Reviving Tourism in Syria: Beach Life and My 15 Minutes of Palmyra Fame

Note: This is part 2 of 2 on my September 2019 trip around Syria. Read part 1 here.

Having followed my journey on the road to Damascus from Lebanon and then around Syria and into the soon-to-be dating Mecca of Aleppo, it is now time to explore the gems of Syria that lie outside its two most prominent metropolitan areas. But this remarkably preserved beauty comes after we first get a glimpse at the utter destruction of a city…

Devastated Homs and a steak mistake

Along with my travel partner and our Syrian guide Mukhles, I departed Aleppo. Heading in the opposite direction, we got back on the same road we took to get Aleppo and again drove past the Sabkhat al-Jabbul salt flats. Remember the place where ISIS dumped so many corpses they chased away all the salt miners?

We didn’t see any corpses…

After about four hours of driving, we arrived in the city of Homs. It took no time whatsoever for us to tell how much the Syrian civil war devastated the city.

The most destruction I saw in Syria

Homs, previously Syria’s third largest city, used to be a major industrial center. The city was under siege for three years at the start of the war, and as you can see, large sections of Homs still lie in ruins. As we drove through neighborhoods where every building was bombed out, we got to see the worst degree of devastation we would countrywide.

The result of years of siege

We drove to what is basically the center point of the devastation. There lies the famous mosque, Al-Nuri of Homs. Parts of the mosque were destroyed in the war, but it has since been rebuilt.

Al-Nuri of Homs

We decided to go for a walk through the devastated neighborhoods to take some pictures. We could tell very little of this part of Homs had been renovated. Almost everything was still completely destroyed.

Entire neighborhoods remain in this condition

It was only this way for about half the city. In the other half of Homs there was no fighting, and everything was still intact. Are you ready for the contrast?

About half of Homs was not under siege

Still in the same city but back in civilization, we first visited a cathedral called Saint Mary’s Church of the Holy Belt. This Orthodox cathedral got its name because it contains a piece of the belt that Mary supposedly wore after she gave birth to Jesus.

Saint Mary’s Church of the Holy Belt

There was a mass going on at the church, and as you can see, quite a lot of people were attending it. This was a good indicator of how Christianity still lives on in Syria, something many people might not expect. Christians in Syria enjoy all the same rights as Muslims and engage in every part of society.

We were tired from having driven so much, so after getting this look at Christian life in Syria, we located our hotel and took a nap.

When we woke up, we found a very nice looking restaurant called Julia Palace and went there for dinner. I ordered this beef steak below. In hindsight, I really wish I hadn’t.

The culprit

I ordered my steak medium rare, but what came out was closer to still alive than cooked. Medium rare should be pink, this was blue. It was covered in a very tasty sauce so I ate it anyway.

That was a decision I came to regret for the rest of my time in Syria and even the week after. I kept eating dinner and enjoyed it, not realizing I had poisoned my body with hardly cooked beef.

We returned to the hotel for the night. It was time to rest in preparation for the Palmyra venture. I was still unaware what I had done to myself.

The general and the journey to Palmyra

The next morning we got in the car and started the three hour drive to Palmyra. As soon as we started driving, I knew something was wrong.

I immediately started feeling nauseous, but did my best to ignore it. My traveling partner and I would soon find out just how lucky we were to be visiting these ancient ruins, and I wasn’t going to let that “steak” I ate spoil this special opportunity.

The road to Palmyra

Our guide Mukhles informed us that we would be picking up a man who had arranged our trip to see the ancient city. At the time we went, it was still rare for tourists to visit Palmyra.

It so happened this man was a general in the Syrian secret service. We would be picking him up from a military barracks somewhat on the way to Palmyra.

This part of the journey wasn’t so easy. And it had nothing to do with military checkpoints or loose ISIS insurgents.

As great of a guide as Mukhles was, there was one oddity about him. He didn’t ever want to use Google maps or any sort of navigation app.

Mukhles handled navigation the old fashioned way, though without a map. He would just ask people around us where to go. Usually these people didn’t really know either so they would send us in the wrong direction. 

Eventually, we picked up the general outside of his barracks and continued on the road to Palmyra. The presence of this general allowed us to pass through every checkpoint without having to stop at all. It was even more of a luxury than having a martyr card. And it saved us quite a bit of time since there were checkpoints about every 10km. 

One of the only things worse than driving around through the desert with food poisoning is sitting at a checkpoint waiting to be allowed to drive through the desert with food poisoning. Come to think of it, this Syria trip as a whole would have been a bit hellish if we didn’t have the general or the martyr card.

The general was a very nice guy. He didn’t speak much English, but Mukhles translated, so we joked around and talked about soccer. Occasionally he would point out where big battles had been fought between the Syrian army and ISIS. Once in awhile we would see some rotting tanks and equipment along the side of the road. But other than that, there wasn’t much to see except the desert.

The Pearl of the Desert

Palmyra, the Pearl of the Desert

When we arrived in Palmyra, we were greeted by a welcoming party the general had arranged.

Our welcoming party included a police chief and a cameraman from a Syrian propaganda channel. Apparently my friend and I were the first western tourists, apart from UN officials and people like that, who were given a permit to visit Palmyra after it had been reclaimed by the Syrian army. That’s why the general called the TV channel to have them film us as we explored the ancient ruins. And of course we gave an interview afterwards. 😊

The first thing we visited in Palymyra was an old hotel in town which had been completely destroyed. This hotel had belonged to a company of Mukhles. So when he saw it for the first time in such a bad condition he was devastated.

After the hotel we went to see the national museum of Palmyra.

The museum. You can see one of the statues ISIS decapitated on the right.

This building was still intact, but everything inside had been destroyed by ISIS. All the statues and sculptures were decapitated or damaged in some way that would make them difficult to repair.

Fortunately, before ISIS took control of Palmyra much of what was inside the museum was transported to Damascus for safe keeping. 

Everything was knocked over or broken somehow..

The general told us a sculpture from the museum had recently been confiscated at the Turkish border. The sculpture is worth 12 million euros. So this is an example of how ISIS funds its terrorism.

Palmyra is best known for its very extensive collection of ancient ruins. We were very excited to step out of the museum and explore the ancient city.

Ionic, Doric or Corinthian?

But we were also a little bit scared to go there because apparently ISIS had left landmines all over the ruins. Our guide and the police chief assured us they were all gone, but you never know so we were quite careful moving around the rubble as the cameraman from the propaganda station filmed us.

The ruins were very impressive and it was easy to tell how Palmyra earned its nickname “the pearl of the desert.” Unfortunately, much of what wasn’t already in disrepair was destroyed by ISIS.

No landmines yet

It really was sad to contemplate how these columns and temples lasted thousands of years and ISIS was able to blast them away in a few moments.

For example there was a temple there called the Temple of Bel. It was built in 32 AD to honor the Babylonian sun god. The Temple of Bel was considered the best preserved temple at Palmyra until ISIS came in 2015. Now there is only one big column remaining. You can see pictures online of the temple from just 10 years ago. It was so well preserved and now there is almost nothing except a big pile of rubble and the structure you can see behind me in this selfie.

What remains of the Temple of Bel

We continued to walk around the ruins of the ancient city with our tour guide explaining a bit of history to us as we explored. Palmyra was at one point a big part of the Roman Empire. It was a stopping point for caravans on the silk road. Because of this, Palmyra became a wealthy oasis in the desert, and that is why there are so many temples and ruins.

There is a famous figure in Syrian legend called Zenobia who was the queen of Palmyra in 267 AD after her husband was assassinated. She is an important figure to Syrians because she conquered much of the Roman East and turned Palmyra into a powerful empire. She was well educated and preached tolerance for her subjects and religious minorities and made the Palmyrene empire a very stable place during her reign. Eventually the Romans conquered it back and exiled Zenobia to Rome.

Today she is still loved by Syrians.

After we explored all of the ancient city, it was time to be interviewed by the reporter from the Syrian propaganda channel. My friend and I were asked questions like what we liked most about Syria and what we thought about the war going on and ISIS having destroyed everything.

The interviewer asked all of the questions in Arabic. We answered in German and Mukhles translated back and forth. I have yet to see the published version, but they promised to send me the link when they publish it. So keep an eye out for my Syrian TV interview floating around the internet. 😉

“What do you think about ISIS?”

After the interview I posed for a photo with the local police chief, the general and Mukhles.

Memorable times – myself, Mukhles, the general and the police chief

It was then time to depart Palmyra. Driving out we stopped back at the barracks to drop off the general. This made for some fun.

When we picked him up he was waiting for us outside the entry gate. But this time we actually went into the secret service barracks. This is where high level military personnel convene. It was quite interesting to get a look inside.

From the desert to the sea

After dropping off the general, we drove all the way to the seaside town of Tartus.

It was a big change in scenery to go from the deserts of Palmyra to the seaside, which is very green and lush with high mountains everywhere. Tartus is a small town, but has a high population of around half a million because many Syrians fled there when the war began. It has remained untouched by the war, partly because there is a small Russian presence due to a naval base. This is actually the last Russian naval base outside of the former Soviet Union. 

Not a mirage!

It’s worth noting that, like Assad, Putin is beloved in Syria. Most Syrians view Putin as a hero for sending the Russian military to fight in the war on the side of the Syrian government. Like in South Ossetia, in Syria you can see “Thanks Russia.”

Syrian Russophilia

Aside from having the Russian Navy base, the Tartus area has the only habitable island in Syria. 3km off the coast of Tartus lies Arwad Island and the town of Arwad, basically a fishing village.

We didn’t venture over there, but we got to see a bit of how Syrians spend their vacation time. Tartus is a popular spot for the locals to go on holiday. We stayed at a nice place right on the beach called the Blue Bay resort. The resort had a big infinity pool and its own beach. 

Beautiful. Hope to be back some day.

After all the time in the desert it was nice to go for a swim and watch the Syrian families enjoy their vacations. It was another good reminder that while a lot of the western world thinks of Syria as a big war-torn desert, life in part of the country goes on the same as it does at any seaside resort town in the world.

We rested a bit before heading out to the main promenade in town to enjoy the sunset and see the main part of the city. We found a place to eat dinner, enjoyed a nice meal of meze and people watched.

Again I must mention how incredibly beautiful Syrian women are. The next vacation I have I think I will spend in Tartus, or somewhere else on the Syrian coast. 

Eating dinner on the promenade reminded me of another favorite vacation destination of mine — a place renowned for beautiful women… Odessa, Ukraine. In Tartus, kind of like in Odessa, there were lots of people out in the streets, drinking, partying and having a great time. Unfortunately, I was still a bit sick from the food poisoning and we were all tired from the long day so we went back to the hotel instead of joining the party. 

But had I known that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep because the hotel had a disco with loud music until 4 am, I probably would’ve stayed out.

Exploring the Syrian coast

The coastal region of Syria is very wet and lush.

The next morning my friend wanted to chill at the beach. With a nice resort full of beautiful Syrian women who could blame him?

But I wanted to see as much of the coast as I could so Mukhles and I went to visit the city of Latakia by ourselves. Before the war Latakia had a population of about 500,000, but due to a refugee influx it now has the second biggest population in Syria with almost 2 million people. Only Damascus is larger, and in vacation season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Latakia surpasses the Syrian capital.

Latakia

While we were in Latakia there was a huge rain storm. I got completely soaked because the window on Mukhles’ car was broken.

But it was worth it. Because of the storm I got to see my first ever water tornado or “water spout.” It was about 5km off the coast.

The real flying fish

It wasn’t as big as the tornadoes in the US in places like Oklahoma, but you could see fish being thrown into the air from it and you could imagine how much water was being moved.

Soaking wet and delayed due to the crazy weather, we had to wait half an hour to continue north to our next destination, the ancient town of Ugarit. I could deal with the wait. Whether it’s overcoming food poisoning or getting drenched by a water tornado, sometimes you need to make sacrifices to do and see what you want.

Ugarit

Ugarit is considered one of the oldest towns in the world. It is famous because the Ugaritic alphabet is considered the first alphabet ever developed. I bought a little souvenir stone with the alphabet carved into it similar to the one in the top left of the picture below. 

The top row is considered the “father of all alphabets”

We walked around the ruins, which were similar to what we saw in Palmyra but not quite as impressive. And this time we did not have to worry about landmines, which also took away some of the thrill.

We didn’t spend too much time in Ugarit before heading back to Tartus to grab my friend and our bags. Then it was off to more ancient coastal ruins.

Goodbye Tartus

We headed south to the ancient town of Amrit. The remains in Amrit include an old water temple, as well as a pre-olympic stadium and two ancient spires. We learned the spires were burial towers with graveyards underneath.

The burial spires of Amrit

After Amrit we drove inland to a mountain village called Al-Mishtaya in what is known as the Valley of the Christians.

A Christian church in Al-Mishtaya

Almost 1 million Christians live in this valley, which accounts for most of the Christian population in Syria. They are scattered around in about 30 different villages where the restaurants all serve pork and alcohol and it is very rare to see a head scarf, let alone a burqa, in this area.

When we got to our hotel we discovered that we had a very nice view of Krak des Chevaliers, a Christian castle which is the main sight we came to see in the area.

View from our hotel

It was getting late so we searched for a restaurant and found one with a nice view of the castle. We enjoyed our dinner and some alcohol while admiring the castle from our table.

There was quite a big party going on in the streets, but my food poisoning was still giving me troubles. I spent the night in my room dealing with the mess in my stomach.

But I rose the next morning with a sense of excitement. It was time to see Krak des Chevaliers, which is considered one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world.

You can see how easy it would be to defend.

The castle was built by the Kurds in the 11th century. It later became an important base for various groups of crusaders on their march to Jerusalem.

In recent times it was temporarily conquered by radical Islamists from Lebanon who came to Syria to join ISIS and occupy the castle. They tortured and killed everyone who lived there and took 12 Christian factory workers hostage and demanded a ransom.

The owner of the factory refused to pay the ransom because he knew, if he did, the jihadists would keep kidnapping more people for ransom. Eventually the wives of the ISIS leaders occupying the castle came to visit their husbands. Some local Christians then kidnapped them and held them hostage in retaliation for the kidnapping of the factory workers. ISIS beheaded one of their hostages so the Christians crucified one of the wives.

Eventually the Syrian army had to get involved with helicopters because the castle is situated in such a strategic position that ISIS could have occupied it for a long time. Assad’s troops dropped puppets from their helicopters which the ISIS fighters thought were real and attacked. Meanwhile, the Syrian special forces snuck into the castle and killed the ISIS fighters.

Luckily this conflict didn’t affect the castle too much. It is still in very good condition despite having a little bit of damage from old age. 

Inside the castle

The castle is so well situated that is has never really been conquered. During the Crusades, a small garrison of about 2,000 soldiers could defend the castle against almost any attack. This area was the only one during the Crusades to constantly remain under Christian control.

We were able to explore the entire castle.  Krak des Chevaliers has a beautiful view of the valley below. From the tallest tower you can easily understand why it was such an easy castle to defend. I found it quite astonishing to see how people lived at this amazing location.

Castle selfie from the highest tower

A view of the Valley of Christians from Krak des Chevaliers

Back to Lebanon

Krak des Chevaliers was the final attraction of our Syria trip. From the castle we headed to the Lebanese border.

Mukhles wanted to take the inland passage which he was familiar with, but I wanted to take the coastal route to see more of the Mediterranean. Eventually I conceded to Mukhles.

But as soon as we got to the inland Lebanese border crossing we were informed that the customs officials were having trouble with their computers. Because of this we ended up having to go to the coastal crossing anyway.

Since the inland border crossing was closed, the line was very long. It took us nearly five hours to get into Lebanon after arriving at the border.

It was quite hot and I was still dealing with the food poisoning. Waiting in the car for so long was very uncomfortable.

After finally making it into Lebanon we headed to the coastal city of Byblos.

Beautiful Byblos, Lebanon

My friend and I spent a couple more days in Byblos exploring the town and enjoying the wonderful cuisine. Byblos is another one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. And it has a crusader castle of its own.

The Byblos citadel, another crusader castle with another beautiful view

A Lebanese lunch

Reflections on Syria

We said goodbye to Mukhles shortly after arriving in Bbylos. Before heading our separate ways, we enjoyed a very nice dinner during which Mukhles told us about all the beautiful parts of Syria we had to skip because of the war. A tour of Syria should take three weeks, but because many areas remain off limits, the current tours only require one week.

I am very keen on visiting both Syria and Mukhles again. I definitely want to come back to see the Idlib region and the Euphrates River, among other important sights.

Despite the food poisoning and the lack of access to certain regions of the country, my Syria trip was a huge success. Being the first to visit the reopened ruins of Palmyra will be a lasting memory for me. Also, uncovering the imbalanced sexual marketplace that dating coaches cashed in on will go down as an achievement of mine. 😉

But more so than getting on TV and scouting business and dating opportunities, this trip was about showing you the reader and the world at large that the beautiful, historic country of Syria is safe enough to visit.

Yeah, I missed a bunch of spots. But I’ll be back. So expect to see me vacationing on a beach in Tartus, sipping a polo and enjoying the Mediterranean sunset. Just rather than eating the raw steak, I’ll order chicken instead. 😉

Goodbye for now