Hospitable People, Historic Locations Make Syria Prime Tourist Destination

Take a trip to Syria and you may just be surprised at what you find. Mysterious perceptions will melt away as you encounter a reality of hospitality, openness and tranquility.

Don’t be surprised when your taxi driver invites you to dinner at his home. Although he’s not kidding, he won’t take it personally if you decline. Be prepared to drink a lot of tea. Anyone with easy access to a teapot will offer it to you once they find out you’re a visitor. And don’t worry about looking over your shoulder—street crime is virtually nonexistent, even in Syria’s largest cities.

The warmth of its people is Syria’s most abundant asset, but it’s not the only one. The country is scattered with religious monuments and archaeological ruins that rival any in the world. Visitors must also take the opportunity to enjoy life Syrian-style—eating great food, relaxing in a Turkish bathhouse or unwinding at a coffeehouse.

“It’s very good to come and see the reality here, which is not always reflected by the media,” said Tourism Minister Saadalla Agha Al Kalaa. “We are proud of our people, our history, of what we have, but we need people to come themselves and see the reality and not just hear about it.”

An Ancient Crossroads It is difficult not to be impressed by the history that surrounds you in Syria. The capital, Damascus, is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and a crossroads of empires and civilization since ancient times.

In its old city, you can walk through the archway of a Roman gate that stands near a medieval Muslim mosque built where a Byzantine church once stood, just a few yards from the still-bustling Arab souq (market) that is topped with an Ottoman-era iron roof.

Indeed, any visit to Syria must start here, in the old city. The site was inhabited as early as the 15th century B.C., but the place mostly has a medieval Arab feel that is remarkably intact today. A stonewall, first built by the Romans, surrounds the old town, with one corner anchored by a citadel. Several old city gates still stand, while ancient columns and archways sit amid shops and bustling narrow streets.

The recently restored citadel also dates back to Roman times but has been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. The Ayyubid dynasty, led by the great Muslim General Saladin, strengthened it in the 13th century to resist Crusader attacks. Outside its steep block walls, six lanes of traffic streak along Al- Thawra Street, a major boulevard that cuts through modern Damascus.

Inside the old city walls, a warren of zigzag streets is alive with restaurants, shawarma stands, children playing and merchants hawking their wares. Spices, coffee, carpets, silver, copper, woodwork, tapestries, old steel swords—it’s all on sale here. Enjoy the ritual of shopping and negotiating your price while sipping Arabic tea or coffee with a shopkeeper.

Souq al-Hamidiyeh, one of two main shopping strips inside the old city, resembles a covered and crowded bazaar. A sea of people courses through the long, covered market throughout the day, browsing through souvenir, clothing and rug shops. An arched corrugated-iron roof covers the souq, with beams of sunlight streaking down through holes left by machine-gun fire dating back to the French aerial assault that attempted to quash a rebellion in 1925.

Located about midway through the souq, the Bekdach ice cream shop is always crowded. Bekdach sells only one kind of ice cream, an elastic vanilla made with semolina-like flour and topped with pistachio nuts.

A Mosque Like Never Before At its eastern end, the Hamidiyeh souq empties into the heart of the old city, where the gate of an old Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter still greets shoppers. On the other side of the gate are the imposing walls of the Umayyad Mosque, one the oldest, holiest and grandest sites in Islam.

The mosque was built in the eighth century, when Damascus was the capital of an Arab Islamic empire that ruled from the Indus River to Spain. Caliph al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek wanted to build a monumental mosque “whose like was never built before, nor will ever be built after.”

The building took 1,000 stonemasons over 10 years to construct, costing seven years of taxes from all of Syria. At one point, mosaics covered most of the interior walls and slabs of marble blanketed the lower walls. The wooden ceiling inside the prayer hall was inlaid with gold and hung with 600 gold lamps.That kind of grandeur is not around today because of earthquakes, fires and Mongol invasions, but the building remains a marvel. Two exterior walls facing the mosque’s massive limestone courtyard are still covered in golden mosaics, as is the Dome of the Treasury—an octagonal storage area that stands in the courtyard on top of ancient Roman columns.

At the other end of the hall, both Muslims and Christians worship at a shrine said to be the tomb of St. John the Baptist. Muslims revere Jesus Christ and Christian saints, such as St. John, as prophets. In fact, a minaret built in the Umayyad Mosque during Ottoman rule is named after Jesus—local tradition says he will appear at the site on Judgment Day.

Before Arab Muslims came to Syria in the seventh century, Christians had erected a basilica for St. John on the Umayyad Mosque site. Prior to that, there was the Roman temple for Jupiter. Some form of temple stood at the site as far back as the ninth century B.C., when the Aramaeans built a temple to the god Hadad.

Come With An Empty Stomach In the shadow of the mosque’s walls, deeper into the old city, are two traditional cafés where you can get a taste of Arabic coffee while soaking up the atmosphere. One of the cafés, Al-Nufara, has a hakawati, a professional storyteller who spins tales each evening from a small stage inside. However, polish up on your Arabic, as he only speaks the local language.

At Al-Nufara and other cafés in the old or new parts of Damascus, you can take part in a time-honored Syrian tradition: relaxing and chatting with friends while sipping on rich, cardamom-spiced coffee and taking puffs of apple-flavored tobacco from water pipes, known as nargileh.

A burgeoning restaurant scene is also taking hold in the old city, concentrated in the Christian Quarter. Entrepreneurial families are restoring old Ottoman-style houses and turning them into restaurants. Some offer traditional Syrian fare; others are fusing the traditional with European and modern influences.

Elissar, one such restaurant tucked away off a narrow side street, is a popular choice among locals and tourists. Here, you can try a wide range of mezze—small plates of dips such as hummus and baba ghanouj that you scoop up with pita bread. Or try the different types of kibbeh—ground lamb mixed with spices and cracked wheat. It comes fried, baked or even raw.

Save some room, though, because mezze is usually followed by a course of kebabs and grilled meats. Be careful, for Syrians, it is a measure of hospitality to order an abundance of mezze as the meal goes on, so be prepared to sample many different dishes, some of which you don’t even remember ordering.

Mezze and kebabs are one style of cooking and eating in Syria. Another is tabeekh, cooked meals such as home-style stews and other heartier dishes that are eaten mostly at home with family. Al Kamal, an always-bustling restaurant in Damascus’s new city, is one spot where a tourist can sample from a daily list of changing tabeekh specialties.

Hitting the Road Heading north from Damascus toward Aleppo, the country’s second city, you’ll travel through olive orchards, vineyards and small villages until the Seydnaya convent comes into view.

Perched high on a rocky hill, Seydnaya is an important pilgrimage site for Christians because it holds a portrait of the Virgin Mary that St. Luke is said to have painted. Depending on the day, you may see people bringing lambs as offerings to the nuns and orphans who live at the Greek Orthodox convent.

Further up the road from Seydnaya, the picturesque village of Ma’lula is nestled among rocky mountainsides. People in Ma’lula still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Here, too, are important Christian sites, including the St. Tecla convent and the St. Sergius church, which claims to be the oldest continually active church in the world. At St. Sergius, you can listen to “Our Father” being read in Aramaic.

Next stops are the bigger cities of Hama and Homs, which have existed since the first millennium B.C. and once spawned a dynasty of Roman emperors. The highlight in Homs, now Syria’s third largest city, is the mosque of Khaled ibn al-Walid, where the body of this great Muslim leader who entered Syria in the year 636 rests. The mosque, built in the early 20th century, is a fine example of Ottoman architecture.

A short trip down the road, the smaller city of Hama boasts a unique attraction. Ancient water wheels called norias were used centuries ago to lift water from the low-lying Orontes River for agriculture and other purposes. The Ayyubids built the wooden contraptions—some span 60 feet in diameter—in the 13th century, although there is evidence they were used as far back as the fifth century. More than a dozen are scattered throughout the town and still churn water.

Aleppo, a city with as much verve and charm as Damascus, lies at the end of the highway near the border with Turkey. Throughout history, Aleppo has been an important trade link between Asia and Europe, and its sights still dazzle outsiders.

The city’s most spectacular landmark is the citadel. Sitting at the heart of the city at its highest point, the citadel looms from a 150-foot hill surrounded by a massive moat. The fortress-city saw its greatest development during the Crusades, when the Muslims used it as a defensive base. Many distinctive wall carvings are still intact, such as the twin lion statues and dragons entwined above the entrance. Inside, a city once thrived, with a public bath, mosque, palace and amphitheater.

Just across the street from the Aleppo citadel is perhaps Syria’s finest hammam (public bathhouse), Yalbouga la Naseri, which dates to the 15th century. Restored 20 years ago, this is the spot to cleanse your pores in an Ottoman-style steam room and follow it up with a sponge bath and a massage. Wrapped in towels and robes, you can then drink tea or coffee in the hammam’s lounge.

Land of Castles, Ancient Ruins If Greek and Roman ruins pique your interest, you cannot miss Apamea. Spread out across a flat mountaintop between Hama and Aleppo, the ruins of this city include an impressive main Roman street flanked by colonnades that stretch for nearly a mile. Founded in the third century B.C. by the Greeks, Apamea reached its height in the second century A.D. under the Romans, when some 500,000 people lived there.

Apamea, however, is just a warm-up for Palmyra. This ancient Roman city, located in Syria’s western desert region, is considered among the finest historical sites anywhere. The ruins cover 123 acres and have been extensively excavated and restored. Highlights include the great Temple of Bel, the half-mile-long colonnade and the Valley of the Tombs, enormous cemeteries that surround the city.

Palmyra mostly dates back to the second century A.D., although it entered its most storied phase a century later when Zenobia became its queen. Zenobia took over the city in 267 after her husband was assassinated. Rome did not recognize her ascension and sent an army to depose of her.

Zenobia raised an army and defeated the mighty Romans. Her army, then, conquered the provincial capital of Bosra along with a successful invasion of Egypt. At one point, Zenobia ruled over all of Syria, Palestine and part of Egypt, and had coins minted in Alexandria with her face on them.

If Palmyra is the jewel of Roman ruins, then Krak des Chevaliers is the jewel of Crusader castles. Viewed from afar, the well-restored Krak looks like it came straight from a fairytale, situated on a strategic bluff in the mountains separating the coast from the hinterland.

Up close, you can spend hours exploring the castle’s interior hallways, the defensive outer walls, the Gothic meeting hall, the chapel and the warehouses that stored up to five years’ worth of provisions. The Emir of Homs originally settled the site in the 11th century, but two successive waves of Crusaders fortified it to a point that it was never breached in the nearly 200 years of the Crusades.

The First Alphabet Tucked away by the Mediterranean Sea are the ruins of Ugarit at Ras Shamra. Here the Caaninites conceived what is considered the greatest invention in mankind history, the alphabet. Archaelogical escavations unveiled slates indicating that the first alphabet in human history was contrived and carved right here in Ugarit. Ugarit also revealed a wealth of information on the Phoenicians that lived and ruled over the coastal area of modern-day Syria and Lebanon.

Don’t Forget the Beach After a long tour of dusty ruins, crowded souqs and daylong treks, one can always turn to Syria’s pleasant Mediterranean beaches. Latakia, a port since Roman times, sits along a coastline that is backed by mountains cloaked in pine and oak forests. Latakia’s tree-lined boulevards, outdoor cafés, and white sandy beaches are exactly what you expect of a Mediterranean city. The city is also home to several beachfront resorts, with Cote d’Azur de Cham Resort and Le Meridien being standouts. Several large resorts are also under construction near Tartus, a smaller port city to the south.

Tourist Invasion With its wealth of attractions, Syria awaits the curious traveler, wherever they may come from. Arms will be outstretched by people such as Akram Derwish, a geologist who spends some nights playing backgammon with friends at the al-Seyaya coffeehouse in Damascus. “We’d like to be invaded not by American soldiers but by American tourists,” Derwish said while sipping on coffee. “We receive them happily.”

About the Author

Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of Syria to the United States