Damascus, Palmyra and Bosra

March 2005: As part of a larger trip in the middle east, my girlfriend and I traveled to Syria for 3 days to see as much of the country as we could with our limited time. Given how difficult the country would become for American travelers to visit in the upcoming years, I am very thankful that I went when I had the chance. 

 

About Syria

Map of our route in Syria

Syria is an Arabic country that borders Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. Because of its border with Israel, it has been fighting a war with Israel over territory in the Golan Heights. Both countries are still technically at war and every once in a while, fighting will flare up. Syria is led by Bashar Assad, leader of the Surian Bath party, the same party of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Bashar and his dad before him have ruled Syria for decades. Political opposition in Syria is non-existent and Bashar rules over his people with an iron hand. As a result of the country’s dictatorship and war with Israel, Syria is internationally sanctioned and isolated, and few foreign visitors and companies are present in the country. I didn’t even see Coca Cola, which supposedly was banned by the Syrian Govt because it was believed to be affiliated with Israel. Visiting Syria after Israel, Jordan, and Egypt- three countries with hordes of tourists was a night and day difference and I could definitely tll that the Syrian people were grateful for our visit given how few foreigners come to their country.

 

Bashar Al Assad

Mural of Bashar Al Assas

Bust of Father of Bashar Al Assad, Hafez Al Assad

The dictators of Syria, Bashar is seen everywhere in Syria. Like all good dictators, a portrait must be present of them everywhere. The Assad family has run Syria since 1971 and Basha since 2000. The Assads and government of Syria are dominated by the minority Islamic sect Alawite, when the majority of people in Syria are Sunni.

 

Interrogation in the Middle of the Night

The reason why I have seen so much of the world is because I use my time efficiently and some might say that is rushing but with a full-time job and little vacation, I am happy to rush if it means seeing more. In this case, we arrived in Jordan late at night and we didn’t have a lot of spare days with our trip that included Syria, Israel, and Jordan for a one-week trip. So, I hired a car and driver to pick us up at the Syrian border. We took a taxi to the Syrian border from Amman, Jordan. Our plan was to cross the border and drive all night to palmyra and sleep in the car. Then spend half a day in palmyra and drive to Damascus and spend the night there. When we arrived at the Syrian border, the Jordan immigration process was a breeze and then we went into the Syrian one. Both immigration offices were open 24 hours, but it was late and no one else was present int the Syrian office. it was just me and my girlfriend. We were alone with no guide or ability to speak Arabic. The Syrian soldiers were large, robust big mustached men wearing a permanent scowl. One of them looked just like Saddam Hussein. We had Syrian visas that we obtained at the Washington DC Syrian Embassy, so I anticipated we would get in. The men looked at our passports and appeared shocked to have two American tourists at the border crossing especially so late at night. They then took us into two separate rooms and sat us down in small pre-school children sized chairs with wooden desks. We were both asked the same questions in broken English about one another, our jobs, background, military if any, and the officials than compared notes to see if there were any inconsistencies in our stories. The interview process lasted about 20 minutes and I was feeling a little anxious because of the strict and suspicious demeaner of the officials. Then we were left in a seating area for another 20minutes while the officials convened to discuss us. I overheard them speaking in animated Arabic voices that included the word Bush, current American President despised in most of the Islamic world, a few times mixed into the verbal tirade. Then when the outburst seemed to settle, we were called to the counter and our passports stamped and we were allowed entry. Our driver was waiting for us on the other side of the building.

 

Driving Across the Syrian Desert

from the border we had a 4–5-hour drive to Palmyra in the dark and even though I intended to sleep, I wanted to make sure the driver stayed awake, so I stayed awake to engage him in conversation. Soon we were in the desert, and it was surreal for me to see highway signs pointing towards Baghdad, which was just across the border and a war zone still. The drive was fascinating. We stopped to visit Bedouin shepherds on the side of the road, small villages with friendly children for coffee and we encountered a dust storm that left us in nearly black out visibility for 30 minutes. At one point we also passed a military convoy carrying scud missiles on huge trucks. I wanted to take a photo badly but decided to avoid the risk of being spotted.

 

Beduin Sheperds

Beduin Sheperds we met on the side of the road

Village boy

Village kid in front of traditional desert house

Friendly Beduin Man

Palmyra

We arrived to palmyra early morning, and we had the ancient city all to ourselves. Palmyra is one of those places where you are just left breathless by its wealth of history. There are too many layers of history to explain here. Palmyra is thousands of years old and was part of the Roman Empire’s silk road to Asia. Around 200 AD, the city was at its most prosperous time in history under a renegade Queen, Zenobia until Rome sacked the city destroying much of it leaving the city in ruins. Now days, Roman temples, and pillars are scattered across the empty desert. In the background, an impressive 13th century Arab castle looms over the Palmyra.

 

Palmyra temples

Roman temple ruins with the castle of Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle in background

Me Climbing in the ruins

13th century Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle

Me in Palmyra

Temple Balk

Ancient funeral pyre where bodies were cremated

Syrian Motorbike in palmyra

Damascus 

After Palmyra we drove to the capitol of Damascus. We stayed in a small guesthouse near the old city and from there explored Damascus by ourselves. Umayyad Mosque was incredible although we couldn’t go inside. It is the final resting place of John the Baptists head and where Muslims believe Jesus will return again someday. Adjacent to it is the tomb of Saladin the Great, the general that conquered Jerusalem from the crusaders and established it under an Islamic caliph. Walking the old city at night was magical and we ate at a magical open aired restaurant adorned with traditional Syrian lanterns, fountains, music and decor where all of the servers were focused on us since we were their only patrons and we had one of the best meals of Mediterranean middle easter cuisine I have ever had.

 

Souq

Friendly Shop Owner in Souq

Souq Scene

Umayyad Mosque meant to be the resting place of John the baptists head and place where Muslims believe jesus will return someday

Umayyad Mosque

Old city walls

old city restaraunt 

Roman Era City of Bosra

After spending a night in Damascus, in the morning we tried to find the bus to Bosra at the border of Jordan. We went to a bus station, but it turned out to be the wrong station, but a kind local man proved to me again why I love the Syrian people. He very kindly led us 30 minutes to the correct station just to help us and refused anything in return.

Bosra is a small town, so once we arrived there it was easy for us to find the main highlight of Bosra, the well-preserved Roman amphitheater. Aside from the amphitheater, the town is chalk full of Roman ruins and many of them are used by Bedouin as homes. Walking around the town and photographing the people and ruins is an incredible experience.

Roman amphitheatre of Bosrah

Roman amphitheatre of Bosrah

Roman amphitheatre of Bosrah

When entering the Roman amphitheater, you need to traverse dark tunnels that leave you thinking you could emerge from the other side in the Roman era. We had the whole place to ourselves as is the case with all historical places in Syria. It was eerie walking the dark musty corridors.  The amphitheater is huge, and I tried to imagine what kinds of performances occurred on its stage. I had hoped to sleep inside the amphitheater building because i read that there was once a guesthouse in the building. Then once there I figured we could explore the grounds at night when in my opinion all historical places are at their best and spookiest. But the guesthouse was closed. Then I figured I would ask the guard if we could pay him to let us sleep in the amphitheater but when I hinted at the possibility with the guard, he didn’t seem to be thrilled with the concept, so I abandoned the idea and we decided to leave that night to Amman, Jordan. 

Roman ruins used by locals as housing in Bosrah

Roman ruins used by locals as housing in Bosrah

Roman ruins used by locals as housing in Bosrah

Bedouin Lady in Bosra

After visiting Bosra, we hitchhiked along the main road to the border and then hitchhiked all the way to Amman from the Syrian border.

 

4 + 6 =

error: Content is protected !!