Syria is just about the friendliest place you are ever likely to visit. Damascus is between 4 and 5 hours from London. The idea of visiting Syria came from reading a book about the Crusades. It is called 'The Templars - the Dramatic History of the Knights Templars, the Most Powerful Order of the Crusades' by Piers Paul Read ISBN 0753810875 - a serious history book masquerading as an approachable paperback bestseller, but worth reading it you have any interest in the subject, and can stick with it long enough to get past the first few chapters. We travelled with Jules Verne in a party of 16 people. Although not usually fond of package tours, preferring to travel alone, we were attracted by a brochure that fell out of the Sunday papers earlier in the year, which was cheap and visited all the important Crusader sites. The group would have been much larger had we not elected to pay extra for an upgrade to 5 star hotels, so the modest additional cost did not just mean better hotels but a more pleasant experience. we would not usually choose Jules Verne, who have a habit of changing itineraries without any notice and no consultation - they did so several times during our trip. They also use the truly awful Syrian Arab Airlines. But apart from these considerations, the trip was excellent value.
Many tourists, especially Americans will have been deterred from visiting Syria by the increased tension between the Syrian government and the US over the presence of Syrian armed forces in Lebanon and pressure from the Bush administration for these forces to be withdrawn. Syria also shares a border with Iraq. Even so, we did not feel any threat of any kind during our stay in Syria, and unless the political situation changes dramatically, there seemed little reason to postpone a trip to this country. Another misconception is that Syria is mainly arid desert. No so. About a third of the country is green, fertile and very productive.
Damascus is a busy city. The traffic is about as bad as anywhere in the world, with huge number of yellow taxis, pick-up-and-drop minibuses, constant blaring horns, kamikaze pedestrians, no lane discipline, and large number of police waving batons to little effect. Although chaotic, it all seems friendly enough. We stayed in the Semiramis Hotel, which was a good choice being only a few minutes from the Old City. A bit noisy, but comfortable.
There are many sights to see in Damascus. The National Museum is full of antiquities not removed by the French during their mandate, or the Germans or British. It gives a good historical orientation of the cradle of civilisation which is ancient Syria. For us, the glassware from 2000 BC and the artefacts from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) were the highlights of the collections.
Women visiting the huge Umayyad Mosque are required to dress in army-green capes covering head, ears and body down to ankles. The head of John the Baptist is said to be interred in the mosque. Earlier Christian origins are evidenced by the presence of a baptismal font nearby. In one corner is Saladin's tomb. The nearby Souk as-Sagha is uninspiring and not worth a look. A short walk takes you into the Old City proper. Many of the most interesting shops are in or off Straight Street. Damask is a must - look for the Dayeh Brothers shop beside the Chapel of Ananias for the best quality fabrics and some good carpets. Ecclesiastical damask for vestments is one of the specialities of this shop.
The Syrian currency is the £. Conveniently at the time of our visit there are 100 Syrian to 1 UK£. So when you get charged £100 Syrian for a purchase, that's only £1 UK. There are very few ATMs in Syria. We found two in Damascus, which were both out-of-order on our last day. There are none outside Damascus. Hotels do not routinely change currency. You can change money at the airport - don't bother queuing in the arrivals area whilst you are getting your visa - there are plenty of places in the main concourse. The Commercial Bank of Syria is a good choice.
Credit cards are not common either, so your best option is to change a small amount of Syrian £ for everyday use, and to pay for bigger purchases in US $ which are readily accepted almost everywhere. remember though that you cannot import or export any Syrian currency. Like most places in the world (with the exception of the US) the smaller the country, the longer, harder, and more expensive and complex it is to get in and out. That's where the guides come in - they meet the planes and handle the immigration procedures on your behalf.
The difference in Syria is that authority from the perspective of the tourist seems benign. Whether you are negotiating Customs, crossing the road, dealing with officials of businesses and museums and so on - everyone was unfailingly kind, helpful and friendly. In the street, familiarity between men and women is discouraged, but men walk hand in hand, kiss fleetingly when they meet, and are very touchy-feely.
Bosra (Bo- pronounced Bu- as in Bosom not Bo- as in Bottom) is a short drive from Damascus. On the way, you can stop briefly at Ezraa where the small chapel of St. George is being renovated. We admired the icons, and a local family brought us tea and bread as a gift whilst we stood chatting in the sun. Our first example of unexpected Syrian hospitality. Bosra was a large decapolis city. It has been partly excavated but lies in ruins. It was built on by the Byzantines, and is still inhabited by a few families despite efforts by the government to relocate them.
You should see Bosra before Palmyra or any of the other ancient cities. If you saw Palmyra first, you would be disappointed but Bosra is still worth a visit. The theatre dwarfs that of Palmyra or Ephesus. The theatre was fortified and made into a citadel. During the time of the French mandate it was restored. There are seats for 15,000 people. All the stone is basalt, which gives the city a dark and menacing appearance quite unlike the limestone in Palmyra. Then there is the sunken market which can be clearly seen. Like an ancient shopping mall underground shops ranged down each sides of a narrow street providing a welcome escape from the heat of the summer when temperatures rise daily to over 40C. Light and ventilation for the shops was provided by shafts which led to the roadway above. There is still a great deal to discover: the main gate of the city is several metres below today's street level - you can look down on it and appreciate how much material must be hidden beneath your feet.
It is a long drive from Damascus to Aleppo, but there are worthwhile stops on the way. High in the mountains are the religious communities of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, and Ste Thekla. At the monastery of Sergius and Bacchus, there are interesting icons, and two altars which were used for animal sacrifices and must have been re-used in the chapel when Christian worship started. A ridge running around the perimeter of the altars prevented the blood cascading down the outside. There are runoffs for blood to be collected after the animal died. Throughout Syria you find temples of Jupiter which were later taken over by Christians, and finally converted as mosques. Aramaic is still spoken as the first language in the village on Maaloula where the monastery is situated. Whilst we were in the chapel, a young woman spoke the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ himself. Further up the valley you come to the convent of Ste Thekla and its shrine in a cave set into the hillside where the saint was buried.
The modern town of Hama is a further 150km drive. There is not much there to see, but if you have to stop anywhere, it might as well be there in order to see the large, Roman waterwheels. At one time there would have been a large number of wheels powered by the River Orontes, lifting water up into aqueducts for distribution to other cities. Something less than 20 now remain, some in good working order and easily seen from the town square.
Apamea was one of the biggest cities in the Roman empire, and there is a lot left to see. The colonnade alone stretches for some 2,000 metres. Some of the columns are plain, but unusually a number are spiral fluted.
The city was abandoned when destroyed by earthquake, but not before it had been sacked a number of times. On one occasion, the entire population of 200,000 was taken away into captivity. Most of the colonnade and ruins date back to the 1st century AD, but there had been a city at Apamea long before that. Its importance was underlined by the fact that Alexander the Great stationed 500 of his war elephants there.
From Apamea, we drove 125km into Aleppo and stayed at the Chaba Cham hotel.
If you are going to visit the site of the monastery of St. Simeon, an early start is advisable. Not only will you have the place to yourself, free of most tour groups and the ever-present parties of cheerful but noisy school children, but you will also enjoy the peaceful surroundings and get a better appreciation of what it must have been like to live in a religious community on this hill top. The air was clear and crisp as we walked around the ruins. Spring flowers were everywhere, and the sun on the stones produced a magical effect. You could see for miles.
On one end of the hilltop is the church, at the centre of which lies the stump of the column on top of which St. Simon Stylites is said to have lived for many years. During his time atop the column, he had the height raised as he tried to avoid all contact with men, and any glimpse of women. Apparently people flocked to the base of the column hoping to hear a few words from the hermit in his basket up on high. A disciple brought him food which was raised using a pulley. Hopefully the same servant would have cleared away the remains of his natural functions down below.
At the other end of the hill is the monastery, and a baptistery where candidates descended a few steps into a pool of water and then went up a few steps through a door on the far side. A magical place and highly recommended as a 'must see' in Syria.
Before leaving for Aleppo, there is a small cafe under a grove of trees where Turkish coffee is served.
In Aleppo, there is another well-laid out museum, but sadly neglected, perhaps even more so than the one in Damascus. Many of the ancient glass cases are empty. Many more look like they have not been touched since the days of the French. There are more signs in French than in English, not only describing the exhibits but even on the walls.
Many of the larger displays were copies of the originals, which would in itself be sad were it not for the fact that so many pieces were taken by the Germans to Berlin, and subsequently destroyed during the second world war. So at least we have good copies. The ground floor of the museum illustrated civilisation's progress from around 3000BC. The first floor was dedicated to the Islamic period and beyond.
The citadel at Aleppo is one of the major sights. It is a moated castle with sloping walls. A long stepped drawbridge leads up to a series of entrance ways, each heavily guarded and observed from various points above. The sloping entrance is composed of a number of chambers, which twist and turn, with places where arrows can be fired at attackers, or boiling oil and other substances poured on their heads. It looked impregnable.
More welcome visitors could be observed from a number of ports and spy holes set into the walls and ceilings.
The citadel is close to the centre of town, so after a short visit it is possible to dive straight into the Souk for a spot of shopping. Aleppo is known for silks. Soap made with olive oil is also recommended. Sadly, even if it is good for the skin, the smell is similar to household Fairy soap. The bars are square or round, but all are green.
Back in the late 1960's, I studied Theology at St. John's College, Durham. There were always two places in my mind that I wanted to see. One was Masada which we visited some years ago when we were in Israel. The other was Ugarit, or Ras Shamra. Masada was the hill fort besieged by the Romans who built a ramp of earth over a period of some months to attack the fundamentalist Jews who were up there. By the time the Romans broke the siege, the last of the Jews had killed each other, or committed suicide by throwing themselves down from the top.
Ras Shamra was a place where thousands of cuneiform clay tablets were found in an archive. They were a most significant find and provided a large body of information about the activities of the time. The ruins of Ras Shamra are still being excavated, and are not particularly notable, except for an underground tomb which you can visit, and a patch of weeds surrounded by low walls where the tablets were found.
Ras Shamra seems to be a prime spot for Syrian school children to visit, but instead of the usual projects, clip boards, and competitions you might expect, no attempt of any kind seems to be made to show the children anything, or teach them in any way. The teachers lead them round the ruins, whilst the kids happily engage with foreign tourists, saying hello, posing for photos and generally enjoying themselves.
We were told that school children must be taken to places of interest on a regular basis, but it did seem odd that whenever we came across these large groups of kids, only once or twice did we see any evidence of learning taking place.
Our next stop was Saladin's Castle. Lunch was provided in storm force winds by a restaurant overlooking the castle itself. Trying to take a photo of the castle was impossible because of the force of the wind, which threatened to demolish the glass roof. We discovered later on that the weather system caused severe dust storms in Iraq.
Larger vehicles cannot get to the castle, so minibuses ferry visitors up the steep hill to the entrance. It is estimated that 220,000 tonnes of rock were removed from one side of the castle leaving a slim pillar which supported the drawbridge. It took 37 years for all the material to be removed. The giant obelisk stands in the middle of the narrow road leading to the defile which is in permanent shadow, and the steps beyond which go up to the entrance.
We were taken round Saladin's Castle by the leader of the excavation works which he proudly told us were funded by the Aga Khan. If I understood him correctly, he was himself born in the castle. His father was a keeper of the castle before him.
Another major change to the itinerary. We saved a long drive to Hama and back by staying at the Cham Palace Hotel in Safita. It had an out-of-season feel, although Spring is one of the best times to visit Syria. Perhaps it just had a down-at-heels feel. The service was poor, and this was one of the few place we went to which refused to accept US $. In our room, an interesting feature was the toilet built in under the wash hand basin. Some limbo-like movements were needed when getting into position in preparation for other types of movements.
The monastery of St. George and the castle of Krac des Chevaliers are located close to each other, but don't miss the amazing Hosn as Suleiman which can be seen in a few minutes but is well worth a short detour up a steep climb and then down into a valley. Originally a temple to Baal and Astarte from 1900 BC, by 200 AD the Romans had erected massive blocks to create a much bigger temple decorated with reliefs of lions, octopus, goddesses and local deities. The interior building was surrounded by ionic columns and used for animal sacrifices. Not many people visit this place, and so you are likely to have the site to yourself. Look for all the carvings on the underside of the gates and over the pediments.
The monastery of St. George boasts three churches. The earliest was closed when we visited, but we saw the Crusader church and a modern one built above it. Both contained an iconostasis with icons to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. George, St. Basil, St. Nicholas and of course Christ.
There is a good restaurant overlooking the castle of Krac des Chevaliers where the speciality of the house and also of the area is chicken grilled and served with olive oil heavily laced with chopped garlic. The castle itself is not perhaps as impressive as its fame suggests. I preferred Saladin's Castle. But Krac des Chevaliers is wonderfully preserved and restored.
We stayed overnight at the Safita Hotel in Homs. The city has little to recommend it as a tourist destination, but it is well located for visitors to the area. The following morning, we started early for the long, hot and dusty drive across to the East towards Palmyra and the ancient city of colonnades, a small theatre, the Temple of Bel, and the valley of the tombs.
Palmyra is undoubtedly one of the top sights of Syria, and I would say of the whole of the Middle East. Unlike Bosra, the stone is a creamy pink limestone. The city was built alongside an oasis in the middle of the desert, on the Silk Road which explains its wealth and importance.
It should take a couple of days to look at Palmyra, but we only had a few hours to walk around the ruins. A stroll along the colonnaded main street, divided by a large archway which conceals the fact the road runs at an oblique angle and is not really straight, takes you to the market place where all the trading would have been done. There were warehouses where the goods could be stored whilst the head auctioneer stood on a podium and offered spices, cloth, and other items for sale. At night, caravan bosses would have been entertained by the head auctioneer who was the most powerful man in the city.
Nearby is the theatre, not as big or as impressive as Bosra. Then at the far end of the city lies the enclosed Temple of Bel. This temple resembles the description of Solomon's Temple in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is high and contained within a very large area surrounded by high walls and columns. The walls are all pock marked. The reason is that the stones were originally tied together with bronze connectors, but these were hacked out when the city was plundered and melted down to make arms.
Finally, you can visit the valley of the tombs, but you must collect the key holder and drive him to unlock two of the best preserved tombs, one above ground and one below. Inside both were narrow shelves where the bodies were stored, and capped with statues of the deceased person.
Lunch was in a Bedouin tent. Roasted sheep including the head and tongue, but mercifully we were not offered the delicacy of the eyes. Two of our party - Julia and Nicholas Roskill - were celebrating their ruby wedding, having come to Syria on their honeymoon and so we celebrated with a decorated cake and some speeches. A fitting end to the short visit to Syria before we drove back to Damascus and some shopping in the souks and Straight Street before the terrors of the trip back on Syrian Arab Airlines.
Last updated 10 November 2005
Photographs © Robert Wright 2005