In the Footsteps of the Recent War
It is about forty minutes from the Lebanese-Syrian border to Damascus. We gaze intensely into the scenery flying by outside the window, inevitably expecting to see evidence of fierce fighting.
The serious conflict that has engulfed virtually the entire territory of this Arab state since the spring of 2011 has created a stable image of Syria as a country at war, with such terrible attributes as destroyed homes, refugees, death, horror and fear in the eyes of the people.
However, our brand-new minibus confidently flies along the wide and smooth highway, leaving behind seemingly safe villages living ordinary peaceful lives. The sunny weather, warmed to a comfortable plus 25, signals unambiguously that it is safe in Syria and the war is over!
This last slogan should have been the title of this story, for it is the main point I wish to make as a result of my recent six-day trip through Syria! Syria can and should be planned for a visit. Active military clashes have actually ended over almost the entire country, most of which is controlled by official Damascus.
Of course, the idealistic picture of peaceful life that appeared to us as we approached Damascus from Lebanon, as well as in Damascus itself, was not confirmed in our further travels around the country. Indeed, there are areas in Syria that are virtually untouched by the war.
Among them is the historic center of the Syrian capital, the so-called “old city” and certain regions of the country, for example, on the Mediterranean coast.
But, alas, this is rather an exception. The rest of Syria has gone through the horrors of war, so familiar to us from the reports of war correspondents.
A day later, having set out for the famous Krak de Chevalier fortress, we passed through the infamous district of Damascus, whose name is familiar to us – Eastern Ghouta. It was here that we first encountered the so-called “scars of war,” which, alas, became all too common.
The Eastern Ghouta region fell under the control of the terrorist groups Hayat Tahrit al-Sham, Faylak al-Rahman and others like them since 2011. Syrian government forces have been stubbornly trying to retake this part of the country from the militants, but in vain. At a conference on Syria two years ago in Astana (Nur Sultan), Eastern Ghouta was recognized as one of four de-escalation zones, and as a result of combat operations as well as negotiations, in March 2018, just a year and a half ago, the fighters laid down their weapons and were withdrawn from the region. While before the war, there were 2, 2 million people living in this prestigious area of Damascus, by early 2018 there were less than 400,000.
It is not difficult to imagine the scene of devastation we saw next: in Aleppo, in Palmyra, on the approach to Homs, and everywhere else in the area.
The war in Syria was raging hard, it is a fact, and the sad evidence of it will, unfortunately, be present on Syrian soil for a long time to come.
But I continue to argue that the fighting in Syria is over, at least its active phase. Only one of the four de-escalation zones, the one located in Idlib province and partially in the neighboring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, had not come under Damascus’ control by the time of our visit, i.e., by mid-November 2019.
This territory remains in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, who periodically violate cease-fire agreements, engage in small-scale, point-by-point fighting, and prevent civilians from leaving territories under their control.
However, the militants control no more than 10-15 percent of Syrian territory, and tourists will definitely not be allowed into problematic areas of the country. It turns out that it is quite possible to travel through Syria without any risk to one’s own safety. But then a legitimate question arises: how to get to Syria and how to travel through the country legally?
How to get to Syria as a tourist and how to move around the country
The mother of the murdered one forgets, the mother of the murdered one does not (Arab popular wisdom).
You can hardly travel around Syria on your own, except to the nearest checkpoint.
You will have to use the services of a Syrian host company, of which there are not many in Syria yet, but they do exist. Their services will include invitations, confirmation of the route (which cannot be deviated from), a Russian or foreign speaking guide (without one you cannot move around the country), hotel reservations, and, if necessary, a military escort.
I heard from a guide in Lebanon that they could half-legally arrange a one-day, overnight trip to neighboring Syria, with a visit to Damascus and the Christian village of Maaloula, not far from the Syrian capital. But that’s about it.
To go to Krak de Chevalier, let alone to Palmyra and Aleppo, would be impossible without official approval from the authorities. Especially since a trip to Palmyra, for example, would require a compulsory escort by a Syrian army officer and official accompanying papers checked at every checkpoint.
Our tour group of five, accompanied by a guide and driver, traveled through the country in a small minibus. The roads, surprisingly, are very good.
And it is not quite clear how they could be preserved in such a decent condition, if on the side of these roads one could see the remains of war-ravaged buildings and rusty gas tankers and trucks, knocked out by the Russian Air Forces in their time.
As for the itinerary, once again, it must be agreed upon with the Syrian authorities, specifying not only the places to visit but also the dates. I think it would be very difficult to achieve such coordination without the assistance of the Syrian host company.
Checkpoints on Syrian roads are regular, but it doesn’t take long to pass them, because formalities are kept to a minimum. Most soldiers were satisfied with the phrase our driver uttered in Arabic: “something about Russia,” meaning “a delegation from Russia. After these words, the sentry usually smiled and waved, allowing them to continue on their way. Some of them, however, looked carefully at the accompanying documents and asked our escort some questions, but even in this case, the time for inspection was limited to a few minutes, no more than five.
I did not see any money handed over to the military as payment for the trip. It may be because all our documents were in order, or because of the crystal honesty and unselfishness of the Syrian military, or for some other reason, but I have not seen any corruption on the roads. This is because a very well-known blogger, who was also recently in Syria, claimed in his reports that he had to give a bribe at almost every post. What they didn’t have, they didn’t have.
As for the Syrian visa, here is the situation. Before the trip, about a month in advance, we sent scans of our passports to the Syrian tour operator and received in return a document authorizing our group members to enter the country, one for all. I had this document electronically, but I didn’t show it at the border.
Rather, it was the guide who met us, as they say, at the border post, immediately upon crossing the Lebanese border. He was the one who was clamouring at the border crossing, pointing out which window to approach, what form to fill out and how much and where to pay for the visa.
Thus, you need a visa to enter the country, it is stamped at the border with a permission obtained in advance, and it is paid. For Russians the cost of a visa is $35, for citizens of other countries, most likely more. In any case, one of our companions, a citizen of Ukraine, had to pay $85 for a Syrian visa. I do not know about other countries, I need to check.
I seem to have cleared up the basic formalities. If anyone has any desire to get in touch with the Syrian hosts, I will probably be able to contact them personally and, I should say right away, completely unselfishly. I am in no way involved in the tourist business, and I am ready to help only out of the kindness of my soul and for the sake of the glorious country of Syria, for which I am imbued with a sincere respect.
There may be a question about the tourist infrastructure: where to sleep, where to eat. Such questions are understandable. Television pictures from Syria in recent years, reports of Syrian refugees in other countries, often living in camps that are not fit for normal life, give a very gloomy picture of the quality and comfort of life in this Arab country.
As an answer, let us have pictures of the five-star Beit Wali Hotel in the center of old Damascus, where we spent three nights. Without a doubt, it was one of the best hotels in my travel life.
Holidays in Syria: pros and cons
Syria is a country with an ancient civilization and a rich history. The capital Damascus is the oldest city on earth. Is it worth to go to Syria to touch the history, is it safe, let’s try to understand.
A bit of history
In 1800 BC the Assyrian king founded a capital in the northeast of modern Syria. For a long time the region was under the influence of Babylon, Egypt and Persia. In the 3rd century B.C. the Seleucids founded the Syrian kingdom here.
For a while Syria was a province of the Roman Empire, and after the collapse of the latter it was part of the Byzantine Empire for 240 years. For 400 years Syria was under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. Only in 1946 the country gained its independence.
Until 2011, Muslims and Christians lived peacefully in Syria. There were 1.25 million of the latter, but now there are about 500 thousand Christians left.
About the Climate, the Visa, and How to Get There
The Arab Republic of Syria is located in the Middle East, washed by the Mediterranean Sea from the west. Therefore, in the center of the country, the climate is continental and arid. On the coast it is subtropical and Mediterranean.
From Moscow to Damascus Aeroflot has regular flights on Thursday and Sunday. Departure from Sheremetyevo, travel time is about 3.5 hours.
A visa is required to enter Syria. You can get it at the Syrian embassy or directly at the border. It is recommended to apply in advance for a visa for women under 35 years old who travel without accompaniment of father or brother, or as part of a group of up to 5 people.
You can also obtain a visa upon arrival by presenting the required documents and paying a fee of €35. Also mandatory medical must-have – insurance for the Middle East. It is not recommended to have with them or in luggage things related to Israel, even quite insignificant.
The most popular way to travel around the country – the bus. There are both modern, with air conditioning, as well as outdated models. The schedule is most often tied to passenger traffic. Tickets are sold at the bus station or by the driver. Often the buses leave overcrowded. The fare is small, in ruble terms up to 3 rubles.
The cost of cabs is 50-70% higher than on the bus. They go by bus routes. You should agree on the price in advance. Airfare within the country is not high – about 1500 rubles.
About the rules of stay in a Muslim country
The people of Syria are hospitable, here it is not customary to refuse a treat. You should respect the local traditions in order not to spoil your holiday. Women should not open her shoulders and wear clothes with a deep cleavage.
It is forbidden to photograph military installations, palaces, transport and military facilities. In a Christian temple, photography is possible only after permission. In a mosque, photography is prohibited.
Prayers must be bypassed only at the back, at the entrance to a Muslim temple or house you must remove shoes.
It is forbidden to take photos of local women.
Be sure to carry a photocopy of your passport (or other document). Under no circumstances is recommended to engage in political disputes with the local population.
Some useful information
The local currency is the pound. It is better to exchange money at the hotel, because it offers the best exchange rate. A return exchange is not possible. The use of bank cards is limited, and it is impossible to withdraw money from ATMs.
In Syria it is customary to tip, it is the main income for most of the service staff.
From July to September the weather in Syria is very hot, so you must use sunscreen and wear a hat.
The Legends of the Old City
- The Prophet Muhammad, after seeing the beautiful Damascus, refused to enter the city, saying that you can only enter paradise once.
- Ibn Asakir, a twelfth-century historian, claimed that the fortress walls of Damascus were the first to be built after the Flood.
- In the cave of the mountain at the foot of which the Syrian capital is located, the first murder was committed – Cain killed Abel.
Falling in love with the ancient capital, let’s try not to get lost
The capital of Syria has been repeatedly subjected to destruction. In the VIII century it was crushed by the Abbasids, in 1300 the Mongols destroyed part of the city, and 100 years later Tamerlane turned Damascus into ruins. Destroyed, it lay until 1516, when the Ottomans came here. All this was reflected in the appearance of modern Damascus. There are not many minarets here like in Cairo.
The old city of the Syrian capital is a historical museum that contains a large number of monuments from different eras. It is surrounded by a fortress with seven gates that was built by the Romans. Inside there are many sights and beautiful oriental streets and bazaars.
To a stranger, the city seems chaotic and easy to get lost in. The narrow streets can lead to nowhere or dead ends. The Umayyad Mosque serves as a landmark. All the ancient buildings are grouped around it. Without knowledge of Arabic, you can spend hours wandering in the stone maze. And no map will not help here. The mosque is by far the oldest main holy place in the Arab world.
The shrine is revered by Muslims and Christians and is believed to contain the head of John the Baptist. It was built in 706-715 and before that time there was a church on this site.
The legend says that in 50,000 years from one of minarets, on the eve of the Last Judgement, Jesus Christ will go down.
The main thoroughfare of the capital of Syria, and indeed the street is Via Recta (Straight Street) a length of 1500 meters. It is mentioned in the New Testament book “The Acts of the Holy Apostles”. Along it is the house of Judas, where, after his conversion, St. Paul visited. There is also a small chapel in which St. Ananias is buried and the fountain in which he baptized Peter. And you can see it all with your own eyes! You can walk along the street that existed in ancient times.
The street begins with the largest market in the country, the Souk al-Hamidia. It is under an iron roof and stretches from the Victory Gate to the high pillars of the ancient temple of Jupiter. Here you can buy everything and watch the motleyness of the bustling oriental bazaar. Be sure to visit the ice cream parlor Bakdash. The delicacies are made right in the presence of the visitor, and the taste of the ice cream is extraordinary.
Everything in Damascus is unique, fascinating and fascinating to the European. Arab culture and architecture is a performance in which you take part.
We want to pay attention to one more interesting object. It is the Hijaz railway station, built by the Turks in 1917. It was the final station of the railway line that took Muslims to Mecca and Medina. You can see the station in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.
Now the station is a monument to the magnificent architecture of the Spanish architect Fernando de Arando. The building itself does not have any special identifying marks. But in front of it there is a railway carriage on the tiles – now everything becomes clear. On the first floor is the Syrian Railroad Museum, the second floor is occupied by offices. The museum exhibits are those old objects, mechanisms and other little things that are very interesting for a modern person. Among them, cash and telephone machines, signs with train numbers and in German information about the manufacturers.
There is an old train schedule on the wall, which has Acra (Israel) and connections to Cairo. Now there is no connection to Israel, and Cairo can only be reached by plane. Many, many curious things the traveler will see inside. In addition to the exhibits, it is necessary to pay attention to the interior: stucco ceilings, colorful stained glass, sparkling in the sunlight.
Why does the railway station receive such attention? Yes because tired of the heat, inside the traveler can enjoy the coolness and have a snack in a cafe. Nearby is a bookstore, and on the square is an ancient fountain.
About Orthodox monasteries and unique acoustics
Not far from Damascus in the village of Saidnaya there is a female active monastery. The main relic of the orthodox temple is the miraculous icon of the Mother of God. Presumably, it was painted by Evangelist Luke. The icon is kept in a special room, in a silver casket.
It is attributed miraculous effects. Pilgrims can only approach the casket, the icon is hidden. Nevertheless, a large number of people come to the monastery to pray in this place.
In the second largest city in the country, Aleppo, you can see the most ancient citadel. It is situated on a hill surrounded by a moat. Previously the slopes were lined with stone and formed a single whole with walls and towers. It was erected in III millennium BC, its construction lasted 13 years.
The citadel played a huge role in repulsing the attacks during the Crusades. At the beginning of the XIII century the fortress became a rich, prosperous city. A major earthquake in 1828 caused severe damage to the buildings inside the fortress. Restoration work continues to this day.
In 1986, the fortress was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 2012, the citadel suffered after being occupied by terrorists. In the summer of 2018, the citadel was reopened to the public after restoration.
In Aleppo, there is an 11 km long waterway from the time of ancient Rome. It is a huge wall, which is up to 10 meters high in some places. For walking there is a wonderful, picturesque General Park. The landscaping in the park changes every year.
Of course, there is a huge Oriental Indoor Market, which you can walk around all day, as there is a place to eat. There are several restaurants in the area for this purpose.
The city of Hama is not far from Damascus and Aleppo. It is interesting first of all because of its nories – huge wooden wheels. Their main purpose was to lift water and irrigate the land. Such devices were used in ancient Egypt and Persia. It sometimes took decades to make one noria.
A new kind of wood was used for each wheel, and each was given a name. A total of 120 pieces were made, but only 20 have survived.
The Krak des Chevaliers, the “castle of the knights” is near Homs. It stands on a hill at an altitude of 500m, not far from the road to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. It was surrounded by a strong wall, of which only a part has survived. For a long time it was considered the most impregnable in the country.
The Arc de Triomphe of the 2nd century is the landmark of Palmyra. It consists of three parts facing three streets. The middle arch is 20 m high and is decorated with stone carvings and sculptures of lions with open mouths. The arch is the main symbol of Syria, its image can be seen on the bill of 100 lire.
Palmyra is located in the center of the Syrian desert and is famous as one of the most incredible dead cities of antiquity with its enormous Bela temple complex, colonnade, market square and praetorium. Archaeological excavations at Palmyra are underway today and have even revealed a valley of tombs with burial towers and tiered tombs.
In the village of Maalouliya there is another Orthodox convent of St. Fekla. It was founded in the IV century, then a cave was cut out in the rock, which now houses the relics of the saint. Later, nearby the church was built with an altar, cut out in the rock.
The interest of the place is not only in the monastery. In Maalula, the locals still speak the language of Jesus Christ, Aramaic. This fact makes the area attractive to pilgrims.
The city of Bosra, the capital of one of the Roman provinces, may also surprise tourists. It is not just virtually all built of black basalt and houses a huge well-preserved Roman amphitheater that could hold up to 15,000 spectators. Originally, in the second century, the building was built outside the city limits. But later in V century a fortress was built around it, guarding the road leading to Damascus. The theater had a colonnade and organically blended in the streets of the city. Unlike similar amphitheaters, this one is built not on the slope, but in isolation.
The amphitheater is astonishingly large and well-preserved in spite of the years and wars. The latter also spared the world heritage. The columns above the stage stand out with their yellow color – it is typical for the times of the Roman Empire. After all, they were brought from Italy (I wonder – how?). What is amazing is the excellent acoustics. The person on stage could speak without raising his voice, and he could be heard in the upper rows.
Now Bosra is gradually returning to peaceful life, and you can come here with a guided tour. And it will be a very interesting journey into another Arabian tale.
But even this is only a small part of the monuments of Syria on almost every corner here you can find something related to the historical shrine of any major religious branch. After all, throughout the history of wars and invasions, the state has managed to preserve all the most admirable and best. We can only trust that this will continue to be the case until, sooner or later, peace prevails in the oldest holy land.
About Local Cuisine
In Damascus and other large cities the traveler will have no problem with food. Restaurants and cafes offer local, European and Mediterranean cuisine. Syrian national food is a mixture of Arab, Caucasian and Aramean traditions, strongly influenced by the cuisine of the Mediterranean.
Breakfast for Syrians begins at 6:00 a.m. It is usually cheese, olives, yogurt, and coffee. Lunch is an important and rich meal. It includes appetizers mezze, then lamb or chicken goulash, vegetables, salads, and finally fruit and pastries. After lunch, Syrians usually rest. Dinner is light. A strong Turkish sweet coffee or tea is a must.
The hospitality of the Syrians does not allow to let the guest leave the table until everything is eaten. After all, even the local proverb says that by the amount of food eaten, measured by the strength of affection for the host.
The national dish of burghul is wheat dried and ground, added to a variety of foods. Chickpea mashed potatoes and meatballs and eggplant dip are also popular. Makkadem is a delicacy of sheep’s feet.
Shawarma (not to be confused with what is sold in Russian cities), thinly sliced lamb or chicken wrapped in a thin flatbread, can be bought as a snack in stores. Syrians like sweet and salty dishes. All the drinks are very sweet. Natural juices are available in the stores, and Syrians take arak, an aniseed beverage, as an aperitif. Grape wines are produced in Christian regions.
Alcohol is sold freely in any store, restaurant, or bar. Restrictions on drinking apply only during Ramadan.
The main shopping is of course in the markets of Damascus and Aleppo. Here you can haggle and knock down the price by half. What can you buy in Syria?
- Handmade silk handkerchiefs, factory ones are also good. The price starts at $3.
- If you made of camel leather you can buy hand embroidered handbags and wallets.
- Jewelry made of silver and gold. They are massive, colorful and look very impressive.
- Arabian coffee pots made of copper, a very beautiful silver casket with a pattern can be bought for 50-70 dollars.
- Syrian hookahs are considered the best in the world. They cannot be carried in hand luggage.
- Spices, the best saffron from Lebanon, ground coffee, sweets, arak.
Need to know
Beach holidays are possible in coastal Latakia.
But from Rostourism there is this warning: Rostourism and the Russian Foreign Ministry recommend temporarily abstaining from tourist trips to Syria.
Therefore, you should check with travel agencies about rest on the seashore.
Syria is a unique ancient country with a lot of exotic in nature, architecture and local customs. Often agencies offer combined tours to Syria, Lebanon or Jordan. Let’s hope that holidays in this blessed place will be affordable and safe for any tourist.