Monday, May 31, 2010

Hitchhiking to Mesopotamia

It is Friday, a bad day for traveling, and in particular hitchhiking as it is the traditional day of rest in Islamic Syria. Not only are there fewer buses and public transportation running because all offices and shops are shuttered, most of the local population are also staying home with their families.

Sticking our thumbs out horizontally, making the internationally recognized (or so we thought) sign for hitchhiking, Laurence, Helen and I are walking along a deserted stretch of country road, about 10km northwest from the town of Abu Kamal along the border of Syria and Iraq. We had just left the ruins of Mari, and we heading west towards Dura Europos. The occasional car or truck going by are speeding past us at breakneck speed, showing no indication that they had seen us, or had any intention to stop. It was mid-day, and the sun was beating down hard. Suddenly, a tractor with several women on board appears out from the fields on the south side of the road. We wave frantically and catch their attention. The women smile and wave back, but they were just crossing the road and heading to the fields on the other side.

It would be another 10 minutes before we finally flag down a truck, by waving up and down with the palm of our hand (which is the customary way to hitchhike in Syria). Running up to the cab, we shout out the name of the town we were heading to in Arabic, and the elderly driver nods and waves us up into the cab.

The ruins of Mari contain some of the oldest and most significant archeological finds of our time. Dating back some 5000 years old, over 25,000 clay tablets have been found here, unlocking the history of the earliest of human civilization. Still an active archeological site, the main ruins are covered under a protective tent, and significant artifacts are still being unearthed.

Sitting high on a desert plateau, the Roman fortress city of Dura Europos, with its imposing gate, overlooks the Euphrates river. From the top of the cliffs, the ruins offer commanding views over the Euphrates, as it meanders gently through the plains below. Beyond the river on the other side, stretching out as far as the eye can see is the fertile valley between the Euphrates and the Tigris – the ancient land of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization!

As it has been since the earliest of human civilization, farms line the Euphrates on both sides of its fertile banks. With the urging of farmers down in the valley waving at us, we climb down a set of cliffs to the fields below. The cool clear waters of the river seem so inviting under the sweltering heat of the Syrian desert, but our intention to strip down and jump in was cut short when the caretaker of the ruins (who had been following us) shows up suddenly and sternly instructs us to get back up as tourists were not allowed down on the farms.
How the whole incident played out was a little odd, and we were practically escorted back to the gate by the caretaker. My assumption is that with the border of central Iraq (that is closed to foreigners) just over 20km away, they did not want foreigners wandering off the beaten path and interacting with the local farmers in the area.
The area around eastern Syria is well off the main tourist path, and aside from a few backpackers, there are not a whole lot of foreigners in the area. This is also the area where the United States government have alleged that the Syrian authorities have been supplying insurgents in Iraq with weapons and ammunition. My travels through eastern Syria and along the Euphrates however have only been met with the open arms of Syrian hospitality – from the friendly men at the coffee shops, to the farmers, and especially the truck drivers who picked us up and brought three hitchhikers safely to our destination.


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