Syria: Dark, Brooding Ruin - Tumultuous Past, Tumultuous Present
Updated: Jan 5
Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) - 08 - UPDATED
This is a place where an emperor and many devotees once came to pay their respects. It was home to a very special man, who lived a uniquely peculiar, ascetic life. He was later made a saint.
Alas, the emperors come no more; since those pious days, it has been devasted by man and nature alike. Worse still, the devastation continues to this day: you would visit this location today at your peril - in all probability, you would be arrested by some authority and never reach it. Which might save your life.
In the local vernacular it's called a 'castle' or 'fortress', although I don't think it was ever one such - except, perhaps, in the spiritual sense. Few visited the place in modern times, and when I took this photo, one misty November day in 1984, there was nobody to disturb me.
Round about, there were ruins of what appeared to be villages long abandoned, except by the odd goat-herd and his flocks.
But where is it? A difficult (and sad) story: I will update tomorrow.
UPDATE Crossing the Turkish-Syrian border late one afternoon in November, 1984 gave one a quick experience of the customer-service 'philosophy' of the Arab Republic's state administration. “You must change USD 100,” the border guard said.
We were in what was more like a scruffy sort of mess room than a border inspection office. I don't think there were any other 'customers' in the place. Almost all my money was in travellers' cheques (remember those?). I showed him. “No good. Change money, cash, now!” He wasn't so much ordering as making a simple statement. 'Get the money, immediately, or go back to Turkey. I don't really care,' was the essence of his argument. I honestly forget how I found the cash. I do remember I had note of 20 Austrian Schillings – worth about USD 2 at the time – which I placed on the desk. He grabbed that as if it were an empty sweet packet: something told me the Syrian exchequer would never count that as part of its income that year. Where was I going? “Egypt,” I replied, truthfully. “How?”
This was not an idle question. “Syria, Jordan, Egypt.” He stamped the visa in my passport, eyeing me suspiciously. He knew, and I knew, that I might be also be going via the 'occupied' West Bank and the Zionist state. But I knew better than to even think of the possibility at that point in the game. It was now dark, but I managed to cadge a ride on a bus for half an hour, to be dropped off on some sort of ring road around the city of Aleppo. A taxi pulled up, and I took a ride, always feeling I'd be cheated. As we hit the city outskirts I said this would do. From memory, the fare was 7 Syrian pounds, about USD 1. He was cheating me, but Syria was so poor it barely felt like it. I walked on and found a hotel. I must have stopped three nights in Aleppo. Parts of the old city were in ruins, probably the result of how the government interacted with its political opponents.
(A year or so later, hitchhiking in Austria, I met a Czechoslovak engineer who had worked in Aleppo in 1982. He told me how, one day, he and his foreign colleagues were suddenly ordered onto a bus and taken to the airport. “As we took off, I saw tanks opening fire on the city,” he said. This was governance President Hafez Al Assad-style, how he routinely 'negotiated' with political dissidents. And in 1982, Aleppo got off relatively lightly, certainly in comparison to Hama, 140 kilometres to the south.) It was probably the second day that I scheduled visiting the ruins of Qalaat Samaan – Simeon's 'Castle', which was about 35 km to the west of Aleppo. Simeon was a devout – some might say fanatic - ascetic Christian monk, born around 390 AD. Simeon's efforts to communicate with the Almighty meant he attracted the unwanted attention of devotee-fans, so he opted to live on top of a column in the rock-strewn hills of what today is north-western Syria. For 37 years. I can't remember how I learned of St Simeon the Stylite, as he became known in the west, but I was fascinated by his story. And, who knows, I might be able to sell a few pictures of the remains of the monastery which grew up around his pillar after his death, at least if tourism ever developed in Syria. For the grand price of US 15 cents, I got a minibus to a village perhaps 5 km from the 'castle' and started to walk. I'd not gone 50 metres when a van stopped. I forget how we communicated, but they took me to St Simeon's former domain. It was a foggy morning, with not a soul in sight and it was, well, somewhat spooky, though not in a threatening way. Perhaps I should just say 'spiritual'. I took quite a few misty, ethereal shots of the ruins. The saint's column had been toppled by an earthquake a century or two after his death, the location now marked by a stone plynth. This black and white shot above was taken after the fog had largely dispersed, probably about 11.00 that morning. I think it must be on a 28mm lens, and with a red filter to darken the sky. After this, I drifted down to what appeared to be abandoned villages in the rock-strewn hillside: it all felt very biblical, especially when I happened upon a goatherd with his flock. Galilee was, after all, probably just a four-day* trek to the south, were there no political borders. We salaamed each other and each got on with our work. An hour or two later, I found myself on a stone track, with the sun shining brightly and a lone man walking towards me. Mabruk (let's call him that) was a teacher, and spoke English. This being the Middle East, I was of course, invited to his home, in a hamlet 500 metres further up the track. As we walked into the settlement of, perhaps, a dozen dwellings, we passed what I took to be a post-office, open just two or three mornings per week. As was de rigueur in Syria, there was a poster of Hafez Al Assad on the door. Away from the reach of any prying ear, I thought it worth the risk. “Ah, your President,” I said, nodding towards the poster.
There was, perhaps, two milliseconds of silence before Mabruk, looking straight ahead and slightly down, splurted out "A very good man!", seemingly as fast as his mouth, tongue and vocal chords could manage. I must have been fed by Mabruk's wife, and had tea, but I can't remember that. And I must have been helped to find my way back to Aleppo, but I can't remember that. All I remember about meeting Mabruk was the bright November sun, his pleasant decency and his hurried, desperate response to my comment about the Syrian president's poster.
The next day, I took a train to Latakia, Syria's main port on the Mediterranean Sea. (To be continued) I apologise to readers that this update is a day later than I planned. To my amazement, two of you identified the photo: Albyn Austin, now of Cardiff, south Wales, and Bénédicte Williams, of Budapest, both got it. I have to congratulate both, because I didn't make it easy. So did AlHakam Shaar, although that was not a surprise. I met Hakam at John and Karen's party (remember those?) in Budapest, in January this year. Hakam is not only a native of Aleppo, but actually worked at Qalaat Samaan when younger. I asked Hakam to tell me a few words about his feelings for the place, and whether the general population was aware of this historic, Christian site. This is his reply (reproduced with his express permission).
Hi Kester, Incredible that two people recognized it!! They must be the well-traveled types. Indeed Qalaat Samaan means particularly a lot to me because there I did a four-week "archaeology camp" at the end of high school. We camped at a school in a nearby village and walked uphill some 30-40 minutes every day and spent the day weeding out the site. The road there - and even the very slopes of the mountain - are dotted with fig and olive trees. We treated ourselves to some figs, which by the local custom is not theft as long as you only take what can satisfy your immediate hunger (and not, say, hoard or sell it). During breaks, we would sit in a shaded corner on the western ramparts of Qalaat Samaan. The steady cool breeze dried up our Syrian August sweat in no time. I still dream about doing that again. The lay citizen of Aleppo probably knows of the place, but has never been. It's mentioned in history books but not studied at length. Certainly its name as Qalaa, or castle, means that the place is not thought of as a religious one, though it is no suppressed fact that the place was a cathedral. Little is known, even to archaeologists and historians, about why the native Christian population left these areas, but they guess this happened around the 8th Century AD. Muslims didn't not particularly take over these hilly, rocky areas, and preferred to live in the lower fields, where major towns still are. Ironically, within Aleppo Governorate, Aleppo city falls administratively in "Mantiqat Jabal Samaan," or Mount Simeon District and even its subdistrict (Nahiyet Jabal Samaan), so maybe we owe it to our mother (sub)district to learn more about it and its history. Beautiful text alongside the Saint Simeon "Castle" photo. I love the sight and dream of going back one day when the emperor won't have me arrested. Cheers, Hakam
Hakam is working to document the history of the region in a study known as the Aleppo Project
Qalaat Samaan has been in an area of severe fighting in the civil war in Syria. According to Wikipedia, the plynth marking the site of St Simeon's pillar was hit by a missile in 2016.
I will relate more of my experiences in Syria in a later Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?)
* Correction. I think it would take more like 10 days to walk from Qalaat Samaan to the historical lands of the Bible - distances can be deceptive in this part of the world.