Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

w with fish, bucket, bucket, candy cane

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

47 km, 3 hours, Max temp 42
¾Ñ§§Ò aka Phang-nga (if you are seeing gibberish, it may be that you don’t have the Thai font installed)
We are having some fun with the Thai script. The characters have great shapes to them, such that you can image different things with the names. Unfortunately, there are so many of them, and they’re so different, that we need to come up with some way to remember them. At some point during our ride today, Phang-nga became w, bucket, bucket, candy cane, although we soon realized we were missing the fish above the w, so it is now w with fish, bucket, bucket, candy cane!

Typical Thai street, with frequent small storefronts

Typical Thai street, with frequent small storefronts

We were slow to get organized in the morning, and did a short ride to Phang-nga. Becky is having some stomach issues – likely related to the change in diet rather than anything specific. It will definitely slow us down a little, so we decided a short day was in order.

A Wat in Phang Nga (and some impressive hills behind)

A Wat in Phang Nga (and some impressive hills behind)

When we set out, we were expecting the ride to only be 39 km, but soon discovered that the town was not exactly where we expected it to be. With a little exploration, we found the town and stumbled upon a temple and a fellow Canadian Tourist. We had a brief conversation with Stephen and he pointed us in the correct direction for the Phang-nga Inn.

We have decided to spend two nights in Phang-nga. The Phang-nga Inn is a nice house-based inn. Our room is clean although a little small, and the bed is comfortable. We will also use the extra day to do some much needed bike maintenance. Our shifters are not working as well as we would like, and Becky’s front brake cable needs replacing. Our chains were last cleaned in Turkey, so perhaps we should do something about that as well!

The maps for Thailand are still posing a challenge for us. We are finding that the towns are not where they say they are, and the roads are often labeled different than our map. Google and Yahoo disagree on where some of the roads are! Scott has found a different GPS map which will hopefully prove to be more accurate than the previous one.


Busing in Syria

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Taking a long-distance bus in Turkey is a very civilized experience. Buses in Syria are less refined, but much more of a cultural experience. We never know quite what we’re getting into. We have not yet (and likely won’t) perfect the ability to catch the best bus between two places. We did managed to avoid a scam in Homs and take a nicer bus than our morning bus out of Palmyra.

Smoking on buses in Syria is not only allowed, and the rule is enforced – unlike many other places we’ve been – even on the local buses. On our small bus from Palmyra to Homs, someone lit up a cigarette. Our initial thought was that this was just like Turkey, Greece and Italy where a table with ashtrays might be located right below a no-smoking sign. We were surprised when seconds later the bus attendant came over and talked to the person smoking. This quickly escalated to shouting back and forth and it was clear that the attendant was prepared to have the driver stop the bus and kick the smoker off in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere. Fortunately, the smoker extinguished his cigarette and put it away. It was truly delightful to see the rule actually enforced!

The first lesson about taking a bus in Syria, is to arrive early at the station (Karajat – sounds like garage) and take your time. Inevitably someone will try to rush you, because their bus is leaving in 5 minutes. This of course means that you are not looking at any of the other buses who may also be leaving in 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes. If you have the flexibility to take a smaller bus, then you will have a lot of options and no need to rush to the first people that you see. That being said, the smaller buses are often filled beyond capacity, so you may get a seat but there may also be people standing or sitting in the aisle.

The bus we took from Palmyra to Homs was arranged by our hotel. The bus (a minibus) stopped right in front of the hotel to pick us up. The attendant evicted two people from their seats, so that we could sit down – since the hotel had reserved a seat for us, it was ours. We were also paying a tourist premium (likely of 25 SYP), which we guess a portion will go back to the hotel somehow. The bus was full enough that 3 younger men stood for part of the trip and sat on the floor for part of it. The ride from Palymra to Homs was about 2 hours.

Unfortunately, the minibus from Palmyra arrives at a different bus terminal than the large (Pullman) buses that leave for Aleppo. This meant we needed to take a taxi across Homs. We did have a couple of offers of a minibus ride to Aleppo, or possibly a service taxi, or perhaps just a ride to the other terminal for 100 SYP each. We couldn’t quite tell what they were offering, but have gotten wary of people approaching us as we get off the bus to offer something. Scott wanted to take the 2.5 hour journey in a Pullman bus, so we decided to take a taxi to the other terminal. We have gotten wise enough to not take a taxi directly from the bus terminal – rather we walked out of the terminal and then flagged down a taxi. We found a taxi that used a meter and he took us across Homs to the right bus terminal, pointing out some key sights in Homs along the way. It was a rather long ride, but with the meter running, we felt we got a fair deal.

Upon arriving at the second Homs terminal, just outside the doors someone in a rather plain uniform claimed to be police and demanded our passports. Scott complied. He checked the passports, then asked where we were going and if we spoke Arabic. When we said we did not speak Arabic he gave our passport to his friend who ushered us to a desk and stamped out tickets for us and asked for money – 300 SP each, too much for the bus fare. We said no, that he wanted too much for the bus tickets. The person with our passports put them down for a minute and Becky immediately snatched them back. Once we had our passports it was easy to walk away from this scam. We quickly found the washrooms (a priority at the time) and then found a quiet place to sit, have a tea, and strategize about how to get our tickets from Homs to Aleppo. We decided to talk to Al-Alihah, a company mentioned in our guidebook, and whose buses looked both good and plentiful. Without any pressure, Scott was able to get us seats on a Pullman (full size) bus for 140 SP each, which felt downright luxurious after our last two bus rides.

The bus from Aleppo to Antakya turned out to be another challenge. We asked many companies at the Aleppo International bus terminal, and coincidentally all the buses left at noon (all the big buses that is). One of the companies told us that they are all actually selling tickets for the same bus. You don’t actually buy the tickets until the bus arrives, and we found out why. The bus never came! Apparently this is a Turkish bus company, and they only run the bus when it looks to be full enough to be worthwhile. We waited for an hour after its scheduled arrival time, and eventually realized it wasn’t coming. There was a mini-bus from another Turkish company (HAS) leaving, but they could not easily take our bikes. They suggested that they could strap them to the roof, and would charge us a 1000 SP fee for doing so, on top of 250 SP each for the ticket. We opted for a taxi and with the help of Dani and Fadi, managed to get one for a reasonable price, 2000 SP. This made the drive to Antakya less than 3 hours including the customs and duty free stops. As we travelled we saw at least two other Turkish buses headed to Damascus, so it may be easier to get a full-sized bus directly from Damascus to Antakya.

Scott made good use of the Turkish-English dictionary given to us by Wendy and Peter, since the driver only spoke Arabic and Turkish. We managed a few conversations over the course of the drive, and the driver drilled us on our Turkish numbers. Unfortunately, we still can’t count past 5 🙁

The area between Aleppo and Antakya was much greener than when we were here in December, with plants sprouting in the fields, and even the hills of no-man’s land were green. Quite the contrast from our ride last month.

The desert oasis of Palmyra

Monday, January 19th, 2009

The bus out to Palmyra proved to be another opportunity for cultural exchange. We arrived at the North bus terminal in Damascus and entered the first place that offered a bus to Palmyra. We were immediately rushed to get on a bus – this is a sign that we should have slowed down and analyzed this further! We bought two tickets and went immediately for the bus.

Arriving at the bus, we were a little concerned. The bus was really warm and everyone on the bus was local – and Becky’s immediate thought was that they were all men. Our seat was listed at 45-46, but as we reached the back of the bus we discovered that the seats numbers ended at 40. We took a seat in the back corner of the bus, surrounded by a bunch of young Syrian men. Scott pulled out our new translator (thanks Mom & Dad Hogue!) and tried to have a conversation with them. That lasted about 15 minutes before it because too frustrating and all parties gave up in preference for napping. Scott did manage find out they were policemen from Deir-el-Zour in eastern Syria, that none of them were married (and Sami planned not to marry) and a few other things. The usual explanation of what we were doing and how long we were gone was interesting to them, but in the end Sami was more interested in showing off his expensive (10000 SYP – $300 CAD) mobile phone. Scott thinks Sami was quite disappointed by our super-cheap mobile phone which is just a phone – no camera, video player, music player…

Fortunately, once the bus started going, the air conditioning kicked in and it became more comfortable. The seats were haphazard – the recliner working for some and not others. Becky’s was permanently in the reclined position. While Scott napped, Becky spend the 2.5 hours of the ride watching the empty desert go by. There is a lot of nothing between Damascus and Palmyra.

When we arrived in Palmyra, we were quickly ushered off the bus. As it turned out, we were the only ones getting off at Palmyra. We were quickly accosted by Muhammed, owner of the hotel Al Faris. It’s out of town, but has a great view of the ruins to the south. Talking to him, we found out that our friends had also stayed there – his description of Miroslav’s dreadlocks and the way everyone was using the kitchen to cook meals were confirmation. Between that, the nice rooms, and the price he offered, it was an easy sell.

View from above Diocletian's Camp

View from above Diocletian's Camp

It is impossible to describe the scene when you first enter Palmyra. The castle definitely dominates the skyline, but as you look around and see the various pillars standing out in the brown desert fields, there is an overwhelming awe of neatness. At night it is also neat because many of the ruins are lit. Just past the town site there is a sea of green, an intermixing of palm trees and olive groves.

We approached the ruins from the side – we walked straight out from our hotel until we hit the old city wall, then followed a dirt track into the ruins. There is no main “street” in the ruins, rather a series of foot paths. Apparently the main “road” was never paved to make it easier for camels to travel along. Many of the ruins are still strewn on the ground, creating mounds of rock around the various pillars that are either still standing or have been resurrected by the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

It was fascinating to just wander around the ruins. For the first two hours, we only saw one other person – a boy selling jewelry at the Diocletian’s Camp. As we were walking back along the main street, we saw a couple of folks on motorcycles going to visit the family that lives near the Diocletian camp (there is a small house there). We were amused at the modern-day camels and how they just rode the bikes right across the field of ruins.

It was very nice to wander through the ruins and take photos. Between the two of us, we took over 250 shots, and would have taken more if Scott hadn’t been shooting in RAW mode and ran out of space on his card.

As we approached the main gate, we were accosted by a couple of vendors selling things. After extensive negotiation, we bought some nice postcards from a boy (his card were nicer than the other we had seen). There was young man selling jewelry that was way too aggressive. He would not take no for an answer and he followed us for quite a distance. Becky wasn’t happy because he was leaning up against her / touching her – which is just not appropriate. She moved to put Scott between her and him. Being Canadian, she did not say anything. In hindsight, she realized that had she said something that might have got him to stop and go away sooner!

The site at Palmyra is so large and accessible that only certain portions are charged for. We declined to pay for the theater or tomb tour, but did go into the Temple of Bel – a huge complex which has been a temple to several gods, then a Byzantine church, and finally a Mosque. Remnants of all of these are visible in various forms, and lots of restoration work has been done. We initially had doubts about the cost, but in the end Scott thinks it was worth it.

On the way back to town for lunch, we decided to follow a path through the palm and olive groves rather than taking the main road. It was really neat to walk through the pathways that the locals use to get to their gardens. At one point a gentleman on a bicycle had invited us in to see his garden, but alas, we declined the invitation – we were both tired from walking and hungry. In hindsight, this was likely the most genuine invitation we received all day and would have been a nice cultural exchange.

Our interactions have been a little more guarded today, especially after the aggressive jewelry vendor. We also found the kids to be rather mercenary, with the kids on the street coming up and saying:
“Hello, what is your name?”
“My name is _____”

This was such a contrast to the kids practicing their English with us at the Mosque in Damascus. The exchanges there were authentic and the kids never asked us for anything. From what we’ve read, Palmyra is extremely dependent upon tourism, and since 2001 tourist volumes have dropped dramatically. Thus, everyone is fighting hard for the remaining tourists and their money.

In the end, we are both extremely glad we came out to Palmyra. For the most part, the people are really nice and friendly and the sites are amazing. We would love to have had more time to wander around the desert ruins and perhaps even camp out. Unfortunately, our time in Syria is quickly coming to an end. We will definitely plan to be back – perhaps a cycling trip around Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey in the spring in a few years. March through June would be ideal!

More photos below…


Wandering about Damascus

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

We really like Damascus. Becky thinks that our image of a place is certainly nicer when the sun is shining. Like Aleppo, Damascus also suffers from daily power cuts. When the power is out, you can see the pollution in the air – which is a real shame because otherwise, Damascus is a very neat city. We would have liked to spend more time here, but we don’t want to risk Becky getting sick again.

Our first order of business for the day was to get Becky’s running shoes repaired. She has a tendency to wear holes in the heel of her shoes, making an otherwise perfect pair of shoes unwearable. At home, the only real option is to replace them, but here there are many places that repair shoes – plus it would be impossible to replace them with anything similar as light hiking shoes are not available here. We found the street of shoe repair vendors and left the shoes with one of them while wandering around for an hour. Upon our return, a patch had been sewn into the heels. Scott first thought the vendor wanted 1000 SP for the repair, but Scott paid him 100 SP and he was happy. Later Scott realized that the number mi’a (which sounds like mille – French for thousand) is actually 100, so it was just that he was confused. So, for about $3 Becky’s shoes have been rescued. Hopefully the repair will give them 4-5 months (until we return to Canada and they can be replaced).

The vendors in the markets are a refreshing change from our experiences in Wadi Musa, Jordan. Each time we bought something (bread, olives, cheese, fruit, vegetables) and gave the vendor a 100 or 50 SP note, we got change back. The prices seemed fair, and Scott is getting better at both reading the price tags and understanding Arabic numbers. With 36SP = 1CAD, the numbers are much bigger now!

The flat-bread was being freshly made in the ovens just behind the stall, and it was a fascinating process. The guys making the bread invited us in to get a closer look and take some pictures. Later, the guys in the cheese stall were especially amused with us. Wanting to ensure that the cheese was not goat or lamb, we were mooing and bah’ing as we pointed at different cheeses. This caused many laughs but also ensured that what we bought was cows cheese! We found all the vendors to be very tolerant of our attempts at Arabic, and friendly without being pushy. The souks in Damascus and Aleppo feel real to us in a way that the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul doesn’t. The Grand Bazaar felt to us like it is mostly there for tourists, and there are pushy touts everywhere. In Syria, the only touts are in the very touristy portions of the souk. Everywhere else it is just the occasional vendor crying his wares. Scott enjoyed listening to two fruit vendors extolling the virtues of their respective oranges today, and it was neat that he could actually understand this was what they were doing, even if he didn’t get the details.

Walking through one of the market streets, Becky wanted to get a picture so she pulled out her camera. Suddenly there were many kids asking to have their pictures taken. It was especially amusing when an older guy jumped into the fray to have his picture taken kissing his son on the cheek. We laughed, and obliged by taking a few photos before continuing on our way. This is the side of Syria which we love, and we’ll definitely miss when we head back to Turkey.

We happened upon the Azem Palace in the old city as we wandered while waiting for Becky’s shoe repair, and decided to pay the 150 SP entrance fee to see it. Our guidebook says that it is a Museum of Popular Arts and Tradition. The Palace itself was not that interesting although Becky found the decorated ceilings quite neat. It was very interesting to watch all the locals who came for the tour. This was Saturday and the place was filled with mostly women and children. Scott found it challenging as he tried to be careful not to smile and make eye contact with all the women in Hijab. Becky enjoyed the opportunity to not have to worry about who she was making eye contact with – it was a nice reversal of roles!

No trip to Damascus is complete without a visit to the Umayyad Mosque. We initially tried entering through the main door, but were quickly re-directed to purchase a ticket and enter through the tourist door. Becky was wearing a long skirt, jacket and her buff as a headscarf, so decided not to wear one of the grey robes they give out to women who are not appropriately dressed. Despite the guidebook comments that all tourist women needed to wear one, she didn’t get any hassles. We did notice that even local women who are not wearing skirts donned the grey robes when entering.

Unlike the Grand Mosque in Istanbul which felt like a Museum or silent place of worship, upon entering the Umayyad Mosque you are immediately struck by the activity. There were children running about in the courtyard (one girl was skating around with her rollerskate/running shoes). The kids climb over every structure in the courtyard as well as some of the structures within the prayer hall. People were sitting and chatting or having a picnic – and of course there were also people praying. It felt like a real community place – much like the Mosque in Ottawa.

The building itself was beautiful. The prayer hall was immense, with four separate minbar (nooks that indicate the direction of Mecca), each one decorated in a different style to represent a different type of Sunni Islam. There are also tombs for John the Baptist (whose head is reported to be buried here although two other places also claim that honour) and the Prophet Al-Hussein, son of Ali, the founder of Shi’a Islam. Just as we were leaving the Mashad Al-Hussein, a large group of pilgrims entered the hall. Scott guesses they were Shi’ite pilgrims (possibly from Iran), although we aren’t sure.

The courtyard is surrounded by many gold inlaid mosaics. We were there as the sun was setting, which caused several of the mosaics to glow – truly beautiful. We were frequently distracted from our picture-taking by children coming up to say hello and practice their English, something with which we’re always happy to help.

Christmas in Damascus

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Showing off our Christmas hats, decorations and chocolate

Showing off our Christmas hats, decorations and chocolate

We took the early morning bus from Amman to Damascus, and arrived at 10:30 am tired. Unfortunately, Becky wasn’t thinking and Scott didn’t effectively clue her in, such that we spent too much on a “taxi” to the first hotel we wanted to look at. As the driver ripped us off, taking way too much money, he said “Welcome to Damascus” in a tone that was so un-Syrian! It is good that we have already had many positive experiences in Syria, as this might have spoilt our impressions.

We checked out a few hotels from our guidebook, but they were way too expensive. You know you are being overcharged when the hotel quotes you prices in dollars rather than Syrian pounds! We quickly gave up on the guidebook suggestions and started walking towards the old town where we knew there were many less expensive places. We happened upon the Al Ahram hotel on the main road, and went in to take a look. The rooms are nice and clean although a little noisy, and the cost was half of the other places we had looked at (1000 SP a night). The staff do not speak much English and the hotel guests are Arab tourists rather than Western tourists, but is it clean, warm, has hot water, and the bed is comfortable.

We went for a walk, looking for a place to grab lunch. It being a Friday, most of the souk was closed. On the way, we came across the Umayyad Mosque, just as the Friday noon prayers let out. People were milling about the area outside the mosque, clearly waiting for something. We figured it was likely to be a march in protest of the Israeli attack on Gaza. We were interested in seeing the march, but decided that avoiding the demonstration was a better course. We could feel the emotional charge in the air, and wondered what the Imam had said during his sermon at the noon prayers.

We continued into the Christian quarter of the old city, and eventually happened upon a fancy restaurant which was open – the Narenj near the Greek Orthodox church. We decided to look at the menu. After being in Jordan, we were surprised at how affordable the prices were and decided that a good lunch was in order. We sat down and enjoyed five different mezes (starters) with warm fresh flat bread. When we thought we could not eat anymore, the waiter brought out a complementary tray of desserts that would have fed at least 8 people! Our entire meal cost 700 SP (about $21) – expensive by Syrian standards but cheap after being in Jordan. It could have been much more if we chose to eat a full meal. We also took the opportunity to do some people-watching. It’s clear that this is one of the places wealthy Christians go for lunch on Fridays. We watched many people, clearly Christian by their dress, climb out of recent-model BMWs, Mercedes and Jaguars and hand the keys to the valet attendant. It felt strange to be in a place like this as low-budget travelers, but we definitely enjoyed the food and the atmosphere.

In the early evening, Jacques (Scott’s friend Ghanem’s Uncle who lives in Damascus) came out to meet us and deliver our mail – Our families and friends had sent us a couple of packages and envelopes for Christmas, and this was our first opportunity to pick them up. After delivering our mail, Jacques took us out for a nice dinner – our second wonderful meal of the day. To complement the meal, we enjoyed the best bottle of wine we have had since leaving North America (a Lebanese wine). We certainly felt spoilt with two wonderful meals in the same day. When we got back to the hotel, we got to open our packages. With two great meals and the opening of gifts from home, it certainly felt like Christmas.

Making Plans

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

10 km, delivering the bikes to Fadi’s workshop.

Fadi and son Fawad trying out Scott's bike

Fadi and son Fawad trying out Scott's bike

We have decided to leave the bikes and a bunch of our gear with Fadi in Aleppo. We will take a bus from Aleppo to Amman, Jordan, and from there take another bus to Aqaba. Aqaba is on the Red Sea and is experiencing daytime temperatures of around 22-25 degrees. We are hoping that some sun, warm temperatures, and salt air will allow Becky to fully recover from her cough. Once Becky has recovered, we will slowly make our way North back to Syria. We hope to have the time to see some of the key sights in southern Jordan (Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea), as well as some sites in Syria (Damascus, Palmyra, Crac de Chevalier).

We will return to Aleppo to pick up our bikes in mid to late January. Depending on how the weather is, how Becky is feeling, and how much time we have left, we will either cycle out to the Mediterranean and ride North back into Turkey, or we will bus back to Turkey. We need to be back in Izmir for January 27th . On January 29th we will take a boat from Cesme Turkey to Trieste Italy (thanks to Mustafa, a friend of Mehmet for arranging this).

Today, Scott rode the bikes over to Fadi’s workshop. Despite the aggressive drivers packing into every available space on the road, he always felt quite safe while riding. Our recumbents continue to draw attention wherever we ride. Becky spent the day doing some necessary shopping and repacking bags.

We are storing the bikes at Fadi’s workshop – since he’s a goldsmith, they should be very safe there. As a side benefit of dropping off the bikes, Scott got to see how gold rings are made. In Aleppo, almost all gold is 21k – quite rare these days, when most gold jewelry is 18k or 14k.

While Scott was dropping off the bikes, Fadi took Katja and Miroslav to visit his Uncle and family. His uncle’s wife is from Serbia, so their language is close to Katja’s Slovenian and Miroslav’s Czech. The quick visit for tea lengthened to an afternoon of conversation and lunch, which Scott joined part way through. It was fun to meet some more people, and especially to visit with Fadi’s cousins Nina and Danny. Nina is a pharmacist working for GlaxoSmithKline, and Danny is a gold and silver smith. Unfortunately, Nina had another appointment, but Danny took us under his wing for the rest of the day. We picked up Becky, then went to visit his friend William and check out some areas of Aleppo which we hadn’t seen before. We continue to find that it’s the people we meet who make this trip special for us.

The affluent Christian sections of Aleppo feel like a completely different city than the old quarter where we are staying. It is almost like stepping into a time warp when we returned to our hotel at the end of the evening. Prior to ending the day, we arranged to meet William the next morning to experience the best Fuul (a broad bean stew type thing) in Aleppo.

Church of Saint Simeon

Friday, December 26th, 2008

When we first arrived in Aleppo, Fadi had offered to take us out to see Saint Simeon, a church about 40 km to the north of Aleppo. Unfortunately, Becky was not feeling up for the trip, so we had to decline. Today, with Becky feeling much better, we took Fadi up on his offer. The rest of his family had other plans, so it was just Fadi and us in the car. Since there was room for two more people, Katja and Mirko jumped at the opportunity to join us.

On the way up to Saint Simeon, we stopped too look at an ancient Roman tomb. This was not an “official” tourist site, just a place that we drove up to and stopped on the side of the road. It is amazing how many ancient sites exist in the area that are not preserved. Until recently, people would use the stones of ancient buildings in construction of their homes. Now, the Syrian government has made such excavations and re-use illegal – so the ancient sites will remain unmolested by locals seeking building materials. That is the theory at least.

The Saint Simeon (Qal’at Sam’aan) grounds are located atop a large hill that is covered in pine trees. The site was built in the 5th century, and the churches have been partially restored, so you get a sense of their original splendor. Being atop a hill, you also get a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. We especially enjoyed the fresh air – something that is definitely not a regular attribute of Aleppo.

It was nice to see the forest as we drove up. Our first impression of the site was how clean it was. There were garbage cans everywhere and there must have been people employed to clean up anything that escaped. This was a nice change from the other litter filled sites in Syria.

Our guidebook warns that the site can be crowded, but we were lucky that there was only one small tour group there and a few individuals. We were able to take many pictures without people, which is an indication of the lack of crowding. That is definitely one advantage of visiting places during the off season, we have managed to avoid the crowds at all the major attractions.

Saint Simeon was famous for standing upon a pillar – originally 3 meters high, then extended to 6, 11, and finally 18 meters. He spent 36 years on top of the pillar. Today, only a small portion of his pillar still exists. The main church was built around the pillar. It took 14 years to build, and when it was completed it was both the largest and most important church in the world, surpassed later only by Aya Sofya. There are four basilicas surrounding the pillar, with the largest of the four to the east. According to Fadi, the four were constructed in the shape of Jesus as he lay on the cross, with his head tilted to the right. When looking west to east across the pillar, it is easy to see the how the Eastern basilica is tilted.

After our day of adventuring, we decided to go out for a nice dinner – since Becky has a stomach bug on Christmas, we missed out on the Sheraton’s Christmas buffet. We heard much about it from the tour group staying at our hotel, so Becky was left craving ham! One thing that people seem to forget to mention about Muslim countries is that you cannot buy any pork products. Becky finds it odd that alcohol is readily available but pork is almost totally absent. So, after an overdose of ham in Italy, we are left craving it after a few months without.

For our nice dinner out we headed to the Beit Wakil, reported to be one of the best restaurants in all of Syria. It was recommended by Fadi as well. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be a pleasant meal for Becky. The majority of their dishes involve lamb, and even the “all beef” dish that Becky ordered turned out to contain lamb. So Becky enjoyed a variety of Mezze (starters), while Scott had their famous lamb and cherry kabobs. Although Scott found the meal very yummy, Becky left feeling very disappointed and a little hungry. Eating out in Syria was definitely proving to be a challenge for Becky, so we were extra glad to be able to cook for ourselves at the Al Gawaher hotel.

Christmas in Syria

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

Christmas Eve service from the upper balcony

Christmas Eve service from the upper balcony

I attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve with Fadi, Ghina and family at the Greek Orthodox church. It was both very different and very familiar. This was my first Orthodox service, but I knew a little about the tradition, so I expected the ornately garbed priests, iconostasis (wall of icons and religious paintings separating the nave from the sanctuary) and chanting. Very different from the Anglican Christmas Eve services I grew up with and the Unitarian Universalist ones I now attend though! I found it interesting that a senior patriarch from Jerusalem was in Aleppo at the invitation of President Assad, and he gave the address to the congregation. Of course, it was in Arabic, so I didn’t catch much of it. From Fadi’s summary afterwards, the main content was a reminder that Jesus was born in poverty in Bethlehem, and to remember all those still living in poverty and oppression in Bethlehem and other parts of Palestine. Quite a different message than most North American Christians heard I’m sure.
A small part of the crowd awaiting Santa outside the church

A small part of the crowd awaiting Santa outside the church

The church was packed, with people standing in the aisles, and some listening to the service from speakers set up outside. It was a larger church than Saint Michaels, and probably seated close to a thousand people. Quite the crowd!

After everyone received communion, we all crowded outside to wait for the arrival of Pere Noel. Yes, in Syria, Santa Claus comes to church, complete with red suit, white beard, green-garbed elves, and marching band! We followed the Santa Claus, the marching band and the priests as they circled the block around the church, then entered the church gardens. As we arrived at the gardens, fireworks were set off from adjoining buildings.
In the gardens, a stage was set up and a long line of children waited to see Santa Claus and receive a Christmas blessing from the priests.

Santa's marching band and an Orthodox priest

Santa's marching band and an Orthodox priest

The marching band was made up of local boy and girl scouts, all dressed in Santa suits. The elves were also scouts, and even more scouts helped with crowd control. They performed Jingle Bells and a few other traditional Christmas songs.
We decided not to wait in the long line, but crowded into Fadi’s car with a friend and her son, then all went back to her house to drink some wine and talk. Perhaps this was to give Pere Noel a bit of extra time to get to the house and deliver the presents? According to Fawad and Hayim, Santa Claus doesn’t come when you’re asleep, in Syria he comes when you’re out of the house. I wonder how he keeps track of all these different traditions?
Hayim, Fadi and friends with Santa Claus

Hayim, Fadi and friends with Santa Claus

The Citadel and Christmas Eve celebrations

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008
The palace above the citadel

The palace above the citadel

We awoke bright and early (OK, Scott woke Becky up at 9 am), to sun shine – although the sky was threatening rain. Since this was the first sign of decent weather in a few days, we headed up to the citadel to see what all the fuss was about. The Aleppo Citadel is one of the few must see places in Aleppo. We were amazed to discover that there was more to the citadel than the stunning views of Aleppo – there were many restored rooms and nooks and crannies to investigate. We spent a full two hours exploring before Becky was feeling too tired and in need of some food.

Some of the buildings within the citadel

Some of the buildings within the citadel

A group of schoolchildren eager to have their photo taken

A group of schoolchildren eager to have their photo taken

After Scott refused to pay 100 SP for 2 cups of tea at one of the tourist oriented shops outside the Citadel, we walked through the souk in search of some fresh juice and food. The fresh squeezed Orange juice is 50 SP for 2 glasses. As we were drinking, we were approached by Ahmed, who asked many questions about us. He invited us to see his shop (he is a silversmith). We declined saying that we needed to get food, so he offered to show us the best falafel place in the Souk. He brought us to a falafel vendor that was very clean and we had to agree they were the best falafels we have had so far. Ahmed then invited us to come to his shop to sit and enjoy are lunch. We agreed, and to make a long story short, we saw his merchandise and Scott bought Becky a nice necklace, bracelet, and earring set. We clearly have not perfected how to say no to people (another one of those Canadian traits that gets us into trouble!). That being said, Becky is very happy with her new jewelry.

By the time we returned to the hotel, Becky was not doing well. Her stomach was upset and she spent the rest of the afternoon napping.

Ahmed and the Cyclists (Ahmed, Roger, Mirelle, Katja, Miroslav, Peter, Wendy and Becky)

Ahmed and the Cyclists (Ahmed, Roger, Mirelle, Katja, Miroslav, Peter, Wendy and Becky)

For dinner on the 24th, Ahmed (the hotel manager, not the jewelry salesman) organized a potluck. We each contributed a dish and we had a wonderful, not even remotely traditional Christmas dinner. Becky was happy to be feeling up for the meal, but shortly afterwards, she was feeling unwell again.

Just before dinner, Fadi stopped by and delivered a couple of Christmas gifts to us. He and his family have been so good to us. Unfortunately, we had a miscommunication about dinner, and they thought we would be joining them for dinner on the 24th.

At 9:30 pm, Fadi came by to pick up Scott for the midnight church service with the rest of his family. They belong to the Greek Orthodox faith, and this Christmas Eve was a very special service, because the Patriarch of Jerusalem was leading the service. The church was huge, and completely packed, seating around 1000 people, with other people crowding in the aisles and standing outside.

Culturally Christian

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Last spring, we took a course on world religions. In that course, we were introduced to the idea that as Canadians, we lived in a culturally Christian society. That is, even if you do not identify as a Christian, your life is still heavily influenced by Christian culture. This made me want to learn more about what it meant to be culturally Muslim. That quest has taken us to Turkey and Syria so far, and hopefully will also take us to Jordan and Malaysia before we return home. As someone who does not identify as a Christian, I did not expect that journeying to predominately Muslim countries would teach me just how much Christianity has influenced my life.

In a culturally Christian society Christmas is a special time. At home, it is marked by the streets and buildings being lit up by colourful lights and Christmas music playing in all the stores. In Antakya, Turkey, we saw no signs of Christmas. So far, in Aleppo, Syria, the only Christmas tree we have seen is in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel – and it feels completely out of place – maybe because it is a tacky commercial tree with only white lights that looks like it came in a box already decorated.

For me personally, Christmas has always been a difficult time, filled with unmet expectations, societal pressures, an meaningless rituals. We decided that since we will be in Syria for Christmas, that we would not celebrate it this year. Instead, we celebrated Eid Al-Adha (Bayram) in Turkey which is the closest thing to Christmas for Muslims – and nothing at all like Christmas. One of our goals in this time away is to figure out what is important to us, so that we can define our own Christmas celebrations when we return home.

I miss baking. Most of the places we have stayed since leaving North America have not had real ovens – mostly people have gas hotplates and sometimes they might have a toaster oven. Most of my traditional desserts are cooked on the stove. At home, shortbread cookies, gingersnaps, and various sweet breads are special Christmas treats.

I miss the coloured lights. It was odd to see Kayseri, Turkey with a light coating of snow and no coloured lights. The first falling of snow at home is often lit up by red, green, blue, and yellow Christmas lights. What a beautiful sight that is.

I miss real Christmas trees – that is, those of the Charlie Brown variety. Trees that are full of colour and life and mismatched decorations, some handmade by the children as they grew up, trees that have grown and changed with the family over the years.

At home, I dreaded the idea of being forced to attend a Christian church service, often plotting different ways to escape the experience. So, I am surprised that I am feeling a desire to attend a service at one of the various churches here in Aleppo. I am curious about what will be familiar and what will be foreign.

Most of all, I miss the music. Not the commercial Christmas music playing in the Sheraton like Jingle Bell Rock, rather the more traditional and definitely Christian songs like Joy to the World and Silent Night. Maybe that is what I am hoping to find in a Church service or Christmas concert in Aleppo Syria – Aleppo has a significant Christian population with a variety of different churches including Syrian Orthodox and Catholic.

Who would have thought that living in a Muslim society would help me learn what parts of Christmas I love?