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Syria has been listed by U.S. intelligence agencies as a drug trafficking, terrorist supporting country. Since September 11, moreover, many governments have heartily recommended their citizens to shy away from travel to the nation. And sure, the anti-Western (or, rather, anti-American) sentiment is pretty heartfelt by some; but this one-sided view of Syrians belies their friendliness, warmth and remarkable hospitality.
History is at the core of Syria's attractions. Damascus, one of the world's oldest cities and Syria's largest, might be remembered by some Sunday-school attenders as one of the places Jesus visited. These days, it's a city whose main architectural influence is Islam and whose vibrancy is owing to a lively collection of bazaars and markets. Ruins and ancient castles dot the landscape, with Palmyra one of the finest sites in the Middle East (and it has some pretty formidable competition).
Archaeologists have demonstrated that civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth, going back several thousands of years BC. During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions and exchanges associated with the Sea Peoples. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period. Eventually, the Persians took Syria as part of their hegemony of Southwest Asia; this dominion was transferred to the Ancient Macedonians after Alexander the Great's conquests and the Seleucid Empire.
In the Roman Empire period, the city of Antioch was the third largest city in the empire after Rome and Alexandria. With estimated population of 500,000 at its peak, Antioch was one of the major centres of trade and industry in the ancient world. By AD 640, Syria was conquered by the Rashidun army led by Khaled ibn al-Walid, resulting in the area becoming part of the Islamic empire. In the mid-7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, placed the capital of the empire in Damascus.
In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. Shattered by the Mongols, Syria was easily absorbed into the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through 20th centuries.
French troops occupied Syria om 1920 after the San Remo conference proposed that the League of Nations put Syria under a French mandate. With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941 but it wasn't until January 1, 1944 that it was recognised as an independent republic. In November 1956 Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria. The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two countries, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the Communists therein, ceased overt activities. On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of President. Immediately following al-Assad's death in 2000, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34, which allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Baath party.
On March 18, the most serious unrest to take place in Syria for decades erupted. After online calls for a "Friday of dignity", thousands of protesters took to the streets of cities across Syria. Amidst reports of deaths and injuries, United Nations Secretary General chief Ban Ki-moon called the use of deadly force unacceptable. The protests started in the southern city of Deraa but spread quickly across the rest of the country, killing at least several dozens of people.
Although Syria is mainly a large dry area, consisting of deserts or desertlike landscapes, the country has some other areas that are remarkably fertile, especially along a small coastal zone in the northwest. Here, citrusfruits are grown. The coastal area is also the highest part of the country with a moutainrange as a backbone from north to south. The highest areas are along the border with Lebanon with the highest point over 2800 meters.
The agricultural hart lies between this coastal zone and the deserts more in the east and southeast of the country. In this agricultural zone are most cities, like Aleppo and Damascus. The Euphrates river is one of the most important rivers in Syria and a main supplier of irrigation water, compensating the lack of rain most of the year. The deserts in the (south)east are dry, flat and stony and apart from a few oasis, nothing really grows here and settlements are few and far between.
Syria is divided into 14 provinces, called Muhafazats. Actually there are 13, the Muhafazat of Dimashq (Damascus, the capital) has a special status. The other 13 are:
|Northeast||Muhafazat Dayr az Zawr (Deir ez Zor), Muhafazat al Hasakah, Muhafazat ar Raqqah|
|North||Muhafazat Halab (Aleppo), Muhafazat Idlib|
|South||Muhafazat Rif Dimasq, Muhafazat al Qunaytirah, Muhafazat as Suwayda', Muhafazat Dar'a|
|West||Muhafazat al Ladhiqiyah (Latakia), Muhafazat Hamah (Hama), Muhafazat Hims (Homs), Muhafazat Tartus|
The following conceptual division used to make more sense for travellers:
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Damascus is the longest inhabited capital city in the world, with people living here for at least 4,000 years! The entirely walled Old City is the place to visit, as the rest of the city can be pretty hectic and there is much less to see there. Just wandering around the hustle and bustle of the souqs or the surprisingly quiet christian and Armenian neighbourhoods is an experience of a unique kind. To make things complete, at least bring a visit to the Umayyad Mosque with its peaceful square, marmer tiles and splendid carpets inside the mosque itself.
Although Damascus is the capital, Aleppo is the biggest city in Syria, with over 4 million people living in the municipality. Just like Damascus though, wandering around the souqs brings you back in time and you can buy everything you want, from gold to sheep heads. A concrete stomach comes in rather handy at these moments. Another major landmark in Aleppo is the Citadel, a fortified place from where you have a good view over the green coloured roofs of the mosques.
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Palmyra is one of the most impressive historical sites in the Middle East. Its location in a rugged and beautiful desert setting gives it that extra touch. The Roman ruins date back mainly to the 2nd century AD and are best visited at sunset when it is still quiet and both wind and high temperatures are absent. From the town of Palmyra it is just a 5-minute walk to the ruins and spending a couple of nights here is welcome especially after the hectic situation in Damascus or Aleppo. The site of Palmyra is placed on the Unesco World Heritage List.
These two ancient sites are perfectly set on the banks of the Euphrates river, not far from the Iraqi border. From a historical point of view, there are big differences between the two sites. Dura Europos mainly is a Roman site, with most ruins dating back a bit more than 2,000 years. Mari on the other hand was a very important Mesopotamian city, meaning people lived here almost 5,000 years ago. Both sites are not far from the main road between Deir ez Zor and the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal. You can take any minibus from Deir or Abu Kamal, just ask to stop the car in time and wait for the next minibus which won't take long. A good thing because the view of a flat monotonous desertplain on both sides of the road gets boring after a while.
Krak des Chevaliers is probably one of the most impressive structures in Syria. It is a Crusader Castle and dates back from that time, some 800 years ago. It looks like a typical castle like children would draw it and can be visited as a day trip from places like Hama.
During the end of September to October, since 2002 Syria, who has an abundance of heritage and culture, has a five-day festival called the "Silk Road Festival" which depicts the ancient routes traders and caravaners took heading from China to Eastern Europe. It calls through Aleppo, Damascus and various other cities.
Summers in Syria are hot at most days and in most parts of the country. It is not comfortable visiting for example Palmyra when temperatures reach 45 °C. Therefore, the months of June until early September are best avoided. All other months are comfortable enough for a visit and because of the dry air even a warmer day is bearable. Wintermonths can get a bit cold on the other hand and even snow occurs in the higher parts but also in Damascus and surroundings. Although freezing temperatures are not the norm for weeks in a row, it can be very cold sometimes at night. Also, in winter most rain falls although this is not much and won't give any problems while travelling around the country. Only the coastal zone has a more temperate climate with warm but relatively humid summers and mild and relatively wet winters.
There are two international airports in Syria: Damascus International Airport (DAM) and Aleppo International Airport (ALP). The former is the main port of entry for most travellers arriving by plane, although Aleppo has connections with a dozen or so places (mostly in the Middle East). Syrian Air is the national airline, with many flights from Damascas to cities in Europe and throughout the Middle East.
Turkey - Syria vv
Every Sunday around 9am, a sleeper train leaves Haydarpasa station in Istanbul for the Syrian city of Aleppo, arriving on Mondays around 2pm. In the opposite direction the train leaves Aleppo station on Tuesdays around 11 am, taking over 30 hours to reach Istanbul early evenings on Wednesday.
Syria - Jordan vv
A twice weekly train travel between the capital of Syria, 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.
With your own car, it's relatively easy to cross borders to and from Syria from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Borders with Israel are closed and it's not advised to travel to and from Iraq, though technically the border near Abu Kamal in the extreme east is open. Have your documentation and papers regarding car, yourself and insurance in order.
Syria shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Iraq. Apart from the latter two, there are numerous connections to the countries. The borders with Israel is closed and it is good to notice that having an Israelian stamp in your pasports means you can not enter the country. It is even possible to travel to far away destinations on the Arabian Peninsula like Saudi Arabia and, with a connection in Jordan, to places as far as Dubai. The border with Iraq (at Abu Kamal) is open, but no foreigners are allowed to cross.
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.
Buses travel between Amman and Damascus and between Beirut and Damascus. Baalbek in Lebanon can be reached by taxi only. From Aleppo and Latakia, you can also travel by bus to Beirut and Tripoli in the north of Lebanon.
Buses from Aleppo usually go across the border to Turkish cities in the south, with onward transport from there, for example to Istanbul.
You can do most trips in stages, for example stopping in Irbid, taking a taxi from Damascus.
Currently, there are no international passenger services serving Syria.
Although Syrian Arab Airlines has cheap and reliable flights to the main cities, the fact that Syria is not so big does mean that taking a flight won't be necessary most times. But if you feel the desire, you can fly from Damascus to Aleppo, Deir ez Zor, Latakia, Palmyra and Qamishli.
Travelling by train is only for the train ethusiasts, as it is much slower than taking a bus for example. On the other hand, you travel through some great landscapes on some routes and it is very cheap, about one US dollar for a 4 hour traintrip. Probably the best way to enjoy the mountainous area in the northwest is by taking a train from Aleppo to Latakia. Also, a train from Deir ez Zor to the border town of Qamishle is a nice experience and there are good connections by bus across the border with Turkey.
If you want you can travel between Aleppo and Damascus as well, but usually this involves travelling all the way via Latakia on the coast and back towards Homs before actually going further south.
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Main roads are not that bad, but many secondary roads are a bit bumpy. The chaotic traffic needs some adjustment as well. Most people don't rent cars, but it is perfectly possible to visit some more remote parts by rental car (with driver is possible as well). Or bring your own car if you are travelling overland to the Middle East or Africa from Europe. You need an international driver's licence and insurance.
Most travellers take the bus while travelling around Syria. It is cheap, reliable, fast and travel is over good tarred roads in very comfortable buses with airconditioning. There is good competition on all routes and it won't take long after arriving on the busstation before you are on your way. Karnak and Transtour are the main operatos and ther are some private taxis and minibuses that ply most routes as well, being competitively priced and a bit faster as well.
Syria doesn't have enough water to travel around by boat other than a fishing tour on the Mediterranean Sea.
Remember that having an Israeli stamp in your pasport is not allowed when entering the country. Your passport will be checked so make sure you don't have one. Most travellers to Syria need a visa except Arab nationals (though Iraqi people need one) and recently some visa rules have been tightened, meaning you need to book some hotels for example or know someone in the country. It's much easier (and safer) to arrange a visa from your home country at the nearest embassy or consulate before arrival, but nationalities without Syrian representation in their home country may obtain a visa on arrival at Syrian borders, e.g for New Zealanders. If you have an embassy/consulate in your home country, you need to get the visa from that particular one. This makes it quite impossible to get one during travelling, unless you don't have one in your home country.
If you are travelling by bus or car from Turkey or Jordan, it's likely that your driver will help you clear immigrations to minimise delays.
Leaving Syria by land there is a departure tax of 500 Syrian pounds (around 10 USD), which you pay for a form that you fill in and hand to immigrations - half of it will be returned, don't lose it because you will need it even after you leave immigrations as it will be collected by the officer at the other side of the fence - e.g. on the Jordanian or Turkish side.
See also Money Matters
The unit of currency in Syria is the Syrian pound or 'lira' (ISO 4217 currency code: SYP)
If you entered the country on a tourist visa, don't try to work and earn money. Foreign workers should always get official approval to work. Despite this, many foreign students supplement their income by teaching and many institutes in Damascus will happily hire foreigners and pay them under the table.
Syria is becoming a major destination for students of Arabic. There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic.
Arabic is the official language. It is always a good idea to know some words ("hello", "thank you" etc.). A surprising number of people speak at least (very) rudimentary English. It would however be worth your while to learn basic numbers in Arabic in order to negotiate taxi fares. Personnel working with foreign tourists (like tourist hotels, restaurants, tour guides, etc.), generally can communicate reasonably well in English.
Due to the general lack of ability by the public at large to communicate in English beyond basic phrases, Syria is a great place to force yourself to learn Arabic through immersion, should you wish to improve your Arabic skill.
Falafel, deep-fried chickpea patties, are available for SYP15-30. Another popular vegetarian meal is Foul. Don't let the name put you off. It's actually pronounced “fool” and this fava bean paste – topped off with cumin, paprika and olive oil and served with flatbread, fresh mint and onion – is not only tasty but satisfying and filling.
You may also be able to order a salad of Fatoush with your soup. Chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and herbs are mixed together in a dressing and finished off with a sprinkling of fried bread that resembles croutons. Cheese may also be grated on top.
Meat wraps such as shwarma cost SYP35-50. A half-chicken with bread and mayonnaise dip to take away costs SYP175.
Lunch or dinner in a fair restaurant costs SYP450. An expensive restaurant lunch or dinner will cost about SYP1,000.
A double room you can find for around SYP1500, although this cost may be higher in Damascus. A double room in a three stars hotel costs about USD50, USD80 for four stars, and can reach USD250 in a five star hotel.
Generally you can drink water from the tap, it is extremely safe, but if you're unsure ask the locals first. This water is free compared to bottled water, which comes at SYP15-25 for 1.5 L.
Fresh fruit juices are available from street stalls in most towns. A large glass of mixed juice (usually banana, orange juice and a few exotic fruits like pomegranate) costs SYP40-50.
Beer is cheap, costing from SYP35 in a shop and anywhere from SYP50-100 in most budget accommodation and local bars for a half litre bottle or can. Syrian wine can be found starting at about SYP150 and Lebanese and French wines are also available in a higher price bracket, starting at SYP350-400.
Tea is served in a little glass without milk, sweetened with sugar. Add the sugar yourself as the Syrians have a collective sweet tooth and will heap it in.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Syria. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Syria) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Syria. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B and rabies are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria only occurs in a few remote regions in the northeast during the summer months. No pills are required, but take other general precautions, including sleeping under a mosquito net and using repellant (50% DEET).
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
All travel to Syria is discouraged in the strongest possible terms, and nationals of other states are strongly recommended to leave immediately.
The savage civil war between government and rebel forces continues. As of January 2014, the latest estimates are in the range of 100-120,000 deaths, over 600,000 refugees in other countries, and as many as 2 million internally displaced persons. In addition, sexual violence against women is widespread. Any travel to Syria that is not absolutely necessary would place you at a severe risk of serious injury or death. In August 2013, chemical weapons were released in Damascus. In addition, there have been several Israeli air strikes that reportedly targeted weapons intended for shipping to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and discussions are ongoing in the U.S. (and other Western countries) on whether to attack Syria.
If you are already in Syria, stay as far away as possible from large public gatherings or any military activity, which is probably widespread. If you require assistance, EU citizens should contact the embassy of another EU state if they cannot make contact with their home country's representatives. Consult your country's travel warnings for more specific information.
Internet is widely available in major cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Hama, often in air-conditioned internet cafes that open late and connections are surprisingly good.
See also International Telephone Calls
The international calling code for Syria is +963.
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Travelled shoestring in Syria
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