A visit to Marqab Castle

The castle on the hilltop

On a school holiday in the fall, Jeremy and I visited Marqab Castle, an 11th century Crusader stronghold. We took an early bus from Damascus to Tartus, Syria, a port city on the Mediterranean. As soon as we stepped off the bus, the rain, thunder, and lightning started. Luckily, we were able to buy an umbrella from a street salesman for 2 bucks, which had broken by the end of the day. :)

This castle is a little off the beaten path, so we caught a minibus from Tartus to another small town up the coast, Baniyas. The roads were half-flooded, but the driver didn’t mind at all. He was driving so fast that we could actually feel him momentarily lose control of the vehicle each time he plowed through a deep puddle over the highway. Eventually we reached Baniyas and transferred to another minibus that would pass the village around the castle.

It was so cloudy and misty that we didn’t see the castle until we were right below it. It was very stunning. This castle was built from black basalt rock, so it has quite a different look to it than the sandy-colored castles and citadels that we’ve seen so far. It’s perched on top of a steep, green hill overlooking small villages and the Mediterranean Sea. The landscape in the coastal region of Syria is very similar to the Pacific Northwest, except without the fir trees. It was absolutely gorgeous.

The minibus dropped us off at the bottom of a dirt path leading up the hill to the castle. Fortunately, the rains had just stopped, so we started to trek up the path. At the time, we didn’t notice any other path going any other way, although we found out later that there had been.

I should mention here that our guidebook makes a brief, cryptic reference to a certain area surrounding the castle, near the castle graveyard, as being “snake-infested.” That’s all it said. So as the path gradually became less defined and we trudged through increasingly thick foliage and undergrowth, I was keeping an eye out for gravestones, or worse, snakes. Eventually, there really wasn’t any path at all, and Jeremy went ahead to break one. I was getting really nervous about the snakes – it’s not that I’m especially afraid of them, it’s just the mysterious way in which the guidebook mentioned them, with such a startling lack of details, that got my imagination going. It soon became apparent that we were going to end up doing almost a complete circle around the castle before we got to the entrance. In other words, we had somehow taken the wrong path. This also meant that I was sure we must have walked through the snake-infested graveyard at some point.

Finally, exhausted and little muddied, we reached the entrance and paid the 20 cent admission fee (the student price). The castle was very beautiful and quite romantic, in the historical sense of the word. Plus, we were the only people there. The weather had cleared up during our hike and so we had wonderful panoramic views over the Mediterranean Sea and surrounding countryside.

One of the things that I love about the sites in Syriais how untouched and un-touristy they are. There are no labels or signs, and no required route to follow. There are also no ropes or guardrails keeping you away from ancient uncovered wells or sudden crumbly dropoffs. You are simply left to explore responsibly for yourself. We found some old staircases up to the top of the castle’s tower and enjoyed the gorgeous views. In America, it seems like anything of any historical interest is roped off into oblivion so that you can hardly get close enough to appreciate it. In Syria, they let you climb all over it and really appreciate their amazing historical heritage.

By this time, it had started raining again, so we made our way down (the right way, this time, which took all of 3 minutes instead of 1 hour) and caught a minibus or two back to Tartus. We had planned to see Krak des Chevaliers that same day, but it was getting late so we decided to just see the Old City of Tartus instead. We started walking down the street towards what we thought was the sea, but Jeremy decided to ask a passerby, just to make sure. And of course, it being Jeremy, he manages to randomly ask the one guy who has lived in Ukraine for the past 10 years. He answered Jeremy’s Arabic in Russian, and when Jeremy answered back in Russian (we used to live in Moscow), he wouldn’t believe that he was American. He actually had to show him his passport to convince him. Well, this guy dropped whatever he had been on his way to do (it must not have been very important) and showed us around the Old City, speaking Russian the whole time. I have found this to be quite common in Syria - people are usually willing to put aside their own affairs to help out a stranger. A few hours later, after a thorough tour and a cup of tea (zuhurat for us), he left us at the bus station and we hopped on a bus back to Damascus, via Homs. The storm had started up again and so it was an exciting ride back home in a pitch-black, rickety bus that was packed to the brim with passengers.

After having seen many castles in Syria, I think Marqab ends up in second place, inferior only to Salah-ad-Din near Lattakia. Krak is definitely the biggest, most complete, and most famous, but there is just something about these smaller, more isolated, more romantically situated crumbling castles that appeals to our personal tastes.

We never did see a single snake, by the way, which means that all my worrying and fretting about it was for nothing!

You drive me crazy

Ramadan in Damascus