Aleppo had proved to be a superb host city, but this did not stop us from going on a couple of full on day trips by private taxi.
First up was St Simeon’s Monastery, some 30km north. St Simeon is the guy who legend has it was driven up the pole! Simeon the Stylite lived for 37 years in the 5th century on top of a one metre square platform atop a 15 metre high pillar.
He had already lived in solitude for many years beforehand, but took to the pillar to escape all the curious pilgrims who visited him to ask for advice.
The monastery was built on the site also in the 5th century and is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine churches. Enough was still intact to get an excellent idea of how things had looked hundreds of years before.
The whole site looked splendid in the warm Spring sunshine with many colourful wild flowers dotted about.
The views down from the monastery were also impressive and we joked that maybe Simeon had just scampered up his pillar when he had seen people approaching from afar!
Whilst there we met Syrian twin sisters and their friends, who then proceeded to ask us to photo them on several occasions. We didn’t mind of course and got our own shot too for posterity!
The sisters acted as our interpreters for hiring the taxi driver again for the following day to take us to two famous castles…………
We sat in the taxi for a couple of hours passing through generally barren lands before after 100km, Qal’at Najm honed into view.
The castle (qal’at in Arabic) was positioned high up on the right bank overlooking the Euphrates River. The vegetation here was noticeably lusher due to the proximity to the water and consequently the sparse livestock somewhat fatter than we had seen before.
Like the Citadel of Aleppo, the entrance was characterized by a ramp and a massive gate with four bends, designed to make it difficult for an invading force to charge up into the battlements.
The castle was well preserved and great for scrambling around, but it was the location that was the real winner.
The blue waters of the Euphrates and the equally deep blue sky made for a wonderful setting. Hamish was only too glad to pose in some pretty hair-raising places. Rather him than me!
Nearly three hours and 150 km later we arrived at our second castle, Qal’at Ja’bar. We were now a lot closer to Raqqa than Aleppo, on the banks of Lake Assad. The castle was reached by boat, a great way to arrive.
The setting was more memorable than the castle itself, not that we did not have fun once more clambering around.
I guess we were also mindful that we had over three hours to make the 170 km journey back, so we did not hand around too long before summoning our boatman to take us back.