You immediately fall in love with River Asi (Orontes) the moment you walk along either of its banks. After a brief introduction, you even think it is extending its hands to embrace you as it winds here and there, giving way to you for the plains it cultivated with love fields and rose gardens so that you may enjoy songs and branches. As far as you can see at the Syrian border along North Lebanon, you will stop to read some lines about the past, present and future on the surface of its water.

Our journey began with reading the inscriptions and reliefs on the walls of the Egyptian temples which depict the epic of Kadesh. We travelled further to reach the town of Al-Qusair, to the north of Damascus, near the Syro-Lebanese border, where we stopped to read the lessons of history and enjoy the gifts of geography.

The peace and quiet around resembled the calm before the storm; but the storm had actually blown exactly 33 centuries ago, when Kadesh witnessed a fierce battle before it enjoyed real peace. Kings and Emperors At Queen Hatshepsut's death, Egypt's colonies in Syria had been devastated by battles of independence and separation from the parent kingdom, or joining or alliance with the kingdom of Mitanni, whose power extended from its centre located beyond the Euphrates to the Syrian coast on the Mediterranean. So as Thutmose III came to the throne, he conducted seventeen campaigns in Syria alone starting from 1457 BC expelling the Mitannians beyond the Euphrates and restoring the Egyptian empire in the Old World. Soon afterwards, the kings of Babylon, Assyria and Hatti (in Asia Minor) were keen to be friendly with the triumphant queen and establish diplomatic relations with the victorious pharaoh.

Thutmose III was a typical pharaoh, in terms of his love of imperialism and conquests; however, he was also the defender of juistice, the provider of security and the patron of the people, But his son, who advocated monotheism and changed his name from Amenhotep III to Ikhnaton, contrary to his father, neglected foreign affairs policy, preferring domestic religious affairs. Therefore, the Hittite emperors in the Great Kingdom of Hatti, an area in Turkey today, managed to recapture Syria and reach the key city of Kadesh, which was a stronghold of the Egyptian forces and Thutmose's boast of having conquered it. Local rulers there were double-dealers. In their correspondence with the pharaoh they assured him that they kept their promise, meanwhile assisting the Hittites to capture all of Egypt's Asiatic possessions from Byblos mountain to Ugarit and annex them to the new superpower in the ancient Near East: the Hittile Empire. A few years afterwards, the young king Tut-ankh-atun )Tut-ankh-amun later) asecended the throne, but he died suddenly after only nine years in power, and his powerful widow Ankh-es-in-amun decided not to marry a commoner and sent a message to the Hittite emperor Subilulyuma asking him to send one of his sons to Egypt to marry him and make him king. Surprised, the emperor didn't act accordingly, and instead sent a spy to verify the strange proposal. The proposal, as the spy found out, was real, and so the king was reassured and sent one of his sons. But Ay, who arranged king Tut's funeral, had already been Egypt's king and planned the assassination of the Hittite prince upon his arrival in the country. That crime was a fatal mistake which enraged the Hittite emperor and made him invade Egypt's possessions in Syria. Evil and hatred flared up between the two kingdoms and rivalry over control over Syria grew, and that hostibity continued for 75 years until the reign of Ramses II.

Ramses II had a magical touch; no sooner had he started digging for gold in the Nubian desert than he found it, and no sooner had his men felt thirsty than they found water in the barren desert. He was so successful in all his endeavours that historians described him as a near miracle worker: the one who appointed the right persons to top positions; crushed insurrection skillfully; found water for gold miners; built great temples; restored antiquities successfully. So when he thought up the idea of returning to Kadesh which Ikhnaton and his followrs lost, he expected his magical touch to reach the Hittite empire and began recapturing lost locations one after the other. On the other hand, the Hittite cmperor Mowatallis set out to regain control of Amoro, protect Kadesh and the area around it and deal a severe blow to the young ambitious pharaoh. He prayed to the good in Hatti for help, swearing to offer them generous gifts.

Fortress and Battle Thirty three centuries after that horrific scene we arrived at Kadesh which overlooks a high mound on a tongue of land between River Asi, which runs north crossing the eastern part of the city, and another tributary which flows from the west into River Asi itself, north west of the city. The city's people in these ancient times had dug an artificial canal flowing into the River south of the city, making Kadesh a heavily fortified island. The city was also politically and strategically important because of its proximity to the Biqaa region and was thus a north-east crossing unless the armies preferred to cross the narrow, forbidding coast.

We sat at the western tributary, the same place where Ramses II, his entourage and accompanying Amun division were stationed. The young commander believed he could easily besiege Kadesh, especially as two men who alleged that they broke away from the Hittites told him that the Hittite emperor was in Aleppo to the north, i.e. 120 miles from the pharaoh's camp. Falsely reassured, Ramses II sat on the golden throne in anticipation of victory. But an Egyptian reconnaissance patrol arrested two Hittite spies who confessed that his enemies were only two miles away. Hardly had the young king developed an emergency plan when Hittite military chariots approached him crossing the Kadesh plain.

Imagine the open scene space: chariots rolling like flood behind the infantry units of the advance Ra division fleeing from Hittite wheels and arrows, scattered in the green plain like today's female reapers.

Ramses II found himself alone amid a terrified, defeated army and called his shield carrier: stop where you are. I'll attack them like a hawk's beak. Everything changed only a few hours later as a forgotten group from the Amoro coast provided relief to him and violenldy attacked Hittite chariots and enemy combatants. The Hittite emperor was stunned at the scene of his fleeing chariots. When the Petah division joined Ramses II's army, the Ra division called up their strength as well, and both sides went on counting their casualties.

Early next morning, Ramses II launched a massive assault, but was outnumbered by the Hittites, and the assault was lacking in terms of chariots, and soldiers suffered from their wounds. Both sides realized that a protracted war would result in nothing but further losses, and thus decided to disengage and follow a policy of wait and see.

The wise Mowatallis, who wasted his financial resources on preparing for the Kadesh battle believed that diplomacy was the best means to solve the problem, and he himself had previously experienced peace with King Siti I. He sent a delegation to the pharaoh with proposals for peace, hailing Ramses II's bravery and ending his message: "Peace is better than war!" Ramses II summoned his advisers who supported ceasefire without a pledge for abandoning Kadesh for good. In Ramses II's twenty-first regnal year, (1259 BC) a peace treaty was conducted between the two rivals, putting an end to a century-long conflict over Kadesh, pledging permanent ceasefire and non-aggression and border demarkation with the city being the boundary between the two kingdoms. The treaty built a generation of friendships during which leaders exchanged messages, presents and emissaries. In one of the most famous messages the Hittite emperor requested Ramses II to send some skilled physicians, offering them gifts to motivate them to travel to a different climate (from Egypt to Anatolia).

The history of war is over and the images of peace remain. This lively duality exists today at the town of Al-Qusair, not far from Kadesh, where differences disappear and friendliness prevails. This spiritual tranquility of Muslims and Christians exists not only among neighbours but in death as well. Similarities also include lifestyle, clothes, customs and gatherings. Even names are similar; Christians sometimes name their children Ahmad and Muhmmad. Names revealing religious affliations are rare, in an atmosphere of tolerance, with the Asi forgiving their sins.

History and Memory I wasn't therefore to distinguish between Muslims and Christians as I was in the home of my host Sheikh Makram Jeross and all his guests recounted stories of friendleness and fraternity, as if Al-Qusair had only one artery the Asi in whose blood the cells of joint living and peace fl?w. Kadesh as a symbol of war and peace featured prominently during our talk and we hoped the Syrian government, under a joint project with archaeological expeditions, would fulfil people's aspirations here to rediscover history and revive memory. They hope one day tourists will flock to an area which in their view is the most beautiful and the most neglected. This is how they view the Asi, poplar and willow trees and the tales of thousands of years which nobody listens to. A sense of injustice is common here among the people of this city who are proud of its history which never knew feudalism. You may meet a peasant who owns nothing more than a straw mat but behaves like a prince wandering in a vineyard, apricot, apple, walnut and fig orchard or wheat and potato fields and is generous enough to donate everybody from the bounties of his land... an old habit never affected by years of drought.

Everybody is interested in the history of their heroes who shared in the great Syrian revolution and in the struggle against French mandate wishing to find reference to them is school books and newspapers and on television. Entering the library of engineer Muhammad Mohib Eddin (Abu Hassan), we were received by firmans and manuscripts and the first issues of some newspapers and rare magazines. We were almost lost among numerous books, volumes and documents, starting with a four-century-old family tree the length of the alley he was born in. He allowed us to hold one end of the tree and he held the other which probably reached the birth place of his grandfathers born in Kadesh or around it. The document was initiated by the grandfather who worked in land zoning at Al-Qusair and was responsible for collecting incoming mail at Josiah on the Lebanese border. Abu Hassan said: "I have a document written by the grandfather of the poet Muhammad Walid Al-Masry who was the only literate person here 150 years ago. He came here as an Ottoman soldier and, like others, decided to stay." He continued: "One of the rarest documents I exhibited at a national document exhibition was one writter by the inhabitants of Hama requesting that they be the exclusive owners of the Asi, denying the people of Homs access to its water." Abu Hassan is usually seen driving his car with its trunk full of a moving library carrying books or papers to his home library. His latest Opaper invasionO was in Lebanon where he is making preparations to buy a 5000-book-library from a 80-year-old man.

Al-Arabi holds a special place in Abu Hassan's collection which contains 100,000 manuscripts and printed items, including 8.000 copies of the magazine right from issue one. He is keen to buy any available number of copies even if extra, and has even designated a year to be Al-Arabi's exhibition year.

Cave and Spring His most endearing document is Al-Qusair's cave which survived damage or destruction by quarry dynamite, thanks to the efforts of his city people. Abu Hassan sat on the cave's threshold on a heap of ashes saying: "My house door lies under this ash! I wanted to preserve this cave after it was discovered, so I carried my house door to protect the entrance to the cave and make it its door, but explosions destroyed it. Thank God, that has stopped now." We moved to a project designed to preserve the cave and ensure safe exploration trips inside it. We carefully descended, with two children going down before us carrying small pebbles with Abu Hassan who knows the place very well as we learnt multiplication tables by heart before calculators were invented. The two host brothers encourged me and sometimes carried my camera, with the poet Muhammad Walid Al-Masry urging me saying:" Don't let them call us cowards! We are the grandsons of Ramses who was steadfast in Kadesh!" We descended the huge, dry and wet rocks. We sometimes grabbed the air and the cold stalagmites formed over millions of years from drops of water. As we left the cave I looked at the mount we went out of as if we were born again... a mount separating the Syro-Lebanese border, with the Jeeta Cave on the other side. Is there a link between the two caves, I wonder... a question requiring more ages to answer!

Borders and Smugglers Two groups of people sat at two tables in front of us in a restaurant, My companion pointed at them saying: "These are smuggling stars, especially heavy oil smuggling." Like any border area, Al-Qusair witnesses a sharp difference in the price of subsidized and other non-subsidized goods, driving many young men and women to profit from border smuggling, most of the proceeds of which are wasted on mobile and international calls in search of love and gain from satellite channel quiz shows respectively. Those not involved in smuggling risk stealing international lines. I read a report about the area and how its geographic position on the border helped form a community with distinguishing features different from other rural communities. The very possibility of fast gain in any agricultural area that suffered sharp shortages of water and falling agricultural returns last decade in spite of its special position on the banks of the Asi near its source in Al-Harmel in Lebanon, motivates many inhabitants of these areas to engage in smuggling. When you pass by petrol stations at 5 a.m. you see some young men queuing for heavy oil which they carry beyond the border to earn a few piastres more. All these young men are members of the communities who live in border zones along the Lebanese north-eastern border, in Al-Qusair (50,000 people) or its villages: Zita, Qarnia, Naim, Aqrabia, Argon, Al-Nazaria, Ribla, etc, whose population conbined is 150,000 people. The conditions of educated people and teachers are not better than studentsO; village teachers in the border strip carry imported items to their towns. The items are bought by their students at Lebanese villages. Abject poverty and fear of hunger, coupled with widespread employment and overpopulation in recent decades, forced many miserable boys to give up school and dream of a very small capital, starting from smuggling 50 litres of heavy oil or a gas cylinder using a bicycle from Syria to Lebanon in return for bringing home appliances, glassware or consumables... attractive business when all doors are closed... an easy but dengerous continuing job that usually ends in jail and hence crime.

Boys and teenagersO daily earnings from such smuggling do not exceed 300 Syrian pounds (US $ 6), going up little by little with age and experience. It is a tragedy threatening the border community including Al-Qusair.... a phenomenon needing a solution that saves the future and the poor and restores respect of learning and creative work. Developing the area as a tourist destination, by excavating the antiquities of Kadesh, preparing Al-Qusair Cave for visitors or providing the stone mills on the Asi with appropiate facilities, may have an economic and social impact preventing danger. Organizers of the Silk Route festivals may also add Al-Qusair to their map, as thousands of people look forward to the mantle of history and nature.

Love and Farewell The road took us to a final turn where the artist Radwan Toama lives. He used to paint from his earliest youth and never left the brush despite long suffering from illness and disability. I looked at the many paintings hanging from the ceiling like colour chandeliers and the paintings hung on walls like decorated lamps carrying messages of love of this city and customs as the artist preferred the diary of this city and landmarks with his brush: bridge, mills, harvest, rebec player, birds, the Asi, dough and bread makers, "messaharati", grain miller, milk churner. He didn't even forget faces. Our hosts Fadi and Faris laughed when Abu Hassan had a meaningful smile on his face as I asked him about a beautiful lady smiling in one of his paintings. He confessed: "I was asked to make many reproductions of this painting in particular!"

Steps and poems continue... poetry as green as the open spaces.. frivolous steps and childish mirth upon seeing the Asi to the right and to the left... take a little rest where the features of the city, the countryside and the desert mix like the waves of the Asi water... overlooking the edges of the Syrian desert filled with the scent of steppe herbs, such as wormwood, smell the fragrance of cardamom and bitter coffee, while the folk poet Qubais Al-Shadadi, our host, making coffee in his quest room read some of hes quatrain poems, inspiring the poet Waleed Al-Masry to reply in his own poetry.

The smell of bread was not the only thing that mixed with breeze, but so did the fragrance of roses whose colours covered the palette of the past and present, watered by the Asi's tears and blood which are drunk by looking between Kadesh and Al-Qusair. We leave the area going down a road lined by green walnut fields crossing the villages of Al-Deminah, Al-Hamra and Al-Dabaa which bade us forewall before reaching Shinshar at the south-east Damascus-Homs crossroads, the distance which was one the scene of war, and many a time the scene of love, but alway, the peace or perhaps the Silk Road.


Ashraf Aboul-Yazid


River Asi

Ramses II was crowned on the twenty seventh of the third summer month (early June 1279 BC) as ?the Hawk King, the Powerful Ox; the Lover of Justice and Truth; the Worshipper of the Two the Deities; Defender of Egypt

Reliefs depict Ramses II?s epic of Kadesh in three detailed paintings: the first, a scene of the Egyptian camp and throne; questioning a reconnaissance team; chariot assault on the camp pending reinforcements. The second, Ramses, II?s assault

he third painting, the Hittite emperor standing helplessly on the other side of the Asi, with a part of the Kadesh fortress. The painting shows a sense of humour by portraying a fleeing Hittite prince upside down

I wandered on the mound and found nothing but ruins. I clain that I all but heard the cries of war and in the red roses which grew naturally I saw the colour of the blood which spilled and was only washed by the water of the Asi

Two maps of the location of ancient Kadesh

Today?s Kadesh where the waters of the Asi pour on the last remaining stone mills

Today?s Kadesh where the waters of the Asi pour on the last remaining stone mills

And my guidance cannot come except from Allah, in Him I trust and unto Him I repent.? This is Gods will.? Mix with those of noble origin?. ?This is God?s will.?: verses and phrases written on local buses, reflecting their passengers? attitudes

Traditional cocializing, sipping coffee and listering to poetry

Al-Qusair Cave?s ceiling looked like a work of the artist Barak before Picasso stole his cubist lines. Ceilings in some curves collapsed in the past because of explosions. The colours of stalactites and stalagmites sometimes look like orange

Rock formations... as if we were in front of a theatre whose calm we disturbed... Christmas tree, Santa Claus, Macbeth?s witches behind some rocks throwing their votive offerings under rock clouds

A unique scene, only a feeling of awe and peace until we reach the spring where we bend to drink fresh water, as if we had found a tributary of the river of eternity

To Saint Illias Monastery (Prophet Ilea), 7 km to the south of Al-Qusair, Christians and Muslims alike flock for blessing or supplication. When they lose hope, they look for a miracle to save a disabled or sick person

Plains are filled with the fregrance of basils and roses which struggle to survive. They send short messages which winds carry to people

The Asi bears everything as if to it were the city?s door flowing to wash away the remnants of the times

Plains are filled with the fregrance of basils and roses which struggle to survive. They send short messages which winds carry to people

Ceiling gallery! The folk artist found no room for his paintings on the floor, so he hung them from the room ceiling

The folk poet Al-Shadadi making coffee in his guest room in which he used to read his quatrain poems

Print Article