Your trip to Syria will most probably start in Damascus, a city that never fails to impress its visitors. In order to be well-prepared for this experience, in this blog post I will talk you through all the must-do and see in the city, including hidden gems you should not miss out!
A Blast From The Past
The Syrian capital, also known as the city of Jasmin, is widely considered the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. The old Damascus dates back to medieval times and is encircled by five kilometers of a strong defensive wall. A large proportion of these huge walls remains surprisingly quite well preserved to date.
As soon as the visitor enters the old city from any of the seven different gates, he dives into a maze of narrow streets and alleys. A large part of the heritage of the city consists of magnificent palaces and private houses built during the Ottoman conquest (in the early 16th century). Most of these houses have now been converted into museums, galleries, luxury hotels, or traditional restaurants. Within the old city walls also lies the citadel, as well as mosques, shrines, and churches of religious importance.
Likewise in many other cities in the Middle East, the focal meeting point for locals are the various marketplaces (souks). The Souks in Damascus have retained their old oriental style, and are generally comprised of small shops organized by type of item sold. They appear as a labyrinth, a real maze full of treasures. From the famous Damascene brocade textiles (mainly silk) to the finely carved wooden mosaics decorated with the use of ivory and mother of pearl.
Another commercial hub of significant importance for Middle East cities was the so-called Khan. The Khans (also known as Caravanserais) received caravans from different parts of the world. As such, this is where cultures met and goods were exchanged. The Khans were huge buildings with a wide façade, a wooden gate, and a stone arch high enough to allow loaded camels to get inside the spacious courtyard. The courtyard was surrounded by rooms and halls used as offices for merchants, depots, and stables for camels and horses. The first floor was used as a hotel. Khans no longer serve their original purpose but are used as galleries, hotels, or handicraft bazaars.
Landmarks Of Old Damascus
Damascus is a living museum, with loads of places of interest that would hardly fit in 2-full days. The most important landmarks lying in the old Damascus are listed here below:
- Straight Street (or in Latin “Via Recta”), is the Roman street that runs from east to west in the old city of Damascus. Along this street, the visitor can admire several interesting sights from the Roman, Christian, and Islamic periods.
- The Chapel of Saint Ananias is located in the old Christian Quarter, at the very end of Straight Street. It is believed to be the earliest place of worship for Christians to survive in the city. This very site used to be the house of Ananias, the first bishop of Damascus, who dedicated himself to secretly spreading Christianity in his home. It is also the place where Ananias baptized Saul, the Jew who converted to Christianity and became Saint Paul the messenger. Ananias was persecuted by the Romans, imprisoned, and stoned to death.
- Damascus Citadel: Unlike all other citadels that are usually built on top of a hill, the Damascus Citadel is built on the same level as the city. It has undergone various rebuilding phases, as well as extensive restoration work. At the time of our visit to Syria, the Citadel was not open to the public so we could only see it from the outside.
- The Al-Hamidiyah Souk is the most beautiful souk of old Damascus. This covered bazaar is 600 meters long, 15 meters wide, and about two stories high. The visitor can find here sorts of goods; from clothes, fabrics, and handicrafts, to spices, and pastries.
- At the end of Al-Hamidiyah Souk stands one of the most famous mosques in the Islamic world, the Umayyad Mosque. Umayyad Mosque (also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus), is one of the largest mosques in the world and one of the oldest sites of continuous prayer since the rise of Islam. The building alone is a magnificent structure, a wonder of Islamic architecture, and the work of thousands of craftsmen of Coptic, Persian, Indian, and Byzantine origin. Some prominent features of the mosque complex are the three minarets built in completely different styles, the mosaic-covered walls, the vast courtyard, and the enormous prayer hall divided into three parts by two parallel lines of Corinthian-style columns.
Interestingly, this site has hosted many different religions in the past. The Aramaeans originally built a temple here in 100 BC for Haddad, the God of storms and lightning. Then, in the early 1st century AD, the Romans arrived and built a massive temple to Jupiter over the foundations of the Aramaean temple. Nowadays, before entering the Umayyad Mosque, visitors cross a spacious square with Roman columns and arches. These are actually the remains of the main entrance of that very temple dedicated to God Jupiter.
In the late 4th century this area became a Christian sacred site. The temple of Jupiter was destroyed and a church dedicated to John the Baptist was built in its place. The church was believed to enshrine the head of the Baptist, making the site an important pilgrimage destination.
The Muslim conquest of Damascus in 636 didn’t initially affect the church, and the building was shared by Muslim and Christian worshipers. Later on, a large part of that old church was demolished and the Umayyad Mosque was constructed in its place. However, sheltered inside the prayer hall remains the small chapel and shrine of John the Baptist. Legend says that when the Christian church was demolished, the head of John the Baptist was found complete with skin and hair.
Later on, and following mutual agreement between Muslims and Christians, the current mosque was constructed. For a period of about 400 years, and while being a mosque, this place also served as a university of Astronomy, Engineering, and Medicine.
- Al-Azem Palace: Not far away from the Umayyad Mosque you can also visit Al-Azem Palace. Built in 1750 by the Ottoman governor of Damascus As’ad al-Azem, this place is considered a masterpiece of Damascene architecture. Despite its exterior simplicity, the rich interior marks Al-Azem Palace as one of the most lavish examples of traditional houses in the city. Nowadays, it has been converted into a museum dedicated to folklore and arts. Around 30’ would suffice for a quick visit.
The Shrine (Mausoleum) of Sayyida Ruqayya houses the tomb of Ruqayya, the youngest daughter of Hussain bin Ali, grandson of Prophet Muhammed. There is a really sad story behind the short-lived Ruqayya, who died at the age of 3. Ruqayya was captured in the Battle of Karbala, where her father was also brutally killed and beheaded. Legend has it that Hussain bin Ali’s head was placed next to Ruqayya’s bed, with the little girl crying herself to death when seeing it. The mosque is distinguished by Shia (Iranian) architecture, and hosts gatherings of people who are still mourning Ruqayya’s loss. Dolls and toys are brought as gifts and are laid next to Ruqayya’s shrine.
Getting Closer To Syrian Culture And Art
In the early afternoon and after the end of the prayer that takes place at 6 pm, locals enjoy gathering in cafes to listen to the stories narrated by “al hakawati” (aka the storyteller). In fact, this is a very well-known tradition in Damascus! One of the most famous cafes in which storytellers still tell their stories is Al Nawfara Café, located in old Damascus, next to the Great Umayyad Mosque.
The hakawati narrates a long story that unfolds into small “episodes”. There is no repetition of the same narration, just a continuation of the story every day. I can only assume that the daily narration suffices for people who understand Arabic to follow the wider story told! We personally could not understand a word of it, but we had loads of fun seeing how the hakawati got emotionally involved in his reading. Sometimes waving a flat sword in the air and some other times slamming it against a table in an effort to silence the audience or to add a dramatic effect to his sayings!
No matter what the story was all about, our evening at the Al Nawafara Café crowned our full-day exploring Damascus and added much to the city’s historic charm!
For those of you that are art lovers, the art scene of Damascus will not disappoint you. The old city alone is full of art galleries, where you can admire (and buy) exquisite pieces of art from local artists. We were extremely lucky to be granted access to the gallery and home of the famous Syrian artist, Mustafa Ali, thanks to the acquaintances of our tour guide, Rami! His gallery is located in the Jewish Quarter of the old Damascus, an underrated area that -thanks to the presence and efforts of Mustafa Ali himself- has been transformed into a vibrant artistic neighborhood.
From the moment we set foot in Mustafa Ali’s 500-year-old courtyard, we were blown away by the house’s ambiance and artistic atmosphere. The place was insane, full of sculptures in a variety of materials from wood to bronze. Entering the different rooms of the house, we could take a sneak peek into the artist’s personal life, as well as his working space. Definitely, a memory to be treasured!
Outside the old city walls, lies the modern town, with various sites that require your attention and visit:
- The National Museum of Damascus is the oldest cultural heritage institution in the country, with a wide range of artifacts on display. The museum provides an excellent overview of the civilizations that flourished on the Syrian land over a span of 11 millennia.
- The handicraft market of Takieh al Suleimaniyeh is a hidden gem you should not miss out while in Damascus! Steps away from the National Museum, this place is famous not only for its architectural style but also for buying fine Damascene craftwork. Jewelry made of silver, rugs, and mosaics found here are one of a kind. Amazingly the rooms that now host art galleries and shops, were used in the past as public shelter for homeless people. Right next to the market, stands a mosque of the same name, an exquisite example of Ottoman architecture.
- The largest mural in the world made of recycled materials (as registered in the Guinness World Record) can be found in Damascus’s Al-Mazzeh neighborhood. This amazing artwork, measuring 720 square meters, has been constructed on the wall of the Martyr Nahla Zeidan Primary School with the use of nearly twenty tons of solid household waste. Locals from many different parts of Syria contributed to the creation of the mural by “donating” ceramic pieces, aluminum cans, broken mirrors, bicycle wheels, cooking utensils, house keys, and other personal objects to the local artist Mowaffaq Makhoul and his team. The whole work, from waste collection and sorting to the final design and creation lasted from October 2012 till the beginning of 2014.
How Can I Visit Damascus / Syria (At The Moment)?
Let me start by mentioning that despite the 12-year armed conflict, Damascus itself was the less-hit city in the whole of Syria. Only the outskirts were destroyed, an area that remains off-limits to tourists. The places you will be visiting, both in the Old City and in the new part of Damascus, remain intact with minimum to no signs of hits. All shops, souks, and restaurants are open, while the streets are bustling with life.
With all that being said, Damascus is a city where you can safely roam around on your own. However, if you would like to be accompanied by a local guide, then you can simply book a day (or multi-day) tour with a local agency. I would personally recommend the services of Marrota Tourism, the agency we also used for our 8-day trip in Syria. They are a bunch of professional, knowledgeable, and fun people, that you will have a blast being surrounded with!
For all the important logistics of a trip to Syria in 2023, do revert to the dedicated “The Ultimate Travel Guide For Syria | Know Before You Go” post I have created for this purpose. You will get all answers to your questions!
Are You Ready For Syria?
If you feel you cannot organize such a trip alone, then you can always join me on one of my future trips! As a point of reference, I will be posting proposed travel dates at the end of each blog post!