By Brigitte Treumann
Waiting for warmer weather to make for enjoyable biking in Chicago, I trawled through my photo files, diaries and notebooks to find a mention of biking elsewhere and traveling in different places and times.
And so, I came upon my diary from October 1999 when I spent a month in the first season of the Syrian-American Joint (Archaeological) Expedition to Hamoukar, one of the largest pre-Classical mounds (tells) in Syria. Not only was I a neophyte working as an “area excavator” in such a big-league archaeological enterprise (I had previously participated in several smaller excavations in the Near East and in southern Spain), but it was also my first time in Syria. I fell, head over boot heels in love with the country: its stark beauty, the ancient sites, the contemporary liveliness of its cities, the overwhelming majesty and elegance of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the glorious suq in Aleppo, and, of course, the hospitable and welcoming men, women and children whom I would meet on many subsequent visits.
My last trip to Syria in 2008 to attend a conference in Damascus was particularly wonderful since I finally visited Palmyra. Despite a raging sandstorm (or perhaps because of it), it was a stunning experience. The fine, almost powder like grainy mist obscured but also illuminated those honey-colored temples, columns, walls and ancient paved walkways. It felt as if I was floating among and through these most miraculous ruins. Agatha Christie, in her little-known Syrian memoir Come ,Tell Me: How You Live, writes about her first impression of Palmyra; “it is lovely and fantastic and unbelievable, with all the theatrical implausibility of a dream.”
Much of this “implausible dream” has recently been destroyed or vandalized by the terrorist organization ISIS. ISIS has not only almost obliterated many of the monuments but also brutally murdered Khaled-al-Assad, veteran archaeologist of 40 years and devoted caretaker of the exquisite Palmyra ruins.
Joining the first season of the expedition to Hamoukar, located in the extreme north-east of Syria, a region known by its traditional Arabic name, al-Jazira (island) adjacent to the border with modern Iraq, was one of the best decisions I ever made.
How could I pass up the fantastic opportunity to participate in a major excavation in Syria, led by one of the most prominent American archaeologists, McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology at the Oriental Institute, the University of Chicago? And while work was demanding and schedules rigorous (we started the day at 5 am , an hour-long truck drive took us from the border village, Yarubiya, where we stayed, to and from the site every day), there were occasional respites. On the spur of the moment I decided one day to explore the nearby border with Iraq on the one rather dilapidated official excavation bicycle. My diary entry describes this somewhat foolhardy and entirely unimaginable adventure in today’s Syria:
“Today I decided to bicycle to the Iraqi border. The expedition house has only one, rather shabby-looking, bike, but it will do and I am determined to pedal the 2 or 3 kilometers to the border post. Just want to see what Iraqi soldiers look like. Our village, Yarubiya, or rather the village that hosts us, the Syrian-American Archaeological expedition to Tell Hamoukar, is very close to the Syrian-Iraqi border and not too far from the Turkish one. I mounted the rusty steed and pedaled slowly in what I thought was the direction towards that border post. There was a sign, slightly rusty and askew and banging in a fierce desert wind like a western movie moment that indicated “this way to Mosul” in English and Arabic. En route, I met a very romantic-looking camel nomad and his herd of one-humped camels who stared at me, both herder and camels, this tall, blonde apparition on a shaky bicycle. In very rudimentary Arabic I shouted, the wind was fierce, -“Iraq”? – he shook his khefiye-adorned head and laughed. He obviously thought he had met a slightly lunatic “feranji “(foreigner), but pointed to the sign and motioned I should continue on my way.”
l did get to the border post, where a few surprised soldiers waved their weapons at me, shouting “ no, no Madame!” I also heard some voices inviting me to tea. I beat a retreat to our dig-house, where I got a bit of a scolding from our mudir (director) Mac Gibson.
The history of Tell Hamoukar is fascinating, complex, and of great significance to the history and culture of ancient northern Mesopotamia with occupation strata from the 5th millennium BC to Islamic times, and in some sense, even unto this day with several contemporary dwellings spread over the high mound. While this blog may not be the place to describe the intricacies of stratigraphy, pottery sequences, step trenches (where I worked) Corona satellite photographs and surveying, it may be entertaining to remember the less glamorous activities associated with “being on a dig.” The pictures below illustrate some of the necessary daily tedium and the then rather basic accommodations. A proper dig-house was built soon after the first season and, I am told, has withstood ISIS-led attempts to destroy the excavated areas and the house.
One might say that my companions, Judy Franke and Peggy Sanders, and I slept in 7000-year old dust for a month. At the end of the season I unwrapped from a muck-encrusted suitcase, my carefully packed finery, navy silk trousers and a white Issey Miyake top to look presentable for the bus-trip back and entry to Aleppo. Needless to say, I was totally overdressed, but the driver gave me the best seat on the bus and shared his lunch. Delicious!
“Honourable is her rank, and far-flung in every age her name….. Feminine is her name and she has decked herself in the ornaments of womanly beauty…… “ (Abu’l-Husain Ibn Jubair, 12th century pilgrim/traveler)
I have visited this magnificent city many times later, long before its indescribably tragic destruction in the ongoing civil war. But that first encounter, coming “off the dig” was pure magic. Friends had recommended I stay at the Tourist Hotel – run by an excentric Lebanese, Madame Olga. Shall we say I felt a bit leery – Madame Olga? But this could be an adventure and I never regretted it. Despite the edgy, semi-industrial/garages-filled neighborhood, with stray cats caterwauling in the middle of the night and scrawny chickens pecking about, the place was perfect. An attractive older house, squeaky-clean, room and bathroom en suite, and outstanding breakfasts. Madame had the habit, as I said, a bit eccentric, to knock at our doors at 7 am and yell, “time for le petit dejeuner”. Woe to him or her who was late, the luscious buffet was dismantled and that was that.
Ah, but now for my first promenade into the ancient heart of Aleppo. I just wandered whither the spirit took me, through the narrow and very lively lanes of the immense suq where an incredible variety of stalls and shops offered everything from spices, jewelry, textiles, rugs (oh, those rugs) to foodstuff, household goods, copper and brassware, soaps and perfume and much more. If this sounds like any other description of exotic markets, so be it, it was a fabulous experience.
I meandered about, beset by a bevy of young men who either wanted to sell the absolute best, the absolute cheapest to the most beautiful woman (so they said) or offered company, “lovely lady, we can show you Aleppo.” Truly entertaining, I thought. Sitting down, finally, in a tea shop, just opposite from the citadel, this incredible monument on a high mound, dominating the city, was certainly one of the better places to drink mint-flavored tea.
The ancient traveler, Abu’l-Husain Ibn Jubair, remarks “Halab has a citadel famed for natural strength, conspicuous in height, and exempted by inaccessibility from being sought or won…..
A colleague had kindly mentioned that I should call on a good friend of his, Mohamad Mast, antique dealer, collector of fabulous rugs and a “solid” (as he put it) male with whom I could go “safely” for coffee or dinner or even a night-club. Mohamad and I became excellent friends; he was everything my colleague said about him and more. He really was a guardian angel, not just on this first visit, but whenever I was in Aleppo his shop on Baron Street and his home were wide open to me. I loved his family. We supped on the wonderful rooftop restaurant, the Andalib, usually fairly late in the evening – the fresh bunches of mint, the succulent kebabs, not to forget the sweet and cool Arak that went so well with the aroma of cumin, garlic, and coriander. I bought my first serious rug from him – the first of many to follow. Mohamad Mast died prematurely around 2005, in a way this was merciful since I can’t imagine what the destruction of his beloved Aleppo would have done to him. I miss him to this day and I dedicate this paragraph to him with gratitude.
One of the more charming neighborhoods in Aleppo is the so-called Christian quarter Al-Djedeideh, now in shambles, but then a very pleasant part of town. When I didn’t stay with Madame Olga (her early petits dejeuners got on my nerves) I retreated to the Dar Zamaria,one of several classic 17th century Aleppo houses that were restored or turned into rather lovely boutique hotels. Recently I watched a very moving YouTube piece on Dar Zamaria as it was when I stayed there, with its gorgeous palm-ringed inner courtyard, the elegant, curving second-floor balconies, the intricate woodwork, and how it has now been reduced to rubble. The rooms are vandalized, the fountain destroyed, the palms ripped apart, utter desolation.
But in those peaceful days long before the civil war, Djedeideh was a most enjoyable area to visit and browse among the jewelry stores, listen to the many churchbells ringing from Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches around the Al Hatab square, and visit was has been called “the temple of bric-a- brac” the Orient House. I spent many hours there looking at shelves crammed full with everything beautiful or merely interesting, useful or not so useful, but best of all was the great variety of textiles, old embroideries and Persian woven stuff. The owners, a stern father and his two smiling sons, were charming and persuasive sales artists – offering apple tea and delicious pastries, heaping outrageous flatteries and delicate compliments on the unsuspecting and slightly befuddled female visitors. Truthfully, I never left that place without some great find.
I do so hope that the store is still around and their owners and their hospitable families, they invited me several times to their very handsome house in the countryside, are alive and safe.
I pray it may be so.