Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: Aleppo, rival of Damascus

Chapter Five - Aleppo, rival of Damascus

Although it's quite sure Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Aleppo strongly doubts that, and sees itself as the most likely contender to that title. On arrival, Aleppo's bus station appeared to be way out of town, but actually Baron Street and surroundings were only a short walk away.

I wanted to stay somewhere central, and in a bit of comfort. I chose to go to Ramsis Hotel. I didn't know how to get there, so I asked a guy on the street. He turned out to be Fadi Afash, a member of the Syrian football team. He was a really nice dude.

The people at the reception desk of the Ramsis aren't particularly friendly, and something gave me the impression they're not so trustworthy. At US$30 for a single, it is too expensive for what you get. The bathrooms are too dirty for this price range. The rooms come with A/C, TV, fridge, and breakfast is included in the price, but the waiter downstairs will still expect a tip for serving you.

I decided to take it for one night, and in the meantime look out for another place.
The Baron Hotel opposite the street was not an option. Just as expensive for much worse rooms. This place is only living off its reputation. Perhaps that's enough for some people, but bedbugs are not my idea of atmosphere...

The Tourist Hotel, of Madame Olga fame, is probably the best place to stay in Aleppo (in terms of value for money). Rooms are S£350 or S£400 with en-suite bathroom, all of which are spotlessly clean ! The big problem though, was being able to get a room at all. It's always full, so if you want to stay, be sure to make a reservation !

Second choice is the al-Jawaher Hotel, near Bab al-Faraj. Everybody knows it. This place is also spotlessly clean and the en-suite bathrooms even have a real bath tub ! The staff are friendly and helpful. Rooms cost S£400 for a single, although they're actually doubles. The rooms are quiet and don't attract any (or hardly any) street noise. I liked it so much, I stayed three nights.

I walked out of the Ramsis Hotel. A taxi driver who was clearly waiting for (tourist) customers outside, came up to me asked if I wanted a ride to Qala'at Samaan, 'Ain Dara or every place else I wanted to go. Just to Qala'at Samaan and back was US$40, a ridiculous price ! Then, he threw in some other places on the way, but the fare didn't go down.

If you bargain very hard, you'll eventually come down to $20, which is still absurd but seems to be the lowest price they allow themselves to fall down to. Be warned and either pass them by, or bargain hard ! These guys are real sharks. Honestly : at least 90% of Aleppo's taxi drivers can't be trusted. They never use their meters, and will rather have you getting out of the car than turning them on. There are enough tourists already, to be able to find another victim.
I decided to have lunch first, and then look out for a taxi driver willing to take me for a better price.

There are several decent places to eat in Aleppo. I went to al-Andalib, virtually next door (but 'round the corner) to the Baron Hotel. The food is good 'n' cheap (around S£300 for a good meal including drinks), it's a nice place to sit, and the waiters are friendly. Only minor point : the chips were not edible. Don't order them !

Al-Chabab, not far away, was an equally nice place to sit with even more friendly waiters, who will go out of their ways to please you. A really extensive meal including drinks costs about S£350. After finishing eating, I was offered oranges, grapefruit and cherries on the house, complete with a note saying : "C'est avec l'hospitalité de la restaurant al-Chabab". Great !

After turning down several of his colleagues, I agreed with a driver to go to Qala'at Samaan, Deir Samaan, Qasr Mushabak and Qatura for US$20, including photo stops where I wanted. He was a really friendly, joyous chap, even offered me drink, etc.

Qala'at Samaan was one of the highlights of my trip. A really beautiful, surprisingly quiet and interesting place. Upon entering the site, after paying the S£300 entrance fee and a short climb, the well-preserved main Basilica of St Simeon immediately makes an impression. Three adjacent basilicas, forming a cross with the main one, add to the grandeur of the place. Centrally positioned are the remains of St Simeon's pillar. This holy man, who lived in the 5th century, namely had the odd habit of sitting atop pillars for most of his life. In total he spent not less than 36 (!!) years on top of them. He started of with a three metre high column, but the last 30 years of his life, he lived on a pillar which had the amazing length of 15 metres.

Simeon was clearly a nutball, but in those times must have been considered a display of iron will, and hence of immovable faith, because the site effectively became a place of pilgrimage. People came from as far as Britain to hear St Simeon preach from his high position.
Today, the pillar is not more than a boulder on top of a pedestal. Because of its high holy contents, pilgrims over the years have chipped it almost completely away.
Because the place tickles the imagination so much and the buildings, together with the great views to the west, are quite stunning from nearly every angle, a visit can take a while. There are also some buildings to explore nearby. The most interesting is a baptistery.
After my relaxing visit to the site, I was about to have an unpleasant experience... My driver, the formerly very friendly person, had changed completely : he told me the 20 Dollars had been for the drive to Qala'at Samaan, and now he wanted another $20 to finish the rest of the trip. Immediately, I grabbed my bag, and attempted to get out. I told him he was bloody dishonest, and a disgrace for his otherwise overwhelmingly friendly country. I pointed out to him that we had agreed on something, and that we should both stick to that. I said that, even if I would have discovered that he was overcharging me (which he did, but they all do), I would have paid the amount of money, because we had agreed on it. Somehow I made an impression, because he took me by the arm, and told me to get back in. It was OK. He'd drive for $20.

Only a couple of kilometres further on, he started nagging about the price again. To drive to Qatura and Qasr Mushabak, he'd need another $5 because "petrol is expensive in Syria". I refused to pay, urged him to stop (which he did) and got out of the car again. I got visibly angry now, took $15 and told him to take it and leave. Again, he seemed temporarily impressed (or scared he'd loose out on an agreed $5 ?) and suggested to get back in. He'd drive to Qatura and Qasr Mushabak (which is just along the road to Aleppo, BTW) "for free".

This time he kept his promise and didn't nag. I refused to talk to him any more. He very well noticed that and started feeling uncomfortable by it. He inserted many 'photo stops' (many of which I refused) in the tour just to please me, probably because he noticed he could forget about a possible tip.

Qatura boasts some Roman tombs and an old church and well, but it's not so exciting.
Qasr Mushabak, like I said situated near the road from Aleppo to Qala'at Samaan, not far from al-Hawa, is easy to spot. There's no charge, and you have the site all to yourself, apart from the occasional Bedouin tent nearby. Not that there's an awful lot to see, but the interior - which looks to me more like a church than a castle - is reasonably well preserved. It's a nice and recommended place to make a stop.

The rest of my trip was hassle-free, but back in Aleppo, I was still quite glad to be rid of the dishonest driver. This taught me that although I was travelling in one of the friendliest countries in the world, I should always keep my guard. Not that I could have done much to prevent this (except for not taking a taxi), I think, but nevertheless… I returned to the Ramsis. The good memories of an otherwise perfect day quickly let me forget the bad experience...

The following day, in the obscure Tourist Office, I found a nice and trustworthy person to drive me around. His name is Basheer Kadour, and his card says : 'Cap driver for all archaeological sites'. Okay, we understand what he means. :-) His English is quite limited. But he's a nice man. Silent and reserved, but extremely helpful and honest. His prices are definitely way below the ones offered by his 'colleagues' ! His card also says you can reach him at the Aleppo Tourist Office, or by phoning (021) 744043. I can really recommend this guy ! I met two Dutchmen who had taken a taxi tour with him three years earlier, and they were in praise of him as well.
His prices are fixed, although perhaps he'd eventually come down a bit. He doesn't expect any tips (but appreciates them obviously).

A full day trip including Cyrrhus, Nahr Afreen, Shalalat Midanki and 'Ain Dara costs US$35. He takes his time, is never hurried and suggests good photo stops. The same trip, but also including Qala'at Samaan and Qasr Mushabak, would have been $5 more. Compared to my previous adventure, this was cheap.

On another day trip we would take in al-Bara, Serjilla, Ma'aret an-Nu'aman, Jeradeh and Ruweiha. The cost for this was US$40. He also does overnight trips. The cost for these, including everything, is $60 per day. He even drives to Lebanon on special request. These will cost as much as $80 per day.

By all means, I think these are fair prices to rent a car with driver for a full day in Syria.
Of course, it's possible to visit most of these places by a combination of public transport and walking. But that honestly would have taken too much of my time. A cab is admittedly very expensive, but also much more convenient.

The drive to Cyrrhus, better known to locals as Nabi Houri, was fun, especially the final stage from Azaz to the archaeological site. Azaz, described in the guidebook as a dump, was much more pleasant than I expected. Nothing going on really, but the Kurdish people here are friendly (yes, this is Kurdish territory).

From this town a narrow road leaves for Cyrrhus. It makes it way through lovely orchards and olive groves. People here are not used to having tourists around, and still stop to gaze at you when you drive past. Somehow that always feels odd... On the way, we crossed two old Roman bridges, built over the Sabun and Afreen rivers. Very picturesque. Near the second bridge we stopped to help a goatherd free one of his goats; it was trapped between the river and its banks.

The first thing you see upon approaching Cyrrhus is the large octagonal mausoleum tower, dating back to the Roman era. It's a very beautiful landmark, bordering a graveyard with both old and recent graves. It's possible to climb the tower by means of a small stairway inside. The views are excellent.

Taking the road almost opposite the mausoleum, one comes to the main ruins complex. And 'ruins' is the right word here; everything is completely destroyed, except perhaps for the amphitheatre, which can still be recognised. The remains of ancient Nabi Houri shouldn't be the goal of a visit to this area, but it's free, but it's free, the surroundings are quite lush and beautiful and there are no other people here. The views are best from the citadel on top of the hillock behind the site. Cyrrhus is right in the middle of Kurdish territory and I had expected heavy military presence. But no... Virtually nothing. Only a couple of tucked away watch towers on the Turkish side. On the Turkish side indeed, because this place is right on the border. One can see two villages, next to each other. One lies in Syria, the other one in Turkey. Nothing really separates them.

We drove back by another road, but also through cheerful landscape. We passed through Nahr Afreen and after a short while ended up at Shalalat Midanki. It's a great place to sit by the shallow but wide waterfalls made out by River Afreen and have a picnic. There's nothing else to do. The couple of cafés here sell terrible tea (turbid !) at the ridiculous price of S£50 for a small pot.

Me nor my driver were in a hurry, so we ended up staying quite a while near the falls. Many local people come here, and it's fun to just sit and watch them.

In the village of Basuta we made a stop at the Restaurant al-Basuta, which is quite excellent ! It's located near a spring and you can have a great meal for two here for less than S£500 including drinks. The waiters are helpful and friendly. Recommended !

By the time we had finished eating, it hard started to rain quite hard. We drove through green vegetable fields, full of people working on them, to the site of 'Ain Dara. The archaeological site is perched on top of a hill. I was surprised to find it open on a Tuesday. Tickets (S£150) have to be bought in the bungalow on ground level.

The first thing I got to see when we arrived, was a Japanese guy running around in his underwear. He was a member of the excavation team, and was clearly not expecting visitors... When he noticed us, he smiled and quickly disappeared inside.

My driver decided to shelter for the rain while I explored the site. At the top, the first thing you see, is a big lion statue. It's the most impressive thing at 'Ain Dara. That should tell you something about it. There's not much to be seen, but I loved the place for its solitude and for its environs. The second best thing are the bas-reliefs which decorated the base of the temple. One of these is still intact and in place.

On the way back to Aleppo, we passed Qala'at Samaan. Here, down the hill, lies Deir Samaan, initially a monastery associated with St Simeon's basilica. Due to the popularity of the pilgrimage site, a complete town soon developed around it. Today, we can still see the remains. Interesting also, is a gateway (near the main road) marking the start of the old street which lead up to the basilica.

It was about 6:30 in the evening when we arrived back in Halab, as the Arabs call Aleppo. We had a nice cup of tea in the Café al-Sahel, opposite the clock tower near Bab al-Faraj. It's a great place to mingle with the locals, or just watch the hustle-and-bustle out on the street below. Another good traditional café is the al-Mathaf Café, al-Maari Street.

We agreed to meet again at 8 am, not the next day, but the day after. The next day I was going to explore Aleppo itself...

First thing I did, was going to the museum. I was 15 minutes early - the place opens at 9 am. I admired the eye-catching basalt statues from Tel Halaf which make up the entrance. Once open, I bought a ticket (S£300) and started exploring... The museum is interesting and certainly worth a visit. It's a pity that some exhibited artefacts carry only a label in Arabic, French or none at all. There's definitely room for improvement. Photography is forbidden, but you can buy a good collection of postcards at the reception.

The citadel is worth a visit, but to be honest only for the views and the throne room, which is very impressive. Many people complained when they had to pay the S£300 at the entrance. One American woman summarised things quite accurately : "What ? 300 Pounds ? You are going to scare the tourists away ! Turkey's much cheaper, and very close to Syria. Why would tourists choose Syria with Turkey so close and cheap ?" Maybe she was being a little harsh, but she made a valuable point : Syria's entry tickets are way too expensive ! Instead of figuring out a reasonable price per site, the government has thought and decided they can even increase prices still, as the 'rich' tourists will pay anyway. To a certain extent, I think that's right, but people planning a trip at home will be held off. And that's a fact ! A friend of mine actually stayed at home because he told me the trip would be too expensive for him with all these S£200 entry fees to pay (I always visit many places). And now they're S£300 !! Incredibly enough, the special fee for taking photographs at the citadel has been abolished. You can take as much pictures as you like, for 'free'.

The entrance to the fabled souqs of Aleppo was visible from the citadel. Being so close, I decided to explore them right away. Boy ! They were one of the big disappointments of my trip ! Surely they are a great labyrinth where you can spend hours and hours exploring, but it's the atmosphere which completely sucks ! This is not an oriental bazaar, this feels like a southern European tourist shopping street or a tourist handicraft centre ! It's obvious that too many tourists have already passed through here. The souqs in Damascus hold much more of the typically Oriental atmosphere than these. The vendors here seem to speak every language of the world, including Dutch and that must tell you something ! Dozens of salesmen wanted me to 'translate a letter from a friend or relative in Belgium'. The first couple of times, you think they're honest, but you soon find out that these letters don't exist and the only thing they do, is try to sell you something. Luckily the pressure is (still ?) low.

I found almost as many people try to lure you inside their shops as in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, and there it's quite bad. Although I think even the Grand Bazaar has more character nowadays than the Aleppo souqs. A visit is nevertheless essential when staying in the city, but I'd recommend making it a brief one.

Aleppo street scene near Grand MosqueAleppo's Grand Mosque is definitely open now, and the 'refurbishing' has been rounded off. I didn't really notice much of it, so I suppose the buildings must have been in a really heavily neglected state before. The minaret is very beautiful and so is the minbar inside. Otherwise it's not so thrilling, definitely totally incomparable to Damascus' Omayyad Mosque. It is, however, a great place to photograph people. Just sit down with a telephoto lens at one of the sides of the inner courtyard and snap away. There's also no entry fee.

The Grand Mosque is where I met Mohammad, a disarmingly friendly little fellow who spoke very good English. He was on his way home from school. He insisted on showing me around. I accepted. He knew his stuff very well. He had some pictures within his schoolbook which he showed me from time to time, to illustrate what he was on about.

After the 'tour', the clever-dick tried to sell me the pictures, which were clearly cut from a book or leaflet - I suspected a free Tourist Office leaflet. S£50 he wanted. I told him he would soon be a rich person, if he kept on selling free leaflets. He laughed wholeheartedly. It went on like that for quite some time. I really had a liking for him, and finally bought the pictures for S£20. He told me it was really time for him to go home, because his mother would be very mad at him for being so late. Just outside the gate of the mosque, a man was selling Arabic books, mostly religious ones. Before he left, Mohammad grabbed one of them, and showed it to me. Inside were the pictures he had sold me. The price for the book, which I furthermore couldn't read, was more than S£100...

I decided to visit the Armenian quarter next. Abdallah, a guy I had already briefly met inside the mosque, wanted to walk with me. He was - as most other Syrians - a very nice guy.
It's great to wander through the different quarters of the city. It's odd to find most shops closed on Friday in the Muslim part while they're all open in the Christian quarter, and vice versa on Sundays.

Abdallah really knew his way around here, and showed me several churches, among them the Forty Martyrs' Cathedral and the Maronite Cathedral. To the right of the latter is another church. In itself it's not particularly worth visiting, but the people there are welcoming. I even got to meet the bishop, who has his residence there in one of the adjacent buildings !

I concluded this day in the Public Park, a nice place to sit and watch. I talked to many people who came asking me who I was, where I came from and why I was in Syria. Abdallah watched and listened bemused.

When it was getting dark, we walked towards my hotel (I had changed to the al-Jawaher in the meantime, BTW). At the clock tower, Abdallah and I said good-bye, but promised to stay in touch my mail.

Pyramid tomb at al-BaraThe next morning, Basheer (my taxi driver) and I met again. We had a whole day of sightseeing to do.

First, we were off to al-Bara, one of the so-called Dead Cities around Aleppo. The most striking structures are two pyramid-shaped tombs (actually there are three, but the third is very dilapidated). One of the pyramids still contains five quite intact tombs (the other contains two broken ones). There's also an interesting antique olive oil mill and some old churches. Al-Bara is a great site. It's free and you have the place all to yourself.

A similar Dead City (free and no other people) is Serjilla, very nearby. It's a spread-out site with many buildings still standing. The most remarkable are the baths. People live in tents amongst the ruins.

Ma'aret an-Nu'aman is a nice little town. I had heard about its mosaic museum and wanted to have a look. It costs a whopping S£300 to enter. Photography is forbidden. From a layman's point of view, most of the mosaics are not particularly well executed. They appear to be a bit childish, IMHO. Of course there are many and they're (probably) interesting but that's another thing.

I also visited the Grand Mosque in Ma'aret. Although I was not actually inside the mosque interior (ie. in the prayer hall), somebody there got a bit upset about my presence. It is clear that non-Muslims are not welcome here. If I'd been a woman, I could've had big problems, as a local informed me. The best thing about the mosque is its minaret, and that can just as well be seen from the street.

One of the bigger disappointments of my trip was Jeradeh, another Dead City about 10 km further on. The ruins were far from interesting to me. I was expecting a real 'dead' city, not a small cradle of ruins amidst a not-particularly-sleepy village. Not surprisingly, this place has no atmosphere at all.

Much better is nearby Ruweiha. IMHO, it's best to skip Jeradeh altogether and head straight for Ruweiha. Some houses are built amongst the ruins, which include a 6th century church and a particularly noticeable mausoleum. The people who live there are very traditional and friendly.
Neither of the two sites has an entry fee.

We arrived back in Aleppo at around 7 pm. Basheer took me over to his house. His wife had prepared supper and I was invited to join, which I gladly accepted. His wife and two children were very nice. Neither of them spoke any English, but Basheer tried to translate as much as possible. I also met his brother, and later in the evening I was invited at this brother's son's garage. I learnt some interesting things about cars in Syria ! It's truly amazing how the mechanics here succeed in making even the biggest wrecks 'road-worthy' !

Saying farewell this family felt like leaving behind some good friends, which actually Basheer had become.

I haven't mentioned this before, but all of the days I stayed here in Syria's second biggest city, I tried to make a phone call to Belgium. Unfortunately, the telephone office was a joke. Every time I walked in to buy a telephone card, they told me they were sold out, or the counter was closed. Trying to extract stamps from the people at this place had similar results.

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