Castles and Cathedrals

St. Simeon Basilica:
Built by Emperor Zenon 1500 years ago to honor St. Simeon, who was famous for having lived atop pillars for forty years preaching to his students, the Cathedral was enormous and well preserved. Ali took us in his three-wheeled motorcycle, which was awesome. It was the only time in weeks that I was able to forget the pain in my neck. We stopped along the way to visit another Byzantine Cathedral.

As we rode back to Aleppo at the end of the afternoon, we passed a man on a motorcycle wearing a white robe and checkered red scarf, with a machine gun slung across his shoulder. I looked surprised, and they assured me that it was quite normal. In fact, Ali then reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a small gun and tried to hand it to me. I declined – it made me nervous! Abdul-Hamid and Ali then tried to convince us that we absolutely needed one if we were to continue traveling – for self-defense. To cross the borders, we could simply put it down our pants, they said! Ali even offered to give us one, if we wanted it. Thanks, but no thanks.

Crac des Chevaliers:
The most famous castle of the Middle Ages, on top of a volcanic crater up a steep, steep road. The castle saw two centuries of bloody warfare between the Arabs and Franks. It once had 2000 soldiers; when the Crusaders lost Jerusalem, they no longer needed the fortress and gave it up in 1271. It was never actually captured.

It is THE site to see in Syria, along with Palmyra. There are fortified ramparts, a moat, small windows just large enough for warfare, including a spot where hot oil could be thrown onto the invading men below. There were soldiers barracks, a kitchen with an enormous chimney, rooms with still-existing huge clay pots used for oil and wine, rows of toilets lining the walls of one room, a cathedral with arches that was turned into a mosque, knights’ rooms. There is a war chamber on top of the castle where the king made war plans. There are princess’ rooms and long, narrow passageways around the exterior walls of the castle – “secret” passageways stumbled onto by Stephane.