We drive out of Hama, Abu Farouz, the American, the yellow Mercedes and me, in sunshine that intensifies the rich colours of the earth tractors are churning up to an incredible depth. The landscape is bright green with accents of the subtler green of olive trees. We pass paddocks where potatoes are being harvested into big plastic bags which are then piled high onto stained glass trucks. In a doorway an old woman sits, rubbing the dirt off potatoes from a plastic dish. Women dressed in a crushed velvety array of colours – bright purple, cerise, vermilion, chartreuse – work on hillsides against a background of bright green, bright brown, bright orange. Children are heading off to school: boys in shiny khaki suits, immaculate and uncreased, little girls in pinafores, older girls, head covered and walking more sedately. A group of boys sit on a rocky outcrop clapping, while their mate dances wildly. In a town, men cluster round a truck loaded with potatoes: one of them examines a loose one, long and cream, and then tosses it back onto the truck. Carpets hang over the sides of houses and washing flaps. Shopkeepers sit outside on stools or purple plastic chairs, talking or sitting alone , calm hands folded in their laps. Men stride along lugging a wheel, an exhaust pipe, a great coil of plastic piping. Women in high heels ride pillion and sidesaddle on motorbikes, behind their husbands. The road narrows and we pass a tractor hidden under a rounded load of tree loppings. Brightly dressed women chip and weed. The crops are wheat and cotton and pistachios (if I understand Abu Farouz.)
We stop at ruined castle (Qala’at Sheisar) on a narrow spit of land between two gorges: arches and remnants of towers stand against the blue sky. I climb higher, delighting in placeness rather than castleness. We drive beside a river with an arched bridge and a derelict wooden water wheel.
Finally we reach Afamia, beautifully sited against the snowy background of the Anti Lebanon range. The mosaic museum is in a restored Ottoman khan, the stables part, around a central courtyard, a place of low arches and niches. The floor space is full of mosaics, marble sarcophagi, memorial stones (I can almost read the Latin) and statuary. A small one catches my eye: two figures, headless and entwined, his hand on her breast. I’m freshly astonished by the way little squares make graceful curves; how the mosaic artists create shading. I’m more attracted by the intricacies of the borders: the centres seem to feature nature red in tooth and claw. One mosaic has been reinstalled on the floor, giving the appearance of carpet with its tiny tiles.
I walk a kilometre along the colonnade. The stones that form the roadway are still in place. One set of columns has barber’s pole fluting, apparently very unusual. Men in leather jackets leaning against motorbikes stand watch a bit back from the cardo, waiting to pounce with marble heads for sale: “I found in a tomb over there.” I resist buying anything.
As I wait for my companions I stumble towards a ruin and realise I’m stomping through the furrows of someone’s crop.
NB I know it as Afamia: it’s also called Apamea.
For a general overview of Syria’s heritage
For an image of Apamea looted.