Ripples Following Ripples ~ THE TROUBLED MIDDLE-EAST

I‘d come to England for only a short time, however; it was in my mind to make a trip in the Middle-East, knowing, before I began, that it would be a challenge. I was reasonably well, health-wise ~ in fact, remarkably well, everything considered ~ and in spite of the ankle-injury sustained the previous year which still showed no signs of healing, I could walk alright, howbeit with some pain at times. For one thing, being both vegetarian and diabetic meant that my diet had to be restricted in various ways. I went prepared to live mainly on bread, tomatoes and a little fruit, and this is really how it was. But first, a little background:

As told earlier in my narrative, I first went to Turkey, Syria and Jordan thirty-three years before, when I was just a callow youth, but this time, I planned to go to Egypt, too. Of course, I could no longer travel as I did in those early days, when I was carefree and my naïveté protected me, and when simplicity and economy were a matter of necessity. Then, I hitch-hiked my way around, walking long distances when I couldn’t get a ride, and only when really necessary taking a bus or train. There seemed to be an unwritten standard for ‘on the road,’ and poverty was practically a virtue; travelers like me were proud of getting by on as little as possible. In those days, it was safe enough to travel this way, which is not to say there was no danger; I guess I’ve had my fair share of that. Sometimes I was aware of it, and other times not; when you are young, you tend to overlook it or not recognize it as such. Now, I need a modicum of comfort, and no longer hitch-hike or sleep rough, as I often used to do; I like clean clothes regularly, and to shower every day ~ not that I was dirty before, but a daily shower was a luxury that was often unavailable.

Taking leave of Glen on the 4th of September, 2000, I flew out to Izmir in Turkey, a 4 hours flight. Arriving, I changed US$100 and became a multi-millionaire. (When I was first in Turkey in ’67, one US dollar got 13 Turkish Lira, but the inflation-rate there has been around 80% for years, and $100 got me 66 million Lira!) Pockets bulging, so to speak, I went to Seljuk, a small town south of there in order to revisit Ephesus, This time, like the previous time, I went early, so as to have the place to myself before the tranquility was shattered when the tour-buses disgorged their cargoes. As usual, however, when one tries to repeat an experience, it didn’t succeed, and I did not feel the same magic as upon my first visit.

My next stop was Canakkale, to visit Ali, the tour-guide who’d so inspired me at Gallipoli 3 years earlier. We’d kept in touch since then, and he had invited me to stay at his home whenever I came again, saying: “My door is always open to you.” He and his wife, Aiten, made me very welcome and were careful about my dietary needs. I joined Ali’s tour-groups around Gallipoli two more times, and enjoyed again his exposition. Aiten also took me on trips in the area, to ancient sites that otherwise I would not have seen.

I spent five days with them before going on to Edirne, an historic town on the Turkish border with Bulgaria dating back to the time of Alexander the Great, and which was the Ottoman Turks’ capi-tal for some years until they captured Constantinople in 1453. Edirne’s most prominent landmark is a magnificent mosque built almost 400 years ago; it was this that I wished to visit, because when I’d passed through during my earlier visits, I had not both-ered to stop. I spent only one day there, meditating for some time in the mosque, before going to Istanbul, where I got a room in the Sehir Hotel, the same hotel I’d stayed in when last there. My main reason for coming was to get a visa for Syria, the next country of my route, but being my favorite city, I had to spend a few days there, retracing some of my old footsteps and trying to find some acquaintances of my last visit. I succeeded in finding only one ~ Dusun, the man I’d helped to overcome severe headaches. He recognized me before I did him, and we talked over tea.

I did not visit many places in Istanbul, as I’d explored extensively in ’97; instead, I took long walks around. Almost daily, I went to meditate in the Blue Mosque, an awesome edifice about 400 years old. It is a major tourist-attraction, though still used as a place of worship. It was there the thought came to me that one superstition is as good as another. It doesn’t matter what we call ourselves; names mean very little. Most people do not bother to investigate or understand their religion, whatever it might be, and so fail to derive much benefit from it; they take the easy way out, merely believing. Great ideas always degenerate when small-minded people get hold of them. And yet, I will be objective and see the positive side, too. Here is something I wrote while sitting in the Blue Mosque:

Magnificent piles ~
The mosques of Istanbul,
The temples of India,
The cathedrals of Europe.
Without superstition and fear
Masquerading as devotion and piety,
They would not have been built.
There is something to be said for Ignorance
When all is said and done,
And it wins over Truth hands down.
Many forms it takes, this human weakness,
And one form is as good as another;
There is little difference between them.

Afraid to fairly acknowledge
And take credit for his abilities,
Man has attributed them to something higher,
Saying they are gifts from God;
Thus he becomes a slave.
With much help from others before us, of course,
We have done what we have done ~
No God and nothing else.
Better to give through love and joy
Than from fear or greed.
In this way, we fulfill ourselves,
And discover more of what it means
To be Human.

I went to a cyber-café to check my email, but the young guy there spoke no English, so went to find someone who did. It was thus that I met Fetih, who spoke fluent English and Dutch, having lived in Holland for some years. Though a devout Muslim, with the dis-tinctive beard and mustache favored by those believers, he was not fanatical or bigoted, and we had several conversations over the days I was there. He had a stall selling silver jewelry beside the street down which ~ I told him ~ I’d ridden into Istanbul in style by Mercedes in 1967, the year of his birth.

To facilitate my trip, I bought a Lonely Planet guide, “Istanbul to Cairo,” containing all kinds of information that came in very useful along my way; this book must have paid for itself many times over by my trip’s end.
The Syrian consulate was a long bus-ride and walk from where I was staying, and having got there, I learned that in order to get a visa with a British passport, I would need a letter of guarantee from the British consulate, but that Aussie passport-holders could get a visa at the border without such a letter. It didn’t take me long to decide to use my Aussie passport, and avoid the hassle and expense of going to the British consulate; I have long been allergic to paperwork, and the less of it in my life the better.

Freed of the need to get a visa for Syria, I left Istanbul and took a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to Yalova, then traveled in stages to the south, passing through the spa-city of Bursa. By the time I got to Antalya on the south coast, I had a throat-and-chest infection that required antibiotics; having had such before I knew better than to leave it long before starting treatment, hoping it would get better by itself. I didn’t know the cause of it, but sus-pect the amount of cigarette-smoke I’d been exposed to was a major factor. It was several days before I got over this infection, and I saw little of Antalya except its museum and its marvelous natural harbor, the advantages of which must have been recog-nized long before the Romans came and made use of it. Pirates probably used it as a safe haven until Pompey the Great swept them from the Mediterranean in the 1st century BC.

It was hot in Turkey, especially in the south, and I feared it would be even hotter in Syria, where I was headed, but I carried on to Antakya, the last stop in Turkey. Antakya is the ancient Antioch, another important city of Roman times, and there are still tokens of its former glory in the museum ~ especially mosaics. I stayed only overnight, as I’d been there before, and was eager to press on. Buses run between there and Aleppo, the first major city in Syria, just over the border. I boarded one of these for the 3-hours’ journey, with a few other passengers.

Leaving Turkey was no problem; after getting our passports exit-stamped, we proceeded to the Syrian border a few miles on. Syria is well-known for its bitter anti-Israel stance, and anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport stands no chance at all of getting into Syria; if one has a Jewish-sounding name, it is reason enough to be turned away; and it is sometimes enough to be sus-pected of having been to Israel or intending to go there for them to reject you. I’d been in Israel in 1968, the year after Israel’s as-tounding victory, but that was before everything was stored on computers, so I felt confident there would be no record of that. It was with some trepidation, however, that I got down from the bus at the Syria border-post, and with good reason, it turned out.

Together with the other travelers, I filled in a visa-form and paid the $30 fee, and waited in line for it to be processed. This done, we all got back on the bus, but had not gone far when we came to a police-post where our passports were again checked. Every-one else’s was in order except mine, and I was ordered to get off the bus with my bags, while the bus went on without me. I was taken back to the Immigration office, feeling that yes and no are the same; if I could go, good; if I couldn’t go, also good. The prob-lem was, I had entered Turkey on my British passport, and both the entry-stamp and the exit-stamp were in that one, while I’d ten-dered my Aussie passport to the Immigration-officer at the Syrian border. In that passport, therefore, was the Syrian visa, but no stamp to show I’d entered or left Turkey; the Immigration-officer must have missed this, the border-police didn’t. Both passports are legal, of course, and I had no worries about that, but because the Syrians are so suspicious, I knew they might question my reasons and motives, and turn me back. They were not very friendly or polite; moreover, the people at the heavily-guarded border-post spoke almost no English, and I don’t speak Arabic, but there was nothing to do except wait while they left me sitting in the Arrival Hall, and went away to determine my fate. The out-come was favorable, and I was handed my passports with the universal word “Okay”; no apology or smile.

My bus had gone without me, so I had to find an alternative way of getting to Aleppo, an hour away. It was noon and hot, and few vehicles running at that time. I waited in some shade for quite a while before a pick-up stopped nearby, and I asked the driver if he was going to Aleppo, and if he was, might I get a ride (and I just said my hitch-hiking days were over!) Well, he wasn’t going all the way to Aleppo, but took me as far as he could. On the way, I noticed military uniforms everywhere ~ even young school-children were so dressed! This has been going on for many years ~ two generations or more. How tragic to be so influenced and trained, and yet apart from the government officials I met, the common people of Syria were friendly and hospitable.

Stopping to let me out at his turn-off, my kindly driver hailed a minibus and asked the driver to take me into town; he agreed, and I was dropped near the center, then used the city map in my guide-book; many cheap hotels were shown on it, as well as lots of other useful information. I made my way to such a hotel ~ Green Star ~ and got a room there. The proprietor was quite friendly, and after a rest, I set off to explore. I’ve always had a good sense of direction, and easily negotiated the maze of alleys and narrow lanes and found my way to the labyrinthine covered-bazaar, one of Aleppo’s main places to visit. I didn’t buy anything there, except something to eat, but it was interesting wandering around anyway, and I met several people who were eager to talk, apart from the many who called out to me to buy their wares. Aleppo’s bazaar, like the more-famous one in Istanbul, is very old, as this city was a major point on the caravan-routes running from the coast to the east as far as one can think ~ indeed, it was on one of the branches of The Silk Road ~ and immense wealth passed through here; some of it stayed, and the city prospered.

In the bazaar, I bumped into someone I’d read about in the guide-book, a friendly young guy calling himself James, who spoke English with a Cockney accent, although he had never been to England. He was clearly gay, and proud of it, but when he spoke disparagingly about women, I reminded him that his mother was a woman. The next day, I met another guy like James; he called himself Sebastian. Now, although Islam regards homosexuality as a grave sin, I’d noticed, on my various trips in this region, that it is quite tolerated, maybe because women are so secluded and repressed, and you can be as gay as you like as long as you don’t say you are. Pure hypocrisy, but how else to deal with it when their religion so strongly condemns it?

English is not widely-spoken in Syria, but back at the hotel, I fell into conversation with a group of people who did speak it, and one of them asked me my impressions of Syria, and whether I thought of Syrians as terrorists. I told him that when I was in school, my best and favorite subject was history, and I even had a brief idea of becoming a history-teacher. Since then, I went on, I came to realize that history is not true and is always one-sided, because it is his story, and biased. And, although I try to keep in-formed of what’s happening in the world, I don’t believe every-thing in the newspapers or government propaganda, but prefer to see for myself whenever possible. I told him my impressions of Syrian people from my visit in ’67 were favorable, and that I did not then, nor do I now, consider Syrians terrorists. On the other hand, though, surely he was not going to maintain that all Syrians are good people. In any country, there are people who might be called good and bad, and many shades in between. He seemed pleased with my answer.

In that hotel I met an elderly man from Austria, who’d cycled most of the way from his homeland, alone. We introduced ourselves; his name was Isidore, and he planned to travel the same route as me, so we had something in common. He spoke fluent English and French, besides his native German.

The next day, I continued my explorations, and visited the citadel ~ an old fortress dominating the city from a hill; inside the encir-cling walls most of it was in ruins, but the throne-room had been restored and was really quite magnificent; no wonder the en-trance-fee was steep, but I’d struck lucky, as the day I went was International Tourist Day, and entrance was free. So, too, was the city museum, although there wasn’t much worth seeing there anyway, but this completed my sight-seeing of Aleppo, and I de-cided to leave the next morning.

On my way to the bus-station, I was astounded to see the kind of bread I’d been eating over the previous two days laid out on ~ and I mean on, with nothing between ~ the dirty sidewalks to cool as it came from the bakeries; apparently, this is quite normal, and the local people don’t question it. Well, I’ve probably eaten lots of dirty food on my travels, and I guess if I’d questioned the prepara-tion of it, I would be much thinner than I am. Perhaps it’s better not to think too much about it. I’ve survived so far.

My next stop was Hama, another place with a long history. The city itself doesn’t hold many attractions, but is the center from which people visit other places of interest, so I signed up for a tour of several Crusader castles the next day.

At the time appointed, I was pleased to find that Isidore had got in from Aleppo by bike and would be on the same tour; the rest of the group consisted of five French women, who kept mostly to themselves, leaving Isidore and I together. It was rather a long and tiring day, requiring a lot of step-climbing inside the immense and strong castles dating from the 12th_14th centuries, reminding me of the ultimately futile presence of the European Crusaders in the Middle East. What determination they must have had to build such fortresses, crowning strategic hills all over that area, in-tended to defend and control what they called ‘The Holy Land’. In 1099, when they captured Jerusalem, they carried out such slaughter in the name of Jesus that the streets ran ankle-deep in blood! So superficial was their understanding of religion! Eventu-ally, after victories and defeats, they had to withdraw and return to their homelands ~ the survivors, that is ~ with little to show for their enterprise. Many of these castles are in a surprisingly-good state of preservation, so well-built they were. The most-famous of them is the Kerak des Chevaliers, which Lawrence of Arabia called ‘the finest castle in the world’.

Perhaps I should mention here that, contrary to my expectations, Syria wasn’t as hot as Turkey had been, which was something I appreciated; in fact, Turkey was the hottest part of the whole trip.

Leaving Hama early the next day, I caught a rather old bus to Homs, the next big city on the way, an hour’s drive, but I stopped there only long enough to catch a mini-bus to Palmyra, perhaps Syria’s greatest must-see site, a desert-city dating back only about 2,200 years ~ only, I say, because Damascus, the capital of Syria, is supposed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. Palmyra became so wealthy astride the caravan routes that at one point its ruler ~ Queen Zenobia ~ imagined she could challenge the might of Imperial Rome; the result was that her forces were defeated, and she was carried in chains to Rome; her city was sacked and destroyed so completely that it never recovered and sank into oblivion. The ruins cover a large area and show a typically laid-out Graeco-Roman city, with tem-ples, amphitheatres, market-places, tombs, and row upon row of re-erected columns. Considering that Palmyra is surrounded by desert on all sides, it is amazing that it reached such a state of development. There is no water-shortage in the modern town around the ruins, and the markets are full of fresh fruit and vege-tables. Numerous hotels have mushroomed here over the few years since Syria has opened up, and their rates are very low; there is much competition for the many visitors.

Wandering around the ruins, I heard someone call my name, and looking about, saw Isidore; he had cycled from Hama to Homs, but balking at riding through the unmitigated desert, had put his bike atop a bus to Palmyra and rode in ease. This was the third time we met, and turned out to be the last, although I expected to meet him again somewhere along the way.

The next morning, I had a further look around the ruins, and de-cided to go on to Damascus that afternoon. I waited for a bus and was lucky to get the last seat on one coming from another city. The trip took three hours, and I got down on the outskirts of the city ~ the bus-stations in this part of the world always seem to be far out of town, probably to cut down on congestion ~ and got a taxi to the center, along one of the wide boulevards. Although I’d passed through this city so many years before, it seemed as though I hadn’t, as I recognized nothing at all.

After finding a suitably-cheap hotel, I set out to explore the capital of Syria. My hotel was centrally-situated, and everything I wished to see was within walking distance. The day after I arrived, I vis-ited the National Museum, the covered-bazaar, and the Umayyad Mosque, which is one of the oldest in the world; this must have been truly magnificent until invading Mongols stripped it of the gold that covered much of its walls and ceiling. It was never re-stored to its former state, but was still well-worth seeing.

The mysterious narrow alleys inside the walls of the Old City beckoned, and I spent some of the next day wandering into them to test my sense of direction. Here and there, traces of Roman building showed through ~ walls, columns, and arches. It was quiet and peaceful here, away from the traffic. There is a street that follows what had 2,000 years before been the Via Recta: Straight Street.

Modern Damascus didn’t attract me, and I bought a bus-ticket for Amman, capital of Jordan, four hours away. Clearing the check-points at both borders took quite a while; the Jordanian visa cost $15. Soon, I was in Amman, a city built on hills, with hardly a tree in sight. It was a nondescript place, with no reason to spend long there. I’d been to the Dead Sea in ’67 and had no desire to see it again, but I did want to visit the ruined Roman city of Jerash not far away. This was really remarkable, and I spent several hours there. I was more impressed with Jerash than with Palmyra. Much restoration-work has gone on and is continuing. A huge temple to Artemis, the patron goddess of the city, sits on a hill overlooking the city; and, as in most Roman cities, there is a large amphitheater and hippodrome.

In Amman, there were newspapers in English, so I could get the latest news. I’d hoped to visit Jerusalem, for old times’ sake, but while I was in Aleppo, the situation in Israel ~ which had been showing hopeful signs of moving towards peace ~ exploded into violence. I was dismayed to read it had further deteriorated, and feared another war was imminent. Noisy demonstrations were held in the streets of Amman, with many armed soldiers and po-lice standing by. It wasn’t necessary to decide not to go to Israel; it had been decided for me: all borders with it had been closed until further notice. So near, yet so far away.

This latest tragic situation in that sad land was brought about by an act of stupidity on the part of Ariel Sharon, an Israeli military-man and politician hated and blamed for the massacre of Pales-tinians in refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. With many body-guards, and knowing well what he was doing, he went to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during Friday prayers at the crowded Al Aqsa mosque, an act calculated to cause trouble.

The result was predictable: widespread riots by Palestinians and killings on both sides. And this is known as The Holy Land! What a strange context for the word ‘holy’. ‘Holey’, more like: full of holes: bullet-holes and bomb-craters. Which land is more blood-soaked than this, where for thousands of years hatred and war have flourished, and the politics of the region endanger the whole world? It is the prime example of how religion divides people, and clearly demonstrates that what the Buddha said about attachment is true: it causes suffering. For the sake of a few stones ~ the Wailing Wall ~ Jews are ready to sacrifice everything, including their lives, just like Muslims over their mosques, not seeing that these are the externalia. Why can’t they practice the principles of their religion without a wall? Does religion depend upon things like that? Some Jews wish to destroy the mosque standing on the site of their ancient temple which was demolished by the Romans in 70 A.D., in order to construct another temple and resume their animal sacrifices. If they succeed in destroying the mosque and the Dome of the Rock ~ which is Islam’s third most-holy shrine ~ the world will be plunged into unstoppable war.

This nonsense raises the whole question of religion: what is it for? Do we need it, or should we outgrow it? Should it cause more or less hatred in our hearts? Should it make us more nar-row and intolerant or more open and kind? Should it ennighten or enlighten us? We cannot ban religion outright; that was tried in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere and it didn’t work. Only through education can we understand the purpose of religion, and that, alas, takes a long time. It makes one want to give up in frustration and despair!

Most of the Buddhist holy places in India were destroyed mainly by invading Muslims in the 11th-12th centuries, but we do not hold that against Muslims forever, and certainly not against present-day Muslims; we take it as another example of Impermanence and realize that all building ends in destruction. Those who carried out the destruction acted from ignorance and hatred. In the great university of Nalanda, there were 10,000 monks and 2,000 teachers at that time; most of them were massacred and the rest fled for their lives. Enlightened people do not kill and destroy like that. Our enemy is Ignorance, not people, and no-one really wants to be ignorant, do they?

Having seen all I wanted to in and around Amman, my next stop in Jordan was Petra, the fascinating city cut almost entirely from rock in a mountainous region over 20 centuries ago. Petra is Greek for stone or rock, so the city is aptly named. Spread over a large area, it is not for those who dislike walking or are unable to. It is reached through a gorge that narrows to about two meters before it opens out and reveals the impressive façade of a tomb. This is a city mainly of tombs, which are everywhere, and many are huge, like temples; the sandstone from which they were cut is multicolored in places, as if it has been painted. The city had flourished under its builders, the Nabateans, and had later been taken over by the Romans, but had been lost and forgotten to the outside world for about 700 years until it was rediscovered in the 19th century. The entrance-fee here was the highest of any place on my trip ~ $33 for two days, which are needed to see the whole area ~ but having come this far, it would have been silly to miss it, so I paid. Only in the last 30 years has it been open to visitors, and now plenty stream in. In the middle of the desert¬ ~ most of Jordan, like Syria, is desert ~ there were almost no trees, and no water, the aqueducts of the people who lived there having ceased to function long ago. Yet, during the rainy season, flash floods occur, and once, several tourists were swept away and drowned when they disregarded the warnings of the locals. Outside the ancient city itself, in what, not long ago, had been a poor village, many hotels, from back-packer places to five-stars, line the streets; times change.

Two hours by bus from Petra is Aqaba, Jordan’s port at the head of the Red Sea; this was my next destination, as it is from here that ferries cross the Gulf of Aqaba to Nuweiba in Sinai, which had been occupied by Israel from 1967 to 1982, when it was re-turned to Egypt. There was an exit-tax of $10 to pay before leav-ing Jordan (it is a poor country that needs all the money it can squeeze from foreign visitors), but I’d made allowance for this, and spent my last Jordanian money on food before boarding the fast catamaran ferry (there’s also a car-ferry, but it is slow and apparently unreliable, and I wanted to reach Cairo that night), at noon; this cost $30 for a 3-hours’ trip; little choice. It was full, too. Pulling out of the harbor, I could see Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city ~ or rather, town; it is too small to be called a city ~ where I’d spent some time camping in a wadi (dry stream-bed or valley) in ’68. Viewing it from the sea, I could tell it wasn’t much bigger than it was all those years ago; there were a number of new hotels and port-facilities; this is Israel’s only access to the Red Sea. Memories of long-gone days surged up.

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