Syria | Post date – October 2004

Our entry into Syria from Turkey was only our second ‘land' border crossing of the trip … and what a crossing it was. We spent three and a half hours getting our exit stamp from Turkey and our entrance stamp into Syria. Order was definitely not in the vocabulary of most of the people in any of the queues (and queue is a very generous description of the scrums at each of the counters). It was hot and grimy at these posts in the middle of nowhere, with none of the ‘mod-cons' of an entry point into Canada or the United States. You literally travel through no-man's land between the two checkpoints, with fences of barbed wire on either side of the roadway.

The town of Hama, Syria has many norias, wooden wheels that scoop the water from the Orontes River, tipping it into irrigation channels for surrounding fields. The wheels (some up to 70 feet in diameter) are made of wood and mounted on wooden blocks. The friction when they turn produces a horrendous, mournful, moaning sound.
800 years ago the Knights’ Hall at the Crac des Chevaliers (in present-day Syria) echoed to the laughter, quarrels and eating noises of the Crusaders. This castle apparently had enough supplies to withstand a five-year siege.

We arrived in Aleppo in the early evening, and stayed in a hostel close to the bus station. It was hot, a real change from the somewhat cooler temperatures we'd experienced in Cappadocia, and our bodies didn't seem to want to acclimatize particularly quickly. Aleppo was really just a place to park for the evening – our plan was to take the train to Lattakia the next morning. We'd read that the train ride through the mountains was quite spectacular, and that Lattakia was a nice seaside town.

We woke up the next morning to Ben rushing to and from the bathroom – another bug had hit the health of the Ryan family. We still packed and headed off to the train, and Ben spent most of the trip with his head firmly against the back of his seat attempting to sleep off his misery. Arriving in Lattakia we were again struck by the heat, this time joined by humidity. We arrived at our hotel only to find it was no longer a hotel, and then slugged up a hill with our bags to a rather frayed ‘hotel' to which we had to climb four flights of stairs. But, it had its own washroom (very important to Ben at that moment!) and satellite TV – a bonus when you've got people who don't have a whole heck of a lot of energy. Because of the low energy levels, we didn't see a much of the town, and quite honestly, weren't too impressed with what we did see. So far Syria wasn't turning out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

The next morning, Ben was feeling better (HURRAY!) and we got a minibus to Hama, a town inland about 120 km from Lattakia. One of the things on our ‘to do' list in Syria was to visit the Crac de Chevaliers, and Hama was to be our base for that visit. We spent two nights in Hama, and made a day trip to the Crac.
Crac des Chevaliers: The Warden’s Tower, behind the jumping kids, has great views of Syria. Lawrence of Arabia described the Crac as “the finest castle in the world”. We agree.

The Crac de Chevaliers is a stunning castle, set high on a hill, in the Orontes Valley. This huge, solid, 800-year-old structure is, as other writers have noted, the kind of castle kids imagine when they hear stories of knights and jousts. We spent hours exploring tunnels, toilets, dining halls, dungeons, storerooms and stables.

From Hama we headed south out of the country to Lebanon. (For our observations on that country please see the Lebanon section of this website.) After four days away we returned to Syria with Damascus, the capital, as our final destination in that country.

Damascus is reputedly the oldest city on earth. It's mentioned in scripture before Jerusalem and occupation of the valley dates back more than 8,000 years (or so they claim). We weren't too sure what to expect; we've found over the past months that large urban centres are not our favourite places to spend time. Damascus, however, proved us wrong in our expectations. We thoroughly enjoyed our days there.

Much of our time was spent in the Old City, just a few blocks away from our hotel. It is chock-a-block with small stores, various souqs and winding alleys, and amazingly, it's not full of litter. So much of our travel we've been dismayed with the total disregard the locals have for the environment. Gorgeous sceneries are strewn with plastic bags, water bottles and whatever else has been thrown out the window. So when we spend time somewhere where there's a bit of civic pride and the streets are clean, we're thrilled.

Damascus, Syria is one of the most ancient cities on earth. It’s mentioned in the Bible even earlier than Jerusalem. The Souq al-Hamidiyya – a long covered market – is one of the main entrances to the old city.

One of the highlights of our Damascus stay for the Ryan men was their visit to Hammam Nuredin. For those of you not up on your Arabic lingo, a hammam is a traditional bathhouse. We'll skip the blow-by-blow details (you'll have to ask Ben for the full scoop!), but the boys thoroughly enjoyed their steam bath, dry and wet saunas, massage, wash … life is tough on the road, isn't it?

Three days in Damascus were not nearly enough. It has been added to our ‘must return' list.