Travels in Syria
Travels in Syria
It is possible to fly directly to Damascus but I chose to cross by land at the border with Lebanon. The drive was very beautiful and the border crossing much quicker than anticipated, taking around 45 minutes in total to clear customs at both sides. An army general wished me ‘welcome to Syria’ and the border guard made me a coffee. A warm welcome.
One of the first things you notice are that there are photos of President Assad everywhere.
Many believe Damascus to be the oldest city in the world, its beginnings date back to a time before history was recorded. Being at the crossroads of Asia and Africa made it extremely important in terms of trade and culture. It has been called ‘the Pearl of the East’. The Aramaens, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Mamlouks and Ottomans all ruled the city and all left their mark. Around the city are 125 monuments from different areas of history.
Syrian independence was declared in 1919 with Damascus as its capital. It was short lived. After World War I the Ottoman territories were divided and Syria was put under French mandate. Wars, coups and a 3 year union with Egypt followed. In 1970 Hafiz al-Assad led a successful coup and went on to rule the country for 30 years. After his death in 2000 he was succeeded by his son Bashar.
In March 2011 pro democracy protests sprang up around the country, as the influence of the Arab Spring uprisings reached Syria . They were met with extreme force. Opposition militia’s formed, there were also outside influences. The situation developed into a full blown civil war. The UN Human Rights Office estimated that over 36,000 civilians were killed in the conflict which lasted over 10 years.
What to see and do
The Old City was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is surrounded by 3 miles of ancient walls. The majority of the population of Damascus are Sunni muslims. Minority groups include Druze, Kurds and Circassians. There is also a notable Christian population and a Palestinian community. The once substantial Jewish population has decreased in recent years.
The exchange rate made me into a millionnaire. This is $150,
Al – Hamidiyah Souk
This is the largest soul in Syria and covers a large area of the old town.
Its entrance is flanked by a colonnade of Roman columns.
It didn’t escape the civil war unscathed. You can see the light shining through the bullet holes in the roof.
The souk is also home to the oldest and most famous ice – cream shop in Syria. Bakdash has been making ice – cream for 127 years.
The demand is certainly high.
I was invited to help.
Then of course to sample the finished product.
The National Museum of Damascus
Such an interesting place to visit. It is the largest museum in Syria covering 11,000 years of history. Take a guided tour, the guide was so knowledgeable. There are some wonderful artefacts and statues both inside the museum and in the lovely gardens.
When the civil war reached Damascus 300.000 artefacts were quickly taken from the museum and hidden in secret locations and the museum closed it’s doors. The museum reopened in 2018.
One of the main attractions is the lion of Al-lat. It previously adorned the temple of the same name in Palmyra. It was badly damaged during the Isis destruction of Palmyra. It was taken to the museum and painstakingly restored. One day soon it will be returned to Palmyra.
Inside there are 5 wings charting different periods of history. There is a tablet inscribed with the world’s 1st alphabet. There is also the reconstruction of a 3rd century Palmyrene tomb.
Using 3d modelling Italian artists replicated part of the ceiling of the Temple of Bel, which was destroyed by Isis. It was presented to the museum. Itis hoped that one day the whole temple can be recreated.
This is also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus and is the oldest surviving stone mosque, completed in 715. It measures 157 metres long and 97 metres wide. It’s minaret is 77 metres high.
It is very impressive on the inside. It contains a shrine which is considered to be the burial place of the head of John the Baptist.
Next to the mosque is the tomb of one of the greatest Muslim leaders, Saladin. He ruled as Sultan of Syria and Egypt and his armies fought against the Christian Crusaders. Saladin and Richard the Lionheart grew to have mutual respect for each other.
Caravanserai were inns built around a courtyard where merchants and travellers could find food and shelter. They were also places where goods could be exchanged and markets held. They could be found along the Silk Road and other main trade routes.
This one is called Khan As’ad Pasha Khan, built in 1751 it covers an area of 2,500 square metres. It was beautifully restored in 1990.
Hejaz Railway Station
This was a narrow gauge railway which ran from Damascus to Medina.it was also used to transport soldiers. The plan was to extend the line all the way to Mecca but the outbreak of the 1st World War put a stop to this.
One of the old locomotives stands in front of the old station.
The Handicraft Market
A good place to see local crafts people at work and purchase hand made goods. It is park of A-Tekiya Al-Suleimaniya
Take a Turn in the Story Telling Chair
In one of the oldest bars in Damascus there is an old tradition. Here there is a storytelling chair. People sit in the chair, don a red Fez, hold a ceremonial sword and tell a story. Of course I couldn’t break with tradition.
One of my favourite pastimes was wandering around the streets of the old town, just taking in the sights, sounds and smells and soaking up the atmosphere.
Food and Drink
Food was a huge part of my trip, the food in Syria is wonderful, fresh, fragrant and colourful. During the day and the evening the old town is full of lovely aromas from vendors cooking delicious street food. I tried to sample as much as possible.
The Best Falafel in Syria
This is quite a claim made by this shop but I wouldn’t disagree. They make falafel making into an art.
There are some wonderful bars and restaurants too. I loved the mixture of ancient and modern,
Then their was the hotel breakfast!
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Beit Al Wali hotel was in a fantastic spot in the old town. It is a converted 17th century villa set around a courtyard with a fountain and citrus trees. It was very beautiful with so much character.
Lunch with a Local Syrian Family
I was invited for lunch with a local family. It was so good. The aunt of the family, on the left, used to be a cook and has cooked for many famous people. During the conflict the whole family were in their car when a bullet from a sniper entered and killed her 14 year old daughter. She wanted to turn her grief and loss into something positive so retrained and now runs a kindergarten in memory of her daughter.
The mother and her 2 daughters in the picture lost their house and all their possessions when their village was destroyed. They can’t go back as the area is still controlled by Islamic militants. The father left to work in the Lebanon for 5 years. A very moving experience.
The town of Maaloula is one of the earliest Christian settlements in the world. Legend has it that St. Thecia, a disciple of St.Paul, lived here and it is where she was murdered. Legend has it that she converted to Christianity against her father’s wishes. She was persecuted and being persued with nowhere to go, asked god to open up the rock for her. He did so and created a passage through the rocks, which we walked through yesterday.
She was eventually caught. First they tried to burn her but she walked through the flames . Then they tried to feed her to the lions but the lions sat tamely by her side. Finally they beheaded her. Her shrine in the church is a major pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims.
In 2013 Jihadists groups aligned to All Queda advanced from the forest above the town. They made their headquarters in the hotel that sat on top of the cliff, firing down into the town. They looted and damaged the church, gouging out the faces on the ancient icons and tried to set fire to the cathedral.
They kidnapped 13 nuns and held them prisoner for 3 months. During the fierce fighting between the Jihadists and the government forces, of a population of 3,300 only 500 remained.
After infense fighting for almost a Year government forces retook the town. The church and cathedral have been restored.
The town still shows many battle scars.
They still speak Aramaic here and hearing a recital in the church in this ancient language was beautiful.
On top of the hill sits what was once a luxury hotel. When the Jihadists occupied the town they made the hotel their headquarters. This is what it looks like now.
Aleppo was by far my favourite city in Syria. There was such a feeling of optimism about it and such a warmth. I was serenaded by old and young, my cheeks were sore from so many people squeezing them.
The young people serenading me here are all trainee architects.
These young women asked for a photo with me before squeezing my cheek.
Many cultures have ruled over Aleppo and these very different cultures all left their influence on the city. It has also had its share of disasters. When the Mongols conquered Aleppo in 1260 they massacred its inhabitants. In 1348 it was devastated by an outbreak of the plague. However in the 16th and 17th century it was the 3rd largest city in the Ottoman Empire.
The civil war reached Aleppo in 2012 and heavy fighting continued for another 4 years until December 2016 when opposition fighters surrendered to the Syrian army in a deal that provided them with safe passage out of the city. The city paid a heavy price, it suffered more damage than anywhere else during the war. An estimated 31,000 had been killed and an estimated 33,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed. This included many in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the old town. 7.5 million dollars worth of damage was caused.
Life carries on, the shops below still open.
As we approached Aleppo by road, the devastation in the outlying areas was distressing. There were so many abandoned villages, the houses in ruins.
Of course Aleppo was very badly destroyed, especially the old city. The contrast was very moving. There is a fabulous citadel however the buildings directly opposite it show the true true brutality and devastation of war. They sit next to colourful restaurants where people are enjoying food and a shisha. Unlike Homs this city is being rebuilt. It has a huge energy and much more of an optimistic feel .
This is one of the oldest castles in the world and also one of the largest. the interior has been damaged by earthquakes, invasions, civil war and the elements. It is nevertheless impressive. The old walls and entrance are well preserved. From here boiling oil would be poured on invaders.
Built on a limestone cliff, its outline dominates the city skyline.
Lots of conservation work was carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. it was severely damaged in the Battle of Aleppo during the civil war but reopened in 2017 and repairs are making good progress.
Inside are palaces, mosques, secret passages and the remains of a 3rd century temple dedicated to the storm god Hadad.
One of the most impressive sights is the Throne Hall. Built in the 12th century this grand hall was used for entertaining and official functions.
There are also wonderful views from the citadel walls.
The Old Souks
Many of the old souks were destroyed or damaged in the conflict.
Standing on top of one of the old souks, it was easy to see the damage but also the massive rebuilding project taking place in the city.
One by one the souks are being rebuilt.
Some of the old souks did survive in tact with all the old character and atmosphere.
The Baron Hotel
This is a piece of history. It’s the Baron Hotel, the oldest hotel in Syria built in 1911.
Lawrence of Arabia stayed here.
So did Winston Churchill and Yuri Gegarin. It was here that Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express and her room is shown in the photo.
It was from the balcony of the Baron Hotel that Syrian independence was announced in 1947.
Little has changed since those days.
Sadly the hotel is no longer open. It was struck by mortar attacks 5 times during the war and there is no longer electricity. Although the odd hardy guest does stay there to experience a bygone age.
I’m not sure the prices have stayed the same.
The old manager died during the war but his widow Madame Rubina still resides here and welcomes visits and friends to the hotel. She was feeling unwell on the day of our visit so I didn’t meet her.
It was such a privilege to be shown around, to be able to look through the old photo albums and see the old posters advertising a forgotten age. I hope that one day the hotel will reopen, it would be sad if this slice of history was lost.
Aleppo is also famous for the production of soap. The Zanabili soap factory is the oldest in Aleppo and has been producing soap for 1,000 years. What makes it special is the use of olive oil and bay laurel oil. Of course, I had to put my stamp on it. The smell was amazing and I’m still using the soap, it is wonderful.
A very large bar of soap.
Aleppo Old Town
One of my favourite pastimes is to wander the old town soaking up the sights and atmosphere.
A Cave Bar
There are modern bars and restaurants in Aleppo but I loved this old cave bar and restaurant.
It was also a good place to try the local firewater.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Laurus Hotel
Hama lies on the banks of the Orontes river. There has been a settlement here since prehistoric times. It is famous for its huge wooden water wheels.
Built in the 14th century they measured between 10 – 22metres in diameter. They were used to pick up water in wooden buckets and deposit in the the aqueducts which provided drinking water for the town and irrigation for the fields. 17 of the original 32 wheels remain.
This is where I had one of my favourite experiences of the trip. So if there’s a party happening I’ll find it. This one was held in the old palace. Our visit coincided with an event which happens once a year to celebrate the achievements of the children during that school year. Proud parents had come from Hama nd the surrounding villages.
The celebratons already been going for 2 hours when I got there. I missed the children’s performances but did get to see some of their work.
I was in time for traditional music, sword playing and dancing.
When I arrived I was mobbed. Everybody wanted photos with me, young and old, male and female. I was surrounded. Everyone was hugging me, blowing me kisses, pinching my cheek and telling me how beautiful I am. No wonder I like Syria.
Of course I was also invited to take part in the performance.
Hama has a sad history too, it is also known for the massacre and siege which took place there in 1982.
The city of Hama was the centre for the Muslim brotherhood, who orchestrated attacks against the Assad regime and anti-government uprisings. On the 2nd February over 12,000 government troops surrounded Hama. They were led by President Assad’s brother, Rifaat. Bombing destroyed much of the old city, there were mass executions and torture, The end of the 3 week siege and massacre left almost 40,000 dead, some 17,000 are still missing.
Bosra was a very important city for the Nabateans and in Roman times was the capital of the province of Arabia.
Archeologically it is also extremely important.
There are remains from many different civilisations and religions. There are Nabatean gates, Roman streets, Christian cathedrals and citadels.
The crowning glory is the 2nd century Roman amphitheatre. It could seat 15,000 and has fabulous natural acoustics,
The stage is almost 148 feet long and 26 feet deep. Of course we had to give a little performance.
During performance a fine mist of scented water was sprayed over the audience to keep them cool in the desert heat. it is really dusty in Bosra.
Bosra saw some of the most intensive fighting during the civil war and there was damage to some of the monuments which had survived for thousands of years.
This was my guide for Bosra today. He was quite a character and very funny. He walked with a stick as he was shot in the leg by Isis. He wanted to stop them from destroying the ancient amphitheatre, he succeeded.
There were so many factions involved in the civil war, here they were trying to protect their town from Isis and from government forces and save their historic sites. They achieved this. Now there has been an agreement with the government, the fighting is finished and life is slowly returning to normal. There are still some reminders, this is the flag of independence.
Another ancient city is Homs, a fertile agricultural area, also a good base for a visit to Palmyra.
It was also one of the main centres of the Syrian uprising and as such suffered some of the worst damage and bloodshed of the civil war as government forces launched a brutal crackdown.
Unlike Damascus and Aleppo there doesn’t seem be a major building and restoration project underway. The residents I spoke to feel they have been forgotten.
There is also one of the oldest Christian churches.
As with the rest of Syria, there were some wonderful restaurants, atmospheric bars and delicious food.
See also my other posts on Lebanon and Syria:
Krak des Chevaliers