My first trip outside Europe is with my my friend Daiva. The trip was done via Istanbul then off to Eastern Turkey (Kurdistan), visiting Diyarbakir, Mardin, Batman, Şanlıurfa, then off to Syria.
Our objective – to go to Istanbul, stay over with Bora (Saber’s friend) and Batu, then on the next day take a flight to Diyarbakir and join Saber with his Kurdish friend Mucahit, and a few days later, to reach Syria.
-No idea, I just have the intuition that I need to see it now, because later could be too late…
The first step is Istanbul. It feels good here. We met a local pen pal, Batu, a wonderful Turkish guy with whom we spent a nice time together exploring Taksim. It is overcrowded and filled with tourists. It has energy breathing through every kind of people. Nevizade is its stomach, which smells delicious due to fresh traditional dishes…bars and restaurants everywhere.
A waitress invites visitors, in English, to get inside. Batu was a real hero and a protection angel. He kept answering politely to all requests in English – I know that you are Turkish – replied the dissatisfied waitress, who was expecting having an answer directly from my lips.
If you feel like trying our Turkish pubs, then start with Bomonti and Efez beers which need to be checked out; especially Bomonti, which Turkish friends recommend to me the most. It is also the beer that has been the longest in production, and it used to be made close to Taksim at a place with the same namesake.
Bora with his girlfriend joined us later and walked us ‘home’. Walking on a street, local guys just wouldn’t let us relax, some would simply take my hand or Daiva’s hand and say something to the effect of, ‘let’s go’. Poor Bora, he had to leave his girlfriend each time in order to get to us and ask those guys to go away. Some guys, after a millisecond of eye contact, would immediately point at their crotch while gesturing with their heads as if saying ‘let’s go’. I was impressed by their generosity. Any Turk who just saw you could approach you and profess his love.
My Turkish friends explained that this is the local guys’ behavior thanks to Russian women, who used to come to Turkey to enjoy cheap summer holidays while looking for exotic, hot guys. There used to be a lot of such tourists. Turkish guys until now remember them well and will still assume that a girl comes alone to Turkey for the same reason. For sure, not all Turkish guys are like that. But in this case, if your name is Natasha, please do change it. It could help you to avoid some unnecessary problems (they used that name to address easy-going girls).
For all travels inside Istanbul by local transport, don’t forget to buy an Istanbulkart, which costs 6 liras with possibility to recharge it as often as you want in the kiosks or special machines.
For a night we had to stay over at Bora’s friend’s place, and everything was organized. Our Turkish friends wanted to take absolute care of us and make us feel like home.
Sunday morning. I am still with the angels in my dreams as suddenly AAAAAAAAllahuakbaaaar. I was so scared at such loud noise, that I jumped out of bed and hurt my knee. As my brain started to come online, I understood that it was just a morning call for praying from a mosque, which was very close by, and a megaphone was pointed at our direction where the room had an open window. Just a day ago I was afraid not to get up too late but at 5.00am we already had our eyes wide open.
If someone asks me how my first acquaintance with mosque praying was, I would say – ‘breathtaking’. A few hours later Bora came to pick us up and guided us through the town for a few hours until our flight.
I remembered my childhood when my grandparents asked my father to bring me with himself to a village because it used to rain each time I went there. I was the only non-satisfied person there as I had nothing to do during such weather though all the village enjoyed because their yields became watered. For sure, it was raining each time I was travelling in European countries too, but I swear, it was just a coincidence and nothing to do with my personality! This joke looked funny to Bora that he transferred it to Saber. – no worries, she is coming to the most dry Turkish part…. If he would know how he was wrong.
Local Turkish flights originate mainly from Sabiha Gogcen. We had to take a bus at the Taxim district. In the airplane we were the only two non-Turkish persons. A pilot after obligatory introduction before the flight, in Turkish, said “…and now, some information to our two guests …..” We felt very special in that flight, that was so sweet from him. We landed and we got wet immediately once out of the airplane…. . ‘It’s not the right country to travel in the end of April’ – went through my mind… . “It used to be a sunny town with little rain per year and it has started to rain 5 minutes before our arrival” murmured confused Saber. He remembered what Bora told him one day before. We had no choice but just to enjoy our stay no matter what. Sometimes it was hard and the rain was very heavy. But these rainy days were the most funny days during our trip. We couldn’t stop laughing.
In the past Diyarbakir used to be a bit dangerous, with lots of landmines hidden out in the fields. All that has changed and now it is a cool town. The streets are narrow and winding, rarely wide enough for a car to pass through and yet very easy to get lost in. Lots of buildings in the center look like they have been through a war but still, what a wonderful place it is, full of interesting old mosques and museums and fine old houses, wrapped inside the huge basalt walls. It has hidden nice spots like the Taranci house which belonged to a Turkish poet, Cahit Sitki, which is free to visit. Then we saw the prominent Ulu Cami, which is the oldest mosque in Anatolia. In its big square is a sundial. And of course, it was the wrong moment for us to check the time.
The Zinciriye Konağı is behind the Ulu Cami. It is a place with a small antique market and cosy restaurants with delicious local food! One of the best places we visited and ate at is the glorious Gazi Köşkü restaurant, a stripy stone summer house dating back to the 15th century that sits out in the fields overlooking the Dicle. Food was delicious even in small ‘taverns’! People eat a lot of meat, and less vegetables than one would expect. There is a huge choice of desserts and ice cream – maras dondurmasi is the best choice!
People are really kind and helpful, but most of the time we spent with Saber and his local friend Mucahit who didn’t speak English. He was just too kind to us, never allowed us to pay for food, and drove us around in his car to show the best places not just in Diyarbakir, but in other towns as well!
Next day we went to take a short walk in Batman, and by that I mean a town named as such, and then later on Hasankeyf. This is not just a town, but also the oldest cave settlement in all of Mesopotamia. People used to live here even as far back as 10 000 years ago. Surreal mountain and troglodytes cover this magnificent place. No tourists at all! Take a walk up the mountains, on the way visiting abandoned caves.
On the top you can find an ancient cemetery with the ruins of a mosque and panoramic views to the surrounding territory. Some drops of sweat walking up are definitely worth it.
Next visited town was Mardin. For sure, it was a rainy day and the town was half empty, but one kind boy proposed to guide us and to show the best places. I was impressed by his intelligence, 10 years old but talk like he already experiences more than me in this life. Sadly he didn’t speak English well, and friends had to translate.
Kids tried to sell us bracelets, creating a huge bazaar just in the middle of a street. Boy told us to ignore them in aim to avoid complications. ‘What kind of complications?’ my brain didn’t stop asking questions. Mucahit decided to show us how it looks like, so he answered the kids in Kurdish. Kids saw his reaction and from that instant moment decided not to let him go (they had their leader, an older girl whose decisions were took into consideration each time). They covered him from all the sides. Covered, I mean surrounding him so tightly that nobody else could approach him.
He was hardly visible. They tried to make him buy bracelets. He refused. They were shouting. It was a huge mess. They put bracelets to his pockets, onto his hand and would run away, but when he would remove the bracelets and put them on the ground, thus refusing to buy them, the kids shouting intensified. Again, they surrounded him, hanged onto his shoulders, in front, on his back, below, on the sides…
He looked like a Christmas tree with human decorations on it and presents laid below. Poor Mucahit, they left him without any leaves on his branches. We were convinced more than enough by the golden truth of our young guide. So after a short, wet walk, we came back to our car and to Diyarbakir.
Though we travelled by car, it’s easy to get mini busses or busses at main stations to get where you want. Diyarbakir-Mardin costs 25 Turkish Lira, Diyarbakir-Batman 15 and Mardin-Batman 30.
Next morning we took a bus to Sanurfa. It was going to rain there too…. As we realised, the rainy cloud was following us everywhere we went in Turkey. All Turkey was sunny, but not the places that we visited. Luckily, sometimes we had sun too and soon rainy days were gone for good. Saber’s parents were not motivated to invite us anymore, especially me. They just didn’t want rain in their town; some people are way too superstitious.
Sanurfa is a great town, rich with history and it is a religious destination for lots of pilgrims. The town is full of life, lots of people outside, activities, workshops….. . The big mosque and its surroundings with lots of markets are the main destination points. Sellers at the market have not yet been spoiled by tourists so we had freedom to choose which products to buy.
The lower part of the old houses used to be painted in blue. it’s to protect houses from the scorpions – explained one local.
We spent lots of time close to the mosque. Impressive. There is a huge park and channels where ‘holy’ carps live. I had never seen so many fishes at one place before. It’s forbidden to feed or to touch them! Injustice. Some guys sell special ‘carp food’ for those who want to feed holy, hungry creatures. If the fishes see a shadow in a water, they are here in a fraction of a second. These holy creatures were stealing my own food directly from my hands while I was eating by the channel, those bastards! I’ve never seen in my life such arrogant, egoistic carps! A vision of grilled, delicious carp was stuck in my mind.
As I understood, water is running out from the mosque to these channels. Women and men have separate entrances. On the women’s side is a small praying space and tap with running ‘holy’ water. Women come here to pray and fill bottles with the water. I tried twice to get some for myself but in vain. Each time I put my bottle under, water stopped to run. Women became highly unsatisfied and I was scared that I just run out from there. I prefer not to play with religious, manic believers, especially when the problem seems to originate in me, the only ‘white’ and non-Muslim in that place.
Climbing up the mountain, which is just behind the mosque, the view opens to the town. Terraces with restaurants and great views. On the top are ruins of a castle and calm ‘village’ which with its calm is a total contrast to downtown noise.
The town is not visited often by those who are not pilgrims. It’s easy to make contact with the locals, who are very interested in meeting travelers inviting them for a coffee at their place. The same happened to us – it was not polite to refuse a professor’s invitation :). We were talking about everything and nothing He asked our opinion about his town and for sure about teaching system in our country.
Continuing our walk in the town, we visited another small mosque and cemetery. Just don’t forget – there are mosques just for women or just for men, so don’t enter the wrong one in aim to avoid problems. Too late…as a consequence, we had to run away in order to avoid accusations.
One market seen place is still stuck in memory – a huge cage for pigeons. The seller inherited that business from his ancestors. Such a different kind and unseen beauty of birds that really impressed us. We were even invited to enter the cage and take pictures, what we surely did. Kurds like to keep pigeons at home as pets.
During our trip we always stayed with the locals. It was easy even to find a host on a street if needed! People were curious about us and glad to see foreigners enjoying local life and they kept inviting us over. We were not typical guests, so a guy who hosted us invited friends for a culture-sharing party. He trusted us and even left us the keys from his apartment! He used to live outside the centre. We had a chance to make acquaintance with local transport. Buses run like crazy. I never drove so fast my own car in a town as the busses do here! Observing passengers apathy, I reached the conclusion that we should reach our destination.
Apart from the driver, there was another guy who sold tickets and helped passengers. I really admired his respect for older passengers and women. Each time an old person entered the bus, he asked a younger person to vacate their place. He helped women travelling with kids, to board the kids and get bags from/to a bus. Once a woman with 3 kids and some bags had to take a taxi, so when he got all her stuff out, he hailed a taxi, talked to a driver, put all bags inside and after making sure that he did everything he could, he was back in the bus taking care of other passengers. Impressive, and all that was done in a few seconds.
Also, don’t trust (too much) embassies or consulates! Before going to Syria, Saber called to their consulate in Turkey and Turkish embassy too, just in case, to be really sure of the credibility of the given information. We received advices, but they were wrong, never trust them!!!! Ask locals who travel between two countries, they will know the best.
In the morning we took a minibus to the border point at Ceylanpina. We had barely started to get off a minibus when our stuff was already placed into another car. The locals understood immediately where us tourists were going and in a few minutes organized a car for us (they stopped a car crossing the border) and took care of our bags. I had never been ‘served’ so fast. I didn’t even have time to think what to do exactly after getting off a bus as I was already put into another one. We reached the border. There was nothing! Really nothing, just sand, stones around and some trucks going via Syria to Saudi Arabia. We failed in a major way. Truck drivers reacted immediately.
At the beginning they told that it is impossible to issue visa there but later they offered help, for 200 dollars! Then they proposed 140 for a visa and also to take us all the way to Aleppo. They were lying. To issue a visa at the border costs only 10 dollars and a bus to Aleppo around 5 dollars each person. Seven muscled truck drivers surrounded us, and were evaluating our bodies through stares. We felt like goats in a market. They wanted to sell us into prostitution! My cute blond friend was less interesting to them. They preferred me. Brown hair and white skin was more exotic than my friend’s white hair and white skin. The only thing we could do was to keep calm and give angry, aggressive stares that helped to keep them a bit at a distance.
Finally a car crossing over to Turkey stopped. A driver took us in, and after some moments with Daiva we realized that we were hitchhiking again (we though, better one guy than seven). Everything happened so fast. Just in a car we realized the real danger of our situation, what if… Poor Iraq, Afghan… girls who try to escape from their countries, they are just sold off so easily into prostitution by this kind of assholes. Sometimes on such a hard, dangerous trip they just have no choice and they try to trust someone. Lack of information destroys their lives.
Our hero mister driver was a very cool man. He drove an extra 50km just to send us safely back to Sanurfa! We invited him to a restaurant to show our gratitude. You ask me why we chose that border point to cross…I have no clue. I ask myself too. It doesn’t have any logical explanation and it was out of our path for sure. Maybe because we trusted Saber too much.
And so our plans changed.
Monday morning we decided to be in Gaziantep, where we expected to finally obtain that visa and cross the border.
Aiming not to waste any time in vain, Saturday we headed 44km southeast of southeast of Sanlurfa to see Harran. It is a small village with some heritage still left. The village is surrounded by a 4km-long wall. The wall has 187 towers and 4 gates, which were built 1400-200 BC.
The main point worth of attention and what Harran is famous for, is the traditional beehive adobe houses, constructed entirely without wood, just using old bricks, clay and manure. It makes for an atmosphere that is cool on the inside. During thousands of years, the houses haven’t changed. They are perfectly adapted to be livable in such hot conditions. One building can have from a few to dozens of domes. Each dome has an opening on its top, which serves as a chimney.
One which we visited was, according to local believe, built by a rich guy. He had it built for his 7 wives. That’s why it has 7 domes – one for each wife. Inside the house, the owner dressed us up in traditional clothes and invited us for a tea. Some girls joined us as well. Their main question to us and Daiva was “which one of us was the most beautiful?”‘. We didn’t know how to answer such kind of question, as it could provoke huge dissatisfaction between the other two. Girls just didn’t understand when we tried to explain that the main beauty is not always what we see. We just wasted our time, they didn’t care, and they just needed to know which one was more beautiful. Finally the three other girls got angry at us (better 3 than 2 in this case). Later we took a walk to see the archaeological remains of a major, commercial, cultural and religious center first inhabited in the Early Bronze Age II!
There we met lots of girls just hanging around talking. A man in Turkey has no right to ask his wife to work, it is only her choice and probably, as in this region there is not a whole lot of work, women stay home making decorations, clothes and other handicrafts. The police guy was spying on us, trying take as many pictures of us as possible with his phone, and surely enough, we didn’t see that at first and then later asked money for the services rendered of being our guide. A huge cheater…he was just hanging around taking photos of us.
Dogs and cats are in every part of Turkey begging for attention. In Istanbul they can come to sit by you. Animals living on the street are not aggressive at all, they just need love. In Western Turkey there are people feeding them, and treat them with much more respect than those from the Eastern part. “You like dogs that much? But they are just dogs!” I still remember these words from a policeman in Harran. In that part of Turkey I saw the most cruel scenes of behavior towards dogs.
Sunday afternoon we arrived at Gaziantep – the economical capital of Turkey. After settling at a hostel we went outside to find a place to take pictures for a visa, in case it was needed. Workers were so glad to have our visit that instead of 4 pictures for a passport we received one big photo, some middle size ones and 8 small ones for the same price. I don’t ask myself how many of them they printed out for themselves 🙂
Monday morning we arrived at the gates of the Syrian consulate. Working hours start from 10:00am. We were on time. But the consulate workers arrived at 11:00, then at 11.30 one guy got out to take our passports. Nobody let us even enter the perimeter, so we stayed outside waiting. Silence. We called again asking what was going on. Finally they proposed to get them ready in a few days because they were overwhelmed by work. Lazy asses!!!! They told that there is no other way to make it. Liars! We asked our passports back. Taxi driver hanging around proposed his help, for 20 dollars each, he was ready to take us to Aleppo and help us across the border.
We are going! He confirmed to us that we won’t have any problems at the border. He knew more about how to obtain visas than that f…ing consulate! After a one hour drive and one hour spent at the border we had our visas! At the border they were not exactly motivated to give us the visas, it’s just that they just didn’t understand why we wanted to visit the country. We told them that we were going to see our friend Mohamed who lives in Aleppo (we didn’t tell him that we wanted go to Damascus either, in order to avoid problems as it was near the Israeli border). So they called our friend in order to confirm our intent.
After about one more hour driving we reached Aleppo. So happy! Our driver was a very cool guy and proposed to come to take us back to Gaziantep after our trip. Perfect!
I immediately fell in love with the Syrian atmosphere and particularly this town. In Aleppo we felt like home, no pressure, no stress, just kind, smiling faces around us saying to us all the time ‘hello’, ‘you are welcome’, ‘have a nice day’. For sure, you see immediately who is a tourist and who is not, and people were so kind. Loved it! We were totally relaxed. There is no strict dressing code, just make sure you don’t dress too much in an extravagant way. Local girls freely go outside without covering their hair. They put on jeans and t-shirts.
A local friend, Mohamed, owned a hotel which he used to refer to as his wife. He used to live close to the Main Square, near the clock tower – the main meeting/reference point of the city. At his place we left our bags and had a walk in a city.
The first thing we went to visit was the Citadel of Aleppo, which is a large medieval fortified palace in the centre of the old city. It is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. Close to it was a mosque where an Imam proposed to guide us, and to retell its history and to take pictures with us.
Continuing our trip, we got inside the local souk. Streets there are like a labyrinth where it is easy to get lost, which for sure we did. Sometimes it’s good to be lost. There is always something to do in this town and lots of people are just happy to help you, even if they only speak Arabic. Our walk continued towards the Christian district. One man (a worker in a church) was so glad that we came to visit a church (too late, the church was already closing) that he opened the church’s doors and putted on all lights on to show its real beauty!
The old city of Aleppo reflects the rich and diverse cultures of its successive occupants. Many periods of history have left their influence in the architectural fabric of the city. Its heritage represents an exceptional reflection of the social, cultural and economic aspects of what was once one of the richest cities of all humanity.
Though the city can be quite a bustle, in particular when it comes to traffic. Want to cross a street? No problems. There is a special procedure to make it! Stretch your hand like telling STOP, take a deep breath and get through the flow of the cars. Don’t run! Walk calmly so that drivers will have enough time to realize what your next step will be. In a few seconds you will be on the other side of the road.
This scary procedure at the beginning became a kind of attraction for me. It gave me adrenaline when I felt I needed it. Drivers were too kind. Sometimes they stopped just because they saw me at an edge of the pavement without even appearing to have a plan to cross the street, but as they were so polite – I crossed. After having enough experience on the roads I realized that in many European countries it could be hard to survive such a procedure, as I would be squished immediately! In Syria they don’t have any driving rules, but I didn’t see any car accidents either. More rules means more transgressions. Through the evening city chaos we met a local celebrity, a man in yellow. It was hard not to notice him. He was always dressed in yellow!
At midnight we had to take a night train to Damascus. We bought tickets and waited. I was taking a small walk in a train station while one Syrian approached me asking something in Arab. For sure, I understood nothing. But it wouldn’t be Syria if it would just end at that. People immediately surrounded us in silence, just looking. Finally there were two guys who spoke English so they were kind enough to translate. That guy asked me if I haven’t forget to ‘check’ our passports while buying train tickets. That’s all, that guy just wanted to be sure that we did everything the right way! It was not obligatory, but this unwritten rule could help us avoid some problems in the train.
The night train arrived. We were obliged to leave our passports with the conductor. Don’t ask why. It is just a kind of local formality. It cost us 9 dollars to arrive in Damascus at 6:00 while sleeping in a comfortable 2-bed cabin.
Sleepy Damascus, here you are. The city starts to wake up at 6:00 even if it’s not a souk day. We slowly approached with big bags. A ten minute walk from the train station is the old centre. Three quarters of the old city is surrounded by 13th century walls, creating a city within a city. The walls are pierced by seven gates. The main gates arriving to the city by train are at the entrance to souk al-Hamidiyeh. We went over the left side of the gates and entered the centre over the Barada River.
The inhabitants are sure that this is a holy city. Look at our buildings – say the locals – this is a proof that the city is protected by God. It’s impossible to have these old buildings still standing. And really, lots of them looked like they were crumbling down right before our eyes.
The old centre is covered by labyrinth of the streets. It’s full of greenery and wonderful mosaics on the building walls. The city has a rich spirit, magnificent plaque that contains a strange mixture of past and present, reality and legend, sanctity and beauty.
The Old City has hundreds of restaurants and bars located randomly more or less everywhere. Syrian food is very tasty and varied. There is the mezze, which is an amalgam of small platters which includes hummus, baba ganoush, fette, fattoush, lebne, mohammara, the regional version of falafel and shawarma dishes, as well as some of the best freshly squeezed juice around. Polo, a blended ice drink with lemon and mint is an exotic favorite of both locals and foreigners.
After lunch we continued to walk and had a rest close to St Mary’s Church where one old man proposed to guide us. He took us to Azem Palace which is one of the grand old houses that can be found in the Old City of Damascus. It was built in 1750. Today, the complex serves as a folk tradition museum that includes a number of ethnographical exhibits on the customs and clothing of the people of Syria. The true draw, however, is not the museum but the architecture of this fine house. The buildings are constructed from a variety of local stones in order to create a chromatic palette that enlivens the entire courtyard. The grounds also include a number of fountains.
As he knew that we had artistic souls, he decided to show us more of the hidden places. He showed us the building site of a future hotel where his friend used to work. Later he took us to a woodcraft studio where traditional Syrian furniture and wonderful boxes were made. The craftsmen were so kind, and showed us all the procedure that take place, and answered all our questions. We bought some wooden beauties for my friends. I think that Aleppo soup and those wooden crafts are the very best local souvenirs to have. After visiting some craftsmen, the old man showed us his house. All the houses in the old city, despite their plain facades, include gorgeous courtyards abound with plants, vines and usually a fountain or two. I could live here!
Afternoon, we met our local friends. In the evening Ali took us to see Jebel Qassioun – the greatest natural landmark in Damascus. There is no local transport going, so you should take a taxi or a car to get there. That mountain is seen from almost every point within the city. The locals use to come here mostly in the evening to enjoy wonderful views of the city. The sad part of it is – those who want to commit suicide, mostly come here to do it by jumping off the top.
Breakfast – Syrian ‘pizzas’. So tasty, salty, just as I like. With spices, with meat, with cheese. mmmm. They eat them in the morning, lunch time, evening, whenever they just want. Later we took a taxi to the souk. Taxi costs 1 dollar, 2 dollars can cost just very long distance inside the city. Taxi drivers are big cheaters like everywhere.
At the souk there are shops where they sell antiques. Here you can find almost everything, but especially, they have lots of old coins dated even from the 1-3 century (no idea if they are real or just perfect counterfeits). One person told us to be careful if we buy something ancient of a cultural value because at the border it could be confiscated and returned back to a shop (this information should be checked).
What I liked the most at Al-Hamidiyah Souq, it’s the respect sellers have towards buyers. I mean, it is required to haggle and negotiate all the time, it’s in their blood, but they don’t push you to buy their stuff. They calmly wait until you look around and just after some time when they see that you are maybe interested in something, they will ask if they can help you. I bought an Arab scarf with a Jordanian ahakel and my friend bought a white dress.
Friends advised me to try the best local ice-cream, which is possible to find only in this souk. I can say that it’s the most delicious ice-cream I even tasted in my life. The sellers were so kind, that they gave me much bigger portions for the same price. I loved them. Both.
Damascus is also known for the production of cologne. Perfume sellers have lots of bottles with different scents so you can just tell what kind of perfume you would like to have and he will mix scents, adding some special supplementary liquids to the formula and it’s done. We sensed the smell of local perfumes everywhere. A local friend, made himself some for us as a gift!
Cramped inside the winding streets between Aimariye Street and Bab As-Salaam, we found an Iranian-built Mosque in honour of Shia Martyr Sayyeda Roqqaya. The Mosque is difficult to see from the outside, but the inside is a maze of silver and shining shades of all colours.
The Umayyad Mosque is the must-see. It is the earliest surviving stone mosque in the world. The building dates from the 7th century and is the first great mosque (first cathedral) and ranks 4th in holiness only after its equivalents in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The mosque occupies a huge quadrangle 157 by 100 m and contains a large open courtyard surrounded by an arcade of arches supported by slender columns.
In the middle is the tomb of Saladin who is the famous defeater of the Crusaders. Around the courtyard are beautiful remains of gold mosaics which in the past used to cover the entire courtyard, nowadays just fragments survive. The mosque stands on the site of a 1st-century Hellenic temple to Jupiter and a latter church of St. John the Baptist.
Some Syrio-Roman fragments remain in the structure, as does a shrine supposedly enclosing a relic honored by Muslims as well as Christians, the head of St. John the Baptist. It is very important place for pilgrims coming here from different parts of the world.
As in all Muslim holy places, entering the main courtyard, you need to remove your shoes off. At the entrance, they give you to put on special clothes if you are not dressed properly.
Well-equipped as the locals – me wearing a Jordanian ahakel, large Moroccan pants, and my friend wearing a white dress and we reached Maaloula. Maaloula is a Syrian town located 50km North of Damascus. It is situated at an altitude of more than 1500 meters. Maaloula is a town where the language of Jesus Christ, Aramaic, still lives on, and is of utter importance to Christians in the whole world and an important source for anthropological linguistic studies regarding first century Aramaic. It is also listed as an Unesco World Heritage Site. Maaloula means “the entrance” in Aramaic, referring to its dramatic location at the entrance to a rocky gorge. The slopes overlooking a vast green carpet of fig trees, flowering damsons, grapevines and poplar trees.
As soon as you enter Maaloula, its religious heritage is evident. A large statue of the Virgin Mary dominates one hillside; many houses are painted in a pale blue wash, a gesture of respect towards the mother of Jesus.
It is a predominantly Christian village with a population of about 2,000. It is the home of two ancient Christian monasteries: Mar Sarkis and Mar Taqla. Both Christian and Muslim pilgrims come to Maalula seeking blessings.
The Greek Catholic monastery of St. Sergius has a chapel with a beautiful display of icons. Built in the 4th century on the remains of a pagan temple, the Mar Sarkis monastery is one of the oldest in Christendom (325 AD).
Further down in the village is the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla (Mar Takla).
The building was built on several levels. On the top floor there is a modern church with a dome and a cave which filters water with supposedly miraculous properties. This religious monument receives an unending stream of Christian and Muslim pilgrims.
Just being back home, we understood why locals looked so much at us – I was dressed as a man (what I already suspected) and my dear friend Daiva was wearing pyjamas, not a sexy white dress as she thought of wearing before. She was so happy to have a local dress to get out, but she failed at that. Such a composition of oh-so-trendily dressed girls aroused a lot of questions among the locals. Syrians were tolerant, and just smiled while looking at us. At least we brought with us some positive energy, after such public demonstration, we decided then to be less visible (what was hard as it was evident that we were not locals). You are dressed correctly but your pants are transparent – told one old Syrian. Damn it, I still didn’t manage to adapt with fashion.
After a few days in Damascus, it was time to get back to Aleppo for a few more days. And I decided to stay alone, as I didn’t feel any danger. People were always polite and sellers never cheated in their prices (though they could), as I didn’t understand what prices were written down. The locals respected me a lot. I continued enjoying cruising the streets and talking to people. In just an hour I felt like I was a real part of this town, knowing already lots of people and interesting places.
Mohamed took me 30 km out of the city to see the St. Simeon Church or known as the ‘Fortress of Simeon‘. Or what remains of it. It is the oldest surviving Byzantine church, dating back to the 5th century. It is now a part of the “Ancient Villages of Nothern Syria”, a World Heritage Site. The church is situated on a hill with wonderful panoramic views of the surroundings. One thing impressed me the most – wonderful mosaics that are covered under the sand. Nobody cares about showing them to the world! They exist, right down there, about 50cm under the sand. How would I know that? Because I found 1 spot where a part of that beauty laid uncovered.
Coming back to Aleppo, the mini-bus driver invited us to his place just out of town, in some nearby small village. He devoted his working hour to have us over! The driver wanted to show me how the locals live and it was a huge privilege for him to have me, a stranger from far away, at his home. He didn’t speak English, so he communicated mostly with Mohamed, my Syrian companion. I felt comfortable and welcome his home. After making acquaintance with his family and having coffee with dates, he brought us back to Aleppo.
In the evening we had a party on the roof of the hotel with Mohamed and some his friends from Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and some solo travelers who stayed at his hotel. The aim of the party was not to drink and get drunk, but just to have fun, to sing, to play games, to laugh. I don’t say that Syrians, Iraqis or other don’t drink alcohol, they do drink, and there are lots of bars in the city where you can do it.
Leaving. Our international taxi driver arrived as promised. Heading back to Turkey.
Loved Syria, loved its culture, people. They made me feel like home. So easy-going, friendly, simply people, beautiful places to see, architecture, heritage, food…. . Amazing !
A few months later they started a war….