May-June 2005 Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon photos
This Adventure describes three of the countries we visited and sights we saw during the EMYR - the Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally: Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. Other Adventures will describe our travels in Israel and Egypt, and another, 'Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally' describes the Rally itself.

Our touring was mainly on organized bus tours that were offered to rally participants. These tours were not covered by the rally fees, and in sum total cost about $600 per person extra. By and large, they were well worth it, as they included transportation in air-conditioned busses, an English-speaking guide in each bus, and a free lunch, which was generally quite good and offered more food than we could eat. For details about the rally itinerary and costs, see the rally website at

Iskenderun, Turkey: For us, one of the thrills of this trip was being in the presence of so much history - so many places that are a part of our religious and cultural heritage. We got a dose of that history immediately: Iskenderun is Turkish for Alexandretta, a city founded by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. It's gone downhill since then. It's in a province called Hatay that was once part of the French Protectorate of Syria. In 1939, Ataturk claimed Hatay for Turkey, a fact that has since been acknowledged worldwide, except for today's Republic of Syria, which still retains some claim to it. Some Syrian maps show Hatay as "occupied" with the border "in dispute." This was our first - but certainly not the last - encounter with the various Middle Eastern border disputes.

Although Iskenderun felt familiar to us because of our having been in Turkey for the winter, we were aware we were moving into the Middle East. Many signs in Iskenderun are in Arabic as well as Turkish and it's the first language of many of the inhabitants. More women, especially in the smaller towns we drove through, were veiled and wore all black, and some men wore robes (galabbeyas). This area was obviously much poorer than western Turkey. We noted that while the roads and highways that passed through towns were paved, the side streets leading to them were dirt.

Iskenderun's main claim to fame today is its proximity to several early Christian sites, notably those associated with the Apostles Paul, Peter and Luke. Paul came from Tarsus, just to the west of Iskenderun; he and Peter preached in Antioch (now Antakya), Luke's home town. The site where they preached is a small cave which is first community referred to in the Bible as "Christian". The cave (supposedly owned by Luke) is tiny and primitive. It has a small escape tunnel that the worshipers could use in case of persecution. But inevitably, through the ages, its original configuration has been lost because of additions, donations, and improvements made by later Christians. The most intrusive of these is the complete façade added by the Crusaders in 1098. It's funny to think of something as ancient as a 1098-built façade as ruining an earlier site, but it does.

Antakya has a small museum featuring magnificent Roman and Byzantine mosaics beautifully displayed on tall walls or as floor coverings, as many were originally intended. Among the statuary, Andi loved the basalt lions, of Hittite origin.

Lattakia, Syria. This was where we really entered the Arab world. Now, signs were all in Arabic. There were more police, security guards, and military personnel, all armed, and although we weren't sure who was in charge of what, it turned out not to matter. The tour company and its guides shepherded us around, and we never left the marina by ourselves (the authorities confiscated our passports, removing any impulse we might have had to wander around the country without escorts).

Our first tour in Syria, to the ancient city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra), gave us some feel for the scope of local history. Ugarit is an ancient city, buried in/under a "tel," a flat-topped lozenge-shaped hill. The distinctive shape of these tels, which dot the landscapes of the Middle East, indicates that they are the man-made sites of ancient settlements that were destroyed and buried by their conquerors. The archeological site at Ugarit is still being excavated - it was only discovered in 1928. Its oldest level dates to the Modern Stone Age, 7500-6000 BC (or in the standard and politically correct parlance, BCE, meaning Before Common Era). The most important find at Ugarit are engraved tablets dating from 1500 BCE, which are the oldest known evidence of the written consonantal alphabet from which all modern Western writing has evolved. Of course, those tablets have since been removed to various museums, but the site is still interesting, even in (maybe because of) its half-excavated state. The palace entrance tunnel is visible, as are portions of the temples to the gods El and his son Baal, worshipped by the Canaanites.

Our next two tours took us fast-forwarding about 8000 years to the Crusader invasion. The Crusaders built a line of mountaintop strongholds along the entire eastern Mediterranean coast en route to Jerusalem. Many are in ruins, but we visited two well-preserved Crusader castles in Syria: Saladin's Citadel and Crac des Chevaliers.

By the way, on several occasions in several countries, our guides referred us to the recent movie "Kingdom of Heaven" for more information about the crusades and crusaders. Though we haven't seen the movie, it's our impression that it de-emphasizes the usual "glory" of the crusaders, taking a more critical approach to the desecration they wrought, and noting the monetary rather than spiritual motivations behind their quests.

Saladin (or Salah ad-Din) managed to capture only one of the Crusader castles, in 1188, so it now bears his name. It's a remarkable site, reached by a winding narrow road that our bus had considerable difficulty negotiating. The road hairpins through rural countryside above which you glimpse the castle before you arrive at the bottom of its dry moat, some 20-50 meters below the walls of the citadel. The castle was once reached by a drawbridge across the moat; only the center support of that bridge remains, and looking out at it from the platform in the castle is a rather dizzying experience. Some of the standing towers date from the original crusaders; others were added or reconstructed by the Arabs under Saladin; yet others are under current reconstruction. (Virtually all the ancient sites we saw have been reconstructed to some degree, and we often found ourselves wondering at such sites just how much was "original" and what has been reconstructed. Many guides either don't know about or are unwilling to admit to the reconstructions.)

If Saladin's citadel was impressive, it was nothing compared to the size and might of the Crac des Chevaliers. Originally built in 1170 CE, this mountain fortress was added to by the conquering Sultan Beybers in the 7th Century AD (or, as they say in the Middle East, CE) and restored by the French in the 1930s. From its 2300-foot-high cliff top, it dominates the north-south route between Antioch to the north and Beirut to the south. In its huge halls, chapel, store-rooms, kitchens, stables, etc., you get a real feel for how the knights-chevaliers lived.

From Lattakia, we traveled 150 km (90 miles) inland in Syria to Damascus, with a big detour to the Roman city of Palmyra, "Queen of the Desert". After we crossed the coastal mountains, the scenery became dryer and flatter until we were crossing desert. Our guide insisted, however, that this was not a real desert; it was a "steppe." Okay, it wasn't sand dunes. It was dirt, it was rocky, the only vegetation looked like tumbleweeds, and we had to stop the bus to allow a herd of some 100 camels to amble across the highway. As far as we're concerned, it was a desert. We think the guide felt that the word desert implied soething negative about Syria, and so he wouldn't say it.

A word about our guide: He was very knowledgeable, but also very pro-Syrian and pro-Islam. Those factors got in the way of the truth at times. For instance, when he listed Syria's neighbors in the Mid-East, he refused to say "Israel", telling us instead that the country to the south is "Occupied Palestine." And he told us that President Bashar al Asad is very modern, Western-educated (he was studying in London to become an eye doctor when his father, the previous president, died in 2000 and Bashar was "elected" to take over), very good for Syria, and so modest that he doesn't allow his picture to be displayed. Belying this statement were the many huge side-by-side pictures of the two al-Asads: Bashar and his father Hafez on billboards at army posts, large manufacturing plants, and various walls. Our guide told us proudly that there are elections every 7 years, with 97% turn-out; when we asked about how "free" these elections are, he answered with a question, "How free are they anywhere? What is real democracy?" We soon gave up trying to learn more about modern Syria from this source.

Palmyra was the ancient crossroads of the major trade routes across the Middle East. It's an oasis in the middle of nowhere, and the green of its palm trees and the size of the site are startling after the miles of preceding desert. One can imagine what it must have looked like to camel caravans along the Silk Road. Palmyra was settled around 1000 BCE, but reached its heyday under Roman rule around 250 CE, then was briefly ruled by Zenobia, a woman. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1089 CE.

The ruins in Palmyra date from its Roman times and have been substantially reconstructed. Most notable are the Great Colonnade, a column-lined main street nearly a mile long, with a huge triumphal arch at one end, and equally huge marketplace at the other, and the enormous Temple of Baal nearby. The site is noisy with rent-a-camel drivers and little boys selling postcards. The latter are persistent and insistent. One urchin with a winning smile quietly whispered corrections to our guide's commentary in Rob's ear. ("That's completely reconstructed - look at the concrete!") But when Rob tried to give him a dollar without taking any postcards, he absolutely refused. He was a businessman, he insisted, not a beggar.

In Palmyra, we were just 90 miles from the Iraqi border. Despite the presence of quite a number of Syrian army camps along the roads from Damascus and the coast, the area is so vast that it's easy to see that this border could readily be a crossing point for sympathizers to join the Iraqi insurgency. Not that we're making any accusations…

From Palmyra, after a sumptuous roast goat lunch in a Bedouin tent (with the usual mezes (hors d'oeuvres) of hummus, tahini, eggplant, etc.), we headed toward Syria's capital, Damascus. We were lodged in a new 5-star hotel near the airport, but too far from the city to enable us to explore on our own, a real disappointment.

The Great Mosque of Damascus was on the morning's agenda. Built in the 8th century, it's the oldest stone mosque in the world. The mosque sits on a huge courtyard, and is itself impressively large. To enter the courtyard and mosque, women needed to be fully covered, and our tour operator thoughtfully provided elastic waistband full-length skirts with matching large headscarves to fully cover our hair and arms to our wrists. Muslims say their prayers facing Mecca, so the prayer halls of mosques are wide rather than long, in contrast to Christian churches. Every mosque has at least one niche (mihrab) in its Mecca-side wall to show the faithful the direction to Mecca. These are often beautifully decorated. The Great Mosque lived up to its name: the hall is 160 meters long! It was carpeted in green, a wall-to-wall carpet patterned into a series of individual prayer rugs. It contains a small but sumptuous shrine to John the Baptist that, according to legend, contains his head, if not all of him. (Muslims revere the same prophets as Christians and Jews.) In the Great Mosque, there were seated groups of men or women some of each with children, individuals in corners or against pillars sleeping peacefully (a charming sight we saw in many mosques throughout our travels - what more peaceful place to takes one's rest?), and one Shiite imam from Iran, instructing a group of men. Rob talked to a few of the men standing nearby; it turned out they were Iraqis, part of a mass exodus that occurred during and just after our invasion of their country. According to our guide, their presence has a really destabilizing influence in Demascus. One of them, upon learning that Rob was American, stated "President Iraq: Saddam Hussein." Rob smilingly disagreed, and we moved on.

Throughout our travels, we tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, but we inevitably attracted attention. All those who noticed us greeted us with smiles and "welcome, you are welcome to our country." In fact, we did feel welcome in Syria, as we did everywhere we went in the Middle East.

Jounieh, Lebanon: The contrast between the poverty of Syria and the wealth and European modernity of Lebanon was striking. Because we were free to wander on our own in Lebanon, we were able to get more of a feel for the country, its people, its problems and politics, and its aspirations. We arrived there on May 31st; the Syrian forces that had occupied Lebanon since the end of the devastating civil war in 1991 had left on April 25th. When we were there, the country was in the middle of the elections for a new government. The overall mood was optimistic, but people we spoke to also recognized that many problems remained.

The Rally home was at the Automobile and Touring Club of Lebanon (ATCL) in Jounieh, a wealthy Christian suburb about 12 miles north of Beirut. The club compound was walled and fenced in with 24 hour security guards wearing Kevlar vests and toting machine guns. Entering cars had to open their trunks, a mirror was slid under each, and ID cards were checked. (They waved us through when we passed on foot, even if we were carrying grocery bags or backpacks.)

On our first evening in Lebanon, we took a local bus into downtown Beirut. We were struck by Beirut's cosmopolitan European modernity. But it didn't take more than a block or two of walking behind the newly constructed or reconstructed buildings to find signs of Lebanon's recent problems: empty shells of buildings with large bullet holes from the terrible civil war. And security guards and various armed and uniformed personnel everywhere. We had cocktails at sunset on the rooftop bar of the 5 story Virgin building, which was thronged with young Beirutis buying the latest in music and books. (We had our purses checked, had to leave our cameras at the door, and passed through a metal detector to enter. That kind of security routine became pretty much the standard in Lebanon and Israel, though this was the only time we actually had to leave our cameras behind.) After watching the sunset, we took a stroll downtown, and right around the corner from the Virgin building we stumbled upon a large white pavilion tent. A line of people seemed to pass in and out of it constantly. Curious, we joined in and found ourselves in front of the crypt and memorial to Rafiq Hariri, the anti-Syrian politician whose murder in February led to the American pressure that eventually resulted in the Syrian pullout. Hariri's son ran for election this year, and was a runaway winner. He put billboards up all over the area to say thanks to the voters. They featured his smiling face, the Lebanese flag, and, out of focus in the background, his slain father. Not hard to understand his appeal!

In Jounieh, there is a cable car to take you up the mountains that rise above the large, lovely half-moon harbor to our Lady of Harissa, a very modern Roman Catholic church. It was closed when we arrived, but we still enjoyed the fabulous views. Beside it is another less-heralded church, built by a monastic order that aims to further ties among the various Christian sects and with Islam. A distinctly minority view, it would appear, because no paths connect the two churches, and there were no signs to show the way. We walked around on the road and admired the very ecumenical and lovely gilt mosaics which featured both Greek and Arabic scripts. Knowing we were following close on St. Paul's footprints, we looked for his disciple Sta. Tecla, and found her on a mosaic right inside the door!

We passed up the tour to Byblos and its Phoenician ruins, but eagerly went on the tour into the Bekaa Valley, to Baalbek. The Bekaa valley runs almost the length of Lebanon between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon (love that name!) mountain ranges. When we'd crossed the Lebanon range into the valley, we could look up at the mountains to see unmelted snow, as we sweltered in near 100-degree heat. The fertile Bekaa valley is Lebanon's breadbasket, and every inch was cultivated. Along the road, we passed numerous military checkpoints, all manned, but stopping no-one. These are apparently left over from the Syrian occupation and have been taken over by Lebanese troops, but they really have no mission (except, perhaps, to make sure that the Syrians don't come back and get them). As we got nearer Baalbek, we began to notice yellow and green flags on lampposts, balconies, and flagpoles. "Hezbollah," explained our guide, "Ballbek is their headquarters." And indeed, in Baalbek, their yellow and green flags flew from almost every lamppost and pole.

This was disconcerting to all of us, but particularly to Jessica, because she is Jewish. She told us she felt like she was carrying around a huge secret during our visits to Syria and Lebanon. It wasn't particularly frightening, just somehow a little cloud over her.

Baalbek is another Unesco World Heritage site. The modern town has been built over much of the ancient Roman ruins, but many ruins remain and they are amazing. The name Baalbek probably came from the god Baal; the Romans renamed the city Heliopolis, or Sun City. Of the structures they built, the remaining temples of Bacchus and Jupiter were the highlights of the site. The Temple of Bacchus (the god of fertility and good cheer) gets its name mainly because archaeologists have interpreted some of its sculptured reliefs as scenes from the childhood of Bacchus, while other reliefs and statues represent "wine, women and song." It's the best-preserved Roman temple in the world (not at all reconstructed), almost 70 meters (225 feet) long with 42 columns 19 meters (62 feet) in height. Of particular interest is that some of its original stone ceiling survives in situ.

But the Temple of Bacchus is dwarfed by the remains of the immense sanctuary of Jupiter. The Temple of Jupiter is said to be the largest religious building ever erected by the Romans. Originally, it was surrounded by 50 massive columns, also 19m (62ft) high, but some 2 ½ meters in diameter. These are made of pink granite brought from Aswan in Egypt. It's amazing to think of the effort required to get them here, then to erect them. Only 6 remain standing today, and their size remains awesome. (Incidentally, Emperor Justinian took 8 of them to use in building the Aya Sofia in Istanbul.)

We were awed by Baalbek, maybe more so because we'd never heard of it before visiting Lebanon. To return to the present times, the day after our visit to Baalbek, there was a gunfight in the streets there between two feuding clans; the fight was stopped by Hezbollah, which serves as the government of the area. Also while we were in Lebanon, the anti-Syrian journalist Rashid Khalili was car-bombed in Beirut. While the newspapers were full of stories about this violence and its significance in Lebanese politics, the bars stayed full every night and the stores were filled with French designer clothing.

En route back to Jounieh, we visited another unique archeological site: the Arab city of Anjar. It was built by Caliph Al-Walid, the same man who had the Great Mosque in Damascus built. This was one of a series of palaces he built around the area, hoping to attract the nomadic Arabs to occupy them. But, contrary to the notion that if you build it, they will come, they didn't. On the other hand, neither did anyone else, so nothing was built atop it, and it looks pretty much the way it was planned, with the quadrilinear two main streets flanked by columns typical of Roman construction. It wasn't discovered (or dug out from under the sand dunes that had buried it) until 1949, and not much has been done to it, but it's got the eerie appeal of a ghost town.

Our guide for this tour was the best we'd had on the Rally. She was not only knowledgeable about the sites we were seeing, she was not at all reluctant to discuss modern-day Lebanon. As mentioned, we were there during elections. This process is done region-by-region and extends over several weeks. As it goes on, alliances seem to develop, change and re-align. Lebanese are "required" to vote, but we spoke to many who hadn't, and there seems to be no punishment for not doing so. A problem with voting (and with the election) is that one votes in one's (or one's father's) home town or province, not in the province in which one lives currently. Elected officials, however, do not have to be from this town or province. Young folks who have moved away from home must return to register a week in advance, then go back to vote.

Another interesting factoid: the in Lebanon by "agreement", the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the legislature is a Shi'ite Muslim. This agreement reflects the population distribution, or at least it once did. There has been no census in Lebanon in many years, and no-one wants to conduct another for fear of what changes it might reveal (mainly that the Christians are now in a minority).

Although they still officially refer to the country to the south as "Occupied Palestine," the Lebanese we spoke with seemed optimistic of peace. They are certainly optimistic about the change in Lebanon since the Syrians left.

Well, we'd seen the sights, gotten a glimpse of modern history as well as ancient, and it was time to move south, to the country we would finally be able to call by its name: Israel.

(See our photos accompanying this Adventure)