Sunday, March 4, 2012

Seriously Syria: A Visit to Qala'at al-Hosn (Krac des Chevaliers)

"A journey is like a marriage. 
The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it." 
~John Steinbeck

So on to Homs where we went through the same rigmarole with the annoying touts and bus companies shouting and pulling us in all directions.  But within a short time we were en route to the Crac des Chevaliers, known in Arabic as Qala'at Hoseyn. 
This is the Crusaders' greatest legacy and the best example of military architecture in the Near East. Some guidebooks say it's the best preserved castle in the world! When in use, the Crac could hold 4000 soldiers and 400 knights. The Crac is in a strategic place- it overlooks a gap in the Lebanese mountains which was once a major thoroughfare between the Orontes and the coast. And it was designed to intimidate the folks who utilized that route. 

It was built over several years, starting in 1142 and was in use for 129 years. The Crusaders resisted 12 attacks including those led by Nehruddin in 1169 and Saladin in 1188.  They were eventually starved out by the Mamluks under Sultan Baybars after a 45 day siege in 1271. After the Mamluks left, the castle wasn't in use and during the Ottoman reign a village of 10,000 lived in there. The French kicked them out in 1936 and the villagers built a new village below with materials they looted from the Crac.

 Because the last bus back to Homs left at 3:30, René and I had just over an hour to see the entire Crac. We ran  from room to room, checking out the secret passages and views from the tower windows. It was a cool castle and it's true it was of the type fairy tales were made of! Our experience there was good, except A Syrian man followed us around trying to show us things. Though this was not unusual ad he was nice enough, we actually barely had any money. I had none, and there was no place to change at the Crac. As well, the way he spoke Arabic let us to believe that he was deaf which compounded our guilt. We spent much of our time uncomfortable and trying to ditch him. The worst part was that he never asked us for money and said goodbye as he walked off with a friend so maybe hospitality was his only motive and we blew him off. Or maybe not. Who knows? Still I felt horribly guilty.

Now was a time to leave the Crac and get back to Homs- or Hama- where we decided we would rather stay for the night before heading on to Aleppo. The minibus driver insisted it would cost us 200 a piece to take us to Hama, but he would take us there directly. We argued with him that this was too expensive but he insisted. I got him to agree to 350 for the two of us (not much of a discount) which he later dismissed as a fee for taking our luggage. I was pissed about this as we had our luggage the whole time we had been bartering.

However close to Homs, (as we figured out we were not going directly to Hama) we saw people take out their money and pay the driver significantly less. When got out, the driver freaked out and insisted we get back in as he was going to drive us to the bus that would take us to Hama. I asked a Japanese boy how much he had paid to get Homs- 35 pounds he answered! how much to Hama? I asked.  Seventy was his reply. I fought with the feisty driver who tried to act innocent but accepted our collective 70 pounds and an offer to drive us free!  But we wanted nothing to do with him.

 At the next Hama ticket booth the man seemed to want us to forget that we had change coming. We kicked up such a fuss that we did get a change back twice! Once directly to René and one and one more time to the bus window to the Japanese boy. By the time we realized the mistake it was too late! Oh well! Win some, lose some!

So off we went to Hama, the land of the waterwheels! On the way, I read up on the history of the town and was surprised that Hama's (somewhat) recent history was not included in René's Lonely Planet. Hama boasts a bloody past. The Arameans, a prosperous group through their trade was with the Israelites, came to blows with the Assyrians who came to loot them.  In 722 BC, the Asyrians finally defeated the Arameans after decades of trying and devastated the town. 

This happened a lot over the ages, just as the names of victims and assailants have changed. The most recent attack on Hama was in 1982, by its own dear President Assad. In 1980 there was an attempt on President Assad's life by the Muslim brotherhood. Obviously the assassination failed; Assad himself kicked one of the grenades thrown at him out of the way. 

Assad laid low biding his time until the time was right and exact his revenge on the Muslim brotherhood. In February 1982 after a coalition of revolutionaries published an antigovernment manifesto, the government closed off the city, ordering first an aerial bombardment and then a land invasion by the army. There was a news blackout so details are hazy but it has been estimated that between 15,000 to 25,000 civilians were murdered in the massacre. Many others died in Syria's prisons.

Apparently an example was made of Hama, as there were a lot of revolutionaries in Aleppo as well. Again coming from Canada I can't imagine having a leader who would do such a thing. Honestly no one wants you in power, then get out! Why would you want to inflict all that misery on your own people? I highly doubt dictators are happy people.

 Even though we were looking at Hama as only a stopover, we took advantage of our time there to go out and see what we could of the place. It seemed like a nice little place, lots of green park area coupled with outdoor restaurants along the river and tons of people out walking, though it was only Wednesday night.

We wandered up and down the streets, sampled some extremely greasy falafel and decided on eating whatever Hama was most famous for- which was an almond flavored cream filled crêpe- although the substance inside was much thicker than cream. We saw the Norias, the famous waterwheels and then retired to our hotel in the evening. We tried to get some sleep but apparently our hotel was on one of the main streets and a few weddings went by to add to the already ludicrous amount of honking. Good night!

-To be continued-