Damascus olive vendor

drink vendor Damascus   Damascus souq

Hours can be spent strolling in and around the al-Hamidiyeh souq in the walled old city of Damascus, once among the world's greatest and most powerful cities.  The larger souq in Aleppo is more ballyhooed but I preferred the more laid back and vaguely cosmopolitan feel of the one in Damascus.





Palmrya colonnade

Palmyra Temple Bel

family at Palmyra

Palmyra is simply one of the great Roman ruins in the world, as the former crossroads of the eastern Roman empire, and  one of those places that's more awesome in person than from the pictures of it.  I spent a good six hours walking around the expansive site, extending from the Temple of Bel (centre), through the grand archway entrance to the colonnaded main street (top) and deep into the mountain valley where the imperial tombs stand.  A Syrian family driving a Peugeot 404 visits one of the vantage points overlooking the vestiges of downtown Palmyra near the Temple of Zeus (bottom).

Qalaat Saladin

It seems that most backpackers prefer the Salah al-Din castle in northern Syria  near the port town of Lattakia, to the more famous Krak des Chevaliers in central Syria.  Krak may be an amazingly preserved specimen of a Crusader castle, but the more fragmented ruins of Salah al-Din perched high over a sublimely beautiful mountain setting, evokes more poetic  sighs.

lamp in Mar Musa church

Mar Musa monastery

Lamp in Mar Musa monastery

Father Paolo stumbled upon the ruins of the ancient catholic monastery of Mar Musa during a walk  in the desert 25 years ago and has since dedicated his life to restoring the monastery to a fully functioning state, and toward bridging the christian and muslim worlds in the middle east.  Visitors are invited not only to visit but to spend time living with the full time residents of Mar Musa, and help out with daily chores in the monastery and at their garden .  Some travellers end up spending months in Mar Musa.  A half hour walk takes you up to the top of the hill, from where the snow capped Anti-Lebanon mountain range to the west can be seen panoramically.  Inside the church, Father Paolo performs the Levantine rituals of  the weekly mass, swinging smoking censers under the flickering candlelight  which only barely illuminates the 11th century frescoes that have been beautifully restored on the church walls and ceiling (top and bottom).


Sheikh Abdullah

Tell Marouf

After allaying police fears in this sensitive northeastern Syria, fraught with kurdish-arab ethnic tensions and its proximity to Iraq, I was invited to spend the night in the sufi compound at the village of Tell Marouf by friendly Ahmed, and fed and housed under the generosity of their spiritual leader, the Sheikh Abdullah (top).  I had to respectfully decline an invitation from the Sheikh to join his entourage on a religious tour of Turkey.  Ahmed didn't succeed in obtaining a private audience with the Sheikh in his palace for me (front lawn shown on bottom), but I did attend his public audience after the evening prayers where the Sheikh asked if I could obtain a Canadian visa for him.  I was aware of criminal intrigue in Tell Marouf before going there (hotel manager in Qamishli: "They'll kill you!") but didn't know the full story until after I'd departed.  The former leader was Sheikh Muhammed, a brother of Sheikh Abdullah, who was assassinated last year in Damascus.  The gunmen from the sect were captured , but details of the conspiracy remain unclear.  Most people in the region suspect fratricide or the Syrian secret police.

al-Qubbatin beehive village

Um Amoud, one of tne of the many beehive house villages in the countryside near Aleppo and Hama.

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