May 2010. First travel outside Europe. ‘Why are you going to Syria? Go somewhere where everyone goes. Why there? Why now?” I kept being asked and my answer was always the same “Because if I don’t go now, later wouldn’t be possible……now or never“. I had then no idea how damn I was right. I loved this country, people, culture, art…….. . I really felt there like home, so relaxed, welcomed. Aleppo was like my home though I spent too short time there. My heart was bleeding. If I only knew what was coming few months later …..
Going to Syria via Turkey. It was easy before the war just local authorities kept being lazy and providing wrong information so had to trust locals to get what wanted. Border by land could be crosssed just via Giazantep where we arrived monday morning (was traveling with a girl friend and one local guy joined us). We came at the gates of the Syrian consulate. Working hours start from 10:00am. We were on time. But the consulate workers arrived at 11:00, then at 11.30 one guy got out to take our passports. Nobody let us even enter the perimeter, so we stayed outside waiting. Silence. We called again asking what was going on. Finally they proposed to get them ready in a few days because they were overwhelmed by work. Lazy asses!!!! They told that there is no other way to make it. Liars! We asked our passports back. Taxi driver hanging around proposed his help, for 20 dollars each, he was ready to take us to Aleppo and help us across the border. We are going! He confirmed to us that we won’t have any problem. He knew more about how to obtain visas than that f…ing consulate! After a one hour drive and one hour spent at the border we had our visas! At the border they were not exactly motivated to give us the visas, it’s just that they just didn’t understand why we wanted to visit the country. We told them that we were going to see our friend Mohamed who lives in Aleppo (we didn’t tell him that we wanted go to Damascus either, in order to avoid problems as it was near the Israeli border). So they called our friend in order to confirm our intent. After all confirmations and paying 10 dollars each, we got what wanted. Visaaaas!
After about one more hour driving we reached Aleppo. So happy! Our driver was a very cool guy and proposed to come to take us back to Gaziantep after our trip. Perfect!
I immediately fell in love with the Syrian atmosphere and particularly this town. In Aleppo I felt like home, no pressure, no stress, just kind, smiling faces around saying all the time ‘hello’, ‘you are welcome’, ‘have a nice day’. For sure, you see immediately who is a tourist and who is not, and people were so kind. Loved it! I was totally relaxed. There is no strict dressing code, just make sure you don’t dress too much in an extravagant way. Local girls freely go outside without covering their hair. They put on jeans and t-shirts.
A local friend, Mohamed, owned a hotel which he used to refer to as his wife. He used to live close to the Main Square, near the clock tower – the main meeting/reference point of the city. At his place I left my bag and had a walk in a city. I love exploring alone and spending as much time as possible with locals and my friends had different preferences so we were exploring separately.
The first thing was to visit was the Citadel of Aleppo, which is a large medieval fortified palace in the centre of the old city. It is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. Close to it was a mosque where an Imam proposed to guide me, and to retell its history and to take pictures.
Local souk. Streets there are like a labyrinth where it is easy to get lost, which for sure we did. Sometimes it’s good to be lost. There is always something to do in this town and lots of people are just happy to help you, even if they only speak Arabic. The walk continued towards the Christian district. One man (a worker in a church) was so glad that I came to visit a church (too late, the church was already closing) that he opened the church’s doors and put on all lights on to show its real beauty! Does it happen in Europe like this? In my dreams 🙂 exeptional kindness.
The old city of Aleppo reflects the rich and diverse cultures of its successive occupants. Many periods of history have left their influence in the architectural fabric of the city. Its heritage represents an exceptional reflection of the social, cultural and economic aspects of what was once one of the richest cities of all humanity.
Though the city can be quite a bustle, in particular when it comes to traffic. Want to cross a street? No problems. There is a special procedure to make it! Stretch your hand like telling STOP, take a deep breath and get through the flow of the cars. Don’t run! Walk calmly so that drivers will have enough time to realize what your next step will be. In a few seconds you will be on the other side of the road.
This scary procedure at the beginning became a kind of attraction for me. It gave me adrenaline when I felt I needed it. Drivers were too kind and patient. Sometimes they stopped just because they saw me at an edge of the pavement without even appearing to have a plan to cross the street, but as they kept standing – I crossed. After having enough experience on the roads I realized that in many European countries it could be hard to survive such a procedure, as I would be squished immediately! In Syria they don’t have any driving rules, but I didn’t see any car accidents either. More rules means more transgressions. Through the evening city chaos, with my companions, we met a local celebrity, a man in yellow. It was hard not to notice him. He was always dressed in yellow!
At midnight we had to take a night train to Damascus. We bought tickets and waited. I was taking a small walk in a train station while one Syrian approached me asking something in Arab. For sure, I understood nothing. But it wouldn’t be Syria if it would just end at that. People immediately surrounded us in silence, just looking. Finally there were two guys who spoke English so they were kind enough to translate. That guy asked me if I haven’t forget to ‘check’ our passports while buying train tickets. That’s all, that guy just wanted to be sure that we did everything the right way! It was not obligatory, but this unwritten rule could help us avoid some problems in the train. Could it be more kindhearted?
The night train arrived. We were obliged to leave our passports with the conductor. Don’t ask why. It is just a kind of local formality. It cost us 9 dollars to arrive in Damascus at 6:00 while sleeping in a comfortable private 2-bed cabin.
Sleepy Damascus, here you are. The city starts to wake up at 6:00 even if it’s not a souk day. We slowly approached with big bags. A ten minute walk from the train station is the old centre. Three quarters of the old city is surrounded by 13th century walls, creating a city within a city. The walls are pierced by seven gates. The main gates arriving to the city by train are at the entrance to souk al-Hamidiyeh. We went over the left side of the gates and entered the centre over the Barada River.
The inhabitants are sure that this is a holy city. “Look at our buildings” – say the locals – “this is a proof that the city is protected by God. It’s impossible to have these old buildings still standing”. And really, lots of them looked like they were crumbling down right before our eyes.
The old centre is covered by labyrinth of the streets. It’s full of greenery and wonderful mosaics on the building walls. The city has a rich spirit, magnificent plaque that contains a strange mixture of past and present, reality and legend, sanctity and beauty.
The Old City has hundreds of restaurants and bars located randomly more or less everywhere. Syrian food is very tasty and varied. There is the mezze, which is an amalgam of small platters which includes hummus, baba ganoush, fette, fattoush, lebne, mohammara (the regional version of falafel) and shawarma dishes, as well as some of the best freshly squeezed juice around. Polo, a blended ice drink with lemon and mint is an exotic favorite of both locals and foreigners.
After lunch we continued to walk and had a rest close to St Mary’s Church where one old man proposed to guide us. He took us to Azem Palace which is one of the grand old houses that can be found in the Old City of Damascus. It was built in 1750. Today, the complex serves as a folk tradition museum that includes a number of ethnographical exhibits on the customs and clothing of the people of Syria. The true draw, however, is not the museum but the architecture of this fine house. The buildings are constructed from a variety of local stones in order to create a chromatic palette that enlivens the entire courtyard. The grounds also include a number of fountains.
As he knew that we had artistic souls, he decided to show us more of the hidden places. He showed us the building site of a future hotel where his friend used to work. Later he took us to a woodcraft studio where traditional Syrian furniture and wonderful boxes were made. The craftsmen were so kind, and showed us all the procedure that take place, and answered all our questions. We bought some wooden beauties as authentic souvenirs. I think that Aleppo soup and those wooden crafts are the very best local souvenirs to have. After visiting some craftsmen, the old man showed us his house. All the houses in the old city, despite their plain facades, include gorgeous courtyards abound with plants, vines and usually a fountain or two. I could live here!
Afternoon, we met our local friends. In the evening Ali took us to see Jebel Qassioun – the greatest natural landmark in Damascus. There is no local transport going, so you should take a taxi or a car to get there. That mountain is seen from almost every point within the city. The locals use to come here mostly in the evening to enjoy wonderful views of the city. The sad part of it is – those who want to commit suicide, mostly come here to do it by jumping off the top.
Breakfast – Syrian ‘pizzas’. So tasty, salty, just as I like. With spices, with meat, with cheese. mmmm. For any taste. They eat these pizzas in the morning, lunch time, evening, whenever they just want. Later we took a taxi to the souk. Taxi costs 1 dollar, 2 dollars can cost just very long distance inside the city. Taxi drivers are big cheaters like everywhere so ask local freinds for the prices before leaving.
At the souk there are shops where they sell antiques. Here you can find almost everything, but especially, they have lots of old coins dated even from the 1-3 century (no idea if they are real or just perfect counterfeits). One person told us to be careful if we buy something ancient of a cultural value because at the border it could be confiscated and returned back to a shop (this information should be rechecked).
What I liked the most at Al-Hamidiyah Souq, it’s the respect sellers have towards buyers. I mean, it is required to haggle and negotiate all the time, it’s in their blood, but they don’t push you to buy their stuff. They calmly wait until you look around and just after some time when they see that you are maybe interested in something, they will ask if they can help you. I bought an Arab scarf with a Jordanian ahakel and my friend bought a white dress.
Friends advised me to try the best local ice-cream, which is possible to find only in this souk. I can say that it’s the most delicious ice-cream I even tasted in my life. The sellers were so kind, that they gave me much bigger portions for the same price. I loved them. Both.
Damascus is also known for the production of cologne. Perfume sellers have lots of bottles with different scents so you can just tell what kind of perfume you would like to have and he will mix scents, adding some special supplementary liquids to the formula and it’s done. We sensed the smell of local perfumes everywhere. A local friend, made himself some for us as a gift!
Cramped inside the winding streets between Aimariye Street and Bab As-Salaam, we found an Iranian-built Mosque in honour of Shia Martyr Sayyeda Roqqaya. The Mosque is difficult to see from the outside, but the inside is a maze of silver and shining shades of all colours.
The Umayyad Mosque is the must-see. It is the earliest surviving stone mosque in the world. The building dates from the 7th century and is the first great mosque (first cathedral) and ranks 4th in holiness only after its equivalents in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The mosque occupies a huge quadrangle 157 by 100 m and contains a large open courtyard surrounded by an arcade of arches supported by slender columns.
In the middle is the tomb of Saladin who is the famous defeater of the Crusaders. Around the courtyard are beautiful remains of gold mosaics which in the past used to cover the entire courtyard, nowadays just fragments survive. The mosque stands on the site of a 1st-century Hellenic temple to Jupiter and a latter church of St. John the Baptist.
Some Syrio-Roman fragments remain in the structure, as does a shrine supposedly enclosing a relic honored by Muslims as well as Christians, the head of St. John the Baptist. It is very important place for pilgrims coming here from different parts of the world.
As in all Muslim holy places, entering the main courtyard, you need to remove your shoes off. At the entrance, they give you to put on special clothes if you are not dressed properly.
Well-equipped as the locals – me wearing a Jordanian ahakel, large Moroccan pants, and my friend wearing a white dress we reached Ma’aloula. Ma’aloula is a Syrian town located 50km North of Damascus. It is situated at an altitude of more than 1500 meters. Ma’aloula is a town where the language of Jesus Christ, Aramaic, still lives on, and is of utter importance to Christians in the whole world and an important source for anthropological linguistic studies regarding first century Aramaic. It is also listed as an Unesco World Heritage Site. Maaloula means “the entrance” in Aramaic, referring to its dramatic location at the entrance to a rocky gorge. The slopes overlooking a vast green carpet of fig trees, flowering damsons, grapevines and poplar trees.
As soon as you enter Ma’aloula, its religious heritage is evident. A large statue of the Virgin Mary dominates one hillside; many houses are painted in a pale blue wash, a gesture of respect towards the mother of Jesus.
It is a predominantly Christian village with a population of about 2,000. It is the home of two ancient Christian monasteries: Mar Sarkis and Mar Taqla. Both Christian and Muslim pilgrims come to Ma’alula seeking blessings.
The Greek Catholic monastery of St. Sergius has a chapel with a beautiful display of icons. Built in the 4th century on the remains of a pagan temple, the Mar Sarkis monastery is one of the oldest in Christendom (325 AD).
Further down in the village is the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla (Mar Takla).
The building was built on several levels. On the top floor there is a modern church with a dome and a cave which filters water with supposedly miraculous properties. This religious monument receives an unending stream of Christian and Muslim pilgrims.
Just being back home, we understood why locals looked so much at us – I was dressed as a man (what I already suspected) and my dear friend was wearing pyjamas, not a sexy white dress as she thought of wearing before. She was so happy to have a local dress to get out and addapt well to a local cuture, but she failed at that. Such a composition of oh-so-trendily dressed girls aroused a lot of questions among the locals. Syrians were tolerant, and just smiled while looking at us. We admit we were not so clever girls. At least we brought with us some positive energy. After such public demonstration, we decided then to be less “visible” (what was hard as it was already evident that we were not locals). “You are dressed correctly but your pants are transparent” – told one old Syrian. Damn it, I still didn’t manage to adapt here with fashion.
After a few days in Damascus, it was time to get back to Aleppo for a few more days. I was again exploring alone. I didn’t feel any danger. This country was super safe and travellers were very respected (I saw just few foreigners here). People were always polite and sellers never cheated in their prices (though they could), as I didn’t understand what prices were written down. The locals respected me a lot. I continued enjoying cruising the streets and talking to people. In just an hour I felt like I was a real part of this town, knowing already lots of people and interesting places.
Mohamed took me 30 km out of the city to see the St. Simeon Church or known as the ‘Fortress of Simeon‘. Or what remains of it. It is the oldest surviving Byzantine church, dating back to the 5th century. It is now a part of the “Ancient Villages of Nothern Syria”, a World Heritage Site. The church is situated on a hill with wonderful panoramic views of the surroundings. One thing surprised me the most – wonderful mosaics that are covered under the sand. Nobody cares about showing them to the world! They exist, right down there, about 50cm under the sand. How would I know that? Because I found 1 spot where a part of that beauty laid uncovered.
Coming back to Aleppo, the mini-bus driver invited us to his place just out of town, in some nearby small village. He devoted his working hour to have us over! The driver wanted to show me how the locals live and it was a huge privilege for him to have me, a stranger from far away, at his home. He didn’t speak English, so he communicated mostly with Mohamed, my Syrian companion. I felt comfortable and welcomed at his home. After making acquaintance with his family and having coffee with dates, he brought us back to Aleppo.
In the evenings we had a parties on the roof of the hotel with Mohamed and some his friends from Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and some solo travelers who stayed at his hotel. The aim of the parties was not to drink and get drunk, but just to have fun, to sing, to play games, to laugh. I don’t say that Syrians, Iraqis or other don’t drink alcohol, they do drink, and there are lots of bars in the city where you can get drunk.
Leaving. Our international taxi driver arrived at time as promised. Heading back to Turkey.
Loved Syria, loved its culture, people. They made me feel like home. So easy-going, friendly, simply people, beautiful places to see, architecture, heritage, food…. . Amazing !
A few months later they started a war…………………