The ruins of Mari (Tell Hariri in Arabic) were crucial in furthering our understanding of ancient Mesopotamian culture. Among the great treasures found here were hundreds of statues and a hundreds of clay tablets that provided crucial insight into the language and culture of the ancient Mesopotamian empires. However, despite all this importance, what remains in Mari today for the visitor to see is very little. All the good stuff has been carted away to museums inside and outside of Syria.
The site today is still under active excavation, so perhaps some more impressive stuff will be found in the future, but among the mounds of dirt there is really only one sight that is of any interest, the Palace of Zimri-Lim, dating from around the third millennium BC. What remains today is basically a vast expanse of corridors and courtyards that you are free to explore. Other than that there is not much here to spark the imagination, but for some strange reason that I don’t understand, the sight seems to be a popular stop for tour buses. They will stop here and ignore the infinitely more impressive Dura Europos. I originally wasn’t even planning on stopping by Mari, but since I was already at Dura Europos and had plenty of time, I decided that I might as well hop hitch my way over to Mari, and it really was in the trip the most interesting experiences came from.
All of these sights are rather out of the way, and unless you are on a tour getting to and from the sights, it takes a bit of work. It took me a combination of local mini-buses, some hitching, and a lot of walking to get to my destinations, but, in the end, all this probably turned out to be more rewarding than the sights themselves. On the way back from Mari, I managed to flag down a mini-bus that was heading back to Deir ez-Zor. The mini-bus was completely packed with people, the only seat available being a small space behind the driver’s seat facing the rest of the bus.
So there I sat, towering over the rest of the bus, everyone’s eyes fixed on me and me looking nervously back in their direction. After a few moments of silence, an audacious young guy finally asked the first question all Syrians ask, "Where are you from?" The rest of the bus leaned forward, perking their ears, and awaiting the response. Knowing that I was just a bit over 10km from the Iraqi border, I hesitated a bit, but decided that there was nothing to worry about. So, in Arabic, I told him that I was American but was studying in Damascus. He smiled and started to laugh a bit. When I asked what was funny, he shouted out, "I’m Iranian!" I smiled and the rest of the bus gave out a laugh.
Soon we were in a large game of "Where are you from?" There was a Syrian soldier next to the Iranian. An old man in the middle said he was from Yemen, and a family in the back was Iraqi. We all had a good laugh over the awkwardness of the situation, an American stuck in a bus among a veritable "axis of evil." Then in a scene typical of Syria, we spent the rest of the bus ride joking and laughing without a single mention of politics. For that hour and a half, it didn’t matter where we were from, we were all on the same bus.
The vast majority of travelers in Syria are on a prepaid trip where they are shuttled around in a bus, only getting a glimpse of the Syria the tour guide wants them to see. I feel sorry for these people because they are missing out on one of the greatest aspects of Syria, the hospitality and friendliness of the people. Some of my greatest experiences have been on mini-buses just like this and it’s a shame that most people don’t get to see it.