The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          



The Eastern Castle

A well-off man with a European-style leather jacket over his desert clothing signals to us from beside the road. He wants us to pull over. He gestures wildly during the agitated exchanges with Selem, our driver, and Ghassan, our guide, who finally translates what he has said. "He asks if we have seen his camels. They wandered off during the night and he doesn't see them anywhere. This is very serious because if the bedouins find them, they will eat every last one."

We have seen no camels, nor even sheep or goats. This is a very remote road, only paved two weeks earlier, as if in anticipation of our arrival, through the small mud-brick towns of Assoukhneh and Attibeh bound for Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi, "The Walled Castle to the East", 120 kilometers northeast of Palmyra just off the Deir Ezzor highway.

The mysterious and compelling setting, before the paving of the road nearly inaccessible, was once a complete desert city inside a beautiful walled garden of 850 hectares, that enclosed two separate castles, given in their day, despite their remoteness, to pomp, to ceremony, and to ritual piety. The perimeter walls of adobe blocks, 22 kilometers around and designed to keep the herds of the nomads from entering the orchards and gardens, are now completely ruined but the inner walls that define each castle, though badly damaged -- by Mongol raids and repeated earthquakes -- are remarkably intact.

The apogee of the complex dates from the reign of the Caliph Hisham (Ibn Abd al-Malik), of Resafa fame, near the end of the Umeya period. With the ascendance of the rival Abbassid regime from Iraq the once thriving oasis and rich orchards, grain crops and olive groves were left at the caprice of the restless and warlike nomad tribes, who had no interest in the sedentary life. In fact, the companion "Western Castle" was nearly demolished. All of value that remains is an extraordinary doorway, that now serves as the entrance to the National Museum in Damascus.

The earliest construction on the site of "The Eastern Castle", probably a military outpost dating from the first century, was presumed by archaeologists to have been Palmyrene, supported by water channeled from a dam seventeen kilometers to the south. After a failed uprising against the Romans in 273 A.D. the settlement was abandoned, until Justinian passed through on his way to the Euphrates. His troops, and their Arab allies -- that included the hearty and devoted Ghassanid who had moved up from the Hauran, and then moved on to Resafa -- possibly reoccupied the site in 559. The monastery they founded managed to survive, and its remains were integrated into a seventh century mosque that is decidedly reminiscent of the contemporary palace ruins in Anjar, in the Beqaa.

Like most of the "desert castles" this one, too, might have begun as a hunting lodge, but was eventually expanded and improved, and while it became the nominal property of the Caliph the mansion, its lands, its produce and its pleasures, originally belonged to the chiefs of the desert tribes. During the Roman period these were frontier territories at the farthest extremes of the empire, and so they continued into the Byzantine era. Such enormous extensions of "drought-resistant" plainslands, given the proper moisture, were immensely fertile. They could be further enriched by irrigation systems that brought water from the river valleys, which was complemented by ground water and artesian wells, preserved and distributed by way of canals, cisterns, dams, water wheels, aqueducts, and highly innovative drainage systems.

Initially the disputes, between Parthians and Romans, or Sassanids and Byzantines, interfered little, if at all, with life in the desert castles -- as much palaces as fortresses-- but in fact a durable political stability was essential for agricultural production, so the "Pax Arabe" of the seventh and eighth centuries -- capricious to a degree, self-indulgent, dynamic -- became a way of life. A prince, with his nomadic legacy, could hardly be expected to remain at home in Damascus. And so he reveled in his country properties, and was followed from one to the other by his court.

These domains were normally styled, as at Qasr al-heir al-Sharqi, on the square Byzantine plan, protected by round towers in high, fortified, trapezoidal walls and entered through a fortified axial portal giving onto a central courtyard. Variations usually occurred in the remodeling or the expanding of the castle, that might include an additional hall for prayer and meditation, larger baths, new reception rooms. Architecture was necessarily eclectic, in search of its own identity, yet at this period owed much of its idiosyncrasy either to a Roman encampment or to the ubiquitous Byzantine installations, to be found throughout Syria.

Parts of the Qasr al-Sharqi masonry emulated the Byzantine style of alternating layers of stone and brick; additions consisted of finished stone. Brick or block vaulting lifted over stolid, yet graceful, arches. Interiors were on occasion stuccoed. Wall niches were adorned with statuary, complemented by friezes - often of delicately incised stone in patterns based on geometric or botanical motifs, to contrast with geometric or figurative mosaic flooring, and columns with their Corinthian capitals. A fountain, on the other hand, might have been inspired in Persia. The style, termed "local" or "Arabian", is as eclectic as everything else, a blend of Byzantine, Palmyrene, Persian, Mesopotamian, and archaeologists have found only the most mundane objects here. "As opposed to the triumph of synthesis, for example in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, here construction is haphazard and design was left to chance." So say the field notes of the archaeological teams -- initially from the University of Michigan and afterwards the Oleg Grabar project from Harvard -- that worked in the site from 1964 to 1972.

The Eastern Castle, therefore, though deteriorated, serves as both a unique historical monument and an archaeological and architectural oddity. The larger of the two castles measured a generous 167 by 167 meters on the square and was enclosed by 28 cylindrical towers placed at intervals along the thick walls, whose ramparts were gained by neat stairways. The principal gateway, one of four (one in the center of each wall) is today an innocuous rectangular design framed by the remains of two circular towers and a "blind arch". The precinct included a mosque tucked into the southeast corner of the enclosure, luxurious baths, a central cistern with a capacity for three thousand cubic meters of water, storerooms, presses for olive oil, and dwellings in twelve different blocks along grid-pattern streets.

Two round towers faced in brickwork and decorated with a Mesopotamian frieze -- probably added after the mid-eighth century -- frame the solitary entrance to the smaller of the two castles, forty meters to the east of the larger structure, and originally connected to it by a footbridge. The enclosure measures seventy by seventy meters on the square and is surrounded by walls twelve meters high, two meters thick, protected by twelve cylindrical towers.

When we arrived this morning the day was bright. But gradually the light has faded and gone blurry. My photographs have gone from 100 to 200 to 400 ASA. The four young girls from Homs are staying in Palmyra on holiday. They are all cousins on an outing, in a taxi they hired on Palmyra's main street, but their parents have stayed behind. They seem remarkably emancipated, but then, Syria is quite liberal. They follow me around the site, poking with me into the excavations, intrigued with my clothes and our communication through gestures. They hear the distant thunder before I do. Perhaps they are less absorbed than I in the ruins. Excavations at this spot have unearthed a spacious installation involving what were apparently lavish baths, added much after the earlier construction.

This is no ordinary thunder. It crackles like a whiplash, then groans -- an unhappy animal -- while the sound, like the cloud of dust, sand and rain that encloses it, sweeps across the desert plain. The sky is growing slowly black. We have moved inside the smaller castle, definitely a palace complex, private as opposed to the public spaces in the larger, adjacent castle, but though roofs and upper levels have long since collapsed and the construction is open to the sky the daylight is gone. I am shooting on 800 film.

Much of the original construction has been altered by a rather arbitrary archaeological consolidation. The purpose was to keep the ruins from further collapse but in the process the natural lines, shapes and styles have been obliterated. Columns have been upended at random, arches and doorways bricked in, reinforcements put in place but confected of alien materials. We are now facing what were probably the stables and guardhouse. The sky overhead is completely black and the light has gone, yet the four girls continue to pose, like fashion models, among the broken columns, the mutilated arches and architectural debris. They are hoping I can send copies of the pictures to their homes. They write out their addresses in my notebook.

Between the two castles stands an independent structure, allegedly the third oldest minaret in Islam. "It used to be twice as tall," says a boy from the village, who has willingly posed for me along the ramparts and on the stairways, "but after the Abbassids occupied the site they improvised a military garrison, and the minaret was damaged." Details of defensive architecture attest to this particular construction phase, that lasted through the tenth century. By the eleventh century the site had been abandoned to the desert tribes, to the sand and the wind. After the Mongol raids of the thirteenth century, that demolished the castle, the desert city was never again inhabited.

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