After nearly two weeks in Aleppo it was time to wave goodbye this morning to our good friends at the Hotel al-Gawaher. We had so many wonderful evenings cooking, chatting, dancing and sipping wine that we really had started to feel truly at home. Time flies when you’re having fun and it was only the expiry date on our Iranian visa ticking ever closer that forced us to finally start making our way north. The countryside around Aleppo is quite beautiful and we truly had a perfect day for cycling as we rolled through tiny villages and past some amazing archaeological sites. It was Friday so the roads were almost deserted and the winter sun was shining surprisingly strong on our backs. Our poor maps were the only glitch we had to deal with. We had three different ones and none of them seemed to match what actually existed on the ground so we flagged down more than a few cars to ask the way.
At midday we arrived at a ruined palace and lunched beside picnicing families. One lovely English-speaking family befriended us and brought us nuts and chocolates while we chatted. After the usual small talk the mood turned sober as the call to prayer rang out over the hillside, its tone and message reflecting yesterday’s assassination of the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. The previous afternoon we’d heard a particularly long afternoon call to prayer which we were told was a response to Bhutto’s death and the mourning of so many people.
“We are very sad,” the family told us, saying how worried they were about how things would now develop in Pakistan. “We are sure Musharaf killed her,” they added, reflecting what seems to be a common belief among many people here and in Pakistan. We are upset too by the assassination and we know that it is now almost certain we will not be able to go to Pakistan in the spring as we’d hoped. Things are just too volatile at the moment.
With our minds somewhat elsewhere, we continued on past rocky fields and olive groves towards the famous Saint Simeon basilica. The complex was built in honour of a devout man who spent much of his life standing on pillars on this hilltop. After he died in 459 AD the basilica was built in his memory and pilgrims came from all over to see where he’d stood for so many years. Much of it is still preserved and it’s truly impressive.
The winter days are short so after we finished our tour of the basilica we hightailed it down the hill and around to one side where we found an olive grove to camp in. The mild day soon turned into a chilly night and our fluffy sleeping bags were very much appreciated!