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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I'll Fax You an Email on Perfumed Paper

I only have to look back 12 years (same age as a decent bottle of Scotch) to remember that I used to send regular letters by “air mail” to my friends around the world. It took two to three weeks for a letter to travel from Syria to the US or Europe then. By the time I got a reply, a month would’ve elapsed. If I wrote more often to the same person, I and she would get confused and can’t quite figure out what the hell we’re talking about in any one particular letter. I used to wait for the damn 36 exp. film roll to finish before I could stick one or two pictures out of the bunch in the envelope. Sometimes a roll of film would linger in my camera for a couple of months if not more. There were people who even wrote on perfumed paper, although I didn’t do that for fear of being considered a fruitcake. It was romantic, so they say.

Then came the fax machine, and everyone thought WOW, how ingenious! This was what millions have been waiting for, in business particularly. I was never really impressed by this finicky device, although I still have the same one barely five feet to my left. It was such a relief for me when I learned that a rudimentary fax machine was invented just a couple of weeks before Bell patented his telephone. The German inventor didn’t bother apply for a patent, because he rightly thought that the telephone would render his gadget useless. If I had to pay for a couple of minutes of international fare to send a piece of paper, I’d rather talk for that brief time and listen to the voice of those far away. Of course, I was not a businessman and I would never be. Faxing documents across the globe never had a profit potential as far as I was concerned.

Then came the PC and the technology that eventually lead to the Internet. Now that was one hell of a breakthrough. I email my friends on a daily basis. I bombard you with posts on this blog every 3 to 4 days. Digital pictures leave and arrive at my desktop by the dozen. I haven’t gone into a photo lab for ages, except to buy a frame to display one particular digital shot that was worth printing on my photo printer and eventually was worth being framed. Was it really more romantic? Ah, I really don’t know. But, what I wouldn’t give to be young and foolish again in the age of the Internet. One of my best talents is bullshitting and people like me strive on the net. All the hot babes I could’ve eventually met through chat rooms after impressing on them that I was some special kind of guy. That opportunity lost forever.

As for the negative aspects of this (relatively speaking) new means of communications, I personally don’t think it’s worth the HTML code to write about it. Sure there are “hate” assholes, child molesters, terrorists, Bush morons and devil worshipers on the net but they’ve always been around. Now they have the same technology as everybody else and they’re taking advantage of it. I have not yet been forced to visit their sites or to read about them. “Legitimate” businesses are the ones getting on my nerves with their “legal” advertisement. I wonder if a twist of fate somewhere in our modern history would’ve not caused these businesses to be considered worse than terrorists. What if communism had prevailed! A sobering thought, isn’t it?

So we are netizens, whatever that may be. I don’t see our salvation in this new citizenship. The poor are still getting poorer and you all know about the rich. What concerns me most as an individual is that I have better access to information and more importantly to my friends. I have never considered the prevalent media as objective in its coverage of world news. Being able to access smaller news organizations, less privileged groups and less vocal mouths around the globe is very satisfying due to the somehow subdued balancing effect they are helping to create. When Fox News or CNN talk about a bad guy now and I feel that my intelligence is being insulted, I can check out what the bad guy himself has to say about it. No better place to do so than on al-Jazira. I can doubt them all, I can ignore them, or if I so choose, I can have my own presence on the net and fight them with words and images. Being a peace-loving person, I can only say that I’m very happy that “almost” everyone has a chance to speak out. There’s no guarantee that anyone would listen, mind you, but it is a step in the right direction. I strongly believe that one day, the less privileged people of the world will rejoice while those who invented this out of control spider web might regret the very day it was conceived. For better, for worse, there are millions of them.

The ants are coming, step out of the way.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Asheh of Tartous - Stuffed Sheep Intestines & Stomachs

Although I was born in Tartous, I was raised on Damascene home cooking since my late mother was from Damascus. It has always been my personal opinion that their cooking is the best in Syria. I know that many would disagree and say Aleppo, Homs or Hama. Of course cooking and enjoying food is an absolutely subjective experience. So basically, there is no right and wrong. There is diversity and controversy which could only result in a better Syrian cuisine due to the silent competition that exists between the proud cooks of these great cities.
But step aside all of you. In addition to obviously all types of seafood, there are certain plates, a very few indeed, which are best made by the Tartoussis. Even my mother, rest her soul, knew that it would be better to imitate the “locals” than to continue with her Chami (Damascene) way. One of these plates and certainly on the top of my culinary list is: Asheh (also known in other Syrian cities as Abawat, Fawaregh & Saja2at).
The intestines and stomachs of a sheep and other animals are cooked and stuffed one way or another in many cultures and countries around the world. I am familiar with at least two: the Cajun Boudin of southwestern Louisiana and the Scottish Haggies. I’ve tried and tremendously liked both. Then remember that after all this is what the world famous sausage is made of. So no need at all to panic. You've had it before, may be differently. Here is how it looks like and how it is done in Tartous. Hope you enjoy it.


1. The complete intestines and stomachs of one sheep
2. 3 1/2 cups of white short rice
3. 500 g of minced lamb meat
4. 1 cup shortening or butter
5. 1 teaspoon black spice
6. 1 table spoon salt (or more as per preference)
7. 1 teaspoon of cardamom
8. 2 sticks of cinnamon
9. 1 leaf of laurus + 1 lemon
10. 1 cup of Salt and 1 cup of all-purpose flour - to further clean the intestines and stomachs by rubbing them with the mixture
11. A large needle and thread

Preparation & Cooking:

1. Order the intestines (at least one day before the big day in Tartous) thoroughly cleaned. By the way, the penis is added as a bonus from the butcher. It’s treated exactly as a one of the finest intestines in all the following steps, except no. 3 (turning inside out). So clean it by letting a stream of warm water pass through it until you are fully satisfied. Oops, I didn’t mean it in a bad way (the satisfaction part)!
2. Start by cleaning with unscented soap and water, wash and repeat again. Then remove excess fat while paying special attention not to tear the intestines and the stomachs. You can use the dull side of a knife to clean the excess fat from the inside of stomachs.
3. Turn the intestines and the stomachs inside out and rub them completely yet delicately with the salt and flour. Wash with warm water then repeat again and again until fully satisfied they are the cleanest they can get. (How to turn the intestines inside out? Stick your finger in one side and… well, you know how we take off our socks, use the same method. As for the stomachs, sew them where they are torn open and leave only enough space to stuff them with the rice mixture. You would completely close them later.
4. Mix the above ingredients from 2 to 7 after separately washing the rice and draining excess water.
5. Stuff the mixture by gently filling in one end of the intestine and stomachs and pushing it inside with your favorite finger. Then you would hold the intestines with one hand and use the other to squeeze down the mixture. Well you get it, stuff the damn things until full but not too stuffed. Remember rice expands when cooked.
6. With the needle and thread, sew together the loose ends to keep the stuffing inside.
7. Place the stuffed intestines and stomachs in a large enough pot (the largest and thickest stomacks at the bottom). Add between 8 to 10 cups of water. Add the sticks of cinnamon,the leaf of laurus and the juice of the 1 lemon.
8. Boil, cover then reduce heat and cook for between 1 ½ to 2 hours over low to medium heat. I tell you what. I never looked at my watch while cooking. Take out a small piece of intestines and taste it. If the rice is to your liking, then it’s done. Some people prefer stiff rice while others prefer it very well cooked. It’s up to you.
9. Remove from heat. Place in appropriate pottery for presentation at the table without the sauce. Pour the sauce in a separate bowl and present along side. Some people also like salted plain yogurt on the side. I love the sauce and I drink it along while eating. Add more lemon juice and Tabasco. Don't use a spoon, drink it (trust me on this one)
10. Enjoy your fabulous meal. Use a fork and knife, a spoon, your hands… your imagination, and think of me.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Happy To Be On an Island in the Sun

Summer is in full swing. Family and friends are home on holidays. Sunshine prevails every single hour of the day. The few shy clouds are mere props in the theater of the sky. The sea beckons to us all to enjoy the amity of each other and escape the heat of the day. Children and adults play together, splashing in water, enjoying the undulation of the sea after the passage of a lazy wave, magical instants preserved in time, burned forever in memory.

I close the door of the air conditioned office behind me. It’s barely 2:00 PM and I’m the last to leave. I shed my shirt, throw it in the back, steer my car toward the highway leading to the beach. A primal instinct swells within, urging me to return to the sea, whence we came and forever long to return. I search for and find the old cassette tape I’ve played a hundred times. It’s the first song on Side B. I turn off the AC, roll down the windows and let the wind and the music unfetter my hair and spirit.

Sitting in the sun waiting for a seniorita to show
Guitars playing melodies from Spain and Mexico
Soft wind blowing the smell of sweet roses to each and every one
Happy to be on an island in the sun

Mothers with their children waiting in the cool of the shade
And thirsty people coming from the fields to drink tea and lemonade
An old man yawning, his day’s coming, his working day’s done
He’s happy to be on an island in the sun

All the stars come out and shine so bright
It’s so romantic to be in that moon lit paradise
Love is going to shine a welcoming light when I’m
Looking to the eyes of the seniorita tonight

Sitting in the sun waiting for a seniorita to show
Guitars playing melodies from Spain and Mexico
Soft wind blowing the smell of sweet roses to each and every one
Happy to be on an island in the sun…
Happy to be on an island in the sun…

Demis Roussos takes me away to an exotic island, hardly 10 minutes out of Tartous.

I drop my pants even before the engine is brought to a silence (you guessed it, I don’t play hard to get at all). I reach for my shorts and perform the 30 second transformation act (in a car not in a telephone booth though). It’s still almost as easy as last year, or the years before.

A mirage dances on the golden sands enticing me to absorb the beauty of female bodies laid out in the sun to tan, but not just yet. I’m not seeking creatures of the land. My heart is set only for my siren luring me to plunge into the endless blue in search of her. I offer myself and plead the sea to accept me, to take me as I am. I come up from my ritual first dive of the day to breathe. How I envy the wild beasts of the sea for staying longer, much longer, for diving deeper much deeper toward the endless abyss underneath. I float in the womb of all life, cherishing my simple moments of absolute loneliness.

Soon enough I join the pack. Amid laughter and jubilation, they all want to know where did I come from, when did I arrive.

I have always been here… by the sea. There had never been any other place for me.

Demis Roussos was born on June 15, 1946 in the city of Alexandria, Egypt of Greek extraction. I have uploaded this beautiful song “Happy to Be on an Island in the Sun” for you to download and enjoy. Please do!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Nabe'e Hassan on the River Markieh

One of the oldest restaurants in the Tartous area is Nabe’e Hassan (نبع حسان = The Hassan Spring). It is beautifully situated on the River Markieh in the shade of giant eucalyptus trees. It has always been a favorite destination during the hot summer days for Tartoussis and visitors from Syrian cities. In the evening, the eerie green and red lighting emanating from the trees and reflecting on the surface of the water, the sounds of hundreds of frogs frolicking in the dark and the subdued rumors of the rushing little waterfall all conspire into making dinner a unique experience.

Nabe’e Hassan would be a great place for a bunch of friends or a large family reunion to have lunch or dinner and perhaps get a little drunk. Since I am one who favors empty restaurants for such occasions, I would intentionally pick the dead days of the week for such a banquet. As other similar places in Tartous, Nabe’e Hassan will be in full mode and crowded on Thursday and Saturday evenings and all day long on Friday. The restaurant opens from June 1st till the end of September. It’s a shame, because I would really enjoy sitting outdoors in October or even November in such a beautiful place, but I think it’s not economically feasible. Once the Damascene, the Homsis and the Aleppians leave Rimal Zahabieh for the new school year, there wouldn’t be enough customers to maintain a decent income for the proprietor to remain open.

The food at Nabe’e Hassan is the traditional Syrian Coast/Lebanese Mezza + barbecued chicken, lamb or sea fish. A great Mezza specialty in the Tartous area is a hot plate of tiny fried river fish, called “Samak Nahri”. You have to be careful though, the fish has to measure less than 8 cm (roughly 3”) or it wouldn’t count as the delicacy it ought to be. The smaller the fish the more delicious they taste. They are eaten whole with tiny bones, heads and tails with a squeeze from a fresh lemon. When ordering this plate, you should specifically request that you want the tiny fish only. The Mezza I’ve ordered recently at Nabe’ Hassan consisted of Hommos, Moutabbal, Fattouch, Tabbouleh, Mfaraket Fitr, Jarjir, Ba2let, Zaatar Akhdar, olives, Awanes & Sawda, Bourak Bi Jebneh, Kobbeh Nayeh & Hamis, shanklish and Batata Me2liet. These plates are served with Arak, beer or soft drinks. A Nafas Argheele (water pipe with tobacco) is also served with the Mezza. Depending on the mood and the pace of the party, a smart chef would know when to bring in the chicken, lamb or fish. This is done when the customers start eating while leaning backward on their chairs to accommodate their expanding stomachs. The main dish is to be served right then. Afterwards, a gourmet (a Sa7eb Keif) will usually release his belt buckle and the top button of his trousers and continue to sip his Arak with love and affection. Before leaving, cold slices of watermelon and coffee or tea are brought, compliments of the management.

I highly recommend Nabe’ Hassan for a visitor of Tartous. The food is great, the atmosphere relaxing and the price is right. Bon appétit!

Dear Readers
For those who do not already know it, Mezza is a collection of small plates consisting of over 100 hot and cold appetizers served in succession before the main course. The most famous Mezza is the Lebanese variety but this is mainly due to the fact that the Lebanese are excellent promoters and more verbose than the Tartoussis or Lattakians (not counting me of course). The Mezza of the Syrian cost (Tartous and Lattakia) is very similar to the Lebanese and differs considerably from the Mezza varieties of Interior Syria. This is caused, in my opinion, by the fact that the Lebanese and the coastal Syrians share a fervent passion for Arak. For us, Arak is King and all the Mezza plates are the Harem. I have to admit though that the Lebanese variety is more exquisite, but so is the price you’d pay. The cuisine of Interior Syria has been more influenced and shaped by the Ottoman Turks. While home cooking is far more advanced in cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, the Mezza, which is really in the end a compliment for Arak, is more our specialty. If anyone cares to further learn about the different plates that make up a Middle Eastern Mezza (in this case the Mezza of Tartous), let me know through a comment. In the Tartous area, I would say that we have about 30 to 40 such appetizers. By now it must be obvious that I am a food lover myself. If this topic is of any interest to you, say so and I will pursue it even further (you will be doing me a great favor since I wouldn’t be able to write about food unless I go out and experiment at various locations). As for Arak, an unsweetened aniseed flavored grape distilled alcoholic beverage and the national drink of Syria, there will be one post completely devoted to it (Just wait till the end of October).

Nabe’ Hassan is located on the river Markieh, 18 km north of Tartous. You get there by driving on the Tartous-Lattakia Hwy due north for 15 km then taking the right exit at [Rimal Zahabieh/Kamsieh]. Less than a 100 m ahead you reach the old Tartous-Lattakia Road, take a left and drive ahead for 2 km until you reach a bridge over a river to your left, a road straight ahead and an exit to the right. You drive over the bridge and continue for a couple of hundred meters till you see the sign to the right (نبع حسان). You take this private side road and drive another couple of hundred meters and enter through the main gate of the restaurant. I would suggest to the owner(s) that more care should be taken of keeping the place and the river unsoiled. I would also like that the restrooms undergo a complete refurbishing and a daily and thorough cleaning.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Rimal Zahabieh (Golden Sands)

Not one of the most successful, but the most successful recreational project in Syria is al-Rimal al-Zahabieh (Golden Sands) of Tartous. This beachfront property has a shoreline of 2400 m and 1190 individual privately owned chalets. Opened in the early 1980’s as a tourist residential cooperative project, it has far exceeded the expectations of its founding fathers, the Syrian government and the thousands of visitors who enjoy its sands, sun and sea every year.

It all started when a group of Homsis (from Homs, Syria) started this ambitious and pioneering project on a stretch of beautiful beach 15 km north of Tartous. It’s worthwhile mentioning that several other projects were started and completed at the same time, all located in the Tartous area. What makes the Tartous coastline unique, from Banias 30 km north to al-Arida (border with Lebanon) 30 km south is the fact that it’s almost entirely a sandy stretch. The other projects still have their fans, but objectively speaking they are nowhere, not even close to what the Rimal is. If we consider the market value of property (price/sq.m.) then the disparity is very much evident. Today, we are talking of some chalets having a real market value of over US$1million. Prices range from US$50,000 for small apartments in high rise buildings on the fringe of the compound to, as mentioned above, +1 mil for the nice unattached single story units in front of the large green lawn with an unobstructed view of the sea.

Rimal is a self-sufficient, entirely independent little town. The summer population could well reach 20,000+ inhabitants. During the off season, it’s almost completely deserted except for the employees and caretakers. I am lucky to supervise the remodeling of chalets during the winter months there. That gives me the opportunity to enjoy a few moments of solitude by the sea almost everyday. Rimal is a closed city, meaning that you have to pass through a single main gate to get in. Although I am not one who favors elitist policy, I have to admit that this procedure has enhanced the compound’s all around comfort and value. Rimal has received several awards from different international tourist organizations for the quality of service and the recreational value it offers. There are a few restaurants and cafes inside, several shops, a medical facility and a bakery all very clean and well taken care of. A bid for a large hotel has been awarded this year and the construction at the south end should start soon.

From a social and demographic point of view, the residents of Rimal are almost exclusively upper middle class or rich. The majority comes from Homs and there are a good number of Damascene, Aleppians and Tartoussis. In recent years, the trend is of younger and middle aged Tartoussis buying and the previous generation of “interiorSyrians selling. Still, the atmosphere is a wonderful mixture of young and old during the day, and mainly young boys and girls filling all the sidewalks, the roads and the chairs in the local cafes at night.

Rimal Zahabieh is a must visit when you have a chance to be in Tartous during the summer. When you get in for the first time you are sure to be surprised very nicely indeed. It is also a clear indication of what private citizens could achieve without the intervention, interference or the “help” of the government in Syria and everywhere else.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

100 Ways to Cook a Rabbit – Recipe No. 26

First you need to get yourself a wild rabbit. The only way I know of is to go for the hunt. The mountains around Tartous are filled with, among other creatures, wild rabbits and hares. We usually hunt them at night, preferably moonless nights. Four to five people go for the ride on the back dirt roads in a 4-wheel drive pickup truck. There will be the driver and a passenger to keep him company (so that the driver doesn’t fall asleep). The other two or three will ride in the back. The light bearer illuminates the sides of the roads with precise sweeping motions to detect and point to the game. The other(s) handle the shotgun(s) and the shooting.

On a good summer night, a dozen or so rabbits could be bagged before daybreak. However, good hunters will always kill just enough to eat and not more.

Be that as it may, here goes the 26th method of cooking a wild rabbit. It’s called “Lapin à l’Abufares avec Burghul”, after a great Tartoussi Chef by that name. (Please close your lips together in a kissing manner when you pronounce l’Abufares to sound French)

4 to 6 Servings (usually the same people mentioned above)

-Shoot the rabbit, skin it, clean it and bring it home. (Please don’t bring in the head! Coyotes need something to munch on)
-Freeze the beast for at least 24 hours. (It’s normal procedures to freeze wild game, with the exception of small birds, before cooking and eating. At least that’s the practice here)
-Take out of freezer; let it thaw at room temperature until tender.
-Marinate the rabbit in one bottle of red wine for 4-6 hours with salt and all kinds of spices (black pepper, red pepper, white pepper, paprika, cinnamon, and a dash of cardamon) and place it in the fridge.
-Remove from wine, cut into 6 to 8 pieces and fry for 10 minutes in plenty of butter with onions and garlic.
-Place in a pot and add the wine then water as needed. Simmer, bring to a boil then cover for 1 hour over low heat, stirring occasionally. I add Tabasco at this stage, but it’s entirely up to you.
-Add potatoes cut into pieces the size of golf balls, cover again and continue boiling over low heat for an additional 30-45 minutes.
-Prepare a plate of coarse Burghul (cracked wheat: which is prepared exactly as a plate of rice with the same kind of spices and seasoning), or instead of burghul, prepare a plate of rice as per your own recipe.
I personally use many types of seasoning for burghul and rice. Use your imagination. As a suggestion, I would add salt, black pepper, cinnamon and paprika.
-When the burghul or rice is ready to be served, place it in a separate dish and pour some virgin olive oil over it (burghul only).
-The two dishes are presented together and each serving consists of a plate of rabbit with burghul or rice on the side.
Sit down enjoy your Lapin à l’Abufares with your favorite wine or a glass of Arak.

Please if you have another recipe for rabbit, let me hear it. If you try my recipe, let me know how it comes out. Pictures will be greatly appreciated. As you can see from the attached picture I was so hungry I started eating before I had the good sense to bring out my camera. So do excuse me because the plates don’t look exactly as coming out of a gourmet magazine.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Football... According to a Tartoussi

A month had passed since the end of the Germany Football World Cup 2006. Although in terms of organization it was one of the best world cups ever, the play itself, the refereeing and the final game have left plenty to be desired. It is important that I state that I don’t care much about world cups. The only advantage I see in it is that it brings in new fans to the world most popular sport. I can speak about Syria only, but it might be true elsewhere, when I say that the world cup brings in women and children in large numbers. It also brings in shallow faddists who get terribly excited because it’s the in-thing to do once every four years.
I have no national team to follow in the world cup, and I’m certain this affects my attitude. I can understand why people get excited over their national teams. Yet, I’m not fully certain that this is simply it. I love Italy like a second home. I love the food, the places, the language and the people. I am happy because they are happy. But in all honesty I never liked their football. The Italian way of playing football is the most un-Italian thing I’ve ever seen in Italy. It is in total opposition to the way Italians truly are. Just look at the half-empty stadia during most Calcio games.
For me, an avid European football follower and a devoted Arsenal FC fan, the fiasco that is the world cup is an overrated sporting event, although I must admit that it does more good than harm. In 2006, a shameful damage was inflicted on the sport and probably made my last statement untrue; the end of the free to watch era and the introduction of the highly controversial Pay TV for this very popular event. As if they weren’t suffering enough already, the underprivileged all around the world were denied this basic entertainment right.
I don’t see it as wrong for the different “good” leagues around the globe to charge viewers. Clubs in the end need to make as much money as possible. Money keeps the business wheels spinning and the level of play certainly continues getting higher and higher. Good players cost millions and the loyal fans have to share part of the expenses. How can I be a devoted fan of Arsenal FC, an English team in the north of London, and not sound like a hypocrite at the same time? This brings me to the main point behind the entire post.
Tartous never had a good football team since the creation of the Syrian League in its present format. The Tartoussi football fans always looked outside. Almost every football fan in Tartous is either an Ahlawi or a Zamalkawi (the most famous 2 Egyptian teams). I would daresay that if the Syrian and Egyptian Cup Finals were playing at the same time, the vast majority of real Tartoussis will be following the Egyptian cup. We’re not unpatriotic in any sense. We just love good football and have the easy and common sense (enhanced by the fact that we don’t have a team in the first division) to admit that Syrian football sucks. Why would anyone waste 135 minutes of his/her life on one of the most boring forms of entertainment possibly available? This goes to include, again according to real Tartoussis, all Asian-Arab football leagues. When we feel nationalistic, we search for an African-Arab football game. When we feel like watching real football, our eyes and hearts go to the old continent (as it’s called). We are all devoted fans of one good European club or another. We are all avid followers of at least one major European league.
I follow, and in term of frequency, the English Premiership, the Spanish La Liga, the German Bundesliga and the Italian Serie A. Besides Arsenal, I also like Barcelona FC and these are my favorite 2 teams. In the Italian Calcio, I don’t know, I will say without much conviction that I’m a fan of the Inter. I will see how it goes this year. As for the Bundesliga, and although I’ve always admired the high level of football it offered, I never had a team to support. That is until yesterday, and thanks to a dear German friend who showed me the light! I’m just making the announcement: I’m a Bayern Műnchen fan for this season and beyond (They won 2-0 yesterday in their excellent opener against Borussia Dortmund).
Finally, why the picture of Thierry Henry? The answer is very simple. HE IS THE BEST PLAYER IN THE WORLD - END OF STORY.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

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.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bringing Up Kids!

I’m in the summer of my life. I find myself with plenty to consider. As I look back to the deeds I’ve done, to the dreams left unfulfilled, I feel some urgency. I haven’t carried out half of the stuff I thought I’d have accomplished by now. I have seen my road forks countless times in my past. I have followed so many dead ends. I have made more of my share of wrong choices. But here I am, and to my own surprise, a happy and content man.

Bringing up kids is like taking drugs or having too much to drink. They give you a headache but they fill your life with joy and fantasy. They also tend to make you forget a little about the present. Time sure flies with them around. I would’ve been on a different path in life hasn’t it been for them. One that could’ve been more exciting perhaps but nowhere near as gratifying. So I gave up some and took a lot in return. I’m not a free person anymore. I could never follow up on an instant urge, pack my stuff and just go in search of another campground, something I cherish no matter where I happen to be. Somehow, I don’t feel utterly disappointed with the missed chances, although they tend to get more stretched apart as the days go by.

I know that there will come one day when the kids have all grown up and gone. Would I be miserable then without them filling my life? Would I regret the unfulfilled dreams, the inaccessible roads, the uncharted lands? Could I soar in the infinite leeways of space and time once alone and untethered?

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what I’d be doing today. I was a very happy young man then. Still, I wouldn’t trade my lot in life with all the treasures and adventures I’ve surely missed. I assume that as we grow older and our bodies get frailer, we tend to compensate for the shortcomings of our fate with something far more dazzling than mere words or thoughts: hope. And, this is exactly what kids give us, hope in the face of a nameless future. We all go through life knowing full well that there’s only death at the end. Yet, we persist despite our grief for those we loose along the way. We chisel happiness from the solid rock of an uncompromising veracity.

They’ll be alright… the kids I mean. We’ll manage somehow without them as well. If nature were to follow its normal course, we’ll reach our winter when their summer just begins.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Husn Suleiman - The Temple of Zeus Baotocecian

The path to our destination is not always a straight one. We go down the wrong road, we get lost, we turn back. Maybe it doesn't matter which road we embark on. Maybe what matters is that we embark. Barbara Hall, Northern Exposure, Rosebud, 1993

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.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Lebanon Under Siege: Official Website for Relief in Lebanon

Thousands of injured and displaced people from all over Lebanon need your help.

Lebanon needs you!

Please donate money, relief goods or your time and expertise.

To donate, or to obtain information on relief efforts in Lebanon go to:

The official website for relief in Lebanon