Just beyond the Roman Arch on Qeimarieh Street in Damascus's Old City is the tiny Summers Gallery, which showcases and sells signed photographs by British freelance journalist John Wreford. Wreford's outsider's take on the Middle East and especially Syria (where he lives) is totally original, free of cliche and often humorous. Check out his pictures of Damascus's pigeon fanciers.
Summers Gallery, near the Roman Arch (just south of Nofara cafe), Old City Damascus. Call John Wreford's mobile if you can't find it 00963 944 361 947. www.johnwreford.com
The souks (undercover markets) of Aleppo are truly magical. Colourful soap stalls sit next to huge sacks of coffee and walnuts. There are delicious sweet treats to sample and fine fabrics to marvel at. Unforgettable.
In the centre of Aleppo by the Great Mosque.
Google map: bit.ly/gAaD3H
My daughter and I reached Aleppo's souk by bus from Damascus, then by walking through progressively narrower streets, pretty much following the throng.
It was pistachio season and photogenic trays of nuts were on sale right and left. But the souk is great for not bring a tourists' pastiche. It has many rope stalls, plenty of domestic items - much like a UK everyday market with added panache and intimacy.
We ate rich, hot foule (beans with tahini and oil) in a cramped servery with men having their lunch break; then chatted to a young jeweller - I wear his earrings, inlaid with tiny dots of silver, back home in the Midlands. He then recommended a fabric shop and my front door now has a curtain embroidered with pomegranates.
The souk isn't enormous, but is a working place shot through with the skills and traditions of an ancient city.
To top it all you can climb up the ancient settlement and look out over the city, or just meander back to the bus chewing apricots, munching pistachios or pondering more textile purchases in the less atmospheric shops. Syria's many things, including tough for many, but here's a trip in which the old Middle East abuts the new and for that it sticks always in the mind.
Easy from arrival in Aleppo.
Google map: bit.ly/95ynN8
With your back to the south entrance of the Umayyad Mosque, walk down the small souk facing you. It's the old Gold Souk, aka souk Al Sagha. Look for a sign to "Papa Joseph's", an antique knick-knack shop on the right-hand side above a perfume shop, and follow the narrow stairs all the way up to the shop. From outside the shop, you can look over the lane into partly-excavated Roman baths not seen from street level. The shop keepers keep their generators in the enclave, but it is still easy to see how the Romans built beautiful baths for the brief time the Umayyad Mosque was a church.
Souq Assagha, just off Souq Al Hamidiyeh
Google map: bit.ly/a8cLU1
Even if it's a Friday and the souks - in whichever country - are closed, it's worth wandering around them to appreciate their architecture. The bustle of shoppers and shopkeepers often means that it's hard to see interesting details. In Damascus, where the souks are not closed off when the shops are shut on Fridays, walkers can glimpse fragments of tiles, amazing ceilings, and shop signs not easy to spot on other days.
Google map: bit.ly/a8cLU1
The best coffee I had in the whole of Syria was from a hole in the wall at the entrance of Khan al Gumruk, deep inside the Aleppo souk. The man in charge dispenses tight espressos for pennies.
Tucked into alcove just outside the entrance to the Khan Al Jumruq, Aleppo souq
One family still weaves goat hair Bedouin tents in Damascus, in the heart of the souk where the Bedouin come in from the desert to buy them. You will find them as you go through Bab Al Faraj, one of the Old City's seven gates. Bear left, and look out for the workshop at number 65 on the left-hand side. If Mohammed is there he will gladly show you upstairs how he teases the coarse hair into balls of wool by walking backwards down the length of the room.
Also in Damascus, don't miss the atmospheric saddle souk (Souk Srijeh), where horse and camel saddles and talismanic paraphernalia are still made and sold. To enter it, stand outside the Damascus citadel (facing it) and take the first souk to your left after the little bridge over the river.
Once you have walked through the saddle souk, turn right on to the main road, Malek Al Faisal Street, where you will see, on the left-hand side, the copper souk (Souk Nahassin), consisting of two, dark covered alleys. Inside you will see men making mosque spires and Christian baptismal fonts, door handles, hot water tanks and re-tinning cooking utensils. Fascinating to watch!
Souq al Hamidiyeh
Google map: bit.ly/9FNAil
Last November I went on a photography holiday to Syria with a company called Frui holidays. It was a fantastic trip because I was able to practice my photography in some truly amazing locations such as Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers and Aleppo. I was also looked after from start to finish by the tutors and guides so I'd also like to recommend Frui holidays.
The old town was badly damaged when the Assad regime put down the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, but what is left of it still retains plenty of charm. The noria are large waterwheels that used to lift water from the Orontes River into a system of aqueducts that supplied the city and adjacent farmland. The wheels themselves have been restored, even if the (now thoroughly cleaned up) remaining sections of aqueduct are no longer in use. They are very impressive, and there are lots of pleasant gardens where you can sit close to them and have a coffee or snack. All in all, a fascinating and unexpectedly beautiful sight.
Just head for the town centre.
Bar Saloon is a broom cupboard of a drinking den in the Old City, with just a handful of tables and chairs. The look is - quite by accident I suspect - straight out of the pages of Wallpaper, with exposed fake timbers, dark walls, fairy lights and a couple of topless pin-ups. It’s presided over by a genial, rotund man who sits at a tiny bar under shelves loaded with bottles and boxes of yet more bottles. He fixed my dad a vodka and tonic and brought me an Al-Maza, a crisp Lebanese beer. Staring out into the darkening street, a bowl of nuts on the table, we couldn’t have been happier. And if you think the bar's size is Lilliputian, be sure to check out the loo.
A unique architectural gem, in a city once remarked upon by Mark Twain.
"No recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive news of it ... There was always a Damascus."
One of the best examples of typical Damascene style.
The unique striped stonework, however, is a gem in itself and arguably the most worthwhile reason to visit. The look, or banding technique known as ablaq is achieved by alternating layers of black basalt with limestone and sandstone, and gives this structure a fascinating black and white decorative appearance.
Comprised of several complex buildings, two wings (the harem and salamlik), courtyards and gardens the Palace is an impressive sight to take in, so set aside a few hours to do it justice.
Address: Suq al-Buzuriyya
Opening hours: Wed-Mon, Apr-Sep 9am-5.30pm, Oct-Mar 9am-3.30pm.
Cost: 150 SP
Our offer is unique in Syria: We find you a place to stay in Damascus, pick you up from the airport take you straight to the house you chose when you visited www.yallahouse.com. On the way to your house, accommodation, room, flat, or apartment we give you a general idea about your situation in damascus.
We answer your questions on our Syrian chat forum. We connect you with universities, private teachers, friendly locals, Arabic classes, unique travel destinations and sport activities. We arrange a SIM card for your mobile. Tell us what you like and we will find it for you.
If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact us.
The special service we offer is, to connect people with Syrian Families. We arrange rooms for tourists where there can "life together" and see
the real syrian way of live. Sometimes they offer to cook, they get invited for weddings... The Families are also happy cause there have a very low budget.
Jebl Qasioun (Mount Qasioun) is the hill pushing up the northern half of Damascus.
Going up there just before sunset gives an incredible view of the whole city. Look straight ahead, and you see the new city, with the imposing Four Seasons hotel. And to the left, the tightly packed streets of the Old City - with the Umayed Mosque at its heart.
Stroll along the mountain road, or have a coffee in one of the many restaurants or roadside vans selling drinks (all of these places charge a lot more than in the city down below).
Take a taxi up - it's a very very long walk, along an anonymous highway, with no houses.
Taxis cost about 300L from Hamidiyeh, or to save money, take the Bab Touma-Muhajireen serveece bus (10 lira) and get off at Muhajireen. From there a taxi costs 75-100L.
Syria News Wire - newsfromsyria.com
I owe my insights into even the least visited tourist attractions in and around Aleppo to the very friendly and competent Mahmoud Lababidi (which is why I know and love Aleppo more than Damascus). He is a qualified tourist guide and working as an English teacher at a local high school. He can also assist with the hire of a car and driver for day trips.
Mr Lababidi can be contacted by mobile phone no: 00963 (Syria) - 955276368 or email: email@example.com
This is a beautifully restored Turkish bath dating back to the 14th century. The bath is reserved for women on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9.00 - 18.00 hours and for men at all other times.
When I was there, I shared the bath with two local families (from toddler to grandmother). They were all happily and noisily washing each other, feasting on the sumptuous food they had brought along and later dancing and singing to the beat of the upturned plastic wash bowls. Once they had realised that I was not interested in being left in peace I was made to participate in their merry-making. The bath also has a nice rest area, where one can recline on comfortable seats and order coffee/tea or a water pipe. A thoroughly wonderful experience.
About 200 metres south-east of the citadel, near the covered bazaar, everyone will be happy to point out directions
You can buy some interesting-looking Iranian carpets along the main drag of Hammadiya. Forget about the antiquities near the Umayyad Mosque. Most of them are junk or fakes imported from Iran. Some nice knick-knacks and trinkets to be had, but you’ll certainly pay much more than they’re actually worth (about zilch).
Hiking in the countryside around Maaloula/Saidnaya (micro-buses from Zablatani cost approximately 25SL/.25 pence for a 30km journey). It’s possible to stay at the convent at Maaloula for a nominal sum, but be sure to get there early. Also, don’t miss the last buses back to Damascus (about 8 pm, but check on this).
Deir Mar Mousa, near Nabak, 100 kms from Damascus. Hike there from Nabak through some astonishing valleys and landscape (but beware of the local shepherds’ guard dogs). The monastery is presided over by the Italian Father Paulo. He loves an audience. You can stay there but all donations are happily accepted.
Also, walking the disused railway line from the Hijaz railway station out into the Damascus countryside as far as Bloudan (about 6-8 hours of moderate walking) is a great way to get an idea of Damascus’ modern and ancient character. As you get to Wadi Souq al-Barada, after Tel El-‘Awaameedh, you can see carvings on the cliff walls dating back to the beginning of the Christian era, when this area was known as the Tetrarchy of Abilene).
Sorry to be a downer but I was very disappointed. I live in the Middle East and love it but Damascus is not worth visiting compared to, say, all of Jordan for antiquities, Oman for real Arab culture, Istanbul for atmosphere and visible history or even Alex for vibrancy. The historical area is small, not very well looked after, severely compromised by recent modifications. The rest of the city is like Bucharest circa 1987.
I am amazed that other people found it friendly; I found it creepy, sullen and resentful. I speak some Arabic and I am familiar with and respectful of the culture, so it wasn't me! Maybe because I have had much better Arabian experiences elsewhere (including food), that element was completely lacking for me but charmed others.
What didn't help on our first night there was two scary hours of detention by (presumably) the secret police - we never really knew who they were. Our apparent crime was looking at a map (a poor photocopy provided by our hotel, the very unhelpful and mediocre Meridien) to try and find our way back from the old city at night.
A pushy little cigarette seller had a gang of thugs quickly surrounding us when we didn't comply with his instruction to hand over the map. Pleas to passers-by fell on deaf ears as did calls to our hotel. I guess, as another correspondent said, many people are in the pay of the secret police. The fact that my friend was a gulf Arab automatically made us suspicious, apparently, and I guess this guy thought we were his payday.
We were physically restrained on the street, bundled very roughly into a car, brought to a building in an unmarked compound, left in a bare room where various people would wander in and quiz us over an over or just bark at us in English and Arabic without ever telling us who they were or why we were there, then finally turned out on the street after midnight.
Damascus is not without some charms (eg the market by the Ottoman mosque near the National museum, much better than the souq) but there are many other places more worth visiting. In Syria things can go suddenly wrong for no apparent reason and you have no recourse to anyone. Your lack of security is a fact which you can choose to ignore and it may never matter. But it just might.
Another scam that an acquaintance of mine (long-time Syrian expat) experienced in Damascus was with changing money. The official rate is ridiculous so everybody uses the money-changers who hang around the souk. When he did this, he was immediately arrested by 'police' who demanded a hefty payment ($300) to release him because this is offically illegal. The money-changer was not arrested of course.
Though part of the Apamea Cham Hotel, it is located on the other side of the road, with spectacular views of four of the noria water wheels which moan as they turn, and its independent access means that most diners at night come from outside the hotel.
The menu is varied (the only non-expensive place in Syria where I found fish available) and prices are very reasonable for excellent cooking. Beer and spirits are served. The only downside is that you are sitting on one of the key sites of the dramatic suppression of the 1982 Hama uprising.
To the north of the centre of Hama, on the east side of the Orontes river and adjacent to Apamea Cham Hotel. Open for dinner, but not necessarily for lunch.
Situated about 40 kms NW of Aleppo, this ruined basilica and associated buildings is famous for being the place where St Simeon sat on his pillar for 36 years. But its real attraction is the stunning site and spectacular architecture, the church when completed in 490 AD was the largest in the world. Visiting St Simeon combines well with many of the nearby Dead Cities and other sites in the region.
A few kms beyond Deir Semaan. Entrance 150 Syrian pounds.
Rated three-star, and accessed rather unattractively by lift from a dingy corridor near the clock tower in the centre of Hama, this well located hotel is distinguished by exceptionally helpful staff. When asking where I might buy a replacement camera case, they arranged for one of the staff who is a tailor by day to stitch my broken strap.
Very good at arranging day trips to sites such as Apamea and Krak des Chavaliers, and working out how you might share with other visitors or those staying at the Cairo hotel which the management also owns. Taxi from the bus station should be 50 Syrian pounds.
tel (33) 512414
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