The Wild East

I joined my friends Emilie and Zach at the Deir Az-Zur station around noon, far on the eastern edge of Syria. We found a cheap hotel room with a sweet balcony overlooking Deir's main drag and headed for the minibus stand. Emilie's directional skills got us there in a few minutes and Zach grabbed us some falafel sandwiches. I bought some delicious 5 pound snacks for the trip. 
We were heading to Dura Europos, known to locals as Salihiye, an old Roman-era fort perched on a cliff over the Euphrates, not far off from the Iraqi border. That's as much as I knew about the place. A couple hours along the dusty road we spotted what looked like an old wall on the eastern horizon and asked the minibus to drop us there in on the edge of the desert. As the three of us approached the old wall, no one else in sight, none of us having thought to bring water, we felt like quite the intrepid travelers on something of an adventure. 
But we weren't alone. A red-faced, 82-year old Swiss man in a pink tank top was there too. At the entrance shack he introduced himself with ardor as Henry. An avid traveler and outdoorsman, he spoke several languages, was divorced from a lawyer who took all his money, and was a plastic surgeon in California for around 40 years. If I were superstitious, Henry would have been a fairy gnome rather than a real person. He traipsed along as we all passed beneath the giant crumbling portal to Dura Europos. 
The ruins cascaded east towards the massive outer wall, towering far above the languid river and patchwork farms below. Just across the Euphrates was Mesopotamia. We climbed along the cliff edge heading north, taking in the site's sweeping views and solitude. Henry had soon disappeared somewhere in the collapsed archways behind us. 
On our way out of the ruins a French tour bus rolled in. Emilie said a few words and we were soon hitching a ride with them back to Deir. During a short stop in Mari, an extremely old ruined city (built about 7,000 years ago) at which the most captivating find was a little owl, Henry appeared again, still looking lost and out of place in his pink shirt in the desert. We said our second goodbyes to the old Swiss leprechaun before heading back to Deir. After trekking across town for some cheap shawerma, we made the most of our elegant balcony and caught a few hours of rest for the day ahead. 
Through a combination of minibuses, trucks and friendly cars we covered the distance from Deir to Aleppo in a full day of hitching and ruin hopping. We began at Halebiyya, another Roman fort along the Euphrates, climbing it's crumbled walls and spotting Zach from various vantage points in his red and white striped Waldo shirt. 
We ate in Ath-Thawra and made it to Ja'abar Castle by late afternoon, a largely rebuilt 11th century fort on a tiny island in Lake Assad. The castle grounds were bustling with picnickers and a few feluccas plied the clear water laden with dancing day trippers. Despite the cool, blue water surrounding the castle, there were no swimmers until we jumped in. We spent the last glorious hours of sunlight on the lakeside by Ja'abar and made it back to Ath-Thawra by sunset, catching a bus out of the hot and wild east. 
Thanks to Emilie's Syrian connections, that night we enjoyed free shawerma and not-so-free halawiyat in the Levant's largest city and the western tip of the Silk Road: Aleppo. Just a block off from our hotel, the Nejm al-Akhdar, we spotted the familiar ragged pink tank top in the crush of human traffic, sticking out like a flower in the desert on the busy Aleppo walkway. We caught up with Henry beneath the old clock tower. Emilie said something about third time's a charm. The old gnome from the desert was smiling like a little boy as he walked away and we watched him disappear for the last time.


emilie said...

Jamais deux sans trois.

Billy Jackson said...

Freaking lucky. Seven-thousand-year old ruins.