Tuesday, December 15, 2009
This paper documents my activities, observations and thoughts on a tour of the Middle East with a group organized by Advantage Travel and Tours, Poway, CA. Cathy and Bob Prada designed the tour and made all the reservations and accompanied the group on the tour. They are the owners of Advantage Travel and Tours and were the same couple that organized my Five ‘Stans and Gulf States tours in the fall of 2007, my South Pacific Islands tour in 2008 and the South American Island tour in January 2009. As a result I had previously traveled with most of the people in the tour group.
In order to more deeply understand what I saw I have included in some cases detailed descriptions from: my tour guides descriptions, plaques at the sites, brochures provided by the sites or the government, and descriptions from tour guidebooks and online.
Overview of the trip route:
• Fly from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan via Istanbul
• Drive to Petra and tour area
• Return to Amman and tour Jerash and Ajloun
• Tour Amman and drive to Damascus, Syria
• Drive to Palmyra, Syria via Maaloula
• Drive to Aleppo, Syria via Hama, Apamea, and Elba
• Tour Aleppo
• Drive to Lattakia, Syria via Ugarit
• Drive to Beirut, Lebanon via Tripoli and Byblos
• Tour Beirut area
• Drive to Damascus, Syria via Baalbeck and Anjar
• Tour the Damascus area
• Fly from Damascus to LAX via Istanbul and ORD
MAP OF JORDAN, SYRIA, and LEBANON
Oct 21, 2009 (Wednesday) Fly from Istanbul to Amman, Jordon
I arrived from Baghdad on Turkish Airlines flight 1203 at 1210.
When we entered the terminal we had to pass through security and be patted down again. We then had a long walk to the Transit Desk where we were issued our boarding cards for the flight to Amman. Based on my United Premier Executive status I was able to get a pass to the Turkish VIP Lounge. They did not honor either Neal or my Red Carpet Club membership.
Inside the VIP Lounge they had internet terminals. I wrote a lengthy message summarizing the Iraq experience. It was time consuming because the Turkish keyboard first had difficulty finding the @ sign and second it had a strange location for the letter “i”. It appeared on the keyboard to be in the right spot but it generated a vertical letter like a capital i and the spell checker which I heavily rely on rejected every word I had typed with an i in it and I had to correct each one before I could send the message.
After sending out the message I ate a small lunch of a ham and cheese sandwich. At 1745 I headed to the gate. On the board the gate for our flight had changed and when I got there none of our group was there so I walked over to the gate on our boarding card and they were all there and Barbara Scott had joined the group. Barbara had been scheduled for the Iraq tour but her mother had an operation that delayed Barbara’s departure so she was joining us for the Jordan, Syria and Lebanon tour.
We moved to the correct gate where we had to pass through security again. They questioned my scissors again but let me keep them. I was assigned 5C with no one in 5B and Laurie in 5A. The plane took off at 1930.
We landed in Amman, Jordon at 2115. After obtaining a Jordanian visa and passing through Passport Control we retrieved our luggage and were met by the Manager of the Tourist Agency that arranged our tours of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. He introduced us to our Jordanian guide, Naiem A. Hunetti, a 61 year old antique store owner and expert in Jordanian archeology.
When everyone had obtained their luggage we were directed to a bus and a driver, (Nomam) that would stay with us throughout our tour of Jordan. It took us almost an hour to drive to the hotel, check in and get to our rooms. It was a decent size room and had an outlet next to the bedside table for my CPAP machine. I retired by 2300 hours.
Oct 22, 2009 (Thursday) Drive to Petra, Jordon via Madaba, Mount Nebo and Kerak Castle
I awoke to my alarm at 0500, showered, shaved and packed my bags. Just before I left for breakfast I decided to open my window to check the outside temperature and to take some pictures of the city. I had my camera in my right hand and pulled down the window opening lever with my left hand. As I pulled down on the handle, the whole window fell inward on me. Since my hands were both occupied I couldn’t stop the 3 by 3 feet square double pane window from falling. It hit my body and slid down and landed on my right foot between the top of my arch and the bottom of my toes. I pushed it against the sill with my knees and called the front desk. With a slight limp I wheeled my luggage to the elevator and down to the reception where I left them while I ate breakfast.
We departed the hotel at 0700 for the drive to Petra. Amman was a pretty city, more modern looking than Baghdad. About an hour south of the city on the biblical King’s Highway, we stopped in the city of Madaba, with one of the largest Christian communities in Jordan. It is known as the Byzantine center of master mosaics and nearby Mount Nebo. We parked in a tourist bus lot and noted that we were not the first group of tourist to arrive in the city that morning. Naiem lead us on a walk through the city to St. George’s Church, famous for the oldest known mosaic map of the Holy Lands on its floor. We toured the church and were shown a replica of the map. Naiem explained the areas depicted on the map. We spent about 45 minutes touring the church and some of the shops in the city before we boarded our bus for a 15 minute drive west of Madaba to Mount Nebo.
Mount Nebo is where Moses reportedly saw the Promised Land and then died at the age of 120. From the bus parking lot there was a long uphill walk to the top. Naiem told us that many churches have been built in the area, some on top of others. It is an active archeological site as they try to restore the churches. There has been earth quakes in the area that have set back some of their efforts. From the top of a restored structure we could see the Jordan River and the Dead Sea below and all the way to the tall spires in Jerusalem.
We took some pictures of the group at the stone that marks the Memorial to Moses and then of the Abu Badd rolling stone used as a fortified door of a Byzantine Monastery in the old village of Faisaliyah, once known as Kufer Ab u Badd.
Included in the Mount Nebo Archaeological Park was an artist studio with artists producing mosaics. We were able to observe their working. Of course next to the artists studio was the tourist shop where you could buy mosaics and other trinkets.
By 1020 we were back on the road to our next stop to exchange money. Like in Iraq, there was not a formal money exchange office or machine, instead there was a man alongside the road selling bottled water and exchanging money.
We drove several hours along the King’s Highway, crossing the canyon of Wadi al-Mujib. The walls of the canyon are over 3,000 feet high and the road down to the river and up the other side was an engineering marvel. This geographic feature was known as Arnon in the Bible, forming a boundary between the Moabites in the south and the Amorites in the north. The road was sometimes winding road down to the valley up to a ridge with a view of the city of Al Kerak (called Kir in biblical times). The terrain between Madaba and Al Kerak was rocky and sparsely populated.
The approach to Al Kerak was impressive haven driven through the barren rocky terrain we came upon the city with a huge Crusaders Caste on the high point over the city. It appeared to stretch the whole length of the city. We drove down on a winding road from our initial vantage point across the valley from the city and then drove up from the valley through the city to the bus parking lot outside the castle entrance.
Kerak was the stronghold of Raynald of Chatillon, Lord of Oultrejordain. The fortress was built in 1142 by Pagan the Butler, Lord of Montreal. While Raynald ruled, several truces existed between the Christian and Muslim states in the Holy Land, none of which he made any qualms about breaking. The last straw came in 1183 when he organized an expedition around the Red Sea. He captured the town of Aqaba, giving him a base of operations against Islam's holiest city, Mecca. Saladin, the leader of the Muslim forces, could not tolerate this and moved against Raynald's stronghold.
The Muslims had sought to take Kerak for several years, but now they stretched its defenses to the breaking point. At one point, 9 catapults were bombarding the walls and inhabitants within. The Castle resisted the attacks by Saladin's troops in 1183 and 1184, but finally fell after a siege in 1189. The Mamluk ruler Baybars added a tower on the northwest corner in 1263. It was later owned by local families until 1840, when Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt captured the castle and destroyed much of it in the process.
After World War I, Kerak was administered by the British until the Emirate of Transjordan was established in 1921. Kerak is still a predominantly Christian town, with many of today's inhabitants tracing their roots back to the Byzantines.
The castle was impressive inside and out. We toured about eight partially restored buildings and at the edge we could see the steep slope that would make an attack very difficult. We spent about an hour and one half touring the complex and then walked around the town. Just as before, we were not the only tour bus in the area. At one point I counted ten busses parked outside the castle.
We continued south on the King’s Highway to Petra. The drive took three hours through terrain similar to what we experienced driving to Kerak. The sun set early in this part of the world and it was spectacular as it set below the mountains east of the Jordan River and west of the highway.
We checked into the Movenpick, a 5 Star hotel across the street from the entrance to the Petra complex. My room was a small suite with twin queen size beds and a couch area. The internet was expensive but there was an outlet at the bedside table for my CPAP machine. Dinner was a buffet and after dinner I walked outside the hotel to an Internet Café and processed emails.
Oct 23, 2009 (Friday) Tour Petra, Jordon and return to Amman
We arose at 0500 to shower, shave and pack. Breakfast was a large buffet and at 0700 we gathered in the lobby to start our walking tour of the Petra complex. Naiem had made arrangements for Edna to take a donkey drawn carriage to the Petra Treasury site. We were offered the opportunity to ride a horse to the site or a camel. No one took the offer and we set out walking with Naiem as he provided a running commentary on the sights in the Siq (canyon like clef in the rock that is the entrance to Petra).
We walked by the area where the horses and donkeys were and were pestered by the horse riders to ride their horses. Naiem focused on the water supply system. There were aqueducts, pipes and grooves in the rocks that lead rain water into holding areas. It was a marvel of engineering but we soon become bored as Naiem kept pointing out each aqueduct carved in the side of the Siq. About 20 minutes into the walk we encountered numerous homes and tombs carved into the hills. We were seeing the first of the sculptured facades and in a few minutes the Triclinium/Obelisk Tomb built by a Nabataean family in the 1st Century AD. It was impressive but we knew that more impressive sights were to come.
Our next site was Wadi al-Mudhling, a natural tectonic gorge formed by flash floods and then the Siq started. The sides were about 10 feet high and the path about 15 feet wide. The Siq walls go higher and at points the path narrower. It is easy to understand that the area was not known for several generations until it was rediscovered by the Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer in 1812.
After an hour and fifteen minute walk we came upon an open area with the magnificent carved façade of what is called the Petra Treasury. It is truly a sight to see. It is actually a tomb, but early treasure hunters though that such a magnificent tomb must have been for an important person and that his gold and jewels would have been buried with him. They destroyed some of the figures on the outside thinking they contained valuables and there are many bullet holes where they attempted to shatter some of the figures. In the end no valuables were found but the name “Treasury” stuck.
Its official name is Al-Khazna (Pharaoh’s Treasury). It is still the most perfect façade in Petra and is the façade that is used in the advertising for Petra. Petra facades were carved from the top down. The Treasury is 130 feet high. The lower level is decorated with six Corinthian capitals that are spanned by a frieze of griffins and vases among scrolls. A vegetation goddess is carved in the central tempanon. The upper order consists of a central kiosk decorated with the relief of Isis and flanked by dancing Amazons and Victories. The kiosk is crowned by a capital supporting a funerary urn that was supposed to conceal the Pharaoh’s treasures according to local tradition. Although the original function is still a mystery, the Khazna is believed by many Archaeologists to be the mausoleum of King Aretas IV (9 BC – 40 AD). Recently, three Nabataeans tombs were uncovered below the Khazna.
We spent about an hour exploring the Khazna and then moved on to see other magnificent sights, smaller tombs carved into the side of the Siq and on to the theater carved in the side of the walls and other larger tombs. At the theater the group split. Bob and Cathy, Neal and Laurie decided to press on to see the Petra Monastery, a gurgling climb that would easily take an hour or more each way.
I elected to stay with Naiem, Bob Ihsen, Barbara, Ed and Bill. We climbed up the side of the Siq across from the theater and explored tombs and caves. Naiem’s favorite was a cave with beautiful colorful rock layers in the walls. Near this cave were several women selling trinkets with a couple of donkeys and a young girl that took a liking to Bill. We were amazed that the donkeys were up this high and in one cave there were two boys trying to coax a donkey out of the cave.
After seeing Naiem’s beautiful cave we descended to the floor of the area near the theater were there were rest rooms and drink stands. I stayed with Naiem while he drank a tea and then after I had a soda I started back by myself at 1100. I was surprised to see an ambulance drive past because the path we had taken from the hotel was too narrow. The ambulance picked up a tourist and drove away from the way we had come. I had been told that up to a few years ago the caves in Petra had been inhabited but the government had moved the people out and to the south high on a ridge there was a village that they had settled in. So I guessed that there was an exit to the south that could handle vehicle traffic.
It took me an hour to walk back to the hotel. I didn’t see any one from the group so I walked around the town ate lunch and visited an Internet Café. We had our rooms until 1400, so I returned to my room and freshened up. The weather was hot and my shirt was soaked from the walk. After a shower and fresh clothes I packed and checked out of the room.
The group that traveled on to the Monastery found the climb difficult and Bob and Cathy rented camels for part of the way.
We boarded the bus at 1400 and drove back to Amman and checked back in to the Imperial Palace Hotel. I noticed they had fixed the window in the room I had stayed in two nights previously.
Dinner was the usual buffet and I since this stay we were scheduled to stay two nights, I washed my clothes in the sink and hoped they would all dry by the time we left.
I retired about 2300. It had been an eventful day since Petra had been on top of my list of places I wanted to visit.
Oct 24, 2009 (Saturday) Tour Ajloun Castle and Jerash Jordon
I slept until 0630 and had the buffet breakfast before we started out at 0800. We drove through the city of Amman, first settled around 8500 BC during the Neolithic period. It was occupied by the Ammonites, Tiberian Hebrews, Assyrians, Persians and then the Greeks. Renamed Philadelphia after the Hellenic ruler of Egypt, Ptolomy II Philadelphius, it remained an important city and in 106 AD, became part of the Nabotean Kingdom under Roman control. Christianity became the dominate religion in 326 AD and Amman was the seat of the regional bishopric.
Naiem provided a running commentary on the city as we drove north to the city of Jerash (The Ancient Gerasa), about 26 miles out of Amman. As we approached Jerash we could see the Ajlun 12th C hilltop castle high on a hill overlooking the city. We stopped for a photo shoot of the castle next to an olive grove where several workers were harvesting green olives.
At the Ajlun Castle bus parking area we visited a same museum that had a model of the castle. The road to the castle was too steep for tour busses so we had to get on a shuttle truck to get to the castle entrance. It was an unusual shuttle built on a truck chassis with four rows of seats in the truck bed arranged so the middle two rows were back to back facing a row facing inward.
A group of Japanese had arrived before we did and we waited until the truck returned after shuttling them up to the castle. Once we arrived at the castle we were met by a man in an ancient warrior costume with a spear, a sword and a shield. Which we assumed was representative of the Muslim warriors of Saladin.
The castle was built by Izz al-Din Usama, a commander and nephew of Saladin, in AD 1184-1185. The fortress is considered one of the very few built to protect the country against Crusader attacks from Kerak in the south and Bisan in the west. From its situation, the fortress dominated a wide stretch of the northern Jordan Valley and protected the communication routes between south Jordan and Syria.
It was built to contain the progress of the Latin Kingdom of Transjordan and as a retort to the castle of Belvoir on the lake of Tiberias. Another major objective of the fortress was to protect the development and control of the iron mines of Ajlun.
The original castle core had four corner towers. Arrow slits were incorporated in the thick walls and it was surrounded by a fosse averaging about 52 feet in width and about 39 to 49 feet in depth. In 1260 AD, the Mongols destroyed sections of the castle, including its battlements. Soon after the victory of the Mamluks over the Mongols at Ain Jalut, Sultan ad-Dhaher Baibars restored the castle and cleared the fosse. Two major destructive earthquakes struck the castle in 1837 and 1927.
We spent about 45 minutes touring the castle and then boarded the shuttle truck for the ride back to our bus. Our next stop was for lunch in Jerash at a tourist restaurant with a small section of tourist trinkets for sale.
After lunch we started a tour of the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, also referred to as Antioch on the Golden River. It is sometimes misleadingly referred to as the "Pompeii of the Middle East or Asia", referring to its size, extent of excavation and level of preservation (though Jerash was never buried by a volcano). Gerasa is considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. It was a city of the Decapolis.
It was the home of Nicomachus of Gerasa (c. 60 – c. 120) one of the greatest mathematicians in human history. He is known for his works Introduction to Arithmetic, The Manual of Harmonics and The Theology of Numbers, as well as many other books. His most famous book Introduction to Arithmetic was written using Arabic numbers, and was subsequently translated into Roman numbers. The book remained a standard mathematics textbook for more than a thousand years.
It was a huge complex with the wide boulevards so common in Roman cities with the foundations of the shops lining the boulevard. In many places the original stone with groves worn by carriage wheels over the centuries of traffic. There were still many roman columns, a large plaza and cross streets.
One area was a stadium for daily chariot races. We saw the chariots but left the site before the scheduled race. It would have been fun to see a live race but we had places to go and more sites to see. We spent almost two hours touring the vast complex and then boarded the bus for the return drive to Amman.
Back at the hotel we cleaned up after the dusty walk around the Gerasa ruins and then Bob and Cathy hosted a party in their room to officially welcome Barbara to the group and debrief our tour of Iraq. They plan on offering the Iraq tour to their other customers and wanted our feedback on our experience.
After the buffet dinner I retired to my room and checked on my laundry from the night before. Most of the items were dry but a few needed another night to fully dry. I retired at 2300.
Oct 25, 2009 (Sunday) Tour Amman, Jordon and then drive to Damascus, Syria
I slept until 0500. My clothes had dried except for the socks which were still slightly damp. I packed up everything and put the socks in a plastic bag. Breakfast was the usual buffet and we boarded our bus at 0700 for a drive to the city. Naiem had the driver take us through the high rent district were the Embassies and wealthy people reside. Amman is known for the number of white buildings.
The Ministry of Tourism describes the history of the city as follows: Amman is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world. Recent excavations have uncovered homes and towers believed to have been built during the Stone Age. In the 3rd century BC, the city was renamed Philadelphia after the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus. The city later came under Seleucid as well as Nabataean rule, until the Roman General Pompey annexed Syria and made Philadelphia part of the Decapolis League – a loose alliance of initially ten free city-states under overall allegiance to Rome. Under the influence of the Roman culture, Philadelphia was reconstructed in typically grand Roman style with colonnaded streets, baths, a theatre and impressive public buildings.
During the Byzantine period, Philadelphia was the seat of a bishop and several churches were built. The city declined somewhat until the year 635 AD. As Islam spread northwards from the Arabian Peninsula, the land became part of its domain. The city reverted to Its original Semitic name Ammon or Amman.
In the 19th century, the Ottomans resettled a colony of Circassian emigrants in 1878. In 1900 the city was estimated to have just 2000 residents. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the State of Transjordan was established. King Abdullah I, founder of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, made Amman his capital in 1921. Amman remained a small city until 1948, when the population expanded considerably due to an influx of Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel. Amman has experienced exceptionally rapid development since 1952 under the leadership of two Hashemite Kings, Hussein of Jordan and Abdullah II of Jordan.
In 1970, Amman was the site of major clashes between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian army. Everything around the Royal Palace sustained heavy damage from shelling. Most of Amman suffered great damage from PLO rockets and the Jordanian army's shells.
The city's population continued to expand at a dizzying pace (fueled by refugees escaping the wartime events in the West Bank and Iraq). The city received refugees from those countries on a number of occasions. The first wave of Palestinian refugees arrived from Israel in 1948, a second wave after the Six-Day War in 1967. A third wave of Palestinian and Jordanian and Southeast Asians, working as domestic workers, refugees arrived in Amman from Kuwait after the Gulf War of 1991. The first wave of Iraqi refugees settled in the city after the first Gulf War, with a second wave also arriving after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the last 10 years the number of new buildings within the city has increased dramatically with new districts of the city being founded at a very rapid pace (particularly in West Amman), straining the very scarce water supplies of Jordan as a whole, and exposing Amman to the hazards of rapid expansion in the absence of careful municipal planning.
We drove east of the center of the city to the Roman Theater. It was 33 rows restored to hold 6,000 people and is an impressive structure with two small museums. A Bedouin drum and bagpipe band in native costume performed for us.
Our next stop was Citadel Hill and the Jordan Archaeological Museum overlooking the city. The museum was not large but it contains three statues thought to be the world’s oldest examples of sculpture. Outside the museum was the ruin of Umayyad Palace dating back to 720 AD, the Byzantine basilica and the pillars of the Temple of Hercules (also known as the Great Temple of Amman). The most impressive building of the Citadel is known as Al-Qasr (the Palac) which dates back to the Islamic Umayyad period. The domed structure dominates the ruins of the Umayyad palace complex. The area was not as large as Gerasa and we completed our tour before 1100.
As we headed out of the city Naiem had the bus stop at a large American style shopping mall. When we entered the mall the first think we encountered was a Mrs. Fields Cookie shop at the base of escalators to many levels. Several of us took the escalators to the top floor where there was an American mall style food court. I purchased a Tuna sandwich at a Subway – just the thing to get my stomach back to normal. Some of the others found a super market and bought the ingredients for lunch. When I exited the mall at the scheduled time I saw Naiem sitting on a bench eating a box lunch from Popeye’s.
We now headed out of the city towards the Syrian border. During our drive we engaged Naiem in his views of the Israeli Palestinian problem. He provided an interesting perspective. In Jordan the Palestinians have been allowed to immigrate and become Jordanian citizens but not so in Syria and Lebanon. In his opinion the Syrians like to stir up trouble in the region by encouraging the Palestinians to not negotiate with the Israelis. Naiem blames the whole situation on the British that ruled the region after World War I and created Israel without a definitive plan for neither the Palestinians nor the agreement of the other Arab countries. He thinks the British are a shifty bunch and pointed out how they conned the US in occupying the Baghdad area of Iraq while they occupied the much safer and less volatile area of Basra.
At the border we bid farewell to Naiem and after several hours to process across the border we were met by our Syrian, guide, Labib. Labib was much younger than Naiem. His father had worked for the Syrian Airline and he had also worked there and for BMI Airline. He was married and had a small child. His English was fair and he used a number of UK terms rather than US terminology.
When I entered Syria my BlackBerry no longer received messages and I learned that they also block Facebook and other social networks. A real head in the sand country!
About 30 minutes from the border we stopped at the town of Bosra to tour the 15,000 seat theater. It is unusual for a Roman theater in that it was not built into the side of a hill but rather is free standing in a flat area. The theater was built in the 2 Century AD. It had the great acoustics associated with Roman theaters. We spent about a half an hour touring the theater and then set out for the 85 mile ride to Damascus, arriving at the Dedeman Hotel at about 1800 hrs.
The Dedeman hotel was a 5 star hotel; I had a large room with twin queen size beds and an electrical outlet convenient for my CPAP machine. The buffet dinner was outstanding and after some journal entries I retired at 2300.
Oct 26, 2009 (Monday) Drive to Palmyra, Syria via Maaloula
I awoke to my alarm at 0500, showered, shaved and packed. The breakfast buffet was one of the better we had experienced except they didn’t have a pour your own coffee/tea table and we had to waive down a waiter to get a hot drink. Since I drink tea it seemed that I could only get the coffee waiter. Neal drinks coffee and he seemed to get only the tea waiter (we needed to sit at the same table).
We departed the hotel at 0700 and drove north. About an hour out we arrived in the city of Maaloula, the “Virgin Village,” where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. The city is built on the side of a mountain and we stopped for picture taking on the outskirts. There was a pickup truck alongside the road full of nuts for sale. Neal had a grest time negotiating the purchase of a mixture. We drove into the city and stopped at Eglise Chiesa Kirche Church. The entrance to the church was a low opening that reminded me of Bethlehem. Inside was a beautiful open stone courtyard. From the church we walked to the Covent of Saint Takla, built into the side of the mountain. There was a long flight of stairs to the top and beautiful statues, several brass doors, and a bell tower with an unusual blue cross on top. There were two horizontal members in the cross pointing in four directions. From the Covent there was a trail through a narrow canyon that led to caves dug in the side of the mountain. Three quarters up the mountain was a white statue of the Virgin Mary.
All told we spent about 90 minutes in the city and then drove east to Hassa. We started to see more trees than we had seen in Jordan. Both our guides told us that both countries were full of trees but during the Ottoman period the Turks cut down the trees to be used as railroad ties and firewood. Both countries have embarked on a regrowth effort and Syria is head of Jordan in getting the trees growing along the highway. A strong wind blows from the Mediterranean across the country resulting in the trees growing at a 45 degree angle, leaning toward the east.
About an hour’s drive from our last stop we turned off the highway down a farm road to see two beehive shaped huts. We had seen them in the fields in both Jordan and Syria and now Labib was giving us the opportunity to see them up close and even see the insides. We were not the only tourist bus visiting this farm and the inhabitants were dressed in native costume and posed for photos. I couldn’t tell what kind of farming the people did because he land around their huts was like a desert.
At 1300 we stopped for picture taking of a group of camels grazing alongside the road. Around 1330 we entered the outskirts of the City of Palmyra. The highway split and a new road was under construction. To the north of our road was a huge palace under construction. Labib told us that it was for an Arab Prince and when the new road was complete a road would be dedicated to just the palace.
Twenty minutes later we stopped in the center of the city at the Palmyra Museum where we toured for thirty minutes.
Palmyra is probably the most important and interesting historical attraction in Syria. Mentioned on ancient tablets as early as the 19th C. BC, it was an active trading center and stop along the old Silk Route. The museum described and had relicts from the impressive, well-preserved ruins of Queen Zenobia’s 3rd C empire. Palmyra was occupied by the Arameans and later in 64 BC by the Romans. In 266 AD and after the assassination of her husband, Zenobia claimed the title of Augustus for her infant son Vahaballath. In 272 AD Palmyra capitulated and Zenobia was taken as a prisoner to Rome which signaled the decline of this once great city.
The museum had artifacts from and/or descriptions of the Temples of Bel, Nebo & Baal Shamin, Great Colonnade (which formed the main thoroughfare of the ancient city), Arch of Triumph, Tetrapyle (four groups of four columns only one of which is the original granite), Agora (forum), the Theater, Diocletian baths and the 17th C. AD Ibn Maan Castle.
From the museum we started a tour of the complex. We walked down the Colonnade to the Temple de Bel, the most complete building in the site, then on through the ruins along the Colonnade to the tourist bus stop. From there we then drove to the Elahbel Tower Tomb which we were allowed to enter and climb to the top. Along the way we saw a number of the three to four story square tombs rising from the rocky desert terrain. Next to the Elahbel Tomb was the Three Brother’s Tomb, an underground tomb with beautiful frescoes.
From the tombs we drove back to the ruins and started walking again from the Monumental Arch with two arches built to mask a 30 degree bend in the Colonnade. As we walked up the Colonnade from the arch we came upon the Zenobia Baths with its three parts: Fridgitarium (coal), Tepidarium (warm), and Caldarium (hot). Further along the Colonnade was the Senate, a too modest building for the ruling body of the city. A vestibule leads to a small courtyard with semi-circular tiers of seats. Next we walked through the Agora, the main place for public discussions and commercial exchanges in the city. Noticeable along the Colonnade columns was the aqueduct water system.
The sun was beginning to set so we boarded the bus and drove up the mountain overlooking the City valley to the citadel to try and catch the sunset light on the ruins below. Unfortunately a haze prevented the famous rose coloring to be generated. The citadel was a mob scene with several busloads of tourists and our group was disappointed that we missed a scene we read in the tour books that was a must not to miss.
From the citadel we drove to our hotel, the Dedeman Palmyra; another 5 star hotel with a Las Vegas style lobby. My room was similar to the one in Damascus, and the buffet was similar. I retired about 2200
Oct 27, 2009 (Tuesday) Drive to Aleppo, Syria via Hama & Apamea
I awoke at 0500 to pack, eat an early breakfast and get some Internet time in before our scheduled departure at 0730. The breakfast buffet offered cereal for the first time on the trip. My appetite had returned and I ate a little bit more than I had been eating.
I was able to get on the internet and clean up my inbox and respond to some emails. We departed on time. It had rained during the night and there were pools of water along the side and in some places across the road. The road north took us through farm land where we saw a lot of Gypsy tents. The Gypsies are the migrant farm workers in Syria, moving from crop to crop picking and planting.
Our first stop was in the beautiful city of Hama with its enormous waterwheels that transition the water in the river up to the high aqueducts that run through the city. Even though it had rained during the night the wheels were not turning but we stopped at 0930 for pictures and a WC visit. The area was beautiful around the waterwheels and we even found a Chinese Market which Cathy visited and discovered that there were no Chinese in the market. Mike discovered a stand that sold beer and we stocked up for lunch.
Leaving the city we drove through more farm land, this time past fields of tobacco with special buildings with ventilation holes to dry the leaves. At 1130 we reached the ruins of Apamea (2nd C AD), one of the great ancient sites of Syria. It has some similarities to Palmyra but its structures are gray granite and are set on a high grassy plain. Its colonnade is longer (2km) and has more restored columns than Palmyra with one area of unique spiral columns. We could clearly see the difference between the carriage way with the scars of chariot wheels cut through the stone and the pedestrian walkway with the many small shops that fronted on the colonnade. It took us a hour to walk the colonnade and return to the bus.
Back on the road we passed through villages where there were funny little pickup trucks with decorations that remained us of the Philippines. In some cases the trucks had a single wheel in the front. They were low to the ground and had fake Mercedes grills on many of them.
At 1340 we stopped at a truck stop for lunch and a bio break. I had a beef kabob in a roll of bread. Heading on north we encounter some rain showers and a beautiful rainbow. Our next stop was the ruins of Elba (20th C BC). There has been extensive restoration at the sight laying out the foundation of the city but no columns and few walls. Not much has been written to describe the site but it was worth the visit. It is red stone and there were no other tourists there and there was a team working on the excavation. It is a site that I think will become better known in the future.
We arrived in the city of Aleppo ahead of schedule at 1540 and decided to tour some of the sites we had scheduled for the following day. The bus parked near an entrance to an extensive souk network of covered streets.
Labib took us on a tour of the souk at a fairly brisk pace which didn’t give the vendor’s time to bother us with their wares. It turned out his motivation was to get us to the Mosque of Abraham, the Great (named after Zacharias, father of John the Baptist) before 1600, which he was able to do. We had to remove our shoes of course, and they provided the females with gray robes with pointed hoods. Their faces could show and they looked like characters from Robin Hood. We were allowed to take photographs of the open area which is very large and has a cabana like structure in the center. The Mosque has a square minaret which is a little out of the ordinary. We only spent 20 minutes in the Mosque and then visited a Serai the Holiday Inns of the Silk Road. There are many in Iran at set intervals but not that many left in Syria. Inside the two story structure, is the open area where the caravans would trade their goods. I noticed that the Switzerland Consulate had their offices in this one.
We returned to the bus via the souk, again at a brisk pace with no time to shop for any goods. It took some time to drive to the hotel, Labib wanted us to see more of the city and we actually drove past the hotel before we finally came back to check in about 1730.
My room was similar to the previous night except that the only electrical outlet near the bed was for the bedside lamp. I went to the reception desk and ask them if they had a power strip. The desk clerk could not understand what I was asking for and asked me if I spoke French. I replied that I didn’t and tried drawing a picture. Finally one of the Bell Boys came over with a 3 to 1 plug. I returned to my room and found the device to not work because the European socket is recessed. I return to Reception and got them to follow me to the Business Office where I showed them a Power Cord with three outlets. The IT Tech arrived and gave me the Power Strip from the Business Office. When I returned to my room and tried plugging in the bedside table lamp it would not fit so I returned the Power Strip to Reception.
Back in my room I moved an end table near a wall outlet and plugged in the bedside lamp and used my own power strip on the side of the bed for my CPAP machine and other devices. At the desk connected my laptop and and wrote in my journal until it was time to go to dinner.
I took my laptop to dinner and after eating I went to the Business Office and connected to the Internet and cleaned up my inbox and responded to some emails.
I returned to my room and retired at 2100.
Oct 28, 2009 (Wednesday) Tour Aleppo and St. Simon
I awoke first at 0500 but since we were not scheduled to start our touring until 0830 I decided to sleep until 0600. At 0630 I went down to breakfast toting by laptop. I had cereal again with fruit and yogurt. The whole oranges were still green but were delicious when I cut into one. The rest of the group started to arrive but I excused myself to go to the lobby and connect to the internet.
I had the usual 40 or so email messages, many were repeats of the news line that 48 percent of Americans want to increase the troop strength in Afghanistan and the World Series was scheduled to start Wednesday night. I answered a few messages and cleaned up my inbox and returned to my room.
We boarded the bus at 0830 for a 45 minute drive out of the city to Qala’at Samaan, the most famous of what are called the “Dead Cities” to visit the Basilica of St. Simeon, once the largest Christian building in the Middle East. It was built in the 5th C AD after the death of Simeon, a Syrian shepherd who spent 36 years of his life preaching from the top of a massive column around which the Basilica was built. Simeon was the son of a Sheppard that first joined the monastery at around the age of 20 around 400 AD. He found the monastery life to not be ascetic enough and retreated into a cave where he lived in self-imposed severity. Pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem would stop and seek his blessing. He apparently resented the intrusion and built a column on top of which he lived. This just increased the flow of people seeking his blessings, so he increased the height of the column until it was 18 meters high. He preached from the column and would shout answers to questions to the men below but would not address women including his mother. He lived there with a railing and a chain that prevented him from falling off in his sleep until his death.
After Simeon died the column became a holy site and eventually the Basilica was built over it. Adjacent to the Basilica was built a large Baptismal. Many of the walls of both buildings still stand but the column has been reduced to just a large bolder as Pilgrims chipped off pieces.
When our bus arrived at 0920 there already were at least six large buses of tourists on the site. We headed for the Baptismal building first and then to the Basilica. It was difficult to get pictures without a tourist in the setting. We spent an hour touring the site and then headed back to Aleppo.
The road was well paved except that there were a lot of speed bumps and ditches across the road that had not been properly filled that made it a very bouncing ride. The area is called the “Dead Cities” with ancient abandon stone houses and buildings. Syria is full of them and there is no official explanation on why the cities were abandoned. Speculation is that the trade routes shifted and the people shifted with them. I was amazed at the rock strewn fields that we passed. There were rock walls all over the place some even with cement and true square dimensions but with just a field of rocks inside. At one point we saw several dozen 3 to 4 story villas partially constructed with no activity in sight to finish them.
We returned to the city by 1100 to visit the Aleppo National Museum. No photos were allowed inside the museum but some of the most photogenic figures were outside the entrance. They were two story wide-eyed characters replication of pillars that supported a 8th or 9th BC temple unearthed in Tell Halaf in north east Syria. Inside were pieces on display from many of the archeological sites in Syria.
We spent an hour visiting the museum. Our next stop scheduled for the day was the Aleppo Citadel but on the way we stopped at a Bank to exchange money. The hotel had been reluctant to change money and there had not been the tourist Money Exchange offices at the Basilica or the Museum like one would expect. Along the way we passed the most crowded small bus of school kids you could image. It had about four rows of seats and these 5 to 8 year olds were crammed in so their faces were pressed against the glass. There were three little boys next to the driver in the front seat. I wasn’t able to get a good picture that would show the situation.
At 1245 we arrived at the Citadel. It dominates the Aleppo skyline. It was started in 3 C BC. It was entered by crossing a 30 meter wide moat and passing through massive 12th century gates. It was built to withstand almost any kind of attack but to Labib’s knowledge it never was attacked. Within the walls there are still excavations and restorations taking place but there are many buildings, rooms, several Mosques, a Café on the top with beautiful views of the city, and an outdoor theater. It was hazy during the time we were there so my pictures are not that impressive of the city views. One large Mosque was impressive. It had stained glass windows in the dome and beautifully carved wooden ceiling and chandeliers. We also visited a steam bath with a unique dome to let the steam escape without cooling the bath. Our tour took about one hour.
Across from the entrance was a series of outdoor cafés and just a long block away was the enterance to the souk we had visited the day before. Several of the group wanted to have lunch while four of us went shopping with Labib. I had left my razor at one of the hotels and thought it would be easy to purchase another in this large souk. Bob Prada had snapped a strap on his sandals and was in search of a shoe repair shop. We walked through the complete souk and across a main street until we found a stall that sold razors. I get my replacement for less than I would have paid in the states and left the group to return to the bus area. Bob and Cathy continued on with Labib to find a shoe repair stall.
Back at the restaurant I found Neal, Barbara, Edna and Ed eating lunch. I had a Diet Coke and some of Neal’s flat bread (he can’t eat bread) and then I walked to the bus. The bus was supposed to leave at 1500 but I guess the driver had not been told. Eventually he was found and we returned to the hotel where I was able to write up the day’s activates.
At 1900 I took my laptop with me to dinner. Dinner was similar to the previous nights except Bob started a political discussion with Labib. At one point I was through eating and planned to leave to connect to the Internet but the discussion was concerning the Holocaust. I asked Labib what Syrians thought about the President of Iran denying that it ever happened. He replied that the Germans planned on exterminating the Arabs after the Jews. Again I asked him directly about where Syrians believed that there had been a Holocaust and he replied that he had never heard of the Holocaust. At this point I excused myself to go to the lobby and use my laptop to connect to the Internet. Labib had been telling us that we didn’t know the truth of the situation in the Middle East because the media is biased and he knew more than we did and yet he never heard of the Jewish Holocaust. Give me a break!! I am glad the timing was such that I was leaving anyway. Later on members of the group asked me if I left because of his answer or was I planning on leaving at that point anyway. If Labib interpreter my leaving as disapproval of his uninformed answer then I am glad.
I was able to connect and clean up my inbox. Laurie can out to the lobby and talked to the Manager. Apparently the Wine Steward was over charging and she was blowing the whistle on him to the Manager. I then remembered that I had not paid for my beer and returned to pay. The Wine Stward charged me 200 Pounds. I heard later that he was charging as much as 500 Pounds before Laurie got the Manager involved.
I was able to retire at 2100.
Oct 29, 2009 (Thursday) Drive to Lattakia, Syria via Ugarit
I awoke at 0500 to pack and get some internet time. At 0630 I had finished packing and lugged my bags to the lobby. I then proceeded to breakfast. I had the usual, cereal, a whole orange, tea and a roll with jam. After breakfast I signed on the Internet, responded to some emails and cleaned up my inbox.
At 0800 we boarded the bus and headed towards the coast. About 50 minutes out it started to rain which slowed the driving. In addition the road was over the mountains and was slow in some places.
We stopped at 1000 for a bio break at a roadside restaurant. It had stopped raining at this point and the driver had the bus washed. We drove another hour to the Castle of Salah ad-Din. It was very remote and we had to be bused to the castle in a minivan over a very twisted road.
TE Lawrence described the castle as follows: “It was the most sensational thing in castle building I have seen.” It is located on a very wooded mountain with steep sides on all sides. UNESCO has added it to its World Heritage list. The castle was built by the Byzantines I the 10th Century and taken over by the Crusaders in the 12th Century. The armies of Saladin captured the castle in 1188.
After the minivan driver let us off a Syrian TV reporter and cameraman approached us and interviewed Ed and Edna.
We climbed about 80 steps to get to the entrance and then toured the castle for about an hour. Some areas were still intact and others in disrepair but overall we got a good sense on the layout of the castle. At the far end of the castle is a Coffee Shop which once served as a summer vacation home for the Kings daughters.
It took us an hour to tour the site and by then it was close to 1300 so many of us ate lunch on the bus as we drove on to Lattakia. I finished my nuts and ate an apple and a banana I had picked up at breakfast. The road was still through the mountains and the driver was not able to drive very fast. Eventually we entered Lattakia, the largest seaport in Syria and the country’s third largest city. It is the most westernized city in Syria. We drove through the outskirts on to our next stop at Ugarit.
Ugarit contains ruins of a city that flourished between the 16th and 17th Century BC. It was a busy trade center and is renowned as the birth of the alphabet. Prior to the tablets found on the site symbols were used to document things. The tablets discovered in Ugarit indicated the use of an alphabet to define words and describe things. It is known as the “Lost city of Ugarit,” founded in the 2nd Millennium BC in its present form—a former learning and trading center (once the most important city on the Mediterranean coast and birthplace of the earliest known alphabet). It was not known until 1928 when an Alawite peasant found an old tomb and unwittingly uncovered the ancient Necropolis, it was an important city on early trade routes dating back as far as the 6th C BC. It contained excavations of a massive royal palace with 90 rooms, private dwellings and two primary temples dedicated to Baal and Dagon. Tablets in seven different scripts describing the activities of the time were also found at the site and are in museums in Aleppo and Damascus.
The site is not very large and has not been restored but it was interesting. We got down into the ruins off the defined path and had fun getting back to the entry pointy. Labib led several people in one direction while Bill lead others up a hill in what turned out to be a farmer’s house and was told to get out. I was in a middle group that eventually found the entry without alienating the farmer but arrived after the Labib’s group did.
It was then 1430 and considered too early to go to the hotel so we stopped at a sea side complex of pizza shops. I was determined to not eat any more lunch but found the beer interesting. I had been perspiring on the walk and had rolled up my sleeves and a beer was very appealing. For 75 Syrian Pounds ($1.65), they had a large Danish beer called FAXE which was 10% alcohol. I bought one and sat with Bob, Cathy, Mike, Neal and Barbara. Cathy and Barbara ordered pizza and insisted that the rest of us try a piece. It was tasty and Cathy keep ordering different verities and I bought another beer.
I think with the 10% beer we were all having a good time when we boarded the bus for the drive to the hotel.
We checked in to the Afamia Rotana, a 5 star hotel right on the Mediterranean Sea. It had beautiful views of the Lattakia harbor. It had an Internet cable in the room and had a small charge per hour. I had some difficulty getting their login instructions to work and I took my laptop down to the reception and they couldn’t follow the instructions either, so they called the IT Manager and he gave me a new set of username and password to use.
Dinner was the usual buffet that we had been experiencing during the trip. After dinner I logged on to the Internet and cleaned up my inbox. The country was going off Daylight Saving Time so I reset my clocks and retired at 2100 Standard Time.
Oct 30, 2009 (Friday) Drive to Beirut, Lebanon via Tripoli & Bybios
During the night several thunderstorms hit the area. The hotel faced the harbor and I had a balcony. The combination of the balcony and the harbor increased the resonance of the thunder so it woke me up every time. The hotel power failed several times during the night and when the CPAP machine stopped that also woke me up. Needless to say, it was not a very restful night.
At 0500 I got up and decided to write some emails. Breakfast was scheduled to start at 0700 but I wheeled my bags to the lobby at 0645 and discovered that breakfast was already open. I had cereal and then setup my laptop in the lobby to use some more of my Internet time. My hotel bill for two hours of Internet and a beer for dinner the night before came to $7.50.
We departed the hotel at 0800 and drove for two hour to the castle Crac des Chevaliers (also known as Krac des Chevaliers). During the drive we discussed politics, both US and Syrian. At one point Labib was complaining that he could not get a visa to visit Jerusalem and I told him that it was his country’s fault, not the Israelis. All Syria has to do is recognize the State of Israel and sign the peace treaty to allow the passage of people between the two countries. He knew I was right and just looked at us with an embarrassed stare conceding that he had lost his argument.
We arrived at the castle around 1000. It was a picture book imposing sight as we drove down from an adjacent ridge. T.E. Lawrence called the castle Crac des Chevaliers the finest castle in the world.
It was built 800 years ago and is very well preserved and sits high on a mountain that has a steep winding road to reach it. The original structures date back to 1031 but it was the Crusader Knights around the middle of the 12 century, who expanded it into the castle it is today. To a large extent it is the model that play castles copy. It has an outer wall with very steep slanted sides and then a moat and the inner castle. The rooms are huge and the views of the surrounding terrain would make it very difficult for an enemy to launch a surprise attack. After five years of an Islamic siege the Crusaders surrendered on the promise of safe passage once they learned that the Holy Land had not been won.
We spent almost two hours touring the castle. Forty five minutes after we left the castle we were at the Lebanon border where we bid good bye to Labib and picked up a new guide. Her name was Francoise and she was a professor of architecture at the Beirut University. It took two hours for us to process through the border during which time it rained on and off.
From the border we drove to Tripoli for a late lunch. It was 1530 before we started to eat a typical Lebanon meal with hummus and the best salad I have had since I left California. While we were eating there was a strong rain storm. By the time we were ready to board the bus the rain had let up a little but the sun had set and we drove through flooded streets to see the sites of Tripoli. We didn’t see much and then headed up the mountains to the Ski Resort we were scheduled to stay in. It was the Hotel Chbat, a Swiss chalet style hotel in the Cedars ski area. It was rustic. My room had a single bed and a bunk bed. They was an outlet near the bedside table so it was easy for me to hook up my CPAP machine and rechargers. The bathroom was adequate but I did have a cockroach in the tub and there was no shampoo.
They had free WiFi in the lobby and I tried to connect to the Internet but the bandwidth was such that I could not delete unwanted messages so I quit and had a beer with the owner, Mike and Neal. The owner showed us pictures of the snow fall they receive in the area. After several weeks in the Arab desert it was a little hard to comprehend. Dinner was at 1900 and included lentil soup and beef plus the salads, hummus and flat bread. I sat next Francoise and she told us about her teaching and some of the tour groups she has guided. She was really passionate about Lebanon and feels sympathetic about the plight of the Palestinian Refugees but is adamant that they should not be granted Lebanese citizenship. She is Christian and the way the Lebanon government is setup with a division between the various religious sects, granting Palestinians citizenship would upset the delicate balance between sects since Muslims are encouraged to have as many children as possible.
After dinner I wrote in my journal and retired early.
Oct 31, 2009 (Saturday) Tour Beirut and Jita Grottos
My backup alarm woke me at 0500 and I tried sleeping until six but the sound of rain outside my window precluded me from getting an extra hour of sleep. I was the first one with my bags packed and put out in the hall. I tried the Internet again but again the connection was so weak it was frustrating and I quit and packed up my laptop and headed for breakfast. I had cereal, toast, tea and an apple.
I help one of the ladies from the Hotel wheel the bags out to the bus. We had a different and larger bus and a new driver. When I went back to get the bag that I carry on the bus the others boarded the bus so I ended up on the back row. Francoise told me the front seat was open so I took it. It was right behind the driver. Sometimes Francoise would occupy the seat next to me but she liked to talk facing the passengers.
Our first site was Lebanon Cedars. We drove up the mountain, stopping along the way for photos of the valley and various churches and village scenes. The driver was a photographer and knew the best stops for Laurie and Bob Ihsen to take photographs. Of course the rest of us would also pile out of the bus and take a number of pictures with our digital cameras while Laurie and Bob were more precise in getting just the right shot of the site.
We stopped at a site where there was a cedar overhanging the road that is estimated to be over 160 years old. Across the street and down in a gully was the cedar that served as the model for the Lebanon flag and a few hundred yards away stood the cedar used as the model on Lebanon money. We were lucky that the rain had stopped at this point.
We headed back down the mountain and stopped in Bcharre to visit the Khalil Gibran Museum and site of his coffin. I have to admit that I had never heard of him. He is the most famous poet and artist from Lebanon. He produced most of his work in the US and France during the first decades of the 20th Century. The museum had for sale copies of his books, the most popular was titled The Prophet. There were four floors of his paintings which were mostly in oil but he did do a number of pencil and charcoal works. The paintings were mostly nude bodies in positions that supported his philosophy of life, friendship, marriage and children. I was impressed and wondered if my father knew him since he was in both France and New York at the same period of the 1920’s. Gibran died in 1931 at the age 49 from emphysema and requested that his body be returned to his home village in Lebanon. We spent an hour visiting the museum. Unfortunately they did not allow photographs in the museum.
Three hours later we had descended down the mountain for a stop at Byblos (Jbell or Jbail)). Byblos is another candidate for the claim of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city-according to some experts since the 5th Millennium BC. It is attractive to archaeologists because of the successive layers of debris resulting from centuries of human habitation. The Phoenician alphabet was developed at Byblos, and the site has yielded almost all of the known early Phoenician inscriptions, most of them dating from the 10th century BC.
The site was discovered in 1860 by Ernest Renan during a French survey. Since 1920, it was excavated by the Egyptologist Pierre Montet and then from 1924 by Mauice Dunand for over 60 years, at the request of the Lebanese General Directorate of Antiquities.
The archaeological excavations yielded monuments and objects of great value illustrating the reputation and the particularity of the city through millennia. There were 16 buildings in the complex. Among them was the "Temple of the Obelisks", so called because of huge amount of obelisks stone found within, and many precious objects were discovered kept in sealed pottery jars and hidden under the floors.
To get to the entrance the bus had to drive down a boulevard with ruins in the middle. At the end of the boulevard was a U turn where we were dropped off. From the drop off point we walked through a souk to the entrance to the ruins. We spent over an hour touring the ruins. The site had spectacular views of Mediterranean and the city from the highest points in the 12th C. crusader castle.
From Byblos we drove to the Jeita Grotto, along the way we decided to stop for a quick lunch. We decided that we wanted to have a quick lunch before we reached Jeita. Francoise had told us a story on how popular MacDonald’s was in her neighborhood and just then we passed a MacDonald’s and voted to stop there. It was in the city of Jounieh which has been built up with western style malls and gambling casinos. What was interesting about that decision is that few members of the group would eat at a MacDonald’s in the US. Half the group bought a sundae at the MacDonald’s. We saved time by eating on the bus on the way to Jeita.
The Jeita Grotto is a compound of two separate but interconnected limestone caves spanning an overall length of nearly 5.6 miles. Although the caves appeared to have been inhabited in prehistoric times, the lower cave was not rediscovered until 1836 by Reverend William Thomson; it can only be visited by boat since it channels an underground river that provides fresh drinking water to more than a million Lebanese.
In 1958, Lebanese speleologists discovered the upper galleries 200 feet above the lower cave. We started our tour in the upper cave which is famous for its formations, lit by an effective lighting system. The entrance to the cave is reached by cable car or a “Disney-like” train from the Tourist Bus parking lot. We elected to take the cable car to the entrance, a 380 feet long concrete tunnel into three huge chambers. The first was called White Chamber, the second Red Chamber, due to the color of the formations. White dripstones are pure calcite without defilement; the red color is given by iron oxide (rust) in small amounts. In Lebanon iron oxide has a red color instead of the brown beige color which is common in northern countries. The reason is a different chemical reaction caused by the high temperature which produces a different kind of iron oxide. The White Chamber was medium sized, but has the most impressive formations of the cave. The Red Chamber was up to 350 feet high, and 98 feet to 160 feet wide. The third chamber is the biggest of all three chambers and had a height of more than 390 ft. The longest stalactite in the world is located in Jeita's White Chamber; it measures 27 feet long. At the end of the tourist path in the upper cave was a small theater where concerts were occasionally held.
Cameras were not allowed in the grotto which was unfortunate because the scenery was spectacular. Aside from being a Lebanese national symbol and a top tourist destination, the Jeita grotto plays an important social, economic and cultural role and is a finalist in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition.
From the grotto we drove into the city of Beirut, devastated by a recent civil war (1975-1991) and beginning to return to its days of glory as the “Paris of the Middle East”. It is undergoing a massive restoration. Although references to the city date back to the 15th C. BC and excavations have established thriving civilizations centuries earlier, little of the ancient structures remain.
Francoise led us on a walking tour of what is called the “Down Town Visit” which in her tour book has been divided in to 16 Sectors:
Sector 1: The Canaanite Tell. There we saw the Dog’s Cemetery, two Greek towers; well preserved mud brick walls, the leaning walls; and the Crusader Castle.
Sector 2: We walked through The Martyrs' Square (also known as “Canons Square”), past the Cinema Opera, and the Mohammad al Amine Mosque.
Sector 3: The Churches Quarter. Before the Civil War this area contained many specialized souks. We walked by the Maronite St. Georges Cathedral, the Orthodox St. Georges Cathedral, the Nourieh Chapel, and the Greek Catholic St. Elijah Cathedral.
Sector 4: We walked along Weygand Street past the Al-Nahar building, Samir Kassir Square and the Amir Assaf Mosque.
Sector 5: We walked along Foch Street, past the Abou Bakr Mosque.
Sector 6: We walked past The Souks of Beirut which are now in buildings like western style shopping malls.
Sector 7: Along Maarad Street we walked past the Al-Omari Mosque, Civil Roman Basilica and around Star Square.
Sector 8: We walked Riyad el Solh Street, Banks Street and Emir Beshir Street where we saw the Prince Munzer Assaf Mosque.
Sector 9: Walking along Sreril Hill we came upon The Roman Bathhouse, a large ruin excavation that stretches for blocks. Above the Bathhouse was the the Grand Seril, which is now a government palace with guards which prohibited us from taking photographs of the building. Along the walkway was Omar Onsi Garden and at the end of the area was the Ottoman Clock Tower
Sector 10: In this sector we saw the remains of the Roman Hippodrome. Then we walked by the Maghen Abraham Synagogue, one of the most beautiful synagogues in the Orient.
Sector 11: Southwest of Riyad Solh Square we walked by the Garden of Gibran Khalil Gibran, the great Lebanese writer and painter whose museum we had visited the day before.
Sector 12: Riyad el Solh Square named for Riyad el Solh (1894 – 1951) who was the first Prime Minister of Lebanon (1943–1945), after the country's independence. Like all of his successors as prime minister of Lebanon, he was a Sunni Muslim. He later served as prime minister of Lebanon again from December 14, 1946 to February 14, 1951. Several months after leaving office, he was assassinated in Amman, Jordan by a member of the Syrian Nationalist Party. He was known as one of the most important personalities in Lebanon’s struggle for independence and as a person able to unify Lebanon’s various religious groups in the struggle for independence. In the area we walked past The Grand Theatre and the Maronite Cathedral of Saint George.
Sector 13: Saifi Village is on the edge of the Down Town area. We didn’t walk that far.
Sector 14: Georges Haddad Avenue is also on the edge of the Down Town area. We didn’t walk that far.
Sector 15: Fuad Shehab Avenue is also on the edge of the Down Town area. We didn’t walk that far.
Sector 16: The Waterfront is also on the edge of the Down Town area. We didn’t walk that far.
At 1615 we checked into the Lancaster Hotel. My room had twin beds and outlets convenient for my CPAP machine. I attempted to get an Internet connection but needed a User ID and password from the front desk. When I went to the front desk they told me that they didn’t have the current password and they had tried to contact their ISP and since it was the weekend they could not get help. I walked across the street to see if that hotel had an Internet connection. They didn’t have one either and they couldn’t direct me to an Internet Café in the general area.
I returned to the hotel and ran into Mike in the lobby. He had also attempted to find an Internet connection without success. We then headed to the bar only to be told it was closed for private party, but we could get a drink in the café. When we ordered a beer in the café the waiter told us they didn’t sell beer so we left. When I got in their small (Paris style) elevator there was another couple in the elevator. The door closed and the elevator didn’t move. We pushed all the buttons and it still didn’t move. I then rang the bell and didn’t hear anybody outside helping us so I started banging on the door. The other guy in the elevator started prying the edge of the door and as I continued to bang on the door it finally budged so he could pry it open.
When I went down for dinner, I discovered that the Restaurant was also closed for the Private Party and we would be served a sit down dinner in the café. One of the group ordered a beer and Mike and I were surprised when the waiter that had turned us down earlier took the order. When he came to me he asked me if I was the one trapped in the elevator and when I replied that I was he told me my beer would be on the house. Mike and I could not get a clear explanation on why we were turned down earlier. The dinner was a delicious fish with lemon sauce.
When we left the café after dinner we found the lobby full of teenagers and the sound of loud music from the Bar and Restaurant. I walked up the stairs to my room and retired early.
Nov 01, 2009 (Sunday) Drive to Damascus, Syria via Baalbek & Anjar
I awoke at 0600 for a 0730 scheduled departure. Breakfast was the usual buffet and I had cereal and fruit. We boarded the bus for a short drive to the famous Beirut Cornish where we exited the bus at the Pigeons’ Rock (also known as the Rock of Raouché). Located at Beirut's western-most tip, the two huge rock formations, which stand like gigantic sentinels, form a golden rectangle is a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio. A distinctive feature of this shape is that when a square section is removed, the remainder is another golden rectangle, that is, with the same proportions as the first. Square removal can be repeated infinitely, which leads to an approximation of the golden or Fibonacci spiral. The rock formation reminded me of Cabo San Lucas except the opening was in a rectangle shape rather than an arch.
From the rocks we walked along the Cornish taking pictures of the scenery and observed the joggers, walkers and bicycle riders. The Cornish is the seaside promenade in Beirut. It is lined with palm trees, and a waterfront boulevard with a magnificent view of the Mediterranean and the summits of Mount Lebanon to the east. It had rained during the night and it was overcast so our pictures were not as good as we would have liked and before we caught up to our bus at the American University it started to rain.
The rain was light and as we drove out of the city Francoise had the bus drive through some of the areas we had not walked through the previous afternoon. One stark reminder of the civil war is the Holiday Inn. This 30 story building stands vacant with large holes in its side from rocket fire during the civil war. A Japanese company has purchased the building but they have not started to tear it down or remodel it.
We drove north to the city of Jounieh and then headed across the mountains into the Bekaa Valley. We stopped for a break in Zahle before driving up the valley. In the valley we passed several checkpoints that were manned by Hezbollah solders. Both our guide and driver had positive things to say about the Hezbollah leadership which they see as caring for the Palestinian refugees more than their elected leaders in Palestine. But, like the Syrians, they do not allow Palestinians to immigrate, become citizens, or be granted licenses to their professionals (lawyers, doctors, architects, etc.) to practice outside the refugee camps. The problem is in Lebanon is the delicate balance between religious groups and if the Palestinians were granted citizenship their large numbers a tendency to have large families would soon become the dominate group in the country.
One thing that caught my attention as we drove through the small towns was the advertising for Dutch Boy Paint. It was almost as prevalent as ads for Coca Cola. When I told Francoise that my father had painted the Dutch Boy for their advertising and Painter’s Magazine and that I had often posed for his paintings she was impressed because Dutch Boy paint was so popular in the country. I had also seen ads for it in Syria but not as prevalent as in the Bekaa Valley.
By 1030 we had reached the city of Baalbeck (Baalbek, Heliopolis or the “Sun City” of the ancient world), one of the largest and best preserved ancient Roman sites (and the finest in the Middle East). it is the most important archeological site in Lebanon. The Greeks and Romans dedicated the city to the God of the Sun, father of all gods. It was conquered by Alexander the Great and later by Roman emperors; it was frequently visited by the likes of Pompey, Julius Caesar and Hadrian. Despite the destruction caused by a series of earthquakes and invasions by Arabs and Tamerlane, it has been restored to much of its original splendor.
Our first stop was at what is advertised as the largest stone in the world. At the southern entrance of Baalbeck is a quarry where the stones used in the temples were cut. A huge block, considered the largest hewn stone in the world, still sits where it was cut almost 2,000 years ago. Called the "Stone of the Pregnant Woman", it is 21.5m x 4.8m x 4.2meters in size and weighs an estimated 1,000 tons. The stone quarry was used as the city dump up until 1991 when a Lebanese solider decided to clean up the area. After he retired from the Army he worked full time to remove the trash, get the city to establish a trash collection service and use a new dump area. When people would still dump their trash in the quarry he would sift through trash, find something that would lead him to the individual and then confront the individual and ask them to stop dumping in the quarry. As a result he has a nice well-kept area around the stone and a small tourist shop.
We stopped for a bio and photo break before driving to the Roman ruins. We spent several hours touring the site. Francoise went into great detail in explaining the architecture of the site. The first survey and restoration work at Baalbeck was begun by the German Archaeological Mission in 1898. In 1922 French scholars undertook extensive research and restoration of the temples, work which was continued by the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities.
Baalbeck's temples were built on an ancient tell that goes back at least to the end of the third millennium B.C. Little is known about the site during this period, but there is evidence that in the course of the 1rst millennium B.C. an enclosed court was built on the ancient tell. An altar was set in the center of this court in the tradition of the biblical Semitic high places.
During the Hellenistic period (333-64 B.C.) the Greeks identified the god of Baalbeck with the sun god and the city was called Heliopolis or City of the Sun. At this time the ancient enclosed court was enlarged and a podium was erected on its western side to support a temple of classical form. Although the temple was never built, some huge construction from the Hellenistic project can still be seen. It was over the ancient court that the Romans placed the present Great Court of the Temple of Jupiter.
We were left off across the street from the small circular structure known as the Temple of Venus estimated to have been built in the mid-3rd century. In front of the Temple of Venus were the ruins of the Muse Temple. The north and northest side of the ruins were pillars of the Portico. After picture taking we of this complex we walked to the main entrance
Our tour group entered the complex via the Propylaea and entered the Hexagonal Court. The Propylaea and the Hexagonal Court of the Jupiter temple were added in the 3rd century under the Severan Dynasty (193-235 A.D.) and work was presumably completed in the mid-3rd century. From the Hexagonal Court we entered the Great Court Complex of the Temple of Jupiter, with its porticoes, exedra, altars and basins, which were built in the 2nd century A.D. The view was breath taking as I could picture in my mind what it would have been like in its heyday.
In the center of the court was the Tower, farther along, the Sacrificial Alter and the court was ringed by columns. Straight ahead was the Temple of Jupiter. The temple was begun in the last quarter of the 1rst century B.C., and was nearing completion in the final years of Nero's reign (37-68 A.D.). The Temple measures 288x157 feet and stands on a podium 42 feet above the surrounding terrain and 22 feet above the courtyard. It was reached by a monumental stairway.
When Christianity was declared an official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., Byzantine Emperor Constantine officially closed the Baalbeck temples. At the end of the 4th century, the Emperor Theodosius tore down the altars of Jupiter's Great Court and built a basilica using the temple's stones and architectural elements. The remnants of the three apses of this basilica, originally oriented to the west, were seen in the upper part of the stairway of the Temple of Jupiter. After the Arab conquest in 636 the temples were transformed into a fortress.
On the south side of the temple stood the six large Corinthian Columns which are often used as the signature picture for Baalbeck. Originally the Temple was surrounded by 54 external columns, most of them now lie in fragments on the ground. The six standing columns are joined by an entablature decorated with a frieze of bulls and lions' heads connected by garlands. The Podium is built with some of the largest stone blocks ever hewn. On the west side of the podium is the "Trilithon", a celebrated group of three enormous stones weighing about 800 tons each. During the construction of the Temple it was decided to furnish the Temple with a monumental extension of the podium which, according to Phoenician tradition, had to consist of no more than three layers of stone. This decision initiated the cutting, transporting and lifting of the largest and heaviest stones of all times. Not only had a wall of 42 feet in height to be composed of three ranges of stones, but in the interest of appearance the middle blocks were made of a length four times their height. Adding to this a depth equal to the height of the stones, they had to be of a volume of up to 1312 cubic feet per block, corresponding to a weight of almost 1000 tons. Technically, the builders of Baalbeck proved that they could do it, since three such blocks of the middle layer are in place, but in terms of time they did not succeed - the podium remained incomplete. Nevertheless, so awe-inspiring were those blocks to all beholders ever after, that Baalbeck was known for a long time primarily as the site of the three stones, the trilithon.
From the Temple we toured the Arabic Citadel and Mosque ruins and then climbed down to a lower level. After a group picture with the Corinthian Columns in the background we toured the Bacchus Temple and then we entered a long exit tunnel with a small museum which some of us toured before we exited the site and boarded our bus.
It was after noon and we were a little exhausted and hungry from the lengthy tour of the complex. Francoise had a treat in store for lunch. We were driven to the Monte Alberto hotel and resort in Zahle, with a spectacular setting overlooking beautiful Wadi Zahle and the Berdawni River. There, we had a a large lunch consisting of Lebanese foods, several different flavored hummus, flat bread and kebabs.
From Zahle we drove to Anjar, home to a large Armenian Apostolic community (our driver was a proud Armenian from the area). It had started to rain but we stopped at Umayyad walled city ruins dating back to the 8th century. A few of us with rain gear joined Francoise for a tour of the ruins. She again gave us a detailed description of the site and its architectural and engineering details.
Anjar is completely different from the other archaeological sites in Lebanon. The other historical sites in the country have different epochs and civilizations which were superimposed one on top of each other. Anjar is exclusively one period, the Umayyad and is a relative new-comer, going back to the early 8th Century AD. It also stands unique as the only historic example of an inland commercial center. The city benefited from its strategic position on intersecting trade routes leading to Damascus, Homs, Baalbeck and to the South. This almost perfect quadrilateral of ruins lies in the midst of some of the richest agricultural land in Lebanon. It is only a short distance from gushing springs and one of the important sources of the Litani River. The name, “Anjar" comes from the Arabic Ain Gerrah, "the source of Gerrah", the name of an ancient stronghold founded in the era prior to Hellenistic times. Anjar has a special beauty. The city's slender columns and fragile arches stand in contrast to the massive bulk of the nearby Anti-Lebanon Mountains - an eerie background for Anjar's extensive ruins and the memories of its short but energetic moment in history.
We spent about an hour touring the site in the rain before we boarded our bus for the short drive to the Syrian border where we bid good bye to Francoise and were reunited with Labib. It took us one hour to process across the border.
The sun had set and the hour and one half drive to Damascus was in the dark. We checked into the Dedeman Hotel again and had the buffet dinner. My room was similar to the one I had formerly stayed in. I had lost BlackBerry service again when we entered Syria. I was able to send a short message out from the hotel on the internet and retired at 2300.
Nov 02, 2009 (Monday) Tour Damascus, Syria
I arose at 0700 for the last full day of the tour. Breakfast was the usual except we had difficulty getting tea or coffee. The restaurant was crowded with lots of waiters and supervisors but they were more concerned about bussing the tables than serving the guests. The supervisors seemed preoccupied with the display of food. Cathy was the last one to arrive for breakfast and it took over 10 minutes for her to get coffee after I requested it for her from several waiters and two supervisors.
We boarded the bus at 0830 in a light rain. Our first stop was the National Museum and it was tricky to get the bus to the entrance. Our guide had expected it to be open at 0830 but found that it did not open until 0900. Bob Prada, Neal and I walked in the garden in the rain to take pictures of some of the objects outside the museum. At 0900 a number of busloads of tourists crowded the front entrance and when all our group assembled our guide had to vary his tour of the museum to have us visit rooms without another guide talking to a group.
It was an interesting museum coming at the end of our days in Syria because it contained artifacts from the many sites we had visited and that made them easier to relate to their origin. As an example the museum entrance was relocated from Palmyra. We saw artifacts from Bosra, Maaloula, Apamea, Basilica of St Simeon, Palmyra and Ugarit.
Damascus is a metropolis of 4 million people and the chief manufacturing and trading center of Syria. It is said to be the world’s oldest inhabited capital. Written history mentions the city in the 15th C BC but recent excavations date the site more than one thousand years before that time. The city has been conquered and settled by numerous civilizations throughout the ages, it has one of the richest histories of any city in the world. Israel’s King David, the Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar, the Persians and Alexander the Great were early victors in battles there. By the time of Christ, Damascus had become an important Roman city. It adopted Christianity in the 4th C. AD only to be converted to Islam during the 7th C. with many of the early churches changed into mosques. Subsequent “visitors” included the Abbasids, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mongols, Mamluks, Ottomans, Germans and French.
We spent almost two hours in the museum and when we left the building the rain had let up and those that had skipped taking pictures in the garden before we entered were able to take pictures at that point although it was still overcast.
Ten minutes down the road we left the bus again to enter the Hand Craft Market with the adjacent Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya Mosque. The market was in a large square area and it only took twenty minutes to see the whole area plus take pictures of the Mosque.
We boarded the bus and drove 15 minutes in very heavy slow moving traffic to the Souk al-Hamidiyya adjacent to the Damascus Citadel, the only Citadel in Syria that was not located on a high hill or mountain. We disembarked the bus in light rain. The streets of the souk are covered but there were holes in the covering so we didn’t get rained on but the street was wet. The main street is 2km long and I walked not only the main street but up some of the cross streets. We were scheduled to rendezvous at the end of the street by the Western Temple Gate and I arrived early with Neal, Bill, Barbara and Mike. Neal was in need of a WC and we had fun trying to get directions to one from a vendor. He did not understand my pronunciation of toilet and we went through several sign languages before he said “oh, toilet!” and told us where to head. We found the WC and they wanted us to pay before we entered, I guess to make sure we did pay him.
At noon the group minus Edna who stayed on the bus, were back together and our guide led us to ticket office of the huge Umayyad Mosque. It was raining a little harder and adjacent to the ticket office was a building that contains the tomb of Saladin, the leader of many Muslim battles. The sign over the entrance calls it “The Tomb the Conqueror”. I elected not to go in since I could see the tomb from outside and photos were not allowed and I would have to have taken off my shoes.
After those that elected to enter the tomb had finished we all entered the mosque where we could take pictures in the courtyard but we were not supposed to take them inside but many tour groups were taking pictures and no one was stopping them. The Umayyad Mosque (built in the 8th C. on the site of the Roman Temple of Jupiter). The structure, which took more than 1000 craftsmen over ten years to build, is unique in that it started as a pagan temple, was then a Christian church before it was covered to a mosque. The high light of the mosque is the tomb of John the Baptist (known as the Prophet Yahia to Muslims) and adjacent to his tomb is a baptism urn dating back to the period in which the site was a church. Another high light is the Minaret of Jesus Christ which they believe is where he will appear on Judgment Day.
From the mosque we walked to the Azem Place built in 1749 which has rooms displaying the traditional life of a wealthy Damascus family during the Ottoman Period. Each room had mannequins dressed in traditional clothing in poses that displayed the traditional activities in the palace during that period. Examples were the Bride’s room with the bride and her mother and mother-in-law getting ready for the wedding. Another room displayed kids in a school room, men watching an early movie, women’s dresses, etc. We spent an hour touring the Palace and then in heavier rain walked down the Biblical Straight Street with the remains of a Roman Arch and what is described as the Christian Quarter.
By now the rain was very heavy and we decided to return to the bus and the hotel. It took us 25 minutes to get to the bus. My North Face Rain Jacket served me well and although my pant legs were soaked my shirt was dry and I had no umbrella, just a cap and the hood of the jacket. In the heavy rain and traffic it took us over an hour to get to the hotel. Our bus driver was magnificent navigating around parked cars and down narrow streets to reach our hotel from the back side. It was amazing that he didn’t scratch the side of the bus.
I returned to my room and washed the dirt off my shoes and trousers. The power in my room along the wall with the TV and Computer kept flickering on and off and I had to call maintenance. They didn’t do anything in the room but after they left the power settled down.
I was able to login to the Internet and clean up my inbox, read the New York Times and LA Times. Then I wrote in my journal before our farewell party in Bob and Cathy’s room at 1845.
Everyone that had beer , wine or nuts brought them to Bob and Cathy’s room for the farewell celebration. Bob asked us for a critique of the “Exploratory Tour” that they might incorporate in a regular offering. He told us a again that we were handpicked to assist them in exploring the region because we had all traveled with them in the past and they knew what kind of trouble we would create for them (). Generally, everyone liked the tour. We discussed the guides and felt that for the most part they were a little too detailed at some sites and several of the group would have preferred an overview and then gone on their own to take pictures.
The party broke up at 2000 and we proceeded to dinner. I had hummus, salad, a piece of lamb and a small piece of beef. After dinner I returned to my room and took a nap until 2240 and showered, shaved packed and browsed the Internet one last time
Nov 03, 2009 (Tuesday) Fly Damascus, Syria to LAX via IST & ORD
I checked out of the hotel at 0015 and we departed for the airport at 0030. It was a 25 minute drive without the traffic jams we had experienced the day before. The Damascus airport is set up like other foreign airports where they have a security check point before you can enter the departure check-in hall. When our group lined up to pass through the security gate we were told we were too early for our flight. Labib and Cathy discussed the situation with the security guard and he finally let us in.
Labib had determined that check in counters 16 to 19 would be used by Turkish Air to check in our flight so we lined up at those counters. They were agents at each of them but a lot of discussion was taking place and Labib told us they couldn’t get the computers to work at that bank of counters. Where we were first in line at these counters the agents decided to switch to counters 10 to 15 which were 90 degrees to the other counters. This enabled the people in back of us to get in line first and of course the first people at each counter had problems and we had a long wait. When my turn came the agent had trouble checking me in even though she had checked in Bob and Cathy. The rule was they could only check our bags to the first US destination and finally a supervisor took over and checked me in with a boarding pass only as far as Istanbul but my bag was checked to ORD.
Labib collected our passports and got them processed through Passport Control. We then had to line up for the departure gate security check. It was pretty easy although they did have me open my laptop bag and when they saw a laptop in the bag I didn’t have to remove it and they passed me into the gate waiting area.
I initially sat near the door to the bus but the seat was broken so Neal and I moved to a spot next to Edna and Ed. When the buses arrived and we started to line up to board, Edna left her cane at the seat and I tripped over it and then tried to get it to her. Mission accomplished but it cost me a spot on the bus and Bob Ihsen, Neal and I had to wait for a second bus. Instead a Catering Truck arrived and a passenger in a wheel chair was loaded on the truck and driven to our plane. We finally boarded the second bus and rode to the plane where we got off and people started climbing the stairs. I was about to get on the stairs when the people on the stairs started descending. They were not allowing them to board the plane until they got the wheel chair passenger seated via the galley door and they didn’t want a crowd on the stairs. We waited on the ramp with a cold (46° F) wind blowing across the ramp for about 15 minutes before they let us board.
I was seated in 21C and seats A and B were occupied when I arrived, but there was space for my bags in the overhead. Another bus arrived and I could not believe the luggage people were carrying on and trying to stuff in the overhead bins. It was really a screwed up scene and we didn’t start the engines until 0400 (Our departure was scheduled for 0335) and we took off at 0415.
At 0500 they served a “breakfast” which consisted of two slices of cucumber, a slice of tomato, two small wedges of cheese, a roll and a small (1in sq.) cake. They had a small cup of water with a sealed cover which exploded when it was opened at altitude. The man next to me sprayed my leg and I sprayed the woman across the aisle from me. After they picked up the trays they dimmed the cabin lights and I slept for about an hour.
We landed in Istanbul at 0607 and spent 23 minutes on the ramp before they allowed us to deplane. We crowded on two busses and waited until all the passengers and their luggage had deplaned before they drove us to the terminal. By the time we entered the terminal it was after 0700 – we had been on the ground for over an hour! Once in the terminal our group proceeded to the Transit desk for our next flight’s boarding pass. The agent that processed me put a block on the seat next to me. I was assigned a middle aisle seat (12D). Next the fun began. After getting their boarding pass, US bound passengers had to be interviewed by a security agent. When I got to the interview he already knew that I had been to Iraq and he asked me the standard questions such as: had I packed my own bag? Had anybody given me something to take to the US? Did I have any sharp objects in my carry-on? He put a sticker on the outside of my passport and then I had to go to another line where they checked my passport and affixed another sticker on my passport, then I got in the Transit security line and was checked again.
Finally, I was able to get into the departure hall and proceeded to the Turkish Airline VIP Lounge. Neal was already there and was trying to login at the terminal I had used when I waited for my flight to Amman. I told him about the problem with the letter ‘i’ and the man next to him showed him how to generate the ‘@’ symbol. Once he got in he found that Facebook was blocked.
I tried to get an Internet connection for my laptop but ran into the same problem I had experienced before. The procedure is to enter your cell phone number and they SMS a password to your phone. I never received the SMS message so I decided to forego the Internet and concentrate on writing my journal.
At 1000 I ate a small early lunch (soup and sandwich) at the Lounge food bar and then strolled to the departure gate. I had to process through security again to get to the waiting area. They pulled my bag again to check the scissors again. This time they confiscated them. I told them that they were TSA certified with the blunt length, but the security guard said that he was following Chicago’s requirements. I was unable to convince him that I had passed through TSA checks with the scissors many times. So without the scissors I boarded the plane. I was seated in 12D, a middle aisle seat with two empty seats to my right. We took off at 1210 for an almost 11 hour flight. The passenger behind me moved to an empty seat to her right so I felt comfortable in reclining my seat as far as it would go and slept about six hours.
We arrived at our gate in Chicago 15 minutes late. When I had my passport check the agent noticed the Iraq on my Customs Declaration and he was amazed when I told him that we were there as tourists. He asked me who arranged the tour and I pointed out Bob and Cathy who were being checked at the next station. He just shook his head and said he would rather stay in Chicago.
My bag had been tagged as Star Alliance Priority so it came off the carousel soon after I got to the carousel and I bid Bob and Cathy and Bob Ihsen farewell and proceeded to the baggage transfer desk. On the United schedule board I noticed that there was a flight to LA earlier than my reservation so I asked the agent to book me on the earlier flight. She tagged my bag for the earlier flight but told me that the best she could do was put me on standby.
The baggage transfer to the LA flight went quickly and then I took the train to the United Domestic Terminal where I had to go through security again. When I was patted down I asked the agent about the rules on scissors and he told me that if the blade is less than four inches (which mine was) it is legal. Oh well, security is not the same all over the world.
I walked down the escalator and through the tunnel to the “C” Concourse and the Red Carpet Club. There I called Judy and reported that I was back in the US and alerted her that I might be able to catch an earlier flight and she would need to call the car service to change my pickup time. Then I called Verizon and cancelled my Global BlackBerry Service. I checked the gate for the earlier flight and it was at the very end of the concourse, so I walked down to the gate and did not see my name on the standby list. When I asked the agent she handed me a ticket. She had already paged me. I called Judy to contact the car service. She called me back a little later to confirm they had been notified. We boarded on schedule and pushed back on schedule at 1820. I was seated in 8D, an economy plus row. Next to me was a woman who had just flown in from Paris. Not as long a flight as from Istanbul but long enough for both of us having no trouble dozing off.
The flight arrived at the LAX gate one minute ahead of schedule at 2040. At the baggage carousel I was met by the car service driver that lives in my neighbor. He was happy that I was able to get on an earlier flight since I was his last customer of the day. I was home before 2200 – my Middle East Odyssey was over without any major incidents.