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.