A Week in Syria
Exodus’ Cat Griffin reports from Syria
Syria is a country that, up until recently, has been off the map for Western visitors. Now it has opened up again and is welcoming tourists with open arms. I quickly discovered that they start early in Damascus, Syria’s fascinating and ancient capital city. 4am, before sun up and the muezzin’s haunting call echoes round the rooftops. First one single call then slowly the chorus increases as others join in. The call to prayer is just one of my lasting memories of travelling through the Middle East.
Political history aside, Syria is definitely one of the safest, most fascinating countries you can visit in the region. The ‘Week in Syria’ trip starts in Damascus, a buzzing, vibrant city which provides a great introduction to the country. There is plenty to see and do here for a couple of days. The first day takes in the highlights of the city; the National Museum, Azem Palace, the old souks, but the highlight of the day for me was a visit to the Omayyad Mosque in the old city. Inside, the atmosphere was one of peace and quiet reflection. After wandering around, taking a few photos of the interior and the shrine to St John the Baptist, I found a spot to sit and watch what was going on around me. Kids playing and chasing each other round the room, men and women praying, small groups of older men sitting chatting quietly. The mosque seems to be a place where people come to get away from the heat outside, catch up with friends and (in the case of quite a few men lying sleeping around the place) have an afternoon siesta!
From Damascus we headed out into the barren desert of Syria. With a quick stop along the way for tea at the Baghdad Cafe (or one of the many Baghdad Cafes that are along that road!) we reached Palmyra - a real oasis in the middle of nowhere. This small town is famed for its amazing ruined temples, tombs and Roman colonnaded street. We had a full afternoon to explore the Temple of Bel and the colonnades at sunset, which is the best time of day to visit this site. The colours and lighting are truly magical, and as we were the only visitors there, I’m sure there were more local trinket sellers selling postcards and jewellery than there were of us! One night in Palmyra gave us enough time to sample the local specialty dates (amazing!) and for the keener members of the group, a sunrise visit to the colonnades. The next day we headed towards Aleppo with stops on the way at a couple of the desert castle ruins of Rasafa and Qasr El Heir. These incredible sites are thought to be the summer palaces of the caliphs. Although in ruins now, it is easy to imagine how magnificent they would have been when in their prime. Rasafa was a small city in its day. You can still see the ruins of the enormous stones and pillars, now covered in sand and dust. Heading west again, we drove towards Aleppo through the Euphrates valley. We arrived in Aleppo late afternoon, and were immediately swamped in the heaving, busy street leading to the hotel. I have never seen crowds like it! Think Oxford Street on a Saturday before Christmas and double it! The city also has a great selection of restaurants to try the local dishes. Mezze, flatbreads and grilled meats are typical fare, all washed down with freshly squeezed lemon juice with mint and cardamom coffee.
As Syria’s second largest city, there is a lot to see in Aleppo. The imposing Citadel is a great place to start and I could have spent the whole day there exploring the site. We also got in a visit to the culture museum which has an amazing collection of items found throughout the country. Aleppo’s souks are also a must. It would be easy to get lost in the lanes and alleys. Not for the faint-hearted, the souks are a heaving mass of good-humoured humanity. It’s hard to move but well worth the effort!
As we began the journey south again we stopped at the church of St Simeon who, by all accounts, could be called slightly eccentric! He is believed to have spent over 30 years on top of a pillar, preaching to his devoted fans. And you can still see the remains of that pillar. Aside from St Simeon and his antics, the site is a wonderful peaceful place with great views of the surrounding countryside. It’s easy to see why they chose to build a church there. We spent the night in the city of Hama, best known for its ancient noria – wooden water wheels. These enormous wheels still work when the water is high enough in the river and the locals told us their creaking can be heard all over town.
No trip to Syria would be complete without a visit to Krak des Chevaliers, in my opinion the best castle ever. This was definitely the highlight of the trip for me. This old crusader castle is so well preserved you can easily imagine the Knights of the Round Table gathering in the courtyard. The outside walls are still completely intact, and inside there are a warren of rooms and corridors to be explored. Take a torch to make the most of dark hallways and corners.
A week is a good length of time to get a feel of this amazing country. There is so much to experience; not only the historical sites and museums, but also the culture and the chance to meet some of the friendliest people in the world. Without fail all the local people we met were delighted to see visitors in their country, and welcomed us with a smile and kind word. Our guide Adnan was the perfect example of this with his obvious pride in his country. Getting to grips with the history would take a lifetime but Adnan managed to give us the highlights with his encyclopaedic knowledge and bring to life the ruined castles and citadels we visited. If you are thinking of visiting Syria, do it. Go prepared for a crash course in crusader history, more hummus than you can imagine and don’t forget to pack a pair of earplugs!
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