Crusaders' path leads to forgotten treasures

Crusaders' path leads to forgotten treasures

Syria receives only a trickle of tourists compared with neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, but its historic sites and stunning scenery are equally spectacular.

A chequered history - made up of military coups, political isolation and links with Middle East terrorism - have given it an image that is hard to shake off, but today's visitor will find the country's obsession with security makes it one of the safest places on earth.

Syria's greatest appeal lies in its rich archeological sites, all of which are comparatively free of hustlers.

One of the most impressive is Crak des Chevaliers, one of the best preserved of all Crusader Castles in the region, which once housed a garrison of 4,000 soldiers.

The giant fortress looks just as formidable today as it must have done when the Crusaders were active in the Middle East more than 700 years ago.

The most breathtaking view is seen from the southern ramparts where visitors can see as far as the snow-capped Lebanon mountains.

Damascus, lying to the east of Mount Hermon, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Its central heart, surrounding the early 8th century Umayyad Mosque, is packed with courtyard houses, hammams (public baths) and aromatic shopsselling fragrant spices, perfumes and sweetmeats.

Just a few hours' drive away are the stunning Roman ruins of Palmyra, surrounded entirely by desert, and enchanting towns such as the whitewashed Christian village of Maalula, more Greek than Arabic, whose inhabitants still converse in Aramaic, spoken at the time of Christ.

Halfway between Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's second largest town, is the picturesque town of Hama. Many tours stop for lunch in the little garden cafes situated beside the creaking water wheels along the Orontes river.

A popular order is mezze, a selection of different entrees such as hummus and babaghanouj (grilled aubergine dip), chicken wings, stuffed mincemeat patties or Kibbeh, grilled kebab, artichoke hearts and more.

On the approach to Aleppo, the first thing that strikes you is the city's huge citadel, which is dominant on the skyline.

The city has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This has raised much local awareness of the social and economic importance of preserving the town and all of its traditions.

The old medina contains priceless monuments and is one of the Arab world's last traditional souks, a living museum crowded with craftsmen - coppersmiths, carpet weavers, carpenters and many other trades - making Aleppo the best place to shop for handicrafts. Visitors should remember to slash at least 50% off the asking price.

A trip through the eastern desert to the towns of Deir-ez Zur and Dura Europos is also recommended. The latter, though founded in 3BC, only came to light in the 1920s when British soldiers digging trenches came across its outstanding murals.

While its celebrated synagogue has been transferred to the National Museum in Damascus, the site of Dura Europos situated on the bank of the river Euphrates is definitely without equal in the eastern Mediterranean and must inevitably attract hotel investors.

Apart from its historical sites, the other attraction of Syria, for me, was the kindness shown by everyone you meet from the urban elite to a poor Bedouin, who came a kilometre out of his way in order to point us in the right direction.

The only downside of a tour of the country is its lack of beaches. Syria has a potentially lovely Mediterranean coastline - which stretches for nearly 200 kms from Tartous on the border with Lebanon to southern Turkey - but it is not much more than one long rubbish tip.

Good advice is to avoid the beaches and stay inland. While many sites such as Hama and Palmyra are already popular, elsewhere in Syria awaits discovery by the tourist industry.

Jasmin Tours: offers a nine-day Syria Experience taking in the capital city of Damascus, the desert oasis Palmyra and the Crusader Castle of Crac Des Chevaliers. It costs around £1,245, including flights with British Airways franchisee, British Mediterranean Airlines. The tour is based on half-board accommodation in four and five-star hotels.

Cox and Kings: offers a nine-day Highlights of Syria tour, which starts and finishes in Damascus, and takes in the 12th century citadel of Aleppo, and the oasis and 2nd century ruins of Palmyra. Next year's prices lead in at £1,095, based on half-board in four-star accommodation. Flights are with British Airways.

Bales Worldwide: an 11-day Syrian Journey leads in at £1,499 for next year. The price includes flights with BA, four and five-star accommodation with breakfast, some lunches and dinners. The tour starts and finishes in the capital Damascus, visits the Crusader Castle Crac des Chevaliers and gives clients two nights in Palmyra.

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