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BandA’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 04 Dec 2003

Location: Syria

MapChapter 4 Adventures in Syria

Thursday Dec 4
You will have left us some time ago as we successfully passed through the Turkish customs and immigration authorities at Nusaybin. The border between Turkey and Syria consisted of a high wire fence with a pedestrian gate that was locked. As we approached this gate a Syrian official readily opened the gate for us, took our passports and said: “Come Follow Me!” We obediently followed him to the Syrian Immigration Office where we expected to go to some sort of counter for our passports to be checked and stamped, but no! We were escorted into an inner sanctum of the building where we found a heavily braided, large officer. He invited us to sit in two large comfortable armchairs, one on either side of the desk. It was a little like a B grade spy movie where the suspected spy is brought in for interrogation. A little daunting at first but then, after a minute or two, an underling brought in two glasses of tea. Normally neither of us drinks tea but, under the circumstances, we thought we should readily accept their hospitality. When filling out some forms we were presented with, we were rather amused that they wanted to know the first names of our parents. (We experienced the same thing a bit later when we wanted to buy our bus tickets at the bus station.) Our man also wanted to know our occupations. His English was adequate enough to know what “a teacher” was but “an agricultural research scientist” stumped him. We then tried with “a farmer” but even that was a problem. Finally we tried to get the message that a farmer was a person who grew potatoes, as potatoes were grown in this area. It is doubtful if even this enlightened him.

After pleasantly chatting away for some fifteen minutes with the big chief about Australia and our experience in Turkey, etc., a plain clothes official brought back our passports gave them to us and wished us bon voyage. It was all a very pleasant introduction to Syria especially as we had been warned–especially by the Turks–how unpleasant the Arabs were and how the place was riddled with secret police. In retrospect we decided that the 15 minutes of hospitality was just long enough for the secret police to check out our bona fides.

Once out of the office, in contrast to our recent experiences in Africa, we were pleased to find an official Exchange Office at the border. Here we could readily change US dollars into Syrian Pounds, but officially they wouldn’t change Turkish money. We still had a bit of Turkish money but the official at the exchange office was prepared to unofficially change it for us out of his own pocket at quite a reasonable rate. We were surprised that there was no customs inspection of our packs so we were on our way.

When we had arranged for our Syrian visa in Melbourne before we left home, we were told that we didn’t have to pay anything at the time for the visa but would have to pay US$45 on entering Syria. Apart from being impressed with the hospitality at the Immigration Office we were even more pleased and surprised to realise that we had entered Syria without having to pay a penny. But more about that later when describing our departure from Syria.

As always we were accosted by dozens of taxi drivers to take us anywhere—to the adjacent border town of El Qamishle, to Damascus or even Baghdad. In our typical independent fashion we decided we would walk to the bus station in the town (we had no idea how far it was). From there we would head off into Syria.

The first thing that struck us about Syria was the extreme dirtiness of the place. There was no attempt to beautify the roadsides and in fact these, and the vacant blocks, were almost completely covered with plastic shopping bags and empty drink bottles. After walking for a few metres we came to a road junction. We wanted to head to the bus station but, although there were plenty of signposts, unfortunately they were all in Arabic. At this stage we decided we should have accepted the offer of a taxi. It was not too late as there were always taxis hovering around and we readily got a taxi to the bus station a km or so away for the princely sum of about $1.

(Our route is shown in red. Deir Mar Musa is half way between Homs and Damascus to the east of the highway)

Our next destination was Palmyra—a town in the middle of the Syrian Desert, until recently very popular with tourists for its extensive Roman ruins. It was called Palmyra because there are many palms growing in the oasis near the town, known locally as Tadmor. We told the taxi driver we wanted to find the bus to Palmyra and he kindly dropped us at the right office at the bus depot.

As usual it was a very big depot and it would have been very difficult for us to have found just where we had to go without help. We had to wait about an hour here for our bus but were befriended by a little Syrian who was very keen to help us amongst other things by telling us where the free toilets were. Even then we did had a problem knowing which were the men’s and which the women’s toilets as signs were all in Arabic. We also had a similar problem checking out times of buses and even checking whether the tickets we had bought would take us to the right place. When A, who was still unfamiliar with Syrian money, was trying to sort out from his wallet the right amount for the bus, our friendly little man did not hesitate to take over the task and extract the right amount of money from A’s wallet. We were sorry we didn’t get a photo of him apparently helping himself to our money. There was another guy, Abdullah, in the bus office who had quite good English. He told us he was a lecturer in Geography at the local university and a part time bus driver but we suspected he may also have been an agent from the Secret police as his questions and comments indicated he had more than a passing interest in our activities. We were again checked by the regular police here including checking the first names of our parents, inspecting our passports, wanting to know why we had come to Syria, etc.

A few weeks after arriving back home we saw on TV that there had been some Kurdish terrorist bombing at Qamishle, some cars were burnt and a number of people killed but fortunately, when there, we had no worries and always felt safe.

For the first part of this trip we were favourably impressed with the productivity of the countryside with plenty of winter cereals and large grain silos at regular intervals. We subsequently learnt that this is the eastern end of the famous “fertile crescent”. It wasn’t long though before we headed out into the desert where there were no crops and very little grazing for the sheep and goats but, once again, plenty of plastic bags that had been blown for miles through the desert. A bit further on, though, we came to the Euphrates where there was a lot of irrigation. We were rather fascinated by the size of the irrigation bays. In Victoria in the past we have been used to bays say 10 m x 100 m though with laser grading they are now much bigger. In this area they were only about 3 m x 5 m. Perhaps this was because of the numerous small allotments farmers had or perhaps because they carried the water to the individual bays rather than by mass flooding.

Beside the Euphrates River there was a large town, Deir Ez Zur, where we stopped for a toilet break. When A said we had another 4 hours to Palmyra B went off looking for the “ladies” while A stayed near the bus to keep an eye on our packs. During this brief interlude B had all sort of problems, so did A.

It was a large bus station and the toilets were at the far end from the bus. The first ones B was directed to on the right were very crowded and the man in charge had obviously opened the ladies toilets to the men so he waved her over to toilets on the other side. There was someone in the toilet so B waited patiently for her to emerge, which she did after a very long time. Just as B was about to enter another woman dashed in and cut her off. She obviously had problems and the wait was even longer. Finally, a very anxious B had the toilet to herself. When she emerged at a gallop the attendant bailed her up for money. She had no money on her! To make matters worse she could see the bus beginning to move. Finally, in desperation, she gave up arguing and took to her heels arriving at the bus where a very anxious A was waiting for her.

Meanwhile A had also had his potential problems. The bus was running about two hours late and he wanted to ring up our hotel in Palmyra to indicate we were still coming. He enquired from someone where there was a telephone and was peering in an office window looking for one when two plain-clothes guys came up to him and wanted to check his passport and why he wanted to ring up, etc. In the light of his unpleasant experience with bogus police in La Paz in 1998 he was tempted to ask them for their ID’s before handing over his passport, but then he might have finished up in the police station and B would have had the problem of deciding whether to go with our packs or stay behind. When he arrived back and found no B and the bus ready to depart he was frantically wondering what it was best to do. Should he let the bus go with our packs or go on with them leaving B to fend for herself. Fortunately he managed to hold the bus long enough for B to turn up.

At all events we were glad to both be on the bus as it left for the second stage of our trip to Palmyra. To our surprise we arrived there in a little over an hour! Another surprise on this part of the trip through the centre of the Syrian Desert was that for the first time in over three weeks it rained!

On arriving in Palmyra we were not accosted by the usual conventional taxi but by a little three-wheeler more reminiscent of Kathmandu than of the Middle East. It was quite a squash, the driver and the two of us in the front seat nursing our packs.

The Lonely-Planet-recommended hotel was quite adequate and with a very friendly manager, Maher, although on looking out our hotel window what immediately hit us was all the plastic rubbish discarded on the adjacent vacant block. We also had the unusual experience here of seeing another foreign tourist—a Japanese.

By the end of our first day in Syria two contrasting things had struck us. The first was how very friendly everyone was whether they were officials, police, bus people or just the “man in the street”. That didn’t stop them trying to charge us on the bus more than the agreed amount or, as one trader was reputed to have said: “Please come in and let me rob you a little!” A second thing was the high degree of security with lots of plain-clothes police, frequent inspections of passports, wanting to know our parents’ names, etc. On top of all this wherever we went large posters of the senior Assad, Syria’s President who died several years ago, or his son who is the current President, or the two of them together confronted us.

Friday December 5
As mentioned earlier, Palmyra is situated in the desert adjacent to an oasis where date palms flourish. In Roman times it was a very important trading centre as it was a pivotal point for trade between Egypt, Rome, Persia and beyond. Partly because of the very dry climate the imposing buildings from Roman times are probably more impressive than any others in the Middle East.

It was only a short walk (1 km) from our hotel to these ruins where we spent the greater part of the morning. Certainly it was the start of winter and so very much the off peak tourist season, but it was sad to observe the almost complete collapse of the tourist industry, thanks to the fears of terrorism following the September 11 attacks. We probably saw no more than half a dozen other tourists and there were certainly more potential guides, storekeepers, men or boys offering camel rides, etc., than there were tourists. Of course we had to buy some dates - even though they cost as much or more than at our local Camberwell market!

Temple of Baal

Because our time was limited we opted to look at the temple of Baal, probably the oldest structure in the complex, (from the outside) and to stroll down what had presumably been the via media—a broad straight street lined with columns. The whole complex was very spacious and photogenic but perhaps we were too conscious of the need to keep moving or, more likely, had seen so many ruins that we did not feel the need to explore in detail. Ephesus had still felt like a bustling, thriving city, these ruins had the feel of Ozymandias.

Late morning we returned to our hotel to collect our packs for we were now moving on to Homs, towards the more fertile West of the country. Our host organised a taxi to take us as we thought to the bus station but, on arriving there, we were hustled (as usual) into a minibus and told the fare to Homs, a two-hour trip approximately, would be about $10 each, quite a bit more than usual. To our surprise the minibus did not wait to fill up but immediately took off on its way to Homs. In effect it was a taxi as we were the only passengers apart from an apparent friend of the driver, hence the high fare, but at least we didn’t have a long wait.

One point of interest on this route was the road intersection we came to with the signpost “Baghdad”. We were rather relieved to see the bus turn West rather than East! We followed lots of gas or oil pipelines as well as seeing a number of refineries in the distance. The country was still very arid and you would expect it to be deserted but we were very surprised to see many groups of itinerant Bedouins with their flocks of goats or sheep. It seemed that they lived on stones rather than grass, as there was plenty of the former and apparently none of the latter. They were also trying to grow crops of olives, almonds, tamarillos, pine nuts and even vegetables like silver beet.

Our purpose in travelling to Homs was to then travel south on the road to Damascus where we had arranged to visit a very interesting monastery, Deir Mar Musa, about half way between Damascus and Homs near a village called An Nabek.

On arriving at Homs our driver not only took us to the bus station which was the dirtiest we had seen, even dirtier than the one at Sanliurfa in Turkey, but took us right to the Damascus bus that we would need to catch to An Nabek. We explained to the conductor that we were heading to An Nabek, and were pleased to see it cost us only $1.50 each for about a one and a half hour trip - a lot better than the previous ride. For a change we timed it well as it seemed we were the last two passengers needed, for no sooner did we get on the bus than it headed off. Throughout our trip we were always fortunate to be able to get a seat on our buses although frequently some passengers had to stand.

For the first part of the trip the country was quite flat but unfortunately for us (not for the locals) they had planted pine and gum trees along both sides of the road so we were unable to get a good view of the countryside. After about 30 minutes the country became very barren though not quite as bad as the desert we had passed through in the morning. After another half hour we could see hills on either side of us and we felt that An Nabek and our monastery must be near as both are in hilly country. A started to get worried (as he usually does) that we had gone past our stop but B was quite confident that our conductor, as usual, would tell us when it was time to get off. After another half hour we felt we must be getting close to Damascus. This was a problem because if we actually arrived at Damascus it would be too late to retrace our steps to An Nabek and the monastery. We knew that from An Nabek we had to take a taxi to the foot of the mountain then climb, on foot, to the monastery itself.

A, therefore, went to the front of the bus to check with the conductor who suddenly realised he had forgotten us when the bus stopped 30 km back at An Nabek. He was very apologetic and immediately stopped the bus on the highway and we alighted, accompanied by the conductor himself or his offsider. The highway was a divided highway with the typical metre high concrete barrier separating the two sides. We were sorry we didn’t take a photo of us—particularly B—climbing over the concrete barrier with our packs. We then waited to hail a bus that might take us back to where we should have got off. Our Syrian guardian angel stopped at least three buses before finding one that both had room and was going to An Nabek. So we said farewell to our guardian angel and headed back on our tracks.

This time we didn’t miss our stop as the conductor told us when we had arrived at An Nabek which we could not see as was a couple of kilometres off the highway. We asked a group of three youths what direction we should go and after they kindly pointed to the right road we started to walk to the village where we hoped to find a taxi to take us the remaining 15 km to the monastery. Fortunately, within minutes, the same youths pointed out a taxi heading towards us, which they hailed and we arranged to be driven the 17 km to the monastery. The youths, for their helpfulness, were given a free ride for the 2 km into An Nabek. By now it was about 1530 and would be dark about 1630.

We again passed through very desolate and hilly country with very stony soils. Clearly the region saw very little rain—between 100 and 150 mm per year we later discovered. Despite this the local farmers were trying to make some sort of living out of cropping and grazing the land. No wonder they were poor.

Well, we safely arrived as far as the taxi could take us, which was at the foot of a very steep mountain. Three quarters way up was our monastery perched on an almost perpendicular rock face.

The Monastery Rising out of the Cliff
(The steps with their arches cross the bottom of the picture and the electricity lines can clearly be seen above.)

A word about how we came to find ourselves in this most remote monastery in the Syrian Desert! Some months before leaving Australia for this Middle Eastern trip we came across article in The Tablet about an Italian Jesuit priest who some 20 years ago decided to make a retreat and chose the site of an old monastery in the Syrian Desert. At that time it was in ruins. He was so inspired by the history and the location of the ruined monastery that he decided to establish a mixed community of nuns and monks and amongst other things to work to encourage dialogue between Christians and Muslims—especially in the local neighbourhood.

Back in the first century there had been a Roman watchtower at the location but in the fifth century a Byzantine monastery was established there. From that time on it was continually inhabited by Syrian Rite monks till the early 19th century. From that time it was deserted till Father Paolo Della Oglio started to restore it in the 1980’s. Currently there is a community of about 12, half male and half female. The monastery is named “Deir Mar Musa”, literally Monastery of Lord Moses—Moses being, not the Moses of the Old Testament, but a saintly Syrian Hermit from the 5th century.

With quite a bit of local help the community have built a very workmanlike, and attractive, set of steps up the mountainside, 342 steps in all. As we were approaching the steps we met Fr Paolo who was on his way down to a local village to offer consolation to a local family who had lost one of their relatives. Not surprisingly, we were very exhausted by the time we had carried ourselves and our packs up all 342 steps , but we found it a most inspiring experience to be part of this “oasis in the wilderness”. It was just on dark when we arrived at the top. There was just one solitary light which we approached and were greeted by one of the nuns, Sr. Deema, and one of the monks. They were in the “kitchen” making raspberry slices for supper. We enjoyed these with a cup of coffee Mary made for us. Mary is a professional librarian who was currently spending several weeks cataloguing (by computer) the large collection of books and manuscripts they have collected. We later discovered there were a number of other guests like ourselves from the US, Norway and Poland.

As we said earlier, there were about a dozen permanent residents of the monastery, both male and female, though all of these were not there for our visit. Some were studying in Rome others on various other activities. One of the monks, Louis, was doing a post-graduate degree in Zoology studying the natural fauna of the area. We were surprised any self-respecting fauna would choose to live there but, on asking what fauna were there, we were told there were quite a few spiders, insects and even some frogs!

Accommodation was segregated. Women visitors were housed in a 12-bed dormitory or in 2 twin rooms. One hardy soul chose to sleep in one of the caves. Those in the dormitory were “blessed” with a heater. To enter that room one had to pull aside a cloth covering, bend low and walk through a half-metre wide entrance. B was fortunate to have a twin room, which meant she could take all the blankets off the other bed to achieve some warmth. There was no heating. In the morning she was able to look out the tiny deep-set window and see the rocky, grey cliff reaching to the heavens and dappled with sunlight. A cheerful sight!

A’s journey to his abode was much more difficult, especially in the dark. The first thing he had to do when leaving the common area was double over and almost crawl through a square-cut low opening (about 1 metre square) which was the only entrance to the complex from the entry staircase. He banged his head many times!! From there he had to make his way across rough stone steps to a two storey building which housed the goats (underneath) and male visitors and monks above. To reach his room A had to climb a rickety wooden spiral staircase without handrail. His room actually had 3 beds so he had plenty of bedclothes to keep him warm. It was quite a journey in the dark but fortunately we were there at the time of the full moon so that helped. The view was spectacular—down the cliff face to the valley and distant mountains below.

The bathrooms were stone, cold, but did have hand basins and flush toilets. There were also showers in a couple of the bathrooms but you may be surprised to know we decided to forgo the pleasures of an icy shower.

The Monastery from the New Guesthouse
(A breathtaking and exhilarating view!)

Once we settled into our rooms and worked out the layout of the place we made our way to the chapel, through another low door, for a 30 minutes meditation. After this Father Paolo returned from his visit to the nearby village and we celebrated a Syrian Rite Mass. There was a large collection of Bibles in a variety of languages so we were able to follow the readings in English. The reference details of the chosen readings were written up on a small blackboard so we could find them easily. It was an amazing experience being in a building in which people had been praying for 1500 years. The chapel was dark, candle lit, and had a mixed collection of rugs and cushions on the floor. It also had a heater that was lit for the community sessions. The walls of the chapel were covered in frescoes from the 11th century and which had been recently restored by Italian archaeology experts with financial assistance from the Italian Government. The following morning Sr. Deema gave us a guided tour of these frescoes.

After Mass we all had tea together and Père Paolo told us about the monastery, its history and mission. For some reason this Italian priest living in Syria was called Père. The dining room was small with two long tables that would each accommodate 8-10 at the most. Paolo sat at the head of one table and the ‘pilgrims’ sat with him. The conversation ranged widely starting with his reflections on the first reading at Mass—the slaughter inflicted by the Hebrews on the local inhabitants of the Promised Land. As we talked we ate: salad, eggs, bread, cheese, yoghurt, and, of course, raspberry slice. Finally we were off to bed about midnight. Our “cells”, all built from local rock were Spartan but we slept well after a very long and strenuous day. We appreciated our ‘borrowed’ blankets. The night was clear and cold and the stars sparkled like diamonds.

Saturday December 6
Up early this morning (or at least 0730) for morning prayers in Arabic and English. It was a very cold morning and although the temperature was below freezing there was no white frost as the atmosphere was so dry. Despite this we had breakfast (and lunch later) out on the sunny terrace overlooking the valley. Alongside us was a huge sacking tent, at least 4x8m. We assumed that that was where the workmen, whom we saw on the new building, stayed. Perhaps we were wrong about that. Maybe, in summer, pilgrims slept there.

After breakfast we were taken on a tour of the monastery and its environs starting with the frescoes in the Chapel. From there we went to meet a flock of some 30 goats. At night they were housed under one of the buildings but in the morning they were set free to roam over the rocky hills looking for any little piece of brave vegetation they could find. It was hard enough for vegetation to survive in the very dry rocky environment but having a herd of goats nibbling away at whatever they could find was “the last straw” or more correctly “the last leaf”. Their diet was also supplemented with bought grain. One of the commercial activities of the monastery was to make cheese from the milk from the goats, supplemented by milk brought up from farmers down below in the valley. We all enjoyed sampling the cheese after we were assured the goats had been tested for TB. Besides the goats there were a number of other animals—chooks, dogs, cats, a mule, which stood on a narrow ledge over the abyss, and lots of wild pigeons. The cliff face above the mule had a number of caves fitted with doors and these were used by members of the community when they wanted some quiet, reflective time away from their busy daily lives and visitors.

Despite the very harsh environment and primitive conditions the monastery was up-to-date in its use of modern technology. There was a “flying fox” or “telpher” that brought supplies up to the monastery from down below. They had a 240-V diesel generator at the bottom of the mountain that supplied power to the monastery and this was supplemented with 24 V solar panels for daytime uses. Water was also pumped up from a 360 m deep bore at the bottom of the hill. As mentioned above the library catalogue was computerised and they even had a CD player to entertain the cheese makers while they worked. There was, however, no TV!

After we had seen the working part of the monastery one of the brothers took us up the side of the dry watercourse towards the top of the mountain. Apparently one could get access to the monastery this way but we didn’t discover how one reached the top from the other side. The day was sunny and quite warm so we enjoyed the climb. Everywhere we walked that day we saw, in the side of the mountain, caves that had been used over the centuries as quarters by the monks. Eventually we stopped at a locked door in the side of the rocky cliff rising above us. After unlocking the door the brother left us to our own devices. When we peered in we found ourselves looking down into a circular cave, like a huge well with a ladder down our side. One of the group was terrified and would/could not climb down but the rest of us bravely headed into the depths. To our surprise we found we were in a small Art Gallery. The paintings hanging on the wall were modern impressions of the Seven Sleepers story we had heard at Ephesus. What a surprise but how apt!

Suspension Bridge Linking Two Sections of the Monastery
(Taken from the back of the main complex)

After that we wandered down to the monastery where our American fellow guest invited us to her cave. She had chosen to live there during her quite lengthy visit at the Monastery. To reach her spot we had to go through a building site where they were currently enlarging the complex with the building of “Guest Quarters” on the same level as the main complex but on the other side of a ravine. It was reached by an impressive suspension bridge. The building was, of course, stone and was being erected by local builders. Each rock had to be brought up from the base of the mountain by the “flying fox” (telpher) and the arrival of a load of rocks was quite heart stopping, as a workman had to grab the load and stop it hurtling out into the void again. We actually saw one monstrous rock tumble back down the mountain. It was also important not to be in the firing line when the huge load arrived. We did, however, stop and marvel at the way the stonemasons went about their work. Also impressive was the way the building disappeared into the mountain when viewed from a distance even though it was quite a large, multi-storied complex with a variety of sleeping chambers, ablution rooms and even a small kitchen.

Once past the new complex we were confronted by another set of ‘stairs’ but this time going up. Stairs is really too grand a word for what we were faced with. It was made of metal like a spiral staircase with the steps sticking out from a central column and no guardrail. Below and behind as you climbed was the quick trip to the valley below. Going up was better than coming down as our nervous companion discovered. She froze and only made it down because B advised her to come down backwards and stood below her placing each foot on the narrow step.

Once at the top of the steps we discovered there were actually two caves—one served as a prayer room and the other, reached via a low rock arch, was the bedroom. As we crawled through the arch we found a bed (a mattress on the cave floor) to the left and a large open arch to the right. From the bed you could look out to the sky above and the valley far below. Too bad if you rolled out of bed! We found to our surprise that the temperature was quite moderate. It probably varied little day or night so it would be quite comfortable sleeping there. It would be a great place for prayerful reflection.

In the evening there was some two hours of community prayer in the chapel. Prior to this A and B went in to the chapel for some quiet prayer. The chapel was dark but gradually a glow appeared in the tiny window above the Sanctuary. We were then blessed with a wonderful sight—the full moon, framed by the small window, looked in and illuminated the dark. It was only for a brief moment then the moon was gone but it was one of the highlights of the trip. During the community prayers there was no lighting except for the candle which each of us held. Fortunately there was a kerosene heater as it was very chilly. Once again we dined in the small room we had been in the previous night. All meals seemed to be the same so we won’t bore you with them. We were not bored by them as the cold and the exercise made us hungry. Paolo was away most of the day and did not return till 0200.

Sunday December 7
The Sunday liturgy was held late morning and lasted for some two hours. This Mass was much more formal than the one the previous day and for most of the ceremony Paolo was behind the Iconostasis. At the Canon two of the nuns and brothers went into the Sanctuary and took up long poles each with a large, round metal plate circled with small bells. They then moved round the sanctuary, it was almost a dance, and shook the poles so the bells rang. The ceremony was all in Arabic except for the sermon, which was in English, and the Canon which was in Aramaic—the original language of Christ. (Incidentally some 50 km from the monastery, there is a local community which still speaks in Aramaic). Some of the hymns were accompanied by guitar and others by tambourine. After Mass Paolo took a huge tambourine, our guitarist took up his guitar and they sang a lively song which made one want to dance. When B inquired later about the song she was told it was Zachary’s song celebrating the birth of John the Baptist. The music certainly matched the words and it was very apt as this had been one of the readings in the Mass. Once again in the dark, candlelit chapel surrounded by frescoes and breathing in the incense we felt very much part of the Communion of Saints. We had a strong feeling we were part of the community that had worshipped there over the centuries. It was like travelling to the past in a time machine.

After Mass we were shown through a museum that had been established to display some of the history of the monastery and its restoration. We also discovered there were a number of visitors who had come to visit the monastery from Damascus just for the day. These included a French tourist, a Norwegian lady minister, a Lebanese who lived in Damascus (Mohamed Masri), and a Dutch psychologist (Natasha). This meant we had a large and interesting group of companions for lunch.

We had made plans to move on to Damascus this afternoon as we had an appointment the following day with an Agricultural specialist with FAO. This meant we needed a taxi to take us the 15 km back to the main road (after we had walked down the 342 steps!). Louis too was looking for a taxi to An Nabek and organized to travel there with us.

Down We Go
(A good spot to rest the backpack)

Fortunately, Mohammad and Natasha were also returning to Damascus at about the same time and had arranged for a taxi to meet them at 1400 at the foot of the mountain. We, therefore, arranged to share their taxi with them and headed off ahead of them and Louis, as they were not carrying packs. The descent of the 342 steps was very different from the climb two days earlier although it still put a lot of stress on the thigh muscles. On our way down we reflected that our two-day sojourn had been very enjoyable, physically, spiritually and culturally.

When the taxi arrived the driver offered to take us not just to An Nabek, the town 15 km away on the main road, but all the way to Damascus at a cost that was not much more, on an individual basis, than the combined taxi and bus fare if we had caught a bus from An Nabek to Damascus. So we took the easy way out and accepted his offer dropping Louis at An Nabek on the way. The trip to Damascus was again through familiar desert county though the authorities had been putting a lot of effort into establishing tree plantations, often of Eucalypts.

On arriving at the outskirts of Damascus our driver told us, through Mohammad, that he was not allowed to drive into Damascus proper , so we left him there and Mohammad quickly found a local taxi to take us all into the centre of the city. Having a local to help us made everything so much more easy. If we had been on our own it would have been so much harder—but still lots of fun!

When we were selecting our Damascus hotel we found that The Lonely Planet Guide Book, a contact who regularly visited Damascus, and people we had met at Deir Mar Musa all recommended the Hotel Sultan close to the city centre. We had also been told before we left Australia that all the archaeologists stayed there. Mohammad led us there as we had previously booked in by email so our accommodation was assured. On the way we had discovered that Natasha too was staying there.

We learnt from Mohammed that he was Lebanese but had married a Danish girl and lived half the year in Denmark working as an Arabic-Danish interpreter for the Syrian Police, checking out expatriate Syrians in Denmark. His wife, from whom he was either divorced or separated, was in Denmark and he seemed to be rather lonely in Damascus as the day before he had shown our Natasha all around Damascus and now insisted on taking us to “ a good Lebanese restaurant”.

We were not really very hungry but he insisted on showing off the quality of food at his favourite restaurant. We were taken upstairs and quickly found that he had ordered a range of local delicacies which included turnip, radish, pickled cucumber, peppers, Hommos, soup, Pita bread, salad, and rice. B found the Hommos delicious although she tried to avoid the olive oil in which it was drowned. The more honoured the guest the more olive oil! The restaurant was crowded and noisy and we also nearly died of heat apoplexy. A complained several times before nearly walking out. At that point they opened a window and we began to feel human again.

Mohammed was also very insistent that we cash some money at the ATM. ATMs had been introduced into Damascus only in the last few months and apparently Mohammed was very keen to show them off. We had quite a job to convince him that we didn’t want to use it there and then, as we were not sure just how much Syrian money we needed so we wished to wait till the following day. He then led us to a nearby Internet Café, as we wanted to collect our latest emails. To our surprise he waited with us for half an hour or so while we collected our emails (and read them over our shoulders!).

Before taking his leave of us he gave us his phone number in Lebanon and invited us to stay with him when we reached there the following week as he had a large house not far north of Beirut.

On our return to our hotel we followed up another interest. Before leaving Australia we had made extensive enquiries about archaeological digs in the Middle East. Apparently winter was the off-season for archaeology, though it was hard to imagine who would want to go working among desert ruins in mid summer. We were told that about the only active winter digs were based from Damascus and all expatriate archaeologists stayed at our Hotel Sultan. Unfortunately on making enquiries we learnt that there was no one there at the time so we missed out on our archaeological experience.

Before leaving home we had also made contact with a Syrian agricultural scientist, Majd Jemal , who was a senior administrator in FAO. On our arrival at our hotel we rang him to make arrangements to meet him the following day. We had hoped he might take us out into the countryside to see some Syrian agriculture at first hand but he was tied up with meetings till late in the afternoon so we arranged to meet him at our hotel in the evening.
On returning to our room we discovered our Dutch companion, Natasha, was in a double room, the only one in the Hotel, next door to our twin room. We found the room comfortable enough but strangely it was heated during the day when we were not there and had no heating in the evening when it was most needed.

Monday December 8
Our first task this morning was to get some local money from the ATM. It was without any difficulty that we found our way to the ATM that Mohammad had shown us the previous day but, surprise, surprise, it was “temporarily out of order”. We were then directed to another one but as this had no “Visa” sign on it we were not game to insert our card in case it got “swallowed up”. We were then directed to another one at the “Charm Hotel”. Of course it was not at the hotel but just “near” the hotel. Eventually we found it. This one worked so we were “in the money” again.

We also wanted to transfer some money to the account of the monastery at Deir Mar Musa as a donation for the pleasant experience we had there. We thought it was fortunate that right beside the hotel there was a branch of the bank with which the monastery had an account. Unfortunately it was not the right Branch, this was Branch number 8, and we were directed to go to Branch Number 6. Having followed directions we found ourselves at branch Number 10 instead of branch number 6. Eventually we did find the right Branch and successfully transferred the money.

By this time nearly all the morning had flown—but it had been an “experience”. We stopped at a small café for light lunch before embarking on our afternoon explorations. One of the big attractions of Damascus is the large covered “souk” so it was to there we headed. As we were walking along the footpath to our great surprise someone greeted us by name. We hardly expected to meet anyone we knew in Damascus. It was Louis the zoology monk we had met at the monastery the day and had travelled in the taxi with us. It was a rather fortuitous meeting as we had accidentally picked up some of his zoology papers at the monastery and had been wondering how we could return them to him. Our problem was solved.

As mentioned earlier A had been using a walking stick throughout the holiday because of his bad hip. This morning he noticed that the plastic cap over the metal end had been lost. This resulted in the stick having a tendency to slide on any hard surfaces and hence be rather dangerous. Well, as we entered the souk yet another friendly carpet salesman very soon accosted us. “Could I help you?” was his first greeting. We said we didn’t want to buy any carpets but, yes, he could help us if he could direct us to somewhere we could buy a rubber/plastic tip for A’s walking stick. “No trouble” says he “I will send my boy to find one”. So we headed off to his shop to wait till his boy came back within minutes with a rubber tip. Wherever we went we found people had brothers or cousins in Australia and this man was no exception. Certainly he did show us some of his wares but exerted no pressure on us to buy and emphatically refused our attempts at payment even though he went to considerable trouble to fit the rubber tip. The following day we returned and left him a small Australian souvenir in appreciation.

We had a very interesting stroll through the very large souk. As elsewhere two things struck us: the first was the excess of shops, as reflected in the number of shops with no customers in them, and the second was that all the salespeople were men, even in the women’s lingerie shops. The lingerie had to be seen to be believed! Although there were more women in the souk than in the city generally, there were many more men than women shopping. Approximately 20% of the women did not were headscarves but we did not know whether they were “liberal” Muslims or Christians, as about 20% of the population are Christians.

The Damascus Souk
(Where have all the women gone?)

We bought a few clothing souvenirs to bring home to friends and family but our biggest purchase was a table cloth as gift for our kind neighbours who were keeping an eye on the farm and a small kilim mat from Iran. The figures on it remind us of the many mosaics we saw during our journey. On the way back we passed the Mosque visited by the Pope during his visit to Damascus. It is said that the head of John the Baptist is enshrined there. We started to enter but were stopped. Non-Muslims had to pay to go in by another entrance through a courtyard. We entered the courtyard but decided not to go into the Mosque.

We returned to our hotel to meet Majd (the FAO official) as arranged. His two daughters had recently finished secondary school and were now at University studying dentistry and computer science, so his wife had taken the opportunity to resume her studies in Agricultural Economics at The University of Arizona. This meant he was alone in Damascus.

We had a very pleasant and informative chat with him about Syrian life and agriculture at our Hotel. A few highlights:
· Public servants work six days a week from 0800 to 1430 without a lunch break.
· Commercial offices have a siesta break in the middle of the day and return to work in the late afternoon.
· About 20% of the population is Christian though primarily Syrian Orthodox and there appeared to be little conflict between Christians and Muslims.
· Education is free but comparatively few girls go on to secondary education.
· Admission to University is based on academic merit and interestingly, there are roughly equal numbers of boys and girls at the University.
· There are free Government hospitals though long waiting lists. Private Doctors and hospitals cost about $10-$20 for a visit.
· There is a very high population growth rate of 3.4% so it is a challenging task to increase economic prosperity.

We also learned that:
· The mountain range running parallel to the Mediterranean coast separating Syria from Lebanon causes a rain shadow that makes most of Syria very dry. Towards the north of the country there is a break in the range, which allows a higher rainfall there.
· The main crops grown—often with irrigation—are wheat, cotton, sugar beet and olives.
· The Government Agricultural bank provides finance for the purchase of fertiliser at the start of the season which is then paid back at harvest time.
· Irrigation policy seems to be very poor as farmers pay for irrigation water based on the area of land they have rather than the amount of water they use. This results in farmers being very extravagant in the amount of water they use and this, in turn, leads to a serious problem with salinity.
· Understandably there is competition between Turkey, Syria and Iraq for the waters of the Euphrates River. Politics are affecting this as Turkey is accused of taking excessive water in retaliation against Syria for supporting the Kurdish unrest in South Eastern Turkey.
· Over the centuries all the native trees have been removed—primarily for firewood—but currently there is a major input into re-afforestation.
· In the arid areas there is excessive overgrazing largely because all the land is publicly owned and there is no sense of private responsibility. One sign of hope is that there is a move afoot towards tribal ownership and therefore greater responsibility.

After our lesson in local affairs he then took us for a drive around Damascus. The traffic was horrific as no one followed any road rules (there probably were none!) but none the less made reasonable progress. Surprisingly we didn’t see even any minor accidents. After driving round the city he took us to a large hill overlooking the city centre. Although it was night we had a wonderful view of the city, which looked, like fairyland with all its lights.

Tuesday December 8
Tomorrow, Wednesday, we were planning to move on to Lebanon. A number of people had recommended that we travel by “service taxi” rather than the regular “local bus”. The taxis depart when they have a full complement of five passengers and we were told they go through the border crossing much quicker. So first thing this morning we went to see where the bus depot was. Fortunately it was only a 15-minute walk from our hotel. On checking out buses and taxis we found that the taxis were about 50% more expensive than the bus so, as usual, we preferred to stick to the “local bus”.

Yesterday we had only seen a small section of the “Old City” so we planned to see more today. Our first task, as mentioned above, was to call in at the shop of the kind carpet seller (another of our guardian angels) who fixed A’s walking stick and leave him a little souvenir from Australia in gratitude. From there we decided to walk the length of “Straight Street”, the one mentioned in “The Acts of the Apostles” where Paul was directed to go after being struck blind on the Road to Damascus.

The street bisects the old city from one side to the other. It is narrow, crowded, and lined with small shops and what had been palaces and homes of the wealthy. About a third of the way along we went into a courtyard of one of these former palaces (now a series of apartments) and sat down for a rest. It was all very run down but must have been attractive in its heyday. If you look carefully at the large tree in the photo (next page) you should feel at home if you are Australian!

Our Restful Courtyard—The Glory That Has Passed
(Photos always look less grotty than the reality!)

As usual we were having great difficulty finding somewhere to eat so, to fill the growing internal gap, we stopped at a nut shop and bought some delicious cashew nuts. Further along the street an old man stopped us and asked us in quite good English where we came from. On telling him we came from Australia he became very excited, as he had been a batman to an Australian Officer in Tobruk, Major Moody, in 1942. He had stools brought out for us to sit on and gave us a drink of coffee out of a lovely ornate coffee pot. We shared our cashew nuts with him in return. When Curtin ordered the Australians back to Australia, Mohammed appealed directly to Montgomery for permission to go back with his Australian boss for a short trip. Approval was given so he spent some time in Sydney during the war. Hassan had married an English woman, and was now 76 years old. However, he told us that his father was still living back in his village, near Aleppo, and was 108 years old but his mother died when she was quite young, at 95! He promised to ring us when we returned to Australia but we heard no more from him.

After we left him we found a small café then, well fed, continued down the street eventually reaching a triple Roman arch not far from the end of the street. Near here there was a comparatively modern large church dedicated to Our Lady. We tried to enter it but it was locked. However, as we were about to depart a man came out of the adjoining building so we asked if there was some way we could go in. He had no English but willingly went back into the building and brought back a Fr. Gabriel who, though he was on his way to an appointment, let us in to the church and showed us around for the next 15-20 minutes. We understood from him that the church was an Orthodox Church though we were not sure whether it was Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox or what, as Fr Gabriel told us that it was a “Roman” Orthodox Church, which seemed to us something of a contradiction. He told us that back in the 1860’s there was a lot of inter-religious strife in Damascus and the church on this site and many others were destroyed. However shortly afterwards, the (Ottoman) Government with Russian financial and artistic assistance restored the destroyed churches and this was one of them. As elsewhere his hospitality was exemplary especially as he was in a rush. On leaving he offered us a very attractive glossy brochure about the church but, as it was all in Arabic, we declined the offer.

From here we walked through the city wall out of the Old City and found our way to the Church of St Paul Over the Wall, where St Paul was reputed to have been smuggled over the wall in a basket to get away from pursuit by the Jews. This building is no longer a church but is run by the Church as an orphanage. This too was visited by the Pope during his visit Damascus in 2002. We were obviously were on the right track for not only were we travelling ”in the steps of St Paul” but also “in the steps of the Pope”!

After that we headed for the Home of St (H)ananias inside the walls again. Paul had been directed to go there when he arrived in Damascus and this is where he was baptised. We understand that this is one shrine that has been authenticated. The house has a basement, which is now a chapel, and once again we were reaching back into the past as we had been doing all day.

By this time it was late afternoon so we decided to head home. Rather than retrace our steps back along “Straight Street” we decided to return along the roadway outside the wall to the North of it. This was a very interesting walk as we sort of got lost and it took us more than an hour to get back to familiar territory. This was a very busy industrial part of the city. When we say “industrial” there were no factories as we are used to, but all sorts of very small workshops involved in every conceivable type of industry.

From the hotel, as we had arranged to see some of their projects in Lebanon, we rang World Vision in Beirut and confirmed we were on schedule to meet them later in the week. In contrast to the cheapness of most things we were rather unimpressed that the hotel charged us $10 for the very short call. Usually we made calls from public phones, always using a “phone card”. Just as well we weren’t making too many calls from hotels!

Wednesday December 10
This morning we were to say a temporary farewell to Damascus and Syria as we were heading for Beirut in Lebanon although we were to return to Damascus a week later on our way to Jordan. We had had a very pleasant week. Despite many warnings the weather had been very mild and we had been very impressed with the friendliness and hospitality of the Syrians. “Welcome” the first word or greeting we received everywhere. The shopkeepers were also generous. In both the fruit and bread shops where we bought provisions we were given extra goods (apples, pomegranates, cookies, etc.) gratis.

No sooner did we arrive at the bus terminal where there were dozens of buses rearing to go than we were approached by a tout who immediately directed us to a Beirut bus which was just on the point of leaving. As elsewhere fares were very cheap because buses were always full to capacity. Our fare to Beirut was less than $7 each.

The route to the Lebanese border was very barren (as we had come to expect in Syria) and very hilly. On arriving at the border our friendly bus driver directed us to the correct immigration counter for foreigners. To our surprise the Immigration Official seemed to be very puzzled by our passports and went to discuss them with his superior. On returning he told us that there was no record in our passports that we had paid our visa fee of US$45 on entering Syria. You may remember that on entering Syria from Turkey we were pleased that we had not been charged our US$45. So our official led us to the other side of the highway to where people were entering Syria and arranged for us to pay our Visa entry fee. Then back to the other side so that we could officially leave Syria. All this time the rest of our bus companions were waiting at the bus. Fortunately our friendly bus driver kept us company to make sure that we got though the border OK and that ensured that the bus didn’t go off without us. So much for the advice we had got in Damascus that if we travelled by bus rather than by Taxi we would be held up by all the locals going though Immigration and customs! And so we were now on our way to the next phase of our holiday—Lebanon.

For those who have forgotten. Ozymandias by Shelley ends with the words:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.