Written by HobWahid on 02 Nov, 2005
If you spend any amount of time around the maHatat Hijaaz (The Hijaz Railway station) and Martyrs Square, as I did, because it is where I lived, you will undoubtedly notice a few things. One is the small number of touts asking you if you…Read More
If you spend any amount of time around the maHatat Hijaaz (The Hijaz Railway station) and Martyrs Square, as I did, because it is where I lived, you will undoubtedly notice a few things. One is the small number of touts asking you if you want a shaghala (lit. “female worker”, fig. “prostitute”), as this is Damascus’ not-so-secret red light district, where brothels disguised as hotels are frequented by Saudi patrons. The second is the insane number of hotels flying Iranian flags and sporting Farsi names like bustaan or faradoos. In front of these hotels, day and night, you will see buses pulling up, spitting out clouds of smoke, and dropping of loads of hunched over old Iranian ladies in chador (the black outfit they wear) and their husbands. “Why all the Tehran-Damascus express buses?” you may ask. For the answer, you have to go to the southern end of Damascus, beyond the towers of concrete apartment buildings towards the airport, where you will find the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine and the surrounding area.Most tourists don’t make it out to Sayyida Zeinab, and it’s not on most tour itineraries, which is unfortunate, as it is one of the most religiously powerful places in Syria and the best insight into the emotion of the Shia sect of Islam without heading into Karbala and Najaf in neighboring Iraq. A visit to Sayyida Zeinab will provide you with an injection of spirituality that will leave you thinking the whole night about the world, religion, and just what it means to believe and put all your hope in a higher power. So take the 100SYP (at most) taxi ride out there and take it in.Likely if you come by taxi, the driver drop you off on the main street that runs through the neighborhood around the mosque, and when you get out, you will be left wondering exactly where the mosque is. The fact is that the mosque is hidden behind layers of shops, markets, and hotels all geared towards Iranian pilgrims. After a bit of looking, you should be able to spy one of the towering blue minarets; if not, just follow the inevitable flood of black sheets flowing towards the entrance. Although, either on the way in or out, you should take some time to explore the surrounding markets, where you will find goods for usually cheaper than in the Old City, as well as some fantastic sweets and Iranian food. If you haven’t had any experience with a Shia mosque before, then be warned--Sayyida Zeinab will be unlike anything you have ever seen before. The raw emotion that flows through each person in the place will throw you off at first, and I won’t blame you if you feel uncomfortable at first and like you are unwelcome or don’t belong. At first it may seem like the sort of place that shouldn’t be a place for “tourists” or “outsiders,” or that you are some sort of voyeur, but don’t worry. Likely you will find someone who will help you out, take you in, and explain what they can to you. But do remember that this is a place of extreme holiness to Shiites, and every effort should be made for proper decorum.The mosque is said to hold the remains of Zeinab, the daughter of Ali (the fourth Caliph), who was taken captive by the army of Yazid after the massacre of her brothers Hussein and Hassan at Karbala and Najaf. For Shia, this moment, when the family of Ali was betrayed is the defining and most tragic moment of their history. Thus you will immediately notice that the air around Sayyida Zeinab is not one of quiet veneration, but one of passionate mourning with wailing, singing, crying, and chest beating.The shrine contains a large courtyard with the shrine in the middle. The modern structure dates from the 1990s, but was built on a pre-existing shrine, and it contains all the typical traits of an Iranian mosque, i.e. extremely ornate with lots of blue tile, gold, and mirrors. The mosque itself is beautiful, but the real reason to come is for the spirituality.As you walk around the courtyard of the mosque, you will notice trains of men and women marching in circles, chanting in Farsi or Arabic, and beating their chests. Often someone will be videotaping, and there will be one man leading the chant. As they chant and beat their chests, you will see tears stream down their cheeks and the men will have the most pained look on their face. You can see that inside each of their hearts they feel the painful tragedy that Zeinab endured, losing her brothers and being taken captive. In truth, there is no real way to describe it, the passion that overcomes those who have come to venerate Zeinab. All I can really say is that each and everyone of these people acts as if their own son or daughter had just died and this was their funeral, and that is exactly the way the Shia see it. Zeinab is their daughter, and she is gone.The shrine itself is divided into a section for men and one for women. Check your shoes at the door. The inside space is not very large and always crowded. Having never been inside the women’s section, I can’t tell you what it looks like, but I can tell you what it sounds like, for there is only a thin wooden fence that divides the two sections. The ululating wailing and sobs that pour over the fence from the women’s side are enough evidence of the anguish and mourning that you don’t need to see it. On the men’s side, men young and old sit around in circles beating their chests, crying and chanting. These are grown men, tough men from a patriarchal culture, on their knees in tears over the tragic death of Zeinab. Could you imagine such accepted emotion in Western culture? Some of the men chose to throw themselves against the tomb, clinging on to the bars that surround it, showering it with kisses. Others grab a piece of rock, rock taken from the ground at Karbala, kneel down, and press their head against it to pray. The Shia always pray like this so that during prayer they are always connected to Karbala and to the interred bodies of Hussein and Hassan.The emotion may make you feel out of place, but the likelihood is that everyone else is so caught up in their own mourning that nobody will pay attention to you, but if they do, they will always be welcoming. One man stopped me and asked in Arabic, “Where are you from?”“From the US,” I replied.“Are you Muslim?” He aksed. I told him that I was Christian, to which he smiled, with a slight tear in his eye, and said,“Then you know our pain. Christ was betrayed just as Ali, peace be upon him, and his family were.”I nodded in agreement, but I have been on the Via Della Rosa in Jerusalem for the stations of the cross and never seen emotion like this. Close
About an hour and a half to the south and east of Damascus lies the small city of Bosra. Not to be confused with the headline-grabbing city of the same name farther east in Iraq, this Bosra is an ancient city dating back to Roman…Read More
About an hour and a half to the south and east of Damascus lies the small city of Bosra. Not to be confused with the headline-grabbing city of the same name farther east in Iraq, this Bosra is an ancient city dating back to Roman times, and a city with a rich and complex history. Once an important center for the Nabateans (the guys who built Petra), Bosra was finally conquered by the Romans in 106 AD and was immediately made the capital of the newly established Provincia Arabia. Under the Romans, it flourished as an intellectual, agricultural, cultural, and trade capital, even producing the only Arab Roman emperor in history, Philip The Arab, who took power in 244, and under whose reign and patronage the city gained the ever important title of metropolis (no Supermen in sight, however). During the Byzantine Era, the city remained an important trade center, even attracting the trade of one Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, who came to Bosra on numerous trade missions in his pre-prophetic days and was a compatriot of a famous Nestorian monk named Buhira. Many scholars believe that Buhira’s thoughts had much influence on Muhammad, but that’s up for debate.With all this history, Bosra has numerous monuments for the prospective visitor, but there is really one main reason that people come to Bosra, and it’s not to meet with Nestorian monks. It is because of its spectacular theater. Bosra’s theater is often described as one of the most spectacular and well-preserved theaters of the Roman era, and it undoubtedly is. Much of the reason for its near-perfect preservation probably lies in the fact that during the Crusades, the Ayyubid armies fortified the theater and used it as a citadel. Thus, the theater inside was preserved and protected from the ravages of war and time. To get to the theater, you have to cross a bridge over a moat and then wind your way through the citadel tunnels until you find one of the numerous sets of stairs into the theater. It won’t be until you arrive at the top of the stairs that you will finally understand the full scope of the theater. It has a full 32 rows, with room for 9,000 spectators. Unlike many Roman theaters you find around the Mediterranean, the Bosra theater wasn’t built on the slope of a hill, making it unique and more impressive. From the top you can get excellent views of the surrounding ruins as well as a full view of the elegant façade of the stage. Architecturally, the theater is magnificent. Besides the theater, you can also walk along the ramparts of the citadel, where you will find many mosaics and statues, as well as a folklore museum.The theater is by far Bosra’s most impressive site, but by far not the only thing to see. Moving on from the theater, you will find a whole maze of ruins and stone streets, the remnants of the old Roman and Muslim city of Bosra. Oddly enough, many people still live among the ruins, and thus you will find houses scattered among ancient Roman columns. For Roman ruins there is the enormous South Bath complex, with its vaulted ceilings and plumbing, a monumental arch, and nymphaeum (central fountain), at the main crossroads of town. On the far south side of the old city is also the Cathedral of Bosra, one of the more architecturally influential monuments of the early Christian Era.Bosra, however, was also the first city in Syria conquered by the Arabs, and thus it contains some of the oldest Islamic monuments in the country. The most famous of these is the Mosque of Umar, one of the oldest surviving mosques anywhere in the Muslim word, dating to somewhere around 636 AD. Directly across from the mosque is the Hammam Manjak, a set of baths dating from the 12th century. Farther to the north you will find the Mabrak Mosque. Mabrak means “kneeling” in Arabic, and the mosque is named so because it was build on the spot where a camel, carrying a copy of the Qur’an, kneeled down to rest after the conquering of the city. According to legend, you can still see the imprints in the rock where the camel kneeled. Take it for what it’s worth.Many who come to Bosra’s old city may feel underwhelmed by the dark basalt rock used to construct the city. To those used to the sparkling white marble of Roman ruins in Turkey and Greece, the basalt seems cold and dark, but caught in the right light (a sunset for example), it can look positively magical.The old city itself is quite large, and finding (and recognizing) sites can be a bit hard. I have been to Bosra three times, and each time I discover something new. The best thing to do is just wander. Likely some local will gladly help you on your way and show you some things you may have missed. But just wandering the cobblestone streets and enjoying the children playing among the ruins and the quiet solitude that comes with a place not often visited is the real treat. On one of these walks we came along a group of young boys playing. One of them was holding a Palestinian flag on a stick in his hand and running. The others were chasing him with small plastic guns giving onomatopoetic shouts. If this were the US, they’d be playing “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers,” but this was Syria, and this was “Palestinians and Israelis.” One unarmed kid with a Palestinian flag against three kids with Uzis, an early lesson in the realities of politics, perhaps. Close
I consider myself an okay Christian, more spiritual than ritual. I don’t usuall spend my Sundays at church but make my appearances on Christmas, Easter, and various other holidays, but after a week of traveling around Syria during Christmas, I was ready to give up…Read More
I consider myself an okay Christian, more spiritual than ritual. I don’t usuall spend my Sundays at church but make my appearances on Christmas, Easter, and various other holidays, but after a week of traveling around Syria during Christmas, I was ready to give up my worldly possessions and become a monk. I developed a whole new appreciation for my religion and discovered things in myself that I had never thought possible, and I owe it all to a Syrian Christians and the most magical and spiritual Christmas I had ever had in my life.It was late December, and winter in Syria was in full swing. A biting cold was in the air and the clouds were flirting with the idea of snow (yes, it does snow in Syria). Christmastime was rolling around and my family was an ocean away bunkered down at home with Christmas trees, gingerbread, and streets full of lights. Homesickness was settling in. It was then that I determined to make the most of the my situation and have a Christmas I would never forget. After all I was in Syria. People here have been celebrating Christmas longer than almost anyone else on Earth. This was my chance to see what Christmas could really be like, a Christmas without mall Santas, singing angel ornaments and Jimmy Stewart on TV. Syria is home to around 5 million Christians, some Orthodox, some Catholic, but all Christian. I had spent Christmas in the Arab world before, in Cairo to be exact, another city with a large Christian population, but I didn’t take advantage of it.In the days leading up to Christmas, I slowly started to see various Santa Clauses appear in windows, as well Christmas trees and lights adorning balconies. Lights across the city wished me a “Merry Christmas,” just as they had wished the Muslims a “Happy Eid” only two months before. My landlady, a shriveled old Shia lady, made a special point of wishing me happy holidays and an Iraqi Christian girl I had befriended me invited me to festivities at her church, but I declined because I had other plans. I had rented a car and I was going to drive off into the mountains to the north of Damascus to visit some Syria’s Christian heartland, places where people still speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus) and to see just where it would take me.My first stop was the town of Sayidnaya, and second was Maaloula (see my separate journal on those), but my ultimate destination was the Deir Mar Mousa al-Habashi, a monastery deep in the hills above the Syrian desert that dates back to the 6th century and was founded by St. Moses the Ethiopian. Driving along the main highway that runs down the center of Syria, the surrounding hills were covered with a light dusting of snow from the night before. I took the appropriate turn-off, entering the small town of al-Nebek. Once in al-Nebek I did my best to follow the signs but eventually got lost and ended up asking for directions, twice. Eventually I was on a dirt road, and then another paved road climbing into the hills. Once cresting the hills I was confronted with a sharp drop and overlook towards the Syrian desert. I descended into the desert and proceeded to another small turn off after a good 20 minutes. The turn off led me back into the mountains and then suddenly stopped. There I found a sign in English and Arabic that warned that vehicles were to go no farther, for this was a monastery. From where my car was parked, I could look down the valley to see a small brown structure perched on a cliff, it was the monastery. Unfortunately, like all good monasteries, to reach it I had to lug my pack for 20 minutes up a continuous flight of stairs that spiraled into the mountain. Finally, I arrived.There, a Syrian man greeted me; he was one of the monks and caretakers. He introduced himself and then asked if I would be spending the night. I told him I would, to which he replied, “Well, then you will have to stay for Christmas as well!”Within minutes, I was introduced to another monk who showed, a French Jesuit visiting the monastery who showed me around the grounds and showed me to my room, a small space that consisted of a mattress on the floor, three wool blankets and a small kerosene stove. He then explained the workings of the monastery to me. There was a small number of monks here, all lead by Paolo, an Italian indoctrinated in the rites of the Syriac Church, as well as a few nuns. They grow all their own food, raise livestock, and sell some product to locals to pay for the upkeep of the monastery. I was free to stay as long as I wanted, he said, and all that they asked was that I participated in the daily workings of the monastery, i.e. cooking and cleaning. He also explained that they would be having a large Christmas party that I had to stay for. So I did.Eventually the day of Christmas Eve came. There was much work to do. Numerous people were arriving from nearby villages to celebrate and we had to prepare the feast. The day was spent cooking, cleaning, setting up, as well as meeting guests. Most of the guests were Christians from local towns and Damascus, but there were a few Muslims as well. Two of the men, rather suspicious, but friendly, types were obvious mukhabaraat Syrian secret police. In Syria, the mukhabaraat keep tabs on everyone whether they be Muslim, Christian, Alawi or Druze. One of them gave me a brief interview, but after months in Syria, I was used to it and smiled why way through the whole thing.By nightfall, we had a retinue of 30 people, or so. We all ducked into the 10th century church, a lovely chapel carved out of the rock with vibrant frescoes adorning the walls. We had an hour of meditation and then a brief prayer, all in Arabic. After the prayer it was time for the feast. We all marched, through the moonlight, to the dining hall where we were greeted with an amazing spread. There were Syrian dishes (hummus, baba ghanouj, et. al.) as well as roasted chicken, ham, wine, olives, dates, rice, and a whole slew of deserts. We feasted, chatted, and drank. As dinner wound down we all gathered around to sing Christmas carols. Some in Arabic, others in English, French, Latin, and Italian. When midnight came, we marched back to the church for a midnight service.Inside the church the candles were lit and the incense was burning. We took our places on the carpets (no chairs in Syriac churches), grabbed Bibles, candles and settled in. The service started with a lot of chanting and praying, followed by passages from the Bible and discussion about them. Communion was served as well. At one point Father Paolo asked us to give out our own prayers. We prayed for the victims of genocide in the Sudan, for the people of Iraq under occupation as well as those under occupation in Palestine (proof that in the Arab world, it’s not just Muslims who feel for Palestine). Others were more personal, e.g. relatives who have cancer, and a prayer was thrown in for the Assad family (that one was for the mukhabaraat). After the individual prayers we stood up and then proceeded to beg the people of the world for forgiveness for all our sins. This involved bowing to north, south, east and west and repeating the phrase “Forgive me.” After that we all turned to each other to ask forgive each other, giving kisses on the cheek and repeating the phrase, “musalliH” (“forgiven”). At this point, 2 hours into the service, we went outside to sing around a fire.Eventually we returned to the church. The monks grabbed drums and we all danced and sang. Finally, at around 5 am, we filed out of the church and made our way back to our rooms. As we walked back along the rock stairs under an almost full moon, a slight dusting of snow started to fall from the sky, covering our heads in white flakes, the perfect ending to a perfect night. The next day, people started to leave, and I joined them, but I left vowing to come back (which I did) and with memories of the most unforgettable Christmas I have ever had. There was no materialism, no sweating about gifts--the only gift we had to give was our friendship and our forgiveness. Rarely in life do we have one of those life-changing experiences, but this was one of those for me. Close
Written by HobWahid on 20 Sep, 2004
The most spectacular sights around Aleppo are the "dead cities" and St. Simeon, both covered in other entries, but, if you have a couple of days in Aleppo and are not short on time, I recommend extending your excursion to St. Simeon to include a…Read More
The most spectacular sights around Aleppo are the "dead cities" and St. Simeon, both covered in other entries, but, if you have a couple of days in Aleppo and are not short on time, I recommend extending your excursion to St. Simeon to include a few of the other sights buried in the limestone mountains. You can easily see them all (including St. Simeon and the dead cities) on one day-long excursion. Public transportation in this area is minimal and most of the sites are beyond the reach of minibuses, so if you have rented a car (not a bad idea for touring Syria) then you will have no trouble. If you do not have a car, it is perfectly easy to arrange a tour through your hotel. It should cost around $20/person.
The first of the major sights, and the one closest to Aleppo, is the Byzantine church of Mushabbak. The church, while nowhere near the scale of St. Simeon, is still impressively preserved and provides a good introduction to what you can expect from the other sites. The church is a basic basilica built in the fifth century. Inside, the nave and the support columns give you the best idea of what the church looked like in its prime. Also, just outside the church is a small quarry (where the stones for the church came from) and a small tomb. There is also a small monastery complex.
If you are on a planned excursion, you will head from here to a dead city and St. Simeon, after which you can proceed on to the temple complex of Ain Dara. Ain Dara is a Hittite temple from around 10,000 B.C. While the ruins themselves are not terribly impressive, they are still worth a look. The lion statues outside of the tomb give you a good idea of Hittite sculpting, and the large "footprints" inside the temple are unique. If you have never seen a Hittite temple before, Ain Dara will impress, and, in addition to great views, the most impressive aspect of the temple is merely its age.
After Ain Dara, you will head a good 30km farther north, probably stopping for lunch on the way. Beware that you will be expected to pay for your driver’s lunch if you stop. Also, you should know that the driver might just decide to bring his son along, like he did with us, and you will have to pay for him too. Admittedly I was a bit annoyed, but the 10-year-old boy was too cute, and it’s not like it was expensive anyway. The stretch of road from Ain Dara to the ruins of Cyrrhus is the most impressive part of the drive. You will wind around the mountains on narrow roads and through villages. Eventually at one point you will arrive at two Roman bridges, both immaculately preserved and still in use. Your driver will allow you to take some pictures before you head over the steep arches yourself. A few kilometers later, you will reach the ruins of Cyrrhus, an old Roman town. Not much remains except for a Roman tower and a crumbled theater, but the real reason is to head out there is for the drive and the views at the site, which is right on the Turkish border.
These sites may not compare to the grandeur of St. Simeon, but it is still a worthy day trip from Aleppo and one worth taking. The scenery is unbeatable.
If you have never had the pleasure of experiencing a hammam (Turkish bathouse) before, then the Hammam Yalbougha al-Nasri in Aleppo is a great place to do it. In the mid-1980s, the Syrian government restored this 14th-century Mameluke hammam to full working order and opened…Read More
If you have never had the pleasure of experiencing a hammam (Turkish bathouse) before, then the Hammam Yalbougha al-Nasri in Aleppo is a great place to do it.
In the mid-1980s, the Syrian government restored this 14th-century Mameluke hammam to full working order and opened it back up to the public. This hammam is one of the largest, and certainly most ornate, hammams in all of Syria. From the outside the building looks like a typical Mameluke structure with a large entranceway and black and white stones, but, once you enter, a long and winding hallway takes you down into the main salon of the hammam, a large, lavishly decorated room with a raised platform running along the walls, on top of which are a series of padded benches. Built into the walls are small recesses covered by drapes and beads that act as changing rooms, and in the middle of the room is a large fountain.
When you enter you will have the choice of which services you would like, each costing a different amount. The all-inclusive package will run you 415 Lira (less than $10), meanwhile, a steam bath with some soap will cost you about 215 Lira. If this is your first real hammam experience, you have to go for the full package - it just wouldn’t be right if you didn’t.
If you opt for the full package, you will be given a security box to put your valuables in and then shown to one of the benches where an assistant will give you a red towel. You then take this towel into the changing alcove where you will strip down and put the towel around your waist. Note that no matter how comfortable you are with your body, that towel had better not leave your waist. After a bit, you will be given some wooden slippers and then led down another winding hallway, through the cold room and into the main bath area. From here, you will be shown the steam room where the temperature is the hottest. After sitting in there for a while, meaning after your pores have expunged themselves, you will be led back into the cold room by a large Arab man (or woman if you are a woman). With a series of grunts he will command you to sit up, lie down, and roll over as he takes a large glove with the consistency of steel wool and vigorously rubs it over your body. It will hurt a bit at first (you had better hope you are not sunburned), but, after a bit, it will actually start to feel good and you will feel even better when you see large rolls of dirt falling of your body, dirt that has probably been lodged in your skin for ten years.
After your exfoliation, your attendant will then take a loufa and some olive oil soap and give your entire body a good rub. Once soap has been grinded into every inch of exposed skin, you will be doused with water and cleansed. Then comes the best part - the massage. Your masseur will lay you down and then begin to use his fleshy arms to press deep into your chest, back, arms, and legs. He will press all his weight onto your spine, flattening you against the stone floor until every vertebrae cracks. Then your arms and legs will be bent into directions you never thought they could go, stretching your muscles and creating space between your compacted bones, all of it done quickly and forcibly but never inciting pain. Soon you will get a big slap on the back signifying that you are done and you will be left to wander back to the main steam area to sit and douse yourself with cold water from copper bowls. You will be left to sit for as long as you need and when you have fully recovered you can head back into cold area where the attendant will wrap you up like Tutankhamen in towels and then send you back into the main hall. Once in the main hall, you will be allowed to rest on your bench, drinking tea (and nargile if you wish) until you feel ready to go.
It’s truly a wonderful experience and will leave you feeling clean and refreshed the rest of the day. Note that although this hammam is a bit on the touristy side, it is still very traditional and everything is done in a traditional manner, and this means that there are separate times for men and woman. The times are set up by alternating days; men on Friday, women Saturday and so on. So if you are there with co-ed company, the best thing to do is just designate a bath time for each day. The whole process will take about an hour and a half, so if the men want to bathe one day, then the ladies can go to the National Museum or walk around the Old City. You can then alternate the next day. Also, this hammam is a bit more expensive than those in Damascus, so if you are visiting both cities and in a crunch for money, you may want to hold out for Damascus, but this hammam is definitely the grandest in Syria. Whether you bathe in Aleppo or Damascus, it is sure to be a great experience and one not to miss out on if you have never done it before.
The old city of Aleppo is a confusing labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, covered bazaars, khans, mosques and madrasas, unlike any other in the world. Of all the great old cities of the Islamic world (I have been to from Marrakesh to Cairo to Istanbul),…Read More
The old city of Aleppo is a confusing labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, covered bazaars, khans, mosques and madrasas, unlike any other in the world. Of all the great old cities of the Islamic world (I have been to from Marrakesh to Cairo to Istanbul), Aleppo is by far the most spectacular. It is so unique in fact that UNESCO has declared it a world heritage site. Walking through the old souks of Aleppo is the closest you can get to actually stepping back in time and witnessing the hectic life of an Islamic old city.
Most of the structures and souks in the old city of Aleppo are of Ottoman construction, and it was during the Ottoman period that Aleppo reached the height of its power. It was the center of trade for the Middle East, attracting traders from all over the Ottoman Empire, as well as Europe. During its heyday, Aleppo was full of Venetian, French, and British traders setting up shops right next to Arab, Armenian, and Turkish traders, buying goods to sell to the European elite in Venice, Paris, and London. Although those days are gone, Aleppo still hasn’t lost its cosmopolitan nature and its ability to attract traders from around the world.
There is still a huge Armenian population as well as a number of Turks, all who have established themselves in the Old City. The Venetians may have stopped coming, but they have been replaced by Russian traders who come to stock up on goods to take back to the major Russian cities. In the Aleppo of today, it is still possible to hear a range of languages being shouted out by shopkeepers, and a sign in Cyrillic is as easy to find as one in Arabic.
In terms of sights, the main attraction of the Old City is the city itself. Although, over the years, parts of the Old City succumbed to the pressures of modernization (you will notice there are no walls), the Syrian government, with the help of German engineers and archaeologists, have been reclaiming a much of the old city and restoring it to its former glory. The Syrian government has given tax breaks to people willing to open up shops in the old city, and their efforts seem to be working. The Old City is as alive today as it probably was in the Ottoman Era.
If you have visited other souks, like Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, the first thing you will notice about Aleppo is the virtual lack of touts, or people begging you to "have a look." Of course they are there, especially in the area right by the main gate, but, for the most part, you will be amazed by the almost completely hassle-free nature of walking around Aleppo. It is because of this that I recommend that when visiting the Old City - all you need to do is just walk. Start at one end, preferably at the entrance of Souk al-Attarin near the Citadel. This is the most tourist-oriented part of the Old City, and you will be able to find all those little trinkets and gifts you need for people back home. From here, all you have to do is just walk. You really don’t have to get worried about becoming lost either. This is nowhere near the maze that you will find in places like Fez, and a guide is definitely not necessary. The Old City is quite small and everything centers around the main street of Souk al-Attarin. If you ever get a little disoriented, all you have to do is walk and you will either end up on Souk al-Attarin or outside the Old City, from where you can just enter in again.
So that is my suggestion: just grab your camera, maybe a list of things to buy, and then just go. Let the streets tell you where to go. If you see something interesting, go look at it. You never have to worry about wandering into a bad part of the city, as there are none. You may walk into parts that are more local than others, where instead of pillow covers, they are selling cow hearts, but that is all part of the experience. You will soon discover that it is perfectly easy to spend a few good hours in the city. Take your time, there should be no rush.
Do not be afraid of the shopkeepers. They are all extremely friendly and willing to help you out in anyway. They may offer you some tea. Go ahead and sit, sip some tea, and chat with a shopkeeper. He will most likely have a few interesting stories to share. Of course he’ll show you all sorts of merchandise, but there is never any pressure. Never feel like you have to buy anything. You can sit, drink tea, and then walk away and the shopkeeper will think nothing less of you.
So just relish the opportunity to be one of the few tourists meandering around this window into another time. Take in the sights and the smells. Stop off for some lemon juice made with bitter, but refreshing Omani lemons. Make your way to the Umayyad Mosque or duck into a few madrasas to see beautiful examples of Ottoman architecture. The Old City of Aleppo is a world unlike anywhere else, and as of now, it’s relatively unscathed by the claws of tourism, but that is sure to change as Syria pushes its tourism agenda forward. See it while you can.
Written by perrytoo on 03 Dec, 2001
Syria is a much easier experience than many other Islamic countries. You are treated respectfully and welcomed everywhere.
Most of the local women wear Islamic dress of some kind, ranging from a scarf over long dress or trousers through to full top-to-toe cover, but a…Read More
Syria is a much easier experience than many other Islamic countries. You are treated respectfully and welcomed everywhere.
Most of the local women wear Islamic dress of some kind, ranging from a scarf over long dress or trousers through to full top-to-toe cover, but a sizable minority wear no veil at all, particularly in the Christian or business quarters of town. Western women, particularly travelling alone, stand out, but aren't hassled (I dressed conservatively). There is no need to wear a scarf yourself, except in mosques. Even in mosques, the general attitude is helpful rather than aggressive. In Bosra, I found the great mosque open, and asked if I could enter. The custodian waved me in. I took off my shoes, and was halfway across the courtyard before I realised I'd forgotten to put on my scarf. I took it out hurriedly, but the custodian smiled, and told me it was ok, don't panic.
The Syrians are naturally courteous to everyone, and it was a pleasure to walk through the souqs without being bombarded from all sides with unwanted offers. Most people asking me to come and see their goods accepted no at first reply. The stallholders were friendly and helpful. I was offered a free sample of food many times when I hesitated trying to interpret the labels.
On buses, western women will be seated next to men (local women are always seated alone or with other women), but there was never any problem. People (men and women) would offer to share food or conversation, but not oppressively. I had no problem with groping or advances anywhere. This is a very safe, slightly old-fahioned country. Almost everyone is honourable and trustworthy. Once, I made the mistake of offering a $100 for a carton of cigarettes, and wanting the change in dollars. The man took the note and went off to find someone to change it. I sat there thinking how stupid I'd been, but the other traders reassured me, and he came back 10 minutes later (note unchanged).
Don't shake hands with anyone. This seems to be used by some men as a way in to grabbing a kiss from a western woman. If a man offers to shake hands, simply ignore him.
If you become uncomfortable in any situation, or are actually attacked, create an uproar. Very few men have unrealistic expectations of western women. The threat of exposure is much greater than the fear of retaliation. So if attacked, scream rather than fight.
Written by HobWahid on 28 Sep, 2004
Following the independence of Syria, the Syrian government immediately set out turning the coastal city of Tartus into its second port. As a result of this, enormous tankers and barges may have replaced the wooden fishing boats that used to patrol Tartus’ shores, but amidst…Read More
Following the independence of Syria, the Syrian government immediately set out turning the coastal city of Tartus into its second port. As a result of this, enormous tankers and barges may have replaced the wooden fishing boats that used to patrol Tartus’ shores, but amidst the rapid expansion, Tartus still has managed to maintain a quiet and friendly charm, and is a worthy stop for anyone touring the costal region of Syria.
Indeed, much of Tartus’ importance throughout history has been due to the small island of Arwad off its coast, an island whose strategic position has been recognized by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Ottomans. During the Crusades, Tartus was a veritable revolving door for armies. The Crusaders did recognize its importance, however, and spent large amounts on fortifying the city during the various years they controlled it, and it is this Crusader-era construction that provides the best sights for tourists today.
The major sight is Tartus’ Old City, which was actually the main Crusader fortress. While not terribly large or containing any great architecture, the Old City is basically an attraction because of the way the locals have built their lives around the fortress. On the outer walls, numerous restaurants and cafes have taken up residence, some taking advantage of old storage facilities. Inside the Old City, everything revolves around the main square, an open area that now contains a mosque, a few shawerma stands and numerous cafes where locals come to smoke nargileh and watch the world go by. Like I said, there is nothing specific to see in the Old City except the city itself. All you need is an hour and a half to spend meandering around the streets, noticing how life has flourished in this former fort. Walking down its cobblestone streets, through old gates, and along abandoned towers, you will still be able to get an idea of just how this fortress may have looked in its day, and while some purists may be angered at the way the local population has taken over the fort, I prefer it this way. There are infinitely better Crusader forts in Syria, but this place is unique because of the way the people have made it their home. So enjoy it.
Other than the Old City, the other main sight is the Tartus Museum, which is housed in the Church of Our Lady of Tortosa, a Crusader-built church that looks more like a fortress than a church. The Museum itself isn’t enormous, but it contains some interesting archeological artifacts found in the area that illustrate Tartus’ long past. The Roman sarcophagi, pottery, stellae and statues are all particularly interesting, as is the Gothic architecture of the Church itself. The grounds of the museum also contain nice gardens and a café where you can relax away from the noise of the city.
When you combine these sights with the island of Arwad, Tartus makes for a nice stop on your travels, but one night is about all you should really need.
Although the city of Lattakia has seen its fair share of history, the modern city has surprisingly little to show for it. Unlike other cities in Syria, there is no Old City and no real Roman ruins to speak of, but that doesn’t mean that…Read More
Although the city of Lattakia has seen its fair share of history, the modern city has surprisingly little to show for it. Unlike other cities in Syria, there is no Old City and no real Roman ruins to speak of, but that doesn’t mean that the Lattakia of today has nothing to offer the tourist. Lattakia is Syria’s largest port and its most modern city. You will not find any great historical monuments in Lattakia, but you will find a city with an air unlike any other in Syria. It is by far Syria’s hippest town, with the best shopping, fancy restaurants, and trendy Internet cafes. Alcohol flows freely at bars and young Lattakians dance the night away at various clubs. To the casual visitor to the Middle East, the seemingly liberal nature of Lattakia will provide a sharp contrast to other cities in the Middle East. Women walk around in tank tops and capri pants, dressed head to toe in the latest fashions. Part of this liberal air comes from the fact that this area has Syria’s highest proportion of Christians and Alawis (a fringe Islamic sect and the religion of President al-Assad), but also contributing to Lattakia’s free nature is its status as Syria’s main port. In a country where access to the outside world can be a bit limited (often due to sanctions), Lattakia has always been the contact point between Syria and the rest of the world, so it is no surprise that it would maintain an identity different from Damascus.
Most Syrians come to Lattakia for the shopping and for the beaches. Just to the north of the city is the Shatt al-Azraq, Syria’s "Côte d’Azur," full of fancy resorts and beaches. To the traveler in Syria, though, Lattakia can make a nice base from which to make some excursions to the surrounding area. Both Qalat Salah ad-Din and Qalat Marqab can be done as day trips from here. There are also the ruins of Ugrit to the north, the site where the world’s oldest alphabet was found.
Inside Lattakia itself there is one main attraction, the Lattakia Museum. The museum is housed in an old Ottoman building and surrounded by a nice set of gardens full of various sarcophagi and columns. At the front of the museum are four nice Greco-Roman statues, one with its head still attached. Inside the museum the rooms are divided into periods. There are ancient rooms that contain pottery and tablets from the Egyptian, Phoenician, and Ugarit eras. The classical rooms contain coins, pottery, and jewelry from the Roman and Greek eras. There is then the Islamic room that contains relics from the various eras of Islamic rule and the Crusades. The museum also contains a modern art room that contains a few paintings from local artists. While not the greatest museum, it does provide a nice respite from the craziness of the city.
Other than that, just take in Lattakia and maybe eat some fresh seafood.
Written by perrytoo on 25 Nov, 2001
The main areas for buying antique jewellery are in the souqs to the south and east of the Ommayyad Mosque, in the Gold souq on Mouawiyya St, and on Bab Sharqi leading up to the gate. The shops around the Mosque and by Bab…Read More
The main areas for buying antique jewellery are in the souqs to the south and east of the Ommayyad Mosque, in the Gold souq on Mouawiyya St, and on Bab Sharqi leading up to the gate. The shops around the Mosque and by Bab Sharqi sell tourist Beduin jewellery, and the shops in the gold souq sell more expensive second-hand jewellery, including traditional Syrian nineteenth century gold jewellery for townswomen set with rose cut diamonds. This is large and ostentatious, and relatively cheap (compared to London) but expensive in absolute terms.
There is a good choice of Beduin jewellery in Damascus but prices are high. There is a wide range of initial prices, depending on shop, but final prices all end up very close to each other. Shops which quote fixed or low prices to start with are no cheaper (or more expensive) than those with traditionally negotiable prices, although the negotiations tend to be shorter. In general, I got the best prices at smaller shops, with limited stock, and those furthest from the main tourist sites. Non-Syrian jewellery, particularly Russian, is better value than Syrian. Syrian jewellery illustrated in "Arts & Crafts of Syria", or western saleroom catalogues tends to be more expensive.