1001 nights at Hama and Palmyra

One of the more esoteric travel tips out there claims that swift border checks won’t happen with new passports. According to this myth, the reason is that customs agents are wary about being the first one’s to stamp a brand new passport, thus authenticating the document. So they will check twice, three times the passport for falsification or tampering. Well, I never really believed in this story. And crossing the Lebanese-Syrian border near Damascus certainly confirmed that the above travel tip is an urban legend. In fact, my passport was full of visas, entry and exit stamps. Out of the 40 pages, there was only one page left with room for the Syrian entry seal. Well, did I forget to mention that the border agents search for evidence of an Israeli entry in passports?

View over HamaSo here we are, my taxi driver and the other passengers. All are waiting for me and about to become angry. Feeling silly coming here with a passport full of visas and cachets requiring three agents to check the documents back and forth, I started to regret that my travel included a visit to Syria. I am not sure anymore, but I think it was the Cambodian entry seal which spurred most of their suspicion, because it looks remotely similar to the Israeli one.

Water wheel in Hama

Several times I was asked by the officials whether I have been in Israel or whether I would plan to go to Israel. While I still looked apologetic in the direction of my fellow passengers, I kept thinking “wtf” and was mentally punching these officials. After half an hour of debate, involving my taxi driver, an old babushka and several customs officers, I finally got waved through customs.

Qala'at ash-ShmemisSyria was quite a change of landscape. Soon after the border, oversized roadside posters featuring an funny looking guy with mustache welcomed me to this country. Other posters, still with the same guy, praised the modernization and advances of Syria.

Later on, I learned that the mustache guy is the president of Syria. His face is everywhere. On pictures, hanging over restaurant bars, painted on building walls and on the infamous roadside billboards. This is how I would have imagined North Korea, praising Kim Jong-Il’s achievements. But here in Syria, at the doorsteps of Europe? I was really surprised to see such propaganda, but decided to ignore the political system while being here – despite my afterthoughts back in Lebanon.

Once in Damascus I decided to catch immediately the next bus to the city of Hama (1.5 million people) which is, from a tourist perspective, centrally located and therefore an ideal hub for day trips to various sites. Distances are manageable in the Middle East.

Despite the lengthy customs check, the total trip time from Beirut to Hama was 8 hours. My mood lightened up considerably on the bus. Local Syrians are welcoming, friendly and very chatty. By the time I arrived in my hub city, I smiled again. At the clock tower square, in the center of Hama, the grim mustache guy was there again, greeting from a government building poster. I politely looked at him and smiled in disrespect.

After I located the hostel and left the luggage in my room, I went for a short stroll through the town, which was now immersed in a dim sunset light. Hama is known for its wooden water wheels (called “Noria”) which are to be found at many places throughout the Orontes’ river banks in the city. Downtown Hama is a peaceful, relaxing and beautiful place, despite its very grim history of recent years, known as the Hama massacre.

Temples of PalmyraI knew that I would need more time to visit the many tourist sites by public transportation. According to “Reto’s Law”, one can compensate the lack of time by increasing the amount of money. So I went for the splurge and hired a car with driver for the next couple of days. We left, next day, very early in the morning to visit Qala’at ash-Shmemis, which are the ruins of a castle located on top of a conic shaped hill. The guys who lived here in the past, had a fantastic view over the plains of the Orontes valley.

But the major focus for the day was Palmyra, an ancient city serving as oasis for the caravan routes. The vast area of temple ruins that are visible still today, give a good impression about how flourishing this city must have been during the Roman period. One of its locations, the temple of Ba’al,  covers a surface of 200×200 meters. Next to it is located a colonnade street which stretches for several hundreds of meters, featuring ruins of buildings on each side.

This site is definitely huge. The nearby Valley of the Tombs stretches for more than 1km featuring too many tombs to visit in one single day. As excavations are still ongoing in the Palmyra area, there may still be some hidden surprises underneath the surface. This is a magical place straight from the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights”.

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