When I get in the saddle of my bike, this is exactly how I feel. My two biker friends gave me the honor of picking the destination on a hot Friday afternoon. We were in the mood for a long and tough ride. We had all the necessary gear, three full tanks of gas and 9 or 10 50cl Swingtop bottles of Grolsch Beer completely cradled in a pack of ice. Let’s go to Husn Suleiman I yelled over the asynchronous dins of the three engines. It was going to be one hell of a ride to the temple of Zeus himself.
We hit the road around 5:00PM to reach Husn Suleiman (53 km to the east of Tartous) in a little bit over an hour. There’s nothing exciting to write home about in riding from Tartous to Safita. You might as well do it in a cage (car). It’s one of the busiest roads in Syria day or night. Hundreds of micros maniacally roam this stretch. We were very happy to put it behind our backs and slowly cruise the quiet streets of Safita (elev. 400 m). This is one of the most beautiful cities in Syria and it surely deserves a separate post in its honor. We left Safita from the east and waded our way uphill and slanting northward on one of the most magnificent roads I had the pleasure of riding anywhere in the world. We owned the asphalt with sporadic micros and cars along the way. Thank God for digital photography. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.
I have been to Husn Suleiman (elev. 800 m) a couple of times before, not so my friends. When we finally made it around a bend and the site was just underneath and to the left of the road, I stalled my engine and only looked in the direction I wanted my friends to follow. I was as dumbstruck as both of them. What did these ancestors of ours have in mind when they built this place? What road did they follow to come all the way here?
It is believed that the first temple was devoted to the god Baal and built by the Canaanites. Later the worship of Baal merged with its Greek equivalent “Zeus” who was named “Zeus Baotocecian”. The remains of today date back to the Romans and were built around the first century AD. Astarte was also worshiped at the temple and her followers thrived during the Roman times. In the second century AD the various Syro-Phoenician cults were still flourishing in this part of Syria despite the advance of Christianity. The surrounding countryside worshiped at this temple and continued to pay taxes as late as the fourth century AD. The ruins at Husn Suleiman are of an extraordinary nature. Mammoth stones measuring 10 m by 2.5 m were used to build the surrounding rectangular walls. The site measures roughly 134 m by 85 m and has a gate on each side. The main gate is the one at the north wall where there is an elaborate propylaeum (a colonnaded entrance) 15 m wide. In the middle of the open space within, there is a large platform with an altar on top. A secondary structure which real purpose remains unclear is less than a hundred meters to the northwest. It is called Al-Deir, though it was probably converted into a monastery much later. The concurrence of this temple with the serene and tranquil background is surrealistic to say the least.
We consumed the ice-cold beer at the altar, but soon enough it started getting cold. Chatting with a young man, we learned that we were closer to Dreikish than to Safita. So on we jumped and started our descent on a treacherous road. It is a heavenly trail for a bike but not recommended if you visit Husn Suleiman by car. Driving back to Safita is definitely safer and easier on the stomach. I was fortunate to take one more photo of the clouds veiling the villages along the way. Once we reached Dreikish we got in the end of fun mode and seriously drove back to Tartous in the falling darkness amid the crazy four-wheeled vehicles. Next time we hit the road, I won’t pick the destination, but I’ll sure keep you posted.
Trip Log: Total distance: 117 km - Elapsed Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes - Remarks: 3 Pit Stops to discharge the beer on the side of the road.
“Monuments of Syria An Historical Guide” by Ross Burns, I.B. Tauris – Dummar Publisher, 1999. is an indispensible tool for the research invloved in writing my posts covering archeological sites in Syria. I rely on this single work more than any other because of its simplicity, precision and catering for the need of the Syria traveller.