Ath Thawra Dam, Lake Assad and Qala'at Jaber in Syria

If you are travelling north from the desert, the sparkling blue waters of Lake Assad and the mammoth Ath Thawra Dam will be quite a shock. The contrast in landscape is sudden; the beige plains suddenly giving way to green fields of cotton and corn and pine-forested hillsides with the huge artificial lake stretching far into the distance. Past the dam, the shores of the lake are a popular holiday spot for locals who come here for picnics, rowdy music-filled boat trips and to paddle, fish and swim in the crystal-clear waters. One popular picnic spot is beside the shore of Qala'at Jaber; an impressive Arab castle that sits majestically on its own island on the lake and has impressive views of Lake Assad and the surrounding area.

Ins and outs: Getting there and away

There are regular microbus services from Raqqa to Ath Thawra (45 minutes to one hour), and less regular bus services from Aleppo, though unfortunately there is no public transport from Ath Thawra to Qala'at Jaber itself. You have to either negotiate a ride with a taxi driver in Ath Thawra or try hitching (there is much more traffic on Friday, when many families head out there for a picnic). Bear in mind that services between Ath Thawra and Raqqa tail off towards nightfall. If you are planning to camp the night at the restaurant , the owner will pick you up from Ath Thawra for free.

If you're driving, once you have crossed to the north side of the dam, follow the road for just under 3 km and take the left turn signposted for Qala'at Jaber. The castle is a further 14 km from the turning.

There is a police checkpoint on the road just before the dam where you will need to show your passport and, if driving, register your vehicle in their logbook.

Background

Began in 1963, Syria's massive Ath Thawra dam project took 10 years, and was the country's most ambitious construction project ever. The dam is a remarkable piece of engineering, stretching 4500 m in length and measuring 500 m wide at its base, with its construction creating the huge artificial Lake Assad.

The project's objective was to generate enough electricity through the dam to make Syria self-sufficient as well as to reclaim vast areas of desert for cultivation. However, although its successes have been considerable (especially in irrigating huge areas of desert), the building of several dams upstream in Turkey since its construction has severely diminished the dam's hydroelectric power-generating capacity.

Qala'at Jaber

Standing on a promontory now lapped by the waters of Lake Assad and reached by a narrow causeway, the first views of Qala'at Jaber as you approach are extremely impressive, though you could argue it's the vast expanse of Lake Assad stretching out into the distance that is the real attraction here. Some local fishermen supplement their income by taking tourists out on the lake, and there are numerous excellent picnic spots along its shores.

Before the creation of the lake, the castle guarded an important crossing point on the Euphrates. During the 11th century it was controlled by the local Beni Numeir tribe before falling to the Seljuk sultan, Malik Shah in 1087. Early in the 12th century it fell to the Crusaders and came under the control of the Count of Edessa. Zengi, the ruler of Aleppo, having occupied Edessa in 1144, was assassinated while laying siege to the castle in 1146. Three years later, however, it fell to his son Nur ud-Din, who later carried out extensive rebuilding work. It remained in Ayyubid hands until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, after which it was abandoned, except for a brief period of occupation by the Mamluks.

The walls are perhaps the most impressive feature of the castle. They have been extensively restored, in places quite subtly, but elsewhere with somewhat incongruous modern bricks. Enough of the original brickwork (consisting of small red bricks, typically Mesopotamian in style) survives to give a good idea of how it would have looked originally. Entered via a long sloping ramp and monumental gateway, the inside of the castle is largely in ruins and little has been excavated. In the centre there is a large brick minaret (all that survives of the mosque) and the foundations of various buildings. The main attraction, though, is undoubtedly the spectacular views out over Lake Assad.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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