Visiting the Ancient City of Damascus
By Seb Schleicher , Tyson Carroll
Syria is one of the cradles of civilization and its capital, Damascus, represents one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
When most people in Western Civilization think of Syria, it’s often associated with Islamic extremism or an unfounded label as a rogue nation. These are stereotypes which reflect more directly the government’s actions than the everyday Syrian citizen’s.
Syria’s geography is a political hotspot and subject its own scrutiny; Jordan sits directly to the south; Lebanon and Israel to the west; Iraq in the east. The city of Damascus itself is an eclectic mix between East meets West—a city filled with meandering side streets, endless cafés, modern buildings and skyscrapers. You can be standing in front of the Grand Umayyad Mosque during the call to prayer one moment and find yourself at a café in the heart of the Christian quarter playing backgammon the next. It can be bizarre like that.
But first you’ve got to get there.
The first difficulty of getting into Syria is obtaining the visa. For this there are two options—both of which come with their own “issues” (dependent on how you plan to arrive in Syria). To begin with, if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport you have zero chance of entering Syria. Don’t even bother trying. If you’re planning on flying into Syria you will want to pre-arrange your visa prior to your arrival. This process will take three to four weeks and will cost you around $100. You’ll want to do this from your home country prior to departure, as many Syrian embassies around the world will tell you it is only possible to receive a visa in your home country.
If you choose to come to Syria by land it’s possible to get a visa on arrival—at least if you’re coming from Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon. The borders with Iraq and Israel are closed. Before heading to the border, take into consideration your appearance. While it isn’t mandatory to be conservatively dressed and clean shaven (applies mostly to men), it might help your cause and make for a smoother entrance. Upon arrival you should be prepared for several hours of waiting, as you’ll no doubt be questioned about your line of work and your interest in visiting the country. Try to be straightforward and calm while under “interrogation,” something along the lines of “we were in the vicinity and have heard it is a wonderful country,” should do the trick.
After patiently answering a few questions and paying the $16 dollars for your visa, you’re on your way into Syria. Things can be a bit tricky. Depending on how long your stop at the border is you can either pay your cab driver to wait for you on arrival or chance getting one after you are through the border. The drive into Damascus is about an hour and you should expect to pay around $20 per person. Make sure to negotiate the fare prior to getting into the cab. Once you get into Damascus the cabby will drop you off at a local taxi stand where you’ll dropped with your luggage in a sea of frenzied swarming sharks. From there another cabby can take you to your accommodation.
During our time in Damascus, we stayed at the Al- Rabie Hotel, which is located downtown and about a 10-minute walk from the Old City. Dorm rooms will run you around $10 a night, but if you’re looking to save a little bit of cash you can sleep on the roof for five bucks. The mattresses are stiff but comfortable, but there’s an evening breeze to help cool down from those warm afternoons. You’ll be under a canopy of stars in Damascus, but it will remind you of camping in your backyard as a kid. The highlight of the Al-Rabie Hotel is the main courtyard where breakfast is served every morning for $4. The courtyard has lounges, a café, and an overhead trellis covered in grape vines. There’s no better place to relax and unwind after seeing the sights of the city.
On a map, Damascus might appear like a sprawling city that’s very spread out for many miles. In reality you can see it all very, very easily by simply putting one foot in front of the other and walking around. There are seven great city gates in Damascus, some of them dating back to Roman times (such as the Bab Tuma, or St. Thomas’s Gate, named after the disciple of Jesus Christ). These can be used as markers. Yes, you could get lost in the city for a week, but you can just as easily see and experience all that Damascus has to offer over a span of four days. And there is a lot to see.
The two cultural highlights of Damascus are the Umayyad Mosque and the Christian Quarter, both which can be found in the heart of the Old City. On your way to the Old City you will pass through the Souq Al-Hamidyya. Souq means market, and you can purchase anything from clothes to food, games to jewelry. If you’re looking for something in particular, one of the venders will more than likely have it—you need only ask. But be warned; barter with them like you would a skilled used car salesman. The price they quote you at first is not what you should expect to pay—there is no such thing here as a fixed price.
In the Old City, buildings from varying centuries collide to form a vast maze of busy neighborhoods. Built in the 8th century, the Umayyad Mosque stands out with its imposing golden dome and towering minarets. Admission to the mosque will vary depending on the season, but expect to pay between $12-15. If you’re on a tight budget, viewing this beautiful mosque from the outside will still leave you speechless.
After the mosque you will find yourself wandering up and down the Christian Quarter, home to every Christian denomination you can possibly think of (and probably a few you’ve never imagined). It’s also a place to find some of the most affordable lamb kebabs in the whole city. Highly recommended.
In the evening, Damascus comes bristling to life with venders of every kind, selling everything from cooked corn to fake Rolex watches. Stores and restaurants begin to emerge from what earlier in the day looked like boarded-up shops, seemingly home only to stray cats. If you do end up staying at the Al-Rabie Hotel, the Star Struck Lovers Café is right up the street. Here you can spend hours playing backgammon while sipping a Turkish Cafe and puffing away on a shisha, which is a large tobacco filled water pipe. Word to the wise: When ordering coffee at any café anywhere in the Middle East, make sure you specify “Turkish coffee” or “filtered,” otherwise you’re going to be drinking Nescafe. And that’s just not civil.
While Syria may have difficulty overcoming many westerner’s preconceived notions, it is a beautiful, storied place to visit. The canals are idyllic, the River Barada can be breathtaking, and the House of St. Ananias (where Saul was baptized) make up other highlight. Anybody who wants to make a tangible connection to the ancient world and the roots of religion, Damascus should be right up there at the top of your list.
-Tyson and Seb