Monday, April 26, 2010

Photos of Damascus

The Old City
Souq = market = some very strange things for purchase

Hand-made soap is nice.

...but a hand-made Star Wars belt?

Maybe I'll just buy hand-dyed chicks.

Ice Cream

On our last full day in Syria, we went up to Aleppo (a four hour bus ride). While we were there, we realized we had forgotten to try the famous sahlab ice cream in Damascus. Instead of spending the night in Aleppo like we were planning on doing, we got back on a bus to Damascus. The ice cream was good. I'm still convincing myself that it was worth the trip back.

They pound that ice cream and make it all nice for consumption.

A long trip for that cone.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Palmyra, Never Again (Maybe)

Palmyra is Syria's top tourist attraction. It is an ancient city now littered with ruins--columns, temples, and other rocky remnants. Maybe I am a Philistine or maybe the ancient ruins of Greece and Egypt are still too fresh in my mind but I had absolutely no appreciation for this place. Just lots of old columns. It was boring. Lillie thought so too and within less than 30 minutes after getting off of the four hour bus ride there, we were seriously debating leaving. The only reason we didn't was because of the sunset. Apparently, the ancient ruins turn goldish pink during sunrise and sunset. And we still were keeping in mind that this was the most popular place in Syria--maybe we were missing something and it would become all clear at sunset. We decided to wait.

Cool... I guess.

I want to go home.

At least crazy tourists made things more interesting. That lady did not lose something. She just wants a better look of whatever it is that's underneath that stone.

Clouds. Clouds were also interesting and helped pass the time.

A guy selling kifayas and tours of Palmyra won our hearts and we decided to take a tour of the place on his motorbike for 3 bucks. The best 3 dollars I've ever spent. While the places he took us were very boring--old stone tower, old graves, old castle, old this and that--riding the motorbike was lots of fun. Plus, since we still had an hour til sunset, he invited us to his house where we had tea and met his parents and sisters. We all got along really well and it was just very pleasant. However, the big test was coming. Would Palmyra turn pink?

Riding the motorbike

At sunset, our tour guide drove us up to the citadel on top of a hill and we camped out waiting for that sun to work its magic. After looking at those ruins for a while with no pink in sight, we turned around and watched the sun set itself. And that was beautiful.

Afterward, our tour guide invited us back to his house for a late dinner but we declined since we to get up very early in the morning. We went to a nearby restaurant where I ordered the camel meat. When Chris was here, he had wanted to try camel and after doing a little online research, it seemed that almost all the restaurant meat in Cairo was from camel and was being sold as cow or goat or whatever. I couldn't actually find a restaurant that had camel displayed on the menu. Apparently it's too rough. Not this meat. Delicious. Maybe it was just beef pretending to be camel.
So despite the site itself being very lame, I actually really enjoyed the day. Palmyra, you're ok.

al-Sham

For being an axis of evil country, Syria is pretty nice. And Syrians as a whole are incredibly nice. During our 3 and a half days there, practically everyone we met was friendly and kind. Even the big tourist sites had very few touts and they weren't all that aggressive. Egypt, make a note to yourself.

We spent most of our time in the Damascus area, a.k.a. al-Sham, with about a day and a half in Palmyra and Aleppo. Syria's got many major sites of pilgrimage so a good portion of our time was dedicated to checking out those places.

St Paul's Spots

According to the Bible, two thousand years ago, St Paul (who was Saul at the time) was on the way to Damascus when he was blinded by the light emanating from Jesus. Jesus uttered those famous words, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Saul eventually made it to Damascus, was healed by a man named Ananias, and became one of the great saints of Christianity. The house of Ananias is still there today (now as a church). In another part of town is the window from which Paul was lowered in a basket to escape the city when he was being chased (refresh your memory by reading Acts 9:21-25).
Saul seeing Jesus.

Outside of Ananias' house.

The window--the building is now a chapel.

Umayyad and Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosques

Damascus is also home to some very holy Muslim sites. The Umayyad Mosque is a huge, old mosque that contains the relics of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and the head of St John the Baptist (though many other places claim this too). This mosque is also famous for being the first mosque to ever be visited by a Pope of Rome. Pope John Paul visited in 2001 and venerated the relics of St John. I tried doing so too but it took me a little while because I didn't know which shrine belonged to him and when I asked people, they said that this was the shrine of Yehyah. I know John the Baptist as Yohanna el Maamadan and didn't realize that Muslims referred to him by a different name. Neither did most of the people I asked since they kept saying that it was not Yohanna but Yehyah. Finally, a guy explained this to me and I went back to take a blessing.

The head of St. John the Baptist is in here. I think.

The Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque is a few steps from Umayyad and is one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam. It contains the relics of Fatimah, the daughter of Hussein ibn Ali. While the Umayyad Mosque felt very much like a community center with kids running around and couples taking strolls, Ruqayya was a very intense place. Women were screaming and crying in prayer and men were very subdued but clearly in mourning. It was also one of the most ornate mosques I've ever seen.

Maalula

The town of Maalula is about an hour away from Damascus and contains two nice monasteries. But what makes Maalula much more interesting is that most of its population speaks in Aramaic, or the language of Jesus. It's one of the few cities in the world that still uses Aramaic in everyday life. We went to the Convent of St Thecla and the Monastery of St Sergius and Bacchus. At the latter one, one of the ladies there recited "Our Father" for us in Aramaic. On an unrelated note, the cashier in the gift shop let us try some monastery wine.

Not only does this sign make sense, but it is also informative.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Photos of Beirut

My bed in the hostel. It was comfortable.
There are Ferris wheels all over Lebanon and Syria.
At various points, I seriously doubted I was in Beirut. However, inside this and other Dunkin' Donuts in Lebanon are mango frosted donuts. Heavenly.

Lebanon is Gorgeous

For such a small country, Lebanon's got some pretty diverse scenery. You can go skiing and beaching in the same day. I did neither but just knowing that I could was almost as fun. However, I did get to explore some of the natures there and those natures were beautiful.

Jeita Grotto

The limestone caves of Jeita are simply stunning. They're filled with stalagmites and stalactites and (when we went) hundreds of little Lebanese middle schoolers running around. They look so magical that you kinda feel like they're not actually real. The upper cave has a walk way and the lower cave is explored by a boat since it's filled with water. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside so the ones below are from the internets. The caves are currently finalists for the new 7 wonders of the world.

The lower cave.

The upper cave.

Telepherique

While not exactly natural, this cable car in Jounieh (an hour north of Beirut) starts at the ocean and goes up into the mountains. I love cable cars--they're the reason I still go to Six Flags Great America. On the Telepherique, we got some pretty amazing views of the city ...until we hit the fog. Then it felt more like a horror movie as we got higher up and were unable to see more than 10 feet in any direction. At the end of the cable car is a massive Maronite Catholic church and a statue of St Mary outside of it known as Our Lady of Lebanon.

I love telepheriquing.

Scary.

Our Lady of LebanonThe gift shop sold many things including these stickers. I particularly like "Jesus is The Bible's JOY STORY" and "I heart boys who love Jesus."

The Holy Valley and the Forest of the Cedars of God

"The righteous will flourish like a palm tree; they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon." Psalm 92:12

Lebanon is famous for its Cedar trees. The only image on the Lebanese flag is a cedar. The cedar is an important biblical symbol; God even commanded that the Temple of Solomon be built by the cedars of Lebanon. Lillie and I decided to go make the long trip up north to Bcharre, an area known for the Holy Valley which is filled with churches and monasteries and an excellent place for hiking. Another 20 minutes from the valley is an area known as the Forest of the Cedars of God (what an epic name) which boasts some pretty old trees. This area is famous for skiing and there was still some snow on the mountain tops but most of it had melted.

The bus stop in Beirut was clear about which country we were in. At 6 am, I look a little ...tired.

Waking up early was totally worth it.
After negotiating with a taxi driver, we went up to the forest and had about an hour to explore before we went back down to the main town.

Listening to the Cedars of GodWho am I to disobey the Cedars of God?Baby Cedar! What have they done to you?
I am not good at the limbo.
There's so much more in the Lebanon landscape that we didn't get to see. The south has tons to explore but it's currently controlled by Hezbollah so we opted out of a visit. Maybe next time.