Syria - Attractions
Damascus is Syria's largest city and capital. It grew up around the Barada River and Ghouta Oasis, which make life possible in an otherwise uninhabitable landscape. Damascus is possibly the world's oldest continuously inhabited city - there was a settlement here as long ago as 5000 BC. Today, its fascination lies in its mysterious oriental bazaars and the gracious, somewhat decayed, charm of some of Islam's greatest monuments. The centre of the city is Martyrs' Square - most of the restaurants and hotels are close by.
The epicentre of Damascus' charm is its Old City, surrounded by a Roman wall. The city's main covered market is the Souq al-Hamadiyyeh, a cobbled street of bustling crowds, hawkers and high-octane haggling. Opposite the end of the market is the Omayyad Mosque. Built in 705 on the site of ancient temples and a Christian cathedral, the mosque was designed to be the greatest ever. Despite being gutted in a fire in the 19th century, it's still a jewel of Muslim architecture, with several gorgeous mosaics and three original minarets.
Saladin, one of the great heroes of Arab history and the man who showed the Crusaders a thing or two, is buried in Damascus. Saladin's Mausoleum was built in 1193 - it's covered with a red dome and set in a pleasant garden outside the northern wall of the Ommayad Mosque. Azem Palace, south of the mosque, was built in 1749 from alternating lines of black basalt and white limestone - it's now home to the Museum of the Arts & Popular Traditions of Syria. In the Christian Quarter, in the east of the Old City, you'll find St Paul's Chapel, which marks the spot where the disciples lowered St Paul out of a window one night so that he could flee the Jews.
One of Syria's most graceful mosques is Takiyyeh as-Sulaymaniyyeh, just south of the Barada River. Designed in Ottoman style in 1554, it features alternating layers of black and white stone and two slender minarets. The National Museum, also south of the river, is worth at least one visit. The museum's facade was once the entrance to the Qasr al-Hayr al-Ghabi, an ancient military camp. Inside is a fantastic array of exhibits, including writings from the 14th century BC that use the world's first known alphabet, statuary from Mari that's over 4000 years old, two halls full of marble and terracotta statues from Palmyra, Damascene weapons, old surgical instruments from surgeons' graves, a collection of 13th century Qur'ans and a complete room decorated in the style of the 18th century Azem Palace.
Known as Halab by the locals, Aleppo is Syria's second largest city, and has been a trading centre since Roman times. With its fascinating covered souqs, citadel, museum and caravanserais, it's a great place to spend a few days. The citadel dominates the city at the eastern end of the souqs. Its moat is spanned by a bridge on the southern side, leading to the 12th-century fortified gate. Inside, the fort is mostly ruins, but the throne room above the entrance has been lavishly restored. The only surviving buildings from the original citadel are a small 12th-century mosque and the 13th-century great mosque.
The fabulous covered souqs are the city's main attractions. This labyrinth extends over several hectares, and once you're under the vaulted stone ceiling you're whisked away to another world. Swoon to the sweet scents of cardamom and cloves, gag at the hanging carcasses in the meat souq - it's all here. Most of the markets were built in the Ottoman era, but some date back to the 13th century.
On the northern end of the souqs is the Grand Mosque, with a free-standing minaret built in 1090. The mosque has a lovely carved wooden pulpit, and if you peer round to the left of it you may catch a glimpse of the head of John the Baptist's father (decapitation obviously ran in the family). The city's Archaeological Museum has a fine collection of artefacts from Mari, Ebla and Ugarit. Most of Aleppo's places to stay and eat are slap-bang in the centre of town.
Krak des Chevaliers
For once, a castle that's not just a pile of rubble on the ground: this fabulous Crusader castle looks almost exactly as it would have 800 years ago. Crac des Chevaliers, guarding the only major pass between Antakya in Turkey and Beirut in Lebanon, was built and expanded between 1150 and 1250 and eventually housed a garrison of 4000. The castle held out against several attacks, but was lost to Sultan Baibars in 1271.
The castle has two parts: an outside wall with 13 towers and an inside wall and keep. The two are separated by a moat, now full of stagnant water, which was used to fill the baths and water the horses. Walk through the main entrance, an imposing gate in the 5m (16ft) thick wall and past the towers which defended the castle, and you enter a courtyard. A corridor covered in delicate carvings leads to a large vaulted hall, where you can see an old oven, a well and some latrines. The chapel in the courtyard was converted to a mosque after Sultan Baibar took over, and you can still see its pulpit. The top floor of the Tower of the Daughter of the King is now a cafe with great views. It's possible to stay in the castle area, or you can make an easy day trip from Tartus or Hama.
This is the 'if you're only going to see one thing in Syria, see this' sight. Unlike Petra, the Middle East's other great must-see, Palmyra is a relatively quiet little spot where you won't be peering between zoomy package tourists to view the ruins. Palmyra is in the middle of nowhere, 150km (93mi) from the Orontes River to the west and 200km (124mi) from the Euphrates to the east.
Palmyra's ruins date from the 2nd century AD, although the city began its rise to glory under the Assyrians. For a while it was an important Greek outpost, and in 217 it was annexed by Rome and became a centre of unsurpassed wealth. They city's most famous character was Zenobia, who ruled Palmyra from 267, when her husband died under suspicious circumstances. Zenobia took on the Roman forces but was soundly beaten in 271, and Palmyra was burnt to the ground two years later. An earthquake finished the job in 1089.
There are plenty of ruins to ferret around in at Palmyra. The Temple of Bel is a massive square courtyard. Across the road is the Great Colonnade, an impressive column-lined street that was once the main artery of the town. The monumental arch that stands at one end of it has been restored. To the south of the colonnade, the theatre incorporates a market place and a banqueting hall. On the hill overlooking Palmyra is Qala'at ibn Maan, a 17th-century Arab castle. The museum has some excellent pieces from Palmyra and the labelling is in English. There are a few places to stay and eat in the new town surrounding the ruins. You can get to Palmyra from the transport crossroad of Homs or from Damascus.