Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Water, water everywhere

Sabkhat al Jabbul

Before we headed off to Apamea and Krac de Chevaliers, we made a pit stop at the protected nature reserve of Sabkhat al Jabbul. B is a cultural anthropologist studying the marsh areas of Iraq. Sabkhat al Jabbul was used in the training of Iraqi environmentalists, so B guided Khaled our driver to the site so we could have a look.

Part of the reserve is a seasonal saline lake, which covers an area of about 60 square miles. It is probably one of the most important wetland sites for bird biodiversity in the Middle East, with more than 10,000 flamingos stopping off during the winter, and it has a unique salt-tolerant flora. We didn't see any flamingos, but we did taste the water and it was very salty. The area exhibits some alarming signs of the 'tragedy of the commons syndrome' (see the Lorax) as the local communities have started to encroach on the water resources and many industries were visible around the lake, which made us wonder about management agreements and emission controls.

Next Stop: Apamea and Qala'at Mudiq

The Lonely Planet guide book states: "If it weren't for the unsurpassed magnificence of Palmyra, Apamea would be considered one of the highlights of Syria." We all thought it was fascinating and in an amazing setting, overlooking the Al-Ghab plain.

The site was established in the 3rd century BCE as an important trading post and one of the four important Seleucid towns. Its golden era was during the 2nd century CE after much of the city was rebuilt after an earthquake. During its peak it was home to almost 500,000 people and Cleopatra and Mark Antony visited. The city was sacked during the Byzantine and Persian periods and was later seized by the Muslims.

Under the Mamelukes a citadel (Qala'at Mudiq) was built and the site became a popular stopoff point for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. One of the things that I (Mo) find intriguing about the Middle East is the way in which people document their trips to Mecca. In Palestine you often see images of boats, planes and car alongside the Kaaba (a large black cubical building thought to have been built by Abraham). This is a doorway in Aleppo indicating that someone has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

My (Mo) research

As many of you know, we never take 'real' vacations, often combining work with play. When we visit archaeological sites I am always on the lookout for looting, tourist behaviours, and the types of archaeological souvenirs (artifacts) on sale. As we approached Apamea, our driver Khaled warned us that we would be offered archaeological artifacts to buy. He reminded us that it is illegal to buy artifacts and take them out of Syria. I read the same warning about Apamea in our guide books.

Sure enough, not five minutes into our visit to Apamea we were approached by some guys arriving on motorbikes. They had the ubiquitous coins, roman glass and some very poor imitation cylinder seals (of a type, which would not be found at a Roman site).

The artifact sellers (who knows if they were the looters) appeared almost from nowhere and we wondered how they knew we were there. As we walked down the cardo (the central north-south street in any Roman town) we looked over to a grassy knoll where we realized that all of the "sales people" were hanging out waiting for their unsuspecting prey. They all seemed quite unconcerned when we told them we were archaeologists and what they were doing was haram (forbidden). All fodder for future articles and/or the book.

We then continued on our way to the famous Crusader castle of Krac de Chevaliers (or the Krac as it referred to in the guide books).

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