Middle East | Syria – Syria and Turkey in a month and a half
Somewhat lengthy summary of my past 1.5 month journey. Where does one start, when even my journey to my first destination was an adventure unto itself…I started around the beginning of july, with my small backpack in hand, and my freedom in the other, from Cairo to Nuweiba covering the middle east and a Palestinian student from Cairo attempting to visit his home in Bethlehem, from Nuweiba, Egypt we all took a boat to Aqaba Jordan where we became a big traveling group with the addition of two Norwegian sisters and a saudi-syrian girl…Together we made it to Amman where we all stayed the night and explored that city. Later the next day, I said goodbye to my newly made friends and took a quick service taxi direct to Damascus where I met my Iranian friend Sam, with whom I traveled with the whole time this journey. Arriving into DAmascus was a cool and refreshing break from the chaos and filth of Cairo..Damascus (Sham as the Syrians call it) is such a beautiful city where people are quite calm, speaking in soft voices with the most quaint and pleasant accents of the arabic language,/ The old city is one of the nicest I have ever been to and the Umayyad Mosque (originally a pagan temple, then a Jewish synagogue,, then a church, and finally a mosque which has religious significance for all three faiths). The mosque is a perfect place to sit and watch people, and to be at peace. One time I sat in the courtyard of the mosque from the evening until sunrise, listening to the Mu’ezzin chant the Qur’an for many hours, whilst inside, men slept or prayed or some gathered around the tomb of the bible prophet Zachariah’s head and mumbled prayers in a singsong voice, at yet another place in the mosque sat the group of blind men with prayer beads in hand and red turbans with a white cloth, they sat and moved back and forth in their seats, preparing for the daytime when they recite countless blessing over visitors heads. To walk in old Damascus in the late afternoon, with a pleasant heat kissing one’s head, perhaps a sweet baklava in hand, the sound of the azzan in the air, kids playing football, and all other pleasant things combined in the old city full of old houses makes for a very special experience indeed. For quite a few days, perhaps 6, I wandered the city, exploring mosques, old palaces,local neighborhoods, tombs (including that of the famous sufi mystic poet who was surprisingly buried in Damascus, Sheikh Mohaddin Ibn Arabi) and even went to the concert of an Iraqi singer, Kazem. In addition I also came upon the minute Jewish community in Damascus, consisting of perhaps 60 people who still have one very old synagogue in use which I was able to view quiet as the Jewish community does not have the best relations with the government.
Anyway, the first place outside of Damascus that I ventured to was a Catholic Syrian Monastery in the desert mountain range an hour north of the capital. It was there I passed six wonderful days in the company of Syrians, other foreigners and some very friendly monks. The monastery welcomed anyone and allows anyone to stay the night, or the month without asking for money. The day consists of waking up at 7am, then attending an hour long mass, which consists of sitting on the floor of the ancient church whilst the father and monks would chant prayers in beautiful fusha arabic. Afterwards we would have a delicious and typical Syrian breakfast, olives, cheese, bread, oil, dipping spices, yogurt, eggs, tomatoes and a cup of tea. In order to justify staying for free at the monastery, everyone helps out. sometimes I would wash the dishes or chop veggies. During the day, I would sit in one of the many caves, walk in the desert paths or sit under the shade drinking tea and talking to various people. And at nights is a longer service which also includes was an hour long meditation where everyone would sit silently on their pillows in the dark church, at the end a monk would play the ney flute or violin quietly to bring us back to reality. At the end of 6 days, it ’twas time to leave and our next destination was the Aramaic speaking town of Maalula, there I was able to hear the ancient language spoken as an everyday language, and that evening we stayed with a Syrian family in a neighboring village where I was able to hear another ancient spoken language Syrianni, which is said to be the aramaic equivalent for the muslims (of course they might be the same languages, which the muslims and christians would like to differentiate from each other). The syrianni language (for example, ‘Shalom Loch’ means hello in syrianni and aramaic) seemed very similiar to hebrew and with my knowledge of hebrew and arabic alphabets I could kind of read the text.
So, after this side trip, we once again returned to Damascus where we were to return many times after as well…Spending times in the cafes behind the Ommayad Mosque, or walking among the streets in the old city or on the mountains of damascus….After this stay I believe we headed to Hama, a very old city but with a very sad and recent tragedy. Hama used to be quite a large old city untouched by modernity, and it is know for its huge waterwheels that line the banks. In 1982, the government had a urban battle in the city against the Muslim Brotherhood, around 35,000 people were killed and almost the entire old city was razed, in its place now is a luxury hotel and parks, there is only small vestiges of the previous granduer of the city. Nevertheless, it was an interesting place to wander and eventually we came upon a neighborhood called Camp Palestine which consisted entirely of Palestians whose parents and grandparents had fled afer the establishment of Israel. A very friendly neighborhood and we met one family who offered us food and drink. That night I went to a wedding with the women of the house, a all women Palestinian wedding party, quite interesting to watch especially because they all take off their hijabs and they were able to act freely in the company of only women and then they adorned the bride with copious amounts of jewelery and decorations.
After Hama, the market town of Aleppo was next, a town famous for its’ large bazaar and pure oil soap factories. I quite enjoyed walking in the dense bazaar which sells anything imaginable, and there are so very funny characters to talk to as well. My highlight of Aleppo was attending two Zhikrs (sufi ceremonies praising and remembering god). One evening late at night Sam and I were walking along the dark alleys of the old city when we heard an ethereal singing coming from a building nearby. We searched until we found a large mosque with perhaps two hundred men who were participating in the Zhikr. They were in many circles holding hands, they were chanting various praises of God while ecstatically jumping up and down. The ceremony seemed almost surreal and lasted until the leader somehow stopped them and they once again returned to their ordinary state. Another Zhikr I went to took place in a very small and old mosque also in the old city. It started late at night and perhaps lasted 4 or 5 hours. They started by chanting the Qur’an very quickly in a strange way I have never hear before and throughout the session they played the Daf (drum) and various bells whilst singing or somtimes even just laughing or lettng out untelligible noises. To go into the details of this long session would take many pages, I must say that it was a very unique experience to watch take place…
After quite a few days in Aleppo, it was time to take the train to the ancient land of Mesopotamia to the town of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates river in the very east of the country. The landscape on the way and surrounding the town is very beautiful, the land is of course very fertile along the Euphrates, full of farms and small rectangular or square houses made of mud and straw complete with the random donkey or cow and pack of children. The town of Deir ezzor is hot and in the desert although the Euphrates River which runs though the town is cool and windy with much greenery. In this bustling market town, I enjoyed just sitting in the bazaar and watching the various transactions, here in this town villagers and nomads from the surrounding areas come to purchase supplies and to trade their goods, one can see very traditional costumes and strange tattoes on womens faces. The heat (around 45 degrees) in the town was too hot to bear for long and we decided to make it to the Tigris river after two days. We ended up in the extreme northeast of Syria, where Turkiye, Syria and Iraq meet along the Tigris river in the small Kurdish village of Ain Diwar. There we were introduced to a very friendly family who we stayed with for some days wandering near the Tigris and sitting by the cool spring of the village.
In the family there was a girl of 17 studying english, two smaller boys and two girls of 9 and 7. I had a wonderful time playing with the little girls and talking with the older girl. There was also a student who studied english in the university of Damascus, so we were able to find out much about the kurdish language, way of life and to communicate fully with the family because our limited arabic and kurdish did not allow for extended conversations.
In Ain Diwar, one could watch the Turkish Town of Cizre along with the huge mountains which almost don’t exist in Syria. It was hot and flat, so on the spur of the moment Sam and I decided to venture to Turkey. We quickly got there from the border city of Qamishle and arrived in MArdin that day. I had been in this town last year, so it was nice to see something familiar and even meet an old friend. Many people still spoke arabic in this town but I quickly started to brush up on my turkish and after a few days was able to get across basic necessities in Turkish. Mardin is a kurdish town set on a high mountain Mesa and it overlooks the flat Syrian plains. The entire city is on a steep slope which makes wandering the old streets it very interesting. Many buildings have intricate carvings on the outside, there are also many Armenian churches which are largely ruined and squatted by Turkish familes. It is always strange to hear a Turk’s version of the Armenian MAssacre, often they say that te Armenians just went away, when in reality they disappeared without their heads, murdered in cold blood by the turks.
The large Kurdish city of Diyarbakir was our next stop, a town largely without foreigners which gives one an insight into a normal kurdish/turkish city. The entire old city is still surrounded by a huge wall and we walked along the muddy dirt paths of the old city for hours, coming upon more Armenian churchs, hidden mosques and even a Sufi (of the Naqshabandi sect ) center. There is much poverty in this area, and it seems like many houses were formally Armenian now squatted by Kurds without many amenitities and often a falling down roof and rotting walls. Along the way I spotted many sites of collapsed houses and churches which may have been sitting there for decades.
Well, to get to the exciting part, after Diyarbakir, the town of Hakkari was our next destination, a town in the extreme southeast of Turkiye and a place I desperately wanted to visit last year but never had time, a place which is said to be dangerous (at least by the Lonely Planet) and requires a police escort, this repuatation thus attracted me to the town where PKK activity is still common in the entire area. So we hitchhiked all of the way to Van mainly in big trucks so the ride was slow, and by sunset we had not even made it halfway, although we did have some adventures along the way and we able to watch the scenery. At sunset we stopped in a quiet village along the road, and soon were invited into a house for tea and consequently invited to stay the night. I spent the night chatting with the women and watching their dancing while Sam sat and nodded with the men.
Now Hakkari is located in a stunning location high up in the moutains, a four hour drive through huge moutains from Van. The town itself in located on a slope of a mountain, and on all sides are jagged granite mountains, unfortunately they were all off limits due to PKK (Kurdish Rebel Guerillas) activity and many had soldiers stationed on them, despite all of this, the landscape was striking. Well, like I have always said ‘Lonely Liars’ often exaggerates, despite the fact that armed soldiers line the streets of the town, there was no police escort except for the police man who decided to come with us to find a hotel. Everyone was confused as to why we were in hakkari and not in Istanbul or Izmir, it was very hard to explain that we were looking for non-touristy places and an adventure. So like in every other town we wandered about, the first person we met was a nice old kurdish women, who invited us into her house. Soon the room was surrounded by many women and men who were testing our kurdish language skills and making sure we knew and supported the PKK and HEDAP (the people’s democratic party)….They gave us tea, gave me a kid to play with who they made sing some patriotic kurdish songs. I asked about the kurdish women’s dress and they made the old woman put on the traditional outfit, which they say comes from Denmark and looks kind of like a European Princess dress. Then they said there was a party and we followed them to a HEDAP office where there were perhaps 200 women in the traditional dress. Someone explained that men and women in the region now are wearing their traditional colorful clothes again as a silent protest against the Turkish government which refuses the Kurdish people many rights. After a while we finally left in order to wander the surrounding neighborhoods. We walked up a big hill to a neighborhood where the roofs were the streets and the houses were not the ugly Turkish concrete design, but made of mud and straw. In one house we saw women making fresh bread and asked them for some of it as well as cheese. We wanted to pay them money, but they refused and instead brought us inside and gave us a feast. Then the daughter insisted we spend the night despite the paranoia of the father. In this region many people are very frightened of the PKK as well as the Turkish army, both of whom have murded more than 40,000 people in less than 6 years ago.Often I found people much more cold than their nature is because they are frightened that interacting with foreigners could have dangerous consequences. Anyway, the father was worried that we would get him in trouble and was careful not to tell us his name or have his picture taken. But that evening was still fun, I hung out with the daughter, who even gave me (of course after much insistence and my many refusals) a kurdish traditional dress and gave Sam some hand made socks. We stayed one night, but in the morning the son came in our room to open the shades as a signal we were to awake. Then when we went into the room the father was sitting there with an angry look. The night before we had planned to go with the daughter and her friend to a waterfall and to the friend’s village, but this morning it was forbidden for them to go, it was forbidden for them to talk to us, and especially forbidden because they were students. Now I know this was all paranoia of the father as I talked privately with the girls who said it was only because the father was scared of the police, it was all very strange indeed, and we left quickly, deciding to leave Hakkari because of this bizarre treatment and not wanting to bother more people and make them scared to be with us in a town which they called a prison for the body and the mind. So we took a look on the map, and decided to go to Semdinli, a town almost next to the Irani and Iraqi border, small and isolated in the moutains. By way of minibus we got there, along the way we perhaps encountered five different police checks each time with the same questions and passport check (this was very silly indeed as they would not be able to read it and often asked if I was from Iran and GErmany, and never knew which stamp was for Turkey)…Semdinli is a quiet town in the valley of very large mountains, many people are also in Traditional dress and outside the ugly buildings of the center are lovely mud houses. Soon after arrival a police van pulled up to us and they made us leave our tea while they drove us to the police station. No one spoke english, and I was a bit pertrubed since we were only innocent tourists. When we arrived one man spoke english and explained to us that they must register us, he also told us that in all of his years working in the station no tourists or foreigners had ever come, so they didn’t really know what to do with us, but wanted to protect us. So in the town, we walked the street, I wore the kurdish costume and Sam in his Pakistani outfit from Aleppo, the stares we got were full of confusion and curiosity, because not only we were the first foreigners in a long time, but our dress and manners were very confusing to them.
Anyway, to get the story on, after two days we decided it was soon time to leave Turkey especially as I was getting bad stomach pains from the water or food, so on the road from Semdinli we were in the bus, when we passed a small dirt road we knew led to some small villages, about a Kilometer or two past it we mutually decided we must visit the villages and go off the bus. So off we go with our backpacks, walking along the road to the path, almost immediately a truck comes along and we get a ride. We very slowly make our way along the road whilst the driver is getting more and more paranoid being with us. We pass some beautiful villages set on forested mountains, but decided to continue on, until….The tire bursts in the middle of nowhere and we must walk back towards the last village we saw. On the way perhaps 10 army trucks full of soldiers pass us all heading towards the border.
So all is well and after hiking up a very steep hill to the village we are immediately surrounded by perhaps 100 inhabitants of the tiny villages. All of them inviting us to their houses in a sort of competition. It was very diffciult to decide as to not offend anyone, but we ended up accepting from one man and his family and were led in a sort of procession to his house.There we watch TV with him and sit around. We stayed in this village for two days, it was all a little strange, and I think they also were also a little paranoid about having us with them and treated us somewhat coldly. It was still pleasant to eat fresh honey, sit by the river and watch the village soccer game which Sam even played in.
That would mark the end of the Turkish travels, after we decided to return to Syria. hitchiking on the road bordering Iraq. The going was slow and the cars were far between each other, at almost each town there were police checks and finally in one town, they decided we could not go any further, for our protection. This town was the center of PKK activity, so we had to wait for around 5 hours in the very middle of the night, at the end I finally threatened them enough with calling my embassy enough times, that they let us go at 4am in the morning. SO off we went to Syria, back to the border town and then took a 16 hour ride on the train to our beloved town of Damascus. One day we voyaged to the town of Quenetra, a town famous because it no longer exists, because during the war of 1973 (correct me if I am wrong) the Israelis destroyed and bulldozed the entire town as a punishment for the Syrians attacking the country. First, to get there it is necessary to get a pass from the UN and then on the way to the town go through a few UN checkpoints… There was no one on the deserted streets and we went into some deserted buildings which were half destroyed, from the minaret of the destroyed mosque I could see that every singly buildig had been half or completely destroyed, and on Mt. Hermon one could see the copious amounts of Israeli satellites and hear frequent bombing on the border to threaten the Syrians and Lebanese. The ghost town was quite chilling knowing that 600 people were murdered here and all of their houses destroyed, although it also upset me a little that Syria so hyped up this town , but never made a mention of the time they killed 35,000 in Hama only 20 years ago. Afterwards we stayed in Damascus some more days and then headed to the town of Sefita in the hills near lebanon, wandered in the olive groves which cover all of the land there and into the crusader dungeon and tower and then stayed the night in a catholic monastery with french speaking Lebanese nuns who very welcoming and let us stay without payment. Then we bused it to Tartus, an old crusader town on the coast, pleasant but very very humid, we were both dripping with sweat the whole time. But it was nice to see the Mediterranean and even took a boat to an island, although old, was covered with trash and newer developments and Saudi or gulf tourists which are ubiquitous in almost every Syrian town, small and big…After the coast we headed to Homs where we stayed with a friend we met in the monastery of Mar Musa. His family was very hospitable and even brought us to watch a wedding. The town of Homs is quite large, but most tourists avoid it because it is somewhat industrial, although we discovered some very nice parts of the old city and an old mosque with the tomb of the Famous General during early Islam, Ibn Waleed. And then again we returned to Damascus for one last time and the very night morning I made my way towards Egypt and in one day ( I was absolutely amazed by the scenery in southern Jordan which I did not see the last time, expansive deserts, moutains everywhere and strang and beautifully covered roc formations. I slowly arrived in Cairo where I am once again residing in a hotel whilst I seach for an apartment.
Each time I travel, it helps me get a better perspective in the world, to better understand different people and their ways of lives. Events and everyday sights in this part of the world which I would once be astonished with (like donkey carts, extreme poverty, women with the niqab [face veil], exotic looking bazaars, and countless other things) have now become a part of what I see everyday, be it negative or positive, living a different life than the one I have experienced in north america is very important for me, and I hope to continue for a very long time on this path. Of course I would like to wrie to everyone on the many things I have learned during this summer, the many strange and new things i have seen, food I have tasted, landscape I have seen.