Middle East | Syria – Mari: guidebooks, and a pinch of salt

Middle East | Syria – Mari: guidebooks, and a pinch of salt

I have a set of recurring nightmares about travel. I’m in an airport, or on my way to an airport, and, if I’ve not left my passport or tickets or money at home, I have to go somewhere new for the first time, and it’s a place I know nothing about. Somehow, I have to find out something about this place before I get there. The airport bookshops have no guides, no maps—they’ve never heard of this country. It’s often a made-up country, or a one-horse town deep in an obscure African region, but that’s dreaming for you. I don’t know what currency is used, what language is spoken there, or what the cultural norms are. I tend to wake up in a cold sweat of panic.

Many travellers have an incredibly easygoing approach to their destinations–turn up in a country and play it by ear, or, open a guidebook for the first time as they cross the border. Or they’ll pitch up in one town, and ask other travellers about the highlights of their trip, the best deals on hotels, and about which cafes are notoriously awful. But, when I see a posting on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree board, along the lines of “Hi, next week I’m off to Madagascar for a month’s holiday. Please can someone tell me anything about it, and what’s worth seeing there” I get twitchy.

Perhaps I spent too many years in the Brownies, and had the ‘be prepared’ credo knocked in to me so deeply, I feel all at sea in ignorance. Before I travel anywhere, I like to do my homework. I’ll read through a pile of guidebooks, history books, old travel books and local novels. I’ll tack large maps to the wall, and stand in front of them, tracing possible routes and trying to picture the land. I’ll poke away endlessly at Google to find credible sites about the country, trying to find out about places which aren’t on the obvious top five must see things.

I like magical mystery tours, but I prefer having some knowledge about the things I might see, the places I might go. The research is part of my pleasure of travelling. By immersing myself in information, I can extend the journey for several weeks before I walk out of the front door, tickets in hand. And once I’m there, I get more out of the journey if I know what I’m looking at, with some of the history, some of the stories, some of the background of the place.

I don’t believe, can’t believe, that background knowledge takes away the magic of being there. Petra was no less magical for knowing something about the Nabateans, Jean-Louis Buckhardt and Agatha Christie’s dreadful “Appointment with Death.”

It’s not just about getting some idea of the practicalities—the ‘can I get there from here?’ or, ‘what’s a reasonable amount to pay for three days in the desert on a camel trek?’ details—but that’s where the regular guidebooks are the strongest.

Footprint and Lonely Planet have pointed me to fabulously cheap and clean hotels, great food, and otherwise hidden microbus stations. They’ve prevented me being stitched up on taxi fares, or stuck in a place with no public transport on Tuesdays. I am, however, dubious of those who use them as if they are the infallible words of Travel Gods.

I have learnt to be particularly wary of guidebook entries that say “nothing to see here, move along”, or “only of interest to the specialist, the archaeologist or the perversely determined”. I’ll take their word, mostly, on logistics, but I won’t buy their dismissals of potentially interesting places.

I’m always worried that I’ll miss out on something really spectacular.

If I’d believed the guidebooks, I’d have skipped Ain Dara, and never gone to Mari.

+ + + + +

I headed out of Palmyra early in the morning. After a few frustrating rounds of ‘is there a bus to Abu Kemal?’ with a scarily wall-eyed man in a concrete box, I ended up a couple of kilometres outside the town, sitting on my backpack, waiting for the bus to Deir ez Zur. We hadn’t made it across to the Eastern side of Syria on the previous trip, so this time I was ignoring the ‘nothing but a field of trenches’ advice and going to Mari. I’d fallen in love with the fat-bellied alabaster statues of priests and worshippers and kings. Their smooth foreheads, extravagant eyeliner and splendid feathered skirts had caught at some annoying corner of my imagination. I wanted to go and see where they came from, even if all the treasures were safely behind glass in Damascus and Aleppo.

The bus was much like any other in Syria—not quite as air conditioned as you’d hope it would be, full, but not over-flowing, a round of chilled water and boiled sweets, and the blasting of Egyptian movies on a small screen above the driver. This one riveted me—it was a tale of a man who looked like a frog, and his crazy girlfriend, with touching scenes from asylum balconies, fistfights with doctors, and full lightning crack electroshock treatments, as frogboy wept and howled. It was a strange enough story to begin with, but the bad shooting made it trippily surreal: the contrast was off, most of it was over exposed, and all the white coats, hospital walls, and mad people’s gowns vanished in the glare. Dark, disembodied heads, and wildly waving hands floated across a bright, white screen. It was acted with all the subtlety of open-air theatre in a howling gale. Outside the curtained windows, everything was as sun-bleached as the movie.

Two hundred and twenty kilometres later, at Deir, I changed to a microbus heading out another hundred to Abu Kemal, went through the inevitable confusion about the fare, with money passed back and forth across three rows of sardine-crammed passengers, and waited for the off.

I was wedged against a student—going home to see her family in a village on the way. She was studying maths at the university, and, despite her excruciating shyness, was very keen to practice her English on me. With the rattling and banging of the meecro, and the thunder of army trucks going past, it was hard to hear her whispers, and it took me a while to cotton on to the fact that she had a few questions leaned by rote, but couldn’t understand my answers. No matter, there was a lot of smiling. But when she took my hand and whispered ‘I will be very happy to sleep with you,” I was flummoxed.

“To speak with me?” I said as clearly and slowly as possible.
“Yes! I am very much happy to sleep English.”

For the next hour or so, I was sat on by a tiny, robe-wrapped grandmother, clutching a miniscule newborn baby—still powdery and wrinkled from birth—and shouting endlessly at her three hapless daughters. The old lady shared long, dry cigarettes with me, and laughed forever when I failed to understand her request for water. (Note to less clueless travellers: someone holding their hand up—as if thumbing their nose, but a little south, with the thumb pointing to the lips–should result in you passing over your water bottle, not staring blankly.)

+ + + + +

I tumbled out of the bus, climbing inelegantly over two families, and almost braining someone with my camera, and was waved off with a whole chorus of ma’a salamas, by a rickety sign painted with the water goddess pointing towards Tell Hariri. It was shockingly hot, almost noon, and the kilometre or so to the site seemed particularly long and bumpy. I slogged along, wondering what the hell I was doing at the arse-end of nowhere, narrowly avoided tripping over a fat chicken, and collapsed in a sweaty heap in a courtyard, cursing as I realised I’d left my paper fan on the bus.

Two small heads poked out of a door. There was a whispered conference, and then some shouting. Within moments, a sleepy young man in a long, pale djellabah was ushering me to a cushioned bench in a tree-branched room, and offering me tea. Yawning, he tested my Arabic, my creaky French, and settled on English as the best bet. He was a little surprised to see a tourist today, but, still, have some tea, sit a while. Yes, of course he could sell me a ticket, but, was I sure?

“I have come all the way from Palmyra to see Mari,” I said, a little defensively.
“Ah, you are an archaeologist!”
“No, just a tourist.”
“And you want a ticket?”
“Uh huh.”
“Ah, you are a student! Of course!”
“No, just a tourist.”
He went through the mahabas and welcomes again, to cover his confusion, shrugged, and offered me more tea, told me I smoked too much, and said that it was far, far too hot to go and walk around now. All his family was asleep. What else should you do at such a time of day?

I explained that I thought I was just being useless, finding it so hot. He laughed, and pointed at a thermometer. Forty degrees. No wonder I was feeling sorry for myself.

When he found out that I was planning to go on to Abu Kemal that night, he was appalled. “It’s no good there, with filthy hotel, you mustn’t go there. A very bad place! Dirty!”

I shrugged, and pointed out that it was a long way back to Deir.
“But you must stay here instead!” He waved towards a three-storey building across the courtyard, “at the mission house. No archaeologists here now. They’ll come after summer. Stay here.”

He watched me wilting over my tea, fanning myself with the photocopied brochure about the site, “sleep now, I think. Siesta. Visit when the sun goes down.” He took my bottle of water from my hands—“this is better”—and popped it into the freezer.

And so I napped in a hot room, on a flowered counterpane, under a dusty medicine cabinet, exhausted from nothing more strenuous than a couple of bus rides. When I woke up at around three thirty, I charged outside, worried that I’d have too little time to explore before dark. My water was frozen to slush, my camera was loaded, and I was raring to go.

+ + + + +

It was still sodding hot. By the time I’d wound around the path, heading towards the pale canopy over some of the diggings, I was already regretting my rush. My skin smarted with the heat, and I broke into a sweat, dropped back to half-speed and smacked myself, yet again, for only owning black clothes. It was still so hot that just an hour later, sitting on the low, dusty mound that was once a ziggurat to get my bearings and look down on the temple of the lions, the remains of my water were as warm as half-drunk tea, and my skin was caked with the fine, grey earth of the city.

When I first arrived, I had a terrible sinking feeling as I looked across the site. It was almost entirely lacking in colour: everything was a pale greyish-brown, and, damn it, it did look remarkably like a field full of World War I trenches. I sat down, and grouched for a while, casting around for a starting point. There were low bulges across the mound, and deep cuts of excavations. I couldn’t see what differentiated a crumbling, dusty wall from the desiccated earth around it. How could anyone digging tell the difference? Perhaps they just dug where they felt there might have been a room, cutting away neat straight lines until everyone was convinced there was a city there, once.

But sit still. And look. Let your eyes focus on the shapes, first, and then get up and walk closer. Walk along, following a wall, and stare at the texture. Let your eyes adjust, as if to darkness, and you can see the difference between the raw earth, and the industry of long-dead human hands. Look at the edges, and the corners, and how the bricks were joined together. Look at the structure, at the floors, and the steps. Look at the water pipes, at the daises, and the doorways. It shudders into focus, and it is overwhelming. There is a rush of understanding, as you press your back against the wall of a palace that was ancient when Jesus was wandering around, fiddling with loaves and fishes. You are walking between rooms that were built five thousand years ago. Someone lived here. Someone prayed here. Someone cooked here, and slept, and made love, and laughed. And all of a sudden, the edges of time fold together.

Mari is so fragile. As soon as it is excavated, it is vulnerable. Rain melts it. The wind blows it away. This is unbaked earth, and by discovering it, we are destroying it. UNESCO has decided that it should be unearthed, mapped, documented, and then left to the elements. And once one part is mapped, it must be destroyed to reach the older layers below. Only one small section, part of the palace of Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mari, is covered. The palace predates him, being built over several centuries before his reign, but he was the last ruler before the city fell to the Babylonian, Hammurabi, in 1760 BCE, and was destroyed. It was only rediscovered in 1933, and has yielded up amazing secrets from its dust—seventeen thousand cuneiform tablets, hundreds of statues and votive offerings, wall paintings, thrones, domestic odds and ends.

I tucked the map into my pocket, and walked slowly through the maze of buildings and courtyards under the canopy, following the paths as they dropped lower, deeper and deeper back in time. Sparrows and finches hopped around overhead, their frantic chirping, and the tapping of their claws on the rigid plastic roof echoing through the cavernous space.

I was glad I was without a guide here. I could be as wishy-washy, romantic and full of mystical bullshit as I pleased. I could pace around, talking to myself, whistling, and reciting stories. I could poke around for undiscovered treasures, and be satisfied with shiny pebbles when, unsurprisingly, I didn’t trip over alabaster statues, glazed bowls, or another library of tablets.

I covered acres of the site, drifting around, stepping carefully, and fretting when my steps sent another shower of dust from what was once the upper edge of a wall. I had a heffalump hunt moment when I circled around in the sacred enclosure and found my own footsteps again. Inside and out, I tried to map the city in my own head, trying to work out which were regular houses, which were temples, before checking against the diagrams and maps. I walked around heaps of broken pottery—smooth, fat-bodied jars—and along walkways between baked-brick water tanks.

The sun was sliding down lower, stretching shadows and deepening the dug away centuries. I was crouching on a rock, staring across the Temple of Ishtar, when my gaze was met by that of a fox. Not moving, just watching, as pale and dusty as the earth, he twisted his huge ears around, listening to me, before trotting along a narrow parapet and vanishing into the tangle of old living quarters. He was the only company I had that afternoon, apart from the iridescent green bee-eaters, the chattering sparrows, the stone-coloured lizards who scattered away from my feet, and the quiet ghosts of the city.

I watched the sunset from the High Mound, above a cluster of temples, and though the wind was still warm, I was shivering. There was something deeply shocking about this place. It was a living city, not just a set of magnificent tombs built to outlast death.

Category : Middle East | Syria , Uncategorized