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Around Hama

October 15, 2009: Once again, I had my hotel arrange a car and driver for a day’s exploration. After an indifferent breakfast we left in good time for the Roman site of Apamea, arriving well before any tour groups. In fact, aside from a couple of other people, I had the whole 2km length of the main street, and its flanking columns, to myself.

The main street at Apamea

Founded during the Seleucid Empire in the 3rd century B.C.E., the town really prospered after its capture by the Romans in 64 B.C.E., with a population as high as 500,000, and rating a visit from the (in)famous Anthony and Cleopatra. Less important after the Muslim invasion, an earthquake in 1157 C.E. essentially destroyed it, and the columns that impressed me today had been reconstructed by a Belgian team.

Nothing could better illustrate the power and reach of the Roman Empire, not to mention the importance it attached to the province of Syria, than Apamea (or no doubt, Palmyra, if I had made it there). I have visited a number of imperial outposts, but this is easily the largest. In addition to sheer size, the elegance of the reconstructed columns suggests more than normal care in construction.I never pass up an opportunity to look at mosaics, and the museum just outside the site had some lovely ones, especially some of hunting animals. Unfortunately, they were in dire need of cleaning and proper display.

Unusual columns at Apamea

The scenery on the way to Apamea, north of Hama, had featured more of the flat, stony terrain I had seen from the train. Driving south via Musyaf to the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, however, the countryside became both more mountainous, and greener. In addition, I was surprised to see unveiled women in some of the villages. My driver told me that they were Ismailis. When I remarked that wearing black burkhas, as many of the Sunni women did, must be very hot in the Syrian climate, he claimed that only one month would be really uncomfortable. I was sorely tempted to tell him to try it himself!

Our relationship deteriorated further when we reached Krak. I wanted to eat lunch in one of the restaurants listed in Lonely Planet as having views of the castle. He said that he didn’t know where they were and stopped instead at the Restaurant des Chevaliers right in front of the main gate. I should have made him keep looking, but I was hungry and instead I ate without views and with a large tour group.

Krak des Chevaliers

T. E. Lawrence wrote of Krak that it was “the finest castle in the world”, and it was never taken by force – the Christian defenders left in 1271 under truce after Jerusalem had fallen and the Crusaders were in general retreat. While the moat would look better with some clean water, the walls were still formidable and much of the inner fortress was still intact. After visiting the castle I insisted on trying to find the Restaurant al-Qalaa, for coffee, and again my driver claimed not to know where it was. It turned out to be just across a valley from the castle, and the really excellent views were necessary to properly appreciate the defensive merits of the castle.

Clearly, my driver had a good relationship with the place he took me for lunch, leaving with a bottle tucked under his arm and a big smile on his face, and a bad relationship with my choice, where he didn’t even go into the building. After we drove back to Hama, and he escorted me up to the hotel’s reception desk, I explained the situation to the manager, who said that the driver had been told not to take tourists to the Restaurant des Chevaliers. I did not tip.

The manager also said that tourists who ate at the Restaurant des Chevaliers tended to get sick.

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