It was our fifth day on the Euphrates River. The current, sluggish but dependable, coursed through a network of channels which looped around low spits of mud and islands of baked clay and rock. Because there had been little rainfall the past winter, the river was flat and placid and half-hidden bars of silt created endless detours, not anticipated when our maps, charted at high tide, were prepared. But as each detour eventually threaded back into the main stream, we were always somewhere identifiable, if often downstream, from some historical site we had planned to visit.
That day, our photographer, Nik Wheeler, did not have to hop in the boat with his usual question: "And what is our destination today?" Although our location was often more a matter of consensus than verifiable fact, the night before we had seen a horizontal bar of light to the south which meant, we hoped, that the Tabqa Dam was not too far ahead. Soon that spectacular dam will mean power and irrigation for vast areas of Syria, but on that May morning it meant our first bath in five days. Or so we thought.
We had learned that hurrying down the Euphrates was useless. Even the not exactly reckless pace of our three-and-a-half and nine-horsepower motors could run us into unseen mud banks, so we drifted along in our usual fashion: five travelers in two rubber boats lashed together, perched atop camping equipment, scanning the banks of this historic stream and nibbling the sandwiches that Jackie Drucker, a mother of three, a tennis champion and boating enthusiast, had just passed around with her daily blessing: "An army marches on a full stomach." Kamal Farajallah, a Lebanese sportsman and our combined interpreter and handyman, was assessing the odds against our two little motors remaining operative for the trip's duration; Fred Drucker, an American lawyer living in Beirut, a veteran of Colorado's white water, and our captain by default, was detaching an untouched lure from his line; Nik, an ex-UPI photographer, was juggling cameras and sandwiches. As for me, wife of an NBC correspondent and aspiring free-lance writer, I was jotting down notes on the scenery. Then, suddenly, there was the dam stretched hugely across our downstream path. We paused to look at it.
The Tabqa Dam, since completed, is the largest earth dam in the world. Close to 1½ billion cubic feet of sand and gravel went into its construction; it stretches 2.7 miles across the north Euphrates River Valley; it stands 196 feet high; its thickness at the base measures a whopping 1,680 feet. Behind the dam there will be an artificial lake 49 miles long, with a surface area of 243 square miles. Fed into giant turbines, this immense volume of water will eventually supply Syria with 1,100 megawatts of electricity—close to 14% of the capacity of New York City. And piped into the country's agricultural areas it will irrigate 1,580,246 acres of land.
To build the dam 12,000 Syrians and 700 Russians worked in shifts 24 hours a day and with their families comprised a dam-site community of 40,000 people. Their work, completed last summer, means that man, for the first time since antiquity, can impose significant controls on the mighty Euphrates. It also means that Syria, with power to spare, will eventually be able to proceed with a long list of needed economic and social development projects.
None of us had known any of that when, in Beirut, six months before, we first hatched the idea of trying to canoe down the river from the Turkish frontier to the Iraqi frontier before the dam was finished and some of the most historical areas in the world disappeared forever under its waters. Nor had any of us actually seen the Euphrates. We had no idea how long it would take, how swift or how deep the water, or, indeed, if boat travel was even possible. Preliminary research provided a few undisputed facts: the Euphrates is 1,400 miles long; its headwaters begin near Lake Van, in northeastern Turkey (Aramco World, March-April, 1973); it flows southward through Syria and joins the Tigris in lower Iraq. We learned too that the Turkish sector of approximately 430 miles seemed unnavigable by any sort of boat but that the remaining 960 miles appeared to be passable.
We had to piece together what the river might be like. Written information was scanty and contradictory, but we read it anyway: historical reports of Roman garrisons manning their lonely river outposts, diaries from British civil servants en route to India by camel caravans to Baghdad, obscure college theses on Bedouin migrations and the 1925 edition of Cook's Travel Guide to the Middle East. We also had some mid-term reports helpfully produced by an ancient history class at the American Community School in Beirut and the memoirs of Englishman Ralph Fitch. Fitch made a 16-day voyage on the river in 1583 carrying letters from Queen Elizabeth to the Grand Mogul and Emperor of China. We also had a dismaying report from Colonel Francis Rawdon Chesney who was sent out by England in 1831 to explore the possibilities of establishing a commercial steamship route on the Euphrates. He lost 21 men and a 103-foot steamboat when a freak tornado came swirling across the desert (Aramco World, March-April, 1969). While his report did not encourage England, it did us; we decided that if the river could float steamboats it could take the small boats we were considering.
Having finished the reading, our gallant menfolk concluded that somebody had to go to see the great river in person—somebody like Jackie and me. So we went to a river town called Meskene hoping we might rent boats, since we had brilliantly surmised that hauling boats 140 miles from Lebanon might pose a few difficulties. But a marina Meskene was not. So it was on to a place called Jerablus where, eventually, we would embark. Again no boats. Jackie then went to the seaport of Latakia to check the possibility of taking fishing boats overland. Still no. They were too heavy to haul without a truck. So it had to be what Ole Cap'n Fred, the only experienced river runner among us, had been advocating right along: inflatable rubber boats. A few weeks later we located two such craft and carefully moored them in the Druckers' sixth-floor living room in Beirut. One was 10 feet long, the other 13 feet, and we should have them paid for by 1980 easily.
Next we had to rent some motors, borrow tents, sleeping bags and a Primus stove, buy food (various gourmet basics such as rice, Spam and peanut butter) and such essentials as a magnetic chess set, a harmonica and a Scrabble set. Then all we had to do was get permission.
To get permission we began to commute to Damascus—50 miles away. We went so often that we got on first-name terms with the frontier guards. We began with the Tabqa Dam officials, who had always been most helpful to writers and reporters interested in seeing the dam project. The gentleman who received us was politely certain that we were mad, but agreed that what we planned was a fine idea. Ahlan! (Welcome!) We never saw him again. Then we proceeded to the Ministry of Tourism, where another cordial man agreed that a boat trip on the Euphrates was excellent travel promotion.Ahlan! But we never saw him again either. Over at the Ministry of Information, the skepticism was stronger. However—Ahlan! Maybe! Last, to the museum director who gave us an excellent briefing on Islamic culture along the river valley.
Subsequently, of course, we had to submit a few details: letters, photographs, biographical résumés, equipment lists, camera specifications, transportation registrations—all requiring copies in English and Arabic. But finally the okay came through and we scheduled our launching for the next Saturday.
Then, at the last minute, disaster. On Thursday, 48 hours before departure, Damascus called to say that the dam officials had withdrawn their ahlans. A flood had made the river too dangerous and the director general thought officials would be too busy to receive us. Never mind, we said, we'll just paddle by and bother no one, okay? Impossible. Could we see someone from the Ministry of the Dam? That some one is in Beirut. Ah-hah, we'll find him. We found him. Okay? Not okay—unless Official X would take the responsibility. Off to Damascus went our trusty captain with a notarized document signed by all of us absolving anyone concerned of any responsibility. Okay? Well, no written permission but "in principle," okay.
In principle. Hmm. Shouldn't it be in writing? Well let's see. Most Middle Eastern countries do require permits, don't they? But we have permission from everybody. In writing? No, but permission. True. Hmm. Okay, we'll go. An hour later we left.
We had hoped to get to Aleppo the first day and we would have if—if the car had not broken down twice, if all the papers did not have to be redone at the border, if we hadn't forgotten to get a Lebanese export license for our boats and if we had not had to post a $300 customs bond in cash.
Even so we were only eight hours late and only mildly upset to discover that the Baron Hotel was full and that only the incredible hospitality of Koko Mazloumian, proprietor of the Baron, kept us off the streets—by making up beds for us in every corner of his own home.
The next morning we set off again surrounded by some 50 or so bystanders—one a boy selling Chiclets who went home a hero after we purchased his entire supply for gifts to children we might meet along the river. We set off gaily, rather pleased that after six months of planning and problems we were only one day late and only two hours away from the river. Or so we thought.
Three miles before Jerablus, two military guards courteously escorted us to our first rural police station. Ahlan! The captain served coffee while Kamal told him in flowing Arabic of our wonderful forthcoming adventure. They all agreed that our trip would be interesting, but ah, please, the permits? Permits? Well, we don't actually have them in writing, of course. We have permission "in principle." Ah, "in principle." Well, unfortunately . . .
Only Koko Mazloumian didn't seem surprised when we checked into the hotel in Aleppo again late that afternoon and philosophically decided to celebrate Jackie's birthday while we waited for our permissions to be verified. We dined out on haleb kebbab and exchanged toasts with those eating in the small restaurant.
The next morning, after Koko and a certain Aleppo major (bless them) had looked into things, we set off again. Along the way we waved gaily at the check point and finally—finally—got to the Euphrates. There, on a low hillock near the river bank, we pumped up the boats, loaded five-gallon containers of drinking water and gasoline into them, piled tents, food and cameras on board, scrambled on ourselves and drifted quietly into the current.
For a long time we traveled in silence, chipping mud off our legs, savoring the isolation, letting the tensions of the past days fade and basking in the calm majesty of the Euphrates, elegant in the muted purples and pinks of late afternoon. Except for a great variety of birds darting and calling, there seemed to be an overwhelming absence of life, of movement. The banks were tranquil, the current strong but invisible.
As the Jerablus bridge—and the Turkish frontier—disappeared behind us, the broad river began to divide into branches around islands usually covered by water in the spring. There was a constant choice of which way to go around the islands and great difficulty in differentiating between a jutting extension of river bank and an isolated island. At sunset we opted for what we thought was a sandy beach. Actually, there is no sand along or under the Euphrates. If the land is dry, it is either dust or clay. If it is wet, it is mud—as Nik discovered when he jumped ashore to photograph the first of a series of inept landings and sank to his knees. I went in even deeper and had to be laboriously and ignominiously hauled out.
Our first night set the pattern for the rest. We landed in mud, pulled the boats in as far as possible and began carrying the equipment to the highest part of the island. Jackie and I would set up the kitchen, the stove downwind, dinner to the right, breakfast to the left. Fred and Kamal would put up the tents and distribute sleeping bags and personal clothing within. Nik would disappear with his cameras while the light was good. Although he always gathered firewood on the way back, there's a lot to be said for being expedition photographer.
On the first evening, dinner was served rather late. Plates were in one pack, salt in another. The corkscrew was missing and the honey jar had broken. Of the five new flashlights—a different color for each person—only two were operative. Jackie and I giggled over the daily menus planned long ago, then used them to kindle the fire. In the distance, we could see the faint lights of the Jerablus bridge and above, the stars—clear, close and almost personal.
Breaking camp the following morning was no more efficient than our arrival the night before; it took us three hours to get back on the river. Then, after about 20 minutes, Kamal, Nik and I in the flagship detected a hissing sound. Our wonderful new boat, described in the brochure as almost puncture-proof, seemed to have sprung a leak. We decided to land. When the smaller boat caught up, Fred disclosed that he too seemed to have a leak. But as we examined the boats, we realized that the hissing noise was all around us. The waters of the Euphrates, for whatever reason, have hissed through history.
Nik, meanwhile, had walked down-river in the first of several frustrating attempts to catch us gliding by in neat nautical formation, but as a result we nearly lost him. While the Euphrates never seemed to move fast, it was a real effort to move across the current and, even with motors, nearly impossible to go against it.
For the next hour we pored over our maps, trying to orient our position. Just as we concluded that we needed help we rounded a point and saw some people gathered around a pump which lifted water from the river to a small village on the upper slope. This was the first of the pump stations which appear every few miles or so along the river and with which Syrian farmers irrigate their fields.
When we pulled into the river bank, the women and children of the village turned out to greet us and Jackie and I began the first of many baby inspections while young boys raced off to find fresh bread and eggs somewhere amid the square baked-mud houses whose window slits stared down at the river like narrow eyes.
Our next stop was Tell Ahmar, a busy crossing for a river which could hardly be described as teeming with activity. As we approached the muddy landing area, a bus was heaving itself onto a barge to cross to the opposite bank. Because of the low water the landing was about a mile from the hamlet and we had to hike to it.
Tell Ahmar is a typical of the tells in the Euphrates Valley, the artificial, man-made mounds created at the rate of about five inches each one hundred years by the accumulating debris of settlements that are periodically abandoned—because of famine, pestilence, war—then collapse under rain or the annual floods and are reoccupied and rebuilt. There are hundreds of tells in the river valley and by slicing through the layers of these high, shapeless mounds, historians and archeologists have been able to reconstruct 5,000 years of continuous civilization. At Tell Ahmar the stone walls of an old fort crown the hill and as we scrambled up to see it rocks and pottery shards cascaded down the steep sides. At the top is the shell of an ancient palace and a cluster of huts.
By the time we returned from our first archeological hike, our pockets heavy with bits of pottery, the barge had delivered the bus and returned for a cargo of sheep. We sailed off, gulping water from our canteens and applying our first thick coating of suntan lotion.
Small villages began to appear along both banks, some high on cliffs and tells, some on the slopes nearer the river, tracks and roads threaded behind them like smoke from chimneys. We also began to see occasional shepherds outlined on high bluffs.
We were so intent on watching the water that it was startling to suddenly find a stone fortress towering over the river, a forlorn, deserted sentinel evoking images of adventure, endurance and conquest. It was Qalaat Najim, which I had never heard of, but since it fitted the description of Qalaat Jabar (which turned out to be a good 108 miles south) we pulled up on a stony island to eat and see if we could visit the castle. We decided we couldn't and it was just as well. During lunch the sky turned yellow and a north wind came up, whipping sand over our camp site. It got so bad we had to anchor everything down and wrap our heads in khafiya—an item no traveler should be without, easily adaptable to skirts, boat sails, umbrellas, bandages, tablecloths, pillows. Just as we uneasily concluded that we had a tornado making up, the gale passed over.
Back on the river, we saw a single cloud in the clear sky. It raced towards us, came to rest directly overhead and let us have it. The Euphrates area has an annual rainfall of three inches; two fell on us during that half hour. All available coverings were spread over maps, cameras and sleeping bags. Just behind the curtain of driving rain, the sun shone on the dry hills and continued to warm the castle, now too far behind for us to backtrack. The cloud moved on and we moved out, only to watch it shift into reverse and douse us again, leaving the water level in the boats almost equal to that outside. Not even the weather conformed to our pre-trip research. As we began to bail, the sun came out and we found that we were sparkling clean, that the newly washed air was fresh and exhilarating, and that the river bank was teeming with partridges and black terns.
(The next day we had an even worse scare. What in the distance appeared to be the spiraling smoke from a large factory, soon turned into an immense twister which veered from our path only at the last minute to wreak devastation in another quarter. Comparing notes later on, we found that all of us were sure we were facing the same kind of storm which wiped out nearly half the Chesney expedition just over a century before.)
Since the steep river banks provided no camping space, we opted that night for an island campsite, dug a pit and cooked a 15-pound fish that a fisherman had sold us just before the deluge. Yes, 15 pounds and it's not unusual. In the Euphrates one fish of 202 pounds has been caught and verified—which was 202 pounds more than anything Ole Cap'n Fred caught in five days of determined trolling.
The next morning we managed to shave an hour off the time gap between fresh oranges with coffee and the morning launching. By then, the third day, we were quite at home on the murky, hissing Euphrates. We had learned that lashing our boats side by side was a faster way to travel and an easier way to serve lunch. We had learned the art of loading the boats for comfort, arranging packs and equipment into chaise longue seating, with individual canteens of tea and water an arm's length away. Nik had a special seat as far forward as possible for crew-in-action photos; editors love crew-in-action photos
Ahead was a long day's journey into the archeological zone of the future Tabqa reservoir. But you don't hurry on the Euphrates. You lie back, sunbathe and check the hourly BBC news reports. (On that day the news was hardly soothing. Back in Beirut, where all our families were, serious fighting had broken out and the Syrian border had been closed.)
The chalky cliffs that morning were perfectly beautiful, one section spotted with swallows apparently gathering for a regional conference. The perfect place, we decided, for a crew-in-action sequence: four people paddling swiftly in stroke, combatting the forces of nature, retracing the paths of antiquity. To heighten the effect we thought it would be helpful to launch Nik and camera on an air mattress for a river's eye view. Unfortunately, the mattress went spinning off in the current and it took us half an hour to retrieve Nik. Then we put him ashore opposite the cliffs and waited until he'd walked far down the central island. Action? Camera? Well, almost. In the middle of the countdown we realized, almost too late, that the current was going to sweep us past the island before we could retrieve poor Nik. Abandoning the scene, we paddled mightily for shore and just caught the tip of the island in time to avoid having to leave Nik a castaway on an unnamed Euphrates sand spit.
In the afternoon we came upon several gaping, rectangular excavations in the side of a huge tell. It was Mumbarqa, not the most northerly of the sites being excavated, but the first one we'd found. The excavation architect, one of a German team from the University of Saarbrucken, invited us to join the group for tea at quitting time, and, until then, to roam about the enormous tell.
The excavation team with the assistance of 60 local workers, had done an amazing amount of digging in a short time. They had already cleared the Islamic and Byzantine occupation layers and were going deeper, soundings having indicated that below the temples already uncovered may be another dating from around 2800 B.C. Dr. Orthmann, the director, showed us a beautiful Sumerian artifact—a clay fertility goddess—and over tea briefed us on the valley sites in general and Tell Mumbarqa in particular. It seemed that the biggest problem in working on the east bank was keeping the local ferry in working order to carry the supplies from Aleppo. It hadn't crossed in five days, so we left them the remaining two thirds of our huge fish.
One effect of the stop was to pinpoint our location. As we had way overestimated our progress, we used the motors the rest of the day, pushing to reach Meskene before nightfall. At dusk, Nik spied a lovely campsite looking toward the sun setting over the cliffs. The location was far enough ahead for us to begin working out of the current for a perfect landing. As we were tacking a man came off the island in his karakul and recommended a shelter at the far end of the island. We tried it, found that the shelter also housed our new host and his considerable family, and decided to try driving the boats back upriver to our original spot. Halfway there, the force of the river brought them to a standstill, the overworked motors smoking and an overturned can of oil gurgling into the boats. Since our host immediately assigned a work force of wives and children to help us unload the boat and clean up the oil, it was our turn for hospitality and our guests watched fascinated as Maxwell House freeze dried turned instantly into coffee and a white powder became milk. Jackie and I then ran shifts in receiving a seemingly endless parade of children shyly presented for our approval. The babies were indeed marvelous—all in colored satin caps tipped with gold ornaments.
Next morning, Nik again hiked downstream to photograph the two boats passing in review—this time opposite a picturesque island to the west. Again, his intention was frustrated when I surrendered to an irresistible compulsion to engage in a race with Kamal and Jackie in the other boat—and raced right past him before he was ready. Poor Nik began to feel that bad seamanship, unpredictable currents and distaff whims were in clandestine conspiracy against his efforts to secure this particular photograph.
By noon the next day, the river's high escarpments gave way to flat farmland and we arrived at the river crossing which serves Meskene, a town that once stood by the river but now, because the Euphrates has shifted course over the centuries, is several miles from the water. To get supplies we found a taxi and bounced along a rutted road to modern Meskene. The provisions available were limited but the trip was worthwhile because we discovered that a famous octagonal minaret was only a few miles to the south. The minaret, standing like Prometheus Bound above the river valley, is one of the historical monuments that Syria will move before the dam begins flooding the area. It was then imprisoned by a wooden grid of planks supporting platforms and ladders; the view from the top was spectacular. It was to be cut into seven sections and reassembled on higher ground.
On our return to the landing, we refilled the gasoline cans, and embarked again—this time to the music of Captain Fred's harmonica. As we passed beneath the citadel of Dibsi Farji, Kamal joined us in a chorus of "My Darling Clementine" while cleaning the sparkplugs with a paper nail file. Along the way we saw a large town across the plain and guessed that it was Abu Hareira, also famous for a minaret. Like the one at Meskene, it was scheduled for dismantling much the way Abu Simbel was dismantled. We asked several people where it was stored. One source said it had been taken to Meskene to stand shoulder to shoulder with its fellow minaret; another said it was packed for Jabar, a third advised that it would be a landmark at Tabqa. I hope they have found it by now.
As the Jabar castle needed the earliest morning light for photography, and no boat of ours had yet hit the river before eight o'clock, we crossed to the east bank searching for a campsite close to the castle. Thinking he could pull us ashore, Fred jumped overboard and instantly sank to his belt line in mud. He hung on to the boat, and we to him. He finally maneuvered us onto a narrow, less gooey strip from which we formed a human chain, ferrying supplies from boat one to boat two, hand to hand up the embankment to the bluff—at which point Nik returned from a sunset reconnoiter with the last nine eggs in Jabar and the galling news that there was a nice firm landing just over the nearby levee.
Maximum effort had us all finished with breakfast by six the next morning. Nik and I started off across the dry, crumbly fields to the Jabar road, following a pipeline made up of gaily painted oil drums soldered together. About two miles before the fortress, we came to a white stucco wall which encloses the last few hundred square yards of the Ottoman Empire: the tomb of Suleiman Khan, a former sultan who drowned in the Euphrates at this point. To visit it, we were astounded to hear, you were supposed to have a Turkish visa to get in and a new Syrian visa to get out. As there wasn't anyone around to verify this interesting item, we peeked through the barbed wire to see two low white buildings, a volleyball court and a red and white Turkish flag flying over all. We were later told that the military guard is supplied and rotated by a helicopter which lands every month in the compound and that the Turkish Government is not pleased at the idea of the Euphrates rolling over the sultan again, nor is anyone enthusiastic about transferring the tomb and its distinguished occupant elsewhere.
We walked another quarter hour up the steep track to the top of the cliff where the entrance to the citadel cuts a tunnel through the rock. About 100 workers were assembled for roll call as we puffed up the steep ascent. We continued up the main keep to the first of nine towers which remain standing, walked along the massive brick Byzantine walls, crisscrossed the rail tracks which carry small cars to dump the archeological debris beyond the enclosure. From the minaret perched on the summit of the citadel we could see the new dam to the south and Fred to the north, stopped at the Turkish enclave. I thought maybe a "yoohoo" would carry down the valley to indicate our whereabouts. It did: the workers thought this was the most amusing noise they'd ever heard and a full chorus of yoo-hoos filled the air. It also attracted the attention of Salim Karimly, excavation director, who guided us through a temple being cleared, then down a rope ladder into one of the castle's cisterns which is now the resting place for a Roman sarcophagus from another tell.
Jabar is not only a spectacular ruin but one of the three Arab monuments being preserved and restored by the Syrian Antiquities Department. This one will be unique, for its towering position will keep it well above the water backing up behind the dam. The citadel will crown a natural island on which the government plans to build tourist accommodations.
And then at last we came to the Tabqa Dam, Aswan of the Euphrates, and what, as it turned out, would be our last day on the river.
At first all went well. One or two of the Tabqa boats motored out to look at us. The workers on the sluicer, which looked like a Mississippi Riverboat, began to gather at the rail as we pulled into a small cove. As we were tying up, a lovely aqua-blue camper bus carrying the vanguard of the Tabqa public relations team came to greet us— Ahlan! We were to be driven to headquarters to meet the director. Leaving Kamal with the boats, off we went, weaving up the side of the vast man-made escarpment. At the top was a good-sized town (recently renamed Al-Thawra, "revolution"). Wide paved streets with signs in Arabic and Russian took us past government buildings, schools, stores and residential areas where, 10 years before, goats and camels grazed in quiet isolation. It was an impressive project.
After being interviewed by the public relations staff we were delivered to administration headquarters where the Deputy Director of the Dam congratulated us on our success in reaching Tabqa and authorized rooms, meals and a guide for the duration of our visit. Ahlan. After a fledgling public relations representative and the project photographer joined us, we were dropped at the main dining room for an excellent meal. It was, as Jackie said later, "the last supper," because by dessert we were again in trouble.
It started with the now familiar suggestion that our "in principle" permission was unfortunately not enough. These were troubled times. Perhaps you would secure papers from the provincial chief? Certainly, but where? In Raqqa, about 30 miles south.
Fred tried to call one or more of our original ministerial sponsors in Damascus and when he couldn't reach anyone we were asked to wait. While we waited, and debated possible courses of action, Jackie sterilized a needle to remove a thorn from her finger, I filed my nails, Nik lamented the absence of our Scrabble board, and we all worried about Kamal. No one had seen him since lunch. Time went by. Finally, about nine that evening, Kamal appeared, whereupon we were all escorted to two jeeps packed to the roof with our equipment. As we drove off, wondering, if perhaps we might be under some form of detention, Jackie began to cheer us up with speculations on the quality and quantity of food in jail.
About midnight we got to Deir ez-Zor, a lovely old Arab river town far downstream. We stopped before a rococo wrought-iron gate which opened onto elegantly landscaped gardens. Ah, we thought, a hotel! But it was the district military headquarters (an attractive military headquarters, but still a military headquarters). The district commander welcomed us cordially and offered juice. Another man came and began to question us. Did we enjoy traveling in Syria? What were the most interesting sites we had seen? Whom did we meet along the river? Then he wanted to know what we all did in real life, and was delighted to find that Fred was a lawyer—a colleague! He, it seemed, was president of the Deir ez-Zor Bar Association. And also, we sourly decided, the local D.A.
After a cordial hour, however, we began to relax. Somebody had obviously talked to somebody. Sure enough we were soon sent off to a hotel where an enormous meal was miraculously delivered to our floor. As we ate it we reviewed what had happened and decided that without that damned permit further boating was unlikely. But could we, perhaps, finish the story by following the highway overland along the river to the Iraqi border? Why not? said the Major the next morning, and put a driver and Land Rover at our disposal for the day with an Arabic version of "Leave the driving to us."
Our nocturnal safari had taken us to a more tropical part of Syria. The steep cliffs of the upper river had given way to a wide, flat flood plain. The water barely slid over the shallow mud shoals as it slowly wound around the maze of tamarisk-covered islands. Cultivated land widened into fields of cotton and occasional citrus groves. The river people were consolidated into groups of farmhouses in the shade of palm trees.
About 12 miles out of Deir, across the river, we could see the oasis of Buseire, the junction where the Khabur River joins the Euphrates and once a major stop-over on the caravan route to and from Palmyra.
Mere minutes south of Deir a castle appeared on an isolated jebel jutting from a flat plain that sweeps to the river. The castle was identified by our soldier-scholar-driver as Qalaat Ali and the plain that of Siffin, the site of one of the most famous and portentous battles in Islamic history. Here, on July 26, A.D.657, the warriors of Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, on the point of defeat by the forces of the Caliph Ali, raised copies of the Koran on their lances and halted the hostilities. The truce or arbitration which followed led to the Umayyad caliphate which endured, with its capital at Damascus, until A.D. 750 The peaceful fields of Siffin today belie the significance of that battle which forever divided the Muslims into competing sects of Sunni and Shi'ah.
We eventually turned off the paved highway and followed a desert track to the ramparts of ancient Dura-Europus. To the left were the remains of a once triumphal arch, and to the right, two mounds of former funeral towers. From the 3rd century B.C. to the middle of the 3rd century A.D., trade caravans and military detachments entered through the main Palmyra Gate, the only one opening to the desert. Access gates from the river side have been washed away by the Euphrates.
Dura is initially impressive because of its isolation in a great space. Once inside the massive walls, you are overwhelmed by a vast site whose total area forms a desert of its own of over ISO acres. Poking up from the desert floor are brick and stone shells of buildings whose walls were once covered with vivid wall paintings. Within the enclosure were the remains of a temple of the Palmyrene gods, a Persian shrine, the House of Christians, a synagogue, the Temple of the Roman Archers, the temples of Artemis-Nanaia and Atargates. Dura was certainly an ecumenical town.
Next was Mari, a great artistic and commercial city of the Sumerian Empire nearly 5,000 years ago, and the center of a civilization allied with Babylonia 1,000 years later. You don't have to look up at monuments in Mari; you look down into a labyrinth of trenches, some long and straight, indicating streets which connected any number of temples built and re-built, one above the other.
Six miles south of Mari we came to Abu Kamal near the Iraqi border, and the place where our river voyage was to have ended. Well, it was certainly faster and more comfortable to zoom into town on wheels, particularly on those of a military vehicle which cleared the traffic in record time. Our driver, now guide and friend, beeped us through the market, and past rows of wonderfully painted trucks, lined up to cross the ancient caravan route to Baghdad.
On the way back we serenaded the countryside with a wide variety of musical selections, delivered in a somewhat shaky four-part harmony.
The next morning we stopped to pay our grateful respects to the Major and to present him with two tokens to remember us by: one of our choice Italian salamis and an essential ingredient for mint juleps. Then back upstream, to Halebiyeh, a fine fortress from the Byzantine period, thence to Raqqa to which the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, journeyed all the way from Baghdad every summer.
We drove past the Baghdad Gate, the last well-preserved architectural remnant of the ancient city's ornate entrances, to the mud-walled enclosure of the old town. Inside, a handsome wall with many arches is all that still stands from the palace, and a brick minaret towers in the center. Next to the minaret was a small whitewashed hut with a green door, guarded by a very elderly gentleman. We didn't try to go in, but a passerby from Raqqa explained that a special sect guards this shrine, consisting of a square entrance room and another round room decorated in Koranic graphics. There the holy tomb rests covered in green satin. He did not know whose tomb it was. And so it ended.
In Aleppo we rejoined Kamal, who had collected our gear in Deir ez-Zor, and went on to Hama, Horns and Damascus. Recognizing our anxiety to rejoin our families in Beirut, the authorities graciously gave us permission to leave immediately, despite tensions in Beirut and closed frontiers. So, leaving our boats, tents and packs there, we dashed for the border, our adventure over. It is now months later. The Syrian border has reopened. Our boats and equipment have been retrieved. Our expedition has scattered. At Tabqa the dam has sealed off the Euphrates and the lake is forming, its waters covering forever the sights and sounds of a trip that I am sure was the last of its kind on that most ancient of rivers.
Carla Hunt, wife of an N.B.C. correspondent, spent several years in the Middle East during which time she worked with the Middle East Sketch, an English-language news magazine.