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Last updated : Nov 2009
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Damascus

Damascus is the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic, and is the world’s oldest inhabited city. A central characteristic of this cluttered and clamorous city is the Ummayyad Mosque, entered by passing through the Al-Hamidiyah Bazaar. The history of the mosque in many ways traces the history of Damascus, built on the site of a temple to the ancient Aramean god Haddad, the original temple was modified and enlarged by the Romans and used as a temple to Jupiter. It was later knocked down by the Byzantines, who replaced the pagan temple with the Cathedral of John the Baptist, which was consequently converted into a mosque to accommodate the Islamic teachings brought by the Arabs in AD 636. The mosque contains the Tomb of St John the Baptist.

The Tikiyeh mosque, built in the mid 16th century, stands out by its 2 elegant minarets and great dome. The 18th century Al Azem Palace is now a national museum, where there are, amongst other examples of Islamic art, skillfully illuminated copies of the Koran. Located in old Damascus, a little way off the famous Via Recta, or the ‘Street called Straight’, is the House of Hanania, where St Paul hid using the underground chapel for worship. The church in the Damascus Wall from where St Paul escaped in a basket is also still conserved.

Another attraction worth seeing is the Long Souk (market). Other places include the Sayyida Zainab Shrine (the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad), the Tomb of Saladin at the back of the Ummayyad Mosque, and the outskirts of Damascus, especially Dummar, with seasonal entertainment and restaurants. Ghota, the fruit orchards surrounding Damascus, is at its best during the blooming of plums, apricot, cherries and other trees in early spring.

Bosra

Bosra was the 1st city in the Syrian Arab Republic to become Muslim and has some of the oldest minarets in the whole of Islam. As a stopover on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, Bosra was a wealthy city until the 17 th century. By then the region was becoming dangerous and the pilgrims began to take a less dangerous route further west.

Bosra’s main attraction is a well preserved Roman amphitheatre (with room for 15,000 spectators) in which a musical festival is held every 2 years. The eastern exit to the town is 1 of its last surviving vestiges of a pre Roman civilisation. The remains of an archway dating from the 1st century, the Nabatean period, of which nearly all traces are now lost, are unique in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The Mosque of Omar in the centre of the town (called Jami-al Arouss, ‘the bridal mosque’, by the Bosriots), used to be a pagan temple and now stands as the only mosque surviving from the early Islamic period that has conserved its original facades.

Excursions

Further interesting sites include Salkhad, 23 kilometres (14 miles) east of Bosra, which has a citadel dating from the time of the Crusades, Al Inat, 26 kilometres (15miles) south east of Salkhad, with its a great reservoir dug out of the rock, and the ruins at Umm Al Qotein, near the Jordanian border.

Palmyra


This town is located in a desert oasis. The city was ruled by the legendary Queen Zenobia, who stood against the 2 great empires of the Romans and the Persians. Zenobia was taken captive to Rome when the Emperor Aurelian conquered and ruined the city in AD 272. The ruins of the Valley of Tombs, the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers, the Temple of Baal and the Monumental Arch, now a world UNESCO Heritage Site, are some of the fine remains found over a wide area of the city, prized as containing some of the most well known monuments to the Classical period in the Middle East.

Elsewhere

The 3rd largest city in the Syrian Arab Republic, Homs is known for its industry, and is the site of the Syrian Arab Republic’s 1st oil refinery. A place of historical interest is the mausoleum of Khalid Ibn al-Walid.

65 kilometres (40 miles) outside Homs, Crac des Chevaliers is the most famous crusader castle in the world. A stronghold of the Hospitallers during the days of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1100 to 1290), it maintained a garrison of several 1000 soldiers in peacetime. The castle, rising from an altitude of 670 metres (2,200 feet), was protected by watchtowers and supplied with food from the surrounding fertile countryside. The crusader castles of Salaheddin, near Latakia, and Markab, near Banyas, are also worth a visit.

Located on the River Orontes, 45 kilometres (28 miles) from Homs, Hama dates back to beyond 5000 BC. The Norias, gigantic wooden waterwheels, are a unique feature, still used to provide water for the city and to irrigate the several public gardens. The orchards, the Great Mosque and the Al Azem Palace’s Museum are also popular.

Aleppo

Possibly older than Damascus, Aleppo’s massive Citadel stands on the site of a Hittite acropolis. This UNESCO Heritage Site is one of the most splendid examples of Islamic Arab military architecture in the Syrian Arab Republic. There are an remarkable number of mosques in the city. For the tourist, the souk (market), made up of 16 kilometres (10 miles) of meandering low corridors lined with shops and bustling with activity, is probably the greatest attraction.

The well preserved hammams, or public baths, are of interest, as well as the ancient khans (rest houses). Some fine artefacts and historic reminders of the Syrian Arab Republic’s rich cultural past are placed in the archaeological museum. Aleppo is also the commercial and industrial centre of the Syrian Arab Republic.

Latakia

This is the Syrian Arab Republic’s main port and the metropolitan city of the country. Set on the Mediterranean coast, Latakia is a main holiday resort. The city stands at the bottom of the forested chain of mountains overlooking the coastal strip on one side and the edge of the Fertile Plains (the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’) on the other. There are numerous antiquities, including the ruined Temple of Bacchus and a triumphal arch.

Attractions

Attractions in the area include the town of Tartus, beaches and mountains, and the Latakia mountain resorts of Slounfeh and Kassab. Near Tartus, 10 kilometres (6 miles) inland, are the Drekish Mountains, famous for the purity of their water.

The sites and cities included in this regional description are described in order of appearance as the River Euphrates flows southwestward:
    Ja’bar Citadel is 1 of the Seleucid fortresses. Situated to the west of Raqqa, it stands on a spit of land and is mirrored in the blue waters of the Euphrates.

  Located on the left bank of the river, the ancient city of Raqqa was built by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Since the construction of the Euphrates Dam, it has played a significant economic role in the life of the modern Syrian Arab Republic.
 
  Halabiyé and Zalabiya are situated 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Deir ez Zor. Their ruins bear witness to their essential military role during the reign of Queen Zenobia.

  Deir ez Zor, considered to be the ‘pearl of the Euphrates’, is situated on the right bank of the river. The garden and orchards along the banks of the Euphrates harmonise marvellously with the golden desert hues and the silver thread of the river.

  Rahba Citadel, near Mayadin, was built to ensure the defence of the Euphrates route and to withstand Tatar and Mongol invasions.

  The ancient city of Doura Europos (Salhieh) played a significant economic and military role during the time of the Ancient Greeks, Persians, Romans, and the Palmyrans.

  Mari was built at a tactical point on the trade routes from the Syrian Arab Republic to Mesopotamia. The town’s oldest ruins date back 5,000 years. Mari’s most inspiring sight is the extraordinary Royal Palace. Built by Zimrilim, ruler of this important city state 2,000 years ago, this enormous palace boasts 300 rooms and halls. It was rediscovered in the course of excavations during the 1930's and is now sheltered by a modern roof.