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Phespirit goes to Syria
tour     March 2004

AROUND SYRIA

Map of Syria

1 Damascus

Important things to do in Damascus:

  • walk the length of 'a Street called Straight' (like St. Paul);
  • visit the Chapel of St. Ananais (like St. Paul);
  • visit St. Paul's Chapel (in the wall where he fled the city);
  • wander through the Hamidiye Souk;
  • visit the Umayyad Mosque;
  • visit the Takiyyeh as-Sulaymaniyyeh Mosque;
  • visit the National Archaeological Museum;
  • and go up Mount Qassioun as the sun sets on the city.

Oh, and don't forget to visit the Azem Palace where wax dummies in the Museum of Popular Arts and Tradition recreate scenes from a bygone era (albeit the dummies of women look suspiciously like middle-aged male figures in heavy make-up).

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2 Ezra

Scores of lorries park along the roadsides here, waiting to pick up or drop off their loads at the huge grain silos just outside town.

English tourists park outside the Byzantine Church of St. George, visiting the tomb of England's Patron Saint. Note how the cross of St. George is curiously depicted in the stained glass windows:

Cross of St. George with inverted triange as upper arm

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3 Bosra

To describe the remains of this Roman city as "ruins" would be to do them a disservice. Many of the structures have been preserved or restored to an excellent condition. Most obvious of these is the theatre, but there is also the bath complex, the forum, the arches, the nymphaeum and the tetrapylon, all along the Cardo Maximus.

Phespirit rejoiced to see a beautiful Hoopoe fly up from the ground behind the old cathedral not twenty yards in front of him, .....

..... particularly after having passed a stuffed one hanging from the side of a market stall just a few moments earlier.

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4 Maalula

Phespirit only called in briefly at Maalula, which is a pity because it is a striking little town built upon the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon with lots of intriguing passageways and caves to explore. As it is, Phespirit was only able to visit:

  • the Church of St. Serge and St. Bacchus;
  • the Monastery of St. Tekla;
  • Tekla's grotto.

The people around these parts are all Christian and still speak the Aramaic language. Pilgrims come here from all over the world and at the Church of St. Serge and St. Bacchus a jovial priest records the total number of visitors of each nationality by month and year. Amusingly, he asks every British visitor if they are Welsh as there has apparently been a recent shortage of pilgrims from Wales.

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5 Palmyra

Palmyra is a Roman ruin done desert style: a dust-blown blend of the familiar - theatre, colonnade, arches, tetrapylon, etc. - and the not so familiar - tower tombs, Temple of Bel, etc.

On the road from Damascus to Palmyra, why not stop for a break at the Bagdad Cafe? It is crammed with fossils, minerals, pottery, carpets and chairs to lounge across while sipping tea or mint tea. There is a traditional style house to see, with tents alongside and loos out the back. Otherwise it exists in complete scrubby desert isolation. They're big on their own branded goods, too. Everything from postcards to calendars, from painted rocks to T-shirts.

The Bagdad Cafe is 135km out of Damascus, 105km to Palmyra.

(On a whim, Phespirit gives free advertising space to whimsical businesses.)

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6 Crac des Chevaliers

After generous helpings of fried chicken, chips and the local white 'Nectar' wine at the Alklaa Restaurant, Phespirit was taken up the Crac by his Syrian guide .....

Crac des Chevalier is the undisputed heavyweight champion of all crusader castles. T.E. Lawrence lavished generous praise upon it and is frequently quoted. Phespirit enjoyed a detailed look around before finding an isolated spot up on the roof where he could sit in the wind and sunshine while the mid-afternoon call to prayer softly carried aloft from the town below.

A gentle half hour walk downhill through flowering farmland is all it takes to get from Crac des Chevaliers to the Al-Wadi Hotel - ideal for Phespirit, who happened to be checked into room 408.

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7 Safita

All that remains of the crusader presence in Safita is the keep of the White Castle. Set at the highest point in the centre of what is now a modern town, it still dominates the urban sweep at its feet.

On a clear day it is possible to see the Crac des Chevaliers from the top of the keep, so they say. Phespirit visited on a sunny but heavily heat-hazy day so is unable to vouch for the claim.

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8 Tartous

Eyecatching features of this busy seaside town include one large well-rusted ship laying on its side on the rich orange sands of the main beach, and another, somewhat fresher-looking, but stricken at an unfortunate 45° angle alongside a concrete loading pier.

Oddities aside, Tartous has a nice laidback atmosphere.

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9 Ugarit

This excavated site lacks the grand colonnades and arches of the more celebrated Roman locations in Syria. Nonetheless, Ugarit is surprisingly extensive and robust (in a low-rise way) for a city that pre-dates Rome by several thousand years.

Phespirit visited on a Friday, as did many locals to enjoy a day off school or work with a spot of alfresco music, song and dance.

Happy scenes.

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10 Qalaat Saladin

Qalaat Saladin is a spectacular crusader castle built high up on a rocky spur in a wooded valley with deep ravines on each side.

At first sight it appears to be the most impenetrable, unobtainable castle imaginable. In reality it suffered for having almost no armed support or local reinforcements and was thus captured by Saladin with very little resistance at all. Hence its present name.

The best views can be enjoyed from the Salah Aldeen Restaurant, along with a decent portion of chicken and chips.

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11 Hama

A large town on the Orontes River in the fertile Orontes Valley.

Tourists flock to Hama to see the giant waterwheels. So Phespirit flocked to Hama to see the giant waterwheels; and they were very nice too, but sadly not turning as the water had been switched off at a dam further upriver.

Most inconvenient.

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12 Apamea

Another Roman site. The ruins here are a bit more worse-for-wear than those at Bosra or Palmyra, but .....

  • the site is nicely situated on a high grassy promontory;
  • it is well removed from the modern town;
  • it has 2km of colonnades to walk in quiet contemplation;

..... which makes Apamea a pleasantly peaceful place to visit.

A museum of gravestones, milestones and mosaics can be found inside an old caravansarai in Apamea town.

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13 Aleppo

Of all the towns/cities in Syria, Phespirit liked Aleppo the best.

Possibly because whilst Aleppo is distinctly Arab in character - in its souks, its citadel, its cafés, its mosques, its shops, its alleys, its streets, its houses - there is something in the atmosphere that is immediately accessible to Europeans.

It is a difficult thing to define, but one that Phespirit was not alone in sensing.

Whatever; here is some free advertising for a charming character:

For fine oriental articles and rugs visit local poet Sebastian at his shop, 'Sebastian', on Citadel Street, P.O. Box 2144, Aleppo.

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14 St Simeon Complex

To mark the place where a highly respected Christian masochist spent over three decades sitting at the top of a stone column, an impressive church complex was built in the 5th century.

Some time between then and now the site was abandoned to the elements and underwent a fair of bit crumbling.

Nowadays that crumbling makes it even more atmospheric.

It gets a bit crowded, mind.

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  1. Damascus
  2. Ezra
  3. Bosra
  4. Maalula
  5. Palmyra
  6. Crac des Chevaliers
  7. Safita
  8. Tartous
  9. Ugarit
  10. Qalaat Saladin
  11. Hama
  12. Apamea
  13. Aleppo
  14. St Simeon Complex
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Damascus Ezra Bosra Maalula Palmyra Crac des Chevaliers Safita Tartous Ugarit Qalaat Saladin Hama Apamea Aleppo St Simeon Complex