Deir Ez-Zor City, Mari (Tell Hariir), Dura Europos (Athaar Salhiyeh), Halebiyyeh
The Euphrates and Deir Ez-Zor Governorate
Ever since I came to Syria, I had a fascination with seeing the Euphrates, and entering the Fertile Crescent where human civilization first came into being with the establishment of the Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria - and of course many yet to come. Today the ruins of Mari (Tell Hariir) offers the greatest insight into this most ancient of human settlements. Yet it took me about five months in the country before I actually made my way there...and most travelers miss it completely. Though there is quite some fascination with the river itself, it is too far away from any of Syria's big cities and most people cannot spare the 5-6 hour bus or train ride from Damascus or Aleppo, and if they do they only make a quick journey to stop by Al-Assad Lake in Ar-Raqqa Governorate to see Qala'at al-Ja'abar (Ja'abar Castle) and the famous vista of this castle-island. Yet I discovered that going out-of-your way to visit these two of Syria's poorest governorates is well worth it - if for seeing the fertile land stretching out from the river for miles, the colourfully-clad Bedouin women of the villages, the Roman fortresses, or the ruins of ancient civilizations. The city of Deir Ez-Zor is itself also worth a look.
On my trip to Deir Ez-Zor Governorate, we had planned to use the city to tour the ruins of Dura Europos and Mari, as well as wander through the city's souq. But upon meeting a local man who offered to take us to Halebiyyeh Castle, we agreed to come with him, and found a castle whose remains were as extensive as the best of the country's crusader castles but 1000 years their senior.
Though the stretch of the river offers one of Syria's year-round farming areas, the entire area only lights up, blooms and shows off its true colours during the main agricultural season. I am not completely certain about the dates here, but everyone told us we were about a month early, so March/April would be your best bet for the greatest experience.
Deir Ez-Zor City
We came to Deir Ez-Zor expecting to find poverty all around us. We had heard so much about how little there is there, but instead we found a city much more developed than Damascus. The houses were the first indication of this, with much fewer of the dull gray apartment complexes that clog the capital and much of Aleppo. I guess that that is the oil's doing. After perusing through town for some minutes we headed down the souq/market, which though far less extensive than its sister Souq al-Hamediyya in Damascus, due to the near non-existence of foreign tourists was much more genuinely a place of trade for locals and due to a UNDP renovation project, much cleaner and nicer as well.
During our stay in the town, there were two particular landmarks which locals constantly bombarded us with - the Museum and the Suspension Bridge. We were told on numerous occasions that the museum in town was the country's finest and that all of the few tourists that make it here sing its praises above that of National Museum in Damascus. Unfortunately we never managed to make our way there, so cannot attest to the veracity of this claim, but the suspension bridge over the Euphrates sure was worth it. It offers only a pedestrian walkway across the great river, but is nonetheless a good feat of engineering, and either bank is scattered with restaurants and cafes of differing caliber.
Mari - Tell Hariir
Mari, or Tell Hariir, is the single greatest key to unlocking the secrets of Mesopotamia's and Sumeria's past. My guidebook describes the ruins as not very extensive and in need of some imagination to visualize the city's past, and though this is true, I found that unlike its description of the better preserved ruins at Dura Europos, I highly preferred Mari over the other. This is due to the fact that Palmyra (and several other sites I have visited such as Pompeii, Jerash, Ephesus and Hierapolis) offer plentiful and more extensive Roman sites, whereas Mari's ruins give you knowledge of a completely different civilization - and one much older. Though the Sumerian Civilization itself sprouted about 8,000-9,000 years ago, most of the ruins of the site begins about 6,000 years ago until about 2,400 BC.
At the site itself are a few different layers or sections of ruins. We first headed to the remains of what must have been the remains of old houses and other forms of dwelling. Though it is true that some imagination is needed, several features are immediately evident: a) the building style and b) house components. We saw that houses were made of a sort of mud brick inlaid with hay (pictured below), and noticed everything from staircases to water basins.
After this section there is a covered part of the ruins, which I suppose indicates current excavation work or weather preservation, and containing the remains of Mari's most famous treasure - the Palace of Zimri Lin, one of Sumeria's most famous rulers. Though the palace out-dates him by centuries, it still bears his name. In here there are corridors and even a large throne/ball room of sorts. Though it once had more than 300 rooms, there are maybe 30 still remaining.
Outside the Palace of Zimri Lin is the third and final area of ruins, which includes both houses and an above-ground construction of something that could be everything from a temple alter to an extension of the palace itself (bringing a guidebook might explain this further).
Natural and Human Facets
On our visit, Mari also a few contrasts. On one hand, it seems to be a completely deserted ruin far from any kind of human civilization, until you step over a hill and see a large town behind. Secondly, the fertile Euphrates valley offers splendid natural riches not far away, but unbeknowst to much of the world Syria is currently suffering from an extended drought which is no less obvious upon a visit.
Getting between sights along the river may prove difficult for those who are not traveling with a travel company. There are service/micro buses running between Deir Ez-Zor and Abu Kamal which upon request drops you off near the ruins, necessitating a short walk between them. Thus if you just want to see one sight, getting to it will not prove difficult. From there, however, you might find problems. To catch a new bus you must walk back to the drop off point and wait for a new one pass (which is not too infrequent). The problem, however, is that many of them will already be full with people going all the way from Abu Kamal to Deir Ez-Zor. If you are just one person, the problem is small, but if you are a group, you will be hard pressed to find one to fit you all. So we decided to hitch hike. Though for many hitch hiking in the Middle East sounds dangerous, Syria is a very safe country and I would easily choose to hitch hike here over any place in Europe or America. After about 5 minutes we were picked up by a family with a large van and sat in the back in luxury with three or four of their children - who were all too scared to talk to us, though their parents did their best to prompt them to. We also hitched between Dura Europos and Deir Ez-Zor.
Dura Europos was a Roman city located strategically atop the plateau of the Euphrates. This means that entering the ruins today you have desert/steppe on the entire horizon, and as you walk down to the far side of the ruins you are suddenly faced with a fertile valley stretching as far as the eye can see....quite the shock...especially if this is done before you see the Euphrates in Deir Ez-Zor itself! The most famous section of Dura Europos has been removed and is now in the National Museum in Damascus - the Synagogue full of frescoes. Now most of the ruins are the extensive remains of the city wall, indicating the immensity of the once Roman city, as well as a fortress-type structure overlooking the Euphrates. Another aspect of interest is the tunnel underneath the wall which gives history's first recorded event of chemical warfare when toxic gas was released upon the Romans inside by tunneling enemies.
Though it is mentioned in the Lonely Planet, we really had no idea what was awaiting us when we arrived at Halebiyye. Perched atop a hill overlooking the Euphrates river basin is a seemingly crusader castle with two sets of walls running down towards the river below...and instead of being from the Middle Ages is a thousand years older, serving as Syria's famous Queen Zenobia's summer residence in the heyday of Palmyra's power. It is pure pleasure wandering around the remains and climbing on the remaining fortifications which, from certain viewpoints remind one of the Great Wall of China as they stretch as far as the eye can see.
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/