrine, or cella, of temple

Stadium (note person on left for scale)

From there the real adventure began. The next sites to the south were monumental towers erected over burial chambers, but we didn’t know how to get there. There were some unpaved roads running alongside the temple ruins, yes, but it was not entirely clear whether they would lead to the next set of ruins, and whether cutting through the trees might provide quicker, more shaded access for those traveling by foot. Armed with my vague map, we headed due south. In part because they are tall, the towers were pretty easy to find. One had an unusual cylindrical shape, with odd ornamentation, and each had a surprising number of niches for bodies underneath.

Towers (note person on left tower for scale)

There, we met there a tour guide who was taking an elderly Swiss couple around the ruins. He offered us a ride back to town, but we thanked him and told him that we wanted to explore more of Amrit, including a third, shorter hulking tower nearby. The guide warned us that we were venturing too close to active military areas, jokingly saying that as Americans we would have our hands chopped off if we were caught in the wrong place. Of course, we knew no such thing would happen to us, but Syria being something of a police state (related post to come), we were unsure how cautious we should really be. When we told the guide that we would risk it, he more strongly counseled us against.

We wanted to see the third tower, but also didn’t want to risk detention or arrest–and so we decided to sneak up to the third tower via a circuitous path, which also allowed us first to chat with some picnicking Syrian college students (and pose for the obligatory “photos with foreigners” shoot). As we got closer, it was clear that the tower itself acted as part of a barrier to a small compound that was delineated by barbed wire. About fifty meters from the tower were two large artillery guns, and some slowly spinning radars, and I could see one soldier walking about. We got a little closer, but did not risk lingering or taking photographs (though I think the soldier near the gun must have seen us, and didn’t care that we were poking around.)

We continued on, to see a large cubic mausoleum mentioned in my guide. Although we were not quite sure whether the next fence we encountered meant we were inside or outside of a restricted area, we saw a large road nearby and so figured that we were either out of the military base or at least out of the areas closed to the public. The bigger problem was that I didn’t know how to get to the site, which I knew was about a kilometer away. Trees blocked our sight and the trails that there were were curvy and indirect. We walked about, through fields and roads, asking directions when we could but not getting much useful information (I tried in Arabic the name of the site, the word for tower and the word for cube, and a number of hand gestures to indicate what we were looking for–all to no avail).

Just when we had come upon a man who spoke some English and seemingly confidently pointed us in the right direction, we came upon the bedouins.

Now, bedouins are all over the Arab world. We have met bedouins in the deserts of Oman, and been invited to sit with them and drink cardamon-flavored coffee (they are, of course, famous for their hospitality, even among the general Arab population). But seeing Bedouins on the green Syrian coast felt strange because we were not in the wilderness, not in the desert which intuitively seems the bedouins’ natural domain. Also, this experience was new because the group that we ran into was doing something that we knew bedouins to do, but something we had not seen them doing: moving. It being the twenty-first century, the family was using a large flatbed truck, not camels or other pack animals, but their belongings were much the same as they would have been thousands of years ago–wooden poles for their tent home, canvas for the tent itself, large numbers of quilts and mats, kitchen implements and so forth. The younger men and women were unloading the truck, while children played about and the leader of the group, an elderly man in traditional dress with well-weathered skin, directed.

We lingered to see this ritual, and tried to communicate with the old man, who was quite friendly. There were so many questions we wanted to ask, though of course we had no language in common: How often do you move each year? Do you go to the same places? How many of you live together? Doesn’t this land belong to somebody? We didn’t get the answers to these questions, but got some descriptions of the family relationships among the people present, and the (obvious) answer to perhaps my biggest question: Why still nomadic? The answer was in the form of hundreds of bleating sheep, lambs, goats and kids. Herded by mule and teenage boys, they crowded the field nearby, walking and grazing packed tight together, some looking wise and old, others mere nursing infants. The bedouin were moving for the same reason they always have–to find pasture for their flock.

It’s strange to see such historical continuity. We often think of the nomadic life as something of the past, a stage that humans went through on the way to life on farms and in cities. It becomes somewhat comprehensible in some extreme places, like the deserts of Arabia or the mountains of Central Asia, where cultivation, or year-round habitation, for climatic reasons, is not feasible. But it seems like a pattern that should not hold out, that whenever possible should give way to sedentary life. But here the bedouin were, mere hours by car from the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. The bedouins’ ancestors, for hundreds and thousands of years, had rubbed shoulders and traded, shared much the same space, as urbanized people.

In theory, to my biased mind, it seems unlikely–but it is a historical fact, and one of the things that make this part of world so unique. With the fertile coast and river valleys lying so close to desert and emptiness, it is a boundary between two worlds. In the case of the bedouin, it’s the boundary between the urban Mediterranean world and the Arabian desert, where nomads in tents and rich merchants in opulent homes have coexisted. [An old map I saw in an exhibit in Aleppo showed a bedouin encampment outside of the eastern gate–that is of course the direction they would arrive from, the direction of the desert. We found that near that gate still sell good for bedouins, like tent poles stakes.] In other contexts, and at other times, Syria has lain between Egyptian and Hittite, Greco-Roman and Persian, Christian and Muslim, Mongol and Mamluk, and so on.

A family portrait

The lady of the house, tattooed (like in so many other “tribal” cultures)

After talking with the older man and taking pictures of his family (they were very patient with Derek), we walked over to the field to observe the animals. There, we were invited for tea with a man and two younger boys, boiled over a open fire.

One of these boys joined us in our quest for the final mausoleum. We had thought that a young boy would certainly have explored the area and know instantly what we wanted–but no such luck (perhaps asking a nomad for local monuments isn’t the best idea). We wandered with the children (for at times others joined us) for almost an hour, finding some other minor ruins but not the mausoleum, even scouting fruitlessly from the roof of an inhabited house. Eventually, we bid the children goodbye and searched alone. When we had almost given up, we ran into another rather muscular half-naked man on a motorcycle, this time tattooed and for some reason mostly covered with sand, who knew where the structure was and told us to get on his bike. We stopped a few minutes later, and he indicated that we should go through a break in the fence of an orchard on the side of the dirt road. (Coincidentally, this was the same orchard that Derek had “borrowed” a couple of oranges from about twenty minutes earlier, but did not go far enough to see the mausoleum.)

The men tending the orchard didn’t seem to mind our visit, and helped us pick fruit from the best of the many trees, before walking us toward the tall tower.

Mausoleum (note person for scale on right)