After leaving Aleppo, I headed south through Syria to the country's fourth largest city, Hama, which my friend Henny and I would use as a base for exploring Syria's mid-section. We packed a bit too much into our time there, although I still feel our enthusiasm was more than justified.
Hama (biblical Hamath) sits on the banks of the Orontes River (yes, there are rivers in the Middle East), which made the city particularly attractive at twilight. This is a riverside mosque.
Another mosque near the river (green being a primary color in Islam).
Hama has 17 "norias" (machines used to raise water up to an aqueduct); they are strangely majestic, to the point that the river walkways are crowded at night with locals and tourists.
My spelling is probably atrocious, but this was "halawat al-jibn ma bouzal" ("ma bouzal" means "with ice cream"). This is a dessert famous in Hama (really good, too).
The riverside cafes of Hama were a relaxing place to return to each night after the day's activities; the water pipes were only part of the fun.
These guys were really great to talk to. They were all very fluent in English, and extraordinarily friendly. Some of them were medical professionals, from what I remember.
Henny and I hired a taxi for the day to take us on a tour of Syria's mid-section; we could have just done Palmyra (to be discussed shortly), but we also wanted to see Krak des Chevaliers. The cab driver agreed to take us to BOTH areas (look on a map to see how far away they are from each other) for about $150 total, or $75 each. Good deal! He threw in a couple "freebies," including this desert castle en route to Palmyra.
We had the castle ruins to ourselves, which was quite nice.
Traffic jam, desert style.
Our cab driver, Abdol, had a very nice Kia taxi.
We arrived in Palmyra, and went up towards a large fortress (name forgotten) to get a view over the site of the ancient Roman city.
Palmyra pre-dates the Romans by over 2,000 years = it appears in the Bible as "Tadmor," which King Solomon himself built, according to 2nd Chronicles. The structures seen here are Roman, however.
Palmyra is one of Syria's most touristed areas, and accordingly there are a multitude of merchants and touts. This guy was pretty legit, so I bought some candied dates from him. [Random aside - he looks almost exactly like old photographs of my dad]
One of the tower tombs at Palmyra
Henny (from South Korea) in the tower tomb. Note - no disrespect to Henny, but never wear shorts in the Middle East (not counting Tel Aviv). You might as well walk outside in your underwear.
The ruins near the Temple of Bel
Approaching the Temple of Bel
Inside the Temple of Bel, if my memory serves me
The size and preservation of Palmyra make it truly worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status. Don't miss it if you're in Syria.
Yours truly in front of the Temple of Bel, which dominates Palmyra (it was THE religious building in the Middle East in the first century AD)
Looking back towards the fortress from earlier, in the background.
If I had one complaint about Palmyra (other than the heat, which wasn't out of place for a desert), it would be the touts and their never-ending sales pitches. "No" is not a word in their vocabulary.
A patch of green goes a long way.
Henny's camera > my camera
This is called a "tetrapylon." Notice my distance from the touts.
Our driver Abdol then spirited us through Syria to the far west of the country, just barely north of the Lebanese border, to another UNESCO World Heritage site: the crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers.
If Lawrence of Arabia considered it the best castle in the world, you'd better believe that it's the best castle in the world. It sits on a large hill that was along the only route to the Mediterranean at the time; hence its strategic importance.
Part of the castle's charm is that the Syrians don't install fences to prevent you from falling to your doom: just like ye olden days!
The castle is over 900 years old, although it's mostly 13th century buildings that remain.
Gothic cloister inside the castle.
Interior of Gothic cloister.
Henny, Abdol, and me
Krak des Chevaliers is HUGE
I already thought Abdol was one of the nicest people I had ever met, but he only strengthened my opinion when he offered to take me to a nearby Orthodox monastery, St. George, before driving us back to Hama. It's worth noting that Abdol was Muslim, and while he wasn't doing our trip for free, he also wasn't offering this excursion for extra money. Truly a very generous man (and don't worry, I tipped him handsomely).
Iconostasis inside church. The monastery's present church dates back "only" to the 19th century, but the monastery itself was built in the FIFTH century. There are other chapels which are 17th century constructions.