Though Jamaliah had good intentions to wake up early to watch the sunrise over the Palmyra ruins, it did not materialize. Her beauty sleep is more important to her than this. Anyway, after breakfast and getting the boys and luggage packed into the car, we are off. First stop was just a kilometer away.
The ruins of Temple of Bel. She was the most important of the gods in the Palmyrene pantheon and the temple is the most complete structure and single most impressive part of the ruins (explanation copied from the Lonely Planet guide). We hired a guide with us and he first took us to see one of the square-based funerary towers. There are several around but only this one is open to the public. Inside you still can see some statues of the three brothers who were buried there. Then we toured the temple of Bel. Quite impressive. Having a guide really helps, since there is not much written in the book about the temple and no labeling given around the ruins. After spending over an hour here, we drove out of Palmyra and on to Crac Des Chevaliers (or in Arabic ‘Qalaát al-Hosn’) castle located halfway on the highway between Homs and Tartus. This famous castle was built in 1031 but the Crusader Knights around the middle of 12th century expanded it into the form that exists today. Since it is Friday (public holiday), the road was relatively quiet. The only problem we encountered was finding diesel for the car. Since our Arabic is non-existence, we could not get a good explanation why we can’t buy diesel today. We had stopped at all the petrol stations we saw along these highways and none of them have diesel for sale. Fortunately on the way to Hama, we finally found the only station that has diesel and was then able to fill up our tank (which by this time was almost empty).
The castle. It comprises of 2 distinct parts: the outside wall with its 13 towers and main entrance; and the inside wall and central construction, which are built on a rocky platform. A moat dug out of the rock separates the two walls. Again I used the word Impressive. We let the boys wandered around by themselves and we took our time going into all the rooms and corners, underground cellars and upper floors of the fortress. Surprisingly we found two restaurants have taken over one of the towers (king’s daughter tower) in the castle. A very strange sight indeed.
In Hama, before checking in to the hotel, we went first to see the Norias (wooden water wheels up to 20m in diameter) that this town is famous for. These Norias has been in town for centuries, scooping water from the Orontes River and tipping it into mini aqueducts for irrigating the surrounding fields.
Before even seeing them, you can already hear their mournful groaning (the sound these wooden wheels make when they turn). There are quite a number of them around in town but today we only saw 2 small and 2 big ones. We are hoping to see several more tomorrow which are located 1km east, upstream from the center before driving on to Aleppo.
For dinner tonight, we went to the sister hotel of Cairo, called Orient Hotel. This hotel was formerly a Hamman (bath house) building, located on an alley way. From outside there is nothing ‘impressive’ (today’s word) about it but once you are inside it is a different story. Beautiful courtyard, lots of staircases going upstairs to second level and roof terraces. The meal was quite good and with reasonable prices (no alcohol drinks though) but the waiters are too attentive for my taste. Very quick to remove your plate even if you have not finished eating.