Webmaster's Note: Because the BikeAbout team is traveling in smaller groups for a little while, we have changed the format of the journal slightly. The rider notes for the lead group (today it's Anthony, who is traveling in Syria) are followed by notes for the other group(s). When the group rejoins in late February or early March, we will return to the original format for these pages.

BikeAbout Log

While Corinne and andrEa are still on Rhodes, and Ethan and Padraic are in Beirut trying to figure out how to get to or around Syria, Anthony is traveling in Syria:

topics: bartoush (food), Norias of Hama, Crac des Chevaliers, health, Muslim Brotherhood, Phoenicians, agriculture, daily life; jump to dispatch


Rider Notes: February 8–10, 1998

Food of the Day: Bartoush

In his quest to boldly eat all kinds of food he has never eaten before, Anthony today tried a new delicacy called bartoush. Bartoush is made with a puree of eggplant and cheese, which forms the base onto which is added a spicy sort of meat sauce. The whole dish is served warm and eaten with flat bread. It is quite tasty, especially on a cold rainy night.

Tech Fact of the Day: Bacteria

Bacteria are everywhere; there are over 1,600 known species of bacteria and they are as much a part of everyday life as breathing. Right now, as you read this, you have over 200 different kinds of bacteria on your hands (unless you just washed)! Relax. Most types of bacteria are harmless or even helpful in everyday life. In fact, certain types of bacteria play a vital role in the digestive breakdown of dead vegetable and animal matter. Other bacteria allow us to produce cheese, yogurt, or pickles. However, some bacteria can also be harmful, causing spoilage in food and, occasionally, illness through food poisoning. Bacteria are also responsible for diseases like cholera, lockjaw, leprosy, plague, tuberculosis, diphtheria, several forms of pneumonia, and bacillary dysentery. The latter is the cause of today's Tech Fact.

When you travel, you often encounter bacteria that your body is not used to. Occasionally, the result is what people call "Delhi Belly," or "Montezuma's Revenge," or just plan old "Traveler's Sickness." While the effects can vary, the symptoms are usually diarrhea, stomach cramps, a desire never to be far from a bathroom, and a general lack of energy. The last few days, Anthony has been suffering from "Syrian Sickness." While his survival is almost certain, until his body adapts to the new bacteria it has encountered, he will be sticking close to a bathroom, biking a little slower, and sleeping a little more.

Person of the Day: Norias of Hama

Today's Person of the Day is not so much a person as it is a thing. The Norias are giant wooden waterwheels that were constructed centuries ago to irrigate the fields that surround Hama. click to view a photograph Both the wheels themselves and the blocks upon which they are mounted are made of wood click to view a photograph and the friction that is caused by the wheels' movements results in a sound that is not unlike a mournful groaning. click to hear an audio clip The Norias seem to be almost human as they endlessly labor away, groaning the entire time.

The Norias are constructed on the Orontes River, with the most famous Norias being found a kilometer north of town where the so-called "Four Norias of Bichriyat" labor. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Anthony's favorite was the Noria known as Al-Mohammediyyeh. 20 meters (about 60 feet) in diameter, it was possible to actually walk up to and underneath the wheel (a wet endeavor). click to view a photograph

As the Orontes River rushes past, it pushes against the paddles of the wheel, which then turns, scooping up water as the paddles are dunked below the surface of the river. At the top of the revolution, the water spills out of the scoops and into aqueducts that then carry the water to the fields. Remnants of the aqueducts can be seen around town. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Though the water is not used anymore, the Norias still spin filling the air with their mournful lament.

Place of the Day: Crac des Chevaliers

Just the name alone — the Crac des Chevaliers (or Qala'at al-Hosn, translated as Castle of Knights) — is enough to send shivers up and down the spines of all Crusades history buffs (you out there Padraic?). click to view a photograph And, sure enough, the Crac, as we have taken to calling it, is the granddaddy of all castles, something that all the castle fans in the group have been looking forward to visiting since the trip started.

The Crac is famous for a number of reasons. First, it was the largest of the Crusader castles and, second, it is considered to be one of the most impregnable fortresses ever built. Its reputation is well earned. The castle was never taken by storm. When the castle did finally fall to Mamluk Sultan Baybars, it was because of treachery from within the castle, not forces from outside.

Constructed by the Crusaders in the 12th century on the site of the Castle of the Kurds, which had been conquered during the First Crusade, the Crac is an amazingly well-preserved fortress that dominates the entire area. Built on a hill that overlooks the only significant break in a mountain range that runs from Antakya (ancient Antioch), in Turkey, all the way to Beirut (hence the Crac's importance), the castle is composed of an outside wall click to view a photograph with 13 towers, an inside wall, and central a fortification. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph There is a moat click to view a photograph that separates the two walls on the north side of the castle — the only possible direction from which an attack could have come since the other walls of the castle give way to steep slopes.

This castle was INTENSE. From its windswept towers the views across the countryside are very impressive. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph It was possible to see the snowcapped mountains of Lebanon to the south and the mountains of the Syria-Turkey border off to the north. For several hours, Anthony wandered, explored, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside the castle when it was under siege.

Exploring every corner of the castle was not easy. Built to house a garrison of 4,000 soldiers, the Crac really is a very large castle. After exploring the ramparts, the outside wall, and the area between the outside wall and the central portion of the castle, Anthony turned his attention to the innermost parts. click to view a photograph Entering the central part of the castle via a large hallway that led slowly upward click to view a photograph, Anthony eventually found his way inside. He explored dozens of rooms and tried to figure out which were armories, stables, warehouses, and guards' quarters. The chapel click to view a photograph, kitchen (the oven was an entire room!), and latrines were easy to pick out, but the rest was more difficult to recognize. But Anthony P.I. was successful. He even found the secret entrance to the castle!

All in all this was one of the most impressive sites that Anthony has ever visited. Once he reluctantly left the castle and started to descend the hill through the village below, he kept looking back at the castle looming over his head click to view a photograph thinking how disheartening it must have been to try and attack.

Group Dispatch, February 8–10

picture of Anthony

Anthony roused himself out of bed early this morning, excited about seeing the Crac des Chevaliers (see the Place of the Day), a famous and dramatic Crusader fortress. He was also looking forward to rejoining Ethan and Padraic (or so he thought). He had already decided that he would spend the night in Hama, visiting the Norias (see the People of the Day), before returning for another night in Tartous. Packing little more than his laptop and a toothbrush, he hit the road, without his bike, stopping along the way only for a prune pastry and several cups of Lebanese coffee (thankfully available in Syria as well) before jumping on a bus.

The ride to the Crac des Chevaliers was beautiful, passing through more forested areas similar to those Anthony had seen during his ride the day before. But soon the road started to climb up and up and up towards the Crac. While this area is the only major break in the mountains between Turkish Antakya and Beirut (a distance of 250 km/155 mi), this does not mean that there are no hills at all. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Crac was so impregnable is that it is built on a hill that rises over 500 m (1640 ft) above the surrounding plain. As the bus labored up the road to the castle, Anthony said a silent prayer of thanks that he had left his trusty steel steed back in Tartous.

After spending almost three hours exploring every nook and cranny of the castle (see more at the Place of the Day), Anthony hopped on another bus to Hama. As he descended the steep road back down to the plain, he decided that his visit to the Crac des Chevaliers had certainly lived up to his expectations. He could not help but wonder why Padraic and Ethan had not joined him there and hoped that they would be waiting for him when he arrived in Hama.

In Hama, Anthony did not find his friends, but did notice several differences from other Syrian towns. The first was that the people seemed to be dressed extremely conservatively. Many of the women were completely covered by their burqas — gloves on their hands and black clothes draped over their heads. Later, reading through his guidebook, Anthony learned that Hama is perhaps the most (socially and religiously) conservative city in Syria. The second thing he noticed was how beautiful the city was. Situated on the Orontes River, Hama is one of the quaintest towns Anthony has visited on the BikeAbout journey. The banks of the river are lined with parks and gardens and there were many trees surrounding the area. The town had an almost alpine air to it (though this could be partially attributed to the extremely brisk temperature during Anthony's visit).

The next morning, Anthony made a more extensive tour of the city. Hama is famous for its Norias click to view a photograph — waterwheels constructed hundreds of years ago to provide water for the town and surrounding fields (see the Person of the Day). Hama is also known as the center for the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist militant group that has provided the main dissenting voice to President Assad and his National Progressive Front (a group of allied parties dominated by secular Ba'ath party members). Though fairly quiet recently, the Muslim Brotherhood briefly brought international attention to Hama in 1982 when their rebellion prompted President Assad to send 8,000 troops into the city. The Syrian army not only crushed the revolt, but also destroyed much of the city.

Walking around Hama, the destruction from the rebellion is obvious only in that many of the buildings are new. A good example is the main mosque. As a rallying point for the Muslim Brotherhood, the mosque became one of the army's prime targets and was completely demolished. Recently reopened, it has several smaller domes typical of a Turkish-style mosque click to view a photograph and has two different types of minarets. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Finishing his tour of Hama, Anthony hopped on another bus back to Tartous, arriving in time to catch another sunset, an early dinner, and a full night's sleep in anticipation of the next day's ride to Al-ladhiqiyah and, he still hoped, a rendezvous with Padraic and Ethan.

The next morning, still without news from the other guys, Anthony loaded up his trusty two-wheeled steel steed, Wheeler, and headed for Al-ladhiqiyah, the largest and most important port in Syria. Unfortunately, the first half of the ride was along a major highway, which, though it was the most direct route Anthony could take, was not the most pleasant.

So Anthony daydreamed and wondered what it must have been like to live along the coast during the time of the Phoenicians — the fourth and third centuries B.C. The Phoenicians were renowned as merchants and traders. Indeed, one of the ancient names for the Phoenicians is "Canaanites," which literally means "merchants." As traders they also became famous for their travels around the Mediterranean Sea (and even the Atlantic Ocean). The BikeAbout team has already seen evidence of the spread of Phoenician civilization in places as far away as Carthage, Utique and Kerkouane, all in Tunisia.

The Phoenicians were responsible for the spread of knowledge as well as goods. As they traded, they also shared their information and learning. Tomorrow's morning visit to Ugarit, once the most important city on the Mediterranean and the site of important early work on the alphabet, provides a perfect example. Phoenician traders helped spread the alphabet quickly throughout the Mediterranean world. The interaction of people — whether through trade or long-distance bike touring — has often helped disseminate new ideas and inventions (like the alphabet or the Internet). Unfortunately, a close encounter with a semi truck snapped Anthony out of the world of the Phoenicians and brought him to the present day.

Anthony arrived in Al-ladhiqiyah just in time to locate a hotel (thanks to some helpful pastry chefs who ran out of the their kitchen as soon as they saw him), shower, and eat a carbohydrate-rich meal before admitting defeat in his latest gastrointestinal battle by going to bed early. He was still a little surprised not to have heard anything from Padraic or Ethan.

picture of Ethan

Meanwhile, back in Beirut, while Anthony was on a bus to the Crac des Chevaliers, Padraic and Ethan, after their first two failures, were conspiring with a new set of accomplices in a third attempt to get across the Syrian border.

As planned, they presented themselves at the bus station at 9 a.m. and spoke with different representatives of a bus company that still assured them there would be no trouble getting across the border. This time they would try the main border crossing on the busy road to Damascus, hoping that the border guards there would have the authority to make a quick decision on their visas.

After a whole lot of haggling, it was agreed that a driver would take the two of them and all their belongings in a private van to the border, wait with them no matter how long it took (hours if necessary), and then finish the trip all the way to Damascus. The cost: $40. Too much, but then Ethan and Padraic were asking a lot . . . and the final figure was significantly less than the initial price. So, in they piled (bikes and all), and off they sped, once again hoping for the best.

The ride to the border, the same one in reverse that Anthony had done when he bused in from Damascus, was very impressive. First, the van climbed some 500 m (1640 ft) over 20 km (12 mi) to a pass through the Chouf and Lebanon Mountains. On the way up, the views west to Beirut and the coast of the Mediterranean were gorgeous. But these were soon lost as the van climbed higher; the clouds gathered and the cold increased and a light freezing rain added to the wet and snow that was already heaped by the sides of the road. However, what Padraic and Ethan lost, they soon regained. On the other side of the pass, they descended into the wide and green Beqaa Valley.

The Beqaa Valley, which has been embroiled in an unfortunate political tangle since the BikeAbout boys arrived in Lebanon, has not been considered a safe place to visit. The Beqaa is a poor, agricultural region, parts of which have very strong ties to the Hezbollah political party (known as the group leading the fight against the Israelis in southern Lebanon). Just at the time of our arrival, a former Hezbollah leader, who had broken away from the rest of his party and was collecting guns and ammunition, had held a public demonstration which, when confronted by soldiers, turned bloody and resulted in a few deaths and an increase of the Syrian Army presence. Ongoing skirmishes throughout the area, as the Army worked to restore order and find this leader and his men, stopped Padraic and Ethan (before Anthony's arrival) from making a day trip to Baalbeck, one of Lebanon's most famous archaeological sites, located in the Beqaa Valley. So, although they were sorry to be stuck in a van, Padraic and Ethan were happy to be able to see the valley at all.

Onward they traveled, through the fields of green, across the flat, and up a slope to the Anti Lebanon Mountains (the eastern set separated from the western Lebanon Mountains by the Beqaa Valley).

About halfway up the slopes, the van stopped and Padraic and the driver took care of the passport process for leaving Lebanon. So far so good. A few kilometers onward, they stopped at their third Syrian border crossing station in two days, and Padraic and the driver disappeared inside again. With fingers crossed, Ethan waited in the van . . . and waited . . . and waited some more . . . and hoped against hope that the long wait meant things were actually going well. Until the duo emerged and Padraic shook his head. DENIED! Their third strike. The border authorities had done exactly the same thing as those at the Homs border: called a central office and been informed that visas were not to be issued. Period. (Ethan and Padraic had kind of hoped that the driver of the van might have knowledge of how to smooth through such a denial, but he seemed to think that there was nothing to be done). So it was back to Lebanon (and another cancelled exit visa — they had two now) and to Beirut for a third time. Oy.

They were, however, welcomed back with open arms and treated to a lively evening. While Padraic went with Peter and Oren to a local pub and watched an important English soccer match, Ethan went with Cynthia to the Théâtre Monnot to see the play, "Jnaynet al Sanayeh," for which she had written the music. Although performed entirely in Arabic, the play was highly enjoyable. Using a synopsis written in French, Ethan was able to follow the action. The play has a rather complicated plot involving six actors rehearsing for a play in which their parts sometimes strongly resemble their realities. It is considered revolutionary in Lebanon since it deals — sometimes comically, sometimes seriously — with delicate issues that lie at the heart of this post-war society and which are not often dealt with in the public arena. The drama touches on racism, sexism, religious intolerance and discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a political system that is not quite what it would like the world to believe it is. The play will soon be partially translated and then travel to France. Ethan, a playwright and translator, can only hope that it will one day soon be brought into English and reach an English-speaking audience.

The next day, while Anthony was playing with the Norias in Hama, Ethan jumped on a series of transports to go to Jounieh (the city just to the north of Beirut) and check on the possibility of boats to southern Turkey. Simultaneously, Padraic checked all the travel agencies in Beirut for cheap plane fares to anywhere in Turkey. The result: Ethan found absolutely no boats going anywhere, at least not public transport or ferries (even queries at the private boat club yielded nothing); Padraic found only prohibitively expensive one-way fares to Adana, Turkey, or less punishing, but uncomfortably high fares to Istanbul. Without any reasonable options, and having exhausted just about every legal alternative (they did not consider illegal ones since playing with border crossing politics is very unwise), they figured they had to bite the financial bullet and pay for the plane to Istanbul . . . which left in two days.

One good thing to come out of this was that they did finally succeed in making contact with their good friends Leila and Janine and talked late into the night.

So, while Anthony was on the road to Al-ladhiqiyah contemplating the Phoenicians, Padraic and Ethan spent the whole day — a rainy one — working on past dispatches and trying to catch up on backlogged email. Oh, and enjoying the seemingly limitless hospitality of their hosts and friends in Beirut.

Meanwhile, the ladies were still exploring Rhodes. You can read about their journey in the February 2-8 dispatch.

Go to Previous Rider Notes PageGo to Next Rider Notes Page

Questions? Ask Anthony Go To Anthony's Page!

Return to Fast Facts

BikeAbout Itinerary & Journal Discussion Groups About Syria eDscape Projects BikeAbout Scrapbook
Discussions About

About BikeAbout Mediterranean Journey BikeAbout Partners Resource Library

Daedalus Design Group Computer Curriculum Corporation Compaq

Copyright 1997-2004 BikeAbout. All rights reserved.