The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          

 


Syria

Hidden Splendors of Syria

Located at the crossroads of history, Syria is the canvas upon which mankind has left a continuous record of our journey through time and space. Syria is one of the world's most densely concentrated realms of cultural, religious, and geographic diversity. Wedged between the Mediterranean and the vast Arabian desert, interspersed with snow-capped mountains, fertile river valleys and ethereal rocky landscapes, the area beckons travelers with its endless attractions. Although generally best appreciated during the spring and autumn, the region's mountains are popular for winter skiing and summer escapes from the baking heat of the plains. The coast can be rainy in the winter, while Syria is marked by bitterly cold, dry winters. In the spring, the area is a glorious riot of wildflowers, with pleasantly warm days, occasionally marked by the khamsin-hot winds that blow in from the Sahara for a few days. Historically, the main cities of the region have developed along the coast, rivers, and the fertile oases that have provided rest and sustenance for travelers over thousands of years.

Syria has profited, economically and historically, from its key location: a fertile swathe of land sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the sweeping Arabian desert. Traders have been forced to pass through this narrow strip of civilization, leaving behind a cornucopia of cities and ruins of a time when caravanserais brought silk, spices and gold from east to west.

Syria is home to a dizzying array of peoples and religions. Home to Greek, Armenian branches of the Eastern Orthodox church, Sunni, Shi'ite, Ismaili and Alawite Muslims, Druze, Armenians, Palestinians, Kurds, Circasssians, and others; Syria present day makeup is the current manifestation of the region's historical diversity. Today, Syria is once again welcoming visitors with the traditional grace, warmth, charm and generosity for which the Arab world is justly famed. Most visitors go home overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people, pleasantly surprised by this unexpected feature of travel in the area.

From Paleolithic hunter-gatherers 700,000 years ago, to the early civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, to the tumultuous 20th century events that are finally settling into peace, Syria has an immense range of historical remains. 

The early Bronze Age, from 3300 - 2250 BC, saw the rise of city-states in Northwest Syria. Trade flourished along the coast, with the Egyptians bringing gold, papyrus, cereals, and more to the area in return for timber. By the 3rd millennium BC, the region was undergoing conflict and turmoil that some might say set the scene for subsequent history, with battles between Semitic desert dwellers and local communities. Empires rise and fell; Egyptians, Hittites and Mittanis ruled over the years. Amidst this chaotic period, and alphabets were developed.

It was the Iron Age that saw the rise of some of the city-states that we can explore today: the Phoenician cities of Tyre and others flourished during this period. The Temple of Solomon was constructed, and Phoenician boats plied the Mediterranean, spreading their influence as far as Carthage. Greek influence spread rapidly from the 4th century BC: many of the region's great cities of today rose to prominence under the Hellenistic presence: Aleppo, Damascus, and others. The Romans controlled the area from 64 BC until the end of the 4th century AD, with the famed Pax Romana allowing a high degree of autonomy for subjects of the loose federation. During this period, great cities and temples were built which are some of the prime attractions for visitors today.

After the Romans, Syria saw the rise of Byzantium and Christianity, often practiced in converted pagan temples. Meanwhile, Islam was spreading rapidly from its birthplace in Arabia, and traveling north and west. Damascus became the seat of the Caliphate, and saw the construction of the Umayyad Mosque, one of the main pilgrimage sites in Islam. The Umayyads rose to leadership throughout the region, rapidly transforming from a nomadic band of warriors to a settled community like those already living in the area they now controlled; they adopted manners more akin to Byzantine Emperors and Persian kings.

The Mamelukes came to ascendancy in the mid 13th century: this dynasty was a product of the Turkish ruling tradition of relying on slaves to man her armies and administrate her far-flung empire: the slaves (known as mamelukes, from the word mamluk, meaning owned) eventually revolted, and took power themselves. Their three centuries of rule were eventually overthrown by the Ottomans, who incorporated the Middle East into their vast empire. The Ottomans made a policy of protecting of pilgrimage routes through the area to Mecca; this, and their efficient administrative system, land funding of ambitious public buildings and mosques, contributed to the high esteem held by locals for the Ottomans. Trade flourished, and the regions held a high degree of autonomy.

The Ottoman star began to fade in the 18th century, leading to increased European involvement in the area. World War I put the region at the center of the world stage, as the Ottomans aligned themselves with the Central Powers. The Turks, focusing on the war, grew increasingly indifferent to local Arab needs. The famed Arab Revolt was part of the final breakdown of Ottoman rule in the area. After World War I, the Middle East saw dramatic transitions, the ramifications of which are still gnawing away at the region today. The region was carved up between the British and French, with double dealing, broken promises, and conflicts of interest creating a sense of local betrayal and resentment that poisoned the atmosphere for the 20th century. Syria, as known today, arose in the past century. 

With many of the world's most magnificent and important ancient sites, Syria has captured the imagination of explorers for centuries. Crusaders, traders, artists, authors and adventurers have always been attracted by the plethora of antiquities, situated amongst snow-capped mountains, stark valleys, and harsh, beautiful desert landscapes. Syria has all been home to groundbreaking civilizations: this is the birthplace of modern history, rich in castles, ruins, and archaeological sites. Visit Roman ruins and Crusader castles; lose yourself in souks, the center of trade in spices, carpets, and clothes. Syria is also a place of great natural beauty, with fine snorkeling to be had in the Mediterranean, and challenging rock climbing, and gentle scenic walks. Throughout the Syria, you will be welcomed by hospitable, gracious local people, who will treat you as their honored guest throughout your unforgettable journey.

Fate has placed Syria at the turning point of historical events for thousands of years. Today, visitors to Syria are spoiled for choice of important sites to visit: the great mosque of Damascus, the temples at Palmyra, the Citadel of Aleppo and more. But what most visitors remember most is the warmth, grace, and overwhelming hospitality of Syria's people. A key region of the Ottoman Empire, Syria retains much of the grace and elegance associated with the Ottoman period at its best.

Start your journey in Damascus, where history is alive and omnipresent. Located on the banks of the Barada River, a lush oasis attracted traders, rulers and warriors throughout the years. Wander the Old Quarter, with its busy souks and narrow streets, lined with Ottoman houses. Start with a stroll through the Hamidiyeh Souk, where local people shop for fabric, clothes, and everyday household items. It is also the place to hunt for antique silver and carpets. Continue on to the Umayyad Mosque, one of the key pilgrimage sites of Islam. Built on a site dedicated to fertility gods in the 2nd Millennium BC, the Mosque was built in 8th century. The painted ceiling and the elaborate mosaics are amongst the wealth of features that make the Mosque so impressive. Walk along Straight Street, a living museum of Greek and Roman sites, palaces, and churches. The Citadel is a testament to the many historical eras that have left their mark on Syria and the surrounding area. Damascus offers visitors a wealth of excellent museums, including the Museum of Popular Tradition: a pleasure palace of courtyards, fountains, and Ottoman splendor. It also houses exceptional pottery, carpets and embroidery. There is also a Museum of Arab Science and Medicine: this crucial aspect of world history is celebrated amongst the elegant setting of a 12th century medical school, which was the finest of its time. The unmissable National Museum introduces visitors to the many epochs of Syria's history: Classical, Arab, Byzantine and Ottoman artifacts are displayed. The Museum includes the famed frescoes of the Dura Europos Synagogue, re-discovered in the 1930's. Unwind after a day's touring and shopping in one of the city's elegant hammams.

Travel to Crac De Chevaliers, described by that great explorer T E Lawrence as the "Most wholly admirable castle in the world". This spectacular mountain stronghold is the largest Crusader castle in the Middle East and the best preserved--it is a highlight of any visit to Syria. Nearby is the Phoenician island of Arwad, where the Crusaders made their last stand in Syria. Visit the remains at Ugarit, one of the most important Bronze Age sites in the Middle East.

Aleppo attracts visitors with its magnificent Citadel--note the superb carvings that adorn its gateway. Aleppo's stone-vaulted souks are cool, refreshing and atmospheric, and a meeting place for Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian and Armenian traders. The Museum has excellent pieces of Syro-Hittite art, from the post-Hittite civilizations that thrived in Syria in the 9th century BC. Spend a day touring the Church of St. Simeon, the most important Christian monument of the Byzantine era. Built in honor of the pillar-perching ascetic, the church's construction attracted artisans from Constantinople and Antioch. The surrounding area is riddled with "Dead Cities" of Byzantium, which, in their heyday, thrived amidst the limestone hills of the Belus Massif. Largely intact, these cities offer visitors a unique window of insight into life here over millennia ago.

No visit to Syria is complete without a trip to Palmyra, a desert city alive with Roman remains. This desert oasis was one of the most important oasis trading posts of the area, with Greeks, Parthians and Romans dominating at different times. Palmyrene's distinctive art style is a unique blend of early, fluid Greco-Roman traditions, and more formal, rigid Parthian elements. The city is famed for its powerful Queen Zenobia, who fought the Roman forces. Explore the Valley of the Tombs that housed the remains of wealthy families. The Temple of Bel is a testament to the Pantheistic traditions of the region. Visit the Museum, with a display of jewelry, coins, glassware, pottery and other remains excavated from the site. Palmyra is also the location of the Desert Festival each spring, where camel races fill the day and folk dancing and music are held inside the Roman theater.

Visit Ma'alula in the mountains, where Aramaic speakers live in pastel painted houses set amidst sheer cliffs of the Qallamoun Mountains. The surrounding area is home to the Convent of St. Takla, an early Christian martyr. Many other churches can be found in this remote region, its caves popular amongst early Christians seeking a safe place to practice their faith in peace. Nearby is the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya, an important pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims alike: the Virgin Mary icon is believed to cure infertility.

Visit Dura Europos, an ancient city overlooking the Euphrates River. This Hellenistic city is considered by some archaeologists to be the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert due to the sheer breadth of remains found here, including wood, textiles leather and other items that rarely survive the ravages of time. Lattakia is Syria's main port, with a lively, cosmopolitan feel markedly different from the rest of the country. The nearby site of Ugarit is the Middle East's premier Bronze Age site, with the remains of an elaborate palace complex from 1400 BC. Apamea flourished as a trading city under the Romans, its wealth funding cultural and intellectual pursuits. Visit its daunting Citadel, and stroll its colonnaded street: the city's many remains have been superbly restored over the years. 

 
 Web site designed and maintained by Yaser Kherdaji
Toronto - Canada
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