Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lattakia: Ramitha, Laodicea, ألاذقية

The Syrian blogosphere is replete with Damascenes, Halabis, Homsis and even an irrepressible Tartousi extolling the virtues of their respective towns; but what about the third major city, the principal seaport? What about Lattakia? I know there are some Ladkani bloggers out there but where is their civic pride? Here is my, long distance, attempt to rectify matters with the hope that current Ladkanis will add a more up to date view of the city.

Lattakia is the city of my birth but to me it is but fragments of memory like an old grainy film with long stretches completely faded. Despite that, Lattakia has always maintained a powerful pull on my consciousness. Certainly, the early imprinted memories of childhood, sanitized as they are by time and distance, play a powerful role in this attraction. But it has more to with the fact that in my many adoptive homelands, I have either felt or was made to feel not quite fully at home: I looked different, did not speak the language, spoke with an accent, was not a citizen or was not native born. No one can dispute my "belonging" in Lattakia. It is where I was born, delivered by my own father in my grandfather's old house. To any doubter I can walk up to that old house and show them the room where my mother suffered through twenty four hours of labor before I had the decency to come into this world. The house, thankfully, has recently been designated a historical landmark, not because I was born there it goes without saying, but for its period architecture. This means that we no longer have to pushback relatives lobbying to raze it to the ground to replace it with a apartment block devoid of character or history.

I always remember Lattakia as being a pleasant, laid back and quiet place especially when we would come back to visit from the chaos that is Beirut. Lattakia's history, at least for the past millennium, has been equally quiet and nondescript although its more ancient history is more illustrious. It started out as the Canaanite port of Ramitha, part of the kingdom of Ugarit (photo of Ugaritic prince, left), the famous city about 10 Km up the coast in Ras Shamra. As Ugarit declined Ramitha gained prominence because of its deep natural harbor. It was renamed Laodicea, shortly after Alexander the Great's conquest, in honor of the mother of Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian officer of Alexander's army and the founder of the Seleucid empire. Laodicea thrived under the Romans and was famous for its wine produced from grapes grown on the slopes east of the city. Herod built an aqueduct and Septimus Severus built colonnaded streets. Its influence declined after the Byzantine period as it was ruled a sucession of empires, a history shared by most of the Levantine coast: Persian, Arab, Crusader, Seljuks, Mamluks and Ottomans. Lattakia was also unfortunately repeatedly devastated by numerous earthquakes in the 5th, 6th, 12th, 13th, 18th and 19th Centuries which explains why so few ancient structures have survived -another reason that my grandfather's house should not be destroyed.

Lattakia's population in most references is listed at about 550,000 although the official Lattakia website lists the population at 900,000. It is famous for its beaches, where I and my brothers had our first taste of the sea. An even more picturesque stretch of the coast is Ras Basit, north of Lattakia where the mountains abutt the seashore. Lattakia was also once famous for its scented tobacco, which is now apparently grown in Cyprus. The city is also within short driving distance from several important medieval castles dotting the Syrian coast and the mountains just to the East. Slunfeh is where the people of Lattakia move in the hot summer months. I still remember the drive up to Slunfeh, the lush green field, Salahedin's castle in the distance and the invigorating cool morning air of the mountains.

A short drive up the coast, is its sister city in antiquity, Ugarit. Discovered by accident by a farmer in 1928, excavations at Ugarit have since shown it to be an important metropolis and a cradle of urban culture. Ugarit also developed its own 30 letter alphabet and there is some dispute as to whether Ugaritian or Phoenician alphabets came first (surely no such controversy exists in the minds of die hard Libano-Pheonicians).

Despite the multiple earthquakes that repeatedly destroyed the city, some remnants of its ancient past can still be seen. Perhaps the most famous is the four sided arch built by Septemus Severus (photo top right). Here and there are also remnants of the colonnaded streets, one such column, al-Amoud, stood at the end of the road where we lived. There are also buildings of more recent vintage with ottoman style buildings and a 17th century khan that has been turned into a museum. As with in many Levantine towns, excavations for new buildings continue to reveal, layers of the city's past.

Of course the attraction of the city for me is more personal and sentimental. It is the memory of the kindness of my grandmother and the comfort of the embrace of the extended family. It is where we came back periodically to shed the sense of being strangers; it was and is home.

14 comments:

Majhool said...

you said 3rd largest city. I think you meant 4th largest city unless you have a problem with Homs!!

abufares said...

Abu Kareem
I was in Lattakia only last week on business.
That being said, my business is the sea and I had a chance to spend most of my day staring at its majesty and beauty.
The coast of Lattakia is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean, only if they knew what to do with it, or more precisely, what not to do with it.
We have our differences, Tartoussis and Ladkanis, but yours is one of the most exciting cities in Syria.

Wassim said...

Nice article! I look forward to reading more about Lattakia.

Abu Kareem said...

My mistake Majhool, last thing I want to do is rile up a Homsi!

Abu Fares,
"only if they knew what to do with it, or more precisely, what not to do with it": That is what concerns me; the last thing we need is to have the coast trashed or cemented over like it have been next door in Lebanon.

Wassim,

Thank you for your comment

Yazan said...

Walaw ya abu kareem, ana ladkani metel ma el-3assafeery ladkani...

Aslan, I doubt that anyone who lived by that sea for more than a month can ever forget the feeling.

It is very sad what they did to our Latakia.

The Syrian Brit said...

I always feel that it is a privilege to see a place through the eyes of someone who genuinely loves it.. Your post confirms and solidifies that feeling!..
I too have very fond memories of Lattakia, where I spent many a summer holiday with my parents.. Reading your words brought back all those delightful memories...
Thank you for a most enjoyable read..
And God bless that enlightened official who had the foresight to designate your Grandfather's old house as a historical landmark!..

Raffat said...

Hi Abi Kareem ! I'll write in Arabic this time.. I used to write in English but this time I felt I must do write in my own lunguage so here are my words to whom he can read them in Arabic..شكرا للكلمات كما للمشاعر التي تبقى لامعة في زحام الحياة ..لاذقيتنا الجميلة التي لا تنسى ..لكن أي لاذقية نعني ..هل لاذقية الستينات و السبعينات نفسها اليوم ..فنيسيا و اللاكابان و البحري ورشو ..أم المسابح التي اصبحت مطمورة لكن ليست بذاكرتنا ..في كل مرة آت بها الى لاذقيتي ..أحزن لأنهم قد أغلقوا أو هدوا أو غيرو من وجهها الجميل ..لكن في ذاكرتنا جميعا نحن اللاذقيون تبقى رائحة البحر تملئ أنوفنا في كل مرة تدوس أقدامنا ذلك الاسمنت الذي طمر بحرنا الجميل .. إليك إلى اللاذقيين ,وإلى لاذقيتنا محبة.

Abu Kareem said...

Raffat,

Thank you for your comment. I share your sentiments.

Angela said...

Hello Abu Kareem,

I live in Colorado; some of my ancestors came from Beirut, with the last name of Ladkani. I have been told that the name possibly signifies that my Beiruti ancestors originated from Lattakia. Do you have any toughts on that?

Thank you for your beautiful commentary on the town of Lattakia.

Angela

Abu Kareem said...

Angela,

Thank you for your comment. Yes, indeed, your family name Ladkhani implies that your ancestors likely originated from Lattakia. There are other family names that reflect the city of origin: Homsi (from Homs), Halabi (from Aleppo)or Dimashki (from Damascus).

Surnames were adopted in the Middle East fairly recently; late 19th into the early 20th century, I think. Many people took on the surname of their place of origin or their trade.

Angela Hahn said...

Abu Kareem,

Thank you for your response. Am I correct, that prior to the use of surnames, individuals identified themselves as the son of a certain individual? Such as Jacob Nicholas might have actually been Jacob, son of Nicholas?

Shortly after their arrival to the U.S., the Ladkani family took on the surname David. Do you have any thoughts on that? Was Ladkani possibly too hard to pronounce for Americans? Was David possibly the father of Nesrala Ladkani, the head of the immigrant family?

Thank you,
Angela

Abu Kareem said...

Angela,

Yes, you are correct. Since the adoption of surnames, the middle names are now typically the name of the father.

The Arabic for David is Dawood. That's not an uncommon surname. So there might have been a Dawood mixed in with the Ladkhanis and they just Anglicised it and chose it because it was easier than Ladkhani or they just chose a random Anglo-saxon name.

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invierta en proyectos said...

Nice article! I look forward to reading more about Lattakia.