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Damascus

Travel Guide Middle East Syria Damascus

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Introduction

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

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Damascus is the capital of Syria and after Aleppo it is the biggest city in the country with slightly less than 2 million people living here. It is located in the southwest of the country not far from the border with Jordan. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Although the largest part of the city is rather chaotic with much traffic and not much of interest for travellers, the old part of the city is a great place exploring on foot. The medina (souq) is a colourful place to visit and the old city has several quarter like the Christian quarter. Centrepiece is the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus. It is one of the largest mosques in the world, and one of the oldest sites of continuous prayer since the rise of Islam. Damascus deserves at least a few days before exploring the rest of the cultural highlights of Syria.

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Sights and Activities

The Souq al-Hamidiyya, a broad street packed with tiny shops, is entered through columns from a Roman temple built on a site that had been occupied by an even older temple. The souqs themselves smell of cumin and other distinctive spices and you can find passages dedicated to everything from leather and copper goods to inlaid boxes and silk scarves.

At the end of Souq al-Hamidiyya stands the great Umayyad mosque; this building with three minarets is an architectural wonder. It was an Assyrian temple, then a Roman temple to Jupiter, a church when Rome converted to Christianity, then a mosque and a church together, and finally a mosque until now. All the symbols are still pretty much there and some Christian drawings can still be very clearly seen on the walls inside. The mosque contains the grave of John the Baptist (for Muslims, prophet Yahya) inside the main lounge. Women are asked to be to cover their hair, arms and legs. Abayas(full-body covers)are provided with the entrance ticket price of 50SP. It is one of the most sacred sites of Islam, and it welcomes foreign tourists, who are allowed to walk around the prayer area.

At the other end of Souq al-Hamidiyya is a fort-like section of the extant city wall that is the Citadel (but make sure to visit Aleppo's Citadel for a truly amazing experience).

Nearby, you can visit the Mausoleum of Salah al-Din, known in the west as Saladin, the chief anti-crusader. There's a great statue of him on horseback right next to the citadel, which will make you gasp. If you walk all the way around it, there are two dejected Frankish knights underneath the horse's slightly lifted tail. These two knights are identified by inscriptions as Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, and Reynald de Chatillon, lord of Kerak, an important fortress in the Holy Land. Both were captured during Salah al-Din's definitive victory at Hattin; Guy was imprisoned in Damascus and eventually released, but Reynald was executed as punishment for his many atrocities.

The Azzam palace (150 SP, students: 10 SP) includes a museum trying to describe the life of royal families.

The October War Panorama is out in the suburbs but accessible by minibus or taxi. It's about US$7 to get in and well worth it. It was built with the help of the North Korean Government and the influence shows. There is an exhibit of military hardware outside. English-speaking guides are available.

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Events and Festivals

Independence Day

Kicking off the Syrian events calendar in April is the National Independence day. Traditionally this day is marked with great displays of national unity and pride. Parades are held in most of the major city centers, locals fly the Syrian flag on high and national songs can be heard coming from homes and local stores around the country. Since the outbreak of the civil war, however, all festivities seem to have cooled down considerably.

Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan)

Followers of the Islamic faith make up 87 percent of the Syrian population which means that Islamic holidays in the country are a big deal. One of the most well known events is Eid al-Fitr which takes place in August every year. Eid marks the end of the month of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. The event is characterized by family and friends gathering for a great feast, the exchanging of gifts, the wearing of new clothes and of course, attending mosque.

Arabic Book Fair

Held in Damascus every September, the Arabic Book fair is newly incepted but has proved to be quite popular. The fair’s main aim is to promote Arabic literature and showcase local writers, both established and up-and-coming. Many international authors are also showcased in this event. The festival includes many events including book launches, signings, and discussions with the authors.

Silk Road Festival

Also in September is the Silk Road Festival, an interesting event which aims to celebrate and commemorate the diversity and unity of Syria’s many nationalities. The capital city, Damascus is taken on a journey into the past and transformed into what it once looked like when it was a meeting place for Silk Road caverns. The festival also reaches other cities which are bathed in vibrant colors and host many cultural activities.

Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice)

Another Islamic holiday, this time held in October, is the Feast of the sacrifice. An important in Islamic country’s world wide, this festival lasts for two-to-three days and commemorates the decision of Ibrahim to sacrifice his first-born son to God. Locals slaughter a sheep to this effect and together, as families and friends, hold great feasts all over the region.

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Weather

Damascus has a cool desert climate, due to the rain shadow effect of the Anti-Lebanon mountains and the prevailing ocean currents. Summers are dry and hot with less humidity. Winters are cool and somewhat rainy; snowfall is infrequent. Annual rainfall is around 130 mm, occurring from October to May.

JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
Avg Max12.6 °C14.8 °C18.9 °C24.5 °C29.7 °C34.2 °C36.5 °C36.2 °C33.4 °C28 °C20.3 °C14.2 °C
Avg Min0.4 °C1.3 °C3.7 °C7 °C10.5 °C14.2 °C16.9 °C16.5 °C13 °C8.9 °C4 °C1.3 °C
Rainfall27.9 mm22.7 mm16.9 mm7.9 mm3.3 mm0.4 mm0 mm0 mm0.2 mm7.1 mm21.4 mm25.8 mm
Rain Days775310000246

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Getting There

By Plane

Damascus International Airport (DAM) is the main gateway to Syria. Syria Air operates both international as well as a few domestic flights. Destinations include quite a few cities in Europe, as well as the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia. Domestic flights are not used that often, because distances are small.
Transport to central Damascus is offered by a taxi company. A private bus company also offers service between the airport and Baramkeh in central Damascus.

By Train

Syria - Jordan vv
A twice weekly train travel between Damascus, and the capital of Jordan, Amman. The train leaves both places on Mondays and Thursdays at 8 o'clock in the morning and take 9 hours to complete the schedule. Although slower than buses and shared taxis, this train ride comes as a welcome alternative for train fanatics.

Syria - Iran vv
There is a weekly train travelling from Damascus to Tehran, stopping in Aleppo in Syria and Tabriz in Iran along the way. Like the train from Istanbul to Tehran, the journey contains two stages, one to Lake Van and one from Lake Van onwards.

By Car

Taxis to Damascus are easy to arrange from Amman and the journey takes around 4 hours including the time spent crossing the border. Shared taxis leave when full or it's possible to pay more and leave when you want if there are less of you. Roads to and from Damascus also lead to the west and north of Syria and into Lebanon. Roads are generally in good condition.

By Bus

There are buses in all directions, but to Syrian cities and towns, as well as into neighbouring countries and even a few countries further away.

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Getting Around

By Car

It isn't a very good idea to rent a car in Damascus. There is almost always a traffic jam, especially in summer, and parking tends to be difficult too; although that isn't the situation in suburbs.

Taxis are plentiful in Damascus, making them a great mode of transportation. The taxis of Star Taxi, a new private company, are more expensive than normal taxis, but they are also more comfortable and safer. You can call their headquarters and they will send the nearest taxi to your door. Taxis with the Damascus Governorate logo on the side and a number on the roof sign are normally equipped with a meter, and it is best to use only these when hailing a taxi on the street. You should normally leave a 10-pound tip as well as the fare on the meter. At night, taxi drivers do not usually use the meter, so you may be best off negotiating the price before you get in. A service taxi to Amman or Beirut cost 700 Syrian pounds and takes around 4 hours and run 24 hours. Do not hesitate to take them; they are new, clean vehicles with air conditioning.

By Public Transport

Micro buses, also known as servees, are one of the main sources of transportation in Damascus. All journeys inside the city costs 10 Syrian Pounds. You can go from one place to another in Damascus with at most one or two journeys. When on the bus, give any passenger a coin and he will pass it to the driver and return the change, just remember to tell that passenger how many people you are paying for, whether you are in a group, or tell him that you are paying "for one" ("waahid") if you are alone. The route is written (in Arabic only) on the roof sign. Micro buses do not generally have fixed stops except at very busy points, just beckon to the driver and he will stop near you (Al yameen, andak iza samaht).

There are also many city buses that likewise cost 10 SYP. One useful bus is #15, which runs from Al-Marjeh Square (Souq Sarouja\Old Town) to the Western Bus Station, which serves Beirut and Amman.

By Foot

A very good idea is to go on foot especially for a sightseeing, and it's the only way to get around in Old Damascus. Walking in the new city however, should be reserved to the nicer areas of Maliki and Abu-Rumaneh, as the new city tends to be pollution clogged. The driving culture in Damascus is not the safest, so beware as a pedestrian, especially in the new city. Cars will not hesitate to come extremely close to pedestrians or other cars in order to pass.

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Eat

The famous vegetarian falafel sandwich (15-30 SP), chicken shawarma (30-50 SP) and manakeesh (10-20 SP), bread filled with zatar, spinach, meat, pizza-style tomato and cheese or other fillings are widely available and cheap. Less common but still widely spread are places which sell foul (boiled fava beans with sauce) and hummus.

A typical Damascene dish is fatteh, made up of soaked bread, chickpeas and yogurt. Delicious and extremely filling, it is excellent on a cold winter's day. Try it with lamb or sheep's tongue, or plain with the typical garnish of a little pickle and nuts.

There is a foul restaurant on Souq Saroujah, the same street as hotel Al-Haramein and one at the bab touma square. Also in this "backpacker district" on Souq Sarouja is Mr Pizza serving good pizzas, sandwiches, burgers and fries. A large plate of fries is 50 SP, a sandwich filled with chicken is 75 SP and a pizza for one person is 110 SP.

Shawarma is, of course, popular in Damascus. It comes in different varieties, including chicken and beef. Station One (near the Noura Supermarket in Abu Rumaneh) is one of many restaurants that serve shawarma throughout the city.

In order to really experience local Syrian cuisine, be sure to visit a section of Damascus called Midan. It lies south of the old city and can easily be reached by walking south from the western entrance to Souq al-Hamadiyya or from Bab Saghir. There is a main street there called Jazmatiya which offers an unlimited amount of shawerma & falafel stands, butcher shops/restaurants and plenty of Syrian pastry shops which are clearly marked by 2.5 metre high towers of sweets stacked on top of each other. Be sure to try Shawarma from "Anas," which makes some of the best sandwiches in Damascus. This main street is best to visit at night and doesn't close till around 03:00. The street is very safe and is always very busy.

Another unusual treat is a camel kebab, available tasty and fresh from the camel butchers outside Bab Saghir. As they typically advertise their wares by hanging a camel head and neck outside the premises, you're unlikely to miss them.

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Drink

The coffee houses of Old Damascus were something to experience. Hours could dissolve over a cup of shay (tea) or ahwa (coffee) among the smoke of a nargileh (water pipe) . An-Naufara (which means 'The Fountain') was a wonderful place to do this, just east of the Umayyad Mosque. There was even a Hakawati (a traditional story teller) present at 19:00 most nights.

If you were craving a European coffee, you could have headed for Abu Rommeneh street and looked for the Bennetton clothing store. There were a number of fancy cafés in the area, including the Middle Eastern chain Inhouse Coffee, which is similar to Starbucks in its prices and atmosphere. A large latte or cappuccino (before the wartime inflation) cost 135 SP. Free Wi-Fi was offered at each location throughout the city.

Apart from that, many bars and nightclubs had been set up in Damascus. These were usually busy at night time, but they still provided nice alcoholic beverages and dances.

Clubs in Damascus that weren't all prostitutes (around Bab Sharqi): La Serai, La Vida Loca

Many establishments have closed because of the war; as of mid-2016 there have been reports of businesses gradually returning to the Old City or Old Quarter of Damascus.

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Sleep

Souq-Al-Saroujah is where you find the cluster of backpacker hotels. Martyr's Square or "Merjeh" in Arabic is the other place worth considering if you're on a tight budget, though many of the places double as brothels. However, at least the hotels below can be recommended. Women alone should avoid hotels at Merjeh Square, because it's the red light district of Damascus.

Most hotels in Damascus claiming to be 5 stars are actually closer to what Western travellers know as 2 stars. The Syrian government runs its own accreditation agency that gives highly suspect inflated ratings to hotels owned by Syrian chains and those that have paid "baksheesh" (bribes) to the authorities. Due to the American sanctions of Syria, credit cards linked to US Banks will not be accepted (this is pretty much every credit card in the world).

PropertyAddressTypePopularity
Al Majed HotelDamascus - Syria 29th May Street Assufara CinemaHotel-
Beit Al Salam42 mariam street, Bab AlsalamHostel-
Damascus Rooms29 Aiar StrHostel-
Beit AlrhamanBagdad Street,KazazenGuesthouse-
Agenor Boutique HotelOld Damascus Straight Street Via RectaHotel-
Via Recta HotelBab Sharki, Kassabeh No.2Hotel-
Jaafari Hotel Sayeda ZaynabJaafari Street - Sayeda ZaynabHotel-
Damascus HostelBab Touma Al Abbarah 2ndHostel-
HANANIA BOUTIQUE HOTELHanania Street Bab Sharqi (Eastern Gate)Hotel-

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Learn

There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic.

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

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Quick Facts

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Coordinates
  • Latitude: 33.5158
  • Longitude: 36.2939

Accommodation in Damascus

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This is version 13. Last edited at 9:49 on Dec 6, 16 by Utrecht. 34 articles link to this page.

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