07 Jordan, Libanon, Syria

JORDAN (URDUNN) January 1999

Pink Tombs

At Wadi Rum a Bedouin’s 4x4 jalopy took us into the spectacular desert scenery; private vehicles are not allowed (Gets money to the locals). Lawrence of Arabia had spent time there and scenes in the movie of the awesome high mountains rising from the sand were shot there. In the campsite were two guys in a 110, from Cape Town, who had done the route by shipping from Djibouti to Aqaba.

Petra is a 2000 year old burial city carved from pink and gold sandstone. The Nabatean complex was long lost and the main excavations took place from 1958. The elaborate temples, palaces, and tombs hewn from banded rock cliffs are truly magnificent. The entry fee was US$30 per person! (compared to $3 or $6 in Egypt). After the 10km exploration we dragged our aching limbs to a pub in a pink Nabatean tomb; the Heineken was good and so too the meal in the adjoining restaurant (A break for Leoné from kitchen duty!).

Near Sjobak castle Dipli stripped a hub drive flange. (We had a spare; and were able to replace the spare in Amman). Jan also replaced brake shoes there in the freezing wind. Friendly locals stopped to offer assistance (as everywhere in the Arab world, we found).

Low point – The Dead Sea

As usual, we overnight wherever we happen to be. However, at 2 a.m. we are awakened by Jordanian soldiers (patrolling their side of the Dead Sea), checking who we are, but then allowed to remain. Leoné enjoys floating on top of the water.

Amman, Jordan’s capital, is built on 7 hills and the traffic congests in between. We collected welcome mail from the SA Embassy there. They helped us locate a Land Rover dealer, fortunately near the rebuilt Roman Theatre (thus saving an extra traffic battle!). In the theatre complex, a folklore museum showed weaving techniques, examples of embroidery, clothing and jewellery. According to Bedouin tradition part of the bride’s price to father is always jewellery, which becomes the bride’s property. (A much better “lobola”!) We used an Internet café in a modern 24-hour super market complex. At 11:30 pm there were still families with children around and the activity seemed to go on right through the night. We concluded that some of this feverish buying was for the feasting and exchange of gifts of Eid al-Fitr, which follows the month of fasting of Ramadan. The city streets had long colourful banners strung across (often over traffic directions!). We were told that the Arabic writing on them was to welcome King Hussein back from the US where he had been for cancer treatment. His brother had been running the country for 6 months. (Later we heard on short-wave radio that he had appointed his 35 year old son (of a British born mother) as his successor because he was not pleased with his brother; and that he had had a relapse and was returning to the USA. The trip to the Mayo Clinic in US was futile and he returned to Jordan, where he died days later.).

After an Eastern loop via 3 of Jordan’s Desert Castles we reached Syria. We spent a few days in Damascus (see later) and then drove up to the Lebanon border, where snow was on the ground. How strange we thought, after so many months in the desert, to see grass and natural vegetation again. From a child next to a field of tomatoes, Leoné bought a bag containing 84! (Dipli groaned, Jan teased)


As in Egypt, Jordan & Syria, the vehicle was entered on the Carnet AND in the Passport.

We winded down a steep pass over the Lebanon Range to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. We passed two villages with many destroyed apartment blocks. The Corniche looked modern and had many boutiques and restaurants with French names. Downtown there were still some devastated areas with ghostly edifices and many buildings in the process of being rebuilt. The civil war had lasted for 15 years. Before that Lebanon was the international playground of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Beirut seemed all concrete and overcrowding and we did not stay long.

The ancient city of Byblos was far more attractive. We parked in the midst of its picturesque Port, some Roman ruins and a Crusader castle. We had planned to stay at Lebanon’s only campsite, near Byblos. It looked uncared for and unused and we were told to make a fire with the damp wood lying around, if we wanted hot water in the shower. It was 7pm; he told us to be out by 10 the next morning. We left there and then. The ancient Port quayside was a much better option. (Advantage again of a camper vs. tent).

Towards the Cedars of Lebanon we went. Dilpi had to climb up some 1400m along a tortuous road to an altitude of 2000m. (On the way, next to an Olive grove, Jan replaced the other hub drive flange.) There are only a few of the Cedar trees left which once covered most of Lebanon’s high summits. Unfortunately the hiking trail amongst the trees was closed due to heavy snow. So was the pass we had planned to take. At the ski lift, where we had to turn back, we saw a new forest of Cedars planted by the Committee of the Friends of the Cedars.

Lebanon seems to have more Range Rovers than we had seen anywhere and many large model Mercedes. The Syrian army is helping to keep the peace. There are numerous roadblocks, where we were just waved through. We think it had a lot to do with the big sign, in Arabic, on the front of Dipli, that said: “Greetings from South Africa”. We had it on since landing in Yemen, and it seemed to illicit much positive response.

Perfect Roman Temple

Between the two mountain ranges, which run the length of Lebanon, is the fertile Bekaa valley. Before it turned freezing cold we had some sunny days to explore Baalbek’s Roman Ruins. This acropolis has the largest Roman Temples ever built. Six of the colossal 22m (7storey) tall by 2m diameter columns of the Temple of Jupiter remain. Also massive blocks in the platform, several of over 800 tonnes each! The adjoining Temple of Bacchus is remarkably well preserved. An excellent new, German made, museum shows, amongst other things, how they moved heavy stone by pulleys, tackles, levers and rollers (from an ancient fresco). We peeped into a 7th century Mosque with some 20 perfect Roman columns as part of the covered hall. Lebanon has many modern supermarkets with imported goods. We enjoy the convenience of displayed goods and marked prices. The cash registers compute different currencies and give change in dollars if you so wish.

Can you spot Leone at all that remains of the largest Roman temple ever built?

SYRIA (SURIYA) Jan/Feb. 1999

Damascus has 6 million people. Finding our way was easier than usual in a strange, non-Latin Alphabet city: Whenever we stopped to look at our map, people double-parked or ran through the traffic to come and offer assistance.

We stayed for three days, right next to the market in the old city and could walk everywhere. We passed the stalls of nuts and spices and the shops with antique brass and silver. The brightly coloured artistically made waterpipes (nargileh) were stacked in front of little stores. Damascus also has: a citadel, some ancient walls and gates, a most beautifully decorated mosque and a charming palace with complete early 1700 interiors.

Muslim party

One night at Old Damascus restaurant, crammed full of Syrians, we were invited to share a table with a young doctor and his family. There was live Arab music. People were clapping and a few men were dancing (bellydance-style) in the aisles. Children were joining in, next to the stage. Arabs can really party! What did they have to drink?: mineral water, black tea, tiny cups of strong coffee and jugs of yoghurt. We were first to go; at midnight.

After the noisy city, we found a desert campsite in the middle of nowhere. At dawn the next morning the plaintive bleating of little lambs awakened us. Their mothers and the Bedouin shepherd were gazing at this strange apparition in their forsaken territory. (There certainly was nothing around worth grazing).

320km East of Damascus is Palmyra, an extensive Roman city. As it was 2000 years ago in old

Mesopotamia, it still is the crossroads between the capital, the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient site is very extensive (50 hectares). We admired Bel Temple, the Monumental Arch and the colonnaded street (with 50+ carved columns). In two days we had not seen it all. Tired and hungry one late afternoon we explored the modern town for a shwarma. We found a tasty one filled with French fries. (talk about a carbohydrate fix!) There we had the first flat tyre. While Jan patched the tiny leak Dipli was surrounded by four camels all dressed up for tourist rides. Palmyra has always been an oasis. We thought it would be a good place to fill our watertank with filtered water. The filter has worked so well and it has been great to always have pure drinking water on tap. (It has a 10-micron pre-filter, then an activated carbon unit & then an UV radiation tube to sterilise the water).

Crac de Chevaliers (Qalat al Hosn) is a wonderfully preserved old Crusader Castle on a hill, which could house a garrison of 4 000 men. We went up the entrance ramp, large enough for cavalry, and walked through all the levels and climbed to the 13 towers. Completed in 1202, it withstood many battles.

Hama has some huge old groaning wooden water wheels. They were used to lift water from the river to an aqueduct 6 metres above. At a restaurant overlooking the water wheels on the Orontes river we somehow were served The Usual: Mezze and Kebabs. The same as the last 4 countries and the last 6 restaurant meals. Arabs don’t seem to have much variety in the cuisine they offer to foreigners!

Aleppo was our last stop in Syria. At the tourist info office we jokingly asked: “And where can we camp?” “Right here,” she said and so, on their parking lot in the centre of the city, we stayed for three nights. The honking taxis were all 195O’s-model cars. In Syria election fever was running high. Colourful cloth banners and triangular flags were strung across all the streets. Cranes were putting up large flags and coloured lights and were sticking large cardboard flowers onto high rise buildings. Some huge oil paintings of president Assad adorned the city. There was no evidence of an opposition party. He had been in power since 1970 and was to be elected for a 5th 7 year period.

The old covered market was fascinating. We saw the usual trades plus blacksmiths, tinkers and cobblers working in a storybook setting. We snacked on felafel (chickpea balls rolled in cracked wheat - deep fried), crumpets, pistachio nut pastries, vanilla dessert with cinnamon and baked pastry squares covered with meat and spices, corners turned over (”pide”). We saw buckets of home made yoghurt and braided cheese. Souvenir sellers coaxed us in for a typical tiny black coffee with cardamom. Their wares consisted of machine made table cloths, silk scarves, caftan velvet dresses with braided necklines. Other stalls had the course hand-woven cotton and goathair cloths used by the Bedu.

At the Syrian border with Turkey they tried to get us to pay another $75 diesel tax, which we had paid upon entry and were told is valid for one month; not the 1 week they said here. Jan wore them down with continuous argument and we were let off. Our carnet was stamped and we could go. When someone else disappeared with the carnet and then returned it, Leoné’s intuition was alerted. He had removed a clean unused page; most probably to smuggle a vehicle in. Jan went after him and we got it back; (you can never be too careful!).

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