Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2007
Issue No. 861
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

To the Levant by road

Nothing is faster than flying, but nothing is more thrilling than travelling overland. Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he sets out on wheels, rails and water from Cairo to Damascus

Click to view caption
The Ummayid Mosque, one of the major tourist attractions in Damascus

If this is rightly called planet earth, then, hypothetically speaking, anywhere on this earth can be reached by means of overland and across-sea transportation. As simple as the idea may appear, I decided to give it a try. Talking to my friends while sipping mint tea at an old traditional Cairene café, their reactions varied from, "why take days when I can reach it in a matter of hours?" or "good idea, but I certainly wouldn't go for it," or "you want me to sacrifice the comfort of an aeroplane! No way!" Well, all the comments are valid one way or another. Indeed, I can buy myself a plane ticket and reach Damascus in a couple of hours. At the same time, I can spend more or less the same amount of money and reach Damascus in a few days. Not to mention the augmented effort that needs to be exerted; travelling endless hours, going through two border crossings and actually cutting through a whole country -- Jordan. Then why?! It's the thrill, the adventure, the unknown of what lies on the road waiting to be discovered; even if it's just a personal discovery. It is the enjoyment of the journey.

With the very first feeble ray of light one Friday morning in March, I turned on my car engine, placed a good amount of coffee to my right and put on some chill out music. I had all car-related checks done a day or two earlier and had arranged my entire luggage in the back the night before. Though they weren't much, I didn't want to waste any time in the morning. Choosing the day is important. Since it was a Friday, there wasn't much traffic on the road from Cairo to Suez. I took the Ahmed Hamdy Tunnel that runs for 1.64km under the Suez Canal, connecting Egypt's mainland to Sinai. Once in Sinai, there are two main routes to get to the ferry to Jordan in Nuweiba; taking the coastal road around the southern tip of the peninsula, passing by Al-Tur, Sharm El-Sheikh and Ras Mohamed National Park as well as Dahab. Indeed, it is a little bit longer, especially when compared to the alternative. Nonetheless, it is very amusing, courtesy of the amazing places you pass by. As discovering Sinai was not on my agenda for this trip, I opted for the much shorter, yet with little to see route -- Nekhel Road. Cutting through Sinai, it takes you straight to Nuweiba.

There is a daily ferry, leaving around noon time, from Nuweiba to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. To be more accurate, there are two ferries every day of the week, except for Saturdays, when only one operates. As there are so many different names of the two types of ferries, and in order to avoid any possible confusion, let's stick to the faster and the slower. The slower takes around three hours in duration with a much larger loading capacity when compared to the faster one. The Nuweiba-Aqaba maritime route is a very important link between Egypt and Jordan, especially when it comes to trade. Having said this, expect containers and large trucks along with cars and passengers. The faster ferry, on the other hand, offers an appreciated level of comfort, with trip duration cut down to a little less than an hour, though its ticket price is by all means not your cheapest option. With no particular need to add a few hours of waiting while the slower ferry loads and unloads its seemingly endless cargo, I parked my car at a friend's place and opted for the faster. Not the least minding the extra money spent, I enjoyed the scenery of the Red Sea while relaxing on the comfy chair, as the faster ferry briskly cruised through the Gulf of Aqaba.

Jordan's only seaport is a 24/7 sleepless city that thrives on trading. Located on the crossroad of several ancient trade routes connecting Africa, Asia and Europe, Aqaba was first established as a settlement with the name of Edomite around 4,000 BC. Its importance to trade lingers to our present time with the city being declared a free trade zone, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), in August 2000. This little strip squashed between the mountains and the sea enjoys a vitally important strategic location. While Saudi Arabia is less than 25km to the south, both Egypt and Israel are within sight. Tired from my journey, I looked for a decent budget hotel for the night. After checking in, I hurriedly went down as I was dying for a hot meal of my favourite Jordanian dish -- mensaf, something like Egyptian fatta that includes rice, bread and lamb.

Enjoying a good night's sleep, I woke up the next day fairly early. After all, I had a bus to catch. Jordan Express Tourist Transport (JETT) runs five trips on a daily basis, a comfortable air-conditioned bus that takes about four hours to reach the Jordanian capital for a fare of four Jordanian dinars (JD). Local buses run on irregular timings, hitting the road only when filled. They are way less comfy and may cover the distance in a good six to seven hours, and for no less than JD3. So, I was at the station at around seven with JD4 in hand, waiting for my JETT bus to take me to Amman.

Some 223km is the distance one needs to go from Amman to Damascus, and there are three different means of transportation: train, bus and service taxi. At the beginning of the last century, the Turkish sultan, the Egyptian khedive and the Iranian shah all together paid a total $16 million to fund the Hejaz Railway. A 1,308km railway that connects Damascus to Medina in Saudi Arabia, and passing through Amman, it had its first train journey from the Syrian capital on 1 September 1908. Today, some of the train carriages running between Amman and Damascus are the original ones, and travelling in such an antique is exquisite, to say the least. Nonetheless, there are a number of facts you need to be fully aware of before buying your train ticket. The twice-a- week train is slow; we are talking about 30km an hour which translates into reaching Damascus in about nine to 12 hours. Not a lot of people know that this train even exists, so please don't depend on asking people. Go to the station an hour before the train departs. It's scheduled for Mondays and Thursdays at 8am. Also, this is not a direct train; you have to change trains in Deraa, Syria. As such, 99 per cent of travellers opt for the bus or service taxi.

Three daily bus trips run between the two capitals. As the JETT bus departs Amman at seven in the morning, a Karnak bus belonging to the Syrian state bus company departs Damascus in the opposite direction. The fare is around JD6 with a trip duration of about four hours. However, one drawback looms: the border crossing. If for one reason or another there is a visa problem with just one of the bus passengers, the whole bus is delayed. As I didn't want to risk time wasted in waiting, I went for a service taxi. All you need to do is go to Abdaili bus station in Amman and look out for those hollering " sham ". This is the word the people of the Levant use when referring to Damascus. The trip is around three hours, and don't worry, you do not need to push the driver to go faster. To him, time is money and he wouldn't mind if he was driving a Formula One type of taxi.

Service taxis hit the road once they have five passengers on board with JD8 being the per passenger fare. If you don't wish to be squeezed next to a stranger in the front seat, buy the empty seat; the driver won't care less. You still risk delay at the border crossing in case one of the passengers has a visa issue, but the probability is minimised with the service taxi whose passengers total five at max.

Three hours of beautiful scenery and at last the city greeted me with its unfathomable scent. Damascus may falsely look like any other city, but whoever said that all women look alike is just a big fool. Cities are not the same -- no two look alike. Whether you agree or not, Damascus lures the wondering traveller into its endless labyrinth of charms. Close your eyes and enjoy the scent, the scent of history.

Somewhere between 8,000 BC to 10,000 BC humans built the very first settlement that over the centuries grew into the fully-fledged city we know today. Conquerors came, conquerors went and countless events and endless episodes flipped the pages of the city's history. Nonetheless, in none of its chapters, was Damascus abandoned; it has always been inhabited. Thus it is worthy of the distinctive title, that of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The arrival of the Aramaens from the Arabian Peninsula marked the primary mention of Damascus in history books. In the centuries to follow, it was part of the ancient province of Amurru in the Hyksos Kingdom, which fell in 572 BC to the Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar, just to be captured by Cyrus the Great of Persia 34 years later. Alexander the Great swept through the Middle East capturing Damascus along the way. But after his death, the city witnessed the struggle between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires, with the two powers alternating control of the city. It finally reached its zenith in the seventh century, shortly after the Arab conquest in 636 AD. Muawiyah Ibn Abi Sufyan established the Umayyid Empire stretching from India all the way to Andalusia in Spain. He named Damascus his imperial capital. For almost a century or as long as the Umayyid Empire lasted, Damascus was the focal point of the entire empire, being a centre of scholarly studies and art as well as architecture. In ancient times, cities were built surrounded by walls that acted as fortifications, and Old Damascus was no exception. Though parts of the original wall are gone, the Old City gates are still standing, from Bab Al-Faraj (Gate of Deliverance) to Bab Sharqi (Eastern Gate) and onward to Bab Touma (Thomas Gate), not to mention an incredible set of palaces, mosques, churches and schools. Topping the list is one of the most spectacular and largest mosques in the world, the Umayyid Mosque.

I personally like to visit mosques whenever I am travelling to another country; not for religious reasons but for the represented architecture styles and the aura each mosque creates. The Umayyid Mosque radiates a peculiar feeling of welcome. You don't have to be a Muslim to sense it, for the reason is not in its purpose but rather its identity. Spacious and grandiose, it was built on the order of the Umayyid Caliphate Al-Walid between 706 AD and 715 AD. By far it is one of the most impressive pieces of architecture the Umayyids had left. In addition to its architectural beauty, the Grand Mosque of Damascus, as it is sometimes called, is of sacred importance to other religions. It encloses the Shrine of John the Baptist (Prophet Yehia), regarded as an honoured prophet by both Christianity and Islam. In 2001, Pope John Paul II paid the mosque a visit, mainly to see the shrine and its associated relics. Right next to the mosque lays the shrine of the one of a kind Muslim leader, Saladin. Kurdish-born Saladin established the Ayyoubid Dynasty, defeated the Crusader states at the Battle of Hattin and captured Jerusalem in 1187. A chivalrous knight, he was respected by his friends as well as foes. Records state that the Arab leader offered medical care to his bitter rival King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) of England when the latter was wounded in the Battle of Arsuf. When Saladin's personal treasury was opened after his death on 4 March 1193 AD, it did not have enough money to cover his funeral.

Old Damascus never ceases to surprise me. Going from one place to another, you can never guess what's around the corner. The House of Ananias is an underground chapel located at the end of Bab Sharqi (Eastern Gate). When visiting, a shiver of reverence rushed down my spine. The Azem Palace is another monument not to be missed. Built in the mid-18th century by the Ottoman ruler at the time, it reflects an architectural cross- over between Arabic and Turkish styles. The Museum of Popular Arts and Tradition is definitely worth a visit because of the priceless pieces it holds. Al-Adiliyah School, Shrine of Bilal Al-Habashi, Sayeda Roukiyah Mosque, Bab-Kissan's Church and much more; the list can go on for pages. Picture Old Damascus as Ali Baba's Cave, filled with an endless array of monuments.

Souq is the Arabic word for market, and it would be rather impossible to venture in or out of the Old City without passing these life-rich sites. Each comes with its specialty of goods, so if you want to look for quaint little fruits, medicinal herbs or confectionery, you head to Souq Al-Abzourieh. On the other hand Souq Medhat Basha is renowned for its textiles, silk cloth, woollen cloaks, headbands and skull caps. Beating all is the famous Souq Al-Hamidiyeh where you can literally buy everything and anything, from tissues to leather-work, from ice-cream to local handicraft and from jeans to mosaics and hand-made rugs. Bargaining is the name of the game, so be patient and come well equipped with all negotiating skills as well as a wallet full of money, not because it's expensive, but for the endless variety of goods. Stopping the shopping fever will surely need effort.

After a full day of visiting monuments and sightseeing, one longs for a good meal and a hot bath, and Damascus is the place for both. The renowned Syrian cuisine offers a tantalising menu, with shawerma and Oriental baked goods topping the list. The concept of public baths is fairly common in Syria in general and Damascus specifically; with a number of baths scattered all around the city, especially in Old Damascus and the district of Souq Sarouja. Most of the baths have separate hours for males and females, while some are gender dedicated. The flat fee includes utilising the main bath area as well as the steam room, while extra services, like a rub down, can be added for a premium.

Some argue it's the destination; others vote for the journey. If you ask me, it's neither. It's the two combined.

Traveller's notes

- The Arab Bridge Maritime Company runs the ferries connecting Egypt and Jordan. For more information go to www.abmaritime.com.jo.

- Neither Jordan nor Syria require a visa for Egyptian nationals. But if the "Your Occupation" part in your passport does not reflect a well defined job (i.e. administrative officer at XYZ company vs administrative officer), the border officer may ask for a letter from your employer certifying your exact job title. In case of its absence, you may risk being refused admission.

- At the time we went to press, the exchange rate against the Egyptian pound (LE) was as follows: One Jordanian dinar (JD) = LE7.96, and one Syrian pound (SYP), commonly known as the Syrian lira = LE0.11.

- Though Jordan grants a tax exempted entry visa, there is a JD5 exit tax that must be paid by all travellers staying in the country for more than 24 hours. Travellers in transit, with transit duration less than 24 hours, are exempted.

- The Nuweiba-Aqaba ferry can be skipped all together for the much shorter Taba-Eilat-Aqaba route. Note that Syria does not allow any travellers with an Israeli stamp on their passports.

- The JETT office in Amman is at Shmeisani at the 7th circle, while in Aqaba it's at Al-Nahda Street. JETT phone numbers in Jordan are +962 6 562 2430, fax +962 6 560 5005. The following is the bus schedule connecting Aqaba to Amman:

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