When browsing for a holiday spot, Damascus, Syria rarely comes to mind. But it should! As soon as you can bring yourself to ignore all the negative connotations and propaganda associated with traveling the Middle East, you will find yourself lost in a strange new land that engages the mind and the senses alike.
Damascus has been a center for cultural achievement for decades and spans the most impressive historical developments to date. It is the oldest city in the world to be consistently inhabited and it is not hard to believe, as it only takes a brief walk down the city’s center to behold sculptures from antiquity to Medieval fortresses and distinctly Islamic mosques and courtyards. Situated at a crossroads of the three major religions, it reflects the immersion of these faiths over millennium and remains one of the few cities to offer such a peaceful coexistence. In fact the old town of the city is divided into districts which surround the important artifacts for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Add in the fact that Syrian hospitality is a renowned spectacle in itself and it makes for a very rewarding journey. It is no wonder then, that Damascus is regaining a reputation among budget travelers eager to explore a new terrain and immerse themselves in a unique and extraordinary culture.
These are five things you must not miss on a short trip to Damascus:
1. Marvel at the Architectural Beauty of the Ummayad Mosque
The Ummayad mosque is undoubtedly the highlight of the sights in Damascus, an architectural feat for which people journey hundreds of miles merely to witness. It is the oldest and largest surviving mosque, with a striking courtyard and architectural simplicity and elegance. It not only bears significance to Muslims for the direct connection to the Prophet Muhammad and his kin, but also holds importance to Christianity as it was built on a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, and still encompasses the shrine that contains his head. In addition, just behind the mosque can be found the tomb of Salah ah Din (Saladin), the famed conqueror of the Crusader era. (Just note that you may need to bring some covering clothing to enter – My tank top and tattoos were not permitted uncovered.)
(Image via Jamil Karim)
2. Gaze at the City from Atop Mount Qassioun
Jebel Qassioun offers a stunning view of the city from it’s elevated position, and this is a favorite spot for locals and families to relax and watch the sunset over Damascus. The city is illuminated at night, and the florescent green lighting is a sight to behold. There are a few cafes and restaurants at the viewpoint that serve food and alcohol, though at a slightly elevated price. It can be an entertaining and quite vigorous hike for those looking to attempt it in the daylight. For others, taxis are easily accessible. (For any risk takers out there, I suggest trying the infamous “Bear Beer” that is sold at cafes atop the mountain. Yes that is the name of the beer, and no it is not Syrian. But I have a hard time believing that a country that does celebrate alcohol publicly would actually purchase such a concoction willingly.)
(Image via Top7Guide )
3. Hone Your Haggling Skills at Souq al-Hamidiyya
This indoor street is fascinating spectacle on its own, and one can easily spend hours trying to navigate its nearly endless maze of stalls and shops. Specializing in everything from exotic spices to jewelry, clothing and sweets, this-bazaar like arena is a shopper’s paradise, and a sight that encapsulates the cultural undertones of an age old tradition. (You honestly will not know where one section ends and the next begins – I was browsing stalls laden with desserts and pastries when I suddenly found myself standing amidst a butcher’s paradise of hanging meats with no recollection of how.)
(Image via Damascus-Online)
4. Indulge Your Sweet Tooth with the Finest Exotic Chocolates from Ghraoui
The Ghraoui chocolatier, found at the far end of the Souq, is considered by many to be the finest source of chocolates in the world. With fine rich textured chocolate combined with exotic Middle Eastern fruits and nuts, it is uniquely Syrian, and uniquely delicious. According to the NY Times: “Ghraoui’s fawakeh mujaffafa come in octagonal silver gift boxes, and they look almost jewel-like: perfect miniature apricots, figs and even eggplants resting in individual paper nests. The fruits are picked while they are still tiny and carefully boiled in sugar syrup, then dried in the sun so they maintain their color and shape.” How can you resist? A personal favorite of mine was the pistachio and dark chocolate apricots.
(Image via Ghraoui)
5. Take a Night Out
While hardly the nightlife capital of the region like neighboring Beirut, Damascus has it’s share of places to grab a quick drink. While it is rare to see the locals engaging in such activity in public, the Christian Quarter of Old Town Damascus has a series of small bars to frequent, as do many of the newer upscale hotels and resorts. Or if one is in the mood for a nargileh (hookah) there is an abundance of restaurants and cafes which provide high quality flavored tobacco to smoke at a very reasonable price.
(Image via Luxique)
(Lead image via jemasmith)