Sunday, December 24, 2006

Unexpectedly Veering South

When I was in Iran this Summer I began looking into this stage of my trip, taking vague ideas and trying to see if they could work. My initial plan was to skirt the southern shores of the Mediterranean and cross into Europe at the Straights of Gibraltar. Further research quickly showed that option to be impossible due to visa restrictions in Libya and Algeria. Then I thought I'd cross Turkey and enter into Europe in Greece or Bulgaria, but the cold weather in Anatolia dissuaded me from European travel in Winter. So by default, and without much of a plan I headed south into Syria. Almost as soon as I arrived in Syria I received an e-mail from my oldest friend from my schooldays back in Scotland. Michael lives in London now but his mother is currently working in Oman and he invited me to spend Christmas with them out there. Initially I dismissed the idea as I had never considered the Arabian peninsula as part of my trip and it would entail a certain amount of "backtracking". However the more I thought about it the more the idea grew on me: I wouldn't be spending Christmas alone; I would get to see Michael again (I had last seen him in Melbourne) and hang out with him a bit; I would get to go to Yemen afterwards, a place I have wanted to visit for quite some time now; and it would mean that I could escape the cold Winter weather in Europe. So I started looking around for buses that would take me from Amman to Dubai, from where I could get a connection on to Muscat. I was glad to find there were departures every day and so set off for the Saudi embassy to get a transit visa ... and that's where I ran into trouble. They refused me point blank. They would give no reasons, they weren't prepared to discuss it, not even for a transit period of 24 hours, they just slammed the proverbial door in my face and no amount of pleading or grovelling would make them change their minds. That made me really angry as it forced me to have to fly, something I really didn't want to do (because of the increased damage to the environment, the increased cost and also because of the breaking of my principles) especially as there are buses. I've come to the conclusion that the harder it is for you to get into a country the more autocratic they are and the more they have to hide. If that is so then Saudi Arabia must be one of the most repressive in the world. But I have learned not to stay angry for too long, as it just gets in the way of things, and found myself a cheap flight to Sharjah from where it was possible to catch a bus to Oman. And so now I am writing to you from balmy Muscat where I have a view over the Gulf of Oman.

It is early morning on Christmas Day and I wish you all a very merry Christmas, surrounded by friends and family, wherever you may be.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Number 110

From Wadi Rum I dropped down to Aqaba, Jordan's one and only port, on the Red Sea. As their only access point to the seas Aqaba is incredibly important to Jordan's economy, so much so that in 1965 Jordan swapped a whopping 6000 square km of desert for just 12km of coastline (doubling the length they already had) with the Saudis so that they could built a decent container port. Though, along with the port area they gained some spectacular coral reefs that can be easily explored with only a mask and snorkel, or at least could if the northerly winds coming in from the desert didn't make swimming unbearably cold. So, with nothing to really do in Aqaba (it is a horribly soulless tourist trap) and it not being possible to continue further south I headed back towards Amman (I also desperately needed to change my trousers!).

I didn't, however, go straight back, and stopped off along the way, first at Petra. Why return to a place that I had already been? Well, first of all there are some beautiful treks that can be done outside of the main Petra area where you can walk through beautiful tomb-filled canyons completely alone, without another tourist in sight and no Bedouin offering donkey rides; and secondly I wanted to sneek into Petra without buying a ticket just to see whether it is possible, to do my little bit to fight oppressive exploitation of tourists. (Travellers of the world unite!) Anyway, for those of you on tight budgets who wish to see the fabulous ruins it is very easy to walk in from the desert (but don't say I told you). From Petra it was further north along the King's Highway, a route used since biblical times to connect Damascus to the Red Sea which, in places, contains remains of the old Roman road (Nova Via Traiana) and its milestones if you look hard enough, to the town of Kerak and its Crusader castle. Nice place to stop for an afternoon.

The next day I made my way to the remains of Kastron Mefa'a (known locally as Umm Ar-Rassas). Not a name that is known to many people (even in Jordan), but I have given myself a little mission whilst on this trip to try and visit as many UNESCO world heritage sites as possible. And so I had to pay a visit to Umm Ar-Rassas as well (seeing as it was on the way as well). The only problem is that, although it was on my route, the old saying that the shortest route is not always the quickest proved to be very true here. The King's Highway is bisected by the giant Wadi Mujib gorge (think Grand Canyon but only slightly smaller) which means that all public transport goes either via the Dead Sea to the west or the desert to the east. I persisted nevertheless (because I'm a stubborn bastard) and 50km (as the crow flies) and 4 hours later I was there ... and decidedly underwhelmed. The site is just a huge pile of rubble stretching out for about one square kilometre. As I scrambled around the site I was wandering why on earth this is part of my heritage. Then I saw a largeish tin shed off to the side and decided to investigate (as it was mildly more interesting than the rubble). Outside was a sign reading "Church of St Stephanos 785AD". If it was a church it didn't look too impressive. Upon entering you walk along metal gangways and as my eyes accustomed to the darker interior I noticed the reason for the raised walkways: below me was a giant and immaculate mosaic, larger and in better condition than anything I have ever seen. And all of this beside a forgotten, windswept village in the middle of nowhere. When I found the guard (who was sleeping in a little hut, huddled under a blanket from the cold) to ask about onward transport he seemed surprised to see me and said that I was the first visitor in three days and that I would have to leave the way I came (i.e. hitching). In the end Umm Ar-Rassas proved to be a memorable stopover, despite dodgy first impressions, for the remoteness, the challenge of getting there (a record of 8 different vehicles in a day) and the phenomenal mosaics. Plus it became UNESCO site 110, although I'm still a little way off my target of one every week. ;-)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rum Job

Mum and I parted company the other day as she headed back to Amman to catch her plane home. Gone are the restaurants, gone are the taxis and gone are the nice hotels as I revert to my routine of ultra-cheapness. Actually Mum didn't have much luck with the hotels, all of which invariably suffered from some problem or another: no hot water, no heating, no satellite (despite all of these being selling points), dodgy food and incompetent staff. It's as if Basil Fawlty is running the Jordan school of hoteliery. It has made me come to the conclusion that it's often preferable to go for the cheapest option because at least then your expectations are lower and you lose less when everything goes pear-shaped.

Our last day together was spent in Wadi Rum, which probably has the most beautiful landscapes that I've seen in my entire trip, or at least the most photogenic. Situated in the south of the country close to the Saudi border the place is all about colour: blood red sand, intense blue sky and sandwiched between the two sheer, craggy sandstone mountains, ranging from pale yellow to dark grey, sculpted into fantastical shapes (they remind me particularly of candle-wax dribblings) by the windborne sand. If this is what deserts are like then bring on the global warming!

The area is home to the semi-nomadic bedouin, many of whom still herd goats and livein large, rectangular tents, though the camels have largely been replaced by battered old Toyota Landcruisers which are slightly less temperamental and prone to running off for no reason. They're also handy for carting tourists around. There are of course various sites that you are shown on a Wadi Rum excursion, such as a couple of rock bridges, a spring, a big sand dune, some rock inscriptions, and the ruins of what was once (supposedly) T.E. Lawrence's house, but they are just an excuse to ride through the desert on the back of a 4x4. The night was spent in a bedouin tent huddled under thick blankets cowering from the excruciatingly chill northerly winds. The next day Mum left but I stayed for another day to explore the mountains on foot. In the morning I duly struck off to try and find my way through a mountain via a series of canyons that I had been told about by other travellers. It was nice to get away from everything else and be surrounded by complete and utter silence. However the route was more like actual rock-climbing than a scramble and half-way along I had, what Ms. Jackson would call, a severe wardrobe malfunction, whereby one of the soles of my shoes half came off and I got an inconveniently-placed, largish tear in my trousers (luckily my boxer shorts are a similar colour, otherwise I might have outraged the rather conservative bedouins). Because I left my big backpack in Amman I have only one change of everything ... except shoes and trousers, and so I had to call time on my mountaineering exertions and return to a more sedate mode of travel that would be more forgiving on my apparel.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Jordan's premier tourist attraction, by a long way, is the ruins of Petra. The stunning remains of the Nabataean capital are known throughout the world, most notably (at least to people of my generation) due to their use in the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which is shown nightly at many backpacker haunts. What I fail to understand about the film, however, is that Indiana Jones is supposed to be such a hot shot archaeologist and yet, upon arriving at the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail, he fails to comment on its striking similarity with Petra. Not much of an archaeologist if you ask me. Petra attracts tourists like moths to a flame, with not dissimilar results because of the outrageous prices charged for simple services and goods - not to mention the exorbitant entry fee of $30 for one day. (Sorry for harping on about money, especially as my mum is taking much of the financial strain here in Jordan, but I really get irked by excessive dual pricing and the blithe assumption that foreign visitors habitually wipe their asses with dollar bills.) Unfortunately none of this money filters down to the local bedouin population who are reduced to pestering tourists to take donkey and camel rides and selling cheap trinkets. But it cannot be missed, and for good reason too.

The monumental tombs are pretty much all that's left to remind us of the master merchants who controlled the spice trade coming from Arabia (mainly frankincense and myrrh) to the Mediterranean. The desert-dwelling Nabataeans weren't great builders themselves but must have seen many fine architectural gems among their more urbane neighbours and decided to try it out for themselves, carving gigantic facades, with Corinthian columns and Romanesque statues, in the sandstone cliffs of Petra. They didn't quite get the whole point as the insides were left hopelessly plain and unadorned compared to the exteriors; like classical Potemkin villages. Only a few of the hundreds of tombs, such as the famous Treasury (see below), have preserved the intricate details and majestic grandeur of their inception, most have succumbed to the smoothing effects of the wind that has softened the stone to rounded, organic shapes that hint at their original forms - instead of doorways and windows are mouths and eyes, and instead of carvings are coloured whorls showing the grain of the different layers of sandstone.

I, however, found Petra like the child who gets a fancy super-duper toy for Christmas and ends up playing with the box instead by ignoring the ancient tombs and concentrating on the surroundings. I was just enraptured by the surrounding landscape of sandstone mountains changing colour with the sinking sun and the improbably narrow defiles. My greatest pleasure was to strike off for some random peak, scrambling my way up, often finding ancient, hidden stairways cut into the rock, leading to half-forgotten sacrificial altars on the mountain top. Even my mum agreed. I was impressed that on the same day she celebrated her **th birthday she followed me along some pretty tricky terrain, not only managing adroitly, but saying that it was the best part of the whole site. I just hope that when I'm ** that I'll be able to do the same.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Finding Nebo

"And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the LORD shewed him all the land of Gilead (...) unto Zoar. And the LORD said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD."
Deuteronomy 34:1-5

Mount Nebo is where Moses, after 40 years of wandering hither and thither (obviously he was too embarrassed to stop and ask for directions), finally saw the Promised Land ... and then died. Which I think shows that God has a pretty mean, sadistic streak. He could have at least let Moses get to the Promised Land before getting rid of him. I mean the poor bastard was 120 years old. Anyway, the quote is slightly incorrect because you actually descend slightly from the Moab plateau to get to Mount Nebo, which itself isn't really a mountain, but the edge of a cliff that overlooks the Dead Sea valley. And he must have been very lucky to see anything due to the haze which made even the Dead Sea, not 10km away, barely visible to me. Ah well, I suppose they were taking some artistic license whilst writing the Bible, after all it is a work of fiction! There are, however, some beautiful Byzantine mosaics there and in the nearby town of Madaba.

Seeing these various sites that are important to both Christians and Muslims as well as the number of active churches has made me see that the Arab countries of the Levant arefar more mulitcultural than we give them credit for, with the two religions coexisting side by side without any problems. It seems to me that in the West we view Arabs to be automatically Muslim and Christianity as a European religion, whereas neither is true. (Actually, come to think of it, every major world religion has its origins in Asia.) There is a lack of understanding, and perhaps even a lack of wanting to understand, of the Arab world that angers the people here and makes them feel targetted. This was evident when I hitched a ride to Madaba from Mount Nebo - as soon as I got in the driver, without me having uttered a word, went on the defensive of Arab people and their culture (something he didn't need to do as he was preaching to the converted).

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Float To The Bottom

Yesterday was my birthday. And in a break from the tradition of this trip I wasn't on some long horrible journey; instead my mother took me out to a rather swanky restaurant. I know it was a classy place because they had waiters. Honestly, I've been making my own food and eating at street stalls and dodgy establishments (the word restaurant doesn't even come close) that I'm not sure whether I know how to act properly in "polite" society. Though in the end I think I managed not to embarrass my mother too much.

Anyway, last year I visited the Tarim Depression in western China, the second lowest point on earth. But those of you who know me will know that second place is just not good enough and so today I went to the Dead Sea, which lies at a staggering 420m below sea level (and it continues to fall every year). The sea (or is it a lake?) is famous for having such a high salt content that allows you to float effortlessly on its surface (the high salt content is also the reason for the sea's name because nothing can survive the inhospitable conditions). Well of course I had to give it a go. Taking my first tentative steps the water didn't seem any different from ordinary water and I thought I would be disappointed. But after getting knocked over by a wave I discovered that, indeed, I didn't sink. It was the strangest feeling as my brain, conditioned by countless watery escapades, was telling me that I should be sinking when I clearly wasn't. The water felt like water: just as wet and just as liquid, but at a certain point it just wouldn't let me down any further no matter how hard I tried. Probably a good thing too as you really wouldn't want to put your head under that water as it is the second foulest thing I have tasted so far on this trip (after peyote) and it would possibly cause your eyes to shrivel up. Still, people claim that the water has a myriad therapeutic benefits and so the shore is thronged by upmarket hotels offering deluxe spa treatments. Even the public beach has a gift shop selling overpriced "beauty products", such as half a litre of Dead Sea water for the bargain price of $4, or some mud (for facepacks) for $15. Locals, of course, aren't duped and bring their own bottles to scoop up the foul sludge for free. You don't want to spend too long in the spooky water and so I spent most of my time watching Jordanians out for the weekend. The thing that you immediately notice is that most women, though not required to by law, wear hijab, even when taking a dip. Something I, personally, wouldn't recommend for the Dead Sea. You see, after taking a paddle you have to immediately take a shower or be left covered in horrible, salty gunk. The stuff is particularly difficult to get out of clothes as you can see from the picture below. But just because they're Muslim doesn't mean they can't have a good time and so there's beach football and singing and dancing as the sun sets behind the West Bank.

P.S. As a small birthday present to you, my readers, I have finally got my act together and put some more pictures up on my photo album from my trip from Iran up until now (follow the link on the left of my website).

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Jordan has more than its fair share of ancient monuments showing that it's been a popular place to hang out for quite some time. The Romans left their obligatory columns lying around the countryside, even in the capital Amman where there is a 5000-seat amphitheatre in the heart of downtown. After the Romans came the Byzantines with their church-and-mosaic fetish, followed by the Umayyad Muslims. The Umayyads, being the first Muslims rulers, were still trying to get to grips with the austerity of their religion and found an ingenious way of doing so. They built a bunch of castles in the desert in eastern Jordan where they could have crazy parties in private without being spotted by Allah (or at least the clergy). One of these castles is especially fascinating for the frescoes inside depicting musicians, dancing, general merrymaking and even one of a lady wearing only what looks like a thong, possibly the only such existing example of Islamic art. It shows that perhaps Islam was far more tolerant and liberal back then (or perhaps that leaders everywhere and at all times have never practiced what they've preached).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Model Country

Things were beginning to heat up in Beirut so it was probably a good thing that it was time for me to head on to my next country, Jordan. Not such a good thing was having to pass through Syria on my way there as the intransigent border guards obviously hadn't heard of transit visas and hit me for $52 just to pass through the country in one day. Once in Amman, the Jordanian capital, I was joined by my mother who has flown out to travel with me for a couple of weeks. She's a bit upset that I won't be home by Christmas for the third year running, especially as I had initially said I would be only travelling for a year or so. I can't see what the fuss is about myself as I last saw Mum just 4 months ago in Tehran but I'm not complaining as she has brought some vital supplies (some old socks and T-shirts) with her and will be relieving me of a sizeable quantity of junk, such as entry stubs and brochures, which I am loathe to throw away, that I've managed to accumulate over the period. (I know, I know, I'm just a user really.) Possibly the most important thing that my mother brought with her was a fleece jumper because Jordan is seriously chilly this time of year.

Despite being surrounded by some of the most unstable, chaotic and crazy countries in the world Jordan, at first glance, seems to be an island of comparative serenity. The place is relatively clean and ordered, its citizens relaxed and polite, and most of them even speak decent English. Actually, come to think of it, the place is disappointingly responsible. But that's OK as I'm not sure my mother would appreciate the privations and discomforts of more "gritty" destinations.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Spectator Sports ... Lebanon Style

Here in Lebanon they have a particularly bizarre spectator sport for tourists: demonstration watching. It's not particularly exciting, but there's always the chance of something extraordinary happening. At least they occur relatively frequently and are free as well, a major plus in this relatively pricey country. The latest demonstration was portrayed by the Western media as a Hezbollah, pro-Syrian one trying to topple the anti-Syrian government. Whilst that makes simple headlines and allows people to believe that they understand what is happening in a faraway land, the reality is very different. First of all the majority of people at the rally whose political affiliation I could easily identify (luckily most parties in Lebanon have their own colour) were not actually supporters of Hezbollah, but instead followers of the liberal, secular Free Patriotic Movement (particularly popular among Lebanon's educated young Christians). In fact, doing my own reading into the matter has made me intensely sceptical about the news that we are fed through our media. If respected channels such as CNN and the BBC managed to give such a distorted view of the events (just so that they could fit it into their programming or make it easy enough to digest for the ordinary viewer) as to completely alter the reality on the ground, how can we trust anything they say? I'm not saying there's a great conspiracy of deliberate obfuscation or anything like that, but we rely on the media to be impartial, objective and informed, as it is our window on the world. And since most of us do not have the opportunity to witness news events in person we implicitly trust the news to be correct. But instead of explaining complex political situations we get simple soundbites that end up bearing no resemblance to reality. Today is a bit like the day I watched a popular science programme (that I used to really enjoy watching) about genetics after I had done my degree, and found out that although superficially true, many important caveats and details had been omitted to sensationalise and simplify the topic, thereby giving a false picture. Since then I've found it very difficult to watch science documentaries as I have a nagging suspicion that I'm not being given the entire picture. I doubt that I'll stop watching the news though, but it makes me feel somewhat cheated.

Hmmm, that's not a positive note to end on: I've complained and criticised but given no viable alternatives. The only thing I can recommend is for people to read more, rather than relying on TV news. Newspapers, magazines and books have more room to give detailed explanations that such subtle situations deserve. And although it's impossible to read detailed reports about every news event, we should try and do it for those that at least interest, or affect, us. In today's multimedia world the written world is still the most powerful form of communication.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

North And South

Thanks to the small size of the country I've been able to use Beirut as a base to explore both the north south of the country. Tripoli is the second city of Lebanon as well as an ancient Phoenician port (actually, all the major towns here in Lebanon were Phoenician towns originally). It has the standard neat, little old quarter, khans and citadel, although a fair number of buildings in the city centre are still gutted and empty after the war. Not the recent Israeli conflict, but the civil war when Syrian forces shelled PLO forces that had fortified themselves in the old town. Trying to understand the Lebanese civil war is causing me a bit of a headache due to the many different factions and their constant changing of allegiances. But for me Tripoli was just a stepping stone on the way to the gorgeous Qadisha valley. The fairytale canyon with its picturesque villages and many churches and monasteries have made the impregnable gorge the stronghold for the powerful Maronite community. At the head of the gorge is a stand of old Lebanese cedars, the emblem of the nation, and one of the few that are left after widespread logging in ancient times (just goes to show that deforestation isn't a new phenomenon). Beside the cedars is one of Lebanon's prime ski resorts, and possibly one of the only places in the world where the pistes have a sea view. But once you get down into the valley proper then you are away from the roads and cars, and apart from a solitary electricity line that snakes through the valley it's almost as if the last thousand years never happened. The few farms that dot the vertiginous slopes eke out their living on thin strips of terraced land and the monasteries are usually cut into natural grottos in the cliff faces. But the most magical for me was the lack of people that allowed me to see the changing of colours as the coming Autumn harvests another crop of leaves from the trees.

In the south, balancing Tripoli to the north, lies the city of Tyre. Also a Phoenician port and boasting the world's largest and best-preserved Roman hippodrome in the world (though, frankly, there must not be much competition). Partly thanks to its Roman ruins that confer it UNESCO status, and partly thanks to the human shield effect of the many journalists that were staying there, Tyre was largely spared in the recent conflict. The same could not be said of the surrounding locale. Many bridges and motorways, with no obvious military importance, were targetted making transport between regions difficult (work has begun on reconstruction but transport is still disrupted), raising the thought that the aim of Israeli army could certainly be improved. That sentiment would certainly be echoed by the residents of Qana. 10 years ago 102 civilians sheltering in a UN camp were killed by Israeli tank shells, the site has become a memorial and one of the buildings that was hit has been left exactly as it was after the attack (though minus the randomly scattered body-parts). There's even a man who seems to permanently loiter around the site to guide people around, show them a truly gruesome collection of photos from the event and sell CDs of other "Israeli massacres" (I drew the line there though). And now this year the unlucky village was struck again by a precision bomb that killed at least 28 people in a single building. Though what I found odd whilst travelling through the south (though admittedly I didn't see that much) was the fact that, despite this being the Hezbollah heartland, there were far fewer posters of Nasrallah or yellow flags on display than in Syria (though they were still there, along with the odd picture of Khomeini as well). Maybe most ordinary Lebanese are tired of war and would perhaps like a little peace for a change? And that made me think of a famous saying here: "Syria will fight Israel until the very last Lebanese."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fighting The Press

One would think that, given the recent political situation in the country and the fact that late November really isn't high season for tourists, finding accomodation would be the least of my worries. However I am experiencing stiff competition for bedspace from journalists. Actually, that's not quite true. Proper journalists stay in hotels that are beyond my meagre means. Instead I am getting the squeeze from a more insalubrious breed: wannabe journalists.

Budget accomodation options in Tyre and Beirut are now packed with these odd specimens of humanity. They are easy to recognise by their Hezbollah T-shirts (their idea of trying to blend in I suppose) and their pseudo-intellectual conversations about world and Lebanese politics because they think that having read a book on the subject (usually the Ladybird guide to Lebanese politics) they are peerless experts on the topic. Nevermind that even politically aware locals have trouble following the convoluted histories and changes of allegiance of their own political parties. Some of these "journalists" actually do write for a living (though often for obscure publications such as the Buffalo Springs Socialist Workers' Weekly) and those that don't spend their time bombarding newspapers back home with spam demanding publication and press cards. I had a bit of a laugh this morning when two particularly zealous individuals got a tip-off that there would be a Hezbollah demonstration in town ... at 5 o'clock in the morning. So these two clowns stayed up all night so as not to miss the impending spectacle. Just listening to their plans on how to stay awake throughout the night, which mainly consisted of trying to find a pharmacy that would sell them some "uppers" or, failing that, getting a nutmeg (which has mild hallucinogenic properties) to chew on, was comedy enough, but seeing them passed out this morning after the inevitable no-show was just honey.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Two B's

Things have calmed down a bit on the streets of Lebanon and so I've taken advantage of this lull to explore some of the country's ancient ruins (because who knows when things might get "interesting" again). The most famous are undoubtedly those at Baalbeck. The town was already important before the Romans arrived on the scene, but they just went crazy and started building the largest temple complex in their empire I say started because after 200 years of building they didn't manage to finish. Not that you'd be able to tell from what remains, but what there is is truly monumental. There are only six columns left from the main temple of Jupiter yet they are all you need to feel as small as an ant. Standing at 22m and with a diameter of over 2m they are the largest in the world. Everything about the place is colossal, including the simple building blocks that make up the temple base. Just down the road is the quarry that was used by the Romans which still contains the largest cut stone in the world (unsurprisingly no-one has moved the 1000 tonne giant since then), providing me with another superlative to add to my list and a great photo opportunity to boot.

The other place I absolutely had to see was Jbail, more commonly known by the name the Greeks called it by: Byblos. In the second millennium B.C. it was the principle Phoenician city, having grown rich from the trade of cedar wood to Egypt and papyrus to Greece. It was from this close relationship with Egyptian culture that heiroglyphs were transformed from complex symbols that represented words to simple signs for individual letters. So, for example, the heiroglyphic symbols for ox and house (alep and beit respectively in the Phoenician language) were transformed into the first two letters of the Phoenician writing system, the precursor to almost every alphabet in use today, from our Latin script to the seemingly unrelated Khmer script of Cambodia. Unfortunately you have to dig deep into your reserves of imagination to picture what must have been a magnificent city with a gorgeous view over the sea. But being the bookish nerd that I am I didn't care as I paid my respects to one of the greatest inventions in history.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Interesting Times

The Chinese have a saying: may you live in interesting times. It sounds nice but is actually meant as a curse. It wasn't until these past few days that I got an inkling as to what that really means. Lebanon is certainly experiencing interesting times, and I am certainly experiencing disruptions. Since Pierre Gemayel was gunned down in his car a few days ago the country has ground to a bit of a standstill as three days of national mourning were announced (yesterday was Lebanese Independence Day as well, adding to the general non-activity) causing most shops and museums to close and reducing public transport. The only activity that has gone on unabated has been the erection of posters of Gemayel that have sprung up all over town, to join those of Rafiq Hariri and several other politicians who were all assassinated last year. This means that it is very difficult for me to get anything done on the tourist, or bureaucratic (I've been trying to get a visa but the embassy will be closed until next week), fronts. Add to that the fact that the downtown headquarters of the Phalangist party, to which Gemayel belonged, is right across the street from my hotel, meaning that since Tuesday there have been noisy demonstrations well into the night and frequent checkpoints in the neighbourhood. At least I was close to the demonstration and funeral ceremony that took place today in downtown Beirut when tens of thousands of Lebanese turned up to protest at the assassination and perceived Syrian meddling in their politics. It has, however, been reassuring to see that the protests passed off in an atmosphere of peace and calm, because such a protest, with open criticism of the government, would never be allowed in other Arab countries. Let's just hope that they have had enough with demonstrating for the time being and get back to running the buses and opening tourist sites tomorrow (and perhaps letting me get some seep tonight)!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Culture Shock

During my time travelling, especially here in Asia, I've grown used to seeing poverty, filthy cities, litter everywhere, open sewers, buying food from stree-sellers, dodgy sanitary conditions and the prospect of showers only once a fortnight. Which is why Beirut has been such a culture shock to me. As you descend down the steep slopes of the Mount Lebanon range you see the metropolis spread below, nestled in a bay on the eastern Mediterranean and you imagine it could be a city on the French or Italian Riviera. As you get closer the impression is reinforced by the sleek cars, luxury apartments, broad, uncluttered pavements and outlets of large Western shops. Walking around the immaculately restored downtown area I almost thought the past two years were but a dream: Starbucks, Armani, Virgin Megastore, and many more. Browsing amongst the trendy youngsters, sporting the latest trendy clothing (well, I'm assuming they're the latest trends, though not having been home I can't be sure), sipping lattes and listening to hip-hop the only indication of being in the Middle East, apart from the increased presence of security forces, was the fact that with your coffee you could also get a nargileh (water pipe).

The calm image of peace was shattered today with the assassination of a prominent anti-Syrian politician. I wasn't in Beirut when it happened, but coming back by bus the streets were unusually jammed and the centre was cordonned off, in places with burning fires, and people were gathering in the streets waving flags and chanting (though in a peaceful and responsible manner). Hopefully this will not herald anything worse for this country that has already suffered too much.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

And Now...

...for something completely different. Sorry, dear readers, for waxing political of late. It must be something in the water. But I promise that this post will be a completely politics-free zone. At least I'll give it a try.

The monastery of Mar Musa (Saint Moses) is hidden away in the mountains northeast of Damascus. The place was abandonned about 150 years ago and largely forgotten about until an Italian monk stumbled across it some years back and decided to restore it to a functioning monastery. There are perhaps half a dozen monks and one can just pop in and stay with them for free in the relaxing surroundings, spend some time reading, contemplating and going for walks, and all that you are required to do in return is help out with the day-to-day work of the place. Some people stay for weeks, but two days were enough for me. Not that the experience wasn't pleasant, I had fun talking to the many Syrian Christians that come during the weekend for mass and also doing some Bible reading. Don't worry, I'm not likely to convert, but I think it's an important book to read as it forms the basis of much of our culture, and plus I am in the region where many of the events took place, and so it would give me a greater appreciation of the importance of places I visit. I only read the first 150-odd pages and was surprised by the content: a lot of begatting, and an incredible amount of detail on animal sacrifices (perhaps 20 pages). It seems that the early Jews had to sacrifice animals for pretty much every occasion; I'm surprised they had enough food for themselves. (Hmm, I think I might have failed in making my post apolitical.)

Anyway, that was my last place in Syria, and tomorrow I am off to Lebanon. It's a country I'm looking forward to visiting as I've heard so much about it from Syrians and other travellers, and because it's a bit of an exception in the Arab world being much more liberal than its peers (I've been told that Gulf Arabs come here to be able to do the partying and drinking that they are unable to do at home). Add to that a strong French influence that has lasted until today and it's supposed to be quite an exciting and cosmopolitan place.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Unresolved Resolutions

During the course of my trip I've developed a rather morbid obsession for the less dignified episodes in recent history: the secret jails of Argentina's Dirty War, Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan, Nagorny Karabakh, and the treatment of Kurds (pretty much everywhere) to name but a few. Not because I find them exciting or sexy, but because my generation in the West has no experience or contact with such events. Instead we are fed glamourised films where handsome heroes cut down battalions of faceless baddies before getting the girl, or 8 page newspaper supplements with maps and troop movements shown in big red arrows and sensitised 3-minute news slots. That's not real, it's just numbers on paper, and if the TV story upsets you there's no need to worry as the next story is about David Beckham's foot. When we hear about casualties and conflicts in far away lands our minds might perhaps react, but not our hearts, because we do not know these people, we cannot see these people, we don't understand these people. They are nameless, faceless, voiceless. And that's dangerous, as, when conflicts do arise, we end up regarding them as soap operas to be avidly followed, rather than tragedies of endless suffering that they are.

And that is why, whilst here in Damascus, I went to visit the Golan Heights. Well, more like the Golan Lows really. The area, which belongs to Syria, was captured by the Israelis during the Six-Day War of '67 due to its strategic importance as the Heights overlook all of northern Israel. Most of the area captured then is still occupied, although a thin sliver of land was returned and is under UN administration, although a couple of Security council resolutions explicitly call for the handing back of the Heights, which everyone seems to agree belong to Syria. (It almost happened though there were niggling differences over borders and so the deal fell through, and since then the Israeli stance has become less accomodating for a compromise. Technically the two sides are still at war.) Before handing back the little piece of land, the Israelis drove out the inhabitants, gutted the buildings of anything useful, and then sent in bulldozers to flatten them all (please note, however, that I have found articles suggesting that the town was ruined during Arab-Israeli fighting, aminly through Arab bombardment, but like many facts relating to the situation it's difficult to get objective and reliable facts). Since then the UN controlled ruins of Quneitra have become an icon for the hard-nosed, merciless attitude of the Israeli army. The destruction is pretty complete as you wander the streets (only the streets, mind you, as there are many UXOs around the site) under the watchful gaze of a Syrian intelligence officer, who shows you where you can walk and what you are allowed to photograph, and an Israeli military post on the opposite hilltop, bristling with antennae to listen in on their neighbours. The Golan has also become a symbol for the hypocrisy and double-standards of the West, as Israel openly flouts UN Security Council resolution 242 that stipulates that Israel must withdraw from the Golan (with Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's PM in the early 90's, going so far as to say: "withdrawal from the Golan is unthinkable, even in times of peace") without a peep from Western diplomats, whilst Syria gets scathing criticism for its support for Hezbollah, which the vast majority of Syrians see as a legitimate resistance movement. Such demonistaion of countries can only lead to their further radicalisation and is ultimately counter-productive.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Old Town

Damascus is often touted as the worlld's oldest continually inhabited city. Although it's a hard claim to prove (or disprove) history certainly permeates the narrow, windy lanes of the walled old town; and nowhere is this more apparent than at the spectacularUmayyad mosque, constructed when Damascus was perhaps the most important city in the world as the capital of the first Muslim empire that, at its peak, stretched from Spain to India. Built on the site of a former Byzantine cathedral, which itself was built on the site of a temple of zeus, which in turn was built on a temple of Hadad (an Aramaean deity), the mosque incorporates many pre-Islamic features. The central nave looks unmistakably like a church, the walls and columns include recycled Roman masonry and the walls are covered with golden, Greek-style, mosaics. There is even a shrine to John the Baptist, supposedly containing his head, within the main hall of the mosque making it a very important pilgrimage site for Christians, and Shi'ites, not to be outdone, come flocking to the shrine of Imam Hussein tucked away in a corner of the courtyard. A truly ecumenical place of worship, which captures the spirit of the old town where the Christian community is very visible and well-integrated, accounting for about a third of the population, and there is at least one church for every denomination (Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic, Anglican ...).

The old town souq is also regarded as one of the best in the Middle East, but I find it difficult to view shopping as a leisure activity. I try to only enter shops when I have something specific to buy, and then it's only a quick in-and-out affair, hopefully before any assistants can notice me and try and ensorcel me into buying crap I don't need (though I do make an exception for bookshops where I could happily spend a whole day leafing through musty tomes). Instead I preferred to winkle out the hidden architectural gems such as the Ottoman khans (travellers inns) with their characteristic balck and white banding, or ornately carved wooden balconies that span entire alleyways, or the tranquil courtyard of an old Damascene house with its shady orange trees, or even the odd Roman column that has made its way into a shop front. And so I stand contemplating for a while until a near-miss from a murderous taxi breaks the reverie and hauls me back to the present and the imminent task of surviving the lethal Syrian traffic.

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.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Under Siege

These past few I have been on the Syrian coast not doing much. It would be convenient to say that I've been lounging on the beach (though not likely as it is rocky and not particularly inviting); or kicking back amid the olive groves that deck the mountains that rise straight out of the sea; or even that I've been taking advantage of the more liberal attitudes of the area (there are large Christian and Alawi minorities here) to get down and party. But, alas, the reason is far more prosaic: it has been pissing it down almost non-stop. As far as I can ascertain the Arabic for rain is shitty, and as far as I'm concerned they're absolutely right. Not only does it cause transport difficulties with flooded carriageways, but prancing about castle ruins becomes altogether less appetising when it means you will get cold and wet. Nonetheless some prancing has accomplished (in between long bouts of standing under eaves waiting for gaps in the unrelenting rain). And I am glad because the castles round this neck of the woods are amongst the finest in the world. And I do not say that lightly coming, as I do, from castle country. The fascinating thing about these castles is that they date from a famous episode in history: these are crusader castles.

Although in the West the Crusades are known to most people, the details, more often than not, are hazy. Many people picture gallant knights, feats of heroism and chivalry in the face of barbarian hordes. The Arabs, however, view the Crusaders as a bunch of hooligans who were spoiling for a fight. Personally I think the Arab point of view might be closer to the truth. At the time the Arab civilisation was more advanced than the European and they were altogether more tolerant of Christians. For almost 200 years the Crusaders battled to obtain, and hold, a thin strip of littoral stretching from Sinai to Antioch and including the holy city of Jerusalem. Initially they were quite successful, setting up several kingdoms and principalities and building a score of formidable fortresses to defend their positions. The ingenuity and skill with which these monuments to military engineering were built are perhaps the greatest testament of the crusading knights, surpassing anything I have seen in Europe. This is seen most notably with the castles of Krak des Chevalliers and Saone (now called Qal'at Salah El-Din). Indeed, even T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) felt compelled to call Krak "the most wholly admirable castle in the world." (To see some pictures have a look at the following site, as I'm having problems attaching pictures to my posts.) But finally, due in large part to their lack of numbers, the Crusaders were driven out by the Islamic forces of Saladin and the Mameluks. During their time in control the Crusaders didn't do a very good job at winning the hearts and minds of the locals. Muslim towns were regularly put to the sword and even Christians weren't spared as on one famous occasion the 4th Crusade swung past Constantinople en route to the Levant and did a bit of looting there too. One of the lowest points in Crusader history occurred at the town of Al Ma'ara where, after the usual siege and subsequent massacre of locals, the knights, disappointed at not finding any food, proceeded to eat the bodies of the dead Muslims. So bad was the conduct of the knights that the biggest hero to emerge from the Crusades, even for Christians of the time, was Saladin.

It is due to images like these that Western politicians (by which I mean American politicians) should be more circumspect when using the term crusade, for in the Arab world the term is far from positive. And, if I may make an observation, in today's political world it seems to me that the history of the Crusades is repeating itself. But this time it is the jihadist fundamentalist Muslims (al Qaeda et al.) that are doing the crusading. Their holy lands are occupied by infidels; perhaps not militarily, but certainly politically and economically. Their worldview is blinkered and archaic whereas the West is generally more accepting of differences among people. And the way they are waging their war they do not seem to care about innocent casualties, even amongst people who they claim to be fighting for. OK, that same reproach can be levelled at the West, but still, two out of three. Though this comparison might seem strange at first sight at least, if history really does repeat itself, it is optimistic. Because in the end the Crusaders were comprehensively beaten. But not only that, the Crusades ushered in an age of increased contact between the Christian and Islamic worlds from which the Christian world benefited greatly: we would have had no Renaissance (and the subsequent advances in science and technology) without the Arabs. Once can only hope that this current period of turmoil between the cultures will end as well (though I could do without it taking 200 years!).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bride Of The Desert

In the middle of the Syrian desert is a large oasis, and although tarmac roads and the motor car put paid to the camel train in this part of the world some time ago, 2000 years ago this oasis and its city of Palmyra were strategically important on trade routes between the Parthian and the Greek and Roman empires. Although initially a simple, Roman vassal outpost Palmyra quickly grew in wealth and independence and eventually, in the late 3rd century under queen Zenobia, not only revolted against Roman rule, but also tried to rival it. They didn't do too badly, managing to conquer Egypt and getting as far as Antioch before the Romans pushed them back and taught them a lesson by sacking the city. And although Palmyra limped on as a town after that it never got close to regaining its former greatness. Luckily for us the dry, desert conditions preserved much of the site so that it is not hard for one to imagine what once was as you stroll down the main thoroughfare, still lined with 15m columns, for 1km; or as you stand in the shadow of the temple of Ba'al, dwarfed by the huge stone blocks that make up its immense walls; or even as you pass through the 5m high door of the agora. There is grandeur here on a colossal scale. Yet despite that it was something altogether more life-sized, and life-like, that marked me the most.

Outside the city walls extends another city, a city for the dead. And in this necropolis people were not buried individually, as is the general custom today, but instead families would build towers for the dead. These towers would be arranged somewhat like beehives, with niches, called loculi, in which to place the dead bodies much like the cells in which bees store their honey. And when a cell is full of honey it is sealed up with wax, and so too with the Palmyrenes, except they did not use wax but instead used a stele with the carved bust of the deceased. So now it is possible to walk through the Palmyra museum (for the stela no longer grace the tombs as they would be prime targets for grave-robbers) you see row upon row of faces: old and young, men and women, each unique, individual, staring back at you through the millennia. Such intimate contact with people long departed makes you wonder about the lives they led, the troubles they had, the joys they experienced. It is very haunting to realise that, in a strange way, they have achieved a sort of immortality.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sex And Politics

Eastern Syria, apart from a conspicuous green belt of irrigated farmland along the Euphrates, is dry and empty. I therefore thought I would only stay one night in the regional capital of Deir Ez Zur, long enough to pop down to some Roman/Hellenistic ruins, before heading off again. In the end I stayed for three nights.

The reason for my tarrying was a student called Mohammed. We were sitting next to each other on the bus to Deir and exchanged pleasantries, and although he wasn't very talkative I could see his understanding was good. When he heard I was planning to stay at a hotel he offered for me to stay with him. He was living in what probably passes for halls of residence in Syria: a couple of basic buildings around a decrepit courtyard with largish, boxy rooms devoid of any furnishings except for a couple of plastic mats to cover some of the concrete floor, two wafer-thin mattresses and a couple of blankets for bedding. In one corner was a jumbled pile of assorted pots and plates along with the all-important teapot and heating element for making tea. I'm not fussy so I wasn't in the least bothered, though I doubt I would want to live in a place like that for an extended period of time. And although Mohammed had so little he consistently refused my offers for paying for anything, even to take him out to dinner.

The welcome I received was boisterous as the (exclusively male) students all tried to practice their patchy English at the same time and grab my attention for themselves. During my time with Mohammed and the students I went with them to some classes, drank a lot of tea, chatted, and generally just lazed (which pretty much sums up 99% of their activities). The conversations, when they didn't consist of a long list of Arab celebrities, who I'd never heard of, for me to pass judgement on, were the most interesting aspect of my stay, not only because I started to pick up a few words of Arabic, but also because it gave me an insight into the hopes, fears and preoccupations of the people from this much-maligned country. And two topics of conversation that are worlds apart, unless you happen to be a British cabinet minister, dominated: politics and sex.

The politics aspect is unsurprising given that Syria is deeply enmeshed in the miasma that is the Middle East Situation. It is still technically at war with the Israelis and part of Syria, the Golan (or Jolan in Arabic) Heights, is occupied by them. So my unfeigned antipathy towards Bush, Blair and radical Zionism made me instantly popular. Though they seemed unable to comprehend that I could also support some of the things done by the West. For them politics is black or white and there seems to be no room for disliking someone and yet approving of some of their actions. The Israel situation seems to loom large in the national psyche and Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah command enormous grassroots support throughout the country, as can be seen by the countless posters of the bearded cleric and green-and-yellow flags. There might even be as many pictures of Nasrallah as of the Assads, Syria's de facto ruling dynasty (present president Bashar, his brother Basil, and their father an ex-president Hafez who died in 2000). It is this pictorial ubiquity that reminds you that, despite appearances to the contrary, you are in a police state (for example, less than a day after arriving at Mohammed's the infamous mukhabarat, secret police, came knocking to ask a few questions and to take down our passport details) and political dissension is weeded out with efficiency. Apparently there are so many informants that even families will refuse to discuss domestic politics amongst themselves in their own homes. However, the young president (he was only 34 when he took office, leading to a hasty re-jigging of the constitutional age-limit for the head of state), who was plucked from obscurity as a London ophthalmologist, really does seem to have popular support amongst ordinary Syrians.

Politics can be a touchy subject and so you can never be sure of getting the right picture, so at least on the topic of sex in secular Syria there is less likelihood of self-censorship. It's only natural that since my companions were hormonal 20 year-old males in a society that forbids pre-marital sex they have video phones full of porn and kept asking me about my own adventures; questions that I tried to sidestep diplomatically, not least because since I've been travelling alone for over two years my sex life is nothing to write home about (not that I usually write home about it, but still). And yet on the other hand they look down on sex as something dirty and shameful, and Western society as decadent and immoral. When I pointed out the hypocrisy of their position and that, incidentally, all their parents must have had sex it caused a fair amount of mirth, but also an outburst of: "Khalas (enough)! There is no sex in Syria, it is moharram (against Islam)! No more talking of sex!" Although this same guy, not ten minutes later piped up with, ", in Scotland, if you see a girl can you..." They seemed to oscillate between viewing women as simple sex objects and placing them on some untouchable, virginal pedestal. They cannot even comprehend the idea of having a purely platonic friendship with a girl. Which pretty much sums up the behaviour of young men in many countries I have travelled through, not just Syria, where there is little or no everyday interaction between the sexes: the men, who invariably have the power, are unable to view women as people in their own right, worth listening to, with a point of view and with something to contribute (other than cooking, cleaning and making children). It is one of the things that I think the West has got right (at least in theory, although in practice there is still room for improvement) and many cultures are losing out big time by marginalising 50% of their own population.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Man With Style

Aleppo, Syria's second city with a strong mix of both Christian and Muslim communities, is famed for its bustling souq and citadel in the heart of the old city. During the week after Ramadan, unfortunately, many people are on holiday so the souq was lifeless until today, and even now half the shops are shut. But there is still plenty of activity and one can see that the souq is still the beating heart of the local community. Each trade and type of shop has its own little corner, alleyway or courtyard in which similar stalls huddle together as women in scarves and veils glide around browsing through bolts of fabric; tailors make clothes to measure; traditional olive oil soap is sold by the kilo; butchers' with hanging meat and spice merchants vie for olfactory supremacy; and local men stroll purposefully dressed in bathrobe-like jalabiyyas and keffiyehs wrapped around their heads. The iconic keffiyehs are not just a symbol of Arabness, but also a useful piece of clothing with a myriad ways of being worn and tied. And since I'm a sucker for headgear I've already invested in one for myself along with an agal (the black circlet used to keep it in place) though I baulked at getting myself the jalabiyya. I have already started practising tying it on in front of the bathroom mirror and I think it looks rather stylish, if I do say so myself, so watch this space for future pictures of me striking some poses a-la Laurence of Arabia.

Another local, with a style all his own, was Saint Simeon. This hardcore ascetic was disappointed with his fellow monks' luxurious habits, such as sleeping on stone beds and eating bread and water once a day during Lent. So Simeon found himself a tall rock, and sat on it. For a very long time. Soon pilgrims started flocking to this holy man sitting on his style (Greek for column). As his fame and popularity spread more people came (from as far away as Britain and France) and he used progressively taller columns to get away from his groupies. Allegedly when he died, after having spent some 40-odd years up columns, Simeon's column was 15m tall and devotees would climb a ladder up to him to ask him for advice and his blessing. Due to his antics column living became quite a craze in early Christendom, though European aficionados didn't seem as successful (or as long-lived), most probably due to the chillier climate. After his death a 4-church cathedral, the largest in the world at the time, was built around his column, the remains of which are still imposing to this day. The countryside around is also charming with the remains of Byzantine-era pilgrim resthouses used by local villagers as foundations for their houses or barns, seemingly oblivious to their illustrious past, and olive groves stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Sleeping In No-Man's Land

Salam aleikum from sunny Syria.Well, that's not quite true, it's overcast and it rained throughout last night, but I don't care because I'm in Syria. Yay! It just goes to show that sometimes you have to be flexible in following the rules. My love for the Syrian border guards for letting me into their country and allowing me to carry on as planned was tempered by the fact that I was sitting around for seven hours waiting for the visa, and when I did get it it was 9pm. But without a guidebook or map of Aleppo, without any local money (the bank at the border refused to exchange my Turkish lira) and not speaking the language, I didn't fancy my chances in town. So instead I wandered past the barb wire by the main road and found myself a place to pitch my tent. In the morning I discovered that my campsite wasn't as removed from the road as I had imagined the night before, and had some spectators viewing my presence with bemusement.

So my trip has made another transition, from Europe-oriented Turkey to Arab Middle East. My last few days in Turkey were spent in and around the city of Antakya, ancient Antioch (on the Orontes). The city was founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander's generals who inherited the eastern part of the empire. Apparently Seleucus didn't have much of an imagination because as well as founding Antioch on the Orontes he founded no less than 15 other Antiochs, undoubtedly leading to a great deal of confusion amongst cartographers of the time. But this Antioch was the mother of them all and became the capital of the Seleucid empire. Later on it became the most important city for eastern Christians and is still the theoretical seat of five patriarchates (although none of the patriarchs actually reside there). I was there during Eid al-Fitr (or Bayram, as it is known in Turkey), the holidays that follow the month of Ramadan. However Bayram in Turkey is a bit of a non-event for tourists as locals mainly use the holidays to visit friends and family and spend some time together. Unlike what I had experienced last year in Kashgar with crazy dancing in the square and piles of mutton, either stewing away or kebabed, and a mass public display of gluttony.

But generally my month in Turkey has been very interesting (and surprisingly cheap, at less than $13 a day thanks to hitching and camping in unlikely places), in part because it hasn't been the Turkey that most people see. I only had a brief glimpse of the Mediterranean a couple of days ago and ritually dipped my hands in, but apart from that I spent most of my time in the eastern Anatolian highlands, which some may say isn't Turkey at all, but Kurdistan (highly contentious!). And I met very few fellow travellers. Indeed, I received a bit of a culture shock upon arriving in Aleppo this morning when I found myself a true backpacker hostel (complete with rooftop dorms and muesli breakfast), something I haven't experienced since the mountains of Pakistan. But one thing I'm pretty sure is universal to anyone's visit to Turkey is lemon cologne. Smelling somewhat like that pleasant stuff they infuse airplane towelettes with, but 100 times more powerful. Lemon cologne is Turkey's epitome of class. It is ladled out onto unsuspecting customers' hands on luxury buses, restaurants, fancy shops and even cyber cafes. The stuff is so potent that even three days and a shower later I was still distinctly noticeable. That is certainly one thing I won't be missing.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Spanner In The Works

My plan from Turkey was to head south for the Winter, to Syria and the rest of the Middle East, where my lone jumper and single-season sleeping bag would suffice. So I made my way to Gazi Antep, the largest city in southeast Turkey, where Syria has a handy consulate. And on Friday morning I bounded over, passport in hand and smile on my face. The smile was soon erased when the man behind the counter jabbered at me that I needed a letter. Uh-oh I thought, remembering the last time I needed a letter for a Pakistani visa in India the process cost me a lot of time and, more importantly, money. And here the situation was exactly the same ... except that there is no British consulate in Gazi Antep.

"No problem," insisted the Syrian lady, "they can just fax it through like everyone else." Except Britain, as always, refuses to do things like everyone else. "We can fax it through alright," said the lady at the British embassy over the phone, "but you'll have to come over here and pay for it in person." (The pro forma letter, incidentally, costs significantly more than the multiple entry visa for Syria, whereas other countries' embassies give them away like candies on Hallowe'en.) I pleaded my case, I got down on my hands and knees before the vice-consul (figuratively speaking as it was over the phone) but she would not budge from her position. And I refuse to travel over 1000 miles to collect the letter, partly because it would be horribly expensive (some $250 or more), but also because I am too proud to submit myself to such illogical, frivolous and petty box-ticking when a plain and simple solution is so glaringly obvious. And so, my dear readers, my best laid plans have well and truly gone agley. But what pisses me off the most is not the thwarting per se, that I could have lived with, if it was done by some overbearing, autocratic bureaucracy of a repressive regime. No, what really gets my goat is the fact that my dreams are denied by my own government who are supposed to be there to help me if I encounter difficulties abroad, not produce them. And I pay taxes for this? (I assure you that I have paid taxes, at some point) It almost makes me sick enough to renounce my citizenship. My only hope to get into Syria now is to just turn up at the border and pray that my innocent, puppy-dog eyes (and perhaps an appropriate "facilitation fee") melt the border guards' hearts. I wouldn't hold my breath though.

Anyway, that's enough of my moaning. Seeing as this is a travel blog I really ought to write a little something about my surroundings for those of you back home. Gazi Antep is the materialistic slut to Urfa's Amish housewife. Gone are the headscarves and skullcaps to be replaced by expensive hair-do's and rudeboys in pimped up cars and blaring music. Here is the last bastion of western Turkey before the wild wild east begins. As such Gazi Antep offers little for the casual tourist, except for one thing: its museum. The ruins of Zeugma were known about for some time, but when a dam was slated to submerge the site under its reservoir work got under way to properly excavate the ancient city. It turned out to be perhaps the most significant Roman ruins since Pompeii. Thus started a frantic race against the clock to save as much as possible before being lost under the rising floodwaters (because nothing as poncey as archaeology could ever stop the Turkish government from building a dam). Of all the treasures that could be saved the most stunning are the immaculate mosaics which are by far and away the most beautiful ancient mosaics I have ever seen (a bit of a disingenuous statement perhaps as I have not seen any other ancient mosaics, but even if I had I am sure the statement would still be true). It is also rather fitting, now that most of the city is under water, that the showpiece of the entire collection is a huge mosaic of Poseidon.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Déjà Vu?

In eastern Turkey the big tour groups don't go to Ani (too far and too Armenian) or Hasankeyf (not monumental enough and soon to be submerged), instead they head for Nemrut Daği (Mount Nimrod). Now those of you who have been paying attention to my posts will remark that I have been there already, and judging from my bland commentary at the time you would assume that it's not particularly remarkable. And that is what I thought too, until I discovered that there are in fact 2 Nemrut Dağis and that the other is considerably more interesting. Around 100 B.C. the tiny kingdom of Commagene was nestled uncomfortably between two giant neighbours: the Romans to the west and the Persians to the east. And despite being outsized and outmuscled by these two giants the rulers of Commagene certainly didn't have any inferiority complexes, considering themselves the equals of their more illustrious peers. This is best illustrated by Mount Nemrut where the Commagene king Antiochus built his tomb. Not only was he not content with the size of the mountain and therefore added a 50m cone on top (thereby making it nice and spikey, more like a proper mountain), but around the base of this tumulus he erected statues of himself hob-nobbing with his friends: the gods Zeus, Ahura-Mazda, Apollo and Hercules among them. Certainly not one to be modest about his connections. The statues are still standing but all sans heads, which are lying around on the ground, which makes for an amusing sight. Most tour groups come to catch either the sunrise or the sunset on the mountain, but since I was trudging up on foot like a true penniless backpacker (even managing to skirt the ticket office as the attendant was having a snooze) I got there at midday and had the whole site to myself. A nice place to sit and ponder the transience of existence and what we leave behind us when we are gone. I wonder if someday somebody will come upon this blog and read it. What will they think (apart from the obvious of me being a tight Scotsman)? how pertinent will it be? or will this just be another entry for the cyber-dustbin, never to make it past my circle of friends and family?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Prophetable City

I can certainly feel that I am getting closer to the Holy Land. The devout-o-meter is steadily climbing, as seen by the greater proportion of women wearing headscarves and people observing Ramadan, and the number of pilgrimage sites is also increasing. This is particularly true of Urfa. The town has been around for donkey's years and has therefore accumulated more than its fair share of connections to biblical prophets (Abraham, Lot, Moses, Job, Jethro (who the hell was Jethro?), Jacob, Elijah and Jesus). Actually I didn't even know there were that many prophets and I think it's overkill and perhaps Urfa should share its prophets with other towns. The big draw is the old man himself, the father of the Israelites and their religions that have now spread all across the world: Abraham. According to legend he was born in a cave, in what is now the old town, during the reign of the evil king Nimrod, Abraham takes him on and gets rid of him and his idolatrous ways. Whatever the historical accuracy of the tale the tiny cave (and it truly is uninspiring) attracts pilgrims from all three Abrahamic faiths to prostrate themselves and wash themselves and drink from the holy water (though not now as it's still Ramadan).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Turkish TV Is Crap

If any of you are planning to visit Turkey don't bother watching the TV or paying extra for a room with one (unless it has international satellite channels), because Turkish TV just doesn't quite cut the mustard. This became all too evident to me whilst I was visiting Diyarbakir. The town has a rather rough reputation, but I quite liked the edginess. This is PKK heartland and the underdog is very much supported here, as I discovered if ever I decided to say I was Iranian: "Ahmadinejad good! bomb America!" Which would lead me to make a hasty exit with a mumbled "err, OK, whatever you say mate." But that's beside the point, Diyarbakir has a long and distinguished history running all the way back to Roman times, and it's impressive city walls that stretch for over 5km date from the Byzantine period. The town is also known as the Black City because not only its walls, but also many of the old houses are made of black basalt. This certainly doesn't add to the city's photogenicity, but it does give it a certain moody charm, and when this is used in conjunction with white stones you get some buildings with a unique zebra effect. But any visitor keeps getting drawn back to the city walls and the warren of alleyways in the old town beneath them. And although t is great fun to stomp around there, one is soon forced to flee due to incessant cries of "tooreest!", "hallo!", "my name is?", and, most puzzlingly, "Japon!"" hurled at me like ransom demands from the innumerable street urchins that seem to inhabit every nook and cranny of every alleyway. Not only are these little brats annoying, cloying, impolite and covered in snot, but they can be downright nasty as well when I experienced my first ever stone-throwing. Not dangerous, but certainly disconcerting and definitely very unpleasant and unfriendly. Something certainly needs to be done to stop this plague of not-quite-Biblical proportions, and I'm calling upon Turkish TV programmers for help, because if they start showing some better programmes than local, young couples will have something else to do in the evenings other than producing more rugrats. Insha'allah!

Thursday, October 12, 2006


So far in my Turkey posts I've mentioned the persecution of the Kurds and the Armenian genocide, the latter, as of two days ago, enjoying a strange legal existence: if you say it happened here in Turkey you are likely to go to jail, but in France if you were to deny it happened you could also go to jail. Anyway, I now have another ethnic group to add to the list: the Syriacs.

Now I must admit that, before meeting them, I hadn't really heard of them. The Syriacs, though once quite widely distributed, are now mostly found in the south of the country close to the Syrian border around the towns of Midyat and Mardin (and of course in Syria proper). The reason for their persecution is that they are Christians, though they have their own, independent church which broke from the other western churches in 451 over the highly contentious issue of Christ's nature (the western churches claim he has two natures: human and divine, whereas the Syriacs insist that he has only one: divine). They speak their own language which is a modern version of Aramaic (leading to them, especially those of the diaspora, also referring to themselves as Aramaeans) and their liturgy is conducted in old Aramaic, the language in which Jesus spoke and the New Testament was originally written in, meaning that their services most closely resemble those of the first churches some 2000 years ago. Needless to say they are intensely proud of their heritage.

Whilst visiting the monastery of Mor Gabriel (possibly the oldest monastery in the world) I was lucky enough, not only to witness the midday service, but also to have a long conversation with the lay director who spoke excellent English. I therefore got the lowdown on their grievances, how they were also affected by the 1915 genocide, how they're discriminated against by the authorities, how they are treated by their Muslim neighbours (rather ironic given that their neighbours are generally Kurds and are therefore also a disadvantaged minority, but then again people who are bullied often turn round and bully someone smaller in turn), and how their lands and churches are taken from them. Apparently 30 years ago there were 50,000 Syriacs living in the Midyat area and now there are only 2,000, the rest having emigrated to Germany, Sweden and other western countries.

Now it may seem that I am unfairly picking on Turkey as an evil and repressive government when I have travelled through countries with much harsher regimes and barely said a thing. Such criticism is entirely justified, but I do have my reasons. Firstly I have undoubtedly changed during the course of my trip and have probably become more socially aware; secondly I may not always come across every polemic issue in every country I visit, either just by chance or because of communication problems (such as in China with the Tibetans and Uighurs); and finally, and perhaps most importantly, because Turkey claims and aspires to the status of EU membership and joining this club of privileged nations. This is something I am all for as, economically, Turkey seems to be doing quite well, and it would be good for us Europeans to have closer contacts with other cultures and not be so homogeneous. Yet it is precisely on this point that Turkey itself fails the test by no recognising and cherishing the differences that exist within itself. Indeed it is this intolerance, this ugly, selfish nationalism that was the bane of the last century, which caused once (relatively) harmonious communities to fall upon each other in the name of race, religion, language and dubious history. It appeared that such tendencies were beginning to die out in Europe but have unfortunately been undergoing a bit of a renaissance. It's sad to see, especially when it seems so obvious (at least to me) that multiculturalism has so many advantages. Though, to end on a positive note, talking to Kurds and Syriacs here it does look as if things are getting slightly better, mainly due to pressure from the EU for reforms, so let's hope things continue like that.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dam Those Kurds

In Doğubeyazıt I found myself a Kiwi, called Kerry, and together we travelled for a bit in Turkish Kurdistan. (I also made full use of his geology skills, as he is a geological engineer, to ask some silly questions: "is this limestone?") Our first stop was van on the shores of its eponymous lake. The lake is unique; not because it is Turkey's largest, but because of its high altitude (1720m) and carbonated, alkaline water in which only one species of fish can survive. And trust me, after having tasted the water I can understand why. Van used to be the capital of the ancient Urartians (though in those days it was called Tushpa) with its fortress at its core. The fortress is built on an improbable outcrop of rock some 100m high, a mile long and yet no more than 40m at its widest point. Whilst clambering around this old castle Kerry and I were ambushed by a Kurdish theatre group who started chatting to us, adopted us and then started a traditional, Kurdish circle dance (which we had to join), all in the space of 5 minutes. They invited us to their theatre performance that evening, and since there didn't seem to be much else going on in Van (and having no guidebook to tell us otherwise) we turned up with a fair amount of trepidation, not knowing exactly what to expect. It turned out to be an eclectic mix of comedy and allegory, and I was quite surprised that I managed to follow most of it (at least I think I did). Afterwards we were taken to an underground (despite being on the 4th floor) session of traditional Kurdish singing that is still illegal. Another disarming experience in Van occurred when a girl from a carpet shop asked us in so that she could "practice her English", and then proceeded to do exactly that. Carpets, and the selling thereof, weren't even mentioned in the two hours we spent chatting away.

This whole section of southeast Turkey is predominantly Kurdish (about 80% of the population) and they have generally been given a rough deal in modern Turkey, mainly because in Turkey there are no minorities and everyone is Turkish (Kurds are apparently "Mountain Turks"). Minority languages and cultures have traditionally been strongly suppressed and a monolithic image of the country thrust upon the people (it is even a heavily punishable offence to "insult Turkishness", whatever that may be). Enter the PKK and the Kurdish separatist movement that for the past 30-odd years has been fighting for a better status/independent country for Kurds. Things, though, are getting slightly better: there are satellite channels in Kurdish, several newspapers, and it s even possible to teach Kurdish (though only in private schools). But things are a long way from perfect and Turkey has a lot more to do if it wants to seriously consider becoming an EU member, not least because of military interference in politics (and boy, do you see the military in Kurdistan).

Other attractions in Kurdistan included a hike up Nemrut Daği, an extinct volcano with lakes and a forest in the caldera; a huge Seljuk cemetery on the shores of lake Van (more interesting than it sounds); and the improbably named town of Batman (which really is wasting a golden marketing and merchandising opportunity). The town itself is rather dreary and industrial, but the place comes alive in the evening when men crowd the pavements, sitting on low stools, sipping çay and playing backgammon until the wee hours. The must-see site of the region, without a doubt, has to be Hasankeyf. The modern town sits on the bank of the mighty Tigris (Dicle in Turkish), but the historical remains, dating all the way back to the 8th millenniumm B.C. are on, and sometimes in, the sheer cliffs that rise 200m above the river. The spectacular setting and archaeological importance of the site should make this eastern Turkey's prime tourist attraction in anyone's book. The Turkish government, on the other hand, don't seem to have any books and would beg to disagree, and so not only is Hasankeyf barely mentioned in tourist brochures, but in 4 years time it certainly won't be, due to the fact that the entire town will be under water. Yes, the Turkish government has had the phenomenally stupid brainwave that building dams is the answer to all socio-economic problems. This is despite the fact that all the people in the area are dead set against the project; many historical monuments will be lost forever; tens of thousands of people will be displaced from their ancestral homes; and the river will be irreversibly affected downstream, the government is still blithely going on with construction. But the killer argument for me is that, due to silting, the dam will have an effective lifespan of only 50-75 years. When you stack up all the irrevocable damage and destruction against the dubious short-term gains it seems more like a spiteful and vindictive act against the Kurds who almost exclusively inhabit the region to be affected. So, if this pisses you off as much as it does me have a look at the Ilisu Dam Campaign website to see what you can do to stop this monumental act of folly.