Ten years ago, in October 2009, I was visiting Syria as a tourist before the civil war — and the country continues to be one of my most memorable destinations.
It’s hard to believe that, at the time, Syria’s optimism was deeply infectious. Not only were Syrians excited for a prosperous relationship with the U.S. under recently appointed President Barack Obama, tourism could finally bridge Syria to the rest of the world.
Syria was already fighting misconceptions, and only 45,000 Americans were visiting Syria as a tourist annually. On my visit, I found the country breathtaking, the people humble and genuine and the ancient attractions fascinating.
In fact, Syria left such a strong impression on me (I had visited over 100 countries at that point), I wanted to return with other friends. The country was truly off the beaten path, an understated gem in the Middle East, and I was certain it would rise in popularity.
Syria used to be known as one of the most progressive countries on Earth (it’s here where the world’s first known alphabet transpired), and on my visit 10 years ago, the tourism infrastructure was getting a boost.
There was an increase in tour operators, translators and access to historic sites, many dating back to biblical times and as important as some of the world’s most prominent attractions. Even hotels were emerging on the scene, including the boutique Art House, a favorite of Francis Ford Coppola.
For six days, I visited several popular attractions. I stood at the top of the Crac des Chevaliers, a 12th-century Crusaders castle in a small village outside Homs, gazing into a 360-degree panorama of rolling valleys dotted with forgotten cities, the scenery unfurled and endless (the castle has since been damaged due to the war).
At the time, the castle was extraordinarily preserved with nothing roped off, which reflected the little tourism here. I was able to freely meander the grounds (halls, secret passageways, watch towers) with only a handful of other tourists.
The castle, once touted by author T.E. Lawrence as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world,” is one of the best examples of medieval architecture in the world, and the official stamping of a World Heritage Site in 2006 ensured it’s worth a visit.
A popular site I visited was the Church of Umm Al Zunnar, known as the Church of Virgin Mary’s Belt. In the city of Homs, it’s a 19th-century church built on top of a 4th century church, where the alleged holy sash of Virgin Mary was discovered under the alter in 1953 (historical evidence suggests her robe was brought here). This site was also damaged.
Ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra were among Syria’s most photographed attractions. The ancient city of Bosra also offered ruins and the massive Roman amphitheater, more than 2,000 years old. It was one of the most memorable attractions, and anyone visiting Syria as a tourist would agree.
But it’s the capital city of Damascus that captivated me most with bustling bazaars, historic mosques and terrific restaurants. Perhaps, sometime in the future, I’ll return and help the country thrive, the way it was supposed to.
While there’s a travel advisory for Americans to avoid Syria travel, other nationalities have been visiting there since it’s been considered safe for them.
Have you visited Syria as a tourist recently? I’d love to read your comments below.
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