Since 2012 you couldn’t go: if you could have, you shouldn’t have. Peaceful protests that began in early 2011 have grown into a full-on civil war that everyone knows about. It was difficult and even if possible, unwise to travel anywhere in the country in 2016. Some of the best tourist sites have been destroyed especially with ISIS’ penchant for destruction. Prior to the war, Syria was a great tourism destination. This is what there was to see.
DAMASCUS (2.5 million)
It vies for the title of the world’s oldest continually inhabited city (Ash-Sham to locals). The Old City whose architecture traces millennia of history. Known for its polyglot inhabitants – whether Muslim or Christian who had perfected the art of hospitality and as a dynamic cultural hub.
History. The first recorded conquerer was the Egyptians in the 15th century BC. The early conquerors include King David of Israel, the Assyrians (732 BC), Nebuchadnezzar (around 600 BC), the Persians (530 BC), Alexander the Great (333 BC) and the Nabataeans (85 BC), before Syria became a Roman province in 64 BC.
With Islam, it was the seat of the Umayyad caliphate from 661 to 750 when it moved to Baghdad, Occupied by the Seljuk Turks in 1076, the Crusaders tried to take it twice, the last in 1154, but was rescued by the Kurd, Nureddin. A brief golden era, followed by a shot occupation by the Mongols, and followed by the Mamluks of Egypt in 1260 when its goods became famous worldwide and drew merchants from Europe. In the second Mongol invasion of 1401 under Tamerlane, the city was flattened and the artisans and scholars were deported to Samarkand.
The Ottoman occupied it in 1516 and Damascus was a small provincial capital in a large empire. The French occupied the city from 1920 to 1945. They met with massive resistance, bombarding the city to suppress rioting in 1925 and again in 1945; the latter episode led to full independence a year later when Damascus became the capital of an independent Syria.
It is surrounded by what was initially a Roman wall that has been flattened and rebuilt several times over the past 2000 years and some sections are well preserved
Umayyad Mosque. Tthe most beautiful mosque in Syria and one of the holiest in the world for Muslims. Built in AD 705, its outstanding feature is its golden mosaics on the facade of the walls, an unusual ablutions fountain, the Dome of the Treasury perched atop eight recycled Roman columns and adorned with exquisite 14th-century mosaics and three minarets. It supposedly holds the head of John the Baptist, but many other places also make this claim.
Madrassa az-Zahiriyya. 13th-century madrassa.
Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque. Modern, fascinating Iranian-built Shiite mosque. A major pilgrimage sites for Shiite pilgrims to Damascus, the interior of the prayer hall is a riot of mirror mosaics.
Azem Palace. Largest and most beautiful courtyard homes (1749).
Madrassa an-Nuri. Mausoleum of Saladin’s predecessor, Nureddin.
Bimarstan Nureddin. Built in12th century. Became an enlightened medical-treatment centre.
National Museum. Well worth a visit.
Takiyya as-Süleimaniyya. Pencil-thin Ottoman-style minarets (1554)
Hejaz Train Station. Beautifully decorated ceiling (1917)
The black-basalt town (137km from Damascus), was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia: gigantic Roman theatre (Citadel) – 15,000-seat, a rarity as is completely freestanding rather than built into the side of a hill; old Roman baths, a 4th-century monastery, a cathedral (c 512), monumental gates, colonnades of basalt corridors, the Roman market, vast cisterns and the Mosque of Omar, which dates to the 12th century.
Greek Orthodox Convent of Our Lady of Seidnayya Perched on an enormous rocky outcrop, this is one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in the Middle East, due to the presence of a portrait of the Virgin Mary purportedly painted by St Luke. All manner of miracles have been attributed to this icon with Muslim pilgrims as well as Christians.
MAALULA (pop 5000)
In a narrow valley in the foothills, this is a picturesque village huddled beneath a sheer cliff. Small Convent of St Thecla (Thecla was a pupil of St Paul and one of the earliest Christian martyrs. As one legend has it, after being cornered against the cliff at Maalula by soldiers sent to execute her, Thecla prayed to God, lightning stuck the cliff and a cleft appeared in the rock face, facilitating her flight. The legendary escape route, St Thecla Gap. Cut through the rock by run-off from the plateau above the village, this narrow, steep-sided ravine.
Maalula is one of just three villages where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken (the other two, Jabadeen and Sarkha, are nearby although they’re now predominantly Muslim). Aramaic was once widely spoken in the Middle East and is one of the oldest continually spoken languages in the world, reaching its zenith around 500 BC. It bears similarities to both Arabic and Hebrew. The number of speakers has been steadily dwindling and remains under threat, but interest in keeping the language alive has increased dramatically.
Pilgrims from all over the world could study religion in Aramaic at St Ephrem’s Clerical Seminary, in Seidnayya. Learning materials are being written as it was, until recently, an oral language only (many of Maalula’s Aramaic speakers cannot write it)
HOMS (pop 1.3 million)
Even before it became the scene of the government’s all-out attack on its people, there was little of interest in Homs. In March 2012, parts of the city were described by the UN as having been ‘devastated’.
HAMA (pop 850,000)
Decimated in 1982 during President Hafez al-Assad’s brutal repression of an Islamist insurgency, it is famous for its 17 surviving, up to 30m tall, creaking ancient wooden norias (water wheels) dating from the 13th century.
CRAC DES CHEVALIERS
Epitome of the dream castle of childhood fantasies, TE Lawrence called it ‘the finest castle in the world’. Impervious to the onslaught of time, it watches over the Homs Gap, the only significant break in the Jebel Ansariyya mountain range, and assured authority over inland Syria. First built in 1031, the Crusader knights, in the middle of the 12th century, built and expanded it into its existing form. Despite repeated attacks and sieges, including one led by Saladin, it was never truly breached; the Crusaders just gave it up. When the Mamluk sultan Beybars marched on the castle in 1271, the knights were a last outpost. Jerusalem had been lost and the Christians were retreating. Built to hold a garrison of 2000, only 200 remained. Even though they had supplies to last for five years, it seemed more like a prison than a stronghold, and the Crusaders departed after a month, having negotiated safe conduct to head to Tripoli.
The Old City of Aleppo (Haleb in Arabic) can seem like an evocation of The Thousand and One Nights, and once lost in Aleppo’s magical and labyrinthine souqs, you won’t want to be found.
History. Written archives from the ancient kingdom of Mari indicate that Aleppo was already the centre of a powerful state as long ago as the 18th century BC, and the site may have been continuously inhabited for the past 8000 years. Its pre-eminent role in Syria came to an end with the Hittite invasions of the 17th and 16th centuries BC, and the city appears to have fallen into obscurity thereafter.
With the fall of Palmyra to the Romans, Aleppo became the major commercial link between the Mediterranean Sea and Asia. The town was destroyed by the Persians in AD 611 and fell easily to the Muslims later during their invasion in 637. The Byzantines overwhelmed the town in 961 and again in 968, but they could not take the citadel.
Three disastrous earthquakes also shook the town in the 10th century and Nureddin subsequently rebuilt the town and fortress. In 1124 the Crusaders under Baldwin laid siege to the town. After raids by the Mongols in 1260 and 1401, in which Aleppo was all but emptied of its population, the city finally came into the Ottoman Turkish orbit in 1516.
It prospered greatly until an earthquake in 1822 killed over 60% of the inhabitants and wrecked many buildings, including the citadel. The flood of cheap goods from Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and the increasing use of alternative trading routes, slowly killed off a lot of Aleppo’s trade and manufacturing industry
OLD CITY: At one time walled and entered only by one of eight gates, the Old City has long since burst its seams and now has few definable boundaries. Exploring its seemingly infinite number of alleys and cul-de-sacs could occupy the better part of a week,
1. Souq was one of the Middle East’s main attractions. Extending over several hectares, and once under the vaulted stone ceiling you’re swallowed up into another world. Parts date to the 13th century, but the bulk is Ottoman.
2. Great Mosque. Freestanding minaret dating from 1090, a fine carved wooden minbar, and the head of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist.
3. Madrassa Halawiyya. Built in 1245 as a theological college on the site of what was the 6th-century Cathedral of St Helen (all that remains is a semicircular row of six columns with intricately decorated, acanthus-leaved capitals. It was seized by the Muslims in 1124 in response to atrocities committed by the Crusaders.
4. Al-Shibani School. Splendid 16th-century.
5. Al-Adliyya Mosque. Built in 1555, an Ottoman-era mosques. Fine tiling.
6. Al-Joubaili Soap Factory. Ages old and still producing soaps the traditional way.
7. Bimaristan Arghan. 14th century, one of themost enchanting buildings in Aleppo.
Citadel. Sitting atop a huge, man-made, earthen mound east of the Old City, the citadel dominates the city skyline. The first fortifications were built by the Seleucids (364–333 BC), but everything seen today dates from much later. The citadel served as a power base for the Muslims during the 12th-century Crusades, when the moat, 20m deep and 30m wide, was dug. Much rebuilding and strengthening occurred during Mamluk rule from 1250 to 1517 and it’s largely their work that survives.
Imagine just how the citadel’s defenders were able to hold out against invaders; attacking armies would have been dangerously exposed on the bridge, as they confronted the massive fortifications of the gate, and the twisting entrance of five right-angled turns inside the gate made storming the structure a complicated task.
Once inside, the castle is largely in ruins and the main attraction is the views from the battlements over the patchwork of roofs, domes and minarets.
Christian Quarter of Al-Jdeida. Charming, beautifully maintained warren of long, narrow stone-flagged alleyways. Attractions include: 1. Museum of Popular Tradition. From 1757, splendid architecture and interior decoration (guest room has an amazing silver ceiling and snake-entwined light fitting). 2. Five churches, each of a different denomination: Syrian Catholic (1625), Greek Orthodox (19th century), Armenian Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs (17th-century), Maronite Cathedral, and a Greek Catholic (both 19th century). 3. National Museum. Extraordinary colonnade of giant granite figures.
Near Aleppp, one of the great ancient sites of the Middle East. Like a condensed version of Palmyra, but executed in grey granite. The main feature is the 2km long cardo (main street), marked out by parallel colonnades. Many columns were erected in the 2nd century AD, and bear unusual carved designs and unique twisted fluting.
QALA’AT SAMAAN (Basilica of St Simeon). Atmospheric ruins commemorating St Simeon Stylites, one of Syria’s most eccentric early Christians. Simeon opted at a young age for life in a monastery. Finding monastic life insufficiently ascetic, he retreated to a cave in the barren hills, where he lived under a regimen of self-imposed severity. Word spread and people began to visit to seek his blessing. Simeon apparently resented this invasion of his solitude so intensely that he was driven, in AD 423, to erect a 3m-high pillar upon which he took up residence so that people couldn’t touch him. Legend goes that as his tolerance of people decreased he erected ever-higher pillars. In all he’s said to have spent close to 40 years on top of his pillars, the last of which was 18m in height. There was a railing around the top, and an iron chain attached to the stone to stop him toppling off in the middle of the of the night. Simeon would preach daily from his perch and shout answers to his audiences’ questions; however, he refused to talk to women and even his mother was not allowed near the column. After his death in 459, an enormous church was built around the most famous pillar with pilgrims from all parts of Christendom.
Well preserved with Romanesque façade, arches, ornamental carved stonework and the Simeon’s pillar, nothing more than a boulder, reduced centuries ago by pilgrims chipping away at it for holy souvenirs.
The church had a unique design with four basilicas in the shape of a cross, each opening onto a central octagonal yard covered by a dome. Beneath the dome stood the pillar. Completed in around 491 after about 14 years of building, it was the largest church in the world at the time. 40-minute drive from Aleppo.
Ancient ghost towns dotted along the limestone hills between the Aleppo–Hama highway in the east and the Orontes River in the west. There are hundreds single monuments to whole villages in northern Syria. Abandoned when emptied by demographic shifts – trade routes changed and the people moved with them.
Al-Bara is the most extensive with striking pyramid tombs, 200m apart, decorated with Corinthian pilasters.
The most evocative is Serjilla, deserted for about 15 centuries, has many semi-complete buildings, all sitting in a natural basin in windswept and hilly moorland.
AROUND LATTAKIA (1.05 million) Lattakia is a busy port since Roman times, now only a transit point.
Ugarit. Ruins of a city that was once the most important on the Mediterranean coast. From about the 16th to the 13th century BC, it was a centre for trade with Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia and the rest of Syria. The writing on tablets found here is widely accepted as the earliest-known alphabet. Come here for the sense of history, not for the visual effect.
Qala’at Saladin. A Unesco castle perched on a wooded ridge with precipitous sides dropping into ravines. 24 km east of Lattakia, it was built by the Crusaders before 1188. Saladin breached its walls in only 2 days.
One of the premier ancient sites in the Middle East, it is 3hrs from Damascus in the desert of central Syria. It was Syria’s single=most visited historic site.
History. It was a staging post for caravans traveling between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Arabia and then a link on the Silk Road. The Romans used Palmyra as a buffer against rivals to the east.and it became a Roman colony in 212. It prospered and enlarged its great colonnaded avenue and built more and larger temples. In a rebellion in 273, the Palmyrenes massacred 600 Romans who retaliated by putting the city to the torch. Palmyra never recovered. The Romans used it as a military outpost on its eastern boundary and caravan traffic disappeared. In 634 the Muslims took it over and Palmiya faded from history and it was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1089.
Highlights include: Temple of Bel (most complete structure left – 32AD), monumental arch the entrance to the civic center, tetrpylon (4 groups of 4 columns supporting a 150,000kg cornice), agora (81x71m courtyard), temple of Baal Shamin, Towers of Yemliko and the Arab Castle.
Palmyra is retaken as the caliphate is pushed back in Iraq and Syria
Palmyra, an ancient oasis city and one-time capital of a short-lived empire, has been razed before. In the third century, Roman emperor Aurelian punished its rebelling citizens by looting its treasures and burning its buildings. The city never recovered; its broken, but well preserved remains have stood in the Syrian desert ever since. Now looms the very real possibility of Islamic State (IS) finishing-off the job Aurelian began by reducing the historic site to rubble. Earlier this year, IS declared the three thousand-year-old palace at Nimrud, Iraq, a symbol of polytheism and demolished it with bulldozers and explosives. In the past days, Islamic State’s advance into Syria has brought Palmyra’s splendid ruins under its control. Its ancient temples, already damaged by fighting, risk suffering Nimrud’s fate.
Less than a year after Islamic State (IS) burst onto the scene in June 2014, capturing Mosul and racing towards Baghdad, the jihadists stumbled. In early 2015 IS was pushed out of Kobane, in Syria, and Tikrit, in Iraq. But then its diehard fighters seized Ramadi and Palmyra, as Iraqi and Syrian troops fled. Predicting the demise of IS is fraught with difficulty. But its opponents in Iraq and Syria now sound increasingly upbeat. Western and Russian bombers have pummelled the jihadists from the air, as local fighters push them back on the ground. Though its motto is to “remain and expand”, IS now seems unable to do either in the region. The “caliphate” is thought to have lost 20% of its territory in Syria and 40% in Iraq since its peak.
In fact, IS has not scored a big victory in its heartland since taking Palmyra, the site of Roman-era ruins, in May 2015. The jihadists made a show of destroying the temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, and the iconic Arch of Triumph—acts described as a war crime by the UN. But after weeks of fierce fighting, and with the aid of Russian air strikes, the Syrian army recaptured the city on March 27th. The ancient parts remain largely intact, including the amphitheatre (pictured) where IS beheaded the city’s chief archaeologist last year.
The taking of Palmyra allows Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, and Russia, his backer, to argue more convincingly that they are fighting jihadists, and not only mainstream Sunni rebels. The city was an important stop on an IS supply line running all the way to Anbar province in Iraq. Mr Assad now has a bigger buffer to his east, from where he is likely to launch more strikes on IS in Raqqa, its “capital”, and Deir ez-Zor.
The jihadists, meanwhile, have retreated to the east, towards Iraq—but IS is faring no better there. Ramadi was retaken in December by the Iraqi army, local police and Sunni tribal fighters, backed by American air strikes. More recently, Yazidi and tribal fighters captured an area in the Sinjar region, on the border with Syria, and Syrian Kurds have pushed down to take the town of Shaddadeh. The main route between Mosul and Raqqa has been severed.
Mosul, Iraq’s second city, remains the big prize. An ungainly alliance of Kurdishpeshmerga, Shia and Sunni militias, and soldiers from the Iraqi army are slowly encircling the city. Inside, resistance is said to be mounting. Western officials and the Iraqi government say the offensive has begun. But a big push into the city may not come until much later this year, or next. It will involve intense urban combat, for which few Iraqi soldiers are trained. The army’s moves into villages around the city have been slow and messy.
America, which is training the army, is set to increase its own troop numbers in Iraq. In March it killed Haji Iman, IS’s second-in-command, and Abu Omar al-Shishani, its minister of war, among other jihadist leaders. “We are systematically eliminating ISIL’s cabinet,” says Ashton Carter, America’s secretary of defence, using another term for the group. An American intelligence report from February estimated that the number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria had fallen by some 20%, because of deaths and desertions. (More than 400 jihadists are thought to have been killed in the battle for Palmyra alone.)
One of the most historically significant rivers on earth, the Euphrates cuts through northeastern Syria. Along the river ate the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari, the Graeco-Roman city of Dura Europos (synagogue) and Resafa (a later Roman fort).