Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dead Cities

A friend of mine was very excited that I was going to Syria as he had always wanted to visit, imagining it to be a country of broad, yellow vistas. A bit strange as my friend is from Iran where they have deserts aplenty. Either way, he might be surprised if he were to visit the western part of the country which is lush and green. The Orontes valley, where I have been spending the last few days, used to be the breadbasket of the eastern Byzantine empire, and it's easy to see why from the rich, ochre soil. For some reason much of the area was abandoned with the advent of Islam. And so entire Byzantine farm towns now dot the landscape in remarkably good states of preservation. It is easy to imagine the thriving communities that once lived here, made prosperous by the trade in olive oil. Some of the buildings have withstood the past 15 centuries so well that modern-day resettlers have moved right back into them. Actually, in the one and a half millennia since their construction it seems as if construction techniques have regressed considerably: whereas the old buildings are made of large, limestone blocks, precisely cut, making mortar unnecessary, today's efforts look horribly slapdash and shoddy by comparison. At least the main economic activity hasn't changed much in the same period and olive trees grow amongst the more decrepit ruins. It being harvest time now many families are out collecting the olives with large plastic sheets spread out beneath the trees. Seeing as I like olives I thought I'd do a little harvesting of my own, until I bit into a fresh one and discovered that olives need to first be treated with sodium hydroxide before they can be eaten, otherwise they are horribly bitter. It just goes to show how eclectic an education travelling is.

Since the dead cities, as these remains are collectively called, are rather out of the way, getting to them is a bit of an adventure in itself and is half the fun of a day pottering amongst the ruins. After a couple of changes of bus the closest I could get by public transport was 13km from the sites I wanted to visit. And so, ruing the fact that I had overslept, I shouldered my bag and started jogging towards my goal. I needn't have been so fearful of the time as, Syrian hospitality being what it is, you barely need to stick out your hand and you will be picked up by a passing car ... or tractor. So I eventually made it out to one of the dead cities where I stumbled across a coachload of Syrians out on a day-trip from the Aleppo archaeological society who adopted me for the afternoon and used me to practice their English. Not that they needed that much practice, being members of the intelligentsia many were educated, or have family, abroad. One girl even had two brothers living in Scotland and she could put on a far thicker Weegie accent than I. And so, despite my inauspicious start, the day was quite a success and has reaffirmed my travelling mantra: don't worry, it'll all work out in the end.

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