Syria is a truly beautiful, historical, and magical place. A place where some of the oldest civilizations in the world thrived throughout the centuries. As such, the land of Syria is incredibly rich in distinct ancient sites, among which six UNESCO Heritage sites.
In this article, I am going to list all places I visited during my 8-day trip to Syria (November 2022), highlighting all must-sees and dos!
For those of you wondering if traveling to Syria is possible in 2023, please revert to the dedicated article I have created for this purpose. In “The Ultimate Travel Guide For Syria | Know Before You Go” article you will find:
- A brief summary of the Syrian Crisis (the 12-year armed conflict) so that we can touch basis on how it all started and where we stand at the moment.
- The required logistics for being granted a tourist visa and for moving around the country.
- Transportation In and Out of Syria.
- The best way to safely roam around Syria as a tourist.
Days 1-2: Damascus - Your Starting Point
Damascus is a living museum, with loads of places of interest that would hardly fit in 2-full days. I have tried to summarize most of these important landmarks in the detailed “The Road To Damascus | What You Must Do And See” blog post, which will help you get well-prepared for this unique travel experience.
Day 3: Damascus - Maaloula - Homs - Aleppo
About an hour’s drive north of Damascus lies Maaloula, a small Christian town, literally carved into the Qalamoun Mountain. This is one of the world’s oldest villages and out of the few remaining places on earth where Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ, still survives. Even if the written form of Aramaic has fallen away over the centuries, the majority of residents in Maaloula still use this ancient language in their everyday life. They also try to preserve it by passing it on to their children.
In Maaloula, we visited two important religious sites: the ancient Christian Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and the Convent of Saint Thecla. Both sites suffered extensive damage when Al-Qaeda’s affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra opposition invaded Maaloula (on September 2013). Wall paintings were destroyed, icons were burnt or looted, and twelve nuns residing in the convent were kidnapped. The nuns were set free in March 2014. They said they were never tortured by the militants but were treated well. When the militants were ousted from Maaloula, both sites were gradually rebuilt and are now again open to pilgrims and visitors. However, the “Safir” hotel, standing next to the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, still lies in ruins showing in a clear and straightforward way the level of destruction in the area.
While in Maaloula we were also told the story of Saint Thecla… St. Thecla converted to Christianity at a very young age, inspired by the preaching of Saint Paul. In her efforts to convey the same message, she was exposed to torture and persecution by her own father. St. Thecla managed to escape and fled towards Antioch by crossing a great distance on foot. However, when she reached the base of Maaloula Mountain she realized that the mountain was too high and obstructed her way. She, then, kneeled, raised her hands, and prayed to God. As her father’s soldiers were getting closer, the mountain was suddenly divided into two, creating a passage (today’s gorge) for her to pass through. Maaloula got its name by this very miracle, as the word Maaloula in Aramaic signifies exactly this: the “entrance”.
At the end of the passage, St. Thecla found a cave carved into the mountain. She decided to spend the rest of her life preaching, baptizing, making wonders, and curing patients until she died. This old cave is nowadays the shrine where St. Thecla’s relics are held. It has also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sacred spring outside the cave invites the pilgrims to drink from the holy water that comes through the rocks.
Our next stop was at Homs, the so-called capital of the revolution and the city that served as a major stronghold of the opposition against President Bashar Al-Assad.
Due to its strategic location, at the crossroads between the main north-south road and west-east road, Homs became a key battlefield in the Syrian armed conflict. Whoever got control over this major transport hub, would also block the main highway between the capital Damascus and the North. For that very reason, and while the city remained occupied by the Free Syrian Army, the government forces kept on bombing Homs by both air and land.
In the meantime, thousands of families trapped between the two sides suffered from starvation with all supply routes being cut off. The outcome of over 3 years of blockades and bombardments, was a city left in ruins. Finally, on 9 December 2015, after complex negotiations, a cease-fire was achieved and the besieged were allowed to leave the city.
Visiting Homs today is definitely a disturbing sight. Streets and buildings are haunted by violence and death. Entire neighborhoods lie destroyed, leaving an apocalyptic scene. It is more than clear that Homs is the city that suffered the most during the Syrian crisis. No words can describe that awful silence…
Nonetheless, some residents have returned to their homes, hoping to begin everything anew.
During our visit to Homs and before heading to Aleppo, we paid a visit to Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt. This is the Seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and where part of the Virgin Mary’s belt is kept.
Day 4: Aleppo
The full day is dedicated to Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world. Due to its strategic location right on the Silk Road, Aleppo thrived on trade and was once Syria’s crown jewel.
Sadly, during the Syrian conflict, Aleppo turned into a battlefield between the government forces and the rebels. The rebels controlled the eastern part of the city while Assad forces controlled the West. The Battle of Aleppo lasted from July 2012 to July 2016, with more than 400.000 civilians getting trapped in the heat of the fight. These four years of heavy fighting have left much of the eastern side and the Old City in ruins. UNESCO estimates that 60% of the Old City’s buildings were severely damaged, while the other 30% were completely destroyed.
Nearly eight years later, large-scale reconstruction is in full swing, so that gradually life can get back to normal. At the same time, thousands of civilians that had fled Aleppo in the last months of the siege, have now returned and are trying to also rebuild their lives from scratch.
While the city’s Great Mosque, one of the architectural masterpieces of the Muslim world and a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, still lies in ruins, there are lots of historical sites to visit in post-conflict Aleppo. More specifically:
The Aleppo Citadel
The historic fort of the citadel holds a strategic position at the very center of Aleppo and has been protecting the city for over a thousand years. Since the 11th-century Crusaders attacked Aleppo 22 times but never did they manage to conquer it. During the lengthy Battle of Aleppo, the Syrian Army used the Citadel as its military base, something that caused significant damage to the fort itself. While it no longer has a military function, the Citadel still stands as a quiet guardian over the city, offering visitors astonishing 360 views of Aleppo. In its interior, you can nowadays admire the Throne Hall, a room lavishly decorated in Islamic style.
Aleppo has always boasted the most beautiful souks in the Middle East. Al-Madina Souk is one of the largest covered markets in the world, with all its main streets and narrow alleys, extending to a total of 10 km in length! It used to be one of the greatest commercial and richest hubs in the entire country. However, due to the long-lasting fighting that took place in Aleppo, as well as a fire that burned for days in September 2012, the souk was severely damaged.
Years after the ceasefire in the city, there was an immediate call for action aiming at the rehabilitation of the historic Souk. Indeed, a lot of international organizations have supported the rebuilding of Al-Madina Souk, with some sections being fully completed and already in use.
Hidden inside Al-Madina Souk is Al-Nuhassen Hammam, a gem for anyone looking to experience the city’s rich heritage. Its history goes back 950 years and was originally used as a public bath mainly by the owners of the nearby coppersmith stores. For that reason, it is also known as the Bath of Coppersmiths. Al-Nuhassen Hammam served as a popular spot for socializing and hygiene up until the burst of the Syrian conflict.
Today, after years of neglect and severe damage it has been restored to its former beauty, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience the true essence of traditional hammams in Aleppo. Upon entering, visitors are greeted at an exquisite domed room that is beautifully decorated with intricate tilework, graceful arches, and impressive copper chandeliers. The hammam is divided into four areas: the cold room, the warm room, the hot room, and the washing and massage rooms. Visiting Al-Nuhassen Hammam is an unforgettable experience that connects visitors to the city’s rich past and cultural heritage spanning over several centuries.
Baron Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in Syria, founded in 1911 by an Armenian family. Nowadays, it is less glamorous, standing pretty much abandoned. Nevertheless, it still retains some of its faded grandeur and brings a nostalgic feeling to its visitors. Over the years, the hotel has been a favorite of celebrities, politicians, and adventurers, including Lawrence of Arabia, and Agatha Christie.
Room 202 is where Lawrence of Arabia stayed while in Aleppo, with the unpaid bill for his stay proudly kept on display inside the room! Just around the corridor, in Room 203, Agatha Christie wrote parts of her book “Murder on the Orient Express” during her stay in Aleppo. With many historical events and meetings have taken place in the hotel’s bar, Baron Hotel is indeed part of history and an iconic landmark for the city of Aleppo. Definitely worth a visit!
Jebeili Soap Factory
Another must-visit place in Aleppo is the Jebeili Soap Factory. More than just a soap-making establishment, this place represents a longstanding cultural heritage, a symbol of history, and a testament to the skilled artistry of the Syrian people. Laurel soap is a handmade soap that has been produced for thousands of years using laurel oil and olive oil.
This type of soap is widely used by the people of Aleppo but has also been exported to other countries around the world. Today, the Aleppo laurel soap is still produced in the traditional way, with soap-making artisans following the same techniques that have been developed over centuries with skilled mastery. While touring the Jebeili Soap Factory, we were exposed to the secrets of this unique soap-making process. We were explained in detail how the ingredients are carefully selected, mixed, and carefully hand-scooped into molds before the soap is left to mature for several months. Before leaving the factory, we were able to purchase authentic soaps, made from the finest natural ingredients.
Day 5: Aleppo - Apamea - Hama - Krak des Chevaliers
Today we are leaving Aleppo, heading south…. Our first stop is the archaeological site of Apamea, once the capital of the Seleucid Empire, a powerful Greek dynasty that ruled over the Middle East. Apamea is a fascinating destination for anyone interested in history and archaeology. Its ruins and natural beauty are a testament to the enduring legacy of the many civilizations that have called this city home.
The most impressive site is the Great Colonnade, a mile-long stretch of columns that once lined the main street of Apamea. Walking along this magnificent boulevard is like stepping back in time, to when Apamea was a bustling center of commerce and culture. Unluckily, Apamea has suffered greatly due to conflict and instability in the region. The ruins have been damaged, but efforts are underway to preserve them.
Our next stop is at Hama, a city that has been around for thousands of years. One of the city’s most famous attractions is the ancient Norias, also known as the Hama Water Wheels. These wooden giant water wheels were built to help irrigate the surrounding farmland, and they have become a symbol of the city. There are many different Norias scattered throughout the city, but the largest and most impressive ones are located near the Orontes River.
While in Hama, we took some time to stroll around the old part of the city and grabbed a delicious shawarma before heading to our next destination.
Krak De Chevaliers
Our last visit of the day would be at Krak De Chevaliers, one of the finest and most impressive fortresses in the world. Nestled atop a hill overlooking the Syrian countryside, Krak Des Chevaliers was built in the 11th century by the Crusaders and is a stunning example of military architecture. Its imposing walls, towers, and bastions were designed to withstand even the most formidable attacks, and it quickly gained a reputation as an impregnable fortress. Today it is recognized as a World Heritage Site.
Sadly, the ongoing conflict in Syria has taken its toll on Krak Des Chevaliers, as it has on many other ancient sites around the country. The fortress has been damaged in some parts, and access to certain areas is restricted for safety reasons. However, despite the challenges, efforts are being made to preserve this icon of history, and restoration work is underway to ensure that it remains intact for future generations.
At the end of the day, and as it was already getting darker, we made our way to the nearby small village of Almistaya for our overnight.
Day 6: Almistaya - Palmyra - Damascus
Today we are heading to Palmyra, a must-visit destination for any history enthusiast or wanderlust traveler. Visiting the historic ruins of this mesmerizing ancient city was one of the main reasons I embarked on the journey to Syria in the first place.
Getting to Palmyra is an adventure in itself as, apart from the special permission needed, we also had to drive through the vast Syrian Desert. Also known as the “Pearl of the Desert” or Tadmor, Palmyra boasts some of the most stunning Roman and Byzantine ruins you’ll ever see. Unluckily, two of the most iconic monuments, namely the Arch of Triumph and the Temple of Bel (an enormous temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian god of the same name), were unfortunately blown up by ISIS in 2015.
Despite this devastating destruction, the entire archaeological site is massive and most of the other ancient relics are still standing. As we wandered around the site, we couldn’t help but be amazed by the sheer scale of the ruins, which span an area of more than 100 hectares (1 hectare equals 10.000 square meters). The famous colonnaded street is particularly impressive, with its line of majestic pillars standing tall against the backdrop of the blue sky.
One of the things that struck me the most was entering the Roman Theater which became the backdrop of executions filmed by ISIS. Surrounded by nothing but sand and sky, the eerie silence of the site was suddenly broken by the sound of classical music played on YouTube by our guide. He explained to us that when the Syrian army retook control of Palmyra, Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra performed two concerts in the theater in memory of the victims that were executed there. Creepy but moving at the same time.
Nowadays, the archaeological site is guarded by the Russian Army. They are based in the Palmyra Fort (Qalaat Fakhr ad-Din al-Maani) that overlooks the ruins. It comes without saying that the Fort itself is not accessible by visitors.
The Palmyra Museum is open for visiting, as well, but in reality there is not much to see, as the museum was also badly vandalized by ISIS. A lot of antiquities were looted in an effort to gain funds, through illegal trading, for ISIS activities.
As Palmyra lies at around 300 km away from Damascus, be ready for a long and tiring ride back…
Day 7: Damascus - Busra Al Sham - Damascus
Today we will be heading towards the South of Syria for visiting Busra Al Sham, a major town near the provincial capital of Daraa. Busra was conquered by various empires throughout the centuries but particularly flourished under the Romans. The influence of the Romans in the area is most evident in the Busra Amphitheater, which is the city’s most impressive feature. The Amphitheater dates back to the 2nd century AD and can accommodate seventeen thousand spectators. As such, it’s not only the best preserved but also the largest Roman Amphitheater in the world. Busra Amphitheater was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2013.
The ancient city of Busra spreads out to the north of the theatre. Here the visitor can walk past lots of historical ruins and buildings, among which:
- A gate built by the Nabateans that remains intact today.
- The remains of a Byzantine Cathedral.
- The Al-Omari Mosque and the Madrasah Mabrak al-Naqua, two of the oldest surviving buildings in Islamic history. It is worth mentioning that ancient Busra is a highly important place for all Muslims since it is believed that Prophet Mohammed received a revelation here that he would become a prophet.
Unlike all other places we visited in the country, Busra was the only one that is not controlled by the Government, but by the Free Syrian Army. Clear evidence of this is the paintings of the Syrian opposition flag on the walls in and around Busra, as well as the different uniforms worn by FSA soldiers.
While walking around the ruins in ancient Busra, we noticed some old writings on the city walls stating “Sniper; Danger of Death”. However, there is no such danger anymore, with the area being absolutely safe for tourists to visit under special permission.
Russia acknowledged how sensitive this area was/is, acting as a mediator so that the Assad Government could reach a special agreement with FSA. Based on this agreement, the two parties would cease fire over this specific territory and the Russian Army with its physical presence would safeguard stability in the region.
Unfortunately, the 12-year armed conflict within the country did cause damage to ancient Busra. Luckily, with its current status, this UNESCO Heritage site will be safe from future damage.
After an hour or so on the site, we boarded our van and headed back to Damascus.
Day 8: Damascus - Beirut
On our last day in Syria, we had plenty of free time to make a last stroll around Damascus, and do some last-minute shopping. Before departing for Beirut we were also invited for a delicious goodbye lunch by our Marrota friends.
And just because I have not mentioned this so far, Syrian cuisine is to die for!!! Falafel, shawarma, taboule, kibbeh (sajiyeh, raw, labaniyeh), mulaihi, magdus, maqlube, cherry kebab are some of the most popular food options! And of course, there is a long, long list of sweets, like madlwaa, hreseh, knafeh jibne, and helawet el jebn.
Syria definitely knows how to do food!
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!