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|Introduction to Syria
Syria's historic sites rival those of its Middle Eastern neighbours; Syria also lays claim to the oldest continuously occupied city (Damascus vies for the title with Aleppo), the spunkiest Crusader castle (Krak des Chevaliers) and the best preserved Roman theatre (in Bosra).
Admittedly, Syria is still on the US State Department's list of the seven countries sponsoring terrorism, but don't let that put you off. The Syrian government may not be among the world's most benevolent, but the Syrian people are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality.
So after visiting Syria, next time you hear about 'evil regimes', you'll know to separate the people from those that govern them - just as the Syrians politely do when meeting you.
The UK and Australian governments suggest that travellers exercise extreme caution, avoid demonstrations and political gatherings, and maintain a high level of personal security awareness. The US has issued a strong warning against travel to Syria due to anti-American protests and the possibility of violence. Families of US Embassy members and other US nationals have been advised to leave Syria. Kurdish populations were reported to have been restive in the spring, and entry into Iraq from Syria is forbidden to travellers.
Full country name: Syrian Arab Republic
Area: 185,180 sq km
Population: 17.5 million
Capital City: Damascus
People: Arabs (90%), Kurds, Armenians, Circassians, Turks
Language: Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish, English
Religion: 74% Sunni Muslim, 16% other Muslim, 10% Christian
GDP: US$41.7 billion
GDP per capita: US$993
Annual Growth: 2%
Major Industries: Oil, agriculture, textiles
Major Trading Partners: Ukraine, EU, Turkey, Lebanon, Japan
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Visas: All foreigners entering Syria must must obtain visas from Syrian consulates abroad, but if there is no Syrian representation in your home country, then in theory you should be able to get a visa at the border or on arrival at the airport. The easiest and surest way to get your visa is to apply for it in your home country. The official line is that if there is no Syrian representation in your country, you are entitled to be issued a visa on arrival at the border, airport or port. Conversely, there are multiple Syrian consulates in Australia but there have been plenty of emails from Aussie travellers who managed to get a visa at the Turkey-Syria border with no problems. It's a situation that seems largely governed by the whims of the individual immigration official. Because of this, our advice is get your visa in advance. If that's not possible in your own country then consider picking up the visa en route on your travels.
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2
Dialling Code: 963
Electricity: 220VAC ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Not surprisingly, Syrian holidays and festivals are mostly Islamic. The big one is Ramadan, a month (the date changes every year; it's the ninth month of the Islamic calendar) when everyone fasts between sunrise and sunset to conform to the fourth pillar of Islam or Sawm. If you're in Syria at this time, be sensitive to the fact that most of the people around you are very, very hungry. Ramadan ends with a huge feast, Eid al-Fitr, where everyone prays together, visits friends, gives presents and stuffs themselves. Eid al-Adha (also known as Eid al-Kebir), is the other big feast of the year and marks the time of the haj when Muslims should make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Nonreligious holidays Commemoration of the Evacuation (17 April), which celebrates the end of French occupation in Syria, and Martyrs' Day (6 May), celebrating all political martyrs who died for Syria.
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|Best time to Visit
Spring (March to May) is the best time to visit, as temperatures are mild and the winter rains have cleared the haze that clogs up the views during the rest of the year. Autumn (September to November) is the next-best choice. If you go in summer (June to August), don't be caught without a hat, sunscreen and water bottle, especially if you're going to Palmyra or the northeast. Winter can be downright unpleasant on the coast and in the mountains, when temperatures drop and the rains begin.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Syrian Pound
Syria is still a relatively inexpensive place to visit. It is possible (but you'd have to be pretty desperate) to get by on US$15 to US$20 a day, if you're prepared to sleep in very humble lodgings and live on felafel and juice. If you'd prefer to stay in a room with its own bathroom and eat in restaurants once a day, you'll need to budget about US$30 to US$40 a day.
Cash is king in Syria, but travellers' cheques, of course, are safer. There's no commission for changing cash, but you'll pay per transaction for cheques. You're unlikely to get a cash advance on your credit card, but plastic is increasingly accepted by bigger hotels and stores, and for buying air tickets or renting cars.
Tipping is the oil that keeps the Middle East running smoothly. Waiters in better restaurants expect a tip. People who open doors for you and people who carry your luggage will also expect a tip, but it's up to you to decide if it's worth it. Bargaining is integral when buying souvenirs - you won't have to try very hard to get the asking price halved.
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Damascus is Syria's largest city and capital. It grew up around the Barada River and Ghouta Oasis, which make life possible in an otherwise uninhabitable landscape. Damascus is another contender for the world's oldest continuously inhabited city - there was a settlement here as long ago as 5000 BC.
Today, its fascination lies in its mysterious oriental bazaars and the gracious, somewhat decayed, charm of some of Islam's greatest monuments. The centre of the city is Martyrs' Square (aka Saahat ash-Shohada) - most of the restaurants and hotels are close by.
Known as Halab by the locals, Aleppo is Syria's second largest city, and has been a trading centre since Roman times. With its fascinating covered souqs, citadel, museum and khans (caravanserais), it's a great place to spend a few days. The citadel dominates the city at the eastern end of the souqs.
The citadel's exterior has a moat, spanned by a bridge leading to the 12th-century fortified gate, while inside are mostly ruins apart from the restored throne. The only surviving buildings from the original citadel are a small 12th-century mosque and the 13th-century great mosque.
Krak des Chevaliers
Author Paul Theroux described Krak des Chevaliers as the epitome of the dream castle of childhood fantasies. TE Lawrence simply called it 'the finest castle in the world'. Believe them. This remarkably well-preserved Crusader castle looks almost exactly as it would have 800 years ago.
It guards the only major pass between Antakya in Turkey and Beirut in Lebanon; it was built and expanded between 1150 and 1250 and eventually housed a garrison of 2000. The castle held out against several attacks, but was lost to the Mamluk Sultan Beybar in 1271.
The castle has two parts: an outside wall with 13 towers and an inside wall and keep. The two are separated by a moat which was used to fill the baths and water the horses, but is now moodily full of stagnant water. Walk through the main entrance, an imposing gate in the 5m/16ft-thick wall, and past the towers that defended the castle, and you enter a courtyard. A corridor covered in delicate carvings leads to a large vaulted hall, where you can see an old oven, a well and some latrines. The chapel in the courtyard was converted to a mosque after Sultan Beybar took over, and you can still see its pulpit. The top floor of the Tower of the Daughter of the King is a cafe with great views. It's possible to stay in the castle area, or you can make an easy day trip from Tartus, Homs or Hama.
This is the 'if you're only going to see one thing in Syria, see this' sight. Unlike Petra, the Middle East's other great must-see, Palmyra is a relatively quiet little spot where you won't be peering between zoomy package tourists to view the ruins. Palmyra is in the middle of vast emptiness, 150km (93mi) from the Orontes River to the west and 200km (124mi) from the Euphrates River to the east.
Palmyra's ruins date from the 2nd century AD, although the city began its rise to glory under the Assyrians. For a while it was an important Greek outpost, and in 217 it was annexed by Rome and became a centre of unsurpassed wealth. They city's most famous character was Zenobia, who ruled Palmyra from 267, when her husband died under suspicious circumstances. Zenobia took on the Roman forces but was soundly beaten in 271, and Palmyra was burnt to the ground two years later. An earthquake finished the job in 1089.
There are plenty of ruins to ferret around in at Palmyra. The Temple of Bel is a massive square courtyard. Across the road is the Great Colonnade, an impressive column-lined street that was once the main artery of the town. The monumental arch that stands at one end of it has been restored. To the south of the colonnade, the theatre incorporates a market place and a banqueting hall.
On the hill overlooking Palmyra is Qala'at ibn Maan, a 17th-century Arab castle, built by the Lebanese warlord Fakhreddine (Fakhr ad-Din al Maan II). The museum has some excellent pieces from Palmyra and the labelling is in English. There are a few accomodation and eating options in the new town surrounding the ruins. You can get to Palmyra from the transport crossroad of Homs or from Damascus.
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