Saturday, March 31, 2007

Day Four Hama, the Dead Cities and Aleppo

On day 4 we left the desert oasis of Palmyra and headed northwest towards our ultimate stop of Aleppo. On the way we stopped at the city of Hama.
On the Orontes River, Hama is (in)famous for a couple of reasons: it's groaning (and they really do groan) norias (water wheels) and a rebellion in the 1982 by then outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. I am going to leave any discussion of politics and the Assad regime to our much more knowledgeable travelling companion A (check her blog at The water wheels are cool and the city itself was interesting, but I think given the recent history there was general feeling of unease.

After a quick bite of lunch - the ubiquitous shwarma sandwich, we were on our way to the Dead Cities. For those of you who don't know what shwarma is see A's blog link for a great description of the greasy mess that is shwarma. But here is an image of the biggest shwarma we have seen thus far.

The Dead Cities

On the way to Aleppo are a series of ancient ghost towns in the limestone hills. The heydey of the area dates to the period when this area was part of the greater Byzantine (5-6th centuries CE) city of Antioch. Estimates put the number of cities in the region at between 600 and 700 and we visited just 4 of them. One guide book described the cities as "one of the greatest archaeological puzzles of the century". Why were these cities so abruptly abandoned during the 8-10th centuries? It is almost as if the people just up and left one day and no one ever moved back in. Theories range from Muslim invasions to nomad incursions to a change in climate leading to disruption of agricultural practices.
Current theory supports a shift in trade routes and people just moved to be closer to trade. We found them fascinating and sent hours climbing over the ruins. At one site - Jeradeh we were accompanied by a group of small boys who used the site as a playground. At some sites locals have incorporated the ruins into their living quarters and in one instance a church interior is now a sheep pen.

After a long tiring day of visiting cites and driving we arrived in Aleppo (Halab), Syria's second largest city (pop. almost 3 million). It has been a center of commerce and was the last stop on the Orient Express. We checked into our hotel and made our way to the Hotel Baron to "channel" Agatha Christie and T.E. Lawrence, both of whom stayed in the hotel and drank in the bar. Agatha supposedly wrote much of Murder on the Orient Express while she stayed here and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan worked on a dig.

While the Hotel Baron has seen better days, we stayed in the wonderful Diwan Rasmy. Okay we are all off to Nai, the restaurant in the Howard Johnson's here in Amman. At Nai there is an all you can eat sushi bar and half price drinks - a win-win situation. 8 archaeologists, a couple of historians and anthropologists and 1 political economist are going.

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