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Trip Report Syria Trip Report

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Why did I go to Syria? First and foremost to visit some outstanding examples of ancient classical cities - Apamea and Palmyra). There was Krac Des Chevaliers, the best preserved Crusader fortress in the world, as well as the Citadel of Aleppo - imposingly standing on a plateau in a city of 3,000,000 people. I also visited several mosques, souks, churches, monasteries, and other ruins. More on all of this in a moment.

Logistically entry and exit to and from Syria was virtually painless. I chose to fly to and from Bahrain. This is a bit roundabout but I wanted to avoid the use of flights that either left or arrived and traveller unfriendly times. I found Gulf Air to be a reliable air carrier with good service. I flew them from Bahrain to Damascus and will be using them to return to London. Catering from Bahrain to Damascus was much better than the return sector.

My guide was present on arrival at the Damascus airport and handled all of the paperwork. He also did this on my exit. My passport was thoroughly scrutinized for any indication of possible travel to or from Israel.

Road travel in Syria is generally easy. The roads are well maintained. I travelled in a brand new Hyundai minivan. Korean manufacturers have done well in Syria. The following is a synopsis of my trip.

04 May - Arrive DAM. Damascus - Four Seasons
05 May - Sightseeing Damascus - Four Seasons
06 May - Krak des Chevaliers and Hama - Aleppo - Sheraton
07 May - Sightseeing Aleppo - Aleppo - Sheraton
08 May - Drive to Palmyra via Resafa - Palmyra Cham Palace
09 May - Sightseeing Palmyra - Palmyra Cham Palace
10 May - Damascus via Mar Mousa - Damascus - Four Seasons
11 May - Departure to airport

Damascus. This is a large city filled with endless cars and taxis. The only real locale of interest is the Old City with the Omayyad Mosque, the tomb of Saladhin, and its souk - alternative spellings include souq and suk. The souk is relatively modern and is no where as exotic to a traveller who has been to the medinas in places such as Fez, Morocco. On the other hand, the Four Seasons hotel is a very nice place to pitch your tent.

Ma'aloula. This was the first stop on the drive north to Aleppo was the village of Ma'aloula, which is located in the mountains outside of Damascus. The name of the village, which means "entrance", probably refers to the gorge in between the mountains where the village is located. This village is noteworthy because it is only one of three villages in the world that still speaks Aramaic - the language of Jesus Christ. We visited two monasteries which hold important Christian icons and relics and walked the gorge. The gorge was nothing exciting and the monasteries were OK but really something of more interest with those with greater religious interests..

Krak Des Chevaliers. The next stop was Krak Des Chevaliers which is a Crusader fortress located in the coastal mountains where on a clear day you can see the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Tartous. The fortress is probably the best preserved fortress of its type in the world and it does have a tremendous presence and setting. There is a long history associated with the fortress and the many times that it was besieged and said never to have fallen by force of arms. A highlight of my visit was that there was virtually no one else at the fortress.

Hama. We then went on to Hama which is famous for its water wheels. The water wheels are indeed impressive and each, as is well know, makes its own distinctive moaning sounds. Other than the water wheels there is very else of redeeming value in Hama. One other note. A women Canadian backpacker disappeared in Hama - which is a very conservative city - earlier this year.

Apamea. The final stop of the day of travel from Damascus to Aleppo was the large site of Apamea. This was a major Seleucid garrison city. The highlight of Apamea is that it has the longest - 1.7 km - colonnaded Roman road - in the world. The road is spectacular. I walked the entirety of the road both directions - once all alone - after I sent my guide to the vehicle. Like the fortress, the highlight of Apamea was that I had the entire site to myself. I spent several hours at the site until the sun set in the clouds.

Aleppo. This is another large city with the predictable noise of cars, countless taxis, buses, and trucks. Aleppo proper has two sights of interest - the Citadel and the souk.

Citadel of Aleppo. The citadel is impressively located on a plateau in the center of the city. The fortress has the usual features of great walls, a moat, impressive doors, secret tunnels, and battlements.

Aleppo Souk. The Aleppo souk is said to be the largest in the Middle East. This might be true but I found it to be much less exotic and extensive than the medina in Fez, Morocco. I enjoyed the souk since I always enjoy the people, bakeries, spices, carpets, and assorted charms. My guide required repeated reminders that I intended to spend extended time in the area. In fact, at one point I sent him off to file a foreign traveller report (with the police) and walked the souk with the driver.

Basilica of St. Simeon. We then drove to the Basilica of St. Simeon which is famous for an ascetic monk who lived atop a 40 foot high column for 40 years. The column was surrounded by pilgrims. After the monk died, pilgrims would eat the column for good luck. There is still some of the column remaining and it appears tastes have changed. I enjoyed the setting of the Basilica which sits atop a large limestone massif.

Ebla. Ebla was the last stop for the day of excursions in Aleppo and the surrounding area. This involved driving 45 minutes back on the same road on which we drove into Aleppo the night before. While this might be one of Syria's most important archaeological sites it has very little to see - some ruins that are very unimpressive.

Resafa. This site was reached after three hours of drive from Aleppo en route south to Palmyra. This is a large well fortified city and also a caravanserai on the trade route between Aleppo and Palmyra. The area looked very interesting but since I was not feeling very well my enthusiasm was greatly diminished.

Palmyra. While the day began with some rain and clouds by the time I left the hotel the clouds had cleared and the skies were blue. Palmyra is a very well preserved city that was a major stop on the trade routes from Europe to China as well as an important city in the Roman Empire. During the day I visited the Santuary of Bel, the Grand Colonnaded Street, the Theatre, Diocletian's Camp, and several tombs. In the afternoon we drove up to the Qal'at Ibn Ma'an, an imposing Arab Fortress, set on a hill above Palmyra. I then hiked down from the fortress and back through the entire site to the monumental arch at the head of the Colonnaded Street. Quite surprisingly the number of people at Palmyra is very small. This is apparently the end of the tourist season. It may be the end of the season but the weather is exceptionally pleasant. I returned to the main site and wandered the Colonnaded Street while the sun set. Sunset was nice but a bit windy.

Mar Mousa. It was a three (3) hour drive to the monastery at Mar Mousa. The monastery was reopened by an Italian priest in 1996. It is a moderate walk up 400+ steps to the monastery. The monastery has a small church with some moderately interesting frescoes. My guide suggested that I stay for lunch but I declined. After all, lunch was at 2:30 PM and it was only 11:30 AM.

Hotels.

Damascus - The Four Seasons. This hotel was not disappointing in terms of service or quality of the rooms. A cup of coffee at the Tea Lounge was 400 SYR - $8.70 USD. The hotel was always busy so there is no shortage of well heeled customers.

Aleppo - Sheraton. The hotel was quite acceptable. The breakfast buffet was several steps down from the Four Seasons although the quality of food was generally good. This hotel catered to large tour groups as expected. No CNN but BBC on the television.

Palmyra. Cham Palace. The best of Palmyra - but this does not say very much. Deserted except when large tour groups are arriving, eating, or leaving. The breakfast buffet - there were some scrambled eggs - or at least something that was yellow but I would have only gone near them in a Level 4 biological containment facility. The rooms are very plain. No Internet. No lunch served - you could get a sandwich of sorts from the bar. At least the television had CNN.

Restaurants.

Damascus - Al Dar. Reasonable Syrian - Middle Eastern menu. It was almost deserted.

Damascus - The Old Town. It was supposed to have "entertainment" but there was none. It had a very limited menu.

Damascus - Naranj. Widely reported to be the best restaurant in Damascus. By far the best service and most interesting food in all of Syria.

Final Thoughts.

I greatly enjoyed Apamea and Palmyra. A Syrian "invention" that I have not seen elsewhere is allowing men to ride about these ancient cities on noisy motorbikes - is there any kind - selling "artifacts", drinks, and trinkets. This is a very unpleasant intrusion. Second distraction - trash everywhere and anywhere - roads, attractions, rivers, etc.

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