|A gigantic mausoleum|
Coming from Damascus you turn right here for Palmyra, left for Crac Des Chevaliers, and you cross the whole town from south to north to get to Hama. The visitor very often remembers Homs merely for its traffic jams. A crossroads, an industrial town, a town repeatedly struck by earthquakes throughout its history. Homs seems to lack tourist "attractions" insofar as the word implies the picturesque or the unique. The fact is generally recognized, but it is not necessarily a serious shortcoming.
The citizens of Homs accept the situation philosophically; for their concerns and their hopes lie elsewhere - in the economic development of their town which is the natural consequence of its geographical situation. Half-way between Damascus and Aleppo and at the beginning of the rich Orontes valley, Home moreover commands the famous "gap" that takes its name -the sole easy line of communication between Syria’s coast and her hinterland. History is now paralleled by economics. The modern oil-pipelines follow the route taken by the armies and caravans of old. The most important oil refinery in Syria, on the western outskirts of Homs on the road to Tartous, has already been enlarged on two occasions. Petrol trucks leave Homs in all directions.
A sugar refinery, spinning mills, silk and rayon weaving, the hydroelectric works at Rastan all show the way in which all shadow the way in which the region is development ping. Metallurgical industries, fertilizer plants for the treatment of phosphates from Palmyra, new textile factories to process the cotton from around Lake Qattineh, the lake upstream from Homs itself, all assure the economic future of the city.
It is already a busy place with more than 1,300,000 inhabitants.
Traffic is heavy even on the outskirts and grows even denser around the rather curious concrete clock-tower which marks the center of the city. It also marks the end of the boulevard Shoukri al Kouwatly, tree-lined and bright with flowerbeds. Along this road, as broad as an esplanade but not particularly long, there are cinemas, restaurants and attractive cafés whose numerous little tables are often arranged in the gardens named after the poet Deeik al Jinn. In Homs there is a theatre, an Arab cultural center, a folklore and archeology museum where works of art from different eras exhibited. The fortified walls have disappeared apart from two half-ruined gateways incorporated into neighboring buildings -the Damascus and Tadmor Gates. The Great Mosque, on the continuation of the Hama road, near the eastern entrance to the souks, has a minaret of some elegance. The souks themselves are nothing very special, only many brocade merchants.
The only truly spectacular monument is the mausoleum containing the tomb of Khaled Ibn Al Walid, the great commander of the Muslim armies who brought Islam to Syria in 636. The building, a recent construction, has enormous metal domes which are dazzling in the sunshine. It is situated in the northern part of the city, to the right of the Hama road, behind an esplanade planted with flowers. Two very tall white stone minarets lend a certain lightness to the imposing structure: rising from a square base the octagonal shafts splay out towards ruff-like balconies, then rise again, slender and fluted, to terminate in bulbous lantern. The courtyard of the mosque, adjacent to the mausoleum, is bordered by delicate arcading whose supporting walls, decorated with alternating bands of black and white stone, echo traditional Syrian motifs.
Homs has a numerous Christian minority which has long been established in the eastern part of the city. There are many churches there, small modest buildings for the most part. One of them claims to possess "The girdle of the Blessed Virgin." The Church of St. Elian commemorates the only son of a high Roman official, governor of Homs (Emesa) at the end of the 3rd century, who died a martyr for his faith at the hands of his own father. His ancient, purely local cult was revived after centuries of neglect, when a series of fine frescoes was discovered in the church in 1970. Today bear inscriptions in Greek and Arabic and date from the end of the 12th century; a layer of plaster had fortunately preserved them for posterity. There are traces of 6th century mosaic under the painting. In 1973 the whole church was completely restored and its walls were covered with more frescoes -depicting more than a hundred figures- of rather a different order artistically from the earlier medieval ones.
There was another discovery in this same quarter, in 1957, when roadwork revealed the entrance to a network of catacombs. The locals of Homs had long been accustomed to talk of the "magharats" (cellars) under their houses, but no excavations had been conducted to test these rumors. Only the beginnings of a few underground passages have been explored so far, but experts agree that beneath ancient Emesa there was a whole network of galleries where the Christian buried their dead, from the 3rd to the 7th centuries. Some of these tombs had mosaic decorations. Coins, glass, liturgical vessels, and gold jewelry from this site are on display in the National Museum in Damascus. The actual excavations are closed to the public for fear of the danger that the vaults may collapse.
These discoveries shed new light on the history of Homs, a history that is marked by the four Homs women who became Roman Empresses -Julia Domma, Julia Maesa, Julia Mammea and Julia Soemia. Furthermore, Homs has the glorious status of being the birthplace of the man who was declared Roman Emperor in 218 by legionaries based in Syria.
He was fourteen years old and was priest of the Emesa sun temple. When he became Emperor of Rome, he took the name of his god: El Gebal, hence the name Elagabalus in Latin and Heliogabalus in Greek. An illuminated adolescent passionately absorbed by mysticism, Elagabalus remains famous for his bloody executions; these became so outrageous that himself was finally murdered by the Praetorian guard. In a rare moment of lucidity he adopted his cousin, Alexander Severus, as his successor.
Out a long road to Tartous, just after passing the oil refinery, an enormous expanse of blue comes into view on the left and seems to extend right to the outlying hills of the Anti-Lebanon range. This is the Lake of Homs, or Lake Qattineh, which extends over 60 square kilometers -a tenth of the area of the new Lake Al Assad on the Euphrates. It is fed by the nahr al Assi (the river Orontes), swollen by the snows and torrents of the nearby mountains. Its waters are famous for their abundance of fish. One main canal, 60 kilometers long, supplies the whole city of Homs with drinking water, and a whole network of secondary channels provide for the irrigation of some 20,000 hectares.
The banks of the lake are steep in places and rather inaccessible; there is no road right the way round. Yet this is not an entirely modern reservoir. The retaining dam and many of the ancillary works have been consolidated and extended in recent years, but the first dam to regulate the flow of the Orontes is said to have been built in the middle of the second millenium B.C., after the defeat by the Egyptians of the powerful neighboring city of Qadesh (the victory of Tutmose III at Megiddo, about 1468, and the campaigns of Amenophis II, 1438-1412, against the Hittites). At Karnak, in upper Egypt, there is a battle scene entitled "the ravaging of Qadesh."
The site of Qadesh has been identified as Tal Nabi Mend, some 6 kilometers upstream from the lake, on the left bank of the Orontes, overlooking the river about thirty meters away. )It can be reached by track from the village of Qusayr, 25 km south of Homs). Diggings have recently been started there again and have revealed mudbrick walls; archaeologists have shown that the site was occupied at least from the Hyksos period up until Roman times.
Another ancient site demonstrates the importance of this region over thousands of years. This Qatna, near the present-day village of Mushrifa, 15 km north-west of Homs on the road to Salamiyeh. The town, perched on a rocky hillock, was surrounded by four kilometers of rampart walls, with gateways and defensive works, built of enormous blocks of stone -all characteristic features of Hyksos fortification (mid-2nd millenium).
Another place of interest, a modern one this time, is the village of Forgloss (or Furqlos), 40 kilometers from Homs on the road to Palmyra. Almost all the houses are built in the sugar-loaf style, characteristic of Northern Syria. The oldest are used to house pigeons and poultry but the more recent are lived in and are indeed marvelously well-adapted to the local climate. Their interiors are dark and the temperature inside never varies. The main -often the only- item of furniture is a huge chest, often beautifully painted, with applied decoration. The local inhabitants are most hospitable to passing visitors who will often be invited to visit their homes.