Seidnayya is situated only 26 km north of Damascus and can easily be visited on a daytrip using public transport, also including Ma'alula. Buses to Seidnayya leave from Ma'alula Garage in Damascus.
High on a hill above Seidnayya, almost looking like a fortress, is the Convent of Our Lady of Seidnayya. From the roof of the convent you will have a great view over the small town and the surrounding hills.
At the time of the crusaders Seidnayya was considered to be second only to Jerusalem as an important place of pilgrimage. The reason is a portrait of Virgin Mary said to have been painted by St Luke. The portrait can be seen in a small dark room beside the chapel, together with many more recent icons and silver crosses. Many miracles are attributed to the icon. An Iraqi man visiting the convent asked if I had seen the image of Jesus by the stairs, halfway up to the convent. I hadn’t, so he took me down to show me the image. The image is protected behind bars, and is said to have appeared after a man rested his oil jar on that spot.
The convent is believed to date back to the 6th century and to be founded by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Not much remains that is very old. Of what can be seen of the building today much dates to the 19th century.
Maalula is situated about 50 km north of Damascus and can easily be visited on a daytrip, also including Seidnayya.
It is a charming little village in a narrow valley with light blue and yellow houses below the cliffs. Here you can visit the Convent of St Thecla. St Thecla was one of the first Christian martyrs and above the convent you will find her tomb, and a well of healing water. Above the village is the Monastery of St Serkis, where you will find an altar probably used already during pagan times and many nice icons. Take a walk through the siq, a canyon cut out of the rock by water. And stroll around in the quiet village.
Maalula is most famous as the place where Aramaic is spoken. Aramaic is the language Jesus was speaking and in which some scripts were written.
Buses to Maalula leave Damascus from Maalula garage (for more detiled information see the transportation tips).
Shahba, or Philippopolis, is an ancient Roman city, founded by Philip the Arab. Constructions started in 244AD, but stopped five years later after Philip’s assassination. The most interesting ruins are those of the forum of the ancient Philippopolis, a shrine dedicated to Philip’s father, a temple, a palace, a theatre and the baths. There is also a small museum, which contains some very beautiful 4th century mosaics with subjects taken from ancient Greek myths, mostly with Dionysus, Aphrodite and Orpheus. (Admission 75SP, open 9am-6pm Wednesday-Monday March-November, 9am-4pm December-February). To visit Shahba you must take the Suweida bus from Baramkeh terminal.
One of the reasons Maalula is famous, is because it is one of the last places where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. It is a beautiful, small village with houses painted blue and two monasteries, the convent of St Thecla (Deir Mar Takla) and the monastery of St Sergius (Deir Mar Sarkis). The Mar Sarkis monastery is one of the oldest churches in Syria; some of its icons date back to the 13th century. The convent of Mar Takla is not very interesting. What is fascinating is the passage from where, according to the legend, St Thecla managed to escape her persecutors: a narrow, small gorge, which resembles a lot to the famous gorge of Petra. Minibuses and microbuses from Damascus to Maalula depart from the Maalula garage.
In this small town stands the beautiful Greek Orthodox Convent of Our Lady, founded by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century. According to the legend, the emperor was chasing a deer up to Seidnaya’s hill while he had a vision; the deer changed into the Virgin Mary, who asked him to build a monastery at this place. The monastery possesses a – purported miraculous- icon of the Virgin Mary, painted by St. Luke. The icon is kept in a small dark room to the right of the chapel. The convent is a real proof of the peaceful and harmonic co-existence of religions in Syria; it is a pilgrimage place for both Christians and Muslims, and hundreds of them from all over the Middle East attend the feast of Our Lady of Seidnaya on the 8th of September each year. To visit Seidnaya you can take the microbus from the Maalula garage. The nuns are very kind and hospitable and the visitor can spent the night at the convent for a small donation.
Well, it’s not exactly “off the beaten path”, since Bosra is a significant destination for everybody visiting Syria. This is not strange; Bosra has one of the best-preserved Roman theaters surrounded of a fascinating citadel and a very interesting old town. The theater dates back to the 2nd century AD. The first part of the citadel was built during Umayyad period and took its final form in 1251. The citadel is open 9am-6pm (March-November) 9am-4pm (December-February). Admission 150SP. The old Roman town is located to the north of the theater; entrance is free and there is no fixed opening hours. Among other interesting sights, you can visit the Mosque of Omar, which is claimed to have been built by caliph Omar and be one of the earliest mosques in the world (however, historians say that the mosque dates back to 12th century) and still operates as Bosra’s main mosque. You can visit Bosra either by bus from Baramkeh terminal or by microbus.
It is possible to visit Baalbek in Lebanon in a day trip from Damascus. If you can spend the night in Baalbek so much the better, but it is possible to get there and back in the same day and have a few hours at the site of the great Roman temple complex there.
It takes about 2 and a half hours to get there, allowing for time at the border. If you don't have a multiple entry visa for Syria, you will need to visit the Immigration Office on Sharia Furat for the necessary paperwork to be done to allow you for your re-entry to Syria. You will have to pay for a new visa on your return. You wil be able to pay for everything with Syrian pounds or US dollars but you will need to have the cash on you.
The only way to get there is by service taxi (cheap) or with a car and driver (expensive).
Baalbek is worth the effort. The sight of the huge temples there is awesome - nothing comes near them for size (the little black spots, bottom left in the photo here, are people) and grandeur and the setting, with Mount Lebanon in the background is wonderful.
This area of Damascus, just outside the walls of the old city, north of the footbridge over ath-Thawra, is a mix of a few grand old houses, now mostly very run-down and occupied by several families (2 are now backpackers' hostels, Jane Digby's house was located here), new office buildings and apartments,shops, mosques and mausoleums, all scrambled up together in a maze of little streets - lots of atmosphere here as people go about their daily lives.
Sitting somewhat incongruously between the treasures of the National Museum and the grace of the Tekkiye Mosque, the garden surrounding the Army Museum is full of planes and tanks. As most them are Russian , there is a curiosity value in them and any would-be modern warrior would probably find them worth a look at least.
The museum itself contains an interesting and quite comprehensive collection of a military nature, from Iron Age arrowheads to a Sputnik. Islamic weapons and armour are well represented and there are good scale models of Krak, and the citadels of Damascus and Aleppo.
For anyone accompanying a military buff who might be less than enthralled with these displays, the building itself has very fine tiles and banded stonework which are worth your consideration. Otherwise you could get in a little extra shopping time in the Handicraft souq which leads off from the far corner of the garden.
The museum is open from 0800 -1400. Closed Tuesdays.
Bab Sharqi is the only gate in the Old City walls that retains any of its Roman structure, a fragment of the arch. There are two columns standing inside the gate that once formed part of the colonnade that once lined the street.
Go through the gate and down into the pedestrian underpass on the right and you will find a section of the Roman walls to the city that were unearthed during the excavations for the underpass.
A tiny stone chapel is known as the Church of Ananias - the man who was sent to Saul (who became Saint Paul) to restore his sight after he was blinded on the road to Damascus. Whilst there is no evidence that this was indeed the house, it is undisputed that there has been a church on this site since early Byzantine times, and who is to say whether or not the story is true. Certainly there is a feeling of sanctity in this ancient little chapel. Muslims and Christians alike come here to pray, a not unusual occurence in ancient Christian places in Syria.
The church is located near Bab Sharqi.
Once thousands of Jews lived in Damascus, it's estimated that today there are fewer than 100. Two synagogues survive to service this tiny community. While they are not permitted to serve in the army, life became easier under the Assad regime for those who stayed after the mass immigration of the early 70s.
Little remains as evidence of the old Jewish quarter in the city where the handful of remaining families still live. This is located in the north-eastern corner, near Bab Touma. Beit Dadah, once the home of a wealthy Jewish family, can be visited and gives an idea of how well the family must have lived with its large rooms and splendid iwan.
Where the Omayyed Mosque stands is known to have been a temple site from earliest antiquity. Nothing remains to be seen now of the earliest pagan temples that stood there but there is still much to be seen of the Temple of Jupiter that occupied the site in Roman times.
Large as the mosque is, it's nowhere near the size of its Classical predecessor. That great temple was adapted by the Byzantines to be the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, and then, some years after the Islamic conquest, the church was razed and the Mosque built. Both these later buildings utillised the inner compound of the temple and you can still see the Roman mason's work in the lower courses of the Mosque walls. But this temple, with its outer courts, covered a larger area than any other Roman temple before or after. Apart from the fragments in the garden by Saladin's mausoleum, as you walk around this part of the old city, you can still find traces of it - a gateway built into the south wall of the mosque, the eastern gate of the mosque which was once part of the main entrance into the inner temple , columns built into walls, another gate half-buried in Bareddin al-Hassan Street
When you see these remnants, think of how far you have come away from the mosque and imagine the space that must have lain within those walls. It's awesome.
Those who have read of the life of Jane Digby, the Victorian English noblewoman who married a Bedouin sheik, lived in Damascus and Palmyra and is buried in Damascus, may be curious about her grave. You will find it in the Protestant cemetery which is situated in a small walled garden on the right hand side of the airport road going away from Bab Sharki. If the gate is locked you can usually find someone in the Armenian cemetery across the road (watch out for the traffic) who will find the key and open it for you.
The grave is situated towards the back left-hand corner of the cemetery, under a tree and with a small chain railing around it.
If you are curious to know more about the life of this most remarkable woman and what brought her to Syria, Mary Lovell's biography "A Scandalous Life" is a great read.
Bosra is a small town, near the Jordanian border, with one of the best preserved Roman theatres. The theatre is made of black basalt and an Arab citadel has been built around it. It's really impressive!
North of the theatre are the ruins of an old Roman town where it is nice to stroll around. This town is also made of black basalt.
Admission for theatre/Citadel: 300SP (25 SP for students)
There is no admission for the old town.
You can see Bosra on a daytrip from Damascus. Busses leave about every second hour from Baramke bus terminal. It takes 2 hours and costs 50 SP (July 2002).
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