Syria has a bad rap. Our friends gazed at us in horror when we told them we were choosing Syria as a vacation destination. Condolences were handed out as if we were going to be attending our own funeral, “So sorry to hear about your trip, when do you *think* you’ll be back?” We couldn’t shake off the stereotypes prior to the trip but upon return, we immediately made it our mission to tell everyone how wonderful Syria is. The cities of Aleppo and Palmyra are top notch and should not be missed. A visit to the local hammam to get scrubbed, pummeled, rinsed and massaged is a unique experience everyone should have at least once. Unlike Egypt, we were never hassled in Syria and really enjoyed our experiences there.

In November 2002, we took a quick trip to Syria to explore some of the major sights: Damascus, Krak des Chevaliers – celebrated as the greatest crusader castle in the Middle East, Ugarit – where the world’s first alphabet was found, Saladin’s castle – a dramatically located crusader castle, Apamea – an important garrison site, St. Simeon’s monastery – a church built around a sacred column, Aleppo – incredible vaulted bazaars and impressive citadel, Resafa – deserted frontier town, Dura Europos – a Greco-Roman fortress, and last but not least, Palmyra – Queen Zenobia’s famous city. We briefly considered doing this trip independently but after some consideration, decided that we would give a pre-organized tour a try. The trip we agreed on was Explore World Wide’s “On the Road to Damascus”, a 9-day tour guaranteeing us to see as much as possible with such limited time. What lured us in was our detailed trip dossier, advertising that “the conservatism of the desert and of the Islamic faith have helped to preserve a sense of historic continuity. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Damascus was the center of the Islamic world and there are many memorials to the age of Saladin and the Ottoman Turks. Syria is a land of ancient cities and trade routes. The Hittites, Hebrews, Assyrians, Arabs, Canaanites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Turks and French understood the strategic importance of Syria on the axial point between the Middle East, Europe and Asia. All left behind a lasting impression upon Syrian culture, religion and commerce, bequeathing an impressive range of deserted cities, fortified citadels and vibrant merchant towns unsurpassed anywhere in the Middle East. As Palestine was once part of Greater Syria, this romantic region was the great crucible of Christianity. Syria can also lay claim to developing the world’s first alphabet, which forms the basis of the modern written script in both eastern and western societies. The traditional hospitality and friendliness of the Syrian people is hard to equal in the world today.” We were really eager to explore Syria after reading so much about its fascinating history!

We flew in directly from Germany to Damascus and were efficiently processed through passport control and customs. In no time at all, we were in the arrival hall looking for our ride that had been coordinated in advance. However, little did we know at the time but the main body that flew in from the UK had arrived 30 minutes early and our carefully arranged ride to the hotel was long gone. Instead, we were accosted by taxi drivers eager to get business at 2 am while simultaneously looking in vain around the airport for an ATM. (Robby truly refused to believe that there are no ATMs in existence in Syria….”every civilized country has an ATM”) Once reality sunk in, we were grateful we had enough reserve US $ stashed away for the trip since what we brought in was all that we were going to get! We found a taxi that knew how to get to our hotel and gratefully sunk into bed at 3:30. It was an early morning rise as we woke to meet our group and find the tour leader.

We didn’t know what to expect since this was our first organized tour! We figured the best place to start was at the breakfast buffet where we were both amazed to see the variety of food laid out for breakfast (hummus, eggplant, boiled eggs, salad, bread, and a few unknown dishes). Metta, our Scandinavian tour leader, greeted us at breakfast. She was wearing a neck-brace and we both stared incredulously at her inability to maneuver her neck (she had been rushing back from Beirut to Damascus in a taxi when a catastrophic accident occurred. Metta was lucky to get away with only a sprained neck). After our brief initial encounter, we were both dreading the rest of the tour, wondering what was in store for us. After breakfast, Metta gathered all the newbies in for an orientation tour (we were the newbies as half of the tour members had arrived together from a tour in Lebanon and were continuing on together after Syria into Jordan) Once all the administrative paperwork and insurance forms were handled, we met Assad, our Syrian tour guide, for a walking half-day tour of Damascus. Our itinerary for the day included getting to know more about Damascus, which is an ancient and intriguing city steeped in fascinating history. On our walking tour, we visited Azem’s Palace, the Ommayad Mosque, Saladin’s Tomb, the Hammadiyeh Bazaar and the National Museum. While waking around town, we were amazed to see women covered from head to toe in black chadors. Some of them even had their faces covered with a black veil, where they valiantly struggled to make their way around town. It was amazing watching these women tackle traffic and pedestrians with such limited visibility!

The next day we drove to Latakia via Krak des Chevaliers & Saladin’s Castle. The morning’s drive brought us to the formidable Krak des Chevaliers AKA the best-preserved Crusader Castle in the Middle East. With its dramatic setting atop Jebel Khalil, the impregnable turrets and towers stand as a defiant reminder of the holy crusades against the forces of Islam by Christian knights from northern Europe, who established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1100-1290). We admired the multi-layered fortifications, long dark passages and inner galleries and chambers at the heart of the fortress. After a delicious lunch of chicken and lamb sandwiches and fries, we drove along the coast to Latakia, Syria’s main port. The Greek leader, Seleucus I, named the city Laodicea 2,200 years ago. Afterwards, we visited Saladin’s Castle, one of the great crusader castles. Saladin’s castle offered commanding views of the surrounding landscape.

Day four’s itinerary brought us to Aleppo via Ugarit and Apamea. In the morning, we visited the site of Ugarit (Ras Shamra), mentioned in texts from the 14th century BC found at Mari on the Euphrates. A large number of engraved terracotta tablets were recovered from the Palace area, inscribed in the Ugarit alphabet of 30 cuneiform letters. These 30 letters became known as the world’s first alphabet. Ugarit itself was a pretty non-descript site. With a lot of imagination and a great tour guide, we could almost imagine the city in it’s heyday. After Ugarit, we headed into the Ghab depression, one of Syria’s most fertile areas, irrigated by the Orontes River. There we found the great city of Apamea, founded in the 2nd Century BC by Seleucus I. A vast stud housed 30,000 mares and 300 stallions and the Seleucids also kept 600 elephants after Hannibal trained them in the art of elephant combat. Other distinguished visitors to this crossroad city were Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, after the campaigns against the Armenians. After admiring the amazing columns at Apamea, we climbed back on our bus for the long drive towards Aleppo. In Aleppo, we were pleasantly surprised by our sumptuous accommodations. The hotel was hidden away in a maze and reminded us of a palace. From the hotel’s entrance portal, you would have never guessed that inside was a beautifully restored residence with phenomenal views of the citadel.

The next day was spent exploring the amazing city of Aleppo. On the trading routes with Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Aleppo grew and flourished ever since the third millennium BC. Following its Greco-Roman plan, the vaulted bazaar winds through an amazing 15km of passages with beautiful adjacent caravanserai. A particularly fine example is the Khan al-Wazir whose archway is formed of elegant traditional black and white alternate bands of stone. The windows are carved with delicate geometric designs and pale stalactite decorations hang above the windows. We took advantage of our half-day tour to explore the mighty citadel, whose awesome walls dominate the city and resisted many fierce attacks. Surrounding the citadel are a ditch and a steep glacis or bank of stones around the base preventing the enemy from sustaining any direct hold on the bottom of the walls. 40 rectangular towers crown the battlements. At the citadel, the scorching sun beat down relentlessly upon us. When we ended the citadel tour, we gratefully sought refuge at a nearby restaurant for lunch and a chance to cool down. Later that afternoon, we drove to the monastery of St Simeon, where a strange mystic and holy man spent 42 years of his life chained to the top of a column, advising emperors and commoners to mend their ways. After his death, a beautiful church was built around the sacred column. The views from St. Simeon’s church were amazing and well worth the trip.

Day six entailed a visit of Resafa and Halabiye en-route to Deir ez-Zor. Moving in an Easterly direction, we journeyed through the arid, barren desert with short stops en route to visit Lake Assad and the Euphrates Dam. After a short drive, we encountered the imposing walls and bastions towers of the pilgrimage town, Resafa. Here Sergius, a Christian commander in the Imperial Guard, was horribly martyred and became the patron Saint of Christians in the Roman Army and among local desert nomads. Both Resafa and Halabiye were frontier fortresses constructed from shimmering white gypsum, a strange and frightening vision for invading forces. Halabiye’s function was as a border defense and when successive invasions shifted empire borders, the town was largely abandoned. Now the stone’s glitter has dulled, but the site remains impressively intact. We stopped for the night at Deir ez-Zor on the left bank of the Euphrates. For dinner, the group of us decided to dine together at a nearby restaurant, located right on the Euphrates. Metta convinced us to try the fish, which was supposed to be very good. In retrospect, she should have warned us that the fish were bottom feeders! The meal was rather unpleasant and many of us found excuses to feed the stray cats lounging nearby.

The next day we woke up early to drive to Palmyra via Dura Europos and Mari. On the way to Dura Europos, we stopped in a small local village that Metta dubbed “the bee hive village”. It was a quaint mud-built village with super cute school children who posed charmingly for the camera and begged us for pens and candy. Who could resist such adorable kids? We were all suckers next to these pros! Duly smitten by their charms, we snapped up a bunch of pictures of the kids and promised to send a care package to them once we returned back to Germany. From the beehive village, we drove south to find the caravan city and great Greco-Roman fortress at Dura Europos. During a decisive battle against the Sassanians the inhabitants piled sand up against the western walls as a defense against mining. Although the battle was lost, the paintings were beautifully preserved and can be seen in the National Museum in Damascus. From Dura Europos, we moved on towards the royal city state of Mari, once a great trading center and nucleus for producing the tin used in the manufacture of bronze. We drive on to one of the most famous caravan cities in the world – Palmyra. The bankers of this highly developed oasis financed the camel convoys moving between the East and West, and Palmyra grew so rich that, under the leadership of Queen Zenobia, it became a challenge to Rome itself. Roman legions razed the city walls in 217AD and carried the spirited lady off to Italy in golden chains. Its former glory can still be seen in the colonnades, triumphal arches, monuments and temples dyed pink by time and sun. We were all quite eager to rush up to the Arab castle of Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani to watch the sun set. This amazing spectacle was reached only after careful coordination with local mini-bus transport up the steep hillside. From Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani, we watched the last rays of the sun glisten over colonnaded streets and monumental arches.

The next morning we awoke early to explore the ruins of Palmyra. The colonnaded streets drew our eye towards great enclosure and the white limestone Temple of Bel, built around AD32. With many walls missing, the lines of Corinthian columns and tetra pylons link together like the bare bones of a skeleton shimmering in the desert heat. The barren desolation surrounding the city is broken on one side by the palm oasis of Ain Eafa Spring. Ain Eafa served as the main water source for the 200,000 inhabitants who lived in Palmyra at the pinnacle of its economic power in the 3rd century AD. After our short stay in Palmyra, we reluctantly boarded the bus for our long drive through the stark Syrian desert, before descending back into Damascus. Our tour was rapidly drawing to a close and our group celebrated with one last group dinner where we all shared stories and memories that were experience over the past week. Unfortunately for us, we had to return home. However, half of our group was traveling onward to Jordan, which we vowed would be our very next vacation!

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