Ancient Amrit

My late friend Ali Al-Badri worked his lot of land in Amrit until he died in the winter of 2006. Over the years, I have been to his wooden shed by the sea on dozens of Fridays. I would arrive in the morning and usually return at noon. We would simply talk or take a stroll with a couple of pointer dogs amid the ruins of the ancient city, hunting for quails.

Amrit is a magical place. Neglect had a two-sided effect on her. First, it had deprived her the fame she certainly deserved as one of the most important Phoenician archeological sites in the Mediterranean basin. But, in a strange sort of way, it had preserved her from further damage which could have been inflicted if the archaic mentality of the Ministry of Culture and its Department of Antiquity have had a free hand to reign. When I go for a saunter in the midst of ruins dating back to the third millennium BC, I often find sheep grazing the overgrown grass leisurely. I cross path with kids playing and throwing stones in the holy spring near the temple. I come upon young lovers hiding in the shade of a sporadic olive tree sprouting from the olden earth. I jolt back when a quail bolts from the wavy fields of bounty, pregnant with the offspring of the life giving wheat. Amrit is a place to go if I need to be alone without a roof over my head and it’s just a “stone throw away” to the south of Tartous.

The Phoenicians of Arwad (Arados) built Amrit (Marthias) as a religious center. It is the only still existing site in Syria whose remains express the diverse civilizations which inhabited the region. It is an exemplary tribute to the Phoenicians ability to absorb, combine and synthesize their unique culture. Alexander the Great visited Amrit (called Marathos then) in 330 BC and waited there while his army was being diverted to Damascus. The ancient city lies in an area of some 6 km² (3x2). Remnants of a stadium constructed in the fourth century, older than the one on Mount Olympia in Greece and measuring about (230m x 30m) are still visible on the northern side of the Amrit River. 700 m to the south rise two necropolis towers called locally Al-Maghazel (The Spindles: since this is what they look like). Underneath the towers, burial chambers have been unearthed. The most important monument is Al-Maabad (the temple) built toward the end of the sixth century BC during the Achaemenid Persian period and dedicated to the gods Melqart (later renamed to Hercules by the Greek) and Eshmun (the Egyptian God of Healing). The temple is a mixture of Egyptian and Mesopotamian architecture and is juxtaposed in the middle of a sacred lake (48m x 39m). The spring which was believed to possess healing properties was channeled into this man-made lake surrounded on 3 sides by a colonnaded arcade. It is believed that the high priest(s) and the animal victim(s) would take a small boat to reach the temple and carry out the secretive sacrifice rituals.

Several viable construction projects have been proposed during the last twenty years. A couple of them involving the construction of huge resorts and hotels had actually started and stopped in a matter of months. No matter where one digs in the Amrit area, once the surface soil is removed ancient artifacts are unearthed. The Department of Antiquity will yell “wolf” then, revoke the construction license and fence the site once and for all. An archeology aficionado can not even set foot inside, without first paying Bakhsish (a tip) to the Matte drinking guard by the main gate.

I am not a crazy fan of huge construction projects whether they are for tourists or for the locals. But all the government is doing up until this moment is to bury its head in the sand like a dumb ostrich. Something should be done in and to Amrit. It’s a site well worthy of being listed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. May be such an organization can truly help in the further discovery, rehabilitation and proper investment of Amrit.

Or, may be it’s all for the best. Only time could tell.

Driving & General Directions: From the southern side of Tartous take the Tripoli Hwy toward Arida. 5 km out of the city limits, follow the sign leading to the branching side road to the right (west). Drive for 2 km on this beautiful old road till the tip of the temple is visible off to your left. Follow the dirt road for the last 300 m. Park the car in the open space near the stupid building constructed by the Department of Antiquity. As can be seen in the picture above (courtesy of Save Amrit), the tall grass around the temple is actually growing in a swamp like lake. You would be able to walk in the arcade around the temple but don’t get fooled into stepping on the grass. You will sink waist high in water.
Visiting Amrit is free for all. The bakshish (tip) I mentioned above in the post is to enter certain fenced in lots directly on the beach, and where recently, canals distributing the spring water to various parts of the ancient city have been discovered.


Ascribo said…

I really love that place: "Amrit is a place to go if I need to be alone without a roof over my head and it’s just a “stone through” to the south of Tartous."

The greatest of all is a bike ride to Amrit, through that old road. You can enjoy everything then. Being alone, the nature, the sea view, the history and the Cycling!
Karin said…
That does very much sound like my kind of place to recharge my batteries!!
You wrote that beautifully, I could follow with my inner eyes the places you went and imagine what you saw!

The expression "The spring which was believed to possess healing properties´" kind of made me smile ... it reminded me instantly of the "Fountain of immortality" I had drank from on my way from Germany to Afghanistan ... so I hope you notice I am an IMMORTAL, ha-ha!! ;)

I looked up the place on a map - it's indeed only a "stone-throw"!

GREAT POST Abufares, I REALLY enjoyed it!!
super hero said…
"I am not a crazy fan of huge construction projects whether they are for tourists or for the locals. But all the government is doing up until this moment is to bury its head in the sand like a dumb ostrich"

this is the kind of thing i feel like in Turkey too.
Abufares said…
Hi Ascribo
I'm happy to hear from another Tartoussi.
You reminded me of years gone by when we used to walk to Amrit and swim at the mouth of the river. There was a man there who will gladly cook the food we took with us. He also provided the small chairs, the tables and the utensils for a minimal fee.
We would place the table and chais in the water stream and have a blast in the heat of the day.
I will wait till October before I start my bycicle again, to Amrit and further
Abufares said…
Thank you Karin
I just hope that I get in the mood again to do some local traveling around Tartous to post about them. We are living with a heavy burden that is the war in Palestine and Lebanon. Believe me that even when we're having fun, there's no fun in it. I hope it make sense, but it's as if some very close family member is sick. The shadow of the sad events make it really difficult to have true and pure moments of joy.
Abufares said…
Thank you Super Hero for your visit.
From what I hear about Turkey, you are in much better shape than us here when it comes to taking care of your natural resources and treasures from the past. I was planning on going there by car this summer, but have postponed it till next year.
Karin said…
Dear friend,
I do understand very well what you're saying ... I agree wholeheartedly.
Would you please check your e-mail?
Shannon said…
There may not be peace in the area, but you have a way of making this sound like the most peaceful spot on the planet. I hope one day I can see it for myself.
Abufares said…
Hi Shannon
What you're saying is true in a strange way. When I am abroad, my feeling that our area is at war is much stronger than when I am actually here. Indeed it's peaceful despite all.
I, too, hope that one day you can come and visit. It's going to be beyond your wildest expectations. Even more than the special places, I think you are going to find that the people are very interesting (in their natural habitat).
Ken said…
After reading of such a place, I find myself with the emptiness of a want to discover places that have been forgotten. It sounds as if it is wonderful place to relax/re-charge oes self. It is somewhat difficult for me to understand how a place so peaceful is so near to all what is going on in your country. I hope to one day go and see some of the places you write about before they are lost forever. Again another wonderful post!
Abufares said…
So nice to see you here after all these years. I mean this is one of my earliest posts on this blog. You know what's sad? I haven't been to Amrit in a couple of years. Sadly, it's more or less a restricted area these days and going there isn't as easy, or as mind and soul liberating as it once was. I can only hope for Amrit's return to its proper owners, we the people :-)
I'd love to show you around... one day.

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