Country: Syria
Currency: Pound (SYR)
Peak Season: June-July
Shoulder Season: May, August, December
Median Temperature: 17.60 C / 63.68 F
Main Languages: Arabic, English
Primary Modes of Transportation: Bus, rail, taxi, car rental
Recommended Duration of Stay: 4 days
Recommended Pocket Money: $70.00/day
Tourist Passes: n/a
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Anyone with ample theological knowledge may associate Damascus with St. Paul’s conversion and the epic wars between the Richard’s crusaders and Saladin’s army. Damascus has been always been vied and envied for its effective trade routes that spread even to the far reaches of China. Nearly all feared conquerors—Pompey, Alexander, Ottomans included—wanted to seize Damascus for their own good; expert artisans at that time gained notoriety because of Damascus steel, the preferred metal for bloody combat. And perhaps—after three millennia of unending wars and such—Damascenes finally came to a unanimous decision to disavow combat to focus on improving the economy of their homeland.

Today, Damascus (and the entirety of Syria) maintains a reputation of being one of the safest places for work and travel in the Middle East, despite being flanked by volatile countries like Lebanon, Israel and Iraq. The careful preservation of their religious sites is applauded by historians (timeless, as they say). The vestiges of the long-gone Byzantine and Roman occupations have not yet turned to rubble, even as Turkish architecture flourishes in the old city. The Old City is one that you’ll never see anywhere else; in contrast with the conditions of the historic quarters of Cairo, Athens, and even Rome—Damascus wins by a long mile. That, and the city’s selection of (haggle-bound) handicraft and harvest, all make Damascus a worthy place to visit. And you wouldn’t even have to worry about the locals—Western influence has done a great deal in making them open-minded to idiosyncrasies that baffle most Middle Easterners.

Packing List

  • Local currency and credit cards—both the US dollar and Euro are rarely honored in most shops; bring a duffel bag or two for your purchases and always ready some travel documents to satisfy interrogators
  • Casual, conservative clothing, so that you don’t get frowned upon and to be granted entry into religious sites (mosques, Orthodox churches); women are advise to wear headscarves to maintain discreetness
  • A decent camera, plenty of film and batteries; bring a pocket-size camera instead of an SLR and turn off flash, so people don’t get bothered—Syrians (especially women and elders) highly value their privacy
  • A good selection of reading materials to familiarize yourself with local customs and traditions, not only Damascus, but in Syria and outlying countries as well; knowledge of public decorum is invaluable
  • Essential medication and toiletries, particularly anti-diarrheic pills for the Syrian cuisine and insect repellants if staying in budget accommodations; bring zip-lock bags to keep food fresh and ready to eat

Things to Do

  • Visiting the Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world; interestingly, it houses the relics (including the head) of John the Baptist, as well as the tomb of the conqueror, Saladin
  • Exploring the sturdy Citadel of Damascus, resonating wars between Christians and Muslims on control over the city; the citadel was built in the early 11th century and has withstood several regimes
  • Purchasing Damascus cutlery, handicraft, textiles and almost everything you can imagine at Souq al-Hamidiyyeh; this Ottoman-era souq is lovelier to visit at night, although some parts of it have no roofing
  • Appreciating Damascene arts and crafts at the National Museum, whose displays date back to the Prehistoric Era; earliest settlements date back to 9000 BC, due to early inhabitation in the Middle East
  • Perusing the 128-hectare Old City, evoking its being a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Roman and Byzantine sites, including the Chapel of St. Paul and Saint George's Orthodox Church, are found here

DON'T

  • Leave important documents in the hotel room—always have a few ID’s ready in case you get randomly interrogated; tread lightly or officers might get the wrong idea that you’re an illegal immigrant
  • Talk about religion, politics, society or topics that will raise eyebrows—remember that you’re in Muslim territory; pointing at people, taking unpermitted photos, and talking casually to elders is forbidden
  • Expect stores, offices and other establishments to be open on Friday—the work week is from Saturday to Thursday; although in recent years, more stores prefer to be opened on Friday and closed on Sunday
  • Dress too “Western,” especially if you are woman—it is advisable to wear sleeved apparel (turtlenecks and jackets) to go with corduroy or denim jeans; when in buses, sit as close to the driver as possible
  • Deal with shady individuals—like most Arab countries, mere possession of illegal drugs can get one in death row; airports are the most common places for this kind of trade, so don’t stay there for too long