Syria: A World Away
Although only a relatively short flight from the UK, a trip to Syria provides an experience that is a world away from the usual European city break. Daily direct flights are available from Heathrow to the capital, Damascus and less frequently to the city of Aleppo in the north of the country.
Damascus, which holds the claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, is certainly not short on historical interest. From the biblical references to St Paul’s life-changing journey to the city and his subsequent escape from it, to the Islamic splendour of the Umayyad Mosque, the Old City holds an important position for both Muslims and Christians. This dual importance is still reflected today for, while the Syrian Arab Republic is undeniably Islamic, historical Christian churches are numerous, including those from Armenian, Orthodox and Catholic denominations.
Perhaps the biggest draw in Damascus, though, is the Old City itself, very much more than the sum of its parts. By day, with the souk in full swing, the business of shopping goes on here in much the same way as it has done for centuries, with vendors grouped together according to produce: spices here, fruit and nuts there, clothes and fabrics nearby: all merchandised with a refreshingly minimal amount of packaging. The riot of sights, sounds and smells makes a wander through these old covered walkways an intoxicating experience. In the evening, with the souk’s shops all closed, the Old City is much quieter but no less magical when exploring the narrow labyrinthine streets to the enchanting sound of the call to prayer. Behind many of the nondescript facades lie beautiful Damascene houses with tranquil courtyards and bubbling fountains, an increasing number of which are being converted into boutique hotels full of character and charm.
Situated on the old Silk Route in northern Syria, Aleppo has for centuries been an important trading centre, continuing to this day in its Old City souk. Although the Old City is smaller than that of Damascus, its architecture dates from an earlier period. Once again, trade continues as it has for centuries in the narrow aisles of the souk with shafts of sunlight streaming through the skylights in the stone domes of the roof.
To the south and west of Aleppo the land is hillier and unexpectedly fertile. In this region can be found a number of castles constructed by the Crusaders in the early Middle Ages. High on a hilltop, west of the city of Homs, is the best preserved example, Qal’at al Hosn (Krak des Chevaliers). With its thick outer and inner walls still intact, the castle is one of the finest examples of defensive architecture of the period. The views from its upper levels of the surrounding countryside are also very impressive.
The other must-see on any trip to Syria is the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, about three hours to the east, in the desert. The dry, desert climate has helped to preserve the remains of Queen Zenobia’s city for nearly 2000 years with many columns, capitals and arches still standing. Most of the site is open access and can be experienced at all hours of the day, although sunrise offers the best experience, with cooler temperatures and softer light at this hour. There are also far fewer tourists, so the ruins can be enjoyed in their full splendour. In truth, however, tourist crowds are never an issue in Syria.
The sense of experiencing a truly different culture extends to food and drink, with the familiar, Western, globalised brands thankfully absent. This is not to say that Syrians do not enjoy snack foods: the rich variety includes mini savoury pizza-style snacks, good quality kebabs, ancient bakeries producing the traditional flatbread and a wide range of Middle Eastern cakes and pastries – the majority home produced. Fans of Middle Eastern mezze will also not be disappointed, with many excellent restaurants offering a range of enticing dips and salads and main courses of meats and offering good Lebanese red wine from across the border in the Bekaa valley.
The hospitality of many countries is often much-reported with the result that expectations are sometimes raised too high. The warmth and friendliness of the Syrian people is, however, genuine and even minimal Arabic is greatly appreciated: