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.
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.
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.
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).
Syria saw fierce fighting in both World Wars.
Those of you interested in this aspect of the country's history might like to find their way to the Commonwealth War Cemetery to wander among the graves of the dead of both these wars. As well as the immaculately kept graves of soldiers from Britain, Australia, NZ, Canada, India and other Commonwealth countries, you will find the memorial to the men of the Indian Army who are buried in unmarked graves. There are also a few Polish graves and even a woman who served there with the Church Army. It is a beautiful, tranquil place, well worth seeking out.
The staff at the Cemetery finish work each day at 2.00 pm and the gates are locked from that time. Arrangements are in hand for a spare set of keys to be kept nearby and a sign erected on the gates informing visitors of the locality.
The cemetery is approximately 5 kilometres south-west of the city centre in an area known as Sabara (Arabic for prickly pear). The cemetery is amongst an area of prickly pear plants, which is located behind apartment blocks and therefore is not easily viewed from any main roads. However, visitors can best reach the cemetery by private car or taxi. From Al Umawiyeen Square go along Fayez Mansour Motorway to just past the Ar Razi Hospital. Then turn left until you find Al Farabi St. (which runs parallel with Fayez Mansour Motorway) and turn right into it. You will then go past the British Ambassador's Residence (which is easily recognised by the soldiers outside), go past Casablanca Flowers, past Tello Chocolates & Gifts (all on the left side). Just past No.95 is a small street named Mahmoud Antar (3) Alley. Turn left into this and then right into Abdul Karim Razzooq St and the cemetery is about 150 - 200 metres along here. All the streets are signposted.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
If you walk through one of the old gateways leading off Souq al-Hamidyya or Straight Street, you will probably find yourself in a small courtyard of one of the old khans or caravanserai. Most of them were built by Ottoman merchants in the 18th century. These include Khan as-Zeit, Khan Suleiman Pasha and Khan Jakmak.
Malula is a tiny (pop. 2000) village on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. It's about 50 minutes away from Damascus, so it's the perfect location for a day trip. What's so special about it is that most of the houses are painted in light blue tones - very characteristic - and that the population doesn't speak Arabic but Aramean, the language of Jesus. There are also two fascinating monasteries (Deir Mar Sarkis and Deir Mar Takla) linked by a natural siq. Both monasteries - and this is what I liked best - attract visitors and pilgrims both Christian and Muslim: a wonderful example of how religions can live side by side, in mutual respct and integration. For more information please see my Ma'lula's page.
Bosra is a large-ish village about 2 hours and a half south of Damascus. It's supposed to be one of the top sights of Syria, but I must admit I was not so impressed. Its fame comes from the fact that it has a huge Roman theatre concealed within an Arab fortress: a great stunning sight. The disappointment came from the rest of the town and ruins: the so much advertised unmissable black basalt ruins turned out to be.... well, ruins. Ruins, I must add, in such a bad state of repair (read: no restoration ever) that it's hardly possible to make out what the various things would have stood for. Basically overrated unless you are an archaeologist.
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