Conquering Apamea and the Dead Cities

This was now the fourth day in Hama. This city was the perfect base to explore Syria. By now, my driver knew the drill: Leaving early in the morning for day trips, returning late in the evening. Those were long shifts for him. However, he also knew that he had plenty of time by himself, once we arrived at a site. While I would extensively explore ruins and castles, he could take a nap, chat with his friends or make some extra money driving around local people.

Roadside pizza kitchenOur first stop, for the day, the Dead Cities in the Zawiya mountains, was a perfect example. I took my time exploring each and every house for about two hours. By that time, tourist buses had arrived and left. The average time for the visit being 30 to 45 minutes, those drivers really were constantly being pressured to move on.

So why the heck am I spending so much time wandering around ruins? I guess it must be some childhood interest which still remains active. As children, our family used to hike on Sundays to the various castles nearby our village where I grew up. Also, school excursions took us to these same places, where teachers would tell us the background story of the places, the knights and the medieval life style. This spurred our fantasy as kids.

Dreaming of being brave knights, we had our imaginary fights against enemies and won battles being hailed heroes and admired by our girl-friends.

So – maybe I am still dreaming about old medieval times. Or about being a hero? Fact is, that I love to picture how people used to live, when I am visiting such places.

The Citadel of Salah Ed-DinStanding in the middle of Serjilla – one of the Dead Cities – I realized, how truly extraordinary this place is and how much I can dream about how people lived here in ancient times. Consisting of more than 700 individual sites from the Roman and Byzantine periods, this is an archaeologist paradise. Some of these ancient villages are surrounded by stone walls from the Roman cadastral network. The feature the entire infrastructure: From bath house, to shops, presses, churches, government and residential buildings, as well as tombs.

After the visit of Serjilla, we went on to the Saladin Castle – or as the locals refer to: The citadel of Salah Ed-Din. As it was time for lunch, I indicated the driver to stop for a food break. Soon we stopped at a big bustling restaurant with buses parked outside. This place had everything in terms of European food. The lunch buffet was tailored for tourists on a holiday package not wanting to quit their habits from back home. While standing in the door, looking at this eerie scene of a tourist ghetto, I flashed an angry eye at my driver asked him: “Do you really think I want to eat here?” He was blushing and after I emphasized that I definitely wanted to eat the same food as he would, we quickly were back in the car leaving in search for the “real” thing. Several hundred meters further down the road, we stopped at a makeshift food stall where an old lady prepared local food “pizza-style” with spicy toppings. We ordered, I smiled – and my driver smiled.

Twisted columns at ApameaAfter lunch, we finally arrived at Saladin Castle, which is located on top of a forest hill. The crusaders definitely left their mark here. The size of the castle is impressive and I spent the better part of the afternoon exploring each and every room of the site, while my driver had a nap in the car.

However, the day’s highlight was still ahead: Apamea. We arrived in the late afternoon, therefore the place was filled with school kids. I guess they must be doing the same role-plays as we did back home when I was a kid. Apamea certainly is the right place to dream about ancient times.

Apamea was a base for the Seleucid kings and featured a citadel which was destroyed around 50 BC. However, the Romans pushed the development of the city to control the territory. Therefore, Apamea reached 500,000 inhabitants in the 1st century. An earthquake destroyed vast parts of the flourishing city and the remains today are essentially a long, colonnade street of about 1.5km long, called “Cardo Maximus” in Roman times. Cardo means a North to South oriented street, which was an integral part of Roman city planning. The main cardo was called cardo maximus.

Apamea ruinsAfter sunset, we drove back to Hama. A bit tired of all the great impressions of the day, I was looking at the many roadside billboards of the “mustache guy” who was hysterically smiling at people passing. Mustache guy – as I was told by the locals – is the president of Syria who is married to one of the most beautiful woman in the country. Well, no need to role-play knight games. If women are conquered by mustaches, I might as well grow one. But I need to train on that hysterical smile then, too.