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Syria

Spectacular Syria

 Posted by Simon Laroche
Simon Laroche
, July 03, 2008 at 13:55:48 :: Syria

A visit to a nation often not seen in a kind light in the West reveals the splendours of history and hospitality

Story by ROBERT LA BUA, photos provided by Landolia.

Forget everything you have ever heard about Syria; it is a surprising country. Anyone who has been there can tell you the ancient ruins are beautiful, the food delicious, and the natural scenery very attractive. The nightlife is lively and the daylife intriguing. What more could you want on a holiday?

Syria makes news for all the wrong reasons. We hear "Middle East" and immediately picture conflict, strife, and discord. How erroneous not to consider also the balmy climate, hospitable locals, and world-class sights to be seen. We hear "Syria" and are told to think "bad place", but what we are told and what is true are not necessarily the same thing.

The diverse attractions of Syria are well known to sophisticated travellers; such Unesco World Heritage sites as Damascus, Palmyra, and Aleppo have attracted them for years. Artefacts seem to be the nation's biggest crop; the National Museum in Damascus and its associated branches in Aleppo, Tartous, and Latakia are full of cultural treasures unearthed over the years.

Seydnaya monastery - 30 kilometres from Damascus, the village is spread out over a hilltop, and is surrounded by vineyards, and olive groves, famous monastery founded in 547, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The name of the village itself, 'Seyda Naya' in Syriac means 'Our Lady'. The monastery contains a portrait of the Virgin believed to have been painted by St. Luke. (دير السيدة - دير السيدة في صيدنايا)


Frequently billed as the longest continually inhabited city in the world (though Aleppo also lays claim to the same), Damascus is home to a cosmopolitan mix of people of diverse ethnicities and economic levels; Syria is a wealthy country, with some Syrians as rich as their country's history.

Damascus is a city of atmosphere, but closer examination of daily life better reveals its true charms: observe the bakers preparing their cheese-filled pastries in open-fronted shops; inhale the abundant fragrances sweet and pungent in the souks (bazaars); see the cherubic blonde child in miniature white tie led by his mother, clad in a flowing black robe from head to toe.

Al-Hamidiyah Souk (Arabic: سوق الحميدية‎) is the largest and the central souk in the Syrian capital Damascus


Syria tantalises the senses. Atmosphere notwithstanding, there are three must-see sights in Damascus: Umayyad Mosque and its glorious mosaics, the blue interior of the glitzy Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, and the beautiful rooms of Azem Palace. These, of course, are in addition to the sights seen in the Old Souk, a never-ending parade of live entertainment from vendors selling hometown hype to vendors selling camel tripe.

Aleppo's souk is similarly entertaining. Dismiss those fantasies of a mystical oasis in the desert; renowned for its cuisine, Aleppo is a big city, packed with action without losing its grace. Lording over it all is The Citadel, an enormous complex built on a hill in the city's east.

Aleppo Citadel or Citadel of Aleppo, medieval fortified palace in the centre of the old city of Aleppo, Syria


Outside Aleppo is Qal'at Samaan, the ethereal site of Saint Simon's church, on a bluff dramatically overlooking the Antioch plains. Well worth a visit. South of Aleppo in Maarat an-Numan is the splendid Murad Basha Khan al-Maarah Museum.

Mysteriously absent from most guidebooks, the museum has the best collection of ancient mosaics in the country. Less than two kilometres away is Tower Restaurant on the Aleppo-Damascus Highway, where the chouaibiat is extra special. If you are not yet a fan of this Syrian pastry made with pistachios, cheese, and rosewater, one stop here will win you over.

Along the 180-kilometre coast, there are pretty beaches only a short drive from picturesque mountainscapes. Unfortunately, the beaches are covered in trash, but the scenery rises above this annoying flaw; just keep looking at the water and beyond. The mountain town of Kassab, on the border with Turkey, is especially pleasant, with cool breezes typical of the region's alpine villages supplemented with the friendliness of the Armenians who make up the majority of residents here.

With almost all visitors arriving in Damascus, the first point of interest coming from the south is one of the most splendid in Syria - the magnificent Qal'at al-Hosn, more commonly known in English by its French name, Crac des Chevaliers.

Qal'at al-Ḥiṣn (Arabic: قلعة الحصن) the Krak des Chevaliers, Homs Governorate, Syria


This imposing fortress served as the sentinel for the important Homs Gap mountain pass, the sole route between the inland settlements and the all-important towns and sea routes on the coast; today Crac des Chevaliers (the word crac is a corruption of the Arabic word kerak, meaning fort) is the world's best-preserved medieval citadel and as such is an important architectural treasure. It still attracts hordes, only now their swords and lances are replaced with cameras and guidebooks.

Nearby is the town of Safita, where the Chastel Blanc stands guard over the small village. The excellent vantage point of the "White Tower" affords commanding views clear to the Mediterranean Sea to the west, to areas of what is today Lebanon southward, and back east to Crac des Chevaliers. The quadrilateral hulk itself would be unremarkable save for the small church located within the tower, still used today by the local Greek Orthodox community.

For those unaware of Syria's ethnic and religious diversity, Christian paintings with Arabic captions will be a surprising juxtaposition. Like Turkey, its neighbour to the north, Syria is a secular country whose live-and-let-live attitude is typical of Mediterranean European societies. The Crusaders left more than castles and churches as their patrimony; after a while, you will get used to all the blue-eyed blondes and redheads here, some with the surname Salibi, meaning "of the cross".

Rivalling Crac des Chevaliers for most impressive citadel in Syria is Qal'at Saladin, set in a beautiful gorge high in the mountains near the resort town of Slenfeh, which itself has become a major tourist draw in this part of the country thanks to its cool breeze and abundance of high-end property for rent during the holiday season.

Saladin's extraordinary setting on a rocky outcrop falling away steeply on three sides is augmented by the enormous, deep channel cut through the bedrock across the one side of the promontory (formerly) accessible by land, thereby cutting off the fortress entirely save for a single drawbridge. This massive undertaking is difficult to conceive when one considers it was achieved by manual labour using primitive tools; the resulting path through solid rock thirty metres high is nothing short of incredible.

Though the castles and fortresses of Crusader Syria are impressive enough, the Roman ruins at Palmyra still reign as the most visited tourism site in the country. Palmyra, three hours' drive from Damascus, is set in splendid isolation on a desert plain, removed from the densely populated centres to the west.

The ancient Decumanus, east-west-oriented road in a Roman city, Palmyra (Arabic: تدمر), Syria


A stay at Zenobia Cham Palace will allow you to walk right out into the ruins, though the budget option Hotel Heliopolis allows a better overview of the site. Similarly evocative is Apamea, near Aleppo, less visited but equally captivating nonetheless, Apamea is set on a gentle hill where the landscape adds to the effect of the two-kilometre colonnade, the main thoroughfare of a thriving ancient city lost to the past.

The majestic colonnade has been re-erected and stands starkly on the landscape; originally stretching almost two kilometres, the colonnade is an excellent vantage point for Qal'at al-Mudiq, currently used as an archaeological museum displaying mosaics recovering among Apamea's Roman and Byzantine ruins. The two fortresses in the vicinity are located on opposite banks of the Orontes River, whose name derives from the Greek word for disobedient as the Orontes is the only river in Syria to flow south to north.

The Orontes River and norias used for watering the gardens, Hama (Arabic: حماه), city on the banks of the Orontes river in central Syria


Syria is a colourful country in a black-and-white world. It gets a lot of bad press in the West, mostly because the Syrian government doesn't toe the line drawn by its Western counterparts with regard to its views in international affairs. This, however, is no deterrent to an enjoyable visit to a diverse, friendly, and well-fed nation with a fascinating history and proud people. If you are adventurous enough to consider holidays in places more exotic than Phuket or London, Syria will not disappoint.

MORE INFO

GETTING THERE

Etihad Airways (http://www.etihadairways.com), the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, flies from Bangkok to Damascus via Abu Dhabi. Sit back and enjoy an inflight entertainment system more sophisticated than what you have at home; for once, you'll wish the flight took longer so that all the great films available can be seen before arrival.

ACCOMMODATION

The most beautiful place to sleep in Syria is undoubtedly Beit al Mamlouka (http://www.almamlouka.com), the magnificently restored Damascene home-turned-exclusive hotel run by May Mamarbachi, whose abundant taste (and money) combined to create a serene retreat worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the Old City just outside the front door.

Give a rich woman with a knack for decoration a meaty project and the result will be spectacular. You may think you have rubbed Aladdin's lamp when stepping through the doorway of this very special place where antique does not equal antiquated; in addition to fountains and incense, there is complimentary wi-fi and satellite TV. To fall asleep to the tinkling of your private fountain in the popular Suleyman the Magnificent Suite is complete bliss, but you may not want to close your eyes at all once you lie down and see the splendid traditional ceiling overhead.

For those who prefer large hotels, the comfy Four Seasons Damascus (http://www.fourseasons.com) provides all expected services, including a vast swathe of Syrian sweets during afternoon tea. The usual Four Seasons standard of excellence shines through from the vast array of delicious fare and to the smiles of the staff. The level of genuine, friendly hospitality is unsurpassed.

Useful information: The Syrian Ministry of Tourism's web site (http://www.syriatourism.org) is packed with helpful information covering every possible aspect of the country.

Lonely Planet (http://www.lonelyplanet.com) publishes an informative Syria and Lebanon travel guide full of useful tips and recommendations.
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UNESCO World Heritage

Syria, Ancient City of Bosra

 Posted by Simon Laroche
Simon Laroche
, September 28, 2013 at 10:56:14

Location Bosra, Governorate of Deraa, Syria
Coordinates N32 31 5.016 E36 28 54.012
Date of Inscription 1980

Brief Description (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/22 )

Bosra, once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, was an important stopover on the ancient caravan route to Mecca. A magnificent 2nd-century Roman theatre, early Christian ruins and several mosques are found within its great walls.

Photos from TWIP

Bosra, Roman Theater Bosra, Roman ruins

More photos on Landolia


Syria, Ancient City of Damascus

 Posted by Simon Laroche
Simon Laroche
, May 30, 2009 at 13:26:51

Location Administrative District of Damascus, Syria
Coordinates N33 30 41.004 E36 18 23.004
Type Cultural
Date of Inscription 1979

Brief Description (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/20 )

Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East. In the Middle Ages, it was the centre of a flourishing craft industry, specializing in swords and lace. The city has some 125 monuments from different periods of its history – one of the most spectacular is the 8th-century Great Mosque of the Umayyads, built on the site of an Assyrian sanctuary.

Photos from TWIP

Umayyad Mosque, Grand Mosque of Damascus Umayyad Mosque, Minaret of the Bride

More photos and localization on interactive Google Map


Syria, Site of Palmyra

 Posted by Simon Laroche
Simon Laroche
, May 30, 2009 at 06:54:41

Location Province of Homs, Syria
Coordinates 34°33′36″N 38°16′2″E
Type Cultural
Property 0.36 ha
Date of Inscription 1980

Brief Description (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/23 )

An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.

Photos from TWIP

Palmyra Palmyra, Gateway Palmyra, Monumental arch

More photos and localization on interactive Google Map


Syria, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal'at Salah El-Din

 Posted by Simon Laroche
Simon Laroche
, May 30, 2009 at 06:36:36

Location Municipalities of Al Hosn and Haffeh, near Hims and Latakia, Syria
Coordinates N34 46 54 E36 15 47
Type Cultural
Buffer zone 167.21 ha
Date of Inscription 2006

Brief Description (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1229 )

These two castles represent the most significant examples illustrating the exchange of influences and documenting the evolution of fortified architecture in the Near East during the time of the Crusades (11th - 13th centuries). The Crac des Chevaliers was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271. With further construction by the Mamluks in the late 13th century, it ranks among the best-preserved examples of the Crusader castles. The Qal’at Salah El-Din (Fortress of Saladin), even though partly in ruins, represents an outstanding example of this type of fortification, both in terms of the quality of construction and the survival of historical stratigraphy. It retains features from its Byzantine beginnings in the 10th century, the Frankish transformations in the late 12th century and fortifications added by the Ayyubid dynasty (late 12th to mid-13th century).

Photos from TWIP

Krak des Chevaliers Citadel of Salah Ed-Din

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Syria, Ancient City of Aleppo

 Posted by Simon Laroche
Simon Laroche
, May 30, 2009 at 06:18:56

Location Aleppo, Syria
Coordinates N36 13 59.988 E37 10 0.012
Type Cultural
Date of Inscription 1986

Brief Description (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/21 )

Located at the crossroads of several trade routes from the 2nd millennium B.C., Aleppo was ruled successively by the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottomans. The 13th-century citadel, 12th-century Great Mosque and various 17th-century madrasas, palaces, caravanserais and hammams all form part of the city's cohesive, unique urban fabric, now threatened by overpopulation.

Photos from TWIP

Aleppo Citadel of Aleppo

More photos and localization on interactive Google Map



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