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 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.
epicenter 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Krak des Chevaliers
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.
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.