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Castel Of Najm

A ford or a bridge across a great river have often led to the growth of a town or the building of a fortress. Here the river is the Euphrates, wide and heavy with mud from the Taurus, flowing between high cliff-like banks. The crossing was the one used on the ancient road from Aleppo to Harran - the traditional trade route across Northern Syria until the 15th or 16the century when a more reliable bridge was built at Birecik where the Euphrates flowed less strongly )on the other side of the present Syro-Turkish border).

The bridge at Qalaat Najm was destroyed by floods and the ford has been rendered impassable by the recent construction of a dam upstream, in Turkish territory. The flourishing towns on each bank are now only a few poor gardens, narrow strips of green standing out against the mud-banks of the river and the dusty plateau.

The fortress remains, a brooding presence within its blank walls; it is a typical Arab citadel, with its great steep glacis up which winds an almost vertical oath, its double range of ramparts with square tapering towers, and its solid entrance fortification.

From a distance the castle is impressive but inside Qalaat Najm is nothing but ruins. A gap in the base of the northern ramparts provides way in. One has to pick one’s way between great lumps of fallen masonry to reach the remnants of some vaulted rooms, now a refuge for eagles, owls and bats. Flights of beautifully paved steps give some idea of the care that went into the original building. Fine Arabic inscriptions in Kufic script adorn the walls of what was once a mosque. The wind penetrates everywhere, whistling between the sections of wall still standing. Archways open on to the void and show what a vast panorama the castle once commanded. Down below the muddy Euphrates flows slowly south, towards Lake Al-Assad where men contrived to hold it prisoner and bend its strength to their service.

The road to Qalaat Najm, although the last part of it is difficult, is not devoid of interest.

Vines and flocks are almost the only resources of the region: carefully cultivated vineyards, patches of deep green here and there on the plateau; flocks of sheep and goats in great numbers, flocks of thirty or forty at least, sometimes as many as a hundred. On the outskirts of Aleppo there are vast walled enclosures with sinister black iron gates where the selected animals are marshaled for sale or slaughter.

There are several villages, consisting entirely of characteristically Syrian houses, mud-walled and with sugar-loaf roofs, well adapted to the climate; they are highly picturesque. The most typical is certainly Al-Bab, a sizable town some 38 kilometers from Aleppo.

Forty-five kilometers beyond Al-Bab, Manbij (where you leave the road to Jarablus for the track to Qalaat Najm) is quite a town, with its double lane boulevards and public gardens dotted with ancient remains.

A few stelae and capitals are only signs of the vanished splendors that the Greek writer Lucian delighted to describe during the 2nd century B.C. dating back to Assyrian times Manbij was famous, when it was called Hierapolis, for its "Syrian goddess" - whom people came from far and near to worship. "Much money flows in from Arabia, Phoenicia and from Babylon", wrote Lucian. "Nowhere are there so many festivals and religious assemblies…". In the principal temple the writer saw many proofs of its foundation by Dionysius: barbarian costumes, precious stones from India, elephant’s tusks brought here from Ethiopia by Dionysius himself. What follows is even more astonishing since it indicates the presence -before the arrival of Christianity and two centuries before Saint Simon - of local ascetics who sat on columns. To be sure, these columns were known as the "phalluses" of Dionysius". Of the god of "the vine, wine and ecstatic delirium" nothing remains, at Manbij, but the vine…

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