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Introducing Syria

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Mosque © Judith Duk

Arabic hospitality can be somewhat overwhelming for first-time visitors, and nowhere else in the Middle East will visitors receive such a genuine demonstration of Arabic hospitality, accompanied by a refreshingly sincere welcome, than in the Arab Republic of Syria. 'Ahlan wa sahlan' is a phrase that will be heard often throughout the country, meaning 'You are welcome', and will more than likely be accompanied by a traditional cup of Arabic coffee or a glass of tea, or an offer to share in the family meal.

Syria once included present day Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine within its borders, but today is enclosed by Turkey to the north, Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Jordan and Israel to the south, and Iraq to the east. Its central position on the caravan and trade route was largely responsible for its intermingling of beliefs and ideas, having survived a myriad invasions and occupations over the ages from the Persians and Greeks to the Romans, Crusaders and Arabs.

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. Part of the ancient caravan route, the 500-year old souqs (covered markets) are a riot of colour and turmoil, where anything from handmade chunks of soap and carpets to sheep's tongues and underwear are sold from shops crammed into the narrow cobblestone alleyways. On the streets, donkeys, 1960s American car-taxis, bicycles, minibuses and private jeeps vie for priority, while street vendors and shoe-shiners clog the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to take on the traffic amid a cacophony of hooting and shouting.

One of the most interesting places for travellers is the capital city of Damascus, brimming with history as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. Then there is Aleppo in the north with its citadel, elaborately decorated hammans (bath houses), ancient souq and the nearby ruins of St Simeon, considered to be one of the world's oldest remaining churches. In Syria's central region lie the ancient Greek ruins of Palmyra, located in the desert oasis that has long been a crucial stopover for caravans crossing the Syrian desert, while the friendly town of Hama is famous for its ancient wooden water-wheels and is in proximity to the impressive crusader castle of Krak de Chevaliers. Syria also boasts many resorts along the Mediterranean Coast.

Time spent in Syria will be as gratifying as it is interesting, and visitors will return home with a collection of stories to tell, a wealth of fond recollections, and a camera full of photographs.

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