Thursday was a holiday here and so we had a 3-day week-end. It’s the beginning of Spring after a cold and wet winter, so 8 of us took off in 2 cars for a “Castle Tour” through the mountains and coastal regions of eastern Syria.
Thanks to what I consider were the misguided efforts of the Crusaders, Syria has several castles that were built during their drive to protect the Holy Land beginning around 1100. We began our trip departing Aleppo about 9 AM heading for Qalat Saladin (Saladin Castle). Early in the first millennium BC, the site was fortified by the Phoenicians and they were still in possession of it when Alexander the Great passed through Syria in 332 BC. In the 10th century, the Byzantines held it. What I saw dates mostly from the 12th century.
The amazing thing about Qalat Saladin is the way it is fortified. It is located at a fork where two rivers form a Y. The cliffs are very steep and would be impossible to climb for an attack. So the only approachable side, the top of the Y, is protected by a 50-foot deep narrow man-made canyon hewn out of the rock in order to separate the ridge on which the castle stands. It is hard to imagine how they dug and quarried this rock and then used it to build the castle. There used to be a drawbridge, but it no longer exists and we enter from a set of steps from the side after a dangerous drive up the cliff.
After that, we left for a short drive to the ancient city of Ugarit. This is considered to be one of the most important Bronze Age sites in the Middle East. Excavations began in 1929 and have continued ever since. There is evidence of this area being occupied back to the seventh millennium BC. The Canaanites from the Bible were the dominant people here for over eight centuries. All that remains are the outlines of the walls and palaces just a few feet high. Some floors and streets remain, too. But the significance of Ugarit is the discovery of the Ugaritic language.
Prior to the 14th century BC, the two key regional forms of writing were the Egyptian hieroglyphic and the Mesopotamian cuneiform, but both of the systems involved hundreds of signs and symbols. It was here in Ugarit that small tablets were found with just 30 signs based on a ‘one sound, one sign’ system. I have some recreations manufactured by permission from the Antiquities and Museums Directorate of Syria that I will bring back with me. So this is claimed to be the most ancient alphabet in the world and Syria is very proud of that.
Well, it was time now to head off for Lattakia, Syria’s busiest and most important sea outlet. What is unusual about Lattakia is that, maybe because it’s a seaport, it is Syria’s least conservative town. It was strange to see women walking the streets in stylish, Western clothes without their heads covered. It happens here in Aleppo, but only in the Christian area. The majority of women here are covered head to foot in black. We had a nice dinner and stayed in a hotel on the beach ($39 for a double). The next morning we were off for Qalat Marqab.
Qalat Marqab is impressive as you approach it from a distance. It is huge with a somber, brooding appearance because of the black basalt rock that it is built from. But this castle is different because it was only built as late as 1062 by the Muslims. They were able to hold off the Crusaders for 50 years.
After a few hours climbing and exploring the castle, we were off for another beach resort, Tartus and its harbor island, Arwad. Oddly, the small island was the important place and the mainland city of Tartus was only established by the Phoenicians to act as a kind of service base for the more secure Arwad island. But over time, the city of Tartus became more important and that is the case today.
We took a short and rather too exciting boat trip out to the tiny island and visited the small fort and castle there before eating at an outdoor restaurant on the dock full of unpretentious small boats.
It is odd staying at these sea-side hotels (Tartus was $29 for a double) and realizing that they could rival any Mediterranean costal city. The sea is beautiful and the climate is great, but both Lattakia and Tartus are run-down and very poor looking. The country is still a Third World country and these beautiful costal locations cannot break away from that. It’s a shame because you can see such potential. But I don’t think the Syrians are anxious at all to begin embracing all of our Western ideals. And that may be good.
The next morning, we are off to visit not a castle, but a Canaanite center of cult worship from the fourth century BC, Husn Suleiman. After about an hour drive up the mountains, we approached this temple to the god Baal (later associated with the Greek god Zeus). It doesn’t look like much from a distance, but as you get close-up you are impressed by the sheer scale of the stone blocks used in the outer wall of the compound. Three rows of huge stones are used with each row surprising larger than the row below it. The largest stones are the size of a truck! And oddly, like so many of these archeological places in Syria, it is located next to a small village with children playing all around the place. I’m a big hit with my magic tricks. We usually pass out candy but we didn’t have any this time.
Our final castle was Qalat al-Kahf or better known as the Assassins Castle. This castle is surrounded by a rather large village and sits high on a hill with a commanding view of the village and the countryside. It was acquired in 1134 by the Assassins and became one of the headquarters used by the Syrian leader of the Assassins, Rashid ud-Din Sinan (The Old Man of the Mountain).
The Assassins were a radical branch of the Ismali sect of the Muslims. They conducted a campaign of terror against the Sunni Muslims. Sunnis make up the great majority of Muslims in Syria. What is interesting about the Assassins is that they would send emissaries out to kill their enemies. They were trained to become masters of disguise so that they could infiltrate the courts of foreign kings before carrying out their attacks. They were so disciplined and obedient that they apparently went willingly to their own deaths on what were in effect suicide missions. The history of the Assassins in Syria is an interesting one that includes a loose alliance with the Crusaders that may have lead to the murder of the king of Jerusalem at the request of Richard the Lionhearted.
All of this helps you understand (only a little) of what is going on today. Suicide killings of Sunni Muslims are still going on now. The resentment of the Arabs to Western influence goes back to the “Holy Wars” of the Crusaders and before. Arabs have been fighting off occupation for thousands of years. And the friction between the various sects of Islam go back to the death of the prophet Mohammad himself.
I have told friends here that I came to Syria to learn about my heritage and about the Middle East, but all that I have learned is how much I do not know. Exploring Syria helps me understand some of what happened in the past and maybe some of what is happening now. It is exciting to make these connections and to maybe begin to understand the Middle East. The West in general and America in particular are so ignorant of the Middle East that it is no wonder that we keep repeating the mistakes of the past.