With the two of us…
David & John
The drive through the Nile Delta from Cairo was uneventful – but our nerves were suddenly shattered by the hysterical traffic of Alexandria. Busses, cars, bicycles, taxis, donkeys, cattle and camels – EVERYWHERE – and all going in different directions! We got stuck behind a butcher’s horse drawn cart – piled high with beef carcases – and covered in flies. Blood and bits of flesh splattered all over us and – by the time we reached the docks – we were The Old RED Truck…
Ferry tickets were purchased and we were directed to drive the truck alongside the ship and into an area marked on the pavement. A crane appeared – slings descended – were fastened – slack was taken up – and The Old Blue Truck lurched into space. Not too gracefully either – and when she was about eight metres above our heads – a gentle sway began… Then a gut wrenching creak of stressed metal – and a thud… Somehow the straps held – and the truck (now at a different angle) disappeared from view up and over the ship’s gunnels. We scrambled on board and worked our way forward – to find her clamped securely (we hoped) to the deck. We had not purchased cabin tickets (money was running short – again) so we settled into a sheltered spot amongst the rust spots – and set sail for Lebanon.
It is about 500 miles (2 days) from Alexandria to Beirut – as the crow flies – but (as so often happens with crows) this one didn’t fly straight… We stayed quite close to the coast and passed Rosetta (where the stone was found), Baltim, Damietta and Port Said at the entry to the Suez Canal. It was just 16 weeks later that Port Said was bombed during the Six Day War – and the Suez was to close for 8 years. We headed North past Al Arish on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai – and the border of Israel at Ashdod. Past Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa and the Lebanese border at Bezet – to the historic little Island of Tyre – which has absolutely nothing to do with pneumatics – and is pronounced “Soor” Around 2000 BCE Tyre was founded by Phoenician merchants and in 585 BCE fell under siege to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar – and then 200 years later was conquered by Alexander the Great. In 68 BCE it passed over to Roman control. In 638 CE it was conquered by Arab Muslims – in 1124 by Christian Crusaders – in 1291 by Muslim Mamluks – in 1516 – together with the rest of Lebanon, by the Ottomans. In 1920 Lebanon came under the control of a French mandate – in 1946 gained its independence – and in early 1967 the Old Blue Truck arrived in Beirut. No one noticed…
We drove from the docks into the city of Beirut and began looking for somewhere to camp for the night. David and Denis were going to stay for a few days while I traveled North to Tripoli to stay with friends – so when we found the old Phoenician Hotel – we decided to pause there and make our plans… a splendid old hotel with an awesome sea view – we couldn’t afford real drinks and took tea on the balcony instead. The old Phoenician was one of the early fatalities of the civil war – the new five star Phoenicia Inter-continental now stands in its place.
I took a taxi (a Mercedes no less!) on the 50 mile journey to Tripoli…
and stayed for a week with Nellie Homsie (a friend from London) and her family. The hospitality was wonderful and a real bed after so long “in the truck” took some getting used to – as did living in a large family of women. Nellie’s father (a senior director of the Jordan National Bank) had died only a few months earlier and custom dictated that we be chaperoned everywhere we went. They were well known and my
presence caused considerable interest – and a lot of extended hospitality.
We visited many old sites – from the Teylan Mosque (1336) to the old port of Al Mina – dressed quite formally – and always in a group of four – or more. The weekends were particularly ‘exciting’ – the 1958 insurrection against the Christian government had started in Tripoli and hill tribes from the Cedars region would ride into town and shoot up Tripoli every weekend!
Over the years I have lost touch with the Homsie family – and I regret that. There have been many times (when the news from Lebanon has been quite distressing) that I have wondered about them – and their safety.
While I was enjoying a brief period of family life – things for David were far from boring! His words… “I fell in love with a Lebanese girl in Beirut – Magda Sabet – but she was not the slightest bit interested in me! I fell in love with Lebanon generally, the Land of Milk and Honey – ex Phoenicia – and its people – and a few years later married my first wife, a Lebanese girl, Yolande, a Greek Orthodox, who I met in London…” but now he’s getting ahead of the story!
David and Denis, driving North through Tripoli, picked me up at the pre-arranged place and time – it was an emotional farewell from my newly adopted family.
We headed North – crossing the Syrian border just South of Homs and almost immediately were surrounded by squadrons of tanks heading South – to the Golan Heights – we later learned. David remembers… “seeing blue eyed boys playing a form of cricket – which surprised us greatly”. On through Tartus and Latakia and further North to Aleppo – and the tank activity continued – something big was beginning – but we didn’t hang around to find out.
A brief visit to the Citadel Mount (actually we just drove around it!) and then we decided to take another one of our ‘famous left turns’ – and ran due West for the Mediterranean coast.
We crossed the Turkish border at Antakya – and for the first time since Tripoli – we stopped for the night. Around 50 CE, Antioch had become the headquarters of Paul during his missionary journeys – and it is believed to be the place where the Jesus following Jews first emerged as a religious group outside Judaism – marking the start of Christianity. Antioch remained the leading centre of Christianity until the 4th century. It mattered little to us – we just felt safer there!
The following morning we moved on to Iskenderun – and stayed several days. A beautiful place – one of the most cosmopolitan in Turkey – with sizeable Christian and Jewish minorities – which coexist well with the Muslim majority. David’s words again… “I absolutely loved Iskenderun and was lucky enough to return in 1998 on our way from London to Cape Town.”
We followed the Gulf of Levante for as long as we could – then North at Adana – through the mountains and into the desert again! Another 500 km of desert! Through Konya and past Lake Taz Golu to the Turkish capital of Ankara. David was not impressed… “Did not think much of Ankara and have been back a few times since – and my opinion has not changed. It was built here to be far away from the Greek border, so that if ever there was a serious conflict the Capital would not be taken easily.”
And the Old Blue Truck was not impressed either – our first major engine break-down forced us to stop in Ankarra for repairs – for two days – while the head came off – and we fixed whatever you fix when ‘the head comes off’. I still have no clue on engines!
We were still 200 miles from Istanbul – so as soon as we could – we headed straight there. The following few days were taken up playing tourist – and taking pictures. The Blue Mosque – Topkapi Museum – the Bosporous – and our last few Suuqs.
We took that famous ferry (there was no bridge in those days) across the Bosporous – and I noticed that David had finally shaved off his beard – we were back in Europe!
Now go to… f. Istanbul to London
A good Atlas of North Africa is here: