Most trips overseas for the intrepid traveler involve overland travel. There’s sometimes unavoidable on small islands in the Philippines and the desert expanses of the Middle East. The road offers adventure, perspective to a new place and experiencing the local color.
Some of us have quickly found that schedules in most places do not go as planned. I think back to my early travel years and the incredibly long ride from Ephesus to Istanbul. The bus ended up including a surprise ferry ride, arrived 4 hours lake, dropped me off way in the suburbs at 23:00 back in 2005.
Local buses usually run on the drivers schedule, make pit stops where they get kick backs and usually end with you saying you are never taking the bus again. I have yet managed followed through with that promise. As one fellow passenger said on a very bumpy road in India, “It feels like we are in God’s hands and he’s shaking our bus in them”. I have taken plenty of bus rides since , survived them all and will continue to ride (if there’s no other option).
Many claim that taking an airplane is much safer than ground transport but where’s the adventure in that. Airplanes don’t look like these colorful options and not nearly as fun.
Much of what was the Persian Empire in the BC days were the bazaars which still remain to be the center of commerce in modern times in cities from Istanbul down to Yazd in southern Iran, and from Marrakesh to Xi’an.
Long dark covered alleyways with packed stalls staffed with smiling merchants waiting to make a deal or just share a cup of tea. It’s the best place to visit upon arrival. The protected wall of the bazaar give visitors relief from the outdoors and a glimpse of the cities past.
New visitors should take the time and see what they can find around each corner and inside open doorways of these ancient covered passageways. Whether it be a mosque tucked away behind a small unassuming doorway or a foul smell that lets you know how close you are to the Tanners Souk in Fez Morocco. The Tanners here have one of the oldest and worst jobs on earth. The craftsmen are usually seen waist deep in vats of dye made of acid (aka pigeon droppings), pigments and cow urine used to dye raw leather. It makes a nice picture if you can do it without passing out. The traveler is lucky to be able to choose to take pictures or just keep on walking like I did. Not all surprises are pleasant.
My personal favorite things about the central market of a middle eastern city whether it be called a Souk, Bazaar, or Medina is its hidden surprises and smells.
What the locals eat:
Local traditional tourist entertainment and souvenirs:
Beautiful inner courtyard Mosques and architectural highlights:
Modern Life in an ancient place:
These are the places where travelers can leave the guidebook behind and just get lost. It’s nice to be able to do that once in a while.
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.
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.
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 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.
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. Continue reading →
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.
Imagine having a UNESCO Heritage site all to yourself? This is what I found late in the day when I got a ride out to see Al Basa and Sejilla from Hama, Syria. The two sites aren’t officially recognized by UNESCO but are both protected by the Syrian Antiquity law and listed under the category of archaeological sites and registered by the Syrian Minister of Culture. It’s getting late in the day 4:30 and the overseer at Serjilla is waiting in his car as this lone visitor shows up. The place closes at 5pm and I’m given the look which tells me to pretty much get a move on with a smile. So there’s about 10 acres of area (lots to cover and “enjoy”) and time is ticking. I’m sure some backish (tip or bribe) will extend my welcome but it’s something I don’t like to do.
The one thing great thing to my timing is that I’m able to see the area by myself and the quality late afternoon light will hopefully give me great shots. I’ll need these later since it will allow me to examine what I only had time to take a picture of.
Beginning in the 4th Century, this area once housed a wealthy group of Christians settlers. Things like the bath houses and fertile land, and it’s closeness to trade centers like Apamea and Antioch all together can only conclude that this was a village of well to do citizens. The soil is so fertile that it presently is the site of many working fruit orchards and oil groves.
The houses, baths, temples, sarcophagi (tombs) and churches they are housed in can still be identified and it doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture what this village used to look like when it was occupied many centuries ago. The town was at a crossroads between the trade destinations of Antioch and Apamea and continued to be inhabited by the same Christians despite being conquered by the Crusaders in 1098 and later the Arabs in 1123. An earthquake is what caused this village to be abandoned in the late 12th century. Many archways, walls, and whole rooms are still fully intact which is amazing. It’s not too hard to envision what the village must have looked like centuries ago.
It’s a wonder why it’s not recognized by UNESCO. This is a big reason to check out and support sites that are not on the list. It’s very important to treat them with care and respect they deserve and allow them to be open to others in the future. This should go unsaid but please don’t climb up or take away things that need to stay there. Pictures should be the only souvenir you take back with you as tempting as it may be to stick one little piece of rock in your pocket.
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 Chevaliers, Apamea, Qasr ibn Wardan, the 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.