There are many destinations outside of Damascus that one could (must) visit when in Damascus. The options are plenty, but some can be done in a day, others require an overnight stay. Examples include Ma'aloula, Sednaya, Bosra, Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers, and of course, glorious Beirut, among many others. Public transportation is available between Damascus and these destinations, though the best way to travel is with a local driver. If you feel like some adventure, renting a car and driving yourself is also an option (buy a road map in advance!). Attached are photos of the scenic arid and mountainous countryside surrounding Damascus
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.
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.
Located in Salihiyya Quarter, this early Ottoman mosque was built in the 16th century in a mix of Ottoman, Mamluke and Syrian styles. Attached to the mosque is the Mausoleum of Mohi al-Din ibn al-Arabi, a famous 12th century Sufi mystic who was born in Andalusia. He was one of the early founders of Sufism and his tomb continues to be a pilgrimage site to this day. Attached are photos of the mosque and mausoleum. Notice the recycled Corinthian columns in the mosque's hypostyle prayer hall.
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.
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.
For a different experience when visiting Damascus, jump in a taxi one afternoon and ask the driver to take you to Abu Roummaneh. It is a high end residential neighbourhood with numerous European clothing shops (e.g. Benetton and Morgan), cafés and restaurants. The neighbourhood's location closer to Jabal Qassioun ensures strategic views of the mountain and its hanging suburbs. If the weather is nice, some cafés offer outdoor seating where you could see and be seen by some Damascene bourgeoisie. Attached are some photos of the neighbourhood.
I had no ideia how big was Damascus until visit Jebel Qassioun, the "mountain" right behind Damascus. We went in a taxi and stopped near a coffee shop. It`s amazing the view. Don´t leave Damascus without visit it.
Located at the foothills of Mount Qassioun, the Salihiyya neighbourhood was built in the 12th century to house refugees escaping the Crusader invasion of Jerusalem. It later provided refuge to other escaping minorities, such as Kurds and Cretan Moslems. What started as a small village outside Damascus evolved into an old city with architecturally notable madrassas, mausoleums and mosques from the 12th to the 14th centuries. The expansion of modern Damascus has made Salihiyya a mere neighbourhood in the large metropolitan city. If you are in Damascus for a few days, it is worth taking this diversion to see another "Old Damascus" with narrow alleys, a smaller local souk, and impressive architecture. Attached are photos of Salihiya.
There are several museums and monuments which are not on many tourist itineraries. My language school took us to many of them in a clapped out old bus. First, we went to the 'Panorama', which was described to us as being 'very beautiful', but other than that we were left in the dark until we got there. It is a huge monument to the Arab Wars against Israel, and is filled with propagandist items. It is interesting that the impressive Syrian tanks face some decrepit Israeli ones across the courtyard. The highlight, though, is the revolving auditorium in the roof, which houses a display of Quneitra (the town in the Golan which the Israelis destroyed before handing it back to Syria) complete with battle cries and an incomprehensible commentary in Arabic. You have to make a booking to visit this, which costs ordinary tourists US$10, but us students went for nothing. You have to take a tour of the building, and there seem to be at least 3 guides per person. However, if you ask any questions, they won't be answered, as all the guides seem to know are the dimensions of the building. You can see the 'Panorama' from the bus which takes you to the main bus station in north-eastern Damascus.
Another trip was to the Assad Library, but I skived this trip. A friend who went wanted to look at the books, but again the tour was mainly to show off the building, not it's contents.
Just before the suburb of Dummar is a huge monument to the 'Unknown Soldier' with an eternal flame (it was out when I went). There is a museum underground, but is only open to pre-booked tours on Wednesdays at 4pm, and I have no idea how to book a tour.
For a break from the busy streets, you could try sitting in one of the many public parks. be careful about which ones you visit though, as some tend to attract the wrong type of people. A good sign is a children's playground, and if there are groups of women in the park, it is normally OK. If there are only men, avoid it whether you are male or female, as you will get some unwanted attention! Tishrin park is the largest and one of the nicest. It is behind the Sheraton Hotel, quite a distance from the centre of town. There are a couple of nice cafes here too. Sometimes however, the piped music can be a bit too loud, and there are speakers all over the park! To get there, take any microbus heading towards Mezzeh and hop out at the huge roundabout near the Sheraton (to find the right bus, go to Jisr ar-Ra'ees, the President Bridge, not far from the National Museum, and ask around). There are also some nice parks just outside the old city at Bab Touma, one of them even has a funfair with an unusual airplane restaurant (you can't fail to miss it, as it is rather large!). In most parks, there are usually drink sellers who will come to you, offering tea, milo (a dreadful chocolate-type hot drink) or cold drinks.
Exit the old city from the west side, using Straight Street, cross the busy main road, and look out for a small archway on the left...suddenly you'll be plunged into narrow lanes and never-ending food souqs. The old houses are crumbling down, the pavements are uneven, dust is everywhere, but this is real Damascus. Very few tourists (if any) discover this area, and it is like entering another world. It is certainly not geared up to foreign visitors, as this is one of the main souqs for local shopping. If you're looking for camel steaks carved from freshly severed heads, delicious tamarind juice served in a semi-clean glass, and odd-looking fruit and vegetables that you never knew existed, then this is the place to come. If you're not faint-hearted (in windy weather, it becomes quite a challenge to avoid bumping into a swinging carcass!) and can handle a fair amount of litter, then you can easily spend a couple of hours exploring this little known corner of the city. When I remember the name, I'll let you know!
Souk Saroujah, north of the old city is usually free of tourists, apart from the area around the Al-Haramain Hotel. It is an old quarter and stretches both sides of a busy 'motorway'. There are a couple of museums hidden in here, which I didn't find until my last day, and unfortunately they were shut!
No “off the beaten”, but the covered suq worth a visit. The architecture is interesting, the merchandise are surprising, the almond pudding is great and, and the people, the people …
This is hardly a historical attraction or a park of great importance, but Minshieh Park is a beautiful green spot in a city that can, otherwise, seem a bit claustrophobic. It is located right beside the Four Seasons Hotel (to its west) and it has lovely sculpted gardens and a few monuments as well. When I visited in January 2011, it was a popular spot for young couples and soldiers, and a perfect place for anyone looking to rest their feet and watch the world go by.
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