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Wild nights in the Syrian desert

Conflict defining its borders, a Government sliced up by foreign political critiques and corruption has left Syria relatively untouched by the growth of scenic travel tours. It is therefore the perfect place to get off the beaten track and find something new.

Three of us leaped into the back of a jeep, paying a few cents to hitch-hike 20 miles from the city of Raqqa into the ancient, desert ruins of Ar- Rasafeh, in North-Eastern Syria. Choking on the dry desert dust, we watched as the ancient town floated above the sandy horizon, revealing a grandeur of historical ruins.

Ar Rasafeh

Ar-Rasefeh began as a Byzantine church to commemorate St Sergius, who died defending Christianity in the 4th Century. With tides of invaders soaking the desert, it saw the fall of the Basilica and emergence of a Mosque. The third Omayyad Caliph also lived and died in this area during the Muslim Golden age. Enclosed within its battered shell are remnants of this eclectic mix of Muslim and Christian history. Inscriptions in Greek and Arabic cover the remaining fractured walls and pillars, while jade and blue pottery freckles the well-trodden paths. Through the cracks and remains we looked on to a ancient desert settlement, now dormant except to the curious travelers eyes and local nomads.

A small opening peeped up from within ground. Crouching and twisting down miniature stairs a massive storage areas sunk meters beneath the ground. Imagine an indoor football field, two stories high – you can almost breathe the spices and food that were once stored here and sense the significance of the town’s life support, hollowed out beneath the weathered fortress.

Surfacing from the earth we glimpsed the setting sun over the desert horizon, creating a sensation of traveling back before mobiles and television. With no entrance fees or postcard sellers, there is a strong sense of history unbounded by guards nor gates.

As the sun set down, we pitched our tent within a courtyard, the kingdom walls sheltering it from the harsh, desert winds. As the last slice of sun slipped beneath the cracks, a shadow emerged and friendly voice called out, “Salem Alaikum! French, German, English?”
“New Zealanders,” we smartly replied.

Out of the darkness appeared an older Arab man, dressed in casual blue jeans and a rusty colored jumper. “Ah, kiwis, I met some before, they’re funny. Do you know a joke?”

Curious of our camera

This guy has got the wrong kiwis, too fatigued by travel to think up a good cross-cultural joke we stare blankly. Our new friend Mohammad was quite a conversationalist. He spoke  four languages, loved to meet new people, and spent his time travelling the desert, stopping at towns to sell dates – the fruit rather than the matchmaking.
“You want to go to a desert party?” he asked. I did not look the part in my filthy hiking boots and unwashed thermal, but Mohammad would not be deterred.

His desert transportation was a small, covered, wooden platform attached to a motorbike. If you squinted it looked like a modern day chariot, with the horse replaced by a 50cc motor. Fifteen minutes later and various bumps and bruises suffered, a sprinkling of bright lights appeared against the desert sky.

A Bedouin wedding reception was under deep within the sand dunes. There were vibrant  woven rugs in one corner, with plastic sheets attached above for shelter from the wind. Beneath this a number of women sat drinking sweet Arabic tea with children playing amongst their knees. They welcomed us with a mutual language of cheerful hand gestures.

Within the celebration, two freshly wed teens giggled flirtatiously, stealing constant glimpses at each other. Rather than the ancient musical instruments I expected, they had a generator and old sly ghetto-blaster playing Arab pop. We were quickly dragged to the dancing section, my feet thrown into chaos, looking an utter fool as they tried to teach me their own co-ordinated steps. Men took turns in grabbing each woman’s hand to swing them around in a large double circle, and soon us tourists were transformed into the crowd spectacle.

Call that a dance?

Similar to my old school dances, the younger girls congregated at the edge of the circle, giggling and pointing towards boys, too terrified to approach. The prettier and more confident older girls wore decorative gowns, and made up faces, making many boys blush at their feet. I looked shamefully down at my own grubby hiking boots.

We spent a few more hours dancing, drinking tea and laughing, before giving in to sleep within one of their small temporary huts. As I drifted off I could taste the magical sense of the desert that we had earlier passed off as a place now extinct of culture. This was not the Syria the Western media had shown me, nor was it the Syria I feared any more. Rather it is a country soaked in history, containing archaeological and cultural gems carefully pocketed away from much of the world.

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