Across the Middle East

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My robust laptop has withstood 45,000 kilometres of rutted tracks, desert sand, Congo mud, serious washboard corrugations, ambush potholes, and war and weather torn non-roads in Angola. Through tropical downpours, relentless vibrations, outside temperatures reaching over 53 degrees, falls, fine dust, Coke spray, salt spray, sticky humidity, drops, and oily hands, the Mac made it down the very rough west side of Africa from Kilkenny to Cape Town and back up the east coast to Cairo. And then it finally served notice that enough was enough. No more. The hard disk retired. Further updates would have to wait for my return to Ireland. (That's that excuse out of the way.) It was up to the bike now to get me the rest of the way home.

Summer in Cairo is warm.
Very warm. After submitting my application to the Libyan Embassy for a Transit visa, I decided to take off for the Red Sea coast to await the outcome. The signs were favourable - I had gone to some trouble translating into Arabic all my supporting documents including a courtesy letter from the Irish Embassy. Typically a visitor to Libya would need to be invited to the country by a tour company who would then arrange the necessary paperwork and a Visitor’s visa. However as I was on a motorbike, the expense would have been prohibitive, as I would have had to pay not only for a guide's food and hotel accommodation, but for his hire car as well. The attaché at the Libyan Embassy had smiled on seeing my Irish passport and indicated there shouldn't be a problem with my application for a Transit visa.

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Gulf of Aqaba
So off I headed a day's ride across the barren and desolate Sinai Peninsula to the seaside town of Dahab on the Gulf of Aqaba. I didn't fancy the idea of roasting in summertime Cairo (those citizens who can afford it typically move to the Mediterranean coast for the unbearable summer months) while awaiting Tripoli's response to my application. And that is where I passed the following four weeks, phoning the Libyan embassy every day for news that wasn't forthcoming. Four weeks swimming daily on the dazzlingly colourful coral reefs, watching the European Football Championship in the refreshing air conditioning of a beachside hotel, the most onerous task that of deciding where to dine each evening. How difficult was that? Well after the novelty of the quite extraordinary snorkelling began to wear off, my restlessness grew. This after all wasn't a holiday! There seemed little sense of any sympathy from friends at home.

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Passing time in Dahab.
Forty metres out from here across knee-high water is 'the blue', where the reef drops off sharply to a sandy depth. It is the most exhilirating feeling stepping off the reef edge, putting the mask into the water and gazing at the spectacular coral gardens and vivid colours of the aquarium fish. The sandy coast of Saudi Arabia can be seen across the Gulf of Aqaba.


Frustration was building as time passed. I had enquired if there was a 'facilitation fee' perhaps for a faster service, if there was anything further Tripoli needed from me, would it help if I were present in Cairo. Eventually the realisation dawned that it was becoming more improbable as time went on that I was going to get my Transit visa. Five weeks after lodging the application in Cairo, I made my last phone call to Mr. Sameh in the Libyan embassy. "Hello Mr. Bergin. No, nothing in today." I made the difficult decision to give up on my idea of crossing North Africa ("maybe permission will come in the next few days..."), and reconciled myself to the journey across the Middle East, Turkey and Europe. But the delay and the disappointment had taken the wind out of my sails.

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Dahab

Back on the Road
In a sense it felt good to get geared up and back on the road again. If only the hour or so up to the port of Nuweiba, from where a ferry left every evening for the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Egypt's only land border to the east was Israel, and any evidence of entering Israel would mean the Syrians wouldn't let me in. So the fairly hefty fare for the hour and a half sea journey was the only choice.

Egyptian Customs Racket… Again!
Egypt had been the most troublesome country by far in my experience travelling over the years, many of them with a vehicle, in Asia, South America and now Africa. Bringing the bike into the country from Sudan involved a huge amount of red tape and attempted shakedowns from the corrupt Customs official in Aswan in the south of the country.

And Egyptian officialdom hadn't finished with me yet. After Immigration in the enclosed dock area had stamped my passport out of the country, it was the turn of the Customs. And a demand for a further $280 to stamp the Carnet, the bike's passport. This incensed me, and I politely but firmly refused to pay, determined to pitch my tent in the docks and wait it out if need be. This response was met with a shrug of the shoulders from Mr. Ali, the head of Customs, as he turned away to deal with the many truck drivers looking for his attention. One of these, a squat, muscular man in his thirties, a week’s stubble on his fairer Middle Eastern features, was watching the proceedings and my frustration. I sensed he wanted to get my attention as I caught his piercing, light blue eyes. "This is our life," he said pointedly.

Three hours later, with the daily ferry scheduled to leave in twenty minutes, I was still sitting there feigning obstinacy. But the scenario lay ahead of me - days passing and eventually having to pay the amount anyway. With reluctance I relented, and now had to find Mr. Khaled of the Tourist Police in a hurry. Mr. Khaled was ostensibly there to assist the likes of travellers like me without Arabic, through the intricacies of customs procedures at an Egyptian port of entry or exit. Despite (more probably due to) his apparent friendliness and helpfulness I suspected his complicity in all of this. We managed to reduce the amount down to $120 (this on top of the Carnet guarantee of 800% of the value of the bike the Egyptian authorities demand) and I rushed around changing more dollars into Egyptian pounds, just managing to board the boat before the gangplank was raised. Egypt is a fascinating country with an extraordinary historical legacy. But I was glad to be on that boat. Anger and frustration dissipated, leaving a sense of relief, a relaxing of anxiety at leaving the restrictive, exploitative culture I'd come across, and the lying and cheating extortionists that were the officials! To be fair, my experiences were with tourist towns and bureaucrats.

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Bye, bye Sinai.

One Lesson of Travel
Travel has the effect, on me anyway, of highlighting how many of our comforts we accept unthinkingly. Although things are changing with regard to personal security in many Western countries, for most people there is no threat from, for example, armed mobs or government forces turning their arms on you. Despite climate change, our weather is moderate. The rain falls and crops grow. Generally there are ways to earn money and provide for your family, and if not, the state is there with a safety net. While waiting in Nuweiba I appreciated once again how for granted I take our system of justice. Surely it has its flaws - and some would argue it is there to protect the status quo, favouring the establishment - but if a citizen feels wronged, the victim of injustice, there are avenues to pursue justice or redress. I felt powerless in Nuweiba because I was dealing with the most senior person there and his word ruled. There was nowhere to appeal. It mattered not the slightest if I considered it ‘fair’ or not!

Dockside In A New Country
It was a very late arrival in Aqaba. The ferry couldn’t be offloaded as there wasn’t a berth although foot passengers could disembark. I had noticed earlier a UK registered 4x4 in the hold, and chatted with the owners while waiting. He was stocky, in his early sixties, and owned a number of pubs; she a little younger, and a TV producer. It became clear as I listened that we were on slightly different schedules. They were on some kind of a world tour in their top of the range Land Cruiser, but in a ‘how far, how quickly’ kind of way. He declared proudly the mileage they’d done, dropping anecdotes about Mongolia, among other far away places. Probably because of the delays and the late hour, their, or rather his, mood seemed quite negative and his commentary regarding our delay of a slightly disparaging and critical nature. Unusual as that is for their culture. It was a little uncomfortable when he was attempting to involve me in his reproachful remarks (“Look! The helmsman is hopeless. These people, couldn’t organize a …”, and "Why can't they just...?"). I asked what countries in Africa had made an impression, which seemed to be a difficult question. She liked Lake Malawi, where they had taken a day off. A day off? Yes, apparently the trip was more a distance traveled project. When I volunteered Ethiopia as my favourite country (no interest had been expressed in my journey), he scowled, muttering something about being harried and hassled by beggars their few days in the country. Disappointingly they had put their vehicle onto the train from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa in the North of Sudan, missing out on an incredibly scenic route through the Nubian desert along the River Nile, and a fast disappearing way of life with the imminent construction of a road.

While walking the ten minutes towards an area of illuminated buildings in search of something to stem the hunger pangs that had been steadily growing - I had no local currency - I passed three ferry workers sitting on the path, eating. They insisted I join them and I shared their meagre snack of dry pita bread and boiled egg. It was just what was needed and I thanked these friendly and hospitable Egyptians profusely. Unexpected incidents like this are what give such pleasure and restore my optimism.

Hussein was the other driver I waited with, an Egyptian with an interesting story. He was working for the Kuwaiti civil service, and was driving back there after a visit home.
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On crutches having lost a leg in the Iraqi invasion, he described how an attack by the Iraqi Air Force on their battalion had left many villagers and most of his fellow soldiers dead. He considered himself lucky to be alive. A laid back, friendly guy, Hussein was very helpful in getting me through various barriers to get food and water while we waited. And wouldn't accept any of my proffered Egyptian pounds. It was heartwarming at this time for me to have met such an honourable ambassador for his country.

At about two in the morning I was on my bike and dealing with the entry formalities. Having changed some cash into Jordanian dinars, an unfamiliar currency to me, I handed over a large denomination bill to pay for the obligatory road insurance. (This is something most travelers learn – invariably there will be a lack of change wherever you go. Always carry small denominations.) The insurance agent tried to shortchange me. Twice. I knew the bill I’d presented, and insisted on the correct change. Interestingly this incident didn’t bother me (outrageous behavior though it was – taking advantage of unwary foreign arrivals, at 2 am). Maybe it was tiredness, but really it was that I was that happy to be out of Egypt!

Which Direction Home?
In truth the Arab world had lost its allure for me. Though toying with the idea of a quick visit to Lebanon to fill in my political geography a bit more, I had had enough and felt no wish to dally. The intention was to do some long hours in the saddle and head for Europe.

I had decided, quite fortuitously as it turned out, to stay a second night in Aqaba and met Brent, a red headed six foot six, ski instructor from Australia, with whom I swapped my Egypt guidebook for a Middle East one. Like most Ozzies he was friendly and outgoing and we had a few beers together. He told me of his experience visiting Israel. It was only a day’s travel from Amman the capital of Jordan, and I knew that I could leave my bike there and do a side trip, but hadn’t the motivation.
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Hearing Brent relating his visit had the effect of shaking me out of my disinterest, or rather lack of mental energy. I needed that.

The ride through the desert to Amman brought me along the lowest road on earth by the shore of the Dead Sea. With no outlet from the lake, the salt concentration in the water after constant evaporation is said to be nine times that of the Mediterranean Sea - I have the (clichéd) picture of myself taken twelve years previously, reading a newspaper while floating on my back due to the resultant buoyancy. Salt deposited by the still shrinking water level can be seen on the shore in the picture left. The heat down here was quite intense. I was keeping an eye on my GPS which registered -322 metres before losing the satellite signal.

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To The Promised Land
In the hostel in Amman I met up with Brian, a Santa Claus figure with flowing white beard and long hair, my second Australian in two days - but a quiet representative of his culture - who was planning on going across to Jerusalem the following morning and we agreed to team up. A grandfather in his early fifties, he worked hard and saved for six months of the year, travelling the other six months. His father was a sheep shearer - as was he until his back gave up on him and he took up driving earth-moving equipment - and hadn't had much formal education. But his curiosity had ensured he seemed better read, informed and more articulate than most travellers I would have met. Brian represented something appealing about the Australian culture - people didn't seem to be necessarily bound by convention. Also in my dorm room was Sven, a psychiatric nurse from Sweden, and early the next morning after a quick breakfast, he too decided to join us, and the three of us set off in a series of taxis and buses to the Promised Land.

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The Dome on the Rock, Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam

Entering The State of Israel
Amman sits at about 2,000m. The road to the King Hussein Bridge and the border with Israel, descends to the Red Sea, the heat increasing by the minute. After the brief formalities leaving Jordan, all travellers had to get on the bus to cross the King Hussein Bridge which separates the two countries. The River Jordan, which the mile long bridge traverses, was a disappointing trickle.

Young Orthodox blades on the way to the synagogue
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On the other side, we were in serious security country. I was aware of the extreme security in Israel, yet was still amazed by the many checks, gates and x-ray machines. And this was before we queued for the Immigration officials. These ‘officials’ were mainly young white Israelis doing their national service. In other words, this wasn’t a career move, just a stint at duty for their country taken I suppose with differing levels of seriousness. Immediately in front of me in the queue were two tanned Americans, young guys with cropped hair, casual hip gear, chewing on Twix bars and drinking from a can of Coke. They flirted with the uniformed official behind the glass, who was giggling and turning to her co-worker at the next desk exchanging comments. Then it was my turn to be interviewed, and I picked up on her total lack of interest. She was miles away. I explained the necessity of avoiding an Israeli stamp on my passport, as I had to transit through Syria. Which wouldn’t be possible if there were any signs I had visited ‘Occupied Palestine’ as the Syrians refer to it. The girl nodded vacantly as I explained. I knew this was a regular procedure and didn’t expect a problem. With barely disguised boredom I was asked different variations of similar questions – read from a sheet below desk level – before she did a double stamping gesture and handed me back my passport. A big red Israeli stamp was on the page. I couldn’t believe it and turned back, interrupting the next person behind. “Excuse me, why did you stamp my passport?” I demanded. A look of shock crossed her face, and silently she stood up and left the cubicle. I, and the rest of the queue, was left waiting. She returned after a while and said her superior would be down to see me, along with the excuse that all passports must get stamped into the country. Now she was covering herself. I flat out accused her of making a mistake, and that she knew she had made a mistake. There was no response.

Of course the damage was done – they hardly had a magic eraser to obliterate all evidence. After a further twenty minutes waiting to the side, Mr. Alexander the superior arrived. I explained I was in trouble now, as I had no other way to get my motorbike to Europe except through Syria. With a blank expression he predictably gave me the official position – that only in very rare circumstances was a separate slip of paper stamped instead of the passport. I told him
he knew that wasn’t true, and I knew it wasn’t true. To which he repeated the same party line. What was I expecting? An apology, or even acknowledgement. Of course they wouldn’t, or couldn’t do that.

Calming down after a while I realized there were options. I had used my second passport, which I occasionally have a need for; the only problem being that it was the one I had used to get stamped into Jordan. My task on returning to Amman would be to visit the main Immigration offices with supporting documentation – Carnet and Insurance - and claim I hadn’t been stamped into the country at Aqaba.

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Palestine
With time and financial constraints – Israel is expensive – I had little urge, nor inclination actually, to visit the capital Tel Aviv, hearing reports describing it as a suburb of America. My wish was to visit the holy city of Jerusalem, and also the West Bank, to get a better idea of what was for me just a vague notion of Palestine. Very fortunately I met up with Liam, a British engineer working for the charity Practical Action in Sudan, who on his way home for a break was intending on visiting friends in Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank, where he had worked in the university a few years previously. He invited me along which provided a great opportunity to meet a number of politically engaged Palestinians, hearing of their experiences with the Israeli state and difficulties living ‘behind the wall’.

Biblical town and centre of Palestinian resistance, Nablus.

Liam, fluent in Arabic, getting directions from the tamarind juice vendor

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Checkpoint West Bank to Jerusalem
It was clear the Israelis felt understandably besieged, with the need to build the extraordinary 8 metre high concrete defensive wall. Apparently the incidents of suicide bombing have dropped significantly as a result. The security passing through the checkpoint from one side to the other was extraordinary, involving enclosed mesh walkways, cages with automatically locked gates, further barriers … and that is before you get interviewed via intercom through bullet proof glass. I was told the normal waiting time was two hours, often longer. After waiting about an hour with no movement, I left my place in the queue, strolled around to the side and got the attention of an Israeli soldier, in casual gear with jeans slung low around his hips, bullet proof body vest, and rifle slung over his hips. Along with the others, he wore sunglasses. Behind the chain link fence he approached, and in response to my query told me in a friendly manner there was a power cut and the checkpoint was closed for another few hours. After relating this to the Palestinian I had been standing next to in the queue – no announcement had been made - I left the compound and, putting my pride in my pocket, found a bus that was bringing old women, mothers and young children through the barrier. Being a foreign passport holder entitled me to go through with them.

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Palestinians and Jews
Having met quite a cross section of folks living in Nablus – the social agitator, the PR person in the university, the NGO worker, taxi driver, former students of Liam, the Palestinian Red Crescent (Red Cross) volunteer, the pacifist law lecturer who spoke and wrote Hebrew as fluently as his native Arabic – I would say I got quite a fair idea of the experiences of many Palestinians, and certainly it wasn’t difficult to understand the reaction of the local population to the military presence of the Israelis.
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I was also aware there was another side to the story, the experience of the Israelis, but I had decided to just spend my few days here seeing the side of the story that had less access to media attention.

Surely the Jews had a right to return to the homeland they had been banished from thousands of years ago? It was a difficult one. But then the penny dropped. The Jews had set up a Jewish state – exclusively. If you were a Palestinian i.e. if you happened to be living in the area that became the state of Israel in 1948, it was tough sh*t. You were out of there. Israel wont give citizenship to the Arabs because they would then be in a voting minority, hence the Palestinians being confined to the Gaza Strip and West Bank and having notional self government (still patrolled by Israeli military and populated by Jewish settler camps). This then doesn’t seem right. It is an exclusive state - it excludes Arabs. Where is the right there?

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Jerusalem was apparently liberated in 1967

Syria
I made it back to my bike in Amman after a fascinating four or five days, delighted to have made the effort. Next stop was the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus. Syria held fond memories from ten years ago when I worked there for a brief period for a travel company.
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It had exempted itself from my present wish to be through with the Arab world. I remembered sleeping out in Roman ruins in the middle of the majestic desert, the setting sun casting a warm hue over the golden sands stretching to the horizon. Being pummeled and twisted by a masseur in a hammam, the traditional and very old, vaulted public steam baths. Or wandering through a magnificent Crusader castle, only a slight leap of the imagination transporting me back to defending it against the huge army of Salah ad-Din, or Saladin (a memorial to whom pictured right, outside the walls of Old Damascus). The memory that most comes to mind when I think of Syria is the friendliness of the people everywhere, and for years after I would recommend the country as the only one I had visited in the Arab world where a European woman might feel comfortable traveling.

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Riding a bike into Damascus in the early evening however, without a map or knowing where you’re going, is not recommended. One advantage however of rush hour is that there are opportunities to shout questions to taxi drivers while they’re idly picking their noses waiting for the traffic to move. And of course as usual I landed on my feet and found a bed in a lovely old city centre hostel, sharing a room with a pretty teacher from Slovenia. I had the option of finding a local hotel with a private room for a similar price, but was drawn to the idea of the company of other travellers. And with rapt attention and eager questions of my journey (along with “You’re the most interesting traveler I’ve shared a room with”), Manca duly obliged, boosting my ego after long periods of limited or no contact with Europeans. I could get used to this. She was off early the next morning, but that was all right because I found another friend Roland, a German the same age as me (youngish guy) touring the Middle East on his Triumph Tiger. He too showed respect for my feat. It was beginning to sink in how it must sound to others, taking your motorbike alone down one side of Africa then up the other. And it felt… gratifying.
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An underlying sense of achievement was surfacing. I was on the home straight, and I would enjoy it as that. And try and forget about the disappointment of not getting the Libyan visa.

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The Mac Guru of Damascus
My iBook had given up the ghost in Jordan and my brother had forwarded contact details of a certain Bassel al Hassan, which he must have found through some esoteric forum (this world of Macs was totally foreign to me). Bassel, or the ‘Mac Guru of Damascus’ as some grateful visitors had dubbed him in an American magazine, ended up spending many hours late into the night retrieving data from my hard disk, for which I remain very, very grateful.
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Despite my insistence, he refused to accept any payment; just disappointed he didn’t have the time to fix it. One afternoon while waiting for a part, we whiled away a few hours in a café smoking a shisha pipe – a habit practiced throughout the Arab world (by men, although in Palestine I was in a modern café tucked away in a wealthy suburb of Ramallah, myself and Liam the only males, a dozen or more women at different tables exhaling thick clouds of the aromatic smoke.) The pipe is packed with tobacco soaked in honey or sometimes a fruit liqueur. That and the fact the smoke is passed through the cooling effect of the water ensure a smooth, rich and mellow taste. Bassel taught me the rudiments of backgammon, a game usually associated with this smoking pastime. I enjoyed the experience, realizing a few hours had passed with absolutely nothing achieved, and reflected that this is what we were losing in the Western world, or certainly what I was losing. The ability to ‘pass time’, not indolently, but in the pleasure of someone else’s company or playing a board game, or just smoking a shisha pipe and watching the world go by. In the afternoon!

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Old Damascus
Old Damascus has to be one of the most atmospheric, and civilized, cities in the world. I took the opportunity to wander through the narrow alleys, getting lost in the maze of old lanes (actually five thousand years old!), watching a craftsman chipping away fashioning a chair leg in his little cupboard of a workshop, snacking on a freshly baked pizza-like crusty bread, dropping in for a cup of shai at one of the many traditional tea shops, strolling over to the Christian quarter to buy a couple of cold beers. In search of a beer in the modern part of the city there was the usual accompanying feeling of being some kind of degenerate desperate for his drug. (Which wasn't the case at all.).

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Exotic Aleppo
At the confluence of trade routes from Asia (the Silk Route), Europe and the Middle East, Aleppo, in the north of Syria, also lays claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It seems to have been ‘discovered’ by the European tourist if the renovated Christian quarter was anything to go by, the picturesque old lanes and buildings now housing boutique hotels, little restaurants and various jewelry and antique shops. But one thing that hadn’t changed in the twelve years since I’d last been there was the old souq, or market, spread over a few square miles, operating as it has done over the millennia. Most of the souq is under cover, slightly cooler in the many pillared passageways below the vaulted stone roofs, than outside in the fierce heat of the sun.
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Shafts of light streamed down from glass tiles above. My memory was of it being one of the most atmospheric of places to walk through, and it still held that character. The mix of people was so exotic - dark and light skinned Arabs, some women dressed all in black with chador leaving only the eyes visible (some indeed with a veil covering the eyes too), others in more colourful tribal gowns, men with thick white beards folded over their white gelabiya (robe), some stallholders with a swarthy look from Persia or further east, others with features and fair skin who wouldn’t look out of place at the Ballinasloe horse fair. Picking my way slowly through the bustle, I passed through the stalls of butcher's souq, the rich, slightly rancid smell from bright red and creamy fat coloured carcuss parts suspended from hooks, or being chopped on curved boards shaped over the years. Then I would realize I was in the ‘soap souq’ with nothing but olive oil soap on display, piled high in bricks behind the vendors (the wall behind the two cheery men above is soap). After maybe fifty metres the stalls would then change, draped with bolts of brightly coloured material; after that booth after booth of dried fruit piled high in wicker baskets, or nuts – walnuts, pecans, pistachios, and of course almonds. Then the distinctive and dominating smack of cumin would alert me to the approach of the spice souq, the classic Middle Eastern experience.

While pausing to take a picture, a voice next to me complimented my composition. A further one or two conversational asides were very subtly and naturally executed in perfect English. At this stage the man, in his thirties and neatly dressed in Western styles, had fallen in step with me and I was aware of course this wasn’t accidental. Hearing I was Irish, he claimed to have studied Anglo Irish literature, name checking ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce, then the usual suspects Bernard Shaw, Wilde and Beckett… I was impressed with this salesman and when he recommended a visit to the jewelry souq where he had a shop, I acquiesced. Silver is a recommended purchase in Aleppo as the craftsmanship has a reputation and I ended up buying a few pieces after some bargaining.

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Eastern Christianity

…More intriguing still was the fact that in this city (Aleppo), long famed for the shrines of its Christian saints, the Muslim Sufi tradition had directly carried on from where (chronicler of celebrity saints and ascetics such as St Symeon the Elder who spent 37 years living on a platform on top of a pillar) Theodoret’s Christian holy men had left off. Just as the Muslim form of prayer, with its bowings and prostrations, appears to derive from the older Syriac Christian tradition… and just as the architecture of the earliest minarets unmistakably derives from the square late-antique Syrian church towers, so the roots of Islamic mysticism and Sufism lie with the Byzantine holy men and desert fathers who precede them across the Near East.

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Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realize how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.

Certainly if John Moschos (traveller-monk from the 6
th century) were to come back today it is likely that he would find much more that is familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical. Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it actually is. Moreover the modern demonisation of Islam in the West, and the recent growth of Muslim fundamentalism (itself in many ways a reaction to the West’s repeated humiliation of the Muslim world), has led to an atmosphere where few are aware of, or indeed wish to be aware of, the profound kinship of Christianity and Islam.

… This practice
(Christians worshipping at Muslim shrines and vice versa) emphasizes an important truth about a close affinity of the two great religions easily forgotten as the Eastern Christians – the last surviving bridge between Islam and Western Christianity – emigrate in reaction to the increasing hostility of the Islamic establishment.
From the Holy Mountain’ – William Dalrymple

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Syria has a notable record of religious tolerance, and Aleppo has over the centuries provided refuge for Christians fleeing persecution from neighboring Turkey. Walking through the Christian quarter I was astonished at the variety on offer – there are churches of Armenian Catholic, Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Latin Catholic, Maronites, Syrian Orthodox (Suriani), Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Chaldeans and apparently there’s even a small Protestant presence. Nowadays Syria is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where Christians not only practice their religion freely, but also may build new churches and educate their children in church schools.

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Other impressions in Aleppo
... The first time I’ve been asked to provide passport details in an internet café; ...tasty soft pistachio ice-cream; ...wandering into a khan or caravanserai (an example pictured above), courtyards surrounded by ornate apartments historically used by the traveling merchants and their merchandise; ...a chatty stallholder informing me that the Aga Khan, an Ismaili from Syria, is funding the redevelopment of old buildings (including a Carlton hotel) around the city’s imposing citadel; ...in one cheap restaurant the deliciously effective air conditioning which was basically a metal box, with a fan at the rear, into which a waiter loaded large blocks of ice; ...a cold beer on the terrace in the faded elegance and charm of Barons Hotel, most famously associated with (T.E.) Laurence of Arabia, operating under cover for the British Secret Service before the 1st World War and who has a room named after him; also visited by among others Theodore Roosevelt, aviator Charles Lindbergh, and Agatha Christie, reputed to have written 'Murder on The Orient Express in her Aleppo hotel room.

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Going Home
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But I was on my way home and only passed two nights in delightful Aleppo. The morning of my departure something didn’t feel quite right; there wasn’t the familiar sense of anticipation and excitement about my route. The intention was to visit the beehive shape huts in the village of Harran just over the border in Turkey, reputedly the oldest dwellings in the world, before stopping in Sanliurfa ‘one of the greatest religious and historical sites in Turkey’ according to one guide book. Then I would head directly north to the Black Sea coast where I was keen to visit Sumela monastery, dramatic pictures of which I’d seen, nestled tightly into a cliff side. But that morning preparing to leave Aleppo, I realized the direction I really wanted to take was the shortest home. Two days later I was in Istanbul, on the threshold between Asia and Europe.