Trip to Iran: Shiraz Jet-lagged and caffeinated

The ride to the hotel is pretty much a blur. We learned that a light rail line would be completed sometime.  Construction started in 2001 and it’s still not completed.  I can relate since I spent most of my childhood waiting for the completion of the “Big Dig” in Boston.  Mahmoud also informed us his sister was getting married soon and he’s been busy planning and paying for the event.  We were not sure if this would delay travel but at this point whatever.

We reached the hotel before just loosing my mind and doing a total travelers freak out.  I’m not my pleasant self after 30+ hours without sleep and decent coffee.  At least the sun hadn’t risen yet so it seemed like we were just getting in from the occasional night out on the town back home.

I slept well for a few hours but hunger drove me out of bed.   The spread was amazing.  We feasted on fresh lavash, fruit, cheese, soup and a liters of water and tea.   I even managed to one more  good cup of coffee before I switched to widely available tea. We wait around the courtyard hoping our man Mahmoud would come back.  I sort of remember that he did mention returning around noon.  We’re stuck inside without him – or so we thought.  We were unsure if walking into the unfamiliar and beyond was wise at this point.    We ended up testing the waters and took a short walk about.  It was kind of like staying just playing in the yard and close to the house as kids.   There was very little to see and so we ended up going back to bed for a few hours.  I caved.

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I woke up and it was still Saturday.  I almost forget where I was.  I was in Shiraz – Iran.  My jet lag had worn off a bit and I was ready to see and do whatever was possible in what remained of the day.  At least if it wasn’t possible then the hotel courtyard would have sufficed.   It seemed our hotel is a Shiraz hotspot for locals.  The hotel has a tea shop/shisha lounge which attracts young couples looking for a good date spot and mingle with out-of-towners like ourselves.  I can’t imagine what this place would be like if alcohol was available.

The young guys here all sport gelled hair and have it styled the Rooster fashion – illegal I may add.  They have nabbed one of the best jobs in town.  They get paid to hang with friends, play Persian pop tunes until the early morning hours, smoke tons of Shesha, talk on their cell phones and occasionally get food and drink orders to guests.   I and other guest at the hotel get served. It’s not all bad since we get the opportunity to mingle with the  locals or in some cases be stared at by the locals.

Shah Cheragh Mosque
Weekend Shopping in Shiraz

After another meal, our guide Mahmoud showed up.  I was off to shop for some acceptable local gear.  The mall was typical except it had some moral police hanging out in the entrance way and only noticed them when we left.   There was a little light left in the day so checked out some sites before the sun set.  Shiraz street life on a Saturday night is something worth checking out.  All the shops are in full swing as families are spending the last hours of the weekend together.  It was the perfect introduction to Iran.

The club or hotel courtyard was in full swing.  The benches were all occupied with groups getting intoxicated on hot tea and Shisha pipe hits, the speakers were busting out Persian Pop remixes and foil covered hot coals were being spun around for the next smoker.  My head was spinning due to fatigue and over stimulation.  It’s time to call it a day.  All I need is a good pair of ear plugs and a somewhat comfy bed.

Ancient Eastern Crossroads of Apamea Syria

The Cardo Maximus of Apamea
The Cardo Maximus of Apamea

Driving up to Apamea after visiting the ruins of the other great cities of the area Al Basa and Sejilla while I was staying in Hama, Syria.  This city was the center of it all at one point in time.  The former village of Pharnake was renamed Apamea by the newly appointed and former Roman general to Alexander I king Selecukos Nikator I ‘s whose princess and wife was named Apama in 300 B.C.  It was just another recent addition to the already vast and growing Roman Empire.  The area flourished and it was home to as many as 500K occupants in the city by the 1st century.  It became the merchant center of the area for the Romans since it was easy to defend geographically, it was in close proximity to the still bustling port city of Latakia and it was at the eastern crossroads for commerce.

The city continued to be a valuable asset to the Roman empire through the centuries.  Roman Emperor Claudius continued his support from Rome even after a disastrous earthquake hit on December 13 115.  The city was rebuilt and it’s prosperity continued.

What remains today to see

There’s still a lot standing here today considering how long it’s been since it was settled and how many earthquakes the area has experienced throughout those centuries.  The structures that still standing tall today where mostly built-in the 6th century A.D. This was after the Byzantines again took back the city from the Persians after a failed attempt of Justinian the Great‘s try to regain Western regions the empire had lost.  The battles between the Romans, Persians and Arabs left the city buried to the ground in 628 AD.  The Byzantines only occupied it for 6 years prior to then.  The city was taken back after a many bold military campaigns led by Heraclius in his bid to successfully drive the Persians out of Asia Minor.  The Arabs came along eight years later and defeated the Romans in the Battle of Yarmouk.  Heraclius didn’t count on the Muslim Arabs pushing him and his brother Theodore out after this final bloody in 636.  The Byzantines were pretty much done for after this bloody battle.  The tug of war had finally ended, the Persians won but the city never again regained its grandeur it had once enjoyed under the Byzantines.

One of the many lizards who still call Apamea home
One of the many lizards who still call Apamea home

What a visitor sees in Apamea today is a small traces of a once great city mostly dominated by the Byzantines.   Two major earthquakes struck back in 1157  and 1170 A.D. and have left the city to the ruin it is today.  The city now consists of smaller and more crumbled structures as well as many tall and noble fluted columns, frescoes inside the museum and entry ways along the main Cardo Maximus.

A visitor can easily imagine what Apamea once looked like because there are many structures still standing tall.  There hasn’t been any major building in the area so even though it’s quiet there today you can still look across the valley and see why this beautiful place was always being fought over.

Orontes Valley Ancient Apamea Syria
Orontes Valley Ancient Apamea Syria

How to get there and when to go

Easiest way to get to Apamea is by hiring a car from Hama and include some other sites like Al Basa and Sejilla and the Beehives.  I suggest an early start not only because it takes some time to get from one to the next but they do close around sunset.  This particular day was beautiful and clear and we started out with the beehives, moved on to the dead cities of Al Basa and Sejilla (we must made it before the one man security force decided to close around 3pm) and got here at Apamea around 5:00pm.  A perfect time in June for pictures in terms of lighting and the fact that we pretty much had it to ourselves.

The Howls of the Rebel River in Hama Syria

The highlight of the city of Hama is by no doubt the norias or “wheels of pots”.  Seventeen now remain standing and occasionally running above the Nahr al-Assi, aka Rebel River.   Many know it as being the Orontes River.  It’s presently the job of the office of Antiquities in Hama to make sure that these remaining wheels can still function as they did 1000-years-ago and remain aesthetically pleasing drawing in tourists and travelers.   Authors Needham and Ronan described them as “the most splendid norias ever constructed.” and they are right to some degree.

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According to author Joseph Needham, the Noria are believed to have been first constructed in India around 350 B.C.  The technology later spread east to China and then west to the Mediterranean Region.  What was unique about Norias is that they are powered only by flowing water .   Cows, camels, wind, steam or even people are unnecessary.   Unfortunately, the water to be needs to high enough to work properly. The climate in Hama allows them to work around 5 months out of  the year.  The use of dams and the luck of a rainy spring keeps the creaking wheels spinning.

The norias are thought to have been constructed in Hama during the Byzantine era but the jury is still out on whether it was earlier.  It is known that their numbers peaked to around 30 during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1510). The Turkish governor ordered the restoration of the Roman built water wheels after he conquered the area.  They made the 200-year-old wheels bigger and added more along the river.  The norias brought water to its inhabitants and their farms.  The crop yields skyrocketed, trade increased and it’s people grew rich.  The Orontes Valley still remains Syria’s agricultural heartland.
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The quiet town of Palmyra

The bus rolled into Tadmor, or as most know it as Palmyra, a little over 3 hours after it left the Harasta Pullman terminal in Damascus. Taking local buses is always fun and tricky if you don’t speak or understand the native language. The final destination wasn’t Palmyra and even if it was the bus driver was calling it Tadmor. Palmyra is a small town and I still wasn’t sure if it had a bus station? I guess a good street map (LP #fail) complete with important things like where the bus stops would have been helpful. We’ve adapted to LP and other guidebook fails by now, so we had to just go with it, use our brains and harness our powers of perception.  So what we knew was the bus must be stopping soon since it’s getting close to the scheduled time of arrival and I see two others travelers getting ready to leave.  It’s highly likely that we are on same Syrian LP/Routard trail.  We also start to get ready to spring from the hot bus.   The bus stops, we thanked the bus driver and chose a direction which hopefully led into town.  We then found a safe place to get a quick look at the crappy LP map but it didn’t matter because no one seemed to want to bother us with questions like “Do you need any help?”  “Where are you staying or need to go? ” “I can drive you!” etc.

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Hama and it’s great Beehives

We were at a crossroads in Syria and needed to figure out whether the next stop should be the ancient city of Hama aka Hamah (Epiphania) or Homs aka Hims, Syria?    We then turned to the help of the internet.  We checked out some somewhat reliable travel forums, did some quick Google searches, read a little  and decided that Hama was a good jumping point to see several sites including: Krak des ChevaliersApameaQasr ibn Wardanthe Dead Cities or Serjilla and of course the Norias in town. Besides, its mid-June and it’s getting into the upper 80’s F.   This is probably why we have found very few travelers and have the sites pretty much to ourselves.   This is a good and bad thing.  We still have to make our way up through eastern Turkey but we will be trekking up to see  Mount Nemrut (2150m altitude) and it’s still chilly before the sun rises so no real hurry. We’re ok staying here for a few days.

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She’s traveling to the Middle East

What a girl packs away in her travel bag will all depend on where she’s planning to go.  This case is the Middle East.   This being said, taking great care in how you dress and act while visiting. What a woman traveler wears and how she behaves will show how locals in turn treat her.  A woman well versed  in local social etiquette to avoid the long stares and unwarranted cat calls and hisses that go along being inconsiderate.

Clothing

Keep in mind that the less skin showing the better.   The year-round weather in most Middle Eastern areas usually no lower than 50F and can get up to an uncomfortable 115F (one considering the humidity levels which can make it feel much warmer).  Staying cool in clothing that covers you from head to toe will be challenging.

In these modern times, it is much easier to find women’s clothing that is both comfortable and covers most of your body.  The designs are getting better and the fabric is becoming more technologically advanced.  Caprilene is one of the greatest things available these days.  The designers are also making clothing out of these lighter and water whisking recycled polyester.  It’s a green product as well.  If you would like to really blend in to the local culture check out a tailor or local clothing market and buy a Hijab while you are visiting.  People will appreciate the gesture and it may lead to more interaction with the locals.

The women of Islam are usually required to dress in a hijab by law of the state and/or by their family.  The hajib has been a topic of discussion in many countries and has often lead to heated debates about when women should wear them, if they should banned, if the law requires women to wear them and what are they acceptable styles.  Women travelers need to have an understanding of local social codes.  This knowledge will help to avoid disrespecting the local population.  It is a very highly politicized  subject which requires a traveler, male or female, to educate themselves and be aware of current events popping up which surround the very sensitive subject.

Social Behavior

It is well-known that women in a moderate to strict Muslim society must follow the rules of Islāmic laws or face the consequences.  It is important to remember that we travelers are just visiting and must respect local codes of conduct.

On the other side, we are like embassadors from our own countries.  The way we behave in public while visiting may have a long reached effect on how locals view our country.  We should want to make the best impression since most of the time the country’s media and the movies and television shows exported to the country are the only exposure they have to a country like the United States.  All media takes an extreme perspective on a culture or group of people.  This being said, act on your best behavior.

This means, act on the side of caution.  It is best to be self aware and not get lost in and forget what surrounds you.  We all have those moments were we start getting comfortable with our surrounds.  So much, that we behave as if we are back in our own country.  Stay focused and always remember where you are and concentrate on what surrounds you.  This will also keep you out of harms way.

Here is more  information on gender roles in different societies.