Mar. 25, 2008

Historical Tourism*

(Above: A naive and happy tourist in the Syrian desert;
Below: The closest I'll ever get to Iraq)

*Alternative titles for this post: How I Was Scammed in Palmyra; The Longest Post I Have Written in a Long Time; Why Ruins Are Less Interesting Than Real Cities; Our Unnecessarily High Tolerance for Big, Heavy Blocks of Old, Carved Rock; The Relative Merits and Detractors of Camels as a Mode of Transportation; Proof That Reflection is Preferable to Narratives of My Experiences in Syria.

When discussing housing for students in southern Ontario, my dad often jokingly claims he would be very happy as a slumlord to charge inflated prices for lousy apartments. Well dad, if you want to be a slumlord and laugh all the way to the bank on a monthly basis, then I want to work in a tourist town selling overpriced novelties to suckers on a daily basis.

These are the words of an embittered tourist. The short story: I paid the equivalent of one hundred Canadian dollars for a four-hour camel ride in a country where a fifteen-minute taxi ride costs fifty cents and a shwarma is under a buck.

It was only at 8 am on the first day of my five-day weekend that I received a call from a fellow Canadian teacher asking me if I wanted to accompany him and his wife on a three-day trip to Palmyra, which Lonely Planet calls “Syria’s prime attraction and one of the world’s most splendid historical sites.” Since my weekend plans had been fluid to begin with, it was a matter of minutes before I was packing my bags for a little road trip into the Syrian desert. We arrived in Palmyra after a four-hour drive and just in time to view the ruins as the sun was setting. Before we sat down to dinner, our innkeeper, who ran a somewhat questionable establishment, introduced us to a fellow who would take willing tourists on a camel ride past the ruins and into the desert to have breakfast with a Bedouin family before returning via the oasis beside which Palmyra is situated. We paid S£3000 ($60 CAN) in advance, and our inquiries as to the remaining payment were met with the response “Just a little bit more.”

Why should I have worried? I was traveling with a couple who, despite only having lived in Syria for six months, knew their way around Aleppo better than many of the Syrian teachers at the school in which I am teaching; furthermore, they proved themselves effective bargainers as we went through the different shops that evening. Both John and Wain (Yep, that’s her name. It was a constant struggle to avoid making John Wayne comments during our time together.) effectively and repeatedly brought venders down to sixty, fifty, and even forty percent of the original asking price through effective haggling. If they were not worried about having a price nailed down, who was I to argue?

(Our fearless leader, aka An accomplice in the scam)

As I discovered at 5 am the following morning, camels are a comfortable mode of transportation for approximately fifteen minutes, and this quantity diminishes as the camel’s speed increases. We rode out into the freezing desert as the sun rose behind our backs, but since I was more concerned with staying warm and atop my hump-backed steed, it proved particularly difficult to turn around and capture the ruins against the first light of the day. After riding for a little less than two hours, we broke our fast with a meal of flat bread, olives, pickled peppers, and apricot jam in the tent of a Bedouin family. While I definitely questioned whether invading this family’s home was a responsible choice or not, I was grateful for their hospitality and the opportunity to stretch my legs by playing some soccer with the two boys living in this particular tent. I even got a laugh out of the entire family when I was putting my kufeyya back on. Upon returning to our camels, our guide led us through more of the desert and then into the oasis. It was beautiful but way, way, WAY too long a camel ride. Of course, when we finally arrived at our stopping point and John informed me that we still needed to pay another S£7000 ($140), I knew two things: that we had indeed been taken for a ride in more ways than one, and that Palmyra would never be a place fondly-remembered.

(Top: Two soccer-playing champions;
Middle: Worst form of transportation ever;
Bottom: Okay - so you can get some pretty impressive pictures)

Palmyra reminds me of Niagara Falls. In both instances, I navigated though dozens of tourist traps, souvenir shops, and over-priced hotels to arrive at the attraction I had actually come to see, and in both instances I found myself wondering if these sites garnered more praise and hype than they actually deserved. The Falls are impressive, but I would not return more times than absolutely necessary. The same is true with Palmyra – I would not try convincing somebody to visit this ancient city unless she or he was going to be in Syria for more than five days. Don’t get me wrong – there is something incredible about standing in the ruins of a city predating the Roman Empire, but… what is left of that city is only the briefest outline of what once existed. A good deal of what is standing has been roughly re-cobbled together, and in the absence of reliable interpretation, most visitors will take away little more than some neat pictures, a booklet on the history of the site, and an over-priced necklace (unless they bargained successfully).

(Tourists are often followed right to their car by locals trying to sell a variety of trinkets)

I arrived back in Aleppo in the afternoon on Good Friday just in time to get changed, start a load of laundry, ride a taxi downtown (all by myself), and meet another teacher to watch the Passion processions taking place that afternoon in the Armenian Quarter. The Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Maronite Christian churches hold afternoon services on Good Friday, and each church, led by a small band, servers, and the local bishop, process with a shrouded image of Christ through the square into which each church building faces. Afterwards, we followed the tradition of visiting and saying a brief prayer at seven different churches located in the vicinity.

(Top and Middle: Two pictures of the Roman Catholic scouts playing for their procession into the square;
Bottom: Cross-bearers, servers, and the bishop, who is near the back-right)

When I was having dinner with yet another Syrian teacher (you can tell that I’m being looked after while I am here) that same evening, we ended up talking about how being present at the Passion processions, along with hundreds of other Syrians and Armenians who lived in Aleppo, was so much more meaningful and tangible for me as a visitor in comparison to my trip to Palmyra. Maria and I agreed that Syria comes alive through its people. The history of the country would complement and inform my experience, but it was more important to interact with Syrians or at least people-watch to gain a more genuine and real-life appreciation of the country. This conclusion leads me to think that public historians might want to spend more effort fostering authentic encounters between visitors and host residents rather than only mediating the visitor’s experience through a historical trip and a camel ride. (This is not to say that somebody has given extensive thought to a tourist’s experience of Palmyra but rather that place and history are only two of the many facets by which it is possible to understand a culture)

As a combined result of my own weariness, my “ruin-fatigue,” and my conversation with Maria, I did a very unhistorical thing and decided to cancel a visit planned for the following day to Apamea and a museum filled with ancient mosaics. Instead, for the next two days I slept in a little, finished my laundry, and went on some long walks through Aleppo. I may not be as good as John and Wain at making friends wherever I go in spite of language barriers, but I nevertheless can take pride in finding my way home after getting a little lost and buying groceries all by myself!

I am still incredibly excited to visit the Crusader castles next week. These fortresses, which are more complete than the ruins of Palmyra, will without a doubt be a wonder to behold. Until that time though, I believe that I will very content encountering the living history of the souqs in Aleppo and the people of Syria more generally.

(Note: I owe my readers an apology for both the length of the above post and for the number of posts appearing all at once. The amount of free time has enabled me to reflect copiously upon my experiences in Syria thus far, but the opportunities that I have to actually get my thoughts online are limited. It is likely that few will even read this footnote after having only scanned over the above post. This is the game that I am playing here. Sorry!)