Guest Author - Rachel Schaus
Syria, the ancient land filled with stunning sites, preserved ruins, and amazingly hospital people is a secret jewel for visitors to the Middle East. Pour yourself a cup of strong coffee while getting a five-minute glimpse of Syrian culture.
In the West, it is easy to think, based on sensational media reports, that Syria is a land of hate and repression. However, Syrians are extremely friendly and hospitable to visitors. It's amazing what a simple, "Salam-alekum" (Hello) and a smile will do to break down any possible suspicion!
Walking through Souq- al-Hamidiyya in Damascus, it's quite common to be invited in for tea and a visit. Being the first customer in a shop may result in a phenomenal deal on a beautiful rug or trinket, as it is considered a good omen for the day if the first customer who walks in purchases something.
Don't be surprised by how often Syrians want to know about the family of the visitor - family, friends, and hospitality play a major role in Syrian culture lived out.
If planning a trip to Syria, purchasing a guidebook such as Lonely Planet Syria is a wise investment for preparation. According to Lonely Planet, a typical two-week journey will include traveling to Damascus for a few days, day trips from Damascus to Maalula, the Seidnayya Convent, the Mar Musa Monastery, and Basra. Visitors will want to travel to Aleppo, Qala'at Samaan, the Dead Cities of Jerada, Ruweiha, Serjilla, and Al-Bara, and Apamea for its Roman ruins. Visiting Lattakia by the sea for a few days of rest will be necessary, before moving on to Tartus, Hama, Qar ibn Wardan and the beehive villages, Homs, Qala'at al-Hosn, and finally Palmyra before returning to Damascus.
Perhaps the most famous site in Syria is Damascus, (ancient name: Dimashq) a city considered to be one of the most ancient continuously inhabited city in the world. Mark Twain's famous quote about Damascus poetically describes this: "...no recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive news of it. Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus...She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies" (Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869).
Biblically, places and peoples of Syria include Antioch and Damascus, two cities mentioned, and the Hittite and Phoenicians people find their roots in this land. However, the majority of Syrians became Muslim when Muslim armies invaded not long after 638 AD.
Syria is often called a "modern hereditary" Republic, with Bashar al-Assad retaining the presidency after his father's 30-year iron-fisted rule. Interestingly, the Alawites and Druze, two offshoots of Shiite Islam are represented in Syria, with President Assad being an Alawite. However, Sunni Muslims still hold the majority Islamic faith, with a small percentage also including Christians, Marionites (Catholic), as well as Greek, Syrian, and Armenian Eastern Orthodox groups also practicing.
Syrians are wonderfully hospitable people who would love to be friends with Westerners and see the world's view of them changed for the better. Have you had a positive travel experience in Syria? Or do you have a culture insight or tip? Write the author, and perhaps your comments may be included here.