The Euphrates flows in all its majesty below the Furat Cham Palace Hotel in Deir ez-Zor, Syria's northern farming and oil capital. Viewing the mighty river that had witnessed the birth of civilization, I feel an emotional pull to explore its buried culture whose history reverts back over 5,000 years and Mari, whose tablets tell the story of humankind long before monotheistic religions came into existence.
Leaving Deir ez-Zor, a booming city today as a result of irrigation and oil, we make our way eastward. On both sides of the road, irrigated fields of grain, dominated by corn and vegetables, flourish beside white cotton fields, ready for plucking.
Climbing on to a desert plateau, we spot the wind-worn walls of Doura Europos standing before us, impressive in their size. A fortified town overlooking the lush irrigated Euphrates Valley on one side and the empty desert on the other: it was once an important economic and cultural centre in the Hellenistic, Roman, Persian and Palmyran periods. Today, once we enter inside, the remains are disappointing. Little remains of the fortress-town other than its still-standing walls and impressive entrance.
Down again along the fields, we soon reach Mari, known locally as Tel Hariri, some 125 km (78 mi) east of Deir Ez-Zor. Flourishing between 3000 and 2000 B.C., the city was destroyed by Hammurabi in 1760 B.C. In the ensuing years, Mari faded into oblivion and, as the centuries rolled by, was totally reclaimed by desert until discovered by André Parrot in 1933.
Mari is famous for its excavated mid-third millennium Sacred Enclosure - a royal palace of 300 rooms, halls with courtyards and a hall for officers, decorated with pictographs - now located in Paris's Louvre.
Much more has been uncovered, including the Temples of Ishtar, Ishtarat, Ninhursag, Ninni-zaza, Shamash and the Lions; the palace of Shakkanakku; a remarkable water collecting and sewage system, and 20,000 clay cuneiform tablets, dealing with administration, political life of the palace and health. Thanks to these tablets, much of Syro-Mesopotamian history is now well documented.
We enter the ruins in great anticipation. Before us is a jigsaw puzzle of excavation sites. On a map at the edge of the covered "Sacred Enclosure," we make out some of the excavated spots. However, it becomes apparent that to get a true picture of Mari's history, a guide is a dire necessity. Group tours provide guides but when travelling alone, sometimes a farmer's family on the edge of the ruins, selling drinks and tickets to the site, will suffice.
Afterwards, as we walk away, we turn to survey the excavated spots whose plaster tiles and packed earth floors were gradually destroyed by erosion. Even though rapid deterioration of the past progresses, in the last few decades, new methods of preservation greatly improve the chance of saving what is left, particularly those treasures found in areas to be excavated in the future.
Objects of exceptional quality found in Mari, if not in the Louvre Museum in Paris, are kept in the museums of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Damascus. The finds have contributed much to Mari's fame. In addition to the tradition of great wall paintings, no other place in the Mesopotamian area has produced quite so much in terms of amulets, jewellery, pottery, seals, statuettes of goddess, kings and priests and art objects of exceptional quality. The site is not only a gold mine of Middle Eastern history, but literally reveals the beginning of humankind.
Suggestions for travelling in Syria:
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
- Convert money only in banks. New exchange rates have eliminated the once thriving black market - currently $1. U.S. equals about 46 Syrian liras in banks.
- Despite being depicted in some Western media as a land full of terrorists, Syria is very safe for travellers, one of the safest countries in the world. Even women travelling alone find few problems. Urban crime that plagues most modern cities is virtually non-existent in Syria.
- For tourists in Deir ez- Zor, the Fourat Cham Palace and the Badia Cham Hotel are the best places to eat. However, if one is adventurous and doesn't mind flies interrupting the meal, there are numerous restaurants along the Euphrates River offering barbecued meats.
- While in Deir ez-Zor, the Deir ez-Zor Museum is a must. One of the best museums in the Middle East, it features 8,000 years of history with fantastic statues, bas-reliefs, jewellery, building implements, hunting weapons, and household utensils.
- Internet cafes are found in all the major cities in Syria. Cost in regular internet cafes from $1 to $2 U.S.
If you go
The Best Places to stay when travelling in North-eastern Syria:
Some of the top places to stay in Syria are the Cham Palaces and Hotels - a deluxe chain covering the whole of Syria. In Deir ez-Zor, the Fourat Cham Palace and Badia Cham Hotel, edging the Euphrates River are the places to stay. For prices and reserving rooms in Cham Palace Hotels in Damascus and the remainder of Syria, check out
http://www.chamhotels.com/syria.html. As well, Chamtours and Chamcar Rentals cover the whole of Syria.
For Further Information, Contact:
Syrian Embassy, Ottawa, 151 Slater Street, Suite 1000, Ottawa Ontario, Canada, K1P 5H3. Tel: 613-569- 5556. Fax: 613-569- 3800. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or
Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington D.C., 20008 U.S.A.
Tel: 202/232-6313. Fax: 202-234-9548. E-mail: email@example.com
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