SYRIA – Crossroads of Confessions and Cultures
Tuesday, November 18th, 2008
Tourist Highlights from Rainer Schubert
Syria is not a country of mass tourism and does want to become one. All the same, tourism is one of its industries with a future and growth potential. In 2007, revenues from foreign tourist amounted to 2.7 billion U.S. dollars, with 6.9 billion U.S. dollars being targeted for 2017, as Tourism Minister Dr. Saadalla Agha Al Kalaa announced at the German-Arab Tourism Forum during this year’s ITB in which Syria was a partner country. Investments in the tourist trade and the number of visitors have also been showing a steady rising trend for years. With almost 34,000 visitors, the Germans were the second largest European nation of visitors in 2007 after the Russians with some 42,500.
Naturally, with its Mediterranean coastline, the Levantine country is also suitable for a recreational or bathing vacation but its main tourist asset is its culture. On the crossroads of confessions and cultures, Syria has been over abundantly blessed with traces of history. This continues to have an effect today in the problem-free co-existence of large numbers of religious creeds. Those seeking to better understand our own culture cannot get around Syria.
Normally the trip begins in Damascus, one of the world’s oldest cities, pulsing and vibrant, the “quintessence of city life in the Near East,” as an art history travel guide so aptly summarized. A visit to the national museum is indispensable in order to understand Syria and its capital. Equally as indispensable in finding your way back from history to the present is a visit to Souk al-Hamidiya, a maze of roofed-over lanes filled with oriental life, which does not have any quarters dedicated to specific trades, untypical for a souk and more like a supermarket.
From there, head to what is probably one of the world’s most important buildings, the Umayyad Mosque, which by itself embodies the richness of Damascus’ various eras. In 705 it was completely converted into a mosque, but originally it was a Roman temple precinct and was also used by Christians. Psalm 145:13 is quoted above the southern portal: “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.” There are inviting coffee and tea houses in the alleyways around the mosque where Damascenes can be found relaxing over water pipes.
The second city populated for millennia which should not be left out in any visit to Syria is Aleppo. It was also a crossing point for the trade routes between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. It central and most historical point as well is the citadel. It is located in a high position from which one can look down into the souk. Here, too, the souk is very worth visiting and this time displays the typical divisions according to crafts and trade. Even if it is a shopping center for the locals, the dealers are prepared for tourists by knowing the basics of their language and accept U.S. dollars or euros. The tourist is usually left the second winner in price bargaining and the dealer will always sell something.
Aleppo’s old town is a prime example of sustained urban development as described in this issue of ARAB FORUM. Added to the preservation of the old town and its social structure is its development for the tourist trade. The visitor wanders through narrow lanes, goes through tight doors and stands in spacious halls with marble floors, fountains and galleries encircling them. Richly decorated doors on the ground floor and first floor lead off from these reception rooms of former merchant palaces that now receive the guest as a restaurant or hotel lobby. Examples of this are the Beit Wakil (www.beitwakil.com) and the Sissi House (www.sissihouse.com).
People who like nostalgia prefer the Hotel Baron in Baron Street, a site of contemporary history. When its construction was begun in 1909 it was still located on the outskirts of town amidst gardens. It has remained to this day in the possession of an Armenian family, the Mazloumians, but its surrounds are now lively and densely built up and it appears quite French. The house is a little worn but this adds to the patina. Winston Churchill, King Faisal, Lawrence of Arabia, Agatha Christie and other greats of history have stayed here. The hotel has cult character and it is cultivated to the joy of its guests with, for example, old-time telephones, a rusty Automobile club of Germany (AvD) sign and an old KLM poster.
A unique place is Maalula. It is located 1,650 meters high in a rocky gorge and can be seen for miles when approaching from the south on the road from Damascus. A picture postcard view. Here we find ourselves in a language island because the population, which is two-thirds Christian, are the only ones who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. In the ancient monastery dedicated to the martyrs, Sergius and Bacchus, the Lord’s Prayer is spoken in Aramaic, both an attraction for the visitors and balm for their souls.
Lying further along the way on the road north from Damascus are two significant castles, Krak de Chevaliers and Qalaat Saladin. They give an architectural form to the era of the Crusaders and the visitors a comprehensible idea of the time.
Krak de Chevaliers, located 755 meters high between Homs and the Mediterranean coast, was built in back in 1031 by the Emir of Homs and was extended from 1150 to 1250 by the Order of St. John as a Christian bulwark against Islam. It accommodated some 1,500 foot soldiers and up to 400 knights and 400 horses. The knights surrendered in 1271 in face of the siege of the Mamluk sultan, Baibar. The French Mandate force restored the massive castle in 1933/34 with its expansive, up to 120 m long rooms; an island of medieval Europe in the Orient.
No less impressive is Qalaat Saladin, a crusaders’ fortress, as well, close to Lattakia in the coastal mountains between the Mediterranean and the Orontes Plain. Its location is remarkable; 600 meters high on a 740 meter long and at the most 150 meter wide mountain ridge that drops straight down into a ravine. After approaching the castle at eye-level, it can only be reached by climbing down into the ravine and climbing right back out again. In 1188, the castle that had been considered impregnable was taken by Saladin’s forces. The construction of the moat on the east side of the castle separating it from the ridge has to be considered an almost incomprehensible achievement and taking the castle was long thought to be impossible. The moat was hewn 150 meters long, 14 to 19 meters wide and 28 meters deep into the rock and only an obelisk was left standing as a support for the drawbridge.
Finally our travels bring us to the ruins of the oasis city of Palmyra, located on the edge of the desert in the middle of Syria, to the northeast of Damascus and along the way to the Euphrates and to Iraq. Inseparably linked to Palmyra is the name Zenobia, the wife of Odaenathus – the Palmyra prince who violently lost his life – and who ruled after him but was later led in chains through Rome because she continued his autonomous policy between the rivaling Roman Empire in the west and the Parthian Empire in the east, conscious of her power but not always skillfully.
In the early 17th century, the ruins from the times of the Romans were opened up for science anew by Italians, Frenchmen and Englishmen. The beauty of the column-lined boulevards leading past temple ruins is an unforgettable sight in the setting sunlight.
Palmyra takes time. It is a place for fantasy and enjoyment. The visitor can find accommodations in the luxurious Hotel Cham Palace, adroitly fitted into its surroundings and built around the Efqa Spring or – once again nostalgic – in Hotel Zenobia, on the edge of the field of ruins, on whose terrace Agatha Christie also once found inspiration in her fantasy.