The 2nd Pyramid is about 200 metres down the road from the 1st, on the other side. You need to walk through an olive grove to get to it. This is the biggest of the three pyramid tombs and the most impressive. Although the top half of the pyramid has gone, probably as a result of the earthquake in the 12th century, the structure is highly decorated and inside there are still five sealed sarcophagi, protected by a metal grille over the entrance. You can still peer inside and see them clearly.
About halfway between Hama and Apamea, towering over a small village is the Castle of Shaizar. Although the hill had been settled since at least the first century AD, the castle was only built in the 10th century by Fatimid rulers. Since then, the castle has been occupied by several empires and dynasties, including the Byzantines in their brief re-occupation of Syria. Qala'at Shaizar was an important castle in the Arab resistance against the Crusaders. The castle was later destroyed and rebuilt several times due to earthquakes and Mongol invasions. The latest restorations were made in the 13th century under the Mamluke rulers Baibars and Qalawun, but the castle was later neglected and fell into disrepair.
At 30 minutes from Hama, Qala'at Shaizar makes a nice quick day trip from the city. Even better would be a stop on your way to Apamea. Due to the shortage of time, my travel companions and I did not stop to visit the castle when we drove from Hama to Apamea in December 2006 and again in March 2008. Instead, we had to make do with a glance and quick poor-quality photos (see attached). Guidebooks state that visits are permissible and could take up to a whole hour to complete. Perhaps next time!
Situated one hour north-west of Hama, Apamea is a must see for anyone visiting the region. Founded in 300 BC during the Seleucid period, this city flourished under the Romans and remained important until Crusader times. The city was destroyed in the two major earthquakes of the 12th century and was never rebuilt. The archeological site is most picturesque, with panoramic views of al-Ghab Valley and Ansariyeh Mountains, and contains one of the longest and best preserved Roman colonnaded roads in existence. Other attractions include the medieval castle built on the site of the ancient acropolis, and a museum exhibiting mosaics excavated in Apamea housed in an Ottoman-period khan. It is said that Cleopatra and Marc Antony made a stop in Apamea after their marriage. Surely, this is enough of a reason to visit! For additional photos and tips, click on Apamea.
The most magnificent of all Crusader castles, and possibly of all medieval castles around the world, Krak des Chevaliers, is located just over an hour away from Hama (south then west via Homs on the motorway). Although its origins go back to the 10th century, it wasn't until the Crusaders occupied it that it was turned into this formidable defence structure. After the departure of the Crusaders, the Mamlukes continued its fortification. Hama's central location makes it a perfect departing point for a day trip to Krak des Chevaliers. Count 1h15m of driving each way. For more on this fairy tale castle, check out my Krak des Chevaliers page.
Hama is a great departure point for discovering central and western Syria. There are numerous Crusader and Arab castles (which often battled against each other), and ancient sites, as well as dead cities (further north). The most famous of such sites near Hama are the Crusader Castle of Krak des Chevaliers, the Roman city of Apamea, and perhaps also the Byzantine dead city of Serjilla. The best method of transport is via private car with a local driver, which could be hired at a relatively inexpensive price. For more freedom (as we did), you could rent your own car, but beware, the roads and signs are not the best.
Any road trip outside Hama, whether to discover Crusader and Arab castles or ancient sites, one is likely to drive through the farmlands surrounding the city. Only upon seeing these highly fertile grounds does one understand why this region was named the Fertile Crescent. Attached are some photos of the Hama countryside and its farmlands.
Al-Bara's third pyramid tomb is the most incomplete. Less than a quarter of the pyramid roof remains. It seems that it is usually overlooked as it doesn't get mentioned in any of the guide books. Perhaps this is because it is the farthest from the road. You have to walk through olive groves then clamber through the undergrowth to get to it. I was quite surprised to happen upon it.
Al-Bara's pyramid tombs are fascinating structures. They were built by Byzantine Christians in the 5th and 6th centuries. Inside them you can still see the stone sarcophagi. The smallest and most complete tomb is known as the 1st Pyramid. Its pyramid roof is still in excellent condition. It is the closest pyramid to the road so it is the first one you will see. You can go inside it where you will see three broken sarcophagi, illuminated by a shaft of light from a small hole in the apex of the pyramid.
Al-Bara is the largest of the Dead Cities. It is located in the triangle between Hama, Lattakia and Aleppo, but it is nearer to Hama. You can reach it by taking the Maarat al-Numan turn-off from the Hama-Aleppo highway or you can arrange a day trip, by taxi, from your hotel in Hama and combine it with Apamea and some other Dead Cities.
Al-Bara was founded in the 4th century and by the 5th and 6th centuries it was a thriving commercial and religious centre, with an economy based on olive oil and wine production. In 1098 it was occupied by the Crusaders, led by Raymond St. Gilles, who from here attacked the neighbouring city of Maarat al-Numan, where they ate the local people. The Crusaders were driven out in 1123 by the Muslims. But, the city was destroyed by an earthquake in the late 12th century and has remained largely abandoned and overgrown ever since.
You can spend hours exploring the ruins. A covenient country lane winds through the middle of them. By clambering over drystone walls and through olive goves and bushes you can discover pyramid tombs, monasteries, churches and houses. I found three pyramids when according to the guide books there are only two. The place really is deserted and largely unexplored. When I was there I didn't see any other visitors. Make sure you have food and water and that you are well-protected from the sun.
Musyaf, or Masyaf, is known a the Assassins' castle. It is 40km west of Hama. There were ancient defensive structures here before the Crusaders, led by Raymond St. Gilles, captured it in 1103. They sold it to their allies, the Banu Aquid clan in 1127. It was taken over by the Ismaili Assassins in 1140. From here they launched their attacks, by stealth, against the leaders of both the Crusaders and Saladin's Ayyubid army.
The Assassins were finally defeated by the Mameluke leader, Beybars, in 1270.
The castle we see today is a combination of the work of both the Crusaders and the Assassins.
Arriving at Sarouj, you have the feeling that you are not longer in the Middle East; strange conic structures, made of mud bricks, lay side by side. These are the famous beehive houses. The beehive houses are simple buildings of one room with thick walls and no windows, constructed on a way to have a constant temperature inside. Although they were used as family residence in the past, in nowadays they are used to store food for the animals or the animals itself. In Sarouj you can have tea in a beehive house and have an idea of how these houses use to be in the past, when they sheltered people.
Qasr ibn Wardan was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 564AC and it is a typical sample of an early Byzantine architecture. This complex of a palace, church and barracks was constructed of black basalt and yellow bricks and it was probably the residence of the local governor. The first building the visitor sees is the palace; there are remains of stables and a bath complex, but the barracks have been destroyed. The church, built in the same way with the palace, stands on the west. Admission 75SP. No set opening hours.
40 km west of Hama, on the top of a hill, there is the beautiful castle of Musyaf. From 1140 till the end of the 13th century, Musyaf was the headquarters of the Assassins, an Ismaili mystical sect. It is said that the Assassins took their name from the word “hashish” which they used to smoke when they were preparing themselves for the battle, and they were so charismatic at the combat that they had gained not only the respect of both Crusaders and Muslims but also a great political power. After two attempts against his life, Saladin tried to take over Musyaf but for unknown reasons he called off the attack and made a truce with the Ismailis. About a century later, the Mamluk sultan Beybars attacked Musyaf and the Assassins were defeated. Today, the castle is under restoration, and some queer things (electrical lamps hang from the ceiling of few rooms) are expecting the visitor. But, if you leave your imagination free while wandering at the dungeons of Musyaf, you have the feeling that shadows of the Assassins are watching you hidden in the dark. Admission 75SP. Open 8am-6pm (April-October), 8am-4am (November-March). Close on Tuesday. You can visit Musyaf by minibus from Hama or Homs.
Seleucus I, a former general of Alexander the Great, founded Afamia in the 3rd century BC. The town was named after his Persian wife and soon became a significant trading post. In nowadays, Afamia is a site that shouldn’t be missed. It is located about 1 km north of the main road and can be visited by microbus from Hama.
Admission 150SP. No set opening hours.
This extraordinary Castle of the Knights is one of the major Syrian’s sightseeing. Located on a hill about 10km north of Homs, it is one of the most well preserved Crusaders’ castles in the world. The Emir of Homs was the first who built a fortress at this location in 1301. In 1099 the First Crusaders while “visiting” the place on their way to Jerusalem, took it over. Few years later, in 1110, the Christians Knights attacked the fortress again. Krak Des Chevalier took its final form in 1142 by the Knights Hospitaller and was kept in their hands until 1271, when the Mamluk Sultan Beybars attacked it. The castle is constituted of two parts: the outside wall and the inner fortress. Admission: 150SP. Open daily 9am-6pm (April-October), 9am-4pm (November-March). To visit Krak, there are regular buses departing from Homs.