Saturday, March 31, 2007

Day Four Hama, the Dead Cities and Aleppo

On day 4 we left the desert oasis of Palmyra and headed northwest towards our ultimate stop of Aleppo. On the way we stopped at the city of Hama.
On the Orontes River, Hama is (in)famous for a couple of reasons: it's groaning (and they really do groan) norias (water wheels) and a rebellion in the 1982 by then outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. I am going to leave any discussion of politics and the Assad regime to our much more knowledgeable travelling companion A (check her blog at The water wheels are cool and the city itself was interesting, but I think given the recent history there was general feeling of unease.

After a quick bite of lunch - the ubiquitous shwarma sandwich, we were on our way to the Dead Cities. For those of you who don't know what shwarma is see A's blog link for a great description of the greasy mess that is shwarma. But here is an image of the biggest shwarma we have seen thus far.

The Dead Cities

On the way to Aleppo are a series of ancient ghost towns in the limestone hills. The heydey of the area dates to the period when this area was part of the greater Byzantine (5-6th centuries CE) city of Antioch. Estimates put the number of cities in the region at between 600 and 700 and we visited just 4 of them. One guide book described the cities as "one of the greatest archaeological puzzles of the century". Why were these cities so abruptly abandoned during the 8-10th centuries? It is almost as if the people just up and left one day and no one ever moved back in. Theories range from Muslim invasions to nomad incursions to a change in climate leading to disruption of agricultural practices.
Current theory supports a shift in trade routes and people just moved to be closer to trade. We found them fascinating and sent hours climbing over the ruins. At one site - Jeradeh we were accompanied by a group of small boys who used the site as a playground. At some sites locals have incorporated the ruins into their living quarters and in one instance a church interior is now a sheep pen.

After a long tiring day of visiting cites and driving we arrived in Aleppo (Halab), Syria's second largest city (pop. almost 3 million). It has been a center of commerce and was the last stop on the Orient Express. We checked into our hotel and made our way to the Hotel Baron to "channel" Agatha Christie and T.E. Lawrence, both of whom stayed in the hotel and drank in the bar. Agatha supposedly wrote much of Murder on the Orient Express while she stayed here and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan worked on a dig.

While the Hotel Baron has seen better days, we stayed in the wonderful Diwan Rasmy. Okay we are all off to Nai, the restaurant in the Howard Johnson's here in Amman. At Nai there is an all you can eat sushi bar and half price drinks - a win-win situation. 8 archaeologists, a couple of historians and anthropologists and 1 political economist are going.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Back to our originally scheduled program – Palmyra

The Temple of Bel

Our friend Walter tells us that the Temple of Bel at Palmyra is one of the most interesting temples in antiquity for a few reasons: 1. It was built (32 CE) during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE) in the 1st century, most other temples of this type where built during the 2nd century and 2. the temple entrance is rotated 90 degrees so you enter from the side rather than the end (and the entry is asymmetrical) . This was done to accommodate the worship of two cults at either end of the temple, rather than the standard worship of just one cult. The temple complex is the most complete structure and one of the more impressive parts of the ruins at Palmyra. The temple proper (cella) was dedicated to the god Belis who was a Semitic god who may have been equated with the Ugaritic Baal and eventually Zeus. The complex consists of two parts: a huge walled courtyard and the temple proper.

There was an entrance for sacrificial animals, which A and Yo spent a lot of time checking out. In a later manifestation, the temple was used as a mosque for the local Palmyrenes who were living on the compound. This is an Arabic inscription on the inside wall of the cella. The next destination - Aleppo, with stops along the way at the Dead Cities and Ebla.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Non Sequitur

We interrupt our travelogue for an update on our future...

I am off to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto for the next two years. Yeah! I was thrilled to receive a SSHRC (your Canadian tax dollars at work) postdoctoral fellowship, which will allow me to hang around Toronto pulling together my research from Jordan, my dissertation, and my ongoing work in Greece.
My SSHRC project has the lofty title of Archaeology, Ethnography, and Law – Interdisciplinary Intersections in the Antiquities Trade, which sounds much grander than its reality. I hope to examine the legal remedies employed by countries in the eastern Mediterranean to protect against archaeological site destruction as a result of the market demand for archaeological artifacts. This project is ideal for a number of reasons, but the best two are: 1. I get to continue excavating in Greece and 2. I get to hang out with these little people.

The downside - the whereabouts of Yo? Keep checking the blog for an update on Yo's future adventures.

Second Stop Palmyra

On our third day in Syria we travelled to Palmyra (the City of Palms) one of the world's great historical sites. Today the city is known as Tadmor (the City of Dates) and there are date palms everywhere. The Lonely Planet Guide states"If you are only going to see one thing in Syria, make it Palmyra." The city (an oasis of green in a sea of desert) certainly lives up to its reputation. Palmyra was an important link on the Silk Road trade route from China and India to Europe. The ancient city generated most of its revenues through the taxes they charged the caravans passing through. In 212 CE Palmyra became a Roman Colony, it was during this period that much of the grand building works that we saw were constructed. By the 6th century CE the city had lost most of its wealth due to a decline in caravan traffic. The city fell to the Muslims in 634 CE. Despite the building of an Islamic castle (Qala'at ibn Maan) the city dwindled to a small village, which was all but destroyed in the earthquake of 1089. The city was rediscovered in 1678 by two English merchants who were visiting from Aleppo. The site covers over 50 hectares and it has been extensively excavated by the Germans and the French.. The archaeological site of Palymra is broken down into three main sections for visiting: The Main Street, Temple of Bel, and the Tombs. Both the guide book and our friend BAP from ACOR suggested that we should go up to the Arab castle Qala'at ibn Maan to view the sunset over Palmyra. The castle was built in the 17th century by Fakr ad-Din. After our sunset (Yo, A and B waiting for the sunset) we went back to town for dinner and some bear beer (8% more like a malt beverage than a beer).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ice Cream, ice cream, we all scream for ice cream

We noticed the phenomenon almost immediately. Everyone one we passed in the Souq al-Hamidiyya was eating ice cream - globs of white goo covered with green pistachio nuts. The more enthusiastic among us made a beeline to Bekdach for purportedly "some of the best ice cream" in Damascus. After taking some fun photos with the ice cream scooper (see the image where he has blown up his plastic glove), we all tried the ice cream and we all agreed that it was somewhat overrated. In fact the true ice cream aficionados (B and Yo) declared that it was a poor substitute for ice cream. We all doubted that it contained dairy products at all. This was one of our first adventures with food in Syria.

Syria is Cool!!

Like all good adventures there were some high points (Palmyra) and some low points (figs on a string) on our Syrian escapade. At the moment I am still working on unlocking my flash card with my many images on it. Apparently if you let your digital camera battery run down completely it can lock your flash card and then you have to download a program to recover your images. It's a long process, but hopefully in the end all of the images will be safely recovered. But enough about the trials of digital cameras... Syria is awesome. Filled with excellent archaeological sites, friendly people, interesting architecture, lots of political propaganda, and great things to buy, Syria is an adventure and a half. We spent a lot of time walking around the souks (markets) in Damascus and Aleppo, taking in the sites, smells, and sounds of Syria. We ate some fairly dodgy street food - figs on a string, shwarma, blackberry "juice", immature almonds (a delicacy only found in the spring), jellied fruits, and neon coloured jelly candies.
Over the next few days we will post some images and thoughts about our travels. Three of our travelling party (a very amicable group of travellers) did not have visas for Syria. US passport holders cannot get visas at the border, so we went through a travel agent in Syria who arranged our visas. We started our journey in Amman and took a taxi to the border (9JD, about an hour and 15 mins). The travel agent met us there and we had our visas within minutes and were off to Damascus (1.5 hours) in our Amman taxi. We left Amman around 9:30am and by 2:00pm we were exploring the Old City of Damascus. We were all astonished at the relative closeness of Syria and all wondered why we had not visited sooner.

The first image is Yo in front of our first stop - Damascus and the Ghazal hotel. It is in a great location (10 minutes from the Old City) and Ahmed, the hostel keeper was incredibly welcoming and very helpful. A and Yo are drinking tea in the courtyard of the Ghazal. After getting a room off we went on to explore the Old City. The following are some images from the Old City: a general street scene, a herbal remedy shop and a spice shop.

After two days in Damascus we went on to Palmyra, Aleppo, and the to Crac de Chevaliers and ending back in Damascus for a huge shopping foray. Along the way we visited archaeological sites at Ebla, the Dead Cities, Apamea, and the pilgrimage site of Maloula and a wet lands area to the east of Aleppo. More to come....

Friday, March 16, 2007

Off to Syria

Our official visa documents came through last night so tomorrow we are off to Syria, yeah! At the moment B and A are off getting some money changed. They just sent a text to say that they are drinking lattes at Starbucks... so I am not sure how much money changing is actually taking place. We start out our adventures with two nights in Damascus, ample opportunity for shopping and sightseeing. Then we head to Palmyra (Tadmor) for a night, then to Aleppo and on the way back to Damascus a stop off at Krac de Chevaliers. We hope to visit some wetlands areas (one of us is doing research on marshland regeneration) and some other archaeological sites while out in the countryside. We should be back and posting around March 25th. I leave you with an image of the temple (161-180 CE) on the Amman Citadel. That is Yo in there for scale.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hot Springs, Cold Beers and Friends

Please allow us to catch up on some recent events now that we have this fancy new blog. On the weekend Mo tagged along with some friends to visit an oasis-like hot spring near the Syrian border. The water was absolutely wonderful, as was the hospitality. Hard to believe that this was on Saturday the 10th and less than a week later it is snowing ... Global warming in action.

SNOW in Amman!!!

This morning we looked out of the window of our flat only to see a slushy white mess of snow. Adventure time - getting a taxi and making our way over to ACOR, the archaeology center (this image is from the front door at ACOR). Usually this trip takes about 15-20 minutes (including flagging the taxi), today it took about 10 minutes just to get a taxi. We eventually had to abandon our taxi at the top of the very steep ACOR hill, it would have been a perilous trip down in the car, so we walked, or trudged, through the snow. Once at ACOR we started our day by filling out our NCAA brackets, a fun diversion for the fellows. For some hardcore fans the choices were weighed carefully, for others this was an exercise in random selection of recognizable schools. Horrors - some of us didn't even know that the sport was basketball. Y picked Georgetown (home town fave) to go all of the way, I went with the smart $, not Florida, but the usually dependable J-Hawks. Tomorrow our friend L arrives from TO for the CBRL landscape workshop. On Saturday we (Y, M, B and A) start our Syrian adventure. . .