Latakia, Tartous, Saladin Castle (Qala'at Salah ad-Din), Ugarit, Marqab Castle (Qala'at Marqab)
Syra - Part VIII - Mediterranean Coast
Syria’s coastal regions are in some ways a world apart from the rest of the country. Home to the largest numbers of the country’s Alawite population, headscarved women form the minority here to crowds of liberal and more Western-oriented Alawites. The region which also birthed the current President’s father and the man who ruled the country for the next four decades also ensured a steady flow of money into its cities and villages, meaning European-style boulevards, Lebanon-like but not quite yet architectural standards, and more generally a higher level of development. Lying on the coast a richer foundation of water resources and so the mountain ranges are covered in forest or other forms of vegetation…at least in Spring.
I was lucky enough to visit a weekend during the last half of March, which is only beat by the increasing flower-coverage of a few weeks later. So I saw forest covering every mountain as far as the eye could see and flower groves with blooming cherry-blossoms! All the whilst traversing crusader forts and more ancient ruins.
Around Latakia lie Syria's best beaches, the ruins of Ugarit (aka. Ra’s Shamra), which sired the world’s oldest alphabet, as well as Qala’at Salah ad-Din, which arguably claims to be the second greatest crusader castle in existence after its southern brother, Krak des Chevaliers. On the road between Tartous and Latakia you can stop at Qala’at Marqab, which is if anything is equal to Qala’at Salah ad-Din, strikingly overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Tartous itself is the crusader city of Tortosa, with a charming old city but not much else on show. Outside Tartous some 6 kilometers off the coast is the Crusader’s last foothold in the holy land…the Island of Arwad, which housed an ancient kingdom and now a flutter of narrow alleys and graffiti. Though the region has much more to contribute, as I only had one long weekend there this is as far as my experience of it goes.
Though there is not much left in Latakia of its long history apart from a plaza encircling four Roman columns, the city is more laid-back than many of its counter-parts and for the more conventional tourists offers some more prime hotels and resorts, including by far the country’s greatest beaches (including Shaati’ al-Azraq). For others, visits to Salah ad-Din and Ugarit are essential. Though due to time constraints I was unable to test the quality of the beaches, I can attest to the spectacular azure colour of the water and only wish I had had more time there. Otherwise, having a walk along the Corniche and enjoying the open Mediterranean lifestyle are worthwhile for those who have felt constrained by Middle Eastern life. Unfortunately, however, an I-cannot-imagine-who-came-up-with-it project saw the construction of a vast port alongside the city’s Corniche, blocking from view the Sea and the city’s greatest atmospherical attraction.
Qala'at Salah ad-Din (Saladin Castle)
Perched atop a mountaintop some 40 km from Latakia this crusader citadel offers endless opportunities for exploration.
From Latakia to the Castle
To get to the castle you can hop on the same Service/Microbus which leads to the beaches (Shaati’ al-Azraq) and just continue until you reach the village of al-Haffe. From here you can choose to walk the next few kilometers, hitch-hike or hire a taxi to take you to the citadel. We hitch-hiked all the ascending sections and walked the rest. Just walking will by itself take 1 to 2 hours at least. I advise that you walk at least one of the directions, or hop off once you’ve reached the first point where you can look upon the castle from afar and then hop off. Here you can view the edifice in all its glory, with ruined walls crawling down the mountainside and the more intact remains off in the distance.
You might even, like us, have the luck of running into some local herders and spend some minutes playing with the animals.
Entering the Castle
On approaching the citadel you are right from the outset confronted with one of the inexplicable delights of the castle. In their efforts to fortify the structure, the crusaders in what I can only call and absolutely crazy endeavor dug an entire gorge around the mountainside, leaving the castle completely remote atop a hill. One lonely pillar remains in the gorge, providing what was once the necessary support for the drawbridge.
The Most Intact Section
Once inside you are immediately in the most well-preserved sections. Though most of the structure remains in ruin, there are large sections still intact at this end of the citadel.
Climbing and Making Your Way Along the Walls
As you have explored the chambers and headed around the walls towards the top of the keep where you can look upon the spare remains of the walls climbing down the mountain in front you, there is a small hill behind you with ruins that look upon the entirety of the castle in any direction. The pictures shown above of the “Intact Remains” are taken from up there. In the other direction lies this:
When you have head all around and are again on the side where you entered the castle, it is possible to find a small trail leading down to the walls which crawl down the mountainside. From the top it seems that you cannot get to them, and indeed I overheard one of the guides explaining that he had never made his way down there. Thus I made up my mind that I must. And worth it it was! There is a little chapel down there, great vegetation, and splendid views. I even found an almost secret stairway leading to the roof of one of the structures.
The wild vegetation around the castle greatly intensifies the experience of any visit…especially during spring when every flower and tree is blooming. Here is a small sample.
An ancient city dating back some 8,000 years and reaching its height around the 15th and 14th Centuries BC, Ugarit is today naught much more than the foundational remains of vast sections of its ancient city. The façade of the ancient Royal Palace is the only recognizable edifice remaining in the city, which due to its flourishing trade with Egypt was established as the world’s first international port city. Most famously on this site was the discovery of tens of thousands of tablets in the library of the old temples, giving rich evidence of the city’s political, social, and religious life. The Ugaritic alphabet was the most striking of the discoveries, which not only offers us the world’s oldest “modern alphabet” (with symbols representing sounds instead of the pictorial hieroglyphs of the Egyptians or of Sumeria’s cuneiform), but even orders in the same order as our more known alphabets (alpha, beta, delta, gamma, etc…aka. A, B, C, D, etc.). It offers some light on just how little we actually know about the origins of our own civilization. Though the main attractions such as the Ugaritic tablets and the frescoes are now in various museums, the walk around the area is still well-worth it, especially during spring, if only because it offers light and ruins in a form which is not the more common Roman or Greek style.
Going to Tartous the Banyas and Qala’at al-Marqab Way
As we left Latakia for Tartous we decided to make the detour to visit the country’s third-most famous Crusader Castle, near the oil-refining town of Banyas, necessitating a quick pit-stop and change of bus here. We could not make out much of the town itself, though it made a beautiful view from atop the castle above. All we saw of the town was a small river and a pretty mosque. To get to the castle take ask the locals for the Service/Microbus that lehttp://www.travellerspoint.com/my_blognewentry.cfm?blogid=28690ads up the hill towards the Qala’a. At least on the way down it is possible to hitch-hike most of the way, but the prices are negligible anyways (under half a Euro). The castle itself is not as immense and well-preserved as Crac des Chevaliers, but is more strikingly located and at least a third of it is in a great state of preservation.
The castle above and a short excursion to a nearby hill
Once you reach the ramparts and entrance to the castle, you can either pay the entrance fee and enter or take a small trip a bit further along the road and climb the nearest small hillside to get a bird’s eye view of the structure with the mountains and the Mediterranean in the background. I ran this trip from the restaurant outside the castle walls, and the trip, taking pictures, and return took me 20 minutes, though if you walk, it would likely be the double.
Exploring the Castle
The castle itself is well worth exploring, and the main sections of preserved rooms, courtyards, towers, chapels, corridors, and halls lie to the right as you enter the castle. You can get onto more or less any roof and into almost every tower. There must be 10 to 20 large chambers or halls which served a variety of purposes in the past. The chapel, though currently undergoing some reparation, houses the world’s largest remaining Crusader chapel frescoes. Through a bit of sneaking and climbing, I managed to get my glimpse of it nonetheless. Another plus of this castle are the very helpful notices posted in Arabic, English, and French at most noteworthy stops.
The views from the castle, the countryside around, and the Mediterranean
One of the main attractions of this castle is to give a great setting to viewing the Mediterranean Sea and the surrounding mountains. See for yourself:
Old City and Crusader Basilica
Tartous was once the fortified crusader city of Tortosa, but was first settled by those living on the ancient Kingdom-island of Arwad lying just a few kilometers off the coast and providing the country’s only island. Now the remnants of the ancient crusader city are few, but give the old city a definitive charm as you walk through what has obviously led to modern families taking residence and molding the citadel of old into modern dwellings as laundry hangs from every battlement window. Outside the ancient citadel is the old Crusader Basilica/Cathedral of Our Lady of Tortosa. The Corniche here, not blocked by a port like that of Latakia’s, is endlessly superior to the one found in its sister city to the North. There is also a nice park right next to the Qadmous Bus station which takes you back to Damascus. Everything is within a short walking distance of eachother…Tartous is a small city, with the highlights covering an even smaller niche.
Arwad is Syria’s only island, and though these days it houses an impoverished population amidst narrow and littered streets, it was once a powerful Canaanite island kingdom settled by Phoenicians. Remnants of the old Phoenician city wall still straddle the coastline of the old island. In the age of the Crusaders, Arwad became their last stronghold as the Franks were pushed further and further away from Jerusalem. This heritage is now only visible in two towers/forts, the largest and only accessible one of which is in the centre of the island…but be careful to take the correct path leading there, or you will easily get lost in the narrow streets despite the compactness of the island. Boat building appears to be the local industry, and one can witness the inhabitants working hands-on on the hulls and masts of soon-to-be ships all along the coastline.
Links to other entries
If you are interested in knowing more about other places to visit in Syria, I have several other blog entries covering other regions.
All of Syria: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/
Part I - Damascus and Introduction to the Country: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/3/
Part II - The South (Bosra, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/4/
Part III - Damascus Countryside (Ma'aloula, Seydnayya, Deir Mar Musa, Bloudan, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/5/
Part IV - The Road to Palmyra (Tadmor): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/6/
Part V - Central Syria (Crac des Chevaliers, Homs, Hama, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/7/
Part VI - Aleppo Governorate (Syria's Second Capital): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/8/
Part VII - Euphrates Pt. 1 (Deir Ez-Zor Governorate): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/9/
Part VIII - Meditarranean Coast (Latakia, Tartous,...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/10/