The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Damascus Encounters

Damascus’s Old City is very tourist friendly and it’s a pleasant place to wander.  It’s mostly pedestrian-only and while the souks are fairly busy, the streets are mostly wide and it doesn’t feel too crowded.  People  say “welcome!” a lot.   Mercifully, the many souvenir shop owners are only slightly pushy.

Umayyad Mosque CrowdsThere are two large contingents of foreigners in the Damascus Old City.  First, there are many European tour groups, diligently photographing everything in sight. Second, there are flocks of Iranian pilgrims, with women in black chadors, towing their favourite mullah, come to visit important Shiite shrines.  These two contingents briefly cross paths in the courtyard of the giant Umayyad Mosque, where they look somewhat baffled by each other (what are these strange people doing here?) before continuing their respective rituals.

Sayyda Ruqayya Shrine

Sayyda Ruqayya Shrine, with Dome and Chandelier

I followed the Iranians to the nearby Sayyda Ruqayya Mosque, which contains the burial shrine of a grand-daughter of Ali.  Her shrine seems to be particularly beloved by Iranian women. The mosque has been (re)built fairly recently, with Iranian money, and the interior is very splendid, ornately decorated with a glittering mirrored dome and giant crystal chandelier. The tomb itself is surrounded by a metal grill and many of the pious were dropping cash donations through the grill.  These seemed to be almost entirely Iranian Rials, with the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s visage showing prominently on many of the banknotes.

The Umayyad Mosque itself is large and extremely interesting.  It is one of the first of the great mosques, built in the early 8th century.  It is thoroughly unlike the main mosques of Istanbul or Iran.  There is no large dome.  Rather there is large courtyard facing on to an extremely large prayer hall (restored after a 19th c. fire).  The exterior of the prayer hall looks much more like a large church than a normal mosque, although inside it is oriented so the congregation is arrayed facing the long Southern wall (facing Mecca) rather than facing down the long axis, as in a church.  To my great surprise, the courtyard and prayer hall exterior have many fine mosaics using a striking mixture of lush green and gold tones, depicting leafy plants and lush townscapes.  This is (apparently) original. There are no humans or animals, but is much more naturalistic and representational than I have seen in any other mosques.   Excellent.

Umayyad Mosque Mosaic

Umayyad Mosque Mosaic

Umayyad Treasury

Umayyad Treasury

The courtyard contains a strange little building (heavily mosaiced with greenery) perched atop eight tall pillars.  Apparently this was the old public treasury.  Rather than being hidden away, it obtains security by being very inaccessible yet in a very public place.  Any additions or removals of money would require someone to bring both keys and a ladder and be very visible!


(More Damascus Photos.)

The Chouf Mountains

I arranged a car and driver for a trip from Beirut up into the Chouf mountains.  The road from the coast quickly entered low, but steep, mountains, heavily wooded and very green.  Higher up, the hills became more mixed, sometime still green and wooded, sometimes rocky and barren.

Chouf Cedar Reserve

At the Chouf Cedar Reserve at Maaser ech-Chouf, I spent 40 minutes wandering through an old Lebanese Cedar forest.  The overall reserve is apparently quite large, but this particular section is quite small, although it contains quite a number of large old trees.  The largest single trunks seemed to be around 3ft diameter.  The largest “trunks” seemed to be aggregates of multiple trees grown together.  Some of these were 6ft or more across.  A park sign claimed that one such aggregate was 3000 years old, but I’m afraid I’m a little dubious.

The young trees are straight and tall and thin, like firs.  The older trees develop the horizontal growth in elegant stratified green layers that is so distinctive.  Walking through the forest was very peaceful and calm, especially after the noise and bustle of Beirut.

Jumblatt Palace

Moukhtara is the home of the Jumblatt family and thus the unofficial capital of the Druze and the Chouf.  I had been planning to stop near the Jumblatt family palace and maybe take a few discreet photos from the roadside.  But no.  My driver took me up to the front security gate and indicated I should go ahead.  Um, OK.  The security staff were in civilian clothes and while they weren’t overtly waving any big weapons around, they were also distinctly watchful.  However they seemed reasonably amiable towards a random wandering Scotsman.  After the main gate, I had my bag taken to be searched and it was then indicated I should continue without it.  I retrieved my camera and was given a slightly reluctant nod.  It was indicated I should turn it on.  Having my lens open out got an approving nod.  Then one gentleman was delegated to take me up to the main house.  I got as far as the main outer courtyard, with a good view of the quite majestic grand manor building.  It seemed very pleasant, with grand sweeping exterior staircases and a fine view of the Chouf.  It was actually unclear how much further I was allowed or expected to go, but I decided that I should consider myself fortunate to take some pictures here and not push my luck.  So after only a couple of minutes, I trotted out again.

Beiteddine: Middle Courtyard

The Beiteddine Palace was the large, sprawling, graceful palace of a semi-independent regional governor.  It was built around 1800, mostly in a classical Arab style, but also using some modern elements.  There are three courtyards, ranging from one very large and very public to a semi-private small inner court with a charming fountain, to the (unfortunately closed) private inner court.  [Or so says Lonely Planet.  There is also a common Syrian pattern where the middle court is for family and the rear court is for servants, which actually seems to fit the layout better.]  There are large stables in arched stone galleries beneath the last two.  The palace is well worth visiting for itself, but the advertised highlight is the collection of 5th to 6th c AD mosaics in the stables.  Although the collection is large, the quality is generally much lower than at Antakya.  There are some good geometric pieces, many weaker animals ones, and only a few humans.  There is no real attempt at the full painting style seen at Antakya.

Baalbek: Roman Grandeur

I took a shared taxi over the border from Homs to Baalbek. There was some minor confusion at Syrian passport control: I hadn’t been issued an Entry Card when I entered Syria from Turkey and the Syrian immigration officer was duly aggrieved. But I mumbled some confused apologies, my taxi driver protested on my behalf (probably something along the lines of “he’s only a fool of a tourist”), there was some tapping on the computer, and I was duly sent onwards.

The land from the border to Baalbek looked relatively dry and dusty. There were no Hezbollah or militia checkpoints. I saw some Hezbollah billboards, but those were outnumbered by billboards of elegant young ladies advertising shampoo. (Hurrah!)

What is most striking about the great Roman Temple site at Baalbek is the sheer size of the remains. There are only six columns left of the great Temple of Jupiter, but these are over 60ft tall, supporting an equally gigantic architrave, and make a stunning impression. The original temple had around 50 columns and was the largest temple of the Roman world. Temple of Jupiter

+ Scotsman

The Temple of Bacchus is much better preserved and still enormous. Most of the structure, including most of the external pillars and internal supports, is still standing. The main gateway has the famous “dropped keystone” at the top.

Temple of Bacchus

The site had a steady trickle of visitors, but no large tour groups. There is a good site museum, which among much else explains how the largest stones were cut and moved. (One of the Roman tricks was inserting dry wooden wedges into a crack and then wetting them.)

Finally, I checked in to the distinctly eccentric Hotel Palmyra. I appeared to be the only guest. Following LonelyPlanet’s advice, I stayed in the supposedly better quality “extension”.   However, this was unheated, was vaguely damp, had peeling paint, and no hot water.  Sigh.  I also had to collect the caretaker from the main entrance to open the annex door for me whenever I wanted in.  But it was fine for one night.


Ah, Antioch, Queen of the East!  The famed Western terminus of the Silk Road!  The greatest city of Roman Syria!  I’ve wanted to visit it for many years.

Alas, the modern city of Antakya (aka Hatay) is a pleasant provincial Turkish city, but with only glimmers of its great past. I kept a wary eye open for Patriarchs, but none of the five modern contenders for the title of Patriarch of Antioch and All the East actually deigns to live in the modern city.

I managed to persuade a taxi driver to take me to the old City Walls.  It turned out that he had no idea what I was talking about, but we stopped and got directions and all was well.  They are on a ridge to the East of the city, but you can’t approach them directly.  You need to circle around to the back of the ridge and come in from the East: first head roughly 5 km NE along Antakya Reyhanli Yolu (E91), then about 6 km south, towards Kuruyer, then back about 1km NW.  Look for the signs saying “Antakya Kalesi”.  We eventually found an old ruined tower and neighbouring sections of wall, set just outside the top of one of the jagged hill ridges surrounding Antioch.  This is presumably part of Justinian’s wall, perhaps part of the keep?  A little bit beyond the walls there is a small cafe and viewpoint, with a good view over the city.

Back in the city I toddled around the fine Archaeological Museum.  This has a variety of good pieces, including a very fine 3rd c. AD sarcophagus and some 13th c. bc Hittite entry lions, amidst much else.  But the highpoint is an amazingly large collection of 2nd to 5th c. AD mosaics.  They are all somewhat damaged, but some are of very high quality.  The general aim is Western-style “photo realism”, which is fine by me.  I am amazed at how well they can sketch a human face with only a few fragments of stone

After visiting the local Tourist Information stand and (rather to my surprise) getting a bunch of helpful English brochures and a map, I strolled over to the Habib-I Neccar Mosque. This site started as a Roman Temple, was converted to a church, became a Mosque in 636 with the first Arab conquest, became a Church in the Byzantine reconquest, became a Mosque again in the Arab reconquest, became a Church again after the Crusader conquest, and then ended up as a Mosque after another Islamic reconquest. Needless to say the building is not the original, it has been through a number of restorations and rebuilds, notably in 1268 and 1857.

On the NE outskirts of the city is the Cave Church of St Peter. This is supposedly one of the very earliest Christian churches, founded by Peter himself. The modern cave has been heavily restored of course, with a 19th c. cut stone facade.

STS-129 Atlantis Launch

I had bought my “Launch Transportation Ticket” for the STS-129 Space Shuttle launch within seconds of them becoming available (at 8:59:40 EST on October 20th).  This ticket gets you out to the NASA Causeway, which at six miles away is as close as the general public is allowed to a shuttle launch.

I got up bright and early for the launch, left the Radisson at 6:01am and was parked at the Kennedy Visitor Center by 6:26, way early for my designated 7:00am arrival.  And it would probably have been fine to arrive by 9:00 or later.  As I drove in, I saw lots of cars heading into the NASA staff road.

Fortunately the Visitor Center was already open by 6:30am and I was able to visit the Rocket Garden, which includes a fine Saturn 1-B; and the astronaut memorial.  I got on the LTT bus at 11:45am.  On boarding, they took our LTT tickets, but gave us vouchers that gave us priority (but not a guarantee) for buying new tickets at the Visitor Center in the event of a late scrub.  (Good: I had been worried about that.)

At the NASA Causeway, I ambled down to the extreme left end and secured a spot at the top of the metal bleachers by 12:25.  In theory these are reserved for Boeing guests, but our bus driver had gently hinted that probably no-one would mind if we (discreetly) wandered in.  They ended up less than a quarter full, with most people standing or sitting in camp-chairs.  So I got an excellent unobstructed view.

The afternoon was overcast (good from a temperature and sun-protection point of view) and there were very strong breezes, but apparently neither factor was an issue for the launch.

As scheduled, at 2:28pm we got a beautiful, glorious, clean lift-off.  Now, the shuttle was six miles away and was a barely visible half-matchstick in the distance.  But the launch generated a vast cloud of steam (from the sound suppression water system) and then a vast contrail, with an intense burning light from the engines, so it was very visible.  I’ll confess that I was mostly looking through my viewfinder – I got some good snaps.

It was much smokier (actually steamier), much brighter and much quieter than I had expected. The smoke/steam does come across on TV, but the raw brightness doesn’t.  The steam obscured the engines for the first few seconds, but then they were very bright!  I had anticipated a major roar of noise, even at six miles.  But there was only a mild rumble and then some quiet pops of sonic booms. (But I was in the middle of an excited and noisy crowd.)   It was a pretty impressive sight, but at the same time, it was kind of brief and distant, so there was an odd mixture of wild excitement and a tinge of oh-my-god-its-already-almost-over.

On the way back to the Visitor Center, we got a sales pitch from the driver about supporting NASA, the Shuttle , and space exploration in general.  He fell into a few of the standard “do this for side effects” weak arguments but actually mostly kept to the “do it for the adventure” spirit, which is the one that sells me.

It was a great experience.  If you haven’t seen a launch yet, do it now, while you still can.

We came down through the Salang Pass from Mazar, and then drove up a surprisingly good road to the Panjshir valley.  The entry to the valley is an extremely defensible narrow gorge between steep cliffs.

The Panjshir Valley was the great stronghold of the mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets, and there are frequent remains of wrecked Soviet APCs and the occasional tank in the lower valley.  This is a Tajik area, vibrantly loyal to the memory of their beloved commander Moussad, the Lion of Panjshir, and deeply hostile to Pashtuns (and thus to Taliban).  It’s probably as safe a place as you can get in Afghanistan right now.

We supposedly had permission to stay at the elegant new Government Guesthouse.  However there was a lengthy dispute over whether we would be allowed in or not.  After some toing and froing between our guide and the police post and the security service post, and a long altercation with the guesthouse staff we were finally, reluctantly, admitted.   (This did mean we got to enjoy the fine views of the valley from up at the Security Service command post.)  The guesthouse is generally very comfortable, but electricity was erratic and the showers healthy and cold.

Next morning, we drove up the valley using the new road.  This is still under active construction and while the lower part is tarmac, the upper part is still a dirt road.  Eventually this road will be extended through the Wakhan corridor all the way to China. (Wow!)  Due to a detour, we had to splashily ford the Panjshir river at one point.  We drove to the current road-head in the Parian (upper valley) and stopped for a picnic lunch.

The valley is extremely scenic, a green ribbon caught between the stark Hindu Kush mountains, sometimes only a narrow canyon, but sometimes broadening out to green fertile farmland, sometimes with rice fields, but always still squeezed between the dark barren hills.

At lunch, several Afghans from the road building team came over and chatted with us.  They were very convivial, joking and laughing, with our guide as interpreter.  As part of the conversation, people asked about our families, discussed how many children they themselves had, etc.  One man, with a fine bushy black beard was introduced to us as having five wives and 14 children.  He looked rather sheepish.  His co-workers were nodding and chuckling.  Eventually it was revealed that they were in fact teasing him, as he was about to take the slightly unusual step of marrying a second wife (and not a fifth!).

Improvised ghaychak

The road workers occasionally hold impromptu night time concerts, where they use their trucks to provide light; play music and dance.  They brought over their home-made ghaychak instrument and demonstrated it for a little.  Alas, with my croaky tone-deaf voice I dared not reciprocate!

As we returned down the valley, we hit an unexpected snag.  A team was dynamiting the rock above the road to widen it and men were then crowbarring free the loosened rock onto the road.  However, the excavator that was supposed to remove the fallen rock had developed a flat tire, so broken rock had accumulated, blocking the road.  Fortunately there was only a short pause while they replaced a wheel and then cleared the road.

The following morning we visited Massouds’s Tomb.  The tomb building itself is quite elegant, on a striking location, with a fine view over one of the most fertile sections of the valley.  A large culture centre is being built around the tomb.  There is also a wrecked tank and several APCs as a kind of informal additional memorial.

A little further down the valley, we stopped at a well preserved Soviet tank.  It had a small gash in the turret, running all the way through, which is presumably from the rocket that killed it.  I was able to clamber around inside – it was actually more spacious than I had expected for Soviet gear.

Note: This trip was part of a private tour arranged through Great Game Travel of Kabul.  Afghanistan isn’t always a safe destination at the moment, and I’m grateful to Great Game for their good sense and continual kind guidance throughout.