Vintage cars and crusader castles in Syria

After visiting the southern and eastern parts of Syria, let me share with you the experiences we had along the coast and the around the mountains west of Damascus. Vintage cars in active use, hitching a tractor and the depths of Syrian bureaucracy. Plus the photos.

A mosque with a nice shadow in Hama, Syria
Mosque dome in Hama. I didn’t have my camera when I first saw the shadow of the tower on this mosque but I remembered the time and returned the next day

The port of Syria

As we looked out of the train from Aleppo to Latakia, we noticed how the landscape turned from shades of brown to green. There were farmlands and even forests near the Mediterranean coast.

Fishing boats in the port of Lattakia
Fishing boats in the port of Lattakia

Latakia itself is a sizeable city, the most important port of Syria. We walked a bit by the sea and in the central streets. The first thing that struck us was that the place had a very European atmosphere, compared to other towns. Lots of women wore western clothes and the shops also looked richer.

Street in Latakia with the image of the country's leader, Basar al-Assad.
Street in Latakia with the image of the country’s leader, Basar al-Assad. (Photo by Yazan Badran)

In fact, we used Latakia as our base to visit one of the Crusader castles, 30 km to the east in the hills. It was tricky to get there by public transport but we soon found out that hitch-hiking was the easiest thing in Syria. The first vehicle always stopped as a general rule. In this case, it was a tractor and it was full already. Still we could climb on its trailer and what a ride it was! Taking photos was out of the question, though…

Two Crusader castles

Salah ad-Din Castle neat Latakia
Salah ad-Din Castle neat Latakia (Photo by Dan)

This beautiful citadel of Salah ad-Din (also known as Saladin) dates back to the 10th century though most of its wall are from the 1100s. It was an important stronghold of the Crusader knights and the Mamluks in the Middle Ages. Today it is a World Heritage site.

One of the most astounding features is the pillar of its former bridge. The ditch by the castle was painstakingly carved out of the rock but the builders left a 28 m high needle. The bridge is long gone but we can still see the pillar.

The incredible rock needle of Salahaddin Castle in Syria
The incredible rock needle of Salahaddin Castle in Syria

Update: Thanks to the Russian air force, based nearby, Latakia has been relatively safe and calm during the civil war. However, it suffered attacks by the Syrian army in 2011, when dozens of people were killed. Salah ad-Din Castle has so far survived the war without serious damage.

Krak des Chevaliers

View from the nearby town from Krak des Chevaliers, a nicely preserved castle of the Crusaders
One of the bastions of Krak des Chevaliers, a nicely preserved castle of the Crusaders. The town below is where the French moved villagers from inside the citadel walls in the 1930s.

This gem is perhaps the best example of medieval castle architecture (and not only in Syria). Its name refers to the first residents, the Kurds but it lived its golden age under the Knights Hospitallers in the 11-12th centuries. At that time it was defended by up to 2000 soldiers and controlled the strategic route between Tripoli and Homs.

A magnificent example of Crusader castles, Krak de Chevaliers
A magnificent example of Crusader castles, Krak de Chevaliers (Photo by Dan)

We visited Krak on our way from Tartus to Homs and so we only had a few hours to discover it to ourselves. Even in its ruins it was impressive. And it was full of sheep and people in period costumes to our surprise. It turned out that they were shooting a movie about the Crusaders. 

Update: The castle was partly damaged during the civil war but no details are known other than that the damages were hastily repaired.

Tangled in red tape

Tartus is a pleasant enough seaside city near the Lebanese border. It has been inhabited since ancient times and it has its fair share of historical sights but I will always remember it for its bureaucracy.

Three lovely kids we met in the port of Tartus
Three lovely kids we met in the port of Tartus

It was our 15th day in Syria so we had to prolong our visas at the Office of Immigration and Passports. The LP book said it would only take an hour. You’d think it means that you hand in your passport and then get it back with the stamps. Well, it involves a little more legwork in the Middle East.

A piece of cake

First of all we had to wait for our turn in the basement outside what was supposed to be an office. In reality it was a windowless cell with a desk and a tired-looking policeman behind it. Queuing didn’t mean waiting in a line, either. It was more like 10-15 people elbowing each other, trying to thrust their greasy documents in the policeman’s hand first.

I waited and submitted our passports. The man asked for 60 lira and took two forms. He completed them in Arabic, stuck the stamps on them and gave them to me. No, that was not all. We had to take the forms upstairs to the captain. The door with the sign “CHIEF” was fairly easy to find so we entered shyly. The man put his signature on the papers and pointed at the opposite door. 

From there, we were sent to the end of the corridor after 5 minutes, where we disturbed an officer’s lunch. He entered something in his computer and we received 2 stamps on our forms each. Then he showed us to another office down the corridor, where our collection grew by four other papers. This time we had to fill them in.

The stamps and signatures we struggled so much for
The stamps and signatures we struggled so much for

Anita couldn’t finish hers because someone grabbed her passport but who cares. More stamps (3 each) but now in the passports (hurray!) Then they told us we needed 3 photocopies, which we could buy in a small house across the street. Down we went and then back with the copies. Now we took the passports to a previous office, where a man performed some more data processing. The next stop was the captain’s office, who now signed the stamps in our passports. And one hour had just passed.

A dizzying excursion

Tartus has a pleasant seafront area with colourful boats, fishermen and pelicans. And there’s a tiny island half an hour away from the city so we had to see it.

These pelicans were kept to catch fish. We saw them in the port of Tartus
These pelicans were kept to catch fish. We saw them in the port of Tartus

The sea was so rough and the boat so small that we thought we’d never arrive. We only spent about an hour on Arwad Island (and the first 30 minutes we were just sitting on a bench struggling with nausea).

A boat on Arwad Island, ready to return to the sea
A boat on Arwad Island, ready to return to the sea (Photo by Stijn Hüwels)

The whole rocky piece of land is full of stone houses and narrow streets. If it was renovated, it could become a popular tourist destination for sure. We especially liked the shipyard and the views of the mainland. Actually, we could have stayed forever (just to avoid the boat trip back).

Havana of the Middle East?

A beautifully preserved car in the centre of Hama
A beautifully preserved car in the centre of Hama

Our last stop in Syria was Hama, a city we will always remember for the weird groaning sound of its wooden wheels and the sight of its vintage cars. And we could experience Syrian hospitality once again.

One of the many operating noria in Hama
One of the many operating noria in Hama

There are not too many cities famous for a specific sound but Hama is one of them. It is the norias (giant wooden wheels) that cause it. There were 17 remaining at the time of our visit, some of them 5-600 years old. Originally they were used to get the water of the Orontes River to the nearby fields but today they are just there to be admired.

The noria we could access through a joiner's yard
The noria we could access through a joiner’s yard

The other thing we noticed the moment we arrived were cars. Even by Syrian standards, there were a huge number ancient automobiles from the 40s and 50s in the streets, many of them in great condition. Old Mercedes served as taxis and graceful American models were parked outside houses. Of course, the war took its toll on these beauties, too, as you can read and see here.

A retired vintage car in a side street in Hama
A retired vintage car in a side street in Hama

As it was the last city we visited in Syria, we wanted to take some souvenirs with us. We stumbled on a small shop selling everyday objects its owner collected when an old district was demolished. This is how we got hold of two intricate handmade tiles that now decorate our living-room.

One of the two tiles we bought in Hama
One of the two tiles we bought in Hama

Update: There were hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the single-party regime in Hama in spring 2011, which was followed by the siege of Hama in July and August that year. The Syrian army deployed tanks and snipers; hundreds of civilians were killed and many more injured in the attacks.

We left Syria rich in memories and experiences. And we were sure we’d return in a few years – well, we’ll have to wait with that I’m afraid.

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