Caught a local fishing boat out to the Roman-founded island city of Arwad. The seas had been really stormy, there was a beached cargo ship on the beach in Tartus. We thought the sea looked OK but we were both nearly swept overboard when a huge wave hit us. The island is extremely overcrowded and we were followed the whole time by enormous flocks of children.
It was easy to get a bus within 10 kms of the Crac des Chevaliers, a twelfth century Crusader castle, apparently the best in the Middle East. The rest proved harder. After mistaking a large funeral procession for a fleet of minibuses and cursing them when they wouldn’t give us a ride, we managed to get onto a ridiculously full bus that took a ridiculously circuitous route to the castle. After admiring the place in which Richard the Lionheart slept, we set off for Palmyra. We were sad to leave our three dollar (US) hotel. A bit shabby, yes, but after four days in Tartus it felt like home.
To sum up Palmyra in one word, it’s awesome. The ruins of this Roman-era city stretch for kilometres in the desert. We spent a whole day here and saw only a few other visitors. It’s amazing that one of the best sights of our Middle Eastern trip is so little-known. Best of all, apart from one temple, all of the attractions are free. We now believe it can be freezing in the desert.
After nearly ordering mensaf for breakfast (a Bedouin delicacy that involves sheep’s heads and eyeballs for the honoured guest) we set off for Deir-er-Zor, a city even further in the desert. Our VIP bus cost $1 for a four hour trip.
Dura Europos, Greco-Roman ruins on the Euphrates River.
Fleeing a massive sandstorm (we’re not joking), we headed off on the “Road to Damascus”.
Day Fifteen to Twenty
At first glance Damascus, Syria’s capital, is your average Middle Eastern concrete eyesore. The centre however contains an old quarter that seems to go on forever. There’s literally hundreds of ancient mosques, tombs and schools here, the jewel of which is the Omayyad Mosque, a gigantic mosque built in 700 A.D.
There’s so many back alleys with old wooden houses that you could never see it all. The old city is also the best place in all Syria to change money on the black market. On our last day there it was snowing so heavily we pretty much stayed inside all day.
Whilst in Damascus you have to try mahalibiyyah. We’re not exactly sure what it’s made from but it’s an excellent dessert.
We got a series of local buses to Bosra, the home of a Muslim Crusader-era castle built around a Roman theatre that is so perfect, it looks like it was built last week. If you thought the Romans were all white marble, this place will come as a shock because all the ruins here are made from a black basalt.
By an informal arrangement with the caretakers, it’s possible to actually sleep in the castle for about four dollars per person. We liked the thought that the package tourists here were sleeping in a $170 concrete box nearby.
We set off for Jordan the next day, being waved goodbye to by yet another monster-sized statue of Assad.