The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          



The South


The capital of Syria is the world’s oldest inhabited city. A central feature of this cluttered and clamorous city is the Ummayyad Mosque, entered by passing through the Al-Hamidiyah Bazaar. The history of the mosque in many ways traces the history of Damascus; built on the site of a temple to the ancient Aramean god Haddad, the original temple was adapted and enlarged by the Romans and used as a temple to Jupiter. It was later knocked down by the Byzantines, who replaced the pagan temple with the Cathedral of John the Baptist, which was subsequently converted into a mosque to accommodate the Islamic teachings brought by the Arabs in AD 636. The mosque houses the Tomb of St John the Baptist. The Tikiyeh mosque, built in the mid-16th century, stands out by its two elegant minarets and great dome. The 18th-century Al Azem Palace is now a national museum, where there are, amongst other examples of Islamic art, beautifully illuminated copies of the Koran. Situated in old Damascus, a little way off the famous Via Recta, or the ‘Street called Straight', is the House of Hanania, where St Paul hid, using the underground chapel for worship. The church in the Damascus Wall from where St Paul escaped in a basket is also still preserved. Also worth seeing is the Long Souk (market). Other attractions include the Sayyida Zainab Shrine (the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad), the Tomb of Saladin at the back of the Ummayyad Mosque, and the outskirts of Damascus, especially Dummar, with seasonal entertainment and restaurants. Ghota, the fruit orchards surrounding Damascus, is at its best during the blooming of apricot, plums, cherries and other trees in early spring.


Bosra was the first city in Syria to become Muslim and has some of the oldest minarets in the whole of Islam. As a stopover on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, Bosra was a prosperous city until the 17th century. By then the region was becoming unsafe and the pilgrims began to take a less dangerous route further west. Bosra’s main attraction is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre (with room for 15,000 spectators) in which a musical festival is held every two years. The eastern exit to the town is one of its last surviving vestiges of a pre-Roman civilisation. The remains of an archway dating from the first century – the Nabatean period, of which nearly all traces are now lost – are unique in Syria. The Mosque of Omar in the centre of the town (called Jami-al Arouss, ‘the bridal mosque’, by the Bosriots), used to be a pagan temple and now stands as the only mosque surviving from the early-Islamic period that has preserved its original facades.


Further interesting sites include Salkhad, 23km (14 miles) east of Bosra, which has a citadel dating from the time of the Crusades; Al Inat, 26km (15miles) south-east of Salkhad, with its a great reservoir dug out of the rock; and the ruins at Umm Al Qotein, near the Jordanian border.

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