January, 2001

We leave Afamia and head first through pleasant country towns, and then back into rocky country where the roads are fenced with stone walls and groves of olive trees are subtle against furrowed red soil. The Dead Cities are a mystery: no one is quite sure why they died, although there are certainly theories. I visit Serjilla, a feast of ruined buildings, tumbled grey stone, mossy rocks, vivid green grass and lacey stone fences. No sign at all of wild dogs slavering rabies, contrary to warnings. I ramble around enjoying sun, silence and solitude. There are not many people, just a group of archaeologists and then, suddenly, cresting a rise, one by one, a family, including a baby in a very damp nappy. The son, an adolescent male, orchestrates a photo session, full of self-confidence and cheek. He’s fascinated by my gold camera and manages to coax my carefully hoarded small coins into his possession.

The day isn’t over yet. We stomp around the mud of an olive grove near a tomb with a high-pitched roof, and visit a ruined church at Al Bara. As we drive back to Hama, the shafts of sunset illuminate the shrinking mountains. I give Abu Farouz £200 Syrian as a thank you and rush off to a juice stand, whose proprietor either wants to know how many children I have, or to give me babies.

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