Watching Syria’s War With Tears In My Eyes

Somehow I question the sincerity of the headline on this billboard, I took this photo in the summer of 2008.

What’s happening to Syria? To the people of Syria.

My friends in Syria. I wonder. And I cry.

Why? Because Syria surprised me. Surprised me with thrilling and unexpected  joy—and filled me with wonder and curiosity.

That was then.

Though it seems like yesterday, it was about 4 years ago when I changed my plans, my route and my mind and ventured into Syria. What I thought would be a few day journey through the tiny and controversial country, turned into weeks of exploring back roads, medieval towns, historic mosques and of meeting people who went out of their way to introduce me to their country and whose hospitality, though not unusual to a world traveler, warmed my heart and opened my mind to, what I believed at the time, a world of Syrian possibilities. And opportunity.

 

 

My expectations back in 2008 were, at first, tempered, given the challenge and patience testing circumstances I endured at the border. I had no idea what to expect from or in Syria. It took me more than 24 hours of negotiating, commitment, confidence and a helluva lot of persistence at the border between Syria and Jordan, and though the rules were clear, they didn’t seem like they’d yield to my tenacity and break them, somehow I convinced Syrian immigration and customs to let me and my motorcycle into Syria.

Yet before I could escape the dusty outpost where truck drivers argue, families gather and women, hiding behind burkas take more than a step away from me when I walk by, curiosity aroused, the chief of the border post invited me to enjoy tea and shared with me, on a map he scribbled with a stick into the earth between his feet, the sites I should not miss while visiting Syria.

I remember that chief inspector, with his silver hair, rough features yet how his kind eyes made me feel welcome and that all the effort at the border was worth it.

And I wonder. I remember the gas station owner who wouldn’t let me pay for my gas and insisted I have tea and lunch inside the gas station. The man selling tamarind juice on the square in the new city in Aleppo. “You try, you try,” he said over and over again. When my face puckered from the bitter taste, he offered me a sweeter and more approachable alternative. And I wonder. I remember the young boy who latched onto me as I explored the citadel in the old city and wandered through the maze of colorful and aromatic souks, of Aleppo. And I wonder.

I wonder what is happening to a country that I often refer to as one of my favorite of the more than 50 countries I’ve visited over the years. Just a few short years ago, Syria sucked me in, seduced, satisfied and teased me like playful lover — like no other. Yet I wonder. What’s happened to Syria, my Syria; the Syria I remember, the friends.

In Aleppo at the modest restaurant where the staff sent me home with a bottle of Syrian wine and where I was asked to play a lute-like stringed instrument, the one that when I tried to make music just croaked, and that I’m sure grated on the ears and nerves of the other guests dining in the room. Yet they indulged me. And so my love affair with Syria, fresh at this time, barely a week, blossomed and was public.

Smitten and excited by the beauty and history of Aleppo, I opted out of travel to the historic dead cities of the east, only so I could be with the living, and the energy of the people of Aleppo—the people who, in so many ways, trusted me with the key to their city and offered sights, sounds and flavors. Though perhaps I didn’t know it at the time, they did this willingly and with intent, I can only guess, to seduce me further.

I wonder. What’s happened to Syria. My Syria. The Syria I remember.

Watching the reports from man-in-the-street video in Damascus and elsewhere, the horrific images of the effects of recent chemical weapon attacks, and the posturing of world powers on the global stage fills me we anger and despair.  The all-to-real destruction and humanitarian abuse of the war in Syria, thanks to modern technology and social media, leaves nothing for the imagination. In nearly real time we are at once shocked by what we see, yet we are numbed by the distance of our eyes to screens and the distance of the screens to the actual location where these atrocities are real. There’s no way for us to completely understand not only the political posturing, but the suffering and the loss.

Most journalists have abandoned the city, save those that are provided a safe haven and used as political pawns such as Charlie Rose’s recent chat with Al-Assad. Others are left to report from afar, with ears to the doors of Syria at the borders of Lebanon and Turkey.

For better or worse, people on both sides of the conflict, armed with video-capable cell phones capture the madness like no other conflict we’ve ever seen before. These are not the eyes or camera of journalists. So it’s difficult to truly know or understand exactly what we’re watching. But that doesn’t matter. Because what we’re seeing is brutal—regardless of who is to blame.

Today, we have word that Russia, with its questionable motives, has negotiated with Al-Assad a handover of chemical weapons. Time will tell if this is real and verifiable. But the other atrocities of the conflict will go on. Why must we settle for chemical weapons? It’s likely that the US, and its allies will continue its pressure, and Russia will continue its efforts and the next act will come to the stage. The blood, no doubt, will continue to spill and the super powers and the UN will advance its own agendas while throwing caustic rhetoric at Al-Assad and each other. They will continue to ignore the burning buildings and bodies and, as such, the question fogging my mind will remain unanswered.

What’s happening to Syria. My Syria, the Syria I remember. What happened to you, Syria? My Syria.

Hmmm. I also remember visiting Rwanda and Sudan before arriving in Syria.

What’s happening?

Countdown and What’s With Egypt?

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I’ve been working more than three years on my new book. It’s been a much bigger project than I imagined. You see it’s much more than writing. Because I’ve decided to break the barriers and move past the borders of traditional publishing categories, producing the book has pushed me beyond my limits. Not so much outside my comfort zone, but well beyond my resources. I’m grateful I have such great and immensely talented friends who’ve been with me along the way, especially Michael Paff, Bonnie and Doug Toth, Tim Amos, Curt and Martha Van Inwegen, Angie Walters and my brother Jonathan. There are so many more, and over time I’ll bring each of you to the pages of this blog and in my book.
Status? We hoped that the book would be at the printer this month. But complications and the scope of work has us a tad behind schedule. But I received my first set of color proofs for a few of the chapters, and they look phenomenal. I’ve also received the final okay from Kickstarter to launch my first-ever Kickstarter campaign. I will probably launch later this week.
Later this week I’ll announce the full title of the book and provide you information on pre-ordering your copies through Kickstarter and sharing pages and the book cover.

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Shot while I was riding the White Desert, part of the Sahara in Egypt

Egypt.

I feel funny combining the two topics in this post, yet I can’t rightly post something here without sharing a few thoughts about the craziness going on in Egypt. I have fond memories of my time in Egypt, and even though I found it frustrating dealing with its bureaucracy (importing the bike, mandatory travel in convoys and more), my travel through the country mark many of the highlights of my journey. I made quite a few friends and acquaintance with police and military. Some I still am in contact via email. I find it disturbing that the country is in chaos and whether you believe the recent takeover by the military is a coup or not, I find that the lack of a democratic process — even the blatant reversal of a supposed democratic process – and the ensuing violence and censorship worries me. Mostly, I’m worried about those friends and wish the best for them and hope they are safe and with family and loved ones.
I watch with curiosity and tears.

Reflections & Surprises-The Middle East

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Reflecting then. Reflecting now. Egypt’s rich history overshadowed by its present.

For those of you who follow my Facebook page or Twitter feed, you know over the last couple weeks I’ve been posting a few photos and thinking about the time I spent through Egypt in 2008.

First, I still haven’t connected with my host in Cairo, Mohamed Magdi. During the height of the demonstrations, the email bounced back to me several times. I still await to hear from him. Certainly I am happy for Egypt and though the road ahead will be rough and potholed, I do wish for a smooth transition to a solid democracy that will pave a smoother road for the country’s future and destiny as a mid east leader.

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Ana, Gregor, Ana and Borut are from Slovenia taking a couple week journey to Jordan on their V-Strom and GS1200.

As protests and uprising spread through the region I also thought about Jordan and Syria, two of my favorite countries in the region. Just as Mubarek was about to step down, I received an email from a motorcyclists I met at the entrance to Wadi Rum, the legendary desert where Laurence of Arabia led a growing group of Bedouins to Aqaba where they singlehandedly toppled the Ottoman Turks and captured the city. Wadi Rum is vast desert of other worldly rock formations, rich umber and brick colors and lots of sand.

Gregor, Ana, Borut and his wife were on a two week tour of the region when I spotted their bikes at the Wadi Rum visitors center. To be sure, I didn’t see many foreign motorcyclists in the Middle East. Curious and intrigued the four of us shared lunch and stories of the region. I’ve never visited Slovenia, but have always wanted. Detailing their route around Slovenia, Turkey, Lebanon and such, Gregor explained that Slovenia can be described as shaped like a chicken. He pulled out his maps and detailed the shape. Forever I cannot think of Slovenia without thinking of its chicken shape.

Gregor and Ana were planning on riding two up to Egypt this spring. But the questionable stability in the region caused them to rethink their plans. So, they’ve decided to visit the United States. With such short time to prepare, they realized the shipping the bikes would be too costly and the cost of renting similar bikes here, much too expensive. So they’ll land in Los Angeles in early March and take a couple weeks to tour California and the western United States.

In Jordan I was intrigued by the panniers that Borut and Gregor had on their bikes. Turns out, Gregor owns a company that manufacturers an automatic oiler for chain driven motorcycles. He also made the panniers on their bikes. Even more, the company that provides some of the machining tools is US-based in Oxnard, California—just a 30 miles north of Los Angeles. So their trip will include a visit to the factory in Oxnard, and after they’ve made a loop which will include Route 1 to San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Grand Canyon and more, they’ll stop here at my place before heading back to Slovenia.

I’m sure we’ll pull a couple corks of some good wine, though I understand Slovenian wine is very good yet not widely available here. If the timing works I’ll try to interview both of them for an upcoming edition of the long-lost WorldRider PodCast series—if you’ve never listened, it’s fun to go back and check out both the stories and the production.

Gregor, Ana and their friends have toured dozens of countries in the region—including Iran, a country I was repeatedly denied a visa for entry. Here’s what Gregor told me about his trip to Iran:

“Iran was a beautiful country and the people are realy great, they are inviting you in your homes all the time. Must say that Iran was the best country we everer visited.”

Gregor, Ana and friends continue to push their boundaries and tour on motorcycles to places we all like to dream about. You can see some photos of their adventures here.

Stay tuned, I look forward to sharing more about Gregor and Ana when they visit.

Goodbye Syria. Hello Turkey.

It was time. Sucked into the history, architecture, landscapes and people of Syria I made tracks for the Turkish border where before crossing I met a farmer and his kids herding goats down the road. Lots of smiles, hugs and questions but this would be my last contact with a Syrian on his soil until the next time.

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Border procedures were fairly smooth save that the final customs clearance officer failed to hit enter on his computer so when trying to get the gate guard to release me into the wild lands of Turkey, I had to turn around and go back to the customs agent and have him re-enter my date into the computer. Funny, it’s been a while since a computer was used to log me in or out of country. There was a similar snafu in Ethiopia and before that I think South Africa was the only other country computerized. Though most of the land borders I crossed were remote and I’m sure these countries have more sophisticated systems at air or sea ports.

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Passing through the dusty outpost of Bab Al Hawa, I made a brief stop in Reyhanli where I met a couple young kids on motorcycles who helped me find a road map of Turkey and introduced me to a shop owner who heads a local motocross/enduro motorcycle club. Armed with tips and ideas for the roads around the south western part of Turkey I bid farewell and headed on.

But something was funny. Worried about my rear tire, it seemed washy as I rode. I stopped at a farm area gas station to check pressure and add air. But I couldn’t leave. The owner and a few local farmers were having lunch and insisted I join them. With fresh cucumber, flatbread, tomato and bulgar. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I started eating. With the food spread out on a large circular stainless platter, each of us armed with a spoon, bread and a smaller plate, everyone dove their forks into the grain and the vegetables and ate what we wanted. It was my first meal in Turkey and I don’t think any other could match the flavors nor the company.

I pressed on toward Adana and on the way noticed a massive castle flying the Turkish flag sitting high atop a hill. I couldn’t find a road leading there and the roads I did find were interestingly quiet and absent from traffic and pedestrians. Fuel in Adana, I set my sets for perhaps one of Turkey’s most impressive and unusual sites: Kapadokya, Turkey.

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Back to customs guy who had to painstakingly re-enter ALL my pertinent data a second time. Frustrated and ready to move on, I just through my keys down and sat patiently on my bike. And waited.

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My tour guides to Reyhanli, Turkey

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After a fantastic fresh lunch with these gentlemen and the air pressure in my tired checked and ready, I moved on.

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I have no idea what this castle is as there was nothing in my guide book to guide me and I couldn’t find a road up there!!

Aleppo – Souq City & The Citadel

For me the most interesting part of traveling new places is simply getting lost in the place and while wandering to be suprised by the visual stimuli and the friendliness of the locals. Aleppo might like to think of itself as contending for the honor of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. But they’re fighting over a few hundred years here or there. From the centuries old citadel fortress the dominates the cities skyline to the millennia old souqs (partially covered tunnel like arabic markets) I found history and a lot more. I’ll let the pictures do the story telling this time.

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Minaret of al-Saffahiyah Mosque and old apartment building windows

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Sizing thins up for a big ceremony.

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These two boys wandered the souqs with me. THey spoke little English but the boy on the right was eager to practice what he knew.

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In the Souq (souk) markets you can buy virtually anything. Each long passage way is somewhat categorized by type of products. Here we have some great olives and of course meat!

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Textiles and accessories. Some of the souqs are nearly 2,000 years old.

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The grand citadel rises 160 feet above the city on a manmade mound. There have been several over the course of history. This one dates from the 13rth century but was nearly destroyed by earthquakes in the 18th century.

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There’s a moat and drawbridge. Sides of the structure are canted at 40 degrees and making it virtually impenetrable.

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This is an original door.

Wandering Aleppo’s Old City

Perhaps I just like wandering around medieval towns. But Aleppo, and Damscus for that matter, take medieval to a new level. Europe’s history has always fascinated me, but the Middle East stretches the confines of what’s imaginable yet with the evidence surronding you, the reality seems even more implausable.

So much I’m fascinated with the colors, flavors, sounds and smells of this city, I’ve decided against visiting Palmyra and the Dead Cities to the east. Not that I’m averse to making the trek east, but the vibrancy of Aleppo is seductive. As you know, Syria was never on my list of countries when I planned this trip nearly three years ago. But now sucked into the fabric of the region, I’m starved to learn more and further open my mind.

Meanwhile, the prospect for acquiring an Iranian visa looks dismal. Americans, in some cases, can get a visa, but this requires booking through an approved organized travel group and tour. This is not my cup of tea. I’ll check again in Turkey, but my hopes have been diluted and as I approach the third year anniversary of my departure, my mind is focused on drawing this segment of my journey to a close. Yes. It’s with both regret and excitement I feel when wondering where I’ll be next. Sad that I can’t continue through Iran into Pakistan, yet exciting I will have an opportunity to see my family, loved ones and friends I’ve so long been away from. I would hope that a trip across the USA in the fall would be a grand finally to phase I of the WorldRider journey.

Meanwhile, I need to immerse myself deeper into Aleppo and drink and eat from the body and blood of this ancient holy city. First stop is the citadel. Then I’ll visit the Grand Mosque and get lost in the labyrinth of souks and market stalls that, for me, truly exhibit the color and energy of the city. Getting lost in these partially covered market mazes interest me more today than walking through some of the great museums. But this too, I will do before hopping back on Doc and heading to Turkey.

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Unlike Ethiopia or Sudan, money exchanges freely here in Syria.
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Hustle and bustle of neighborhood outside the old city.
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He thought I could use a haircut and a shave. He’s probably right, but I was too energized by this city to sit in one place.
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Tamarind drinks sold out of a vessel that weighed nearly 70lbs. I sampled his teas and concoctions and enjoyed most. The tamarind wasn’t too my liking.
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The Grand Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria.
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Sometimes you have to interrupt your prayers and take a call on your mobile – even at the Grand Mosque.

All Good In Aleppo

It was a short but great ride through the foot hills, along the valley and into the city of Aleppo – which is equally as stunning and interesting as Damascus. I think I could stay here a while. Though finding my way around was a lot tougher.

Dominating the skyline of the ancient city is the old citadel, another fortress built on top of a manmade mound on the eastern part of the city. Like Damascus there is a definitive line separating Aleppo’s Old and New cities. I aimed for a budget priced boutique hotel somewhere in the Christian quarter. But coming into the city I couldn’t figure out the wacky non-grid patchwork of one way streets, walkways and dark caves that turn into a labyrinth of souks that wind in and out of the old and new cities. So I aimed for the Citadel – an imposing castle-like stone throne complete with moat and drawbridge just to add to the drama.

I had a couple referrals and a name or two of hotels from travelers and my guidebook. Nobody I asked new any of them. One guy referred me to the $300+ Sheraton, but I opted out as it was getting dark and based on my map it was far from the Old City — even if the concierge and reception staff were helpful, it was far from my desired location.

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Market at night in Aleppo with neatly ordained Yamaha motorcycle.

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Aleppo’s Old City Blends into the New.

With the sun waning and the chaos of the city ramping, a guy in a small Russian built sedan pulled over and offered to help. He started scribbling out direction then with a scratch to his head said, “ahh, it’d be just easier if you follow me.” So I did. And if it was easier following this guy, I can’t imagine following directions. We made a couple dozen turns, one U-turn just to get oriented and then we headed into a series of narrow alleys where I swear the mirrors of his cars were scraping the walls of the buildings. At one point, he got out of his car and liberated a massive horizontal piece of iron serving as a vehicle gate and then we sped on.

After all that the hotel was booked. But they made some calls and found me something nearby. It turned out to be an even nicer place and lower cost — usually those places that haven’t yet ben discovered and put in guide books are. But finding this place was a chore. Because it was located in the winding alleys of the old city near the Christian quarter, the roads are sometimes on and sometimes off limits to vehicular traffic. A motorcycle, however, can take certain liberties. So a bellhop donned my Camelback backpack and hopped on my bike. When we came to a series of stairs I’d have to ride down and then up, I felt safer letting him off for that section. But we rode around a maze of ancient buildings towering above a patchwork of stones that have served pedestrians and pushcarts for several millennia.

Then we found the hotel. And what a find. It was actually two individual houses that shared a courtyard with a fountain. Intricate wood and tile-work combined with antiques and a helpful staff made the find even richer. Except I was a bit worried about the bike. This alley was a major pedestrian walkway. And at less than ten feet wide, my bike took up nearly half. I was assured all would be fine, so I covered the bike and said ‘en-shallah’ – in essence what happens will be god’s will – an often over-cited Arabic phrase.

Breakfast was included with my room and friends of the staff strongly urged I check out a local restaurant just a few alleys away. Beit Wakil was surprisingly open given I was told it might be hard to get a seat and the restaurant just down the alley was booked for the evening. Turns out that the restaurant would be closed for renovation in two days so the manager had stopped taking reservations over a month ago. This was good news because I was treated like a VIP and after two nights in a row dining there, each night I closed the place with the staff sharing local wines and other concoctions. Even the local musician hired to entertain the guests let me play his uniquely middle eastern stringed instrument.

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the doors of the hotel were all handmade in Damascus.
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While only two rooms had windows looking outside to hte alley, al looked onto this beautiful courtyard where breakfast was served each morning.
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Dinner at Beit Wakil with Lebanese wine.
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My new friends, the managers at the swank, but very reasonably priced Beit Wakil restaurant in Aleppo, Syria.
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I could make music but had no idea of the harmonics nor middle eastern scales. Beautiful resonating sounds were so rich. Handmade in Hams.

Crac Des Chavaliers

It’s actually hard to travel in Syria alone. Everybody wants to talk to me, share tea with me, introduce me to their children and ask questions. I find the hospitality to be on par if not more so than many of the supposedly “dangerous” places I’ve visited. Axis of evil? Oh, come on! With so much misunderstanding, grudge-carrying and misinformation, it’s no wonder everyone perceives the world to be a “dangerous place” to travel. Notwithstanding there are plenty of exceptions – but they’re exceptions and not the rule.

Stopping for fuel in Khan Alsobel near Idleb, Syria my way to the most impressive structure I’ve seen, Crac des Chevaliers, I’m invited into the owners office where tea is shared amongst Yousif, the Iraqi manager, a worker and the owner’s young son. The Iraqi fled his home in Iraq where his children and wife await news that he can afford to bring them to a new place where they can build a new wife. He speaks excellent English, but his boss, the owner and the boy do not. Yousif is somewhat bitter about the conflict in his own country. He feels that it’s not safe and that the ensuing chaos and unknowns warrant finding a safer place to build a home and raise his family.

As the minutes and ultimately more than an hour ticks by, we hug and bid farewell. Yousif and I share email addresses and he promises to update me on his plight.

Making My Way To The Biggest & Baddest Castle I Could Ever Have Imagined!

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The backroads wind over fertile green hills as I rise from the valley into the foothills of the mountains that seperate and provide a natural border between Syria and Lebanon. Nearly twenty or more miles from my destination, I spot the massive fortress knowns as Crac des Chevaliers, a crusader era castle that must be the subject of many a tale of knights, castles, warriors and wars.

Commanding a hill top above several small villages, just about 35 miles from of the city of Homs, and close to the border of Lebanon sits the imposing fortress. Though not originally build by the crusaders, it was the Knights Hospitaller used Crac des Chevaliers who perhaps spent most of the time here as Crac served as its headquarters during the Crusades. Originally much smaller, it was built in 1031 for the emir of Aleppo, but during the 1st Crusade in 1099, Raymond IV of Toulouse, first captured it but then abandoned the castle as the Crusaders marched towards Jerusalem.

The Hospitaller crusaders, contemporaries of the Knights Templar, rebuilt it and expanded it into the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land capable of housing and feeding 2,000 foot soldiers and 1,000 horses for five years. There are actually two moats and in classic military style a drawbridge led to massive postern gates.

You can almost feel, if not see, the Mediterreann sea if not for the moutains. The closes Lebonese city, Tripoli is just east and even today it’s along the only route through those mountains to to Tripoli. It was actually the count of Tripoli, Raymond II who gave the initial fortress to the Hospitallers.

And what a job the Crusaders did in fortifying the imposing structure, which some might find feels more like a prison than a castle. Its outer wall was nearly 100 feet thick and each of seven guard towers had walls up to 30 feet thick. The strucutre prevented the Muslims from capturing it for years as both even Saladin tried in 1188. It wasn’t until the Mamluks arrived in 1271 that the castle fell. But not because of its fortifications. No, the Mamluk’s played a trick on the Hosptiallers — convincing them with a couterfiet order from Tripoli ordered them to surrender the castle.

The Mamluks eventually refortified the castle and used it as a base against Tripoli. A Christian chapel inside was converted into a mosque. Evidence of the continued building and fortifications are visible as are indicators of the number of different defenders who held the castle since the Crusaders and the Mamluks, including the Persians and the Ottomans.

Wandering the ramparts high above the outer moat and the cantilevered outer walls of the castle I get dizzy looking down as local farmers heard sheep while dodging the tiny amount of traffic that uses the roads here.

It’s very remote and there aren’t any decent guest houses of accomodation, so my plan was to make for Aleppo, near the border of Turkey before sunset. The country roads that twist and wind over the hills and through tiny settlments are a treat for the eyes and my mind continues to wander and wonder who else passed these lands 1,000’s of years ago.

Traveling the holy lands inspires, intrigues and continues to boggle my mind with more questions — and always more answers.

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Faces & Places of Damscus, Syria

To get a flavor of Damascus I share with you some photographs I took while wandering the old city.

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How many people can you fit on a motorcycle. The answer might be found here in Damascus, Syria.

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Heading to the Mosque. Woman always must pray separate from the men, who are praying below.

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The ancient alleys and cobbled streets are a visual feast. Then the infrastructure retrofit in this centuries old dwellings provides a patchwork of chaos that somehow works.


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Fresh squeezed juice.

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Shoes for sale in one of the covered Souks in Damascus.

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Even in Syria you have Monopoly and Scrabble.

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Dhikr Beads in the market souk of Damascus.

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Roman Ruins in Damascus.

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Chicken salesman – Damascus.

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Old wall in old city.

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Ancient gate to the old city in Damascus.

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Bread and pastry bakery in Damascus.

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Opening My Eyes & Mind To Damascus

When I travel to a new city, particularly one that is capital of the country I’m visiting, I tend to park the bike and walk, take mass transit or in the odd case I’m traveling far or on a time schedule I’ll take a taxi. This way I get some exercise and can seamlessly blend in as a ‘traveler’. But Damascus is hardly on the list of potential tourists spots for most Americans. As such, the media, state department and here-say tend to create the image many of us might have of Damascus. So it’s with some ignorance I wander Damascus, save a few paragraphs from a guide book and tips from travelers I’ve met on the road.

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Remnants of the Temple of Jupiter, from Roman Times in Damascus.

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While Nationalism is certainly prevalent in Syria, I never did find the sentiment communicated in this poster.

The Damascus I discovered is simply stunning. Syria is stunning. But Damascus with its 5,000 + year history is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Walking down one street I learn it’s mentioned in the Bible. And the cast of characters that give color to its history makes my mind spin: Alexander the Great, Lawrence of Arabia, Nebuchadnezzar, Saladin, Hadrian, Tamerlane and Saint Paul. Sitting between the mountains the define the border of Lebanon in the west and a vast desert that stretches to Mesopotamia to the west, Damascus has been a major stop on trading routes since the first settlers planted a stake in the ground. Though I’ve just been in Arabia for a few weeks, my initial impression is that it must be one of Arabia’s most exciting and dramatic cities and has one of the largest and most colorful souks I’d seen to date.

Damascus’ old city is certainly secular, undeniably mostly Muslim, as such its heart is perhaps Damascus’s greatest sight, the Umayyad mosque. The mosque is one of Islam’s most spectacular buildings and its architecture and decorative details as grand as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. In the world of Islam, it’s and second only in spiritual significance to the mosques of Mecca and Medina — which sadly I won’t see this time around.

Dating from 708 during the Caliph al-Walid’s rule, one of the earliest and greatest Muslim leaders, whose Umayyad dynasty created an empire that spanned from the French Pyrenees to the borders of China. Inside the Mosque a guide directs me to sealed and windowed Shrine in the center of the grand building that purportedly contains the the body of John the Baptist – I’m told I can find his head or his skull in Istanbul. We’ll see.

The entire old city of Damascus is a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Wandering round the ancient a covered Souk al-Hamidiyya, checking out the statue of Saladin, and then getting lost in the Azem Palace all the while trying to keep from bumping into people while gazing at the ancient walls and citadels of the city – many dating to Roman times. In fact, the Umayyad Mosque sits on a former Roman Temple dedicated to Jupiter and during the Byzantine era was Christian Church dedicated to John the Baptist. A minaret towering above the shiny marble courtyard is called the Minaret of Jesus which where Muslims believe that Jesus will appear at the end of the world.

It’s easy to get lost in the maze of cobbled alleys, millennia old streets and even inside the grand mosque and palace. My guide helped me grasp the history and importance of the impressive shrines, taking me into 1,000 year old Baths and into other impressive Mosques during prayer time. After each day I would find a street café and have a glass of tea. One place featured a costumed story teller who’s story, all in Arabic, was incomprehensible to me, but watching him perform with energy and enthusiasm was enough to understand the story. A local fellow smoking from a hookah pipe shared with me the highlights.

Damascus, at least the Old City, certainly captivated me and by the time I was ready to leave, I felt that I understood this city and its grand history, and that of the region and was eager to continue on and enjoy more of Syria.

I set my sights on perhaps the most grand castle of the world, Crac Des Chevaliers, a Crusader-era fortress high on a hill between Damascus and Lebanon.

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Courtyard of the magnificent Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

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Rampart and tower of the old city Damascus, Syria.

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Incredible Mosaic work on the Ummayad Mosque, Damascus.

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Ummayad Mosque, Damascus.

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Mosaic, Ummayad Mosque, Damascus.

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Baths Azem Palace, Damscus.

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What you can find in the Souks of Old Damascus. Freshly shaved pistachio served over chilled ice cream.

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Prayer time in Damascus.

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Shop in Old Town Damascus.

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Door/Gate to he old city. This door could be more than 1,000 years old!

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The Dome inside the Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque is a and grave of the youngest daughter of Husayn ibn Ali — Fatimah.


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Inside centuries old Baths in Damascus.

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Making stone bread in Damascus.