Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: Deir ez-Zur (Dayr az Zur), Along the banks of the Euphrates

Chapter Three - Along the banks of the Euphrates

I arrived in Deir ez-Zur late afternoon. Decided to go to the Mari Hotel, after reading its 'review' in the Lonely Planet guide, I asked where it was. Nobody spoke English, but eventually I got there. The hotel is located at the end of what looks like the entrance to a shopping gallery or a cinema. They charge US$26 for singles. The rooms have a fan, and an en-suite bathroom which is very clean. The rooms are a bit small though, and very hot ! When I was in Deir ez-Zur, it was 45°C outside, really boiling hot, and the rooms were impossible to keep cool even with the fan on max speed.

The people at the Mari are polite enough, but not trustworthy at all, as it turned out. Sometimes I was charged S£25 for a soft drink/bottle of water, whilst at other times they charged me twice as much for the same thing ?? It's much better to buy all you need in one of the two small shops which are virtually next door to the hotel. They charge fair prices.

I talked to several people staying at the Hotel Raghdan, some of which had also stayed at the Mari before. Rooms at the Raghdan were US$15, and all people raved about them and about the service. All agreed that the rooms at the Mari were better quality, but not so much that they justified the $11 more.

Deir ez-Zur (Dayr az Zur)Contrary to what I expected after reading the Lonely Planet guide, I found Deir ez-Zur a very nice place to stay for a couple of days. The view of the Euphrates river from the 500 metres long suspension bridge is absolutely great, and should really be more explicitly recommended !

I have heard of people confusing the rather dirty canal flowing through the town centre with the majestic Euphrates, for which you have to walk further out. A couple of days ago I visited the Web site of a Swiss guy who was clearly mistaken, talking about the Biblical river flowing in a concrete bed...

Deir looks like a deserted, not so friendly city on first sight, but in the evenings - when it's cooler - it looks like the whole town's population is out on the streets. This is an ideal time to photograph people if you like to do that. Many people will happily pose for you, often even asking to be photographed themselves.
A great place to mingle with the (male) locals, is the café of the Hotel Damas.
When coming from the city centre, there are restaurants to the left and right of the suspension bridge. The one on the left, the Big Bridge Restaurant, serves good food. It's a bit more expensive than elsewhere it seems, but the views of the very nearby river more than make up for that.

I dined out with a French couple. They had visited some of the sites in and around Deir the previous day. It's from them I got the tip to visit the city's museum, which I initially wanted to skip

The old museum has been closed. There is now a new one in the west of the city. Just walk towards the end of Ali Ibn Abi Taleb Street.

Entrance tickets cost S£300, but in this case it's really warranted. This must be one of the best museums - in terms of presentation - in the whole country ! All the different periods (in time) are excellently explained, and labelling is in Arabic, English and French. There's an excellent overview of the history of writing.

Several of the artefacts on display are actually copies from stuff in other museums, but still if you want to really learn something about the country's history or about the history of writing this is no doubt the place to come to ! The staff are very friendly and helpful, and will answer all questions you may have (if they can, of course; their English is not perfect).

As in all museums in Syria, photography is not allowed and bags here must be left at the entrance. You will have this place virtually to yourself.

Apart from the Euphrates, the museum is the only attraction in town, but the place makes a good base for a trip to the South, towards the Iraqi border, where some interesting places are to be found. I wanted to visit some of these sites, but with the extreme temperatures in this region, I loathed having to spend virtually a whole day on buses. On top of that, my time was limited here.

I tried to arrange a taxi to take me to Qala'at ar-Rahba, Dura Europos and Mari the next day. Perhaps I was just unlucky, but none of the taxi drivers seemed to speak any English, and didn't get what I was on about. So I decided to talk to the people at the reception of the Hotel Mari. They're real sharks ! Avoid arranging anything here ! They wanted S£3000 for the half day trip to these sites, coming down only to S£2800. A ridiculous price. At the Hotel Raghdan, prices are S£1000 less ! This seems to be generally considered a 'fair' price for the trip.

The taxi driver who picked me up the next day didn't speak a word of English - not a real surprise - and on top of that was dead sick. He obviously had a high fever, and a horrible cough. Most sensible people in the West would stay at home with sick leave, but I understood this was just not an option in Syria. Especially when some 'rich' tourist was paying a ridiculous amount of money, probably enough to make up for a whole week of driving.

Anyway, we first drove to Qala'at ar-Rahba, a medieval castle about fifty kilometres to the south of Deir. The castle hill is nicely situated amidst a green plain near the Euphrates, although the river itself was not visible. The views of the castle from the surrounding ridge are simply stunning. I didn't bother trying to get into the castle itself, as it's heavily ruined.

We continued to Dura Europos, another 50 kilometres or so further on. I expected a lot of this site. I had heard and read terms like 'impressive', 'stunning', 'fascinating', 'mysterious', 'intriguing', and was probably expecting too much. I admit I was at least a bit disappointed by the site. It's in essence only an empty shell. The city walls still stand, but inside much has disappeared, and what's left is heavily ruined. I did like the great views from the crumbled walls over the Euphrates river which passes by right below. These alone are worth coming here and paying the S£150 entrance fee. These, and the gun-toting caretaker who careers up and down the site on his old motorbike, looking out for 'insurgences'.

Still closer to Iraq (the border is about 20 km away) lies Mari. I was charged S£100 to enter, but the site is worth every piastre of it. The now largely underground royal palace of Zimri Lim is great fun to explore, making your way through corridors with towering earthen walls. The complex must have been a real labyrinth, judging by what's still left of it. There weren't many other tourists - although still more than I had expected - making it a place with a lot of atmosphere, ideal for sitting down for a while and thinking about long gone eras.

Outside are the remains of a ziggurat, a typically Mesopotamian temple-tower. I had expected to find at least a bit of the tower still standing, but it turned out that only the foundations remain. Still enough though, to get a good impression of the layout.
After my visit, I joined my driver in the tent which was also the ticket office. I was offered tea. The people were kind. Yes, Mari's a nice place to visit.

It was late afternoon when we returned to Deir ez-Zur. About halfway back, we passed a roadside market. It was small but busy. I decided to have a walk around. There was no shelter from the sun anywhere near it. The heat was ringing in my ears. The people were definitely traditional. All men wore the traditional Arab head-dress, no Western clothing in sight. At a certain moment it was as if the market came to a standstill, during which I was cautiously observed; then - just as suddenly - everything continued.

I looked at the wares on sale, fresh fruits and vegetables mainly. I bought some sweets, a pretzel-like pastry baked in oil. Very tasty, and very cheap.
Most people at the market were reluctant to have their picture taken. Dunno why, but I experienced that behaviour throughout Syria. Surprising.

While I was walking around, my driver bought some fuel. It was sold by a guy who sucked and siphoned the stuff from a large barrel. The siphoning didn't work very well, as I saw him sucking and spitting all the time. Somehow, I can't imagine this will do a lot of good for his personal health... When the tank was filled up, we drove non-stop to Deir. The first thing I did, was taking a nice cool shower. Boy, this place was hot !

Later that day, I took a nice, long evening stroll. Always a worthwhile experience in Deir.

The next morning, I wanted to go to Raqqa. I inquired about transport thither, and was advised to go to the Qadmous bus station. It turned out that there are no big buses leaving for Raqqa from there or anywhere else in Deir. Only from the minibus station, and that's obviously at another location... Once there, finding a bus was a breeze. It cost S£70 and the trip took about two hours.

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