If you even mention the word Syria these days unfortunately you automatically think of the war. Before 2011, it had a thriving tourist market and welcomed 40% more international tourists in 2010 than the previous year (Source: National Business).
In this post my aim is to portray a positive image of what I found when I travelled to Syria in September 2010.
I do not recommend or endorse anyone to travel to Syria, this blog post is merely a look back at the amazing history that I found and what sadly may have now changed forever.
I visited Syria for just over a week and packed in many of the main sights including the Water Wheels of Hama, Apamea, Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra and Saladin’s Castle amongst others. Before visiting the country I knew very little of what there was to see, it was incredible to see the numbers of ancient sights and tourist destinations.
Norias of Hama
Also known as water wheels, these incredible structures are based on the Orontes River. Before visiting I’d never heard of them, however they were absolutely incredible to see, some young boys were even climbing on them to play.
Unfortunately I discovered that the water wheels now appear to have been burned down by soldiers and it’s unlikely they exist anymore.
Visiting Apamea was like stepping back in time, when I walked down the colonnaded main street of the impressive Roman ruins was incredible. Built in the 3rd century BC, whilst I was there I learned that this may have been one of the worlds largest theatres, sadly the ruins were less than impressive.
According to reports Apamea is another casualty suffering from the war and many of the artifacts and impressive ruins have been stolen or ruined during fighting.
Crac des Chevaliers
To get here I remember travelling through Homs, briefly stopping off in the main square, although I now kick myself, as I didn’t take photos.
Crac des Chevaliers is one of the worlds most preserved castles, it is an incredible achievement due to the location and how materials must have been brought here. As a castle it was placed in the ideal location, situated on top of 650 metre high hill, it would have been a great location to spot any approaching enemies.
When travelling in Syria, Crac des Chevaliers appeared to be the most popular tourist attraction, especially with French and Italians visitors. It was used as a military base and also a Crusader Castle, therefore it features in many historical events and sadly most recently the Castle was shelled and bombed during the civil war.
Located in the middle of the Syrian desert, once a caravan stop and one of the most magnificent places I visited on my trip. Palmyra was an important stop off point between Persia and the Mediterranean, however these days it’s mostly a tourist town. It was definitely my favourite place that I visited during my trip to Syria.
Thankfully I got to see the ancient ruins at sunset and sunrise. The latter was an interesting experience, waking up at 4.30am and looking out of your hotel window to see your camel waiting for you! I felt like Lawrence of Arabia riding a camel through the ancient ruins of Palmyra.
It is no wonder that this place was built here, to get here our bus had to navigate very steep and sharp corners in the roads and then the road becomes too narrow. Surrounded by ravines and beautiful lush forests (a very unexpected sight) I found this region to be very beautiful.
Citadel of Salah Ed-Din as it’s officially known, is owned by the Government of Syria, when I visited it was well maintained. My favourite part was travelling up to the castle, after the Crusaders hacked away at the stone they left a solitary freestanding need point that is 28m tall.
One of the most famous casualties of the war, Aleppo has seen its citadel repeatedly bombed, the famous minaret at the Great Mosque destroyed and the ancient Souk burned to the ground. It’s really sad to see the amazing ancient history being destroyed.
Being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it’s no wonder there was so much to see in Aleppo. One of the legendary places is in fact a hotel called Hotel Baron, however it’s more like a museum. When it was built in 1909 Aleppo was a mere small town, however it quickly developed when the Orient Express was extended eastwards stopping at Aleppo. This meant wealthy and famous travellers such as TE Lawrence needed somewhere to stay, usually at the Baron Hotel.
The Citadel is a large fortified palace in the centre of the Old City of Aleppo, a stunning reminder of Syria’s history.
From the Citadel you can see the entire city, which is unfortunately why it was an easy target to use during the civil war.
I really enjoyed visiting the Souk, little seemed to have changed here in hundreds of years. Handicrafts and local products were being sold including olive soap, 100% natural and produced usually by families to sell in bulk. The scent now reminds me of my time visiting here.
I haven’t heard what happened to the soap sellers, but after the Souk burned down I read an article that one family had moved to Lebanon to continue making their products. Click here to read on the BBC News website.
I preferred this Souk to those in Istanbul or Cairo as it felt more local, there were very few tourists milling around and even when I was approached the sellers they were very nice and not pushy unlike at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Deir-az-Zur (Dura-Europos and Mari)
Although the city is relatively new in comparison to some of the caravan cities of the Silk Road, Deir-az-Zur has several important historical sights located nearby. One of these was 5,000-year-old Mari, only uncovered in 1933 by accident. This place is relatively undiscovered and when I visited archeologists were still digging and extracting important artifacts. Sadly as Mari is very close to the border with Iraq and just off the main road I suspect this place would have been looted many times.
Due to it’s location, very few tourists ventured this far into Eastern Syria, possibly due to time constraints or tour guides telling you the ruins weren’t that impressive. However when I visited another sight just 10km north of Mari, I found magnificent views and impressive findings.
Dura-Europos was an important trading city, long-since abandoned and covered by sand. This city was very unique in that it was religiously tolerable including having a church, synagogue and various other temples.
The only way to described the walled city of Rasafa is isolated, incredibly well preserved with some ruins. Due to its location it has been involved in many wars, therefore it’s fortified walls were a fundamental part of the design which is most likely why it survives today.
The Basilica of St. Sergius is within Rasafa, it’s a ruined 5th-century Byzantine church dedicated to a Roman soldier. Unfortunately the town of Raqqa, the headquarters for IS is located nearby and due to the history of this place I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t take too kindly to it.
One of the oldest cities in the world, I remember learning about the magical city of Damascus in history lessons at school. The unique experience of being able to walk around the markets and soak up the atmosphere of so many cultures was just incredible. I’ll never forget the amazing aromas of the spices in the souk. Simply amazing.
Unfortunately I don’t remember the name, but the best view of Damascus can be found by driving a short distance out of the city, high up on the mountain overlooking the capital city.
If this trip taught me anything about travelling it’s to immerse yourself in the country you are visiting, take as many photos as you can and just simply do everything. You may never get the chance to return, especially to the same conditions which you left.
This post is dedicated to all amazing, kind people who showed me around their country. I do not know their fate but I sincerely hope they escaped and found safety.
© All photos used were taken by Matt Baron, please contact me if you wish to use any.
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