“Raqqa and Beyond” by Ali Khan: Dispatch 23

Raqqa and Beyond: Dispatch from Damascus 23
By Ali Khan
May 22, 2009

Checkpoints are not as abundant in Syria as they are in Lebanon. While driving on the road to Al-Raqqa I saw a group of men standing around near a white and red barrier as I slowed down for the speed bump. When the car was near enough for them to see the number plates, a man dressed in a red T-shirt and green army issue camouflage trousers, tipped his gun and pointed to the side of the road. It seemed as if they were expecting us. I rolled down the window and Nono, half asleep, asked whether we had reached. He must have got a bit of a shock when he saw the soldier peering into the car. The first two minutes were spent exchanging pleasantries. They asked me how the roads were compared to India, how we liked Syria and what we were doing here. Dutifully I collected all our passports and answered that we were all students of Arabic. He took our papers and asked for our names. Nono, probably still a bit rattled from our earlier encounter with the Peugeot 504, mumbled ‘adab ‘arabi, Arabic literature. The man looked puzzled and then burst out laughing and said so your name is fe’al, verb, or mubni al majhool, the passive tense? Nono had probably not heard the question properly and so had answered the soldier’s previous question about what we studied rather than giving his name. Nevertheless, the mistake helped in making light of the situation and we all had a good laugh about it. In the meanwhile another man in a suit had ambled over and taken our passports into the office. After about fifteen minutes he returned, handed the passports back to us, asked where we were planning to spend the night and then waved us on with a friendly wave. I must say I was impressed with the smooth way in which they handled the situation because often such encounters are tense and can be worrying for people who are stopped.

We reached Al-Raqqa in the early afternoon. The round, horseshoe shaped layout of the old city, a copy of Baghdad’s circular plan, was designed by the Abbasids. However, the city was first founded by the Macedonians and served as a border town straddling the Persian and the Roman Empires. Most of monuments were hidden by modern concrete constructions as we drove in. Harun al-Rashid used to summer in Raqqa away from the heat of the Baghdad summer and also occasionally used it has a base from which he could attack Byzantine areas. We drove past the main street, which looks like it could be from any of the other cities in Syria. We did not stop for long and we were soon on our way to Rasafa.

We didn’t encounter much traffic, apart from the occasional farmer on a motorcycle stacked with fresh vegetables, headed for the souks. We passed a small cluster or dark Bedouin tents on the way. The colourful robes of the Bedouin women were hanging out to dry on the ropes holding the tents in place and a scrawny looking donkey raised its head ever so slightly to look at the intruders but then immediately went back to searching for something to eat amongst the desert shrubs. Outside the main tent a group of children were wrestling each other in the sand next to a couple of metal drums, presumably for storing water. In the distance behind the tents I could see huge steel silos that dominated the otherwise bleak landscape. It was a poignant juxtaposition of the traditional life of the Bedouin slowly being overtaken by the ‘progresses’ of modernity. Wilfred Thesiger, before crossing the Rub al-Khali in the Arabian Peninsula with a group of Bedouin, lamented the fact that the way of life of the Bedouin was doomed to extinction and that the nobility of spirit, and the richness of language would die with it. It had long been a tradition for poets to go out to the desert to live with the Bedouin in order to learn from their language and their fascinating verbal imagery. We would do well to sometimes remember Thesiger’s saying that “the harder the life, the finer the person.” We must also remember that this decline is in part of our own making. The Bedouin in Jordan no longer get good prices for their cattle because of the competition from lamb from New Zealand. The drive between the main road and Rasafa is bleak and we were flanked on both sides by an arid and seemingly endless desert.

Rasafa unexpectedly appears in the middle of the desert and if it wasn’t for the blue signs announcing that we were about to reach, arriving there would have been even more striking. Just before we reached, a lone soldier, who looked terribly bothered by the heat and the solitude of his check post, lazily waved is through. The huge walls suddenly dominate the skyline and the walls glittered in the sunlight because of the white crystalline stones embedded in the walls. Rasafa was a Roman outpost even though it was not on any of the great trade routes. It became famous because of the shrine of St. Sergius. He was a Christian officer in Emperor Diocletian’s army and was tortured to death by his fellow officers. Soon his shrine attracted pilgrims from all over Greater Syria. The Byzantines expanded the city so that it initially withstood the attacks of the Persians. Khusrau II managed to conquer it and later the Umayyads restored parts of the city but after the collapse of their empire it gradually became neglected. We drove around the city to the back. Unfortunately, the first thing we saw was a fleet of huge luxury buses. Thankfully the tourists, this time Spanish, were busy sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch.

We took advantage of the empty site and went to climb the ramparts in order to get a good view of the ruins. The earth coloured buildings undulated in and out of sight. In the middle the remains of a basilica stood better preserved than the other structures. The rectangular outer wall was punctuated by a series of arches through which I could see patches of green fields on the western side. We climbed down and Fred went off to try and find the underwater cisterns. Eventually we located them and peered down past the iron railings into these vast underground chambers. Fred had been told that it was possible to go down into them but we could not locate the stairs. After a while Nono pointed out some stairs that disappeared into the ground beneath us. It had started to drizzle and so we decided to walk down. After a few minutes of feeling our way down the stairs we crouched to go through a small hole that opened out into one of the cisterns. I joked with Fred that maybe the archaeologists had got it wrong and that this was a secret underground cathedral where the Christians held secret services in order to avoid being persecuted. The scale of the water cisterns is beyond description. While we were walking around, a group of Spaniards were straining to get a look from the iron railings. We all hid behind pillars and I took a photo with a flash, hoping to scare the old ladies. It didn’t work and soon a group of men with their fishing vests and floppy hats climbed down into the cistern. It was sobering to think about how people managed to build these gigantic underground structures to harvest water. Today, despite all our technology and progress, we waste so much and pay little attention to the world’s depleting fresh water supplies.

We quickly wandered through the rest of the site, carefully stepping around chunks of fallen pillars with the decorative motifs still visible. The remains of an Umayyad mosque have been recently discovered in the precinct but I only found this out later while reading about Rasafa. With the passing of time, all ruins look the same anyway. As we wandered out, a Syrian lady, who was leading the group of Spaniards, walked up to me and asked me if I was Nono and Fred’s driver. Before I could reply she thrust a book into my hand and said that she had found it near the entrance of the cisterns. We still had a couple of hours of sunlight and so we decided to head to Lake Assad. The drizzle abruptly stopped and soon the sun was out again. Just before entering the compound to Lake Assad we were again stopped at a checkpoint, though this time because we had to register to in order to enter the protected security area around the dam. When the lake was being created a huge number of archeological sites were flooded. Amongst some of the more important sites that have been lost was Mureybit, which, historians and archeologists have said, might have dated back to 11000 BC. It was possibly one the first sedentary settlements of its kind in the area. We drove past a thicket of electric pylons and wires and crossed over the dam.

As we reached the other side I managed to get a peek at the immense body of water that was being held back. The land on both sides was green and obviously exceptionally fertile. Instead of seeing sandy earth with patches of green, one could only see patches of red earth in between huge green fields. We drove towards the ruins of the Qil’a al-Jabar that survived because it is on a cliff. The main door had been shut and a group of middle-aged men were pacing up and down near the massive entrance. Fred decided to try and persuade the director to open the castle for a short while. I wandered off into the trees to get a better look at the lake. A young couple was sitting on the edge of the stonewall holding hands but as soon as they heard me coming, they shuffled away from each other. Surprisingly, the director was happy to help and opened the doors with a giant key. The main entrance is through a series of steps built in a tunnel. It is hard to imagine how they managed to bore through the dense stone. The castle dates back to the time of Nur-ed-dine but had previously been in possession of the Crusaders of Edessa.

All of us went off in different directions. I circled around the ramparts and climbed onto the highest part of the ruins. On the opposite bank, I could see the plains of Siffin, where Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet fought against Mu’awiya, the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty, in 657, in a battle that played a crucial role in defining the future of the still nascent Muslim community. The waves gently shattered against the bottom of the cliff and thousands of little suns were reflected in the rippling waters. However, there was something extremely unsettling about the place. I shuddered just thinking about what might happen to the whole area if the dam developed a fault or was sabotaged and ruptured.

I climbed back down to find Fred and Nono surrounded by a group of Syrians and Turks. They were business partners and lived close to each other near the Syrian-Turkish border. Judging from their accents, it seemed to me that they were Kurds. Two of them argued about whether I was from the Gulf or North Africa and when I eventually told them I am Indian, a third chimed in and said that it was clear I was from India because my nose is not Arab. I am not sure what an Arab nose looks like. In university in Damascus I have seen very conceivable shape of nose possible. They continued to argue and only stopped when I suggested we take a group picture. The doors clanked shut as everyone exited. We went to the little open-air café to drink some Arabic coffee and eat some food. The weather was perfect and there was no wind. We sat in the open with a roof of vines cascading around us. A cat sat on the table next to ours, eating someone’s leftovers. After sitting in silence for a while, I experienced the same melancholy that I had felt in Deir Ez-Zure, though this time I was certain that it was because of the sound of the water.

The light was fading and as we drove back towards the main road, Nono observed that parts of the area looked like California. Automatic sprinklers were rolling across huge wheat fields and clusters of trees filtered the orange light. We stopped again at the checkpoint so that they could make sure everyone who entered was leaving. The soldier was apologetic for making us wait and soon enough waved us through. The traffic on the main road had increased as we turned north towards Aleppo.

Until the next Dispatch Ma’as Salaama!

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