SYNOPSIS: Ivan and I hired a taxi to travel into the desert to see two ancient sites.  After that, we drove to Aleppo to drop off Ivan and his luggage and the taxi driver and I continued on another 6 hour journey through the night to loop back to Palmyra.


37 years ago, the convicted atheist Ivan, converted to Islam so that one day he could fulfill his dream to travel to Mecca and Medina.  And this year he did it! If he isn’t by far the most eccentric fellow traveler I have met so far!  I could sense that he was different from the moment he entered the restaurant last night.   He has an unusual appearance.  When he sat down I had to think for a moment if I was looking at a man or a woman. His face is unusually feminine.  He is heavy set and plays his role as a grumpy old miser really well.  He does one of those things I don’t like one bit – he  grows his hair so long that he can comb it all across his bolding head just to have the wind dishevel it all and on top of it he dies it…  But I was not here to judge his appearance and he was not here to please me.  We got along fabulously.

He is on a three months trip of which the highlight was the attendance of the Hajj in Mecca and individual travel in Saudi Arabia.  By all common wisdom, neither one should have been possible, but he did it.  This is the true traveler’s spirit:  There is no “no”.  You have to try and as you do, most of the time you will succeed.  From Syria he will be heading to Turkey and then back home.  Of course, everything he sees on this trip he has either seen many times before or a long time ago.  To Palmyra he had come 40 years ago when there was not even a town.  Now, 4000 people live here.

One of the first stories he told me last night across our two tables, was about his upbringing in a hick town of 700 somewhere in Minnesota as the son to the only immigrant Russian Orthodox family in a town full of Lutheran Norwegians.  He said he would not be here if it were not for a history teacher who put a spark into him and his classmates in 4th and 5th grade.  He remembered her fondly and credited her with getting him interested in the world and out of his rather provincial environment.  Music to any teacher’s ear!  If we can reach just a couple of people each year who someday will look back on their lives to say that what they have accomplished was inspired by one of their teachers.  That makes it all worth it.

From what I gather he was a child protégée working in films.  Later he became a dancer and actor and due to about 8 languages he speaks, he moved from acting into the travel business leading tour groups all around the world.  He has just about been everywhere except for Mecca.  And now he can put that dream to rest as well.  My hat is off to him!

I heard him negotiate with a taxi driver to take him to Aleppo.  He was not happy with the price.  Two days from now I had planned to take a taxi into the desert to see some otherwise inaccessible ancient sites.  It was about 1/3 in the direction to Aleppo.  I was looking for a way to spend more time with Ivan and so I suggested that if he would come and see those sites with me, I would pay almost half of the taxi and add the additional driving time to accompany him to Aleppo and come back with the driver to Palmyra.  He accepted and so we were off this morning by 8 AM with Hussein our driver in a nice little car.

Our first stop was an Umayyad desert castle known as Qasr al Heir al Sharqi.  It was a walled in compound in the middle of nowhere.  In Jordan I have visited some of these castles.  There, the purpose of these castles becomes clearer than from the remains of this one:   Early Islamic dynasty leaders got away from it all to do… the forbidden things:  Hunting, womanizing, bathing in and drinking wine.  Qasr Al Bint is the one in my mind most vividly.  I have to assume that this qasr falls just in line with the others.  What is so impressive is that, as always, water played a huge role in these castles.  In the middle of the desert these rulers were able to create sumptuous places that operated extensive baths.  That took some engineering.  The day was gorgeous again even though a cold wind blew into our faces.  But a picture-perfect blue sky and the morning sun made up for it.

Ivan had never heard of this place and was pleased that we made a stop. Our driver then drove to one of the many Bedouin camps in the desert.  A family of mother, father, and four grown daughters surrounded us , grabbed my camera, pulled on my sunglasses, snatched a piece of chewing gum out of my pocket – thank goodness, I had nothing else loose on me, in other words:  pestered us.  Good natured, but… still annoying. They wanted their picture taken everywhere and so we obliged.  The daughters got two baby goats out of their pan which we could hold.  That was fun.  We gave them a bakshish and were on our way to the next site.

This visit was slightly awkward.  I so fondly remember my two day stay with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum.  There I spent real time with a Bedouin family, stayed with them, slept in their tent, ate with them, talked with them.  They were most wonderful and hospitable people and it was interesting to see their life style.  But it was still cool that we stopped here. I am now convinced that all the tent clusters I saw in the countryside between Beirut and here were Bedouin dwellings, not slums.   There are an amazing number of Bedouins still around.  But today, we also came across two villages.  If the driver had not mentioned it I would not have known the difference:  But these were Bedouin villages.  I guess, the government encourages Bedouins to settle.  Many do.

All I knew was that our next stop was an abandoned city.  It existed from Assyrian times onwards and was added on, fortified, and maintained by a succession of cultures.  In the 14th Century, it was finally abandoned:  Rasafa.

This was one of those sites where no photo, no video, and no words can quite do justice.  It was the feel of it!  The vastness, the quiet, and the rawness of this site were overwhelming.  I have not quite seen anything like it.  You literally walk on top of unexcavated mounds knowing that living history is beneath you.  This town again was in the middle of nowhere.  Nobody was there, except us and I lost sight of Ivan within minutes.  I felt transported into a twilight world almost able to picture life more than a thousand years ago.  How people may have walked down the central avenue, how those open stalls in the walls were filled with goods and merchandise.  Ivan was floored as well.  He would have never gotten here hat it not been for our chance encounter.   How things happen.   The only sounds were my shoes on the sand.  I walked around for 1.5 hours.  Will people walk on top of our towns like this someday?

For the 6 hours drive back home from Aleppo I had brought my laptop to catch up with my blog.  It was harder to type in a pitch-dark, bopping car, but – mission accomplished.  However, when I finally got to the internet, it was slow and they closed on me within 20 minutes.  I had not even gotten through my emails.  So, this post is late.  I am thinking of your morning coffee, Solveig.  🙂

Good night.

4 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. Hi Elisabeth,
    I’m amazed that you remember my morning-coffee-activity-comment … considering all your exciting adventures. I’m still with you, although I fell about 5 days behind due to internet problems at work and at home. Unbelievable, how we depend on that cyber thing in our daily life! You have been more lucky connecting in Syria than me in New York.
    Elisabeth, I continue to be amazed and inspired by your travels. By tomorrow evening, I will have caught up. LOVED your description of Ivan. I feel like I know him.

  2. Great picture with the goats!

  3. Hallo, Elisabeth,
    Deine Geschichte über den ausgeraubten traveller ist auf den ersten Blick beunruhigend –
    aber auch nach allem, was ich über den Nahen und Mittleren Osten gelesen habe, ist diese Form der Kriminalität dort eher die Ausnahme; Martin hat wohl recht -der Junge ist bestimmt beobachtet worden, als er sich an der ATM Geld zog. Vertraue Deinem Geschlecht – Übergriffe dieser Art auf Frauen sind höchst selten!!
    Ich glaube zwar nicht, daß Du in Deinem “nachrichtenfreien” Leben an aktuellen Informationen für Dein jetziges und künftiges Reisegebiet interessiert bist und wohl lieber auf ein nächstes Date mit CNN wartest. Falls Du aber doch das eine oder andere Stichwort lesen möchtest, schreibe es bitte.
    Den faszinierenden Eindruck von der Stimmung in Rasafa kann ich ein wenig nachvollziehen – im Süden von Tunesien ( im Grand Erg) und in Marokko ( am Sahararand) haben auch wir in alten Ruinenstädten ein solches Gefühl der Stille und Verlorenheit erlebt, das auch über den Bestand der heutigen Zivilisation nachdenken läßt.. Übrigens: Was ist mit Schlangen im Sand??
    Zum Computer-Bärbelproblem: Habe am Telephon intensiv versucht, sie vom Erwerb eines Laptop zu überzeugen. Sie hat aber darauf verwiesen, daß Deine Brüder ihr geraten hätten, noch ein wenig damit zu warten, bis im Bereich ihrer Wohnung ein schnelleres Internet installiert werden würde (?). Nix zu machen……
    Auf das phantastische Wüstenwetter bin ich neidisch…..wir haben seit 30.12. durchgehend überall im Lande viel Schnee und Temperaturen von -3 bis -15 Grad.
    Gruß Rainer

  4. what an amazing city or should I say ruin. I’m finally able to catch up on your blog posts. I’m so excited to see all the photos in full resolution when you return, even if it can’t do them justice.