There are so many “hot spots” around the world that tourists are frightened to visit, such as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and even Israel. Visas are also not easy for Americans to obtain. While all of these countries have unique sites of special interest for me, my mother didn’t raise me to travel to countries without careful thought. If there is no active conflict occurring, it may be a fortuitous time window to visit these areas. I take State Department warnings with a grain of salt and consider all factors. Sometimes, warnings are more of a political nature. Given their wealth of archeological treasures, Syria and Libya were high on my list of places to visit. With the blossoming of the Arab Spring uprisings, both countries are not a place to visit now, but I was able to get into Syria before that occurrence. I am disappointed I didn’t get to Libya, too.
It always amazes me how cheap transportation can be in these emerging countries. It cost me $10 for a taxi from my hotel in Beirut, Lebanon to the bus station, but bus fare from Beirut to Damascus, Syria was only $11 compared to $125 by private taxi. Fortunately, there is a system of sharing a new SUV as a taxi with four other passengers that cost $20 for the two-and-a-half-hour ride. Another advantage to using this system is that the visa check at the border is rapid, whereas I have heard it can take anywhere from two to 10 hours to check every passenger on a bus.
I couch surfed with a student studying for a master’s degree in nuclear physics in Damascus. He was subletting two rooms to an American and a German student who were studying Arabic. I would have to describe the location as being in the “slums,” but I felt no sense of danger and the area was relatively well kept for a poor neighborhood. Ali was a generous host and made breakfasts and dinner. He liked to have long conversations in the evenings. I did too, but wondered when he had time to study.
I asked his feelings about the young Syrian president and he said everyone was hopeful that major changes would occur, but he blamed the fact that this did not happen on the people left over from the old regime, who he felt were wielding the real power. However, with the outbreak of violence and the government killing its own people with the president’s approval, I doubt these feelings of forgiveness toward President Bashar Assad still exist. The anger is boiling and it is only a matter of time before the pot will explode and the government will be overthrown. Syria is a secular society and merchants in the larger cities are relatively well off. The people who aren’t participating in the demonstrations are afraid of the consequences if the present regime is gone and possible civil war ensues but history shows this not to be the case.
If a new leader is to emerge, he will have to convince the majority that life can be much better under a democratic regime and that the dominant 74 percent Sunni Muslims will not attack the 13 percent Shia Muslims (Alawites are a branch of Shia and to which the president and those in positions of power belong), the 10 percent Christians and three percent Druzes.
Damascus has always had a magical ring to its name for me. I remember being in Jerusalem and standing at the Damascus Gate where the road to that city begins. Many parts of the Old City of Damascus transport one back to before the time of Christ. It is the capital of Syria with more than two and a half million people and is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. It is second to Aleppo in size among Syrian cities. Some say the meaning of the word “Damascus” was from the Greeks and alluded to a well-watered place.
Among the many attractions in Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque has to rank near the top. It is one of the oldest with beautiful architecture. It also contains the head of John the Baptist, who is revered by Muslims and Christians. Syria has many religions and is a secular country. There was even a Jewish quarter, but since the birth of Israel, many Jews have emigrated. A small population of Jews still exists and there is a synagogue.
Throughout Syria, people would ask me where I was from, and I replied I was an American. Everyone said, “Welcome to Syria” and couldn’t have been more hospitable, thus showing again that its not the people, but the governments of countries that are the problems. I did encounter one gentleman who asked if I was of Japanese descent and after an affirmative reply, he said how nice Japanese people were. While he scorned Koreans, I wondered if he said the same about Japanese or Chinese to Koreans he met. Once when I asked someone where I could buy some socks, he personally led me two blocks to a store.
Nearby the mosque is the tomb of Saladin, a fascinating Muslim leader who defeated the Crusaders and whose chivalry won the admiration of even Richard the Lion Hearted. Al Azem Palace is also close by and depicts how life was lived in ancient Syria. The huge souk (market) adjoins these places and it is fascinating to wander its walkways observing merchants and shoppers.
There are signs indicating tourist routes throughout the city, such as the Traditional Souqs route, the Classical route with illustrations of Greek and Roman influences, handicrafts route, Old Damascus Highlights or “Integrated” route (best over-all if you choose one route), and Essential Old Damascus route.
The Citadel built upon an ancient fort is also worthy of a visit, but the Citadel in the town of Aleppo is more impressive. The last place not to miss is the National Archaeological Museum, which contains a reassembled synagogue, clay tablets with the oldest alphabet, and rooms with jewelry, pottery, coins, and armor, among other treasures.
I treated my couch surfer host to dinner at Al Khawali restaurant, which is located in an old house with a lovely courtyard in Old Town. The food was delicious and reasonable. Supposedly, Sen. John Kerry once had dinner here.
When I was first planning my trip to Syria, I contacted several Syrian travel agencies. They all said the tour would be individually tailored since there was no group tour offered. The cost would include a driver and guide as well as hotel. Naturally, the cost was high. I found one could do it independently without much hassle and at a fraction of the quoted cost.
For example, my taxi in Damascus to the bus station cost $3, but the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride in an air-conditioned Greyhound-type bus from Damascus to Palmyra cost only $2.50. One has to have their passport checked by the police at the bus station and a document is given so a bus ticket can be purchased. The driver again checks these.
My stay at the Ishtar Hotel, Palmyra was $30 and included breakfast, private bath and Internet. There are other hotels that cost four to seven times more, but this place was more than adequate for this frugal traveler. I did have a sumptuous buffet dinner at the Cham Palace Hotel for $20. The luxury Cham hotel is located directly across the street from one of the ruins sites, but some guests complained about their rooms and slow service.
Palmyra was founded by King Solomon and was an important stop on a trade route because of a large oasis. The extensive history bears reading before coming here, but suffice it to say that this was a major Roman outpost. A huge area of beautifully preserved ruins from these times include the Temple of Ba’al, lesser temples, a huge theater, the remains of a large Christian church, funerary monuments, and on a close-by hill, a large castle. Anyone interested in archeology could spend many happy days here. A whole article could easily be devoted to Palmyra. Trying to describe it in a paragraph is like trying to tell about the wonders of Rome in a paragraph.
I saw large tour groups from Germany, Italy and France and occasional elderly Japanese couples, but no Americans.
The taxi to the bus station cost $2 again, and $4.50 on a minivan from Palmyra to Homs. Homs is where major unrest is now occurring, but it was just a bus transfer for me, so sadly I never got a feel for its inhabitants. Again, the bus ticket was only $3 from Homs to Aleppo on a nicely appointed air-conditioned bus.
I splurged by staying at the Park Hotel in Aleppo for close to $100 a night, but there are even more luxurious hotels for those so inclined. Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities and even Abraham is said to have milked his cow here. There are many types of architecture that reflect influences from Europe, Romans, Greek, Persians, Christian and Arabs. The imposing Citadel has been rebuilt many times since the city was involved in so many attacks by empires vying for control. Admission for foreigners is about 10 times what locals pay, but is still a pittance.
The St. Simeon monastery sounded interesting enough for a visit. It was built for some Christian mystic who lived his entire life on a pedestal. Ever-taller ones built by his followers replaced this so he could retreat further from crowds. People came to ask his advice and it is said that even Roman emperors sought his counsel. He died at age 69 after living on the pillar for 39 years and a church was built here. Pilgrims came to visit and would chip a piece of the pillar as a relic souvenir and today all that remains is a small mound. It is located on a high hill with magnificent views in a very tranquil setting. The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” song kept playing in my head. Getting here was a chore until I learned to ask directions for “Al C-Mon,” as it is pronounced locally.
Purchasing train tickets from Aleppo to Latakia in advance is a wise idea. Prices are ridiculously cheap and first class was less than $3, compared to second class, which cost slightly more than $2. Paying less than a dollar to avoid a hard bench seat in second class is a bargain. The 6:20 a.m. train took three hours to Latakia, a seaport town with cool ocean breezes and good seafood restaurants. Latakia has a long and interesting history, but few remaining interesting Roman structures.
My main reason to visit was for a quick impression of the town, but mostly as a base for a day trip to see Krak des Chevaliers, the best-preserved medieval Crusader castle, and Saladin’s Castle in another close-by area. Both are remarkably in good condition and history fans can readily imagine the battles between the Crusaders and Muslims that must have occurred. In order to visit both places in one day, I hired a taxi for $60 to take me and wait while I conducted a visit inside. As an independent traveler, one must know to ask for Al Hosan instead of Krak de Chevaliers. Children, especially boys, would have a field day going through these castles and history would suddenly come to life.
Jordan was my next destination, but to get there it was necessary to return and stay overnight in Damascus. This layover provided an opportunity to visit Bosra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its well-preserved Roman theater as well as remnants of other cultures such as the Nabateans. What was once a major city is now just a sleepy village adjacent to the ruins.
Modern building construction observed in several of the major cities seemed to be of questionable quality. Reading about major building collapse after earthquakes in these countries is not a surprise. Seeing so many well-preserved Roman ruins after thousands of years made me wonder about their techniques. Roman schools must have produced many brilliant engineers and architects to send to faraway countries to extend their culture throughout Europe. Romans invented fast-curing cement that was waterproof and very strong. Metal bars for reinforcement was also introduced. The Romans must have had to supervise locals to do the actual work, but it does not seem that knowledge about the techniques and materials remained after the Romans left. The Romans were quick to seize good ideas from other cultures and improve on them, so why didn’t locals do the same? Were these secrets that the Romans did not share?
I am most commonly asked about my favorite destination. For places I visited this past year, I would have to say Syria ranks near the top because of the warm hospitality, extremely low prices, and the many wondrous archeological ruins in such good condition throughout the country. When the present conflict is resolved, consider putting Syria high on your travel list.