Syria's capital city, Damascus, encompasses bustling bazaars, historic mosques, top-notch restaurants and more. // © Jimmy Im 2010
Up until that moment, I was afraid of heights. Petrified, actually. But as I stood at the top of the Crac des Chevaliers (the well-preserved Crusader castle located in a small village outside Homs, Syria) gazing into a 360-degree panorama of rolling valleys dotted with forgotten cities, I was mesmerized instead. Looking down some 300 feet into the moat and the immense structure of the castle’s passageways would have normally sent me reaching for a Xanax. That day, however, it seemed to send me back thousands of years, into a way of life that felt both mysterious and new to me. The castle itself was extraordinarily preserved, with no touristy frills or roped-off zones. Being able to freely meander the grounds — including its halls, secret passageways and watch towers — with only a handful of other tourists truly captured the ambience for me.
The 12th-century Crac des Chevaliers, touted by author T.E. Lawrance as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world,” is one of the best examples of medieval architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The massive structure lets your imagination run wild and has enough passageways, lookout points and secret crevices to make you want to relive childhood fantasies. Equally impressive is the Citadel in Aleppo, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The medieval stronghold dates back to the 10th century and is a commanding presence in the city, with panoramic views that seem to go for miles.
That’s the beauty of Syria. It’s well off the conventional tourist circuit and is home to some of the most engaging and historical attractions. If it’s possible to say that an entire country is “off the beaten path,” then Syria is such a place. Not because its residents want it so, but because misperceptions held by the average U.S. citizen abound. In fact, the bite-size country only receives about 45,000 American tourists a year.
The country once known to be one of the most progressive in the world — home of the first known alphabet — somehow has been trailing in the modern age (several social networking sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, are still blocked). But things are changing, thanks to Syria’s serious desire to attract tourists, not to mention the Obama administration’s support for a prosperous relationship. The tourism infrastructure, once lackluster, is getting a facelift, and the annual Silk Road festival, which highlights the traditions of the caravans that met in Syria’s important cities, is becoming internationally recognized.
Don’t expect Damascus, the capital city, to add a Starbucks anytime soon, however. This slow growth in tourism means that today’s visitors will find more tour operators and translators and easier access to historic sites.
While mosques are ubiquitous, non-Muslim attractions are also highlights. A popular site is the Church of Umm Al Zunnar, otherwise known as the Church of Virgin Mary’s Belt. In the city of Homs, this 19th-century church is built on top of a 4th-century church where the alleged holy sash of the Virgin Mary was discovered in 1953 (historical evidence suggests her robe was brought here). The faith is alive and well with curious disciples the world over traveling to see the relic, preserved and displayed in a glass case.
A visit to the Middle East isn’t fully appreciated without a trip to the desert. Ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra sprawled in sand are one of Syria’s most photographed. The ancient city of Bosra also offers ruins including the massive Roman amphitheater, which is more than 2,000 years old.
It’s the capital city of Damascus, however, that is truly the heart of Syria. Bustling bazaars, historic mosques and top-notch restaurants make the city thrive. A photogenic destination, Damascus can spellbound even the most seasoned traveler, especially from the vantage point of the mountaintop, where a string of bars await. Do as I did: Grab a hookah and enjoy the view.