Damascus, Syria in the Winters

About the journey

I was planning to visit Syria already in spring 2008, when i wanted to combine it with my journey to Iran, but time didn’t allow that. Eight months later, in February 2009, when I wanted to go somewhere for a short one week trip outside of Europe, the decision where to go was pretty easy. Malev Hungarian Airlines had a winter offer for flights to Damascus, so i applied for Syrian visa, bought the air ticket and 2 weeks later i was on the way.

Countries visited: Syria
Travelperiod: 2/2009
Total costs: 260 Euro (air ticket) + 150 Euro (in Syria) + 700 CZK (syrian visa)

Flying out of Prague late in the evening to Budapest, where i had a 2 hours stopover at the already quite sleepy airport and prior midnight we departed further towards Damascus. It was close to 4 AM local time, when we landed. Customs and passport control was a breeze (having visa in the passport already). The arrival hall was pretty packed with people since a lot flights depart in the early AM hours. Changed my USD into Syrian Pounds and getting into shuttle bus to downtown. Walked around the historical Hijaz Railway station towards the Old City, visited the waking up bazaar and then ended in one of the parks to have a nap on a bench. At noon time i’m trying to find a proper accommodation and getting a room in Al Haramayn hotel.

Highlight for the afternoon was visit of the famous Ummayad Mosque, which is one of the “big” mosques for Muslims. It was build in the beginning of the 8th century, has 3 minarets and a very large courtyard. Go here by dusk, when the muezzins start to call for prayer. I did hear the adhan hundreds of times, but here it was the most impressive.

wooden wheels (norias) in Hamah

Next day morning i left Damascus and headed to the 250 km towards north distant Hamah. It’s cold and rains and as we climb up bit higher towards the mountains it even snows! Then the road descends to city of Homs and shortly we arrive to Hamah. The bus terminal is as usual in the Middle East at the outskirts of town, but instead of taking a cab, i walk to the the downtown. Obviously making a couple of wrong turns, so in the end it’s quite a hike. But i managed to see some of the huge ancient water wheels – norias, on the way. Later in the evening setting myself in hotel Riad – 700 SYP a night, private room with bathroom. Right during the checkin, i’m offered last free place at next day tour to Masyaf Fortress and famous crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers. Signed in and paid 600 SYP.

Next day as planned done the trip to Masyaf and Crac de Chevaliers. Especially Crac is very nice and interesting site. Highly recommend to pay it a visit while in Syria. As we got back to Hamah, the receptionist asked me if i still (i was asking for that trip already the day before) want to go to Apamea and the Dead Cities. People gathered and one place is still available for tomorrow. No doubt, booked. Apamea is a former ancient city with well preserved Roman columns colonade plus other buildings and from photos, i have seen earlier, it looked simply great.

Following day, after just around 1 hour of driving on narrow local roads, we get up to a plateau where ruins of Apamea are standing (these reportedly date as back as 3rd century BC). Already the first view of the long columns colonade was astonishing. We are given 1 and half hour time to explore the site and yes, no other tourists except our group of 4. A dream. If this would stand in a country like Egypt, there would be at least 50 buses of tourists and hundreds of touts offering you some crappy souvenirs. Here were only 3 or 4 villagers offering some ancient coins, which they reportedly found on the fields around. The whole column road is 1870 meters long, plus there are some other Roman era structures nearby, so the time given was just enough to do all the sightseeing.

After Apamea we drive further to the north, almost to the border with Turkey to Serjilla and Al-Bara, two of the so called Dead Cities. Both founded in the 5th century AD and some of the houses (even 2 storey ones) still stand here almost unspoilt. Also interesting, where these cities were build up – quite high in the mountains, on a kind of a rocky plateau, where one can hardly find any water source. Al-Bara is interesting thanks to it’s pyramid-shapped houses, but Serjilla was more appealing to me. On the way back to Hamah we stopped yet in a mosaic museum, where one could admire up to 100 square meters large mosaics, predominantly from the 5th century AD.

My exploration of the north of Syria was over, unfortunately i did not have spare time for visit of Aleppo. Taking a bus back to Damascus and spending rest of the day there strolling around Old City and visiting the Ummayad Mosque once again. In the night, before i left to the airport i yet made a walk-up to Mt. Quasioun and was rewarded with a brilliant night view over Damascus. Arriving to the airport in the early AM hours, passing the check-in, immigration and being ripped off (as all other foreigners) paying 1500 SYP (almost 30 Euro) departure tax. Shopping in the departure hall was not for everybody, f.e. can of Coke costs more than 4 Euro. Past 4 AM the boarding starts and take off follows shortly after that.
It was a short trip, but i was satisfied. Syria is definitely worth visiting – you will hardly find a country, which on less than 200 000 sq km would have so many sights and interesting places to visit.

Credit – All credit goes to http://phototravels.smrkovsky.name/traveljournal/winter-trip-to-syria

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