Saturday, January 14, 2006

Travel tips

We’re back in London now. Second time lucky. When we got to the airport on Monday, Just before the start of the four day Eid Al-Adha public holiday, we checked in but were stopped at immigrations for not having an entry visa stamp. We explained that the passports were newly issued, showed them the police and British Embassy reports but still they wouldn’t let us board the plane. Before leaving, we had to get a stamp from the head of immigration back in Damascus. With it being the holiday season, it was a further two days before we could finally leave. Usually, I wouldn’t mind exploring for longer, but we spent most of that fortnight in offices and I was desperately worried about how far behind I would be with work when I got back.

Anyway, it’s all over now. I’d like to share some of the lessons we’ve learnt from the trip. Most of it is common sense, but pretty easy to overlook:
  1. Always keep photocopies of all your important travel documents (passport, flight ticket, etc.). This saved us even more hassle. Another good tip that a friend gave me is to scan your documents and email them to yourself. That way you can easily send them on or make extra copies as required.
  2. Be contactable. Try and keep a local mobile phone number, the phone number of the place you’re staying as well as that of a friend. Also, note down the contact details of your national embassy in the country you are visiting.
  3. In case of emergency, have some back home who can transfer money to you or help you in any other way.
  4. Even if you’re travelling in a group and one person is carrying most of the money, give each person at least enough cash to get back to where you’re staying.
  5. If you’re planning on taking travellers’ cheques with you, make sure that wherever you’re heading they can be easily replaced in case they are lost/stolen (it’s best to ask the company issuing the TCs directly). Write down the cheque numbers and keep this paper in a safe place.
  6. Plan a rough itinerary, so you at least have an idea of where you can stay and what to visit in each of the places you’re going to visit. It’s easy to do this with the help of a guidebook.
  7. Whilst you’re looking in the guidebook, check the climate and pack appropriately. I didn’t and froze in Damascus.
  8. If you’re a student, take an ISIC card with you.
  9. Take some basic meds with you, just in case you fall ill (diarrhoeal meds, throat lozenges, anti-histamines and anything else appropriate to your destination).
  10. Don’t underestimate the kindness and helpfulness of strangers. If you’re not dealing with someone whose livelihood depends on tourism or you’re not in a solely touristic city, it’s usually safe to trust people. And if you’re ever lost, ask a local for help!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Omayyad Masjid

Omayyad Masjid. Incredible.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Aleppo's Citadel

The massive and imposing Citadel dominates Aleppo, rising 50m above street (and souk) level. Surrounded by a moat and steep sided (48 degree) sides, it was almost inconquerable, and the extensive renovations being carried out makes the inside similarly impressive. In fact, I think it's the most awe-inspiring building I've seen here so far.

A street level view of the Citadel. Fancy breeching that.

The monumental gateway

The amphitheatre (it's modern, built in the 1970s)

The roof of the incredible throne room

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Aleppo in pictures

We went on a walking tour through Aleppo today. Aleppo is Syria's second largest city, and with the capital vies for the statues of the oldest continually habited city in the world. It's not as cosmopolitan as Damascus, but remains a vibrant, thriving city that's expanding rapidly; I love it!

National Museum entrance

Old town souk

New friends

Colourful lighting

Turkish bath

St Simeon (Qalat Samaan)

Transcribed from our guide book (Footprint: Syria and Lebanon Handbook):
“The beautiful fifth-century church of St Simeon represents the largest and most important surviving Christian monument of the early Byzantine period…

"St Simeon Stylites was born in 386AD, the son of a Cilician farmer… In 412 he joined the recently established monastic community of Deir Samaan… Increasingly drawn to a life of asceticism, he gained permission to withdraw from the main community and lead a life of solitude and meditation on the hill where the Church of St Simeon now stands. He soon gained a reputation for his extreme piety and began to attract large numbers of pilgrims from far and wide. Wishing to maintain his detachment in the face of so much attention, he had a 3m tall pillar constructed with a platform on top. From then onwards, until his death forty-two years later, he lived on top of a pillar, or in fact a series of pillars, each taller than the one before, culminating in one between 17-20m high… From his vantage point he preached to the pilgrims who continued to arrive in ever increasing numbers, gave advice on their problems and mediated disputes. According to one of his contemporaries, Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus, his fame was such that pilgrims came from as far away as France, England, Spain and Italy.

"[After his death] work began almost immediately on the Church of St Simeon, which was built around his famous pillar. [The pillar itself has now been] reduced to a worn and insubstantial lump of stone by the countless pilgrims who over the centuries have chipped away pieces to take home as holy relics."

Ain Dara

Ain Dara is famous for a neo-Hittite temple dating from the tenth-ninth century BC. It is dedicated to Ishtar, a Semitic fertility goddess of Babylonian/Assyrian origin. Like the other places we've visited over the past few days it's fairly out of the way and we didn't meet any other tourists there. This gives it a sense of grandeur but also a feeling of being forgotten, which is a pity given the quality and beauty of so much of what we've seen.


Hama is the fourth largest city in Syria, and is famed for it’s massive and unique norias (waterwheels). There are seventeen dotted along the Orontes River, the largest of which has a diameter of 20m. As they rotate they make this wonderful groaning sound that can be heard all along the pleasant riverbank.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Syrgilla (Serjilla)

The ruins of the dead city of Syrgilla.


The Roman ruins at Apamea. After a series of earthquakes toppled the columns, there have been extensive restorative archaeology project. The results are inspiring.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Krak des Chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers (Qalat al-Husn) has a history that stretches back almost one thousand years. It was originally the site of a Kurdish Castle, however the current remains date back to the time of it's Crusader occupation from 1144-1271. According to our guidebook (Footprint: Syria and Lebanon Handbook) it's "the best preserved and most impressive of the Crusader castles anywhere in the Middle East". The scale and complexity of the fortifications are astounding and it's perfectly preserved, which led TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) to describe it as "the finest castle in the world...quite marvellous".

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Bloudan and Zabadani

Happy new year

A happy new year to friends old and new. I hope you had a great night celebrating, and may 2006 exceed all your expectations.

Here New Year's Day is a public holiday, but from what I gather in all other respects it will be just like any other day off. Since the embassies will be closed, however, we're taking the opportunity to visit Bloudan and Zabadani, hill resorts to the North-West of the capital. They are known more as Springtime tourist destinations, so we'll mainly just be sharing the towns with some of Damascus' wealthier inhabitants who have second homes there.

All the best,