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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Sunday, November 19, 2006 07:35:27

Arabia 2006: 12 - Palmyra, Syria

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Our first stop was the Town of Maaloula, where the language is Aramaic, the language supposedly spoken by Jesus Christ. There are three towns in Syria still speaking the language. The Syrian government has established a school in Maaloula to teach Aramaic in an effort to prevent it from dying out.

Maaloula has 12 churches and 2 mosques. The Muslim population co-exist peacefully with the Christian majority. There are a number of caves in cliffs around town that were inhabited up to 25,000 years ago. The Maaloula area, at an altitude of 1.650 meters (5,400'), is covered in snow each January and February.

On the edge of a cliff above the town stands what is claimed to be the oldest building occupied by a church in the world, the church of Sergio & Pacos. It was built as a temple around 2,000 BC, and then was the temple of the sun until 320 AD when it became a Roman Catholic church. Services have been conducted there ever since. The marble alter, dating from pagan times, has a hole and trough to drain the blood of sacrifices to pagan gods. The church brews its own wine, which we sampled - for a young wine it wasn't bad!

A walk down the road from the church led to a view of graves set in sandstone cliffs across the canyon, dating from Greek, Roman and Byzantine times. A cave in the same canyon has a Christian Church with origins back to the first century AD. We walked down the riverbed at the base of the canyon, which is only a few feet wide and over 100 ft. high, eventually coming out at a newer church built below the original cave-church.

Pickup trucks drive around with the back loaded with baskets of colourful nuts, figs and dates. I asked a driver, using hand signals, if he minded me taking a picture of the back of his truck. He was delighted, and would not hear of me leaving without a gift of a large bag of sugar coated dried figs!

Our next destination was Palmyra, about 200 km away. For the next short while we were on four-lane highway, more like highways in Costa Rica with no shoulder than the deluxe expressways of UAE. Streets had been reasonably clean in the cities, but in the countryside there is a lot of litter. There is no visible military presence, and no roadblocks or checkpoints. Some, but not all, directional signs were bi-lingual, and most highway signs used international symbols. Villages along the way were not particularly interesting - most consisted of one or two story buildings in the shopping area and scattered houses built of concrete block.

Hanna is a well-educated, well-travelled freelance guide who reads three or four newspapers each day - at least two from countries outside of Syria. He said it was to get a more balanced idea of the news after I mentioned that I'd read the thin English language newspaper and found the stories very biased. He has a delightful accent that sounds like Inspector Clouseau, of Pink Panther fame. He told me guides in Syria must go through very rigorous training in a government program, which he often teaches. They are tested on language, general knowledge and historical knowledge before being able to start work.

Hanna was saying Syria has real problems with refugees, about 600,000 each from Iraq and Palestine. They have put pressure on jobs, health care and accommodation. Domestic food production has increased as irrigation projects have reduced the percentage of desert in the country from over 60% to around 40%.

Once out of the mountains we were on two-lane road crossing rolling, barren hills of sand and gravel. The only vegetation was the odd tiny scrub plant scattered across the landscape. We passed an enormous open pit phosphate mine and processing plant. A railway has been built to the coast for the sole purpose of servicing the mine.

At Bagdad Café, about 100 km from Palmyra, it was time for tea and pee. There are three similar Bagdad Cafés several miles apart - this is the middle one. Each has a western movie looking windmill and a two-domed mud dwelling with a tent beside it. The outhouse has running water and is clean. Inside were tables, chairs, souvenirs and a limited selection of eats and drinks. Beyond is barren desert in all directions, broken only by the black ribbon of pavement we arrived on.

As we got closer to Palmyra (the name means city of dates), we passed the odd small oasis filled with trees - not palms, as you might expect, but cooler weather varieties such as cypress. Palmyra is a large oasis with a forest of date palms, the remains of the ancient city and a modern city with a population of about 50,000. There are a couple of good hotels, and a 12th century castle built against the crusaders perched on a high hill looking down on the area. We drove up to the castle to enjoy the view in the light of the setting sun.

I'm at the brand new Semiramis Hotel, where they are still getting the bugs out and putting the amenities in. The rooms are large and comfortable and the staff friendly. Unfortunately there is no internet, so I'll see if there is an internet café in town tomorrow.

Friday, November 17, 2006

After a bottom of the list breakfast we drove to the nearby ruins of the ancient city. It was sunny, but very cold. Fakir loaned me his heavy leather jacket, which fit perfectly and kept me from freezing to death.

The city had a peak population of around 15,000 people in the first to third century AD. Being one of the more important centres on the caravan routes, its story is one of conquering armies. It was settled in prehistoric times because of its springs - bone relics date to 5,000 BC. It, became Persian around 600 BC, then was taken by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. The Persians retook it, and then lost it to the Romans in 45 BC. Several other attacks by Persians were beaten off, and after the Palmyrians accounted for themselves particularly well in a battle in 232 AD the Romans granted the city independence as an ally.

After the death of the king in 267 AD, his wife Queen Zenobia took over, eventually putting together an army of over 100,000 men and conquering the area from Turkey to Egypt, including Alexandria. She built 60% of the classic city of Palmyra. The Romans were not pleased about the inroads her armies had made into their territories, so sent a force in 272 to dislodge her. After a frontal assault failed, the Romans arrived via the less defended east caravan route and took the city after a siege. There are two stories on the fate of Zenobia - one is that she poisoned herself and the other is that she was taken prisoner, shipped to Rome and killed there.

This was nowhere near the end for Palmyra. In 1157 it was destroyed by an earthquake, rebuilt, and in 1216 destroyed by the Mogul armies. The Egyptians took it in 1271 and the Ottoman Empire in 1516. In 1917 the Ottomans were chased out with the help of Lawrence of Arabia - who spent considerable time in Palmyra, but is not well thought of as the Arabs feel he cheated them. It is also said he didn't pay his hotel bills, and I'm not sure which tarnished his reputation the worst! From 1917 until 1946 France ruled Syria. The Arabic spoken in Syria still has a fair smattering of French mixed in, and bonjour is quite normal as a greeting.

Agatha Christie spent some time in Palmyra writing her 1951 book "They came to Baghdad". As it happened, I had taken the book from my library at home to read on the plane and had it with me. Hanna was delighted when I presented it to him. The story takes place in Iraq, but the setting for it is most definitely the Palmyra area.

We started with an exploration of Tomb Valley, part of a huge necropolis that provided the local museum with mummies dating from before Christ. The first century "tower tombs" are up to four stories (20 meters) tall, with a floor for each family member. Statues or busts of the occupants decorate the main floor. There are a number of these structures in varying condition in an area of several hectares.

We next visited Bel Temple, erected to the God of Fertility, one of the more important deities of the city. Built in 32 AD, it was 210 X 205 meters (690 X 672 ft) with much of it under a 60-meter (197') high roof. The huge blocks of sandstone were quarried 32 km away; a feat of transportation, but it is even more difficult to imagine how they fitted them into place at the top of the high walls. The temple became a church in the 5th century AD, then eventually a mosque.

A small museum contained artefacts from the site, the mummies from the necropolis and some tools and pottery from 25,000 BC forward. A few displays had English explanations, but most were in French.

We walked the 1,400-meter (4,600') long main street of the ancient city, which is lined with columns on both sides, each of which once held a statue. The town was built on the Roman plan with baths, two large market areas, the senate and forum, a restored theatre seating 1,000 people and various temples. It also had a water and sewer system plus public toilets. It is well enough restored to give a good idea of how it may have looked in its prime.

Hanna ordered up another superb lunch with various cold appetizers followed by different hot dishes, accompanied by Syrian Barada Beer brewed in Damascus. Many were dishes I'd not tried before, and all were delicious. The bill was $16 for the three of us. One thing about these enormous lunches - no need to have supper!

After lunch we located an internet café. Continental have now agreed to fly me to Paris from Beirut to connect with their flights, but say they are having trouble getting a seat on Air France from Beirut to Paris as the flights are full. With the problems in Lebanon I'd hoped few people would be flying - it may be locals leaving the country.

Fakir dropped Hanna at his hotel, and drove me to see new tombs that were discovered in excavations for an oil pipeline. The big diameter pipeline goes right over the stairs to a tomb. It was built to carry oil from Iraq but has not been used since the invasion. Tomorrow we head for Aleppo.