Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 3

Southern Syria

<< Part 2: Northern Syria    -    Back to Index    -    Part 4: Lebanon >>         


March 9th-11th (days 14-16): Damascus

Damascus (Dimashq in Arabic, but usually nicknamed Sham) is a city I've wanted to see ever since I read that it's the world's oldest continuously inhabited city; there was already a settlement here in 5000 BC. It was an important city in the Persian and Roman empires, St. Paul lived and preached here, and after its conquest by the Arabs in 661 the Umayyads made it the first capital of the Islamic empire. Nowadays it has 6 million inhabitants.

I'd spend three nights here before going to Lebanon, and another three when I got back but then only as a base for day trips. Damascus disappointed me a little, but mostly because my expectations were so high and because I'd liked Aleppo so much.

The Umayyad Mosque

The Umayyad Mosque was built in the early 8th century. It was the first monumental mosque ever built. It is said to be an architectural marvel and to have served as a model for many other mosques, but I was unimpressed (except by the mosaics) and can't really recall other mosques that look like it. On its site there had previously been a temple for the Aramaic god Hadad, then a large Roman temple for Jupiter, and later the christian cathedral of St. John. It still has a shrine that supposedly houses the tomb of the head of John the Baptist. I visited in the afternoon, and returned in the evening to try some nightly photography which worked out beautifully.

Saladin and Beybars

Near the Umayyad Mosque lie the tombs of two of Islam's greatest warriors: Salah ad-Din (called Saladin in Europe), the greatest of all, and Beybars. Saladin was the Kurdish warlord who soundly defeated the crusaders in several battles and kicked them out of Jerusalem in 1187. He was respected by his christian enemies for his chivalry and skill, and revered by muslims for his virtue. He died in Damascus in 1193. Beybars was the Mamluk sultan who pretty much finished Saladin's work by capturing Antioch from the crucaders and driving them out of their last big stronghold, the Krak des Chevaliers (cfr. part 2). He died in 1277.

Azem Palace

This palace was built in 1749 by As'ad Pasha al-Azem, the Ottoman governor of Damascus, as a private residence. His family would continue to live here until the 20th century.

Around the Old City

Damascus still has most of its 13th century city walls but they're not nearly as impressive as the walls of Jerusalem. Inside the walls lies the Old City which has most of Damascus` monuments, including the ones presented above. The following pictures were also taken in or near the old city.
The Old City also has a christian quarter with chapels where this or that bible event took place, but it was very uninteresting. There's also a Jewish quarters, but almost all Jews left in 1991 when passport restrictions were lifted. Their life in Syria can't have been very pleasant while Israel and Syria were fighting war after war.

Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque

Still inside the Old City, very near the Umayyad Mosque, stands the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque. Sayyida Ruqayya was the great-granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed. This is where her tomb is, and since she is a shi'ite saint, the Iranians sponsored the constructed of this mosque which is built in the glittery Iranian style. Quote the LP guide: "The interior of the prayer hall is a riot of mosaic mirror. If they built mosques in Las Vegas, this is what they'd look like." :) I liked it a lot personally, so maybe I should go to Vegas.

Sayyida Zeinab Mosque

Also in Damascus is the tomb of Sayyida Zeinab, an even more important shi'ite saint. She was a granddaughter of the prophet; the daughter of his daughter Fatima and of Imam Ali. The tomb of Imam Ali in Najaf in Iraq is the most holy shi'ite site and currently the scene of a lot of violence. A spectacular mosque, again in Iranian glitter style, was built for Sayyida Zeinab's tomb not long ago. Shiites from all over the muslim world come here on pilgrimages.

Though I personally thought this mosque was the main sight in Damascus, the LP guide didn't even mention it, probably because it lies very far from the city center, in a very unattractive neighbourhood. Luckily I'd read about it elsewhere during my preparation. The taxi ride there took half an hour and made me appreciate just how big Damascus is.

The mosque is surrounded by crappy concrete slums, so getting a good overall picture was impossible. Inside the mosque domain I first admired the beautiful tiles on the minarets and the galleries around it, and then took off my shoes before the entrance to go inside. Luckily a friendly local warned me just in time that I was about to go in through the women's entrance - I hadn't noticed that all the other people taking off their shoes were female :)

I found the right entrance at the other side of the perfectly symmetrical mosque. As I stepped inside the gate some guardian told me I was only allowed to stand in the doorway. Bummer, because it looked magnificent. So I just stood there in the entrance on my socks. There were signs saying "NO PHOTO" and I would normally respect that in a hall of prayer, but then I saw a muslim inside walking around with a video camera and filming everything so I got out my camera and sneaked some pictures without the guard noticing. Unfortunately, at the third picture I was careless and the flash went of - ouch, very embarassing!

National Museum

This is the most important museum of Syria. Though I wasn't expecting anything like the Egyptian Museum, I still figured that with Syria having so many superb historic sites, this museum would have a lot of good stuff. I was especially hoping for some Assyrian art, even though Assyria mostly lay in Northern Iraq. Well, there was none of that, so I was disappointed. The only things I really liked was some Roman statuary.

My favourite was a very large, circular relief showing various scenes from the siege of a city. Since it was forbidden to take pictures and this was in the middle of a big hall, I didn't get it on picture. Also very nice was the reconstructed grave chamber of one of the tower tombs in Palmyra, with the original statuary, and I was alone there for a moment so I got some pictures (without flash so no harm done).

Around Damascus


Salihiya

In the travel guide I read about some nice monuments in the neighbourhood called Salihiya, so I went there one afternoon to check it out.
The afternoon was a disaster. I had copied a map of Salihiya from the travel guide and pointed out the point where I wanted to be dropped off to the taxi driver. He drove around for half an hour, asked people for directions several times and kept pretending he knew where he was going, but I finally realised he had no clue where he was and just got out.

I had no clue where I was either so I started asking around. Noone understood English but one guy indicated I should follow him. He brought me to an office building a few streets further, where we took the elevator to the 8th floor. I was starting to get a little worried that I might be taking risks following a stranger like that, but was also curious about where he was taken me. In the office on the 8th floor I discovered the reason I was taken there: someone who spoke some English worked there, hehe. Again I was amazed by the effort Syrians make to help foreigners.

The English speaking guy dropped his work and spent a long time studying the photocopied map, and then finally recognised one of the streets and told me the guy who'd brought me there would take me there. In the elevator down this guy started looking me up and down appreciatingly the way a guy without manners would look at a hot girl if he had no manners. Then he actually started feeling my biceps. I grabbed his hand and pushed it away but remained friendly and so did he.

If someone in Europe would do this I would hit him without a second thought, but by now I knew a thing or two about Arabic culture and didn't take offense. In the Arab world, homosexuality is a complete taboo, and Arabs cling to the belief that it hardly exists among them. Paradoxically, the result of this is that Arab guys can act totally gay without anyone including themselves considering it gay. It is very common for two Arab friends to walk hand in hand. You'll also see things like one guy lying on a public bench with his head on the lap of his friend, who is carressing his hair; or two guys talking to each other while stroking each other's arms and with their faces only an inch apart. In Europe only gay couples would do that, but in the Arab world these are just friendly gestures. It could be that this guy was gay and coming on to me, but he was probably just being friendly. In any case I was glad to get out of the elevator :) We walked quite a distance, and in the end I was dropped off at the right point in Salihiya. The guy had spent almost an hour of his time just to help me.

I walked around for an hour, and thought I'd gotten lost because the streets didn't match the map and I found none of the supposedly great monuments that were described. In the end I found one by accident, and comparing that part of the map with the surroundings I realised the map was just totally totally wrong. How irresponsible of that writer and publisher to send people to a remote part of a huge city with such wrong information! Anyway, the monument which was described as magnificent was really nothing worth seeing, so I doubt the writer even went there.


March 10th (day 15): Quneitra

Quneitra was a town of some 40000 people in the Golan heights that got captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. It was returned to Syria after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (while most of the Golan remained in Israeli hands) as part of the armistice agreement, but the Syrians found the town in ruins and claimed the Israeli army had deliberately destroyed it before retreating. After an investigation by a UN committee, Israel got condemned for the "deliberate and total devastation of Quneitra" by the UN General Assembly (in which the US has no veto) in Resolution 3240.

Instead of rebuilding the town, the Syrians left it in ruins to use it as a propaganda tool to demonstrate the brutality of Israeli aggression. Meanwhile the Israeli side claims the whole thing is a hoax and that the town had already been ruined during the two wars, when a lot of fighting took place there. In 1981 Israel officially annexed the Golan heights, but this is not internationally recognised.

During my preparation for this journey I had found out online that you can visit the ruins of Quneitra if you get a special permit at a certain government office in Damascus, so I went there on my first day in Damascus. It was a bit hard to find (it turned out to be a cabin on the street) but once there I just had to wait 15' (between armed men who were guarding the Kuwaiti embassy next door) and got the permit, no questions asked.

The next day I made the excursion to Quneitra. It was a 1 hour drive by minibus. I was the only foreigner and by the time we got to Quneitra, I was the only passenger left except for a government agent who had stepped on the minibus (a big van) at a military checkpoint and who was keeping my passport. When we arrived in Quneitra the driver and the government agent insisted strongly that I'd let them drive me around, saying that there would not be any transport back to Damascus otherwise. I'd been warned about this lie (the government agents are just lazy and want to rush you around, while the drivers want to get extra money out of you, of which they pay a commission to the agent) so I kept refusing stubbornly. In the end I could walk around more or less freely with the agent following me everywhere and just making sure I didn't get any of the UN and Syrian army structures on picture.
One of the things the agent wanted me to see was the former hospital of Quneitra. Above its entrance hangs a sign saying "GOLAN HOSPITAL - Destructed by Zionists and used it is firing target !" - a rather laughable tone.
When we arrived at a mosque I remembered reading that you could climb the minaret, so I looked for the stairs, got out my flashlight (it's been useful so many times!) and started going up. The agent first wanted to stop me but when I kept insisting he gave in and just followed me up.
When I was done walking around, the agent wanted to take me to the border post with Israel, at the edge of Quneitra. For this he stopped a minibus that was driving around with three other tourists; a Brit and a Japanese couple. I knew the Japs, actually I'd met them in Damascus and told them where to get the permit. When they saw me they looked jealous and said "You're allowed to walk around?!" They had let their minder pressure them into a quick ride around, suckers :) Since I'd invited them to come along with me I couldn't feel sorry for them.

At the border post I met a Swedish officer who was there as a UN observer so I got to practice my Swedish a little, always fun. We then got a little explanation from a Syrian officer who spoke English well (our minders only spoke a few words) and who only gave factual information instead of propaganda crap - much appreciated.

On the armistice line there is a minefield, right behind that the Israelis are using every inch of land for agriculture, and have built installations on top of the hills - all very much an in-your-face use of occupied land. I cursed myself for having forgotten my mobile phone; I'd probably been able to receive messages from home there through an Israeli operator (my mobile didn't work in Syria), which would have been funny.
The border post itself is a narrow road with three successive checkpoints, each some 100m apart. I was standing at the Syrian checkpoint, in the middle was the UN checkpoint, and in the distance we could see the Israeli checkpoint. Of course only UN vehicles use this border crossing; noone else can. We happened to see a UN car making the crossing; it took quite a while.

A Syrian camera crew was filming the checkpoints, and they asked us to stand before the Syrian barrier and filmed us, so perhaps I'll be in some Syrian propaganda film about foreigners coming to Quneitra to protest against the evil zionists or something, haha.
Quneitra was interesting and worthwhile, but I'd actually expected more; I'd imagined the city to be more densely built which would make it far more impressive.

Whodunnit?

As for the different stories of the Syrian and Israeli sides, it's impossible to be sure who is right. It's only logical that all the fighting in the region would have caused a lot of damage in Quneitra, so Israel must be at least partly right. However, many of the smaller buildings seemed to have been deliberately destroyed; of whole rows of them the ceilings seemed to have neatly collapsed, probably because the supporting columns were blown up. Artillery fire causes much more random damage. Of course, it's entirely possible that the Syrians did this themselves to make the overall destruction seem bigger.

We'll never know. If I had to guess, I'd say that Israeli soldiers blew up a number of buildings with dynamite out of spite over having to retreat, and that noone stopped them, but that there was never an order to destroy the whole town - I think they would have done a more torough job then.

In any case Quneitra had already been deserted for 7 years, so we're only talking about material damage here, which in the context of the whole Middle East conflict is not that significant. With Israel recently demolishing hundreds of Palestinian houses in Gaza while the whole world was watching, I think the Quneitra issue is rather passť, and the Syrians should just rebuild it.

Back to Sham

I shared a ride back to Damascus with the other three. The driver was an absolute madman; he was bullying everyone else on the road; driving on the wrong side all the time and only moving out of the way at the last moment - some of the drivers coming from the other direction panicked and almost lost control. But we arrived in Damascus without incident at around 1pm. It's on this afternoon that I went to Salihiya - I already described that afternoon above.


March 11th (day 16): To Lebanon

I don't remember how I managed to do so many things on this 3rd day in Damascus. I first went to the Museum of Arabic Calligraphy, then to the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque which was very far from the center, then to the National Museum back in the center, then picked up my backpack, took a bus to Chtaura in Lebanon and from there went on to Baalbek.

I spent the next 6 days in Lebanon and then came back to Damascus. If you want to read this report chronologically, then continue to part 4 about Lebanon. If you want to finish reading about Syria first, you should skip to part 5.


<< Part 2: Northern Syria    -    Back to Index    -    Part 4: Lebanon >>         






Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!!....it is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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