Ancient civilizations including the Persians, Romans, and Ottoman Turks have all ruled Syria. Muslim Arabs first settled here during the A.D. 600s establishing the Islam faith and Arabic language. Today, most people are Muslim Arabs. In this century, Turkey ruled first and then France took control. Since its independence in 1946, Syria has been one of the leaders of Arab opposition to its Jewish neighbor, Israel. Part of Syria, called the Golan Heights has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Syria has also sent troops into Lebanon, where its army tried and failed to prevent civil war (1975-1990).
Before the “Arab Spring” (a wave of strikes and protests that started since December 2001) affected every other Arab country in the Middle East, Syria was a country at peace, beautiful, and rapidly becoming more industrial. Many Syrians were moving to the towns and cities from rural areas in search of jobs in the developing textile and chemical industries. About half the population still lives in farming villages along the coast, in the fertile river valleys and on the grassy western plains. These places have probably been cultivated since about 4000 B.C. A variety of other landscapes can be found in Syria, from arid deserts to snow-tipped mountains with pine, olive, and oak forests.
These are the top tourist attractions that every adventurous traveler must not miss seeing when in Syria.
Umayyad Mosque (Damascus)
Much of the city of Damascus now looks modern, but this is thought to be the oldest city in the world. Some ancient parts still exist with narrow streets and markets. The Umayyad Mosque is one of the most impressive Mosques you will ever see in Syria. It is considered a real gem, both for its architecture, decoration, and for the symbolism it contains It is here where they have buried Hussein (grandson of Muhammad) and it is also here where you can find the mausoleum with the decapitated head of St. John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista) This important Mosque is treasured as the jewel of Syria.
At the entrance gates, men are asked to dress appropriately, and women must cover. If you’re not dressed modestly, you must rent a robe with hood (for women) from a small room located by the entrance. Everyone is also asked to leave their footwear at the entrance.
Inside the mosque, an air of tranquility rules and this can be seen and felt from people praying to families enjoying a moment together. Even the pilgrims and tourists observe the proper decorum inside where every movement done is always with utmost respect to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Umayyad Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the world. In Roman times, it was first used as a temple dedicated to Jupiter, later it served as a church dedicated to John the Baptist. In the 7th century, the church was converted into a Mosque. This mosque is the third most important for Islam after Mecca and Medina. It is located on an ancient Roman-Byzantine church (hence it’s rectangular shape) dedicated to Jupiter (although previously was an Aramaic temple) and has a cozy courtyard. Along the north wall, outside the mosque is the tomb of Saladin. It has a beautiful interior colonnade with splendid mosaics inside and outside, the building has had many vicissitudes of faith starting from the Phoenicians, the Romans up to the Muslims it contains so much history.
The Souq al-Hamidiyyeh is the best place to go shopping in Damascus without a doubt and where you can find almost everything. While at first one can get lost as you go through its row of shops it is worth crossing it. Do not panic if vendors are pushy, because that is the mode and of course, do not forget to haggle (always within reason) and sample the culinary delights that are sold there. Plus, you will be charmed by the Syrian traders that you will meet, they will welcome you to their shop, offer Qahwa (Arabic coffee) or Chai (hot lemon tea), they are very friendly people with a ready smile and funny anecdotes to tell about life in the souk.
This old bazaar is a local and tourists’ favorite (along with the souk in Aleppo) because they can go into any store, look around and not get bored at the variety of products displayed per stall. You can buy very good crafts, souvenirs, pashminas, and carpets (really old) at very attractive prices. There are mainly clothing stores, some of which offer beautiful Bedouin robes (beware the price is high), embroidered or printed tablecloths, rugs and obviously tissues. Do not hesitate to take the side streets to access other souks (metal, wood, nuts, spices, coffee, grape leaves, gar soap, dried figs, hookah, etc.). Inside you can also access the nearby Umayyad Mosque and Al Azem Palace.
A visit to Damascus is not complete if you have not toured the Old City. Damascus is the oldest inhabited city and a good way to discover the past, some travelers even say “it is nice to get lost there” because they get to know more of its history and discover lots of surprises in every corner. It’s like traveling back through time and yearning for the chance when it was still free to walk around when the country was still at peace.
There is no greater pleasure than to get lost in Damascus and especially here at the old part. The feeling that a caravan from one moment to another will appear is constant. It is as if time has stopped. Aside from the old shops and modern shopping centers, this area is filled with fashionable restaurants and luxury hotels.
Al Azem Palace (Palace of As’ad, Pasha al-‘Azm)
The 18th century Al Azem Palace (Palace of As’ad, Pasha al-‘Azm) is a very symbolic place in Syria with lots of stories and features to share. This served as the official residence of the pasha who served as governor of Damascus under Ottoman rule. On the entrance you will see entangled magic knots in colored marble above doors and windows which is believed to keep evil at bay. The carving of the ceilings rivals the beauty of the brocade. There are old furniture, tools, weapons and dolls in costume that evoke the splendor of the Ottoman period. Walking through the reception area you can find the harem, social hall and music rooms and enjoy the beautiful courtyards with their lush fountains and ponds.
The Azem Palace is a truly fascinating place in Damascus. Its architecture combines exquisite beauty dating back to the past of mankind. Following the visit to the Old City of Damascus and located very near the Umayyad Mosque, you will arrive at this palace which was the residence of the Governor of Damascus for 14 years. With beautiful gardens, features Italian marble and columns of Syrian city of Bosra that took two years to complete. The palace is divided into different rooms all around the central courtyard. It has portico basalt columns of Bosra, the reception room, hammam and kitchens. There are separate men’s and women dependencies (could not miss) with beautiful wood paneling. This palace is a must see while in Damascus.
National Museum of Damascus
It is the most important museum in Syria and you can tour several rooms where the history of the region, elements made by man in prehistory, jewelry, utensils, etc. is appreciated. The attention of the staff inside the National Museum of Damascus is excellent and they can explain every piece with factual information and details.
It is a museum that is “old fashioned” and nothing modern, but the interesting part is its imposing entrance which was the door of a military camp in Palmyra which was brought stone by stone. Inside the museum the exhibits are a bit disorganized so you must visit with a good guide to know what you’re seeing. It is the best place to learn and understand everything about the Tigris Euphrates early civilization.
Apamea is located on the right bank of the Orontes, 55km north-west of Hama, on plateau Gahab. It was built by Seleucos Nikator or the first King Seleucid (300 BC), in honor of his wife Apamea. The city flourished and its population reached half a million people during that time. In the Christian era, Apamea became a center of philosophical studies: In particular there was affirmed Monophysitism (the affirmation of the unique nature of Christ). Many of the ruins of Apamea are of Roman and Byzantine origin. The caravanserai built by the Turks in XVI is now transformed in the archaeological museum, which houses the mosaics of Apamea.
The ancient city which was built and embellished in the Hellenistic Roman times with the stadium includes a theater, gymnasium, and several temples; there are only a few ruins. Excavations started recently but are bringing to light the remains of the theater and interesting architectural elements. At the headwaters of the river Marsyas you can also find columns and capitals of the Hellenistic-Roman. Capitals were reused for some church in the Christian era, since the day they found carved a cross. The impressive portion recovered the colonnade along the main street contributes to the charm of the archaeological area offering interesting perspective views created by the columns, which becomes even more beautiful under the warm light of sunset.
Aleppo Citadel (Aleppo City)
Aleppo is an impressive city that a brave traveler must visit even once in their life. The huge walls of the Aleppo Citadel have withstood the centuries and have passed unscathed battles for the second largest city of Syria. The citadel (established since the 13th century) has been inhabited since prehistoric times by the Romans and then the Greeks who built their temples. Of this there is nothing left and what you will see today is the result of defensive works carried out over a period of time ranging from the twelfth to the fifteenth century.
The need to protect the citadel of Aleppo with walls was dictated by the first shipments of the Crusaders and later by the Mongol invasions. Past the danger of these attacks it became the seat of the Mamluks who made their palace.
After crossing the bridge over the moat you can walk in the front door, beyond which you can walk over the ruins linked by a series of stairs and corridors. The throne room and the huge social hall are renowned for its wooden ceiling. On top of the hill stand two mosques. The amphitheater is not ancient but built in modern times and a favorite site for Syrian artists who perform classical works in dervish dances for tourists. The famous Castle of Aleppo has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.
Saint Simon Citadel (Sam’an Citadel, Qalat Samaan)
Saint Simon was a Christian ascetic who lived for years on a small platform at the top of a column located a few km from the city center of Aleppo. Several other people after him followed his example and were called “stylites”. Simeon was born in Sis, near Antioch, and was the son of shepherds. In order to isolate themselves from the ever-growing mass of people who came to see him, Simeon created a base on top of a pillar, which he found in the vicinity and on this he decided to live the rest of his life. This place is now known as the Saint Simon Citadel (Sam’an Citadel, Qalat Samaan).
He died in 459 and inspired many followers and for over a hundred years many other ascetics imitated the lifestyle and decided to live like him on a column. The ruins of the huge building built in his honor are still present. They are located about 30 km north-west of Aleppo and consist of a cross-shaped basilica with an adjoining octagonal cloister. At the center of the cloister is the home base of the column on which Simeon lived for 37 years. It is very original and distinctive for its walls, cisterns and underground, which ceased to live with the departure of the Crusaders. Syria is the only example of such monasteries and for its good preservation and amusing history it is worth a visit.
Aleppo Town Center
Aleppo is also known as the gray city because of the characteristic color of the houses built with limestone. Thanks to its geographical position, (it was the crossroads of caravan routes between Mesopotamia, Turkey, Arabia and the Mediterranean Sea) Aleppo became the meeting point of different cultures. While in Aleppo Town Center, do not miss a visit to the souks and the maze of streets where you will be surrounded by the smells of spices, the colors of the fabrics and the noise of the crowd among the many shops. The best panorama of the city can be seen from the Citadel where the view extends over the roofs from which emerge the minarets of the Great Mosque in Aleppo.
Old City of Aleppo
The Old City of Aleppo has been inhabited since the ancient times where archaeologists found the trace of its origin as far as the third millennium B.C. The Old City is very striking and crossed by a maze of narrow streets leading to the souks of each type with the colors and smells that are characteristic of the Arab culture.
Also in the old part you can also admire the Citadel and the Great Mosque, the old district of Al-Jadidah, inhabited by the middle class Christian of Armenian origin and characterized by beautiful houses surrounded by spacious and elegant gardens. You can also visit the row of modern shops along the Al-Jamiliyeh are. Do not miss the National Museum of Aleppo where through archaeological evidence documents the fascinating history of Syria and the Middle East.
Dead City of Serjilla
The rocky massif between Hama and Aleppo, just north of the site of Apamea, is dotted with a number of Byzantine cities that were abandoned, called collectively as the Dead City of Serjilla which has been the best preserved site among them.
The city became “dead” around the end of the seventh century. With the Arab conquest of Syria became a no man’s land it also caused the interruption of the centuries-old trade route that linked Apamea in Antioch. At the end of a road that ends in a dead end, the ruins seem definitely out of time but, in this village where life seems to have been brutally stopped, it is surprising to encounter some families still living in the cultivation of olive trees and breeding of goats.
Site of Palmyra (Homs City)
The Site of Palmyra was an old Roman town that served as one of the last outposts in the Syrian Desert to the Parthians. It is located at an oasis after hundreds of kilometers of desert, surrounded by hills on which stand ancient tombs. The site is just magical, and hold lots of things to do like; walking in the colonnaded street, wandering between the temples, and visiting the amphitheater area which is a unique experience in one of the best preserved cities in the world. Words are not enough to describe the magnetism of the site and the particularities derived from the charm of the desert. The site stands next to an oasis of palm trees very large, and which has an excellent view from the castle. Palmyra and its spectacular site is a real open-air museum. A camel ride in the oasis is to do absolutely!
Syria is a wonderful country with hospitable people, friendly, and always ready to help and with a lot of beautiful attractions that is sadly as of the moment, some were ruined and the future generation will not be able to see and appreciate because of the latest conflict that continue to hound the country up to this time of writing.
Blessed are the ones who have seen its beauty before the war; for it is the kind of country that will get into your heart and stay there. Syria is a country where the past comes to life in colors, scents, and lively atmosphere; from the castles, to the mosques, up to the bustling souk markets, it is very rich in history and culture. With this travel guide comes the sincere hope and prayers that everything will end soon and that the Syrians and their children can smile again and play like how it used to be, a nation at peace and united.