Area: 185,180 square kilometers
Population: approx. 19 million
Currency: Syrian Pound (SYP)
Syria reputedly has the friendliest population in the Arab world. However, Syria’s virtues as a splendid tourist destination are not limited to its people. The country has a wealth of culture and old-fashioned charm, and traces of ancient history are to be found all over the country.
Syria’s capital, Damascus, is the world’s oldest, still populated capital. The ancient city of Ugarit, on the country's Mediterranean coast, is where the earliest known complete alphabet was excavated.
Damascus is the world's oldest, still inhabited, city. Excavations on the outskirts of the city have shown that Damascus was inhabited as early as 8000 to 10,000 BC.
Damascus, like many other ancient cities, has a large number of historical sites, dating back to different periods of the city's long history.
The Omayad Mosque
This mosque, which is one of the largest in the world, stands at the heart of the Old city. It was built by the Omayad Caliph Al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek in 705 AD, when Damascus was the capital of the Arab Islamic Empire.
The site of the Omayad Mosque has always been a place of worship: first, a temple for Hadad, the Aramean god of the ancient Syrians; then a pagan temple during the Roman era. It was later turned into a church. Following the Islamic conquest in 635, Muslims and Christians agreed to partition it between them, and they began to perform their rituals side by side.
A prominent feature of the mosque are the three minarets built in different styles; the upper parts of which were renovated during the Ayoubite, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras. The mosque has a large prayer hall and an enormous courtyard. The interior walls are covered with mosaic panels, made of coloured and gilded glass, portraying scenes from nature. The prayer hall contains a domed shrine, the tomb of St. John the Baptist.
The Tomb of Salahuddin
The tomb is next door to the north gate of the Omayad Mosque. The whole interior is decorated with polychrome marble mosaics.
Next to the tomb stands a typical Mamluk edifice, the Jumaqjieh School, built in the twelfth century. The interior is decorated with inscriptions and beautiful lettering. It is one of the most splendid old schools in Damascus, and has recently been turned into a Museum of Arabic Calligraphy.
Two other schools stand nearby: Al-Zhahiriya, which is an Ayoubite edifice housing the famous library of that name; and Al-Adliya, which is also Ayoubite in style, and is now headquarters of the Arab Language Academy.
The Azem Palace & The Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions
The Azem Palace is at the heart of the Old City, on the southern side of the Omayad Mosque, and very close to it. The palace was built in the mid-eighteenth century for the Governor of Damascus. The palace now houses the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions. The museum gives a good idea about how people in Damascus used to live in earlier times.
The Souks (Old Bazaars)
The old covered souks of Damascus are exotic and colourful, with dark, winding streets filled with the scents of spices and perfumes.
Most prominent of Damascus souks are: Souk Al-Hamidiyeh, Souk Midhat Pasha, Souk Al-Harir & Souk Al-Bzourieh.
Enjoy some panoramic views of Old Damascus.
Aleppo is an ancient city in the northern part of Syria, not far from the Turkish border.
50 m above the city, a ring of crenellated walls and towers rises from a steep glacis, encircling a mass of ruins from every period.
The Citadel has always been of great importance, both strategically and militarily. It was built in the days of Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamadani, on the remains of earlier civilizations.
The Citadel's fortified entrance is a marvelous example of Arab military architecture. On the north and south sides, great towers rise above the moat. This moat, 20 m deep and 30 m wide, emphasizes the proud isolation of the fortress.
The main parts of the citadel are: the Throne Room, the Bathroom, the Small Mosque (Ibrahim's Mosque) and the Great Mosque built in 1213, whose square minaret is 21 m high and from which there is a splendid view. Inside the Citadel is a small museum containing relics uncovered during restoration and reconstruction.
The High Walls of ancient Aleppo
With their fortified doors (Hadid, Antakia and Qinsrin) the walls are a fine example of Islamic military architecture.
The National Museum
This includes in particular documents and relics from Ebla and Mari.
Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions
Al-Jami' al-Kabir (The Great Mosque)
This mosque is similar to the Omayad mosque in Damascus.
Old schools, churches, mosques, baths and ancient houses,
some dating back to the 15th century, like the Al-Bunduqiah (Venetian) Consulate, which contains superb ornaments and antiquities.
Palmyra (“Tadmur” in Arabic)
Palmyra was during antiquity an important city of central Syria, situated in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus. It has been a caravan city for travellers crossing the Syrian Desert, and was known as the "Bride of the Desert". Palmyra was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC.
Palmyra flourished through its trade with Arabia, Persia and the Indian subcontinent. The Roman emperor Anthony attempted in 41 BC to occupy the city, but failed. Palmyra was instead occupied during Anthony's successor Tiberius, and the city was incorporated into the Province of Syria. Palmyra continued to prosper under Roman rule.
In 129 AD, the emperor Hadrian visited Palmyra and proclaimed it a free city. Later in history, Palmyra was occupied by the Persian Sassanians. The Palmyran leader Septimus Odeinat was eventually murdered by the Sassanians, and his wife Zenobia took over as ruler of Palmyra.
Zenobia's rule became the greatest episode in Palmyra's history. During her days in power, Palmyra extended its borders to as far as Egypt in the west (269 AD) and Antioch in the north. This vast expansion was seen as a threat by the Romans, and they eventually reconquered their dominions and recaptured Palmyra. Zenobia was taken as a prisoner to Rome. After these events, Palmyra turned into a military area, and its reputation as a trading city was forever gone.
Palmyra is one of the most splendid ancient sites in the East, containing a wealth of ancient monuments, such as the ruins of the Valley of Tombs, the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers, the Temple of Baal and the Monumental Arch.
One of the most famous medieval citadels in the world, Crac des Chevaliers (Qal'at Al-Hosn in Arabic) is 65 km west of the city of Homs.
Crac des Chevaliers
It was built in order to control the so-called "Homs Gap", the gateway to Syria. It was through this passage that Syria communicated with the Mediterranean.
In ancient times the importance of this strategic corridor was immense. It was of crucial importance to the Crusaders and other foreign invaders in their conquest of the coast. Conflict over the Crac des Chevaliers continued through the ages. In the end, Sultan Beybars managed to recover it in 1271 through a military trick after one month of fighting.
Crac des Chevaliers was built on the site of a former castle erected by the Emirs of Homs to accommodate Kurdish garrisons; Crac is a modification of the Arab word Qal'a, which means "citadel". The citadel covers an area of 3000 square meters and has 13 huge towers, in addition to many stores, tanks, corridors, bridges and stables. It can accommodate 5000 soldiers with their horses, their equipment and provisions for five years.
At the time of the Roman emperor Trajan, Bosra was made the capital of the Province of Arabia (in 106 BC) and was called Neatrajana Bustra. The city saw its greatest period of prosperity and expansion then, became a crossroads on the caravan routes and the official seat and residence of the Imperial Legate.
The most interesting part of the city today is the famous Roman theatre built in the second century AD, which seats 15 thousand spectators, and is considered one of the most beautiful and well-preserved of Roman amphitheatres in the world. The stage is 45 metres long and 8 metres deep. Every summer, it hosts Arab and international performers who entertain audiences during the Bosra Art Festival against a majestic background of Roman columns and arches.
The city itself contains a great number of Roman ruins, a part of the Byzantine Bahira Church, as well as the Al-Mabrak Mosque, which is said to have been erected on the site where the Prophet's camel stopped to rest. There is also the Omar Mosque (also called the Al-Arouss Mosque), which is the only one of its type remaining from the early days of Islam, and it retains its 7th century primitive form.
An important Muslim citadel, dating back to the Ayoubite and Mamluk period still stands, and one of its towers now houses a Museum of Antiquities and Traditional Arts.
Enjoy some panoramic views of Bosra.
Homs is an industrial city, and the third-largest city in Syria. A place of historical interest is the mausoleum of the famous Muslim general Khalid Ibn al-Walid.
Hama is a city on the river Orontes (al-Aasi, in Arabic). The city is famous for its huge “norias”, machines looking like water wheels standing in the river. These used to scoop water from the river and deposit it into aqueducts. The largest “noria” has a diameter of about 20 m.
Lattakia is on the Mediterranean coast. It is Syria's main port and a major holiday resort. The city, dating back to about 400 BC, has a number of antiquities, including the ruined Temple of Bacchus and a triumphal arch.
Lattakia is a popular holiday destination with Syrians. Tourist facilities are well developed, and the city makes a good hub for excursions along the coast.
The Greek Catholic Mar Sarkis (St Sergius) monastery, dating back to the 4th century, is considered one of the oldest Christian chapels in the world. This monastery was built on the remains of a pagan temple. The interior of Mar Sarkis shows strong influences from Byzantine architecture.
The Greek Orthodox Mar Taqla monastery, is said to hold the remains of St. Taqla (Thecla), a pupil of St. Paul. The monastery, which has been built into the cliff-face, is a place of pilgrimage. There is a narrow walk-way from Mar Sarkis to Mar Taqla, that takes you through a beautiful ravine.
Remains of other monasteries, churches and sanctuaries can also be found in Maaloula.
Ras Shamra is also known as Ugarit. The ruins of this stone-built city are located just north of Lattakia. Ugarit has been mentioned in documents from the nearby city of Ebla, around 1800 BC. The city was a cosmopolitan centre, and had trade relations with Egypt and Cyprus.
Ugarit is famous for the clay tablets excavated here, containing the earliest known complete alphabet. The tablets reveal the economic and military history of Ugarit. They all date from the last phase of Ugarit, around 1200 BC, and are displayed in museums in Lattakia, Aleppo and Tartous, as well as at the Louvre in Paris.
Excavations at Ras Shamra began in 1929. They were interrupted by World War II, and resumed in 1948. Apart from the clay tablets, finds include pottery, ceramics, statuettes of deities, jewellery, and other items.