First Time

Yesterday, after a 7-hour bus ride from Beirut to Aleppo, I decided it was time to try the hammam (or Turkish bath) which I have heard so much about. Rod had recommended that I wait and try them in Turkey but since there is an hammam dating back to the XVth century in Aleppo I thought I might as well try them in various countries to see the difference.

Anyway, I really felt like it so I did it :).

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After walking around the old town visiting the souq (market) area and the main mosque, I located the place and entered.

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The cashier pointed out a set of small lockers and not knowing exactly what to do, I confessed to him that this was my first time. “It is OK” he said with a smirk, “Just put all your valuables in the drawer”.

Another man came by with a piece of tissue wrapped around his hips and said “Like this”. I understood I had to undress and wrap with that. After this was done, he gave me some kind of nest and a bar of soap. He pointed at a pair of wooden sleepers that I put on and took me to the Sauna room. It was just like any other sauna I have used before so I just sat there sweating.

It got very hot though, so I decided to get out for a bit and was wondering what I should do next. There was a set of other rooms with water basins close to the sauna, so I wondered if I should wash there or somewhere else. “In case of doubt, don’t do anything” goes a French saying, so I decided to try and re-enter the sauna which by that time was smoking very hard. Maybe I should not have added so much water on the floor!

After 10 more minutes of cooking, I was done and came out again. This time, since nobody seemed to come for me and the French saying did not do me any good, I started to wash at one of the basins but got stopped in my enterprise by another man wrapped with a cloth that told me to follow him to another room. It turned out he was the scrubber masseur and it was time for deep cleansing ;).

He sat on the floor close to a water basin, took the nest thingy and the soap from my hands and told me to sit close to him. He first started with the scrubbing. Right arm…”Man, this is strong!” I thought. Left arm, right leg, left leg… “Watch out for the family jewels!!!”.

At this point, he asked “You are French!?”. Hum, how did he find out? My accent or something else?! Well, I did not dare ask and just answered that he was correct ;).

He finished getting two layers of skin off my body and it was time for the cleansing massage. The nest thingy is used like a sponge and he went ahead and showed me how strong he was. That was some deep tissue massage. The moment he jerked my legs around and I felt a sharp pain at the right knee is when I started missing the sweet soft massage I got last time in the US. With that he was actually done and told me to go back to the sauna.

After 5 more minutes in the sauna, I was really well done and got out to cool off. I then went back to the entrance where a man wrapped me in towels from head to toe and enjoined me to seat in front of a glass of tea. I rested there for some time, dressed back in my clothes, got my valuables back, paid, and got out.

I actually felt quite good and maybe the cleanest I have been in months so I guess this hammam thing worked. To finish the evening off nicely, I had a nice Lebanese dinner in a very beautiful old Ottoman house transformed into a restaurant. The perfect cure after that 7-hour bus ride :).

The language of Jesus

Today, I was planning on visiting the museum here in Damascus but my plans changed a bit when Ahmed, the son of the hotel owner, offered to take Gabija (A Lithuanian girl staying at the same hotel) and me to his favorite place around Damascus named Maaloula.

Since it is always nice to have someone taking you for a tour, the choice was not too difficult and I was not disappointed :).

Maaloula is the largest of three towns (pop. 2000) where western Aramaic is still spoken in Syria. Aramaic is one of the language that Jesus spoke and some scriptures of the Christians were initially written in Aramaic. For example, some of the Dead Sea scrolls I had the chance to see at the Jordan national museum in Amman were written in Aramaic.

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The town is quite nice, nested against a mountain that gives great photo opportunities. Most of the population is Christian so the veil can hardly be seen around town. Also, as it is the case in Damascus, a lot of houses are sporting flags for Brazil, Germany, Italy, France or other countries engaged in the world cup!

The two main convents are interesting to visit and each of them was exhaling a nice spiritual karma. I really liked the St Sergius convent that is a very old church since it has been dated to the 4th century. It was built in place of a pagan temple and shows some features of old Pagan temples like a semi-circular high border altar in place of the usual flat altar just missing the hole for the sacrificial blood. This is because it predates the definition of how a church should be organized. A nice woman told us about the church and we got to listen to a prayer in Aramaic.

The whole round trip from Damascus in minibus including a nice lunch of Syrian Pizzas and the visit of the town only took 5 hours without any hurry. As my London readers would say: “It was quality!”

The Best of Both Worlds

Today, I visited Syria’s number 1 attraction as the Lonely Planet calls it!


Palmyra is an ancient city located at an oasis that was very important during the Roman period and hence, there lies today the ruins of a Greco-Roman city.

Palmyra is quite a well conserved and partially restored city with some impressive buildings like the temple of Bel and some interesting tombs but it is nowhere close to the quality of Jerash (or Baalbek from what I have heard. I should report on that soon ;)).

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The interesting thing about the ruins is that they are now surrounded by the desert and sand is everywhere. The oasis starts a bit further of the ruins. I don’t know if the city was originally built in the desert or if the oasis shrank though. I would guess for the later. Anyway, it makes for an impressive sight and possibly harsh conditions. For example, yesterday, the wind was blowing very strong projecting sand at great speed. It made it difficult to walk against the wind and visibility was not that great.

So, an ancient roman city and the desert. Definitely my kind of place 8).

And call me a masochist but I loved visiting with the wind blowing through the old walls and columns. It made this hissing sound and you really feel like you are mother Nature is taking her rights back.

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The best part was when I was at the top of the local Islamic castle that overlooks the ruins. It was quite thrilling to be walking on the roof of the castle as the wind was blowing me from one side towards another while I was looking at the sun setting over the ruins. The rest of the passengers of the minibus I used to get to the castle had decided to stay comfortably seated and protected of the wind inside the bus and were looking at the sunset through the windshield! Too bad for them.

The rest of the town around the ruins bears no interest. And if you order Mansaf at the Traditional Palmyra restaurant there, don’t forget to mention you want the real thing with Lamb or they will just try to give you a chicken dish for the same price pretending that it is a chicken Mansaf once you protest! Hum… thinking about it, just don’t go there! ;).

First Impressions of Syria

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Of all the countries I have visited so far, Syria is the country I knew the less before I entered its territory.

Most of what I had heard before was quite negative and it was the country that people were singling out as a place I should not visit when I started planning my trip.

So, my expectations were quite low and I had a bit of a bad feeling when I arrived at the border having heard (read) all the stories about how they would go through my passport page by page looking for a clue I had visited Israel.

Well… they did and when they found my Jordan entry stamp I got in Aqaba (coming from Egypt), the officer kind of got a bit suspicious and told me: “Where did you enter Jordan?” showing me the stamp whose bottom part was missing. And as it turns out, the bottom part is where the port of entry name is located! hum hum. “Aqaba” I replied. And the officer asked me 2 more times before taking my passport behind to some office (A superior I guess). After 5 minutes of slight stress, the officer came back and decided to process my entry. “Welcome to Syria” were his last words to me. Ouf! For the story, I checked the stamp again, and it appears another part of the stamp is saying Aqaba. This might have saved me :). So, my advice, make sure the stamp is complete when you cross the Jordanian border.

As it often happens, I was not the worst case of the bunch and one of the other passenger of my service taxi was refused entry and had to go back to Jordan. I think he was Iraqi.

After the immigration officers, the second impression you get of a country is usually through their taxi drivers and as it turned out, it was not that good. The service taxi I got in in Amman was actually Syrian and I (and the Australian couple that was ridding with me for that matter) had agreed on paying 8JD with the hotel reception. Arrived in Damascus, the guy is requesting 10JD and we get into a very long yet simple discussion that could be resumed as:

  • Taxi driver: 10JD each
  • Me: No, 8.
  • Taxi driver: No, 10.
  • Me: No, 8. Tamanya. It was the deal.
  • Taxi driver: No, no no. 3 people, 30JD, not 24JD.
  • Me: No, we agreed on 8JD each.
  • Taxi driver: OK, 1 more per person.
  • Me: No, 8JD was the deal. Khalass. Bye

As soon as we got out of the car, we already had 2 or 3 guys around asking us if we needed a taxi to the city center. That is the usual scheme: cheat the tourists as soon as possible before they get a chance to learn the real price of things. And as usual, we got cheated ending up paying 5 times too much even after I got his first price sliced in 2! Yeah, well, the guidebook says that even Syrian get cheated by their taxi drivers. I feel better now :).

To be fair, I should say that it has been a recurring aspect of my traveling in Middle East so far and that except for Amman where taxis are equipped with meters, I had to haggle with a taxi driver way too many times ;). So this did not really put me off with respect to Syria and its people.

And it is good because the rest has been quite good. People in the street are very friendly and helpful. They might well be the most hospitable people and I have been offered tea on many occasions without any hidden agenda (as it was always the case in Cairo).

I have been asked the fair (local) price every time I bought something in a grocery store while it was not really always the case in Jordan or Egypt.

I also spent yesterday evening walking around the new Damascus center with Firas, Syrian living in Lebanon, that I had met at the hotel the night before. He is a very friendly guy and we had very open discussions about life in Syria and Lebanon. It was quite interesting talking about the wedding ceremonies, how liberal were different part of Damascus, romance and sex out of marriage for young Syrians and other things related to religion and politics.

Surprisingly, the center of Damascus is as liberal as was the Zamalek district in Cairo. A lot of hip restaurants and bars with women that are having a drink and are smoking shisha and a lot of expensive shops were the young and beautiful (and wealthy) can be seen. I was expecting something very different and it has been quite refreshing.

All in all, Syria has been good so far.