Reviving Tourism In Syria: Out On The Town In Damascus And Aleppo

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

At last a country you have all been waiting for.

For a while now, I’ve been well on my to visiting every country in the world, so it was only a matter of time before I stepped foot in Syria. An opportunity arose this summer and I grabbed it.

Most travelers wait for wars to end before visiting countries where they are occuring. I visited Somalia earlier this year and was hit by a projectile. But I survived. So I wasn’t going to wait until the Syrian war completely ends before visiting this beautiful and historic country.

Still I wasn’t going to just travel around Syria on my own. So I found a tour operator and a guide and managed to talk one friend into going with me – kind of like what I did when I went to Venezuela.

But as you’ll see in this post, I could have traveled solo through much of Syria. My trip might show others that it is possible, and I think tourism in Syria will soon take off.

It’s even safe for them to walk around at night. And do you notice their head scarves? 😉😉

And as you will also see, I just may have stumbled upon the next frontier for men’s dating coaches…

The genesis of my Syria trip

I had long wanted to go to Syria. It wasn’t just a matter of thrillseeking, though admittedly that played a part in it. Syria has a rich history and many ancient ruins to go along with beautiful sights.

In recent years Syria has of course been known for the war. I wanted to see for myself what the situation in the country is like now.

Will 2019 Syria look like this?

My Syria trip was a bit of a spontaneous one. As of early summer, I had an open window of 10 days in my September schedule. I needed to be somewhere close to Europe. So I thought this could be the time I would visit not just Syria, but also Lebanon – two countries I really wanted to see.

I also figured that if the Syria part fell through I could spend the entire time in Lebanon. So I bookended my trip to Syria with stays before and after in Lebanon.

While searching for a tour, a friend and fellow traveler whom I met in Nauru recommended me a Syrian tour organizer. The organizer had some bad reviews online and I was warned not to use him. But I decided to go with him anyway. It was a gamble, and it ultimately paid off. You can reach Basel at +1 650 3509502 on Whatsapp if you like to go as well (ask for Mukhles as guide).

The cost of the tour was about $3,500, which is a bit pricey. So I asked friends if they would like to join me. Eventually one German friend of mine did, and we were on our way to the Middle East.

Lebanon

We met in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.

Beirut

My friend and I met up with a Lebanese guide and set out to explore the city. We had a full day to see Beirut before continuing on to Syria.

We visited the old city center, then walked along the seaside promenade to see the famous Pigeon Rocks in the sea. According to Greek mythology, the Pigeon Rocks were part of a sea monster that the hero Perseus turned to stone using Medusa’s head.

The Pigeon Rocks

We sat down at a restaurant next to the Pigeon Rocks and enjoyed a traditional Lebanese meal. Lebanese cuisine is very typical Middle Eastern food. Lots of lamb and seafood, skewered meats and vegetables, hummus and of course the local liquor of choice, arak.

Afterward we headed back through the old town, walking along the nice Al Hamra Street. We returned to our hotel, the Saifi Suites, and rested. I got a very nice pre-Syria massage.

For dinner we found a perfect steakhouse called Meats and Bread. You could tell it was a quality steakhouse because the option to order a steak well done simply said “order chicken” instead.

Order chicken instead

After devouring red meat, we had a drink at a whisky bar. Just so you know, Lebanon is a country with an Arab face, not identity — or so I think it was said in the former Lebanese constitution. 

The literal road to Damascus

At 6 am the next morning, we were picked up by a man driving a nice car — something resembling a plain white pimpmobile. This driver didn’t speak much English, and he wasn’t going to be our guide. But it was his duty to bring us to Syria.

Our ride to Syria

From Beirut, we drove up a mountain road along the coast and then down through the Beqaa Valley, a fertile area in eastern Lebanon that is the country’s most important farming region. The Beqaa Valley has long been known for the cultivation and production of marijuana and hashish. Opium poppies are also grown, and this valley has a drug trade tradition dating back to the Roman Empire.

The Beqaa Valley

Along the way to the Syrian border we took a one hour detour so we could visit the ancient city of Baalbek. Baalbek is home to two of the largest and best-preserved Roman temples in the world. The two temples are the Temple of Bacchus and the Temple of Jupiter. Unfortunately, we arrived too early to enter the temple complex and we didn’t want to wait. We snapped photos from the outside before getting back on the road to Damascus. Even from the outside, Baalbek was impressive.

The Temple of Jupiter

After the visiting these ancient treasures, we headed for the main Lebanese border crossing along the road to Damascus. Things moved very quickly on the Lebanese side of the border. It took about 10 seconds to get our passports stamped.

Once you exit Lebanon, you drive 4 or 5 kilometers through a valley before hitting the Syrian side. On the Syrian side, we had to pay $70 for our visa.

Syrian immigration was also very quick. Within a few minutes, we were inside Syria and on our way.

In Syria

On the road to Damascus inside Syria we did encounter dozens of checkpoints. But each one was quick and only took 5 or 10 seconds.

The roads were in surprisingly good condition. We got to Damascus quickly. But in Damascus the traffic was horrible. It took us a long time to get to our hotel.

Welcome to Damascus

After finally making it to the hotel we met our Syrian guide Mukhles. Before the trip, Mukhles told us he spoke a little German. But he said his German was very bad and he stuck to speaking in English.

The Damascus skyline from our hotel

Our German-speaking, Catholic Syrian guide & why Syrians don’t return from Germany

Upon meeting Mukhles, to our surprise, he actually spoke German pretty fluently — almost like a native. In turned out he had spent six years in Germany studying engineering. He claimed he forgot most of his German, but for the rest of the trip we almost exclusively spoke in German.

Mukhles has a Syrian wife and three kids, as well as an art history degree he got in Syria. Basically he was a perfect guide for us.

A little bit more about Mukhles and his family: one of his three kids was killed in the war. The other two immigrated to Switzerland. They aren’t really refugees, though. Both are married to Swiss women and have regular jobs in Switzerland. Neither can return to Syria because of Syria’s conscription law.

This conscription law requires men between the ages of 18 and 42 to serve in the military. As neither of his living sons served in the military, they would be facing forcible conscription or imprisonment if they returned. Plus they might have to pay $10,000 fines.

Mukhles is part of the Christian minority in Syria, which a century ago might have made up 30% of the country. Before the current war, Christians still accounted 10% or more of the country. Now Christians might make up as little as 5% of the population in Syria. And Catholics just make up a small fraction of the Syrian Christian population.

Not only did Mukhles lose a son in the war, he also had some close calls. During our trip, Mukhles was driving us around in car that had bullet holes. That was a sign of how close he was living to the fighting. When the Syrian rebels occupied Damascus from the south, his house was only 200 meters from the front line.

As you can see here, some parts of Damascus were completely destroyed. The Syrian army had to fight bloody battles with the Al-Nusra Front and other rebels/jihadists who advanced deep into Damascus. 

Destroyed Damascus

But the Syrian army prevailed. And even though some parts of the city still look like this, Mukhles was proud to show us Damascus, as well as of course more beautiful parts of his home country.

Exploring Damascus

After settling into the hotel, we explored the old quarter of Damascus. We started with a visit to the renowned Tekkiye Mosque. It is considered the finest example of Ottoman architecture in the city, and maybe because of this, the mosque complex is where the very last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet VI, is buried.

The Tekkiye Mosque

We continued exploring the old quarter, admiring the many ancient buildings in what is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

An old mosque

Damascus has many Arab marketplaces, which are known as souqs. We visited a few of them, one of which was a bustling souq we passed through on the way to the famous Umayyad Mosque. Inside the souq we gazed at spices and enjoyed some pomegranate juice.

Walking through the souq

The Umayyad Mosque is one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world. It is a converted church that previously was a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist.

Legend has it that John the Baptist’s head was buried at the site of what now is the mosque. The Umayyad Mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return to Earth.

The great Umayyad Mosque

And as if that isn’t enough, the mausoleum of Saladin, the first sultan of Syria, can be found at the Umayyad Mosque as well. Saladin was the leader of the anti-Crusader fight in the Middle East. In the mausoleum you can find a second coffin that was a gift from a fan of his — German emperor Wilhelm II.

A gift from a fan

We were also lucky to see a new addition to the set of cultural treasures in Damascus. This lion statue is 2,000 years old. It was one of the ancient artifacts targeted by ISIS in Palmyra.

ISIS dodger

ISIS severely damaged the lion but did not destroy it. The 2,000-year-old statue was rescued and recently restored and relocated to Damascus.

To the victor goes the spoils? More of him to come…

The biblical Road to Damascus

After enjoying a nice lamb kebab lunch, we finally drove to the “Road to Damascus.”

If you don’t know the story, this is where in the New Testament Paul the Apostle’s conversion occurred. A man called Saul of Tarsus was blinded by Jesus for persecuting Christians. Jesus later restored his eyesight through a miracle so Saul converted to Christianity and changed his name to Paul the Apostle.

From the biblical road to Damascus we returned to our hotel in modern Damascus to rest for a few hours. Then we headed back out on the road and into the old town.

A few hours prior, we left the old quarter with the impression that nowadays it’s not a place with much action. This changed when we returned at night.

The old quarter of Damascus was packed with people and lots of bars were open. It was a big party with people sitting in the open air smoking shisha and drinking big cocktails and bottles of whisky and vodka. Everything was available in plentiful amounts. I went for a refreshing corona with lime. 😊

Syrian evenings 

We really enjoyed the street scene in the old quarter. I was particularly surprised to see there were many beautiful girls in Damascus. And it was easy to spot them. I couldn’t help but comment that there were many fewer hijabs and headscarves in Damascus than in Frankfurt. 😉

The next day we would have a long drive from Damascus to Aleppo, so we decided not to stay out all night. Pleansantly surprised by the Damascus bar scene, we went back to the hotel and got some sleep.

Damascus made for a very nice first impression of Syria — famous mosques, biblical sites, a bit too much traffic and attractive women.

The indirect road to Aleppo

The drive from Damascus to Aleppo is about 362 kilometers and unfortunately there are checkpoints every 3-4 minutes. We did not have much trouble with the checkpoints, though, because our guide Mukhles had something like a “martyr card,” which he got because he lost a son in the war. The martyr card gives you some special privilege when dealing with soldiers in Syria.

When driving with a martyr card, you spend less time at checkpoints and more time enjoying scenery like this.

The road to Aleppo led us to the city of Homs. We drove right through without stopping because we would be visiting Homs, a city hit hard in the war, later in the tour. We did stop, though, in the next city, Hama.

Hama

Here we saw the Norias of Hama. Norias are big watermills. These ones sit along the Orontes River and were used to extract water either for irrigation or for use by the town. Currently, the Norias of Hama are mostly unused, but they were once called “the most splendid norias ever constructed.”

A noria of Hama

Other than seeing the norias, we had a brief rest and enjoyed a local delicacy, which was some type of sweet bread.

Hama was not hit hard in the war, though it is quite close to the current frontline in the Idlib region. Because of this, the road from Hama to Aleppo is closed.

Since we couldn’t continue north, from Hama we returned to Homs and then took backroads through the desert to get to Aleppo.

Desert rest stop

On one of these backroads we passed by the salt flats southeast of Aleppo called Sabkhat al-Jabbul. This area is home to mud house villages and it used to be a popular place for people to harvest salt in the summer. But then came ISIS.

Mud houses by the Sabkhat al-jabbul salt flats

What did ISIS do? ISIS dumped so many corpses in the salt lake that no one wants to harvest salt there anymore. 

Aleppo and Assad love

We entered Aleppo from the east. Quickly, we saw many destroyed buildings, though nothing to the extent of what we would soon see in Homs. What was more noticeable were the pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Something that may be interesting to foreigners is that pictures of Assad are everywhere in Syria. This was the case in Damascus and was certainly so in Aleppo. In Aleppo you couldn’t go 10 meters without seeing Assad on buildings, billboards etc. I saw an even greater concentration of Assad images in Aleppo than I did of images of the Kims in North Korea.

And most people in Syria seem to love Assad. It’s a lot different than in the DPRK where you’re forced to worship the Kims. Even our Christian tour guide made the comment, “What’s bad about a good dictator?”

“A good dictator”

The deeper we drove into the Aleppo, the fewer ruined buildings there were. But the images of Assad definitely did not disappear.

Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria. Its city center is very dense and has lots of activity in the streets.

We checked into a hotel on the big square with an “I love Aleppo” sign and of course Assad images. This hotel was quite a bit nicer than the place we stayed in Damascus.

Syrian comfort

We had a quick rest before heading out to the square to photograph the sign. Out on the square we also chatted with some locals.

Do you?

Out on the town in Aleppo

The sun was setting. We set out on a walk through the busy streets of Aleppo to the citadel. The citadel of Aleppo is a medieval fortress located in the center of the old town.

Aleppo sunset

On the way to the citadel, we passed by a nice clocktower and a big Sheraton hotel, which turned out to be the makeshift headquarters of the United Nations in Aleppo. Only UN personnel can stay there now. But it looked quite nice, so maybe in the future I’ll be sipping cocktails with UN diplomats at the Aleppo Sheraton like I was doing at the Marriott in Paramaribo.

Beautiful city

When we reached the citadel we admired how beautiful it is when lit up at night. It is a massive castle-like structure on a big hill in the middle of the city so it is quite an impressive sight to see.

Lit up and lovely

The citadel walls

The weather is nice in the evening. Lots of people walk on the promenade along the citadel and drink in the many cafes in the area.

The cafes were filled with people. We found some seats and enjoyed the ambience of the setting. I had a drink called a “polo.” It’s made from fresh mint and lemon juice which reminded me of a mojito without alcohol. It was very tasty and refreshing and I ended up having a polo most of the nights I was in Syria.

Me and my polo

Aleppo is famous for its soap. After downing a polo, we looked around for a place to buy some soap. My travel partner ended up buying enough to fill a suitcase. He had a plan to sell the soap for a profit back in Germany. I never found out if he got it through customs.

World famous Aleppo soap

What remains of ancient Aleppo

The next day we got up early to properly explore the city. Unfortunately, the long trip through the desert used up all the coolant in our tour guide’s car. The car almost broke down and had to go to a mechanic. This meant we had to get around by taxi. But at least we made it to Aleppo and didn’t get stranded in the middle of the Syrian desert.

A taxi took us to the old bazaar, which was destroyed in the fighting. This once-great bazaar was a major battleground between the rebels, ISIS and the Syrian army.

A look at what’s left of the old bazaar

We checked out the ruins, as well as some rebuilt parts of the bazaar. There wasn’t a lot of activity in the area. So we continued on.

The main destination of the day was again the citadel. We had seen it from the bottom the night before. Now it was time to climb the citadel. The way to the top was a long set of stairs that had recently been rebuilt after being destroyed by ISIS during fighting with the Syrian army.

At one point, ISIS managed to claim the area surrounding the citadel. ISIS destroyed the surroundings, but a group of about 60 Syrian Army soldiers managed to defend the citadel. Thanks to their efforts in fighting off ISIS, much of the inside of the citadel was preserved.

Atop the citadel

The citadel is a large complex. It was a hot day and the path to the top was no small task. I was set on exploring the whole fortress, but after a little walking, my friend and my tour guide opted to head down to the cafes and sip on polos while waiting for me.

The citadel amphitheater

I paced through old buildings and walked across the entire citadel. I even crossed a barrier into a prohibited zone where I got to take some great pictures. Some other guide tried telling me in Arabic that it was a prohibited area. I don’t speak Arabic but I could tell what he was saying. Still, after all that walking, I wasn’t going to let him stop me. So I pretended not to understand and carried on.

View from the citadel

After returning to the area I was allowed to explore, I ventured over to the citadel’s highest tower. There I… believe it or not… bumped into other tourists.

These people were the only tourists, other than my travel partner, who I came across in Syria. To be fair, though, they weren’t actual tourists. They were UN workers. And I had actually bumped into them one time before while exploring the bazaar.

This group of foreigners consisted of a Japanese girl, a Belgian guy and a Mexican girl. But between the four of us, we represented three different continents.

After enjoying good views from the citadel, I returned to my travel companions who were refreshed after drinking a nice polo or two and we went on to see the old city of Aleppo.

This area was almost completely destroyed in the war, which was very sad to see. Like the old town in Damascus, the old city in Aleppo represents one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The buildings there had been around for centuries yet were easily destroyed in a few years of fighting.

Aleppo ruins

We visited some old churches that remain in the area. After Lebanon, Syria has the second largest Christian community in the Middle East. Lots of churches are actually still standing in Syria.

Old Aleppo but better preserved

Outside an Armenian church, we came across a security guard who would not let us in. But we bribed him and then he did. It was a very nice church that was worth the small price of admission.

The Aleppo drinking and dating scenes

After a day of exploring and a brief rest, we found a restaurant with a great menu of cocktails and food. To eat, I had some sort of bread dish with lamb.

What excited me more was that this restaurant had my favorite cocktail. If you remember my visit to Bermuda, you might recall my favorite cocktail is the Dark n Stormy — Bermuda rum + ginger beer.

But Aleppo is not Bermuda. What the waiter brought me was something different. Still I enjoyed the drink, and it was a cool experience to be sipping on a cocktail in the open air of Aleppo and bing surrounded by lots of people having fun at a bar.

Not very halal

As for the drinks they serve, you can see the beverage list was full of traditional western cocktails. I have a hunch they use the same names but then serve you drinks of their own variety.

A bigger takeaway is that Syria is clearly not a strict Islamic country. This is important to know for young men and their pickup/relationships coaches, especially in a dynamic dating environment. 

Over the course of my time in Damascus and Aleppo, I was continuously blown away by the beauty of Syrian women. And because so many young Syrian men are either “dead or fled”, the girls are all eager to date.

Once word gets out, Aleppo will be full of dating coaches. You read it here first.

Lovely ladies 😊

Next up

As you can see, there is already plenty to love about Syria. In part 2, we will continue on to devastated Homs, liberated Palmyra and Syria’s Mediterranean resorts. Enjoy!