The Ancient Waterwheel City Hama

Just 50 kilometers North of Homs there is a city called Hama known for its 9 water wheels. These wheels were used to water the gardens of the city over 3000 years ago and are still used in the same way today!

The city is not big. In facts its pretty tiny, and a day trip there will be enough to cover the stuff you need to see. If you stroll through the narrow streets in the old city you will come across Azm Palace and the Taj Mahal Restaurant which was worth a visit.

Right next by there is a pretty big fort that might not catch your eye right away as most of the castle that was built on top has been destroyed a long time ago. A walk to the top is still worth it for the view and if you go on a warm summers day you are also likely to find locals hanging out for a picnic.

The best view of the water wheels in my opinion was from the restaurant opposite of Nur al Din mosque and the area by the I <3 Hama sign, that is just like the ones they have in other cities.

Hama really gave me a “wow” feeling, considering how smart is to make these water wheels, which by the way are the biggest in the World, to water the gardens. I had the same feeling last when visiting Constantine in Algeria, where they had used bridges around the mountain city to create a natural fort. But a day in both of these cities has been enough.

A Week in Cheerful and Peaceful Damascus

Damascus is not what I expected. The streets here are full of kids running around, couples holding hands, youngsters smoking cigarettes and listening to music. Its quite the opposite of what I had imagined before coming here. Its a very joyful and lively place. The whole week i have been here it has felt as safe as any other city in Turkey, Lebanon or Iran and in the city center there is no damage or signs of the war that has been going on in this country for seven years now.

Outside the oldest café in the oldest city km the World

Damascus is the oldest continuisly inhabited city in the World, dating back at least 11 000 years. Umayyad Mosque was built around 3000 years ago and has served as a temple for Hadad (the storm god), then for the roman god of Jupiter, later as a church dedicated to John the baptist and then it finally became a mosque in the year 634AD. Today its considered the fourth holiest place in islam.

Outside the mosque you will find the beginning of Souq al Hamidyya (the old market) which continues all the way up to Al Thawra street where a ancient roman Temple of jupiter stands and marks the entrance of the Souq and the Damascus citadel.

The Bab al Sharqi gate

All in all there are seven gates to the citadel. Bab Ash-Sharqi and Bab Touma are famous for its night life and on straight street you will find bars with live music, like the marine bar where I stayed until late night and walked home from alone in the night.

I would say that the biggest problem in Damascus now is the trash laying on the streets and that electricity cuts are freequent (probably power about 10hrs a day). I also asked people to take me to the place where the battles had been previously, and they took me to the Al Hajar Al Aswar district, 10 kilometers South of the city where there were small damages a residential area that had been occupied by ISIS, also about ten kilometers North between the Karajat bus station and the Al Biruni University Hospital had been completely flattened by airstrikes.

I went to Cham Palace hotel for breakfast (approx 7usd) to get a good view from the city from the top and could not see any destroyed buildings like the ones I saw in Aleppo.

The lobby of Cham Palace Hotel

Another place famous for its view over the city is Mount Qasioun, and I will see if I can get there tomorrow on my last day in Damascus.

I must say that I love Damascus

As a tourist in Aleppo in 2018

It was a rainy day in November 2018 that I decided to board the midnight bus from Damascus to Aleppo. I was nervous from just hearing that bombings had resumed in the eastern part of Aleppo, after the chemical attacks that had happened there four days before. Once I got there and was met by my friend that fear was gone and I felt that the city was as safe as any other city in the World.

A mosque built on top of ruins of the byzantine city. The pillars in the wall were from original roman temples!

We had a busy schedule with things to see before I would board my return bus back to Damascus so we started off walking from the Bab al Faraj clock tower towards the citadel which is one of the oldest in the World.

As soon as the Castle opened at we walked through the gates and into the theater where we had a view of the whole fortress and the city below.

The architecture was one of a kind, and except for some buildings on the inside, like the temple of the storm god, everything was well intact. Impressive considering that the fort was built in the 3rd millenia BC!

The view from the top

The most beautiful part was the throne hall where the king used to sit. There were engraved wooden pillars, chandelliers and windows that let the light in from the back of the throne, so that the people coming in wouldnt see the face of the king.

Next up was lunch which we had at Beroea (the old name of Aleppo) Restaurant. It was just mind blowing to sit in a restaurant having the view of the fortress on one side and a really smashed up building on the other. Because Aleppo really is full of these ruins as fightings were going on for years even inside the city.

My friend showed me pictures of these places from before the war and now almost nothing was left

Next up was “Al Jdaideh”, a historical neighborhood with narrow alleys, richly decorated mansiones and a church with Roman markble pillars at the entrance that some kids were using as a fotball goal.

These arches were sometimes built over the streets to connect houses of families who married each other.

From Bab Antakiya, the main defence gate in Aleppo, we walked through the old citadel which had been tried taken over by rebel groups in the war and thereby had been greatly destroyed. In my opinion the straight street with the souq here was even nicer than the one in Damascus and it was sad to see that so much of it was in ruins.

Pieces of almost 5000 years of history was ruined at the battle of Aleppo

In Azizieh, the new town there was little sign of the war and people were walking the streets with shopping bags and enjoying coffee, wine and shisha smoking at the many bars and restaurants. The public park also felt like a different World than the war torn buildings we had seen, it felt like it could have been anywhere else in the World.

Finally we had an incredible, yet pretty cheap (less than 10$) dinner at Bab Al Ahmar restaurant where there was traditional music and local food with the best possible view of the citadel lighting up in the night. A perfect end for my stay in Aleppo which has left quite an impression on me.

Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery

Just a 30km drive uphill from Damascus city there is a town called Said Naya, known for having one of the oldest monasteries in the World. It is run by nuns and is an important pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims.

The bus ride was from the eastern bus station and cost only 250syrian pounds (50US cent!) The 5-6 checkpoints on the way went without hassle and an hour later I found myself standing in front of the Church.

My first impression was that there we so many Russian soldiers outside. Also the many visitors who were there in the beginning were Russians.

Once you get up the stairs you are in what feels like a small fortress, and I had a hard time finding out which was the right way before a nun came up to me, first asked if I was Russian and then pointed the direction of the door that said no cameras and shoes allowed in the church.

The inside was small. Full of pictures and candles. I did my prayers and then headed back to Damascus.

Life in Damascus in 2018

Ive now been in Damascus for over a week and have got a feel for what life is like here. It all started when I was in the shared taxi from Beirut. I had explained to the girl next to me that I normaly dont stay in hotels and that my budget wouldnt allow paying 40$ a night which is the minimum here. She then suggested me to come and stay with her family, an offer that I am so glad that I accepted.

Nastia and her grandmother blbl at her overcrowded public school

Their home was small with only one bedroom that they insisted on giving me. The daughter, mother and grandmother all stayed on couches and matresses in the living room. I became a part of their family, taking the daughter to school, joining in on the cooking and reading bed time stories before tooth brushing in the evenings.

The mother, who I had met in the taxi was a dancer who took me to her rehersals and shows with Syrian traditional music, dance and drama. All for free.

My host Noura on the left

Their friends became my friends, some that I met at the dance shows and rehersals. I started coming to rehersals for modern dance groups as well, and people would ask to show me around the city and invite me for street food and pastries along the way.

Before the war this street would probably been crowded with people

I noticed a flag on the ground and realized that it was put there so that people would step on it.

Staying with locals give you an insight into what life is like at the places you visit. The impression a lot of people back home has about Syria is that it is a war zone, but the truth is much more diverse. Life here in Damascus is tough. There are not enough jobs, people drive old cars and make very little from honest work, but there are no fightings in the streets, on the contrary you see kids playing and laughing, people meet up for beers, coffees and shisha smoking. To be honest it feels as safe as any other city in Asia. I hope that more people will come here to realize this.

Syria needs the help of the International community to get back on its feet, and tourism is one way we as individuals can contribute.

This Rolex shop has seen better days