SyriaBack to Story

A country rich in history and culture

Syria was planned in conjunction with travel to Jordan October 2010.  As neighbours these countries perfectly complement each other.  Our driver who had taken us around Jordan arranged a car to take us across the border into Syria.  As we made our way through the border I was very thankful that we had a local to navigate the process.  While all visas have to be applied for in your home country there still seemed to be a collection of buildings to weave your way through including permits for the car. I couldn’t help but thinking tackling travel across the boarder without a local guide would be a nightmare.

As you near the border traffic becomes thick with cars and trucks carrying all manner of produce. When we questioned our driver there seemed to be a thriving trade of goods and produce between the two countries and vehicles are literally bursting at the seems with anything from cabbages and carrots to bedding.  These couriers push and shove their way through each lineup going to and fro across the border many times a day.

Bosra

With the flexibility of having a car we decide to make a detour to the town of Bosra on the way to Damascus. As we drive through the countryside the landscape has not changed much since we crossed the border.  At first we imagine there to be slightly more market farming but its basically still very rocky and dry.

Bosra is an interesting town with documented ties to the 14th Century BC.  The old city has justifiably been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the main attraction is definitely the old theatre, which is amazingly well preserved.  The theatre dates back to the 2nd Century AD but what you notice immediately is that the stage area is intact.  Many of the theatres I have seen until this point have reconstructed pillars on the stage area. This theatre has pillars and all the walls including some of the surrounding rooms.

As you leave the fortified theatre you can walk around to the north of the old citadel to a Roman ruin, which has been largely unexcavated. You cannot help but marvel that so much of the history of this country still remains buried under centuries of disinterest and, at times, neglect.  As you walk through you can see the remains of the bathhouse and a straight street where the shops probably were.

Driving in Syria was the perfect way to travel around the country because the distances are manageable by road. The road quality is excellent however the signposts were a challenge. Self drive is always an option but could be more hassle that it is worth without some language skills.

Damascus

Our destination is Damascus to stay in the old city to enjoy the surrounds of one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  I know that this is a title often wrestled over, with cities like Varanasi in India. Basically it seems that settlement occurred here as early as the 7th Century BC and potentially even earlier.  Relevant is what you can see today when you travel.

Well it is probably best to try and ignore the ugly new development in Damascus that you will need to drive through to get to the old city.  There is no doubt that there are some very poor areas in this town.  From what I can see the best place to be is in the old town exploring the history and antiquity of Damascus.  The old town is very compact (in fact with decent shoes on you can walk around it fairly easily in a day).

The streets are narrow and many are pedestrian only or what you could loosely call mixed use. Traffic is reasonably heavy and as we found out the hard way avoid the hotels next to the main through roads if you plan on sleeping. We also discovered that 60-day cancellation policies meant we were stuck with what we got.

Damascus is known as being a very liberated city by Middle Eastern standards.  It is considered by many to be the cultural centre and also a centre for education with many universities in this grand old city.  Damascus is a maze of cobblestone streets with interesting architecture and seemingly a respect for the craftsmanship of a by-gone era. Most of the key attractions are around the souks and old citadel.

The spice souks and the sweet souks are probably my favourite to walk through as the colours are vivid and the exotic smells waft out to greet you as you pass by.  Almost without exception the stalls and stores are all run by men, which we will find increasingly noticeable on our journey, especially as we leave the more liberal Damascus and travel to more traditional destinations. The markets really make you feel like you’re in an exotic travel destination. Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice seems to be available on every corner. Feels like it needs to have a mix with it like vodka or gin perhaps. Not likely as its only the tourist restaurants or those in the Christian Quarter who serve any alcohol.

A must do while you are in the neighbourhood is the Umayyad Mosque which deserves its reputation as one of the great mosques in the modern world.  It is amazing once again to think that this great building was finished in 715.  If you are a non Muslim visitor you will be guided to a separate entrance and as a woman will be required to wear one of their full covering garments. With this on you will be able to discretely make your way through the worshippers.

Take your time though and you will notice how important this mosque is to the community.  Whole families are present with children often playing in the large courtyard and their mothers sit in the shade enjoying each other’s company.  Once you get into the pace of watching you will begin to notice the amount of beautiful artwork that adorns the building.  The stunning calligraphy, mosaics, carving and tile work all deserve some time and appreciation.

Azm Palace is very close to the mosque and also well worth having a look around.  This collection of buildings date from the Ottoman Empire dating from 1750 and are excellent restorations of buildings that are “old Damascus”.  The rooms are set up as a museum and offer an insight into how the wealthy of the era lived. The National Museum also contains a room set up with the lavish wooden carved ceilings and trappings of the day. It is also a good place to start on updating your knowledge of Syria if you plan to visit Palmyra or The Dead Cities.

Before we go off travelling I must mention by far the most outstanding food we found was a restaurant on Straight Street called Naranj.  At times it can be crazy busy, which makes booking essential but well worth it.  The food is traditional Syrian and excellent quality with the added bonus you can order a glass of wine with your meal. What more could you need?

Palmyra

From here our driver and guide pick us up for our touring which first takes us across the desert to Palmyra. The journey to the ancient city is an amazing drive.  The landscape changes from the relative lush market gardens to moonscape desert.

My research into these great ruins had indicated it is advisable stay overnight to appreciate both the sunset and sunrise.  It proved to be excellent advice as the ruins glow in the fading light and you can be excused for thinking you have the place to yourself.  One of the first things I notice about Palmyra is the access. This is one of the most historic places in the world and yet the modern road passes through the ruins of the old city. Locals drive right up to some of the pillars and park their cars, ride their motorcycles and ride their camels through the area.  It is particularly amazing when you remember these ruins date back to the 2nd Century AD.

The Temple of Bel is an amazing place to visit as the sun is setting.  This temple is the best-preserved part of the old city.  The original work was in the 2nd Century as a temple to Bel a Semitic god.  Additions have been made by Arab conquerors and the temple has been a mosque in its history.  Standing in the middle of the main temple you cannot help but be in awe of the scale and longevity of what was achieved by these ancient civilisations.  This feeling stays like an angel on your shoulder for many of the historical sights in Syria.

A large castle, which is not a destination in its own right, dominates the skyline but is a magnificent viewpoint looking back over Palmyra.  It is from this height that you can see the scale of the ancient city and imagine what life might have been like when this trading town was at its height.  The castle is in a fabulous location at sunset offering views over the valley in the fading light and then also a spot for seeing the sun set over the mountains on the other side of the castle.

Crac de Chevaliers, Hama and The Dead Cities

Our next stop is the ancient water wheel town of Hama but on the way is certainly one of the world’s best examples of a crusader castle, Crac de Chevaliers. This amazing fortress dates from 1031 and was one of the strategic defensive strongholds during the crusader period of the 11th to 13th centuries as Catholicism battled for dominance in the Middle East. The castle was extended and fortification increased during the reigns of different conquerors. It is believed that up to 2000 people lived in the castle at any given time.  Today you can see where the cannons were fired, where horses were stabled and food cooked and stored.

Hama is the best city to stay in close to the castle and also allows for easy access to the Dead Cities.  The main attractions for the city are its norias or water wheels, which date back to the 14th Century. Water levels have since dropped to a point where none of them seem to be active but despite this they are amazing pieces of engineering to visit and marvel over the minds of the people who built all this without pumps or machinery.

An easy drive north and you can discover the Dead Cities, which are an interesting freak of history. The Dead Cities are a long abandoned collection of approximately 700 villages, which date back to the 5th Century BC. A guide and/ or driver is definitely required to reach this area.  Today you can see Byzantine ruins, which mean you, can see houses and places of worship. The landscape is harsh and rocky making you wonder why people settled here at all.

Historians have tried to deduce what caused the people to abandon these cities or villages at the time.  Some say people moved to more convenient areas for trade and more hospitable places for farming. You can certainly understand that as you stand in the heat. Others believe a combination of disease and famine wiped out the population.  Either way it makes a fascinating journey and brings this ancient history to life.

Well worth the journey further on is the Church of Simeon Stylites. This amazing church was built to honour a Christian saint who died in 459 and has an intriguing story.  Simeon lived for 37 years on a pillar to be closer to his god.  Pilgrims would apparently seek his advice and guidance as a holy man.  It was after he died that this church was built around the pillar, which has since been worn down.  The Church was built in 475 AD and has been a place of pilgrimage since.  From one of the vantage points you can see a nearby village where pilgrims typically stayed when making their voyage.  We were lucky to visit in the glow of afternoon light when the busloads of tourists were leaving.

Aleppo

Our final destination in Syria was Aleppo. Aleppo is dueling it out with Damascus for the oldest continuously inhabited city and claims to date back to the 6th Century BC.  Finally we had lucked upon the perfect hotel in the old Muslim area in the city. Beit Salahiem was a perfect location for exploring the city and a welcome haven in all aspects.  It remains the only hotel during our stay that was quiet making it all the more peaceful.  There are a couple of good restaurants and bars just to top off our excitement.

Aleppo we found to be perhaps a little more conservative in dress than Damascus. We found more of the woman chose to be fully covered and rarely walked unaccompanied.  By this time in our journey we had become increasingly aware of the lack of interaction we had with local women, as they are not in the workplace. It began to feel strange not seeing any women serving food, behind the shop counters or acting as tourist guides.

Aleppo has a famous souk with an estimated 16km of small shops.  The olive soap and products are famous in this area and you can pop in a see the ancient factories in the old part of town.  You can lose time just wandering around the small laneways in this ancient city.

The Citadel is also a fascinating place to visit. This medieval fortified palace is interesting on so many levels.  It offers insight into the architecture and art of the times but also daily life. The throne room has an amazing ceiling that is a collection from great buildings in Aleppo and Damascus and is a masterpiece.  There are also plenty of views out over Aleppo from many of the vantage points.

Finally, we travel through the countryside, and were lucky enough to have a guide who helped us find and visit one of the traditional beehive houses. Our guide grew up in a local village not far from Aleppo, which has some of the few remaining traditional desert homes.  These homes reflect a simple rural life where families live and cook in these amazing homes.  We were fortunate to visit one of the families living in these houses and were sad to hear that the knowledge to build and maintain these homes lies in a very elderly population and risks dying with their generation. The younger generation often has to travel huge distances and sometime overseas to find enough work. Sadly they often spend long periods away from their young wives and children.

Travel photographs Syria. Images of travel from Palmyra, Hama, Damascus, Aleppo and Crac Des Chevaliers. Images from the Dead Cities and Church of St Simeon. Images from the border town of Bosra and citadel. Beehive houses in country near Aleppo.

Back to Story

ZeeGlobe Feedback