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Presidents, Homing Pigeons, Ruins, Kefiyehs and Tea with Muhammed

February 6, 2010

1. Presidents of the Syrian Arab Republic

All over Syria there are ridiculous statues of President Bashar Al-Assad making absurd poses. Bashar has been President since 2001 when his father, who ruled with an iron fist for 30 years, died. Bashar’s older brother, Basil, was being groomed for the presidency but he died in a car crash in 1999. Bashar was studying in London at the time, so he and his wife Emma (who is from Acton in London) were summoned back home to Syria by Bashar’s father to begin the grooming process. Upon succession to the Presidential throne, presumably he went on the hunt for the worst sculptor in Syria and asked him to make terrible statues to be erected in every town and city centre. I climbed a hill that overlooks Damascus with the guys and girls in the photo, and on the way we found this statue (far left) . From left to right: Liam (the only Canadian in the Canadian Cricket Association), Ross (Aussie backpacker and Arabic scholar), Angela (see you in Melbourne on Boxing Day) and Sarah (cricket widow).

2. Homing Pigeons with a View

At the top of the hill overlooking Damascus we were led into a shed by a local man. He clapped a couple of times and the twenty pigeons sitting on this fence woke up and circled above our heads and over Damascus. After a few minutes, he reached into a cage and grabbed another pigeon. He held it by the body and raised it above his head. Seeing the flapping wings, the pigeons circling above us returned to the shed for a rest. I wonder if they know what an amazing view they have every time they are given the order to fly high above Damascus?

3. Dura Europos

Dura Europos is an ancient city built in the desert, on an escarpment 90 metres above the Euphrates River about 25kms west of the Iraqi border. It dates from 300 BC, and was a Roman garrison until it was beseiged and then abandoned around 250 AD. Over many years it was covered by sand and mud and that is why it remains in such good condition today. I left the bike in Damascus and hitch hiked out there with another backpacker. We spent an afternoon exploring it and marvelling at the tranquility. When we turned up, the ticket man was at lunch and so we were told to scale the (high) main gate to get in. We had the place entirely to ourselves, possibly because the ticket man was at lunch all day and no-one else fancied climbing the wall, but more likely because so few tourists make the trek out to visit the site. We were happy – sat high above one of the world’s great rivers in a 2000 year old ruined city listening to the afternoon calls to prayer echoing from the village minarets in the distance was pretty special.

4. Palmyra

I took this photo from the castle that looks over Palmyra. The site is first mentioned in about 2500 BC and it was a hugely important city in Roman times. It’s Syria’s star attraction nowadays, but we weren’t wrestling with bus loads of other tourists to get in. In fact, most of the site is free and you just wander around and take in the surreal surroundings. It is a memorable place.  A true desert oasis hundreds of miles from anywhere. In the evening I slept on the roof of a hotel. There was a mirror, and I decided to hack off my long beard with some nail scissors. During those painful two hours I took off about a kilo of hair, a little bit of ear and most of my face to reveal a thinner than normal face. I have definitely lost weight in the face during the two months since I last saw it.

5. Thanks for The Tea Muhammed

I doubt if Muhammed will get the chance to read this blog which is a shame. We were wandering through the palm oasis near the ruins of Palmyra when he snuck up behind us on his squeaky bike. Without a word he ushered us into his brother’s olive grove, laid out a few rugs and made a fire. He placed a kettle directly onto the fire and made chai. He said that every Tuesday he goes looking for tourists to have tea with. Normally he manages to find young European girls, but he settled for me and Ross this week. He didn’t want payment, just to show a few tourists a hidden corner of Palmyra that most people don’t see.

6. Nice Hat

The kefiyeh is my ‘find’ of Syria. Not only is it cool in the heat and warm in the cold, but I get to look like a local too. When I’m wearing it like this, in classical style, people think I’m Arabic – it’s great! All I need now is a horrific 1980’s black leather jacket and an even worse dentist and the look will be complete (this picture was taken by the man in the photo at the top of my last blog, a fantastically charismatic man I met on the desert road trip from Raqqa to Deir Ez-Zur).

As of today I’m in the Kingdom of Jordan. I am in the university town of Irbid, 25kms west of the Sea of Galilee, 50kms east of Nazareth and 75kms north east of Jericho. It’s biblical round here. Tomorrow I head for the Jordan Valley, where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus, and tomorrow evening I hope to have a dip in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 400 metres below sea level, and camp on it’s shores. I have put up lots of new photos on my website too.

If you liked this blog then sing it from the rooftops. I mean, sign up for email updates. Please tweet about it and facebook it too, it all helps raise money for the two great charities. Oh, and keep on donating, we’re getting there slowly!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Dad permalink
    February 6, 2010 11:44 pm

    Oli : it has been good to read all your amusing exploits but fascinating to see how much history you are tracing. I think the Syrian Tourist Board must be proud of you because you are selling their country for them. Enjoy the cycle through Jordan – you looked in great form in our Skype this evening> Love from us all.

  2. tali permalink
    February 7, 2010 2:31 am

    wow the beard looked epic, longer and gingerer than i’ve ever seen it. Glad you had the chance to part from the bike and do some normal touristing, love that you have written 2 blogs in 2 days.
    Good luck in bible country, try to find jesus on camera
    big kiss xx

  3. brian read permalink
    February 7, 2010 5:02 am

    Wow….two in two days…..brilliant again….guess you had the time….Must get cycling again….Enjoy!!!

  4. Melanie permalink
    February 8, 2010 8:40 am

    Whereabouts are you now? Because I’m in Amman…. I have a zillion sofas at my house if you need a place to stay here! Call me if you do on (Jordan) 0797555463

  5. Marian permalink
    February 8, 2010 10:56 am

    So glad there are kind people like Muhammed in the world to look out for people like you. Love and hugs for all of us x x x x x

  6. Viv permalink
    February 9, 2010 9:49 am

    A bonus! Having been starved of blogs (well that’s what it feels like!) two come at once!! Glad you’re heading for warmer climes and hope you will soon be ‘Toastie as Toast’!

    Much love from all our lot…

    Viv x

  7. February 9, 2010 12:48 pm

    loving the beard (and the blogs)!!! keep up the good work and keep smiling!

  8. February 10, 2010 6:58 pm

    Hey you, were your ears burning last night? I’m in Ieper, staying with Steven and Isabel and, of course, you came up as a big conversation. Isabel asked me to pass on a big hug.

    We’re getting ready for the photography exhibition, opens Friday night, Steven and I hope to survive the stress of these last few days … then again, I guess we’re not being chased by wild dogs 😉

    Travel safe and I loved this post!

  9. Swiss permalink
    February 12, 2010 10:33 am

    That is one magnificent beard, an achievement in itself. Like the headgear too, your bike must be getting heavy with souvenirs… Good luck for the 3rd continent! Tahir in Delhi awaits you he is a fine fellow.

  10. Hannah Durden permalink
    February 15, 2010 12:56 pm

    Stunning photos Oli. Glad you’ve made contact with Jura – I’m sure they could help rally the troops for a cricket match if Vincent doesn’t come up trumps. Enjoy the desert!

  11. Richard Riordan permalink
    February 16, 2010 2:21 pm

    You bring back so many memories Oli – lucky bar steward! One memory I hope you don’t have to go through is riding to Aqaba not actually understanding that you have salmonella poisoning… Not nice but so damm stupid! Keep the fluids up. If you can spare the time, and if it is sunny, see Petra as early in the morning as you can and again at sunset. Fantastic website and love the blogs.

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