Part III: Palmyra’s Ruins & The Aleppo Underground

Fresh from the press! Part III of Singapore-based Contributor, Hajar Ali’s series on Syria.

When I left Damascus for Palmyra, I was told by the helpful doorman that traveling by bus was a comfortable, cheap alternative. I immediately grabbed a ticket.

Air-conditioned and, indeed, comfortable, the best part of the trip had to be the dates passed around in wooden boxes with mother-of-pearl inlay. If I remember correctly, they were also screening a Hindi movie.

Arriving in Palmyra, I’d stayed at a hotel highly recommended by Lonely Planet (The Cham Palace remains the closest to luxury accommodation available in Palmyra). There was a group of Italian tourists checking into the hotel at the same time and I spent a part of my first night in Palmyra in fear as I overheard two Italian ladies whispering in the hotel corridor.

My first introduction to giallo, a type of slasher horror flick typified by a developing background romance and spectacular sceneries of the Italian countryside, was Pupi Avati’s ‘Casa dalle finestre che ridono’, revolving around the creatively sadistic plots by two Italian sisters to entrap their latest torture victim. Hearing two female voices whispering in Italian brought to mind certain scenes of the movie.

The next morning (and evening) was spent touring the ruins of Palmyra where I encountered a guide who spoke, among other languages, Aramaic, a language spoken by Jesus and is still spoken in ‘isolated pockets of Syria’ in Ma’aloula. A veritable source of information on the ruins of Palmyra, he approached me while I was walking around near the entrance of the ruins. A morning (or evening) spent touring the ruins of Palmyra with him was well spent, never mind what the other guides tell you. I encountered another group of Italian tourists who’d asked their Italian-speaking guide to ask my English-speaking guide why I was travelling on my own. It was the same kind of concern the Italian ladies I’d met at the Lebanese-Syrian border and travelled around with in Syria had shown.
Palmyra, Syria

Why was I travelling alone? Wouldn’t it be better to travel with friends or parents? Well, sometimes, you just have to go it alone. Nights in Palmyra were uneventful, spent going through the tourist stores selling armor suits, old rings and porcelain pieces. The bus from Palmyra to Aleppo the next morning was nothing like the Damascus-Palmyra transfer. I took the bus with a few men – and goats – in an older bus with windows bearing a cobweb-like pattern from being hit by errant pebbles. We encountered little children on the journey practicing their shots by throwing little pebbles against the bus windows which, in retrospect, felt just a little like an earlier scene in the movie, Syriana, where an American lady travelling on a tourist bus was accidentally shot by a child practicing his shots on a rifle. I tried not to imagine these film recollections were ‘signs.’

Arriving in Aleppo, you’re immediately cognizant of a deep, rich history. A capital city that contests Damascus’ claim to being the ‘oldest continuously inhabited city in the world’ with a complex, intriguing history. Staying at the Baron Hotel (instantly recognizable by every local – particularly useful if you’re wont to getting lost), I was to spend my next few days in Aleppo exploring the citadel, locating an underground bar in the pedestrianized streets of Aleppo which the waiter insists was a way for the house’s original inhabitants to connect to the citadel during the multiple sieges laid on the city and experienced an authentic hammam session.
Underground Bar in Aleppo, Syria

Checking into the historic Hotel Baron, walking through the same hallowed hallways and reveling in its faded glamour, one can feel the cozy, family-like nature of the hotel management. From the receptionist to the waiter, who serves you breakfast every morning, everyone seems to have worked in that hotel for the longest time. I found my first room to be ‘too noisy’ , the second one which they’d suggested (and moved my bags to) ‘too creepy’ as it involved walking past an unlit hallway with unused furniture.

I was then shown another room- with a beautiful Juliet balcony lit by fairy lights. The balcony overlooks the busy main road, no doubt, but I figured by then that the hotel does have a road frontage and was won over by the balcony. I could see the brightly-lit stores across the street and the constant stream of alternately-honking traffic from my balcony.

Solitary moments in balconies with a view, even in cities I felt ill-at-ease (which Aleppo certainly was not!), make up some of my best memories in hotels I’d stayed in. My room at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran (what used to be the Intercontinental pre-1979) had a small balcony overlooking the garden and I spent, figuratively, my brightest moments on this balcony in a city I’d felt overwhelmed by.

The traffic on the streets of Aleppo must have ceased by a certain time as I was usually woken up in the mornings by the sound of birds near my heater grilles and the sound of traffic, increasing in both its frequency and loudness. My first day in Aleppo was spent with the Italian ladies, visiting Aleppo’s Citadel and capping off a visit accompanied by a most informative guide, with a chat with friends of the Italian ladies whom we’d met in the café opposite the citadel. We’d made an appointment (or rather, they made an appointment and I tagged along) to meet again that night at a friend’s house, which, the Italian ladies tell me, is beautiful, tasteful, and ‘like a museum.’

Stay tuned for Part IV of Hajar’s Syrian escape…

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