Qal'at Najm (Castle of Stars, which sounds somehow more elegant than Star Castle) is near Syria's northern Turkish border, perched on a hill overlooking Lake Al-Assad. The castle is way off the beaten path and impossible to reach by public transport, many miles from any city, forgotten in an endless desert. Surrounding is an amazing landscape; absolutely parched rocky earth devoid of any plantlife, seemingly raked clean like an enormous zen garden. Every now and again a small mudhouse village pops out of the desert, camouflaged by the beige earth.
Approaching the lonely Qalat Najm
Qalat Najm itself is impressive, though it's key feature is the stunning vistas over the lake (which used to be the flowing Euphrates River, now dammed and stagnant). The sole feature distinguishing the water from the sky is a distant ridge line of sandy cliffs, one sharp set jutting upward and a blurry doppleganger reflecting below.
Our crew prepares to enter the castle
The citadel, constructed in the 12th century by Saladin, has been recently reconstructed. Inside, we explored long cooridors connecting enormous halls, a bakery, hamam, and huge water cisterns, then climbed up to the top for a view of the surrounding valley.
Chris on the Sultan's balcony
Exploring the inner rooms and halls
Looking upriver toward Turkey
Hamam courtyard (outdoor bathhouse)
Though warm by day, Syrian nights are cold and arrive quickly, forcing us to stop biking and find a place to sleep when the sun disappears around 4 pm. Chris and I were biking a quiet road southward, delayed by another flat tire (Chris' 4th in Syria), when we realized we must find a place to shelter. We had gotten lunch from a lonely falafel stand but were now without provisions and little water, knowing we
could not make it to the assad (dam).
Chris fixes his 4th flat tire in Syria
A man in a white pickup truck pulled over and offered to drive us, then invited us to his home. We happily obliged, turning off the thin winding road into the dirt and out toward a small cluster of simple adobe and cement block homes.
Rocky graves out in the desert, embellished with sparse greenery
As it turns out, our new friend, Abu Aziz (Father of Aziz, ie his oldest son) has two wives, with 12 children and 4 on the way (one set of triplets). Not more than 30 feet away live several of his brothers in their own houses, who have their own wives and dozens of children too, making our time in their spaciously cushioned sitting room feel more like a school campout. Honestly I have never seen such a large family! I kept thinking about how communal their childhoods must be, each of them being lost among a sea of siblings and cousins, especially juxtaposed with the amount of personal attention the little French girl in Homs receives...
Chris and Abu Aziz drinking tea
Abu Aziz and his family shared a simple (Syrian, read: delicious) meal and many cups of tea with us, none of them English speakers but we could communicate through pictures and art. Every few minutes another man entered the room, salam alekum-ing and sitting with a cigarette, as several young boys rubbed their forefingers together while saying akk, meaning Abu's brother.
Sitting room becomes a master suite!
The two women with us were Abu Aziz's first wife and his sister, who suprised me becauses she is 25 and single. Bedouin girls marry even in their early teens, beginning their careers as baby factories as soon as possible, and judging by how highly they value large families I would have expected her arrangement by now.
In the morning we met the grandparents, leaders of the commune, a happy and fun couple. The mother, like most people, pointed to imaginary piercings on her lip and asked why? She herself is decorated with traditional facial tattoos, a long stripe down her chin, circular motif on her forehead, and a few scattered outward. I love the tattoos and told her they are jamil (beautiful); when she told me 'old style
Bedouin' I pointed to my piercings and said 'new style American' which made them all laugh.
Friendly Bedouin folks
Abu Aziz' second wife's home
I am usually depressed by desert scenes, especially fearful of such waterless areas as this one; however, their simple DIY adobe homes seemed perfectly in place, peacefully away from the congestion and pollution of the city (and even small towns, which tend to be full of construction rubble and the motor runoff from mechanic shops).
Walkway to the parent's home
Abu Aziz was kind enough to drive us back to the highway, dropping us off on the other side of the dam. From there chris and I biked further southeast, heading toward another castle.
Abu Aziz and family
By late afternoon we were close, honing in on the village of Jaaber and hoping to find a food stall. Unlike Turkey, Albania, and Greece, there are few roadside eateries (and even less cafes). While slightly more difficult during a bike trip, I appreciate how non-capitalistic it feels. We ended up finding only a small almost empty market with some ramen soup packets. The propriator agreed to boil one for us, taking us to his house around back where we sat for tea while watching Arab music videos. Most channels here seem to be either music or readings of the Quran; I have yet to see any sitcoms and the only "show" that appears is a dubbed Turkish drama popular throughout the middle east.
Random roadside tomb, maybe some Sufi sect?
I'm starting to learn the various national fashions, so, while I can't distinguish musical styles between, say, Abu Dabi and Turkey, I can identify some by their women. If they are heavy-set and swinging long, stringy black hair in circles they are Iraqi; if they are uncovered with European features (and obvious nose or boob jobs) they are Lebanese; if they are super cheesy over the top they might be Egyptian, etc. The men are more difficult because except for the more modern western states, they are usually donning long white robes with checkered or white shlemms (scarf held down by a black circular tube).
So there we sat sipping tea when the shop keeper's wife brought us a tray of noodles accompanied by sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, bread, and yogurt. I cannot get over how nice and hospitable Syrian people have been toward us, even when they know we are American. (So many times we have been told Your goverment is bad, but so is ours!)
Finally! Castle on the lake!
Afterward Chris and I biked the last 7 km into the hills and around a bend to find Qalat Jaaber, sitting quietly at the water's edge. From the top there is another beautiful 360 degree view of the lake, particularly pretty as the sunset changes the sky from blue to purple, pink, and orange, before finally cutting out to a twinkling black backdrop.
We arrived just in time!
Qalat Jaaber is unique because it's much older, made from mudbricks in the Mesopotamian style. It is not possible to get into the inner chambers, but a dangerously unbarred path follows along the outter edge and at the top a tower still stands, slightly tilted. There are train tracks leading from the tower to the edge of the castle; we couldn't figure out why.
Walking the outer walls
Savoring the last rays of sunlight
After sunset we circled to the backside and set our tent up near the water. Except for the enormous mosquitoes (than goodness our tent is actually a net) we had few difficulties here. The sandwiched between the illuminated castle walls and a lapping shoreline, we nestled into our very warm sleeping bag and listened to Democracy Now! podcasts until finally falling asleep.
Sunset over the lake
Leaving to find a campspot, 5 pm