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Alternate Routes · Asia · syrian arab republic · Syrian Arab Republic · Hasan Arslanyuregi

The East treasure-house, Part 1

Author: Hasan Arslanyuregi1 COMMENT

The East treasure-house, Part 1


After Baghdad, Syria's two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo are the oldest inhabited places on earth, high on UNESCO and other heritage organisations' lists of cultural treasures.
Syrian people are known for their easy-going nature, warmth and hospitality to visitors. Don't be shy to take photographs and chat, and don't be surprised or suspicious if you get invited into people's homes for a meal. It's genuine! Travelling round the country, you will find that ordinary people have few prejudices about foreigners, but see them firstly as honoured guests in their homeland.
Although Syria is one of the most tolerant of all Arab countries, you should of course be aware of your surroundings, and dress modestly to be accepted, especially in the more out-of-the-way places.

ATM machines are few and far between, and don't always work. So be prepared and always carry enough cash for your needs.
Euros are the most accepted currency and can be used or exchanged everywhere. Even though the ban on use of the dollar has been lifted recently, there is still sometimes certain reluctance by people to accept dollars.
Even late at night the main streets are pretty safe by European standards, and you will see many women in modern dress unaccompanied and without fear.
Mobile phone coverage in Syria is good but roaming charges are high. If you are planning on staying more than a few days, consider buying a pay as you go SIM card or a card for the widespread public phone system; most phone boxes have instructions in English.

Most street signs are in both Arabic and Latin alphabets but you should always carry a map with you as signs are often not sufficient. People are very helpful and willing to show the way and generally help foreign visitors.
Intercity roads are good; if you rent a car be prepared for the traffic police to stop you for document checks. This normally takes a few minutes, and can be shortened by giving a small "tip" of 1 or 2 euro.
However, taxis are very cheap, and you should consider renting a car or taxi with driver for convenience - you may be surprised to find yourself paying about the same for a whole day than you would for a single journey on the London underground!
If you prefer to take to the air within Syria, internal flights between Damascus, Aleppo, Lattakia and Qamishli are fairly frequent and inexpensive, and the airports are all within about 15-minute drive from the city centre.
Prices of most goods are about half what you'd expect in Europe - or even less in many cases. Bargaining is essential in the bazaars and whenever the price is not marked, expect to settle on a third to half of the starting price, and don't be in a rush!
Syria is an ancient multi-cultural society with a myriad of cohabiting religions and denominations. This is a complicated place - better to avoid overtly political or religious discussions.

You cannot enter Syria if your passport contains any stamps from Israel or the Palestinian territories, so check this before you go: if you have such a stamp, you should get a new passport before travelling.
Internet cafés are widespread in the main cities and towns, though wireless connection generally only exists in the top hotels.
Especially in smaller hotels or towns, you are always well advised to reconfirm your reservations by phone or internet ahead of your visit.
Taking a cab across the border to Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey is cheap and easy. You may spend an hour at the border, and another hour or so to get to Amman, Beirut or Antakya (Antioch).
Syria's cuisine is one of the finest in the world, and gastronomically-inclined travellers should certainly avoid "western" restaurants in favour of local specialities, with the finest mezze in the Middle East and in many eateries the additional chance to listen to some local music.

Syria is one the last places in the world where you will not be confronted by the massed ranks of homogenized international brands wherever you go. Its relative isolation has the definite advantage of allowing the visitor to see the real and authentic styles and merchandise of the region.
The wise traveller always takes precautions and observes the elementary rules of security. As long as you do that, and open your eyes and heart to the staggering array of cultural, culinary and human experiences on offer in one of the world's last unspoiled treasure troves, I guarantee you won't come away disappointed. Bon voyage - or as we say in Arabic - meas salame.


There are a few high-rise buildings in the city, but any Damascene will tell you that the finest view of this most ancient city is to be had from the heights of Qassioun Mountain. There is no point in even trying to describe the beauty of the city at night from the coolness of the mountain, its lights flickering like a million jewels far below. Take your time at one of the many 24-hour cafés where the bill is calculated according to the number of teapots served to your table. The place has a special hold on Damascenes living abroad; to feel really Syrian again, they say they need to come here. Go there any time of the day or the night - you will understand.

Where to Stay


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It is located in the old town, only a stone's throw from the Grand Bazaar, and bordered on one side by the lush university park and by the old brown stone buildings of ancient Damascus and mountain landscapes on the others. A newly-built stone building recalling the city's older architectural styles; here's an interesting tip: the open swimming pool has one the best views of the city, entrancing either while having a dip or from the poolside with a cool drink. Undoubtedly one of the most stylish places to stay in the city, and while every room has a view, try for one on a higher floor.

Shukri Al Quatli Street, P.O. Box 6311, Damascus, Syria
Tel. 963 (11) 339 1000
Fax. 963 (11) 339 0900


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Not a half bad place to stay, located in the city centre on Victoria Street; however, the hotel's main claim to fame is its regular fantastic belly dance and live music shows on the top floor, accompanied by some of the best food (and booze) in the city. Locals come here any day of the week for the show, all for the price you might expect to pay for a fast meal at McDonald's! But this meal is not rushed, served beautifully by smiling staff, as the evening meal develops into singing and dancing for locals and tourists alike. And if you think you'd rather just flop after all that, the rooms, although without views, are perfectly comfortable - and reasonably priced for a 5-star hotel.

P.O.Box : 30301 Damascus / Syria
Telephone : +963 11 2233555
Fax : +963 11 2216797


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The most celebrated of the capital's hotels, it is located in a centrally placed tower block; even if you are not staying here, the lobby is a famous meeting place for locals and tourists alike. Each room is individually styled with Syrian motifs and handmade furniture with woodcarvings; fresh flowers are much in evidence in the high-ceilinged public areas. The quality of service (and prices) are of real 5-star standard - don't be surprised that your bill carries a luxury tax surcharge - but if you're in Damascus for more than a few days, you might want to treat yourself and relax those weary feet surrounded by the wealthier denizens of the city.

Maysaloun Street
P.O Box 33555 Damascus Syria
Tel : + (963-11) 2232300 - 2232320
Fax : + (963-11) 2212398 - 2226180
E-mail :

Things to do


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One of the world's five largest and oldest mosques, it is not to be missed. However, be prepared for strict dress code checkups at the entrance: as in all mosques, do wear long trousers or skirts; ladies should wear a headscarf (long black scarves are offered if you don't have one with you): here, shoes are left in cupboards at the entrance and may not be carried in. Photos are only forbidden at the graves and tombs. As throughout this enchanted city, the passage of human history is almost palpable; this was the site of a church, then a mosque, and it reflects in its grandeur the rise and fall of great empires and dynasties. This was the first mosque ever visited by a Pope, in 2001. Its neighbourhood holds further treasures, including some of the oldest buildings and markets in the city. Truly a must-see.


Located south of the Umayyad mosque near Suq al-Buzuriyya, the Azem Palace was built in 1750 by the Ottoman governor of Damascus As'ad Pasha al-Azem. Azem Palace is the restored home of an Ottoman prince. A fine example of Damascene house architecture, each room shows off some of the typical Damascene traditions, including preparation for Hajj and preparation for marriage, and are decorated with fine wooden panelling and painted ceilings. In 1925, the palace was heavily damaged by French artillery during the Syrian revolution. It has since been restored and has become a museum of arts and folk traditions. It received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983.


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Syria is the cradle of civilization, and Palmyra remains one of most celebrated capitals of the ancient world - a dead city and yet so enthralling and magnificent even in its ruins that it cannot fail to recall its fantastic heyday.
Palmyra lies in the heart of the Syrian Desert, and is often described as 'the bride of the desert'. It is, without doubt, the most beautiful and magnificent of the Syrian historic sites on the old Silk Road. Its magnificent remains tell of a heroic history during the reign of Queen Zenobia.
Palmyra was first mentioned in the 2nd millennium BC and Christianity was already prevalent here before the year 300. It was mentioned in one of the Assyrian tablets of the Mari archives and in an Assyrian text. It was also mentioned in the Bible as a part of King Solomon's territory.

Palmyra was an ideal halt for the caravans commuting between Iraq and al-Sham (the present-day Syria, Lebanon and Jordan), trading in silk from China to the Mediterranean.
This strategic location made Tudmor (Palmyra) prosper and evolve into a well-established kingdom from the 2nd century BC. However, Tudmor was located between two warring empires, Rome and Persia. When Tudmor was integrated into the Province of Syria between 14-37 AD, it became known as the city of palm trees, and flourished even more: it imposed high taxes on goods from the caravans, and its horsemen fought alongside the Roman armies.
Palmyra and Deir el-Zor are each served by an airport with flights to and from Qamisli, Aleppo and Damascus at least 3 days a week. Even in the high season the flights don't exceed $50 each way.
There is a fine road covering the 210 kms from Damascus through the desert. One of the advantages of going by road is that there are endless scenes and sights from very different cultures along the way, so do bring a spare memory card for your camera. You will pass villages where TV is barely known and the main form of transport is still the camel, and encounter only the warmest and most hospitable of people along the way who may offer you water in the time honoured tradition of desert people helping travellers.

A tour among the ruins, which cover an area of 6 square kilometres, requires a full day in order to really appreciate the beauty of the extant architecture. The Baal temple, the Arch of Triumph, the amphitheatre, the baths, the 'Straight Street', the Congress Council and the Cemeteries are all among places definitely worth visiting. Thus you may wish to stay a night or two in or around Palmyra, and there are a variety of hotels ranging from 5-star accommodation to B&B's for every type of traveller.
Camels, horses or mules are available for rent to tour the ruins, and you should make the effort to go as far as the hill where the magnificent 17th century citadel of Fakhredin Al Maany is located.
The museum of Palmyra (the Tudmor museum) is rich in art of different periods, sculpture, mosaic, gold, bronze and pottery. It also exhibits the folklore of Palmyra and the Syrian Desert.
Don't forget to take a big bottle of water with you; it could be useful - especially if you lose your map of the ancient city.

The largest oasis in the region sits on the edge of the ruins, and a veritable forest of palm trees presents a magical splash of green amidst the endless yellow of the desert sand.
You are advised to keep as much of your flesh covered, both as a protection against the sun and in respectful imitation of the locals, who know the damage the rays can cause and therefore find the western habit of uncovering themselves quite peculiar! Keep the exposed parts well covered in sun cream and stick to bottled drinking water.
Palmyra is full of little places to eat, and they are quite reliable as all Syrian places are, both in terms of cleanliness and flavour. So don't fear the humbler little family-run restaurants, they will give you a chance to savour local cuisine and make contact with people who live in the region and are always keen to help a foreigner.
The spring of Afqa in Palmyra is the source of life of the famous oasis. Its sulphurous mineral water is said to aid in the treatment of skin diseases, chest and liver complaints and anaemia. It also stimulates digestion and blood circulation.
Thus Palmyra is an oasis not only for the eyes, but for all the senses. Take the time to savour the uniqueness of a vast ancient site without the crowds, car parks, signposts, noise and tourist-hawks common in much lesser places elsewhere, and you will leave morally and physically refreshed, ready for fresh adventures in this most enchanting and exciting of countries.

Where to stay


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A luxurious hotel with large, classically-decorated rooms and polite English-speaking staff, situated on the borders of the protected zone of the ancient site of Palmyra (the city owes its name to the countless palm tree gardens). Do ask for rooms overlooking the palm gardens and the ancient city so beautifully lit up at night - an unforgettable sight in the midst of the desert. The hotel has a good spa, hammam, bars and restaurants and offers transfers from the main airports and other parts of the country.

P.O Box 135 Palmyra Syria
Tel : + (963-31) 5918123 / 4 / 5 / 6
Fax : + (963-31) 5918130
E-mail :


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Aleppo has been a prosperous city since the 3rd millennium BC, playing a vital role in the history of the area since the time of the Akkadian and Amorite Kingdoms, not least by virtue of being a central junction of ancient trade routes.
The old city was surrounded by a wall with defence towers and fortified gates built during the Islamic period. A large part of the wall is still standing, for example Bab Qinis'rin, Bab Al-Nasser, Bab Al-Hadid and Bab Antakia.
Aleppo is also known for its mosques and churches, and is considered the third most significant city of the Islamic world because of the number and magnificence of its mosques and schools.

The Archaeological Museum contains exhibits from the Stone Age to modern times. It has a remarkable collection of antiquities from some of the most ancient sites in Syria (Mari, Ugarit, Ebla) , objects found in the Euphrates Basin, Hama, Tell Halaf and Ein Dara, as well as remains from the Greek, Roman, Arab and Islamic periods. Most famous of Aleppo's sights is the citadel, from where all of the city can be seen.
Jdaideh is a particularly picturesque quarter. Next to the main Maronite church is Sissi Street, full of old Arab residences. Most have now been converted into hotels and restaurants serving the delicious cuisine for which Aleppo is famous.
The old Aleppo houses are in the shape of a square stone building - often plain from the outside -with a small inner courtyard or garden called a riyad. So those tiny doorways off little alleys often lead into hidden areas of quite unexpected tranquillity and beauty. In some way this is a reflection of the Syrian culture: many tourists or visitors do not at first see the warmth and gracious hospitality of Syrians who often keep a certain air of reserve and mystery.

Beit Wakil is one of the loveliest examples of the old Aleppo house. Austere on the outside, you enter a beautiful courtyard with a fountain, a majestic arch, coloured marble flooring and arabesque glass windows. You can descend past an underground bar into stone-built cellars with a labyrinth of tunnels, said to lead all the way to the Citadel. The restaurant serves fabulous food - the Aleppine versions of fatoush, mezze, hummus, Carabaj dessert and much more, all washed down with sweet Syrian wine - pure nectar....
Aleppo's celebrated mezze are generally good for vegetarians, while the main courses favoure meat. There are countless varieties of sweet dishes. The Aleppo cuisine is a largely undiscovered marvel with a taste and style all of its own.
Don't be surprised if the prices quoted for the same hotel rooms vary according to your country of origin - this is quite a common practice in the region.
The typical Syrian breakfast consists of olives, beans, pickles and fresh produce. Dinner is generally served late - up to 11 pm - so the cafés and pastry shops tend to stay full late. And eateries also tend to be crowded, eating out being quite common with major home meals often being occasions for entertaining guests.

Aleppo silversmiths and designers maintain to this day their fabled reputation as some of the finest in the world. The painstakingly designed silver jewellery and accessories should be at the top of any visitor's shopping list.
Aleppo's other local specialties include natural soaps made from laurel (, pure thick pomegranate grenadine, natural homemade virgin olive oil refined through a process of decanting over water and used only on salads, hand made kilims, and beautifully packaged sweet delicacies.
Aleppo is truly up all night especially in the warmer months, and it is not unusual to see people up and about until dawn, with the main streets packed with promenaders and traffic jams developing long after rush hour. So the impression of Aleppo is a city that never sleeps; take in the buzzing atmosphere while gazing at the citadel views over dinner at the Amir Palace hotel.
And a final joy in this increasingly uniform and sterilized world of Starbucks and Coca Cola: you will not see any of these brands in Aleppo or Syria, but only the more genuine and original tastes and sights of the East. If you want fast food, trade in a Big Mac for the local shawourma, and the nearest you'll get to coke is something called ugarite...

Where to Stay


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The Baron is the cult hotel, a legend of the city and a piece of living history that demands a visit at least to its bar or terrace, even if you are not actually staying.
Opened in 1909, the Baron soon became one of the principle meeting places of politicos, soldiers, diplomats, stars, celebrities and spies. The list of celebrated visitors runs like a tour of European and Middle Eastern political and literary history.
If truth be told, the hotel has seen better days, and has become shabby, but this only seems to increase its appeal to the cognoscenti and as a gathering place for foreign visitors who, rumour tells, gather at the bar on Thursday nights. The Baron is overseen by two Armenian brothers and the service is quaint and old fashioned.
The rooms have certainly seen better days, but you won't find a truly historic experience anywhere else at these rates, around $45 a night with TV, and well heated in the winter when the weather in Aleppo gets surprisingly cold.
You might request Room 202 where Lawrence of Arabia hid out for a few months, the room where Agatha Christie started her Murder on the Orient Express, or 201 where Ataturk stayed. Charles Lindbergh, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kim Philby, David Rockefeller - take your pick. As a distinguished guest wrote in the well-guarded visitors book: "I like it here, it's a little like staying in the British Museum."
In the summer months the hotel bar just inside the entrance, on the left, is usually empty, as most people prefer to sit on the terrace. Lebanese wine is recommended over Syrian varieties that can pack too much of a punch for refined palates. Aleppo beer is an acceptable lager, though nothing special. But whatever your poison, you'll be intoxicated by the atmosphere at the Baron.

Baron St. 8( Sharia al-Baron), New City, Aleppo, Syria
Phone: +963 21 221 08 80


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Though there are a few "international" accommodation options like the Sheraton in Aleppo, the best option to become a local and soak up the authentic feel of the old city is Beit Wakil, originally the residence of a 16th century wealthy merchant family of the 16th century.
Hidden away in the old central area of Sissi, this fabulous building has been delicately restored and now serves as a stunning 4-star boutique hotel. The original details have been painstakingly recreated right down to the furniture and beautiful woodwork darkened by the ages, and the visitor can get happily lost in rooms, some cavernous with high ceilings, others dark and mysterious. Velvet curtains and ancient carpets complete this ravishing house, one of the hidden gems of this most ancient of cities.
None of this has been done at the expense of comfort: every room has air conditioning, phone, satellite TV and private bathroom. Add to that Aleppo-style Arab hospitality and manners and you have the recipe for superb service as well.
Even if you can't spend a few nights here, it is also the perfect place just to unwind or enjoy the local cuisine, famed throughout the region. The bar stays open late to the tune of local Arab music, with trained English-speaking staff at your beck and call. You can normally find a seat at the bar or restaurant without reservations, and they have winter and summer sections so remain open all year round.
With just 16 rooms available, you need to book ahead as the hotel is in high demand. The prices depend on the season but a double room should set you back €55-80. And you are advised to call or e-mail ahead of your arrival to double-check your reservation.
The old district of Sissi is itself a treasure waiting to be discovered. A hive of old alleys and silversmiths, the area is alive with the sound of Armenian and Arabic craftsmen and designers of the highest order, at prices that will surprise anyone used to the inflated offerings in Europe. Most of the inhabitants of this area are in fact Armenian and Alawite, with countless small churches, restaurants and small hotels. You should not miss the chance to stroll round the ancient streets to get a flavour of the city at its most exotic and enchanting.

Beit Wakil - Al Jdaidah - Sissi Str. Aleppo - Syria
Tel.: 00963 21 2117083 / 00963 21 2118169


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The priciest hotel in town, but not necessarily the best if you are looking for the authentic old Aleppo with its ancient high-walled alleys and mysterious hidden courtyards. Situated in the old town, the hotel is made to look old with limited success but at least with all the usual five star comforts to be expected in an "international" hotel catering mainly to a corporate and political clientele. The rooms are spacious and bright and do look out onto the real old stone houses of old Aleppo.

Al Khandaq Street P.O. Box 13964 Aleppo, Syria
Phone: (963)(21) 212 1111
Fax: (963)(21) 212 1136


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One of the best lodging places in the old town, a perfect bet for those seeking clean modern comfort. Not cheap by local standards, but the service is excellent, with a memorably polite multilingual staff - Russian, German, French and English is generally spoken here. It's also right opposite the famed Baron Hotel so you can pop into the bar there for a drink, while staying in more modern comfort - the best of both worlds perhaps?
Rates: €60-80 B&B

Address Baron Street Aleppo - Syria 5097
Phone: + 963 21 2111102
Fax:+ 963 21 2216700


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One of the highest buildings in Aleppo, located between the old and new towns. Unlike the hotel the website is still under construction at the time of writing, so this is a bit of an insider's tip for those looking for a basic but clean and hospitable establishment in the centre with polite multilingual staff. Very reasonable rates.
Rates: €30-50 B&B

Aleppo - Syria P.O.Box: 278 (Aleppo Old Town, the Antioch Gate)
Phone: 00963 21 2288555
Fax: 00963 21 2288114
E-mail:; (Under construction)


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Hidden in the warren of narrow alleys of the old Aleppo, this is an old 15th century family residence beautifully restored and converted into a hotel with two restaurants and a coffee house, as well as 29 rooms and 4 suites, each of different size and individually designed. The hotel is located in the very centre of the city, near the citadel.

P.O.Box: 2011
Tel.:+963 3312222

Where to shop


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With its myriad number of shops that will entice even the shiest non-shopper to get into bargaining gear, it is celebrated as the world's largest covered bazaar. It seems there is simply nothing that is not available at this most exotic of ancient markets. Aim for about half of the first price offered. From unimaginable varieties of fruits, vegetables and fragrant spices of astonishing colour and freshness, to the famed silverware, jewellery and precious stones of the orient, silks and gorgeous fabrics draped in dazzling displays, local soaps made from pure laurel and perfumes from natural oils, real sponges, towels and robes, shoes and slippers of the finest leather ... the list is endless!
After all that, take some time to rest your feet and watch the world go by, sipping strong fragrant coffee (first introduced to the world by Syrians half a millennium ago).
Just an insider's tip: don't accept offers of tea or soft drinks from passers-by, however friendly and charming; what appears to be a friendly gesture can end up as a rip-off. Keep to the cafés or, of course, the statutory tea or cold drink while gently bargaining your way half way to zero. Take your time - this is serious retail therapy!

Things to Do


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In the early days of Christianity, Jesus' disciple Peter spent much time here on his way back to the ancient Antioch (today's Antakya, a city in Turkey). While partly ruined, the columns and walls survive as a very significant place of pilgrimage. The monastery is surrounded by a plethora of bars and restaurants, mainly run by local Christian villagers, where locals come on weekends to sing and dance. The best option is taking a taxi or renting a car with driver for the 25-minute journey from Aleppo city centre; those going to or coming from Turkey overland won't have to make a detour to visit the monastery. And a pleasant surprise for many expecting a rough ride in the provinces - these little places are clean and well-kept and the locals generally well turned out and always ready to lend a helping hand to foreign visitors.


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Aleppo's point zero, the citadel has hovered majestically over this most ancient of cities for more than a thousand years. Its heights offer panoramic views of the entire city and the concentric mazes of alleys and streets that hug the citadel, as the city spread up around the citadel over the centuries: the short hike is worth it if only for that. Amble around the ancient citadel, recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and feel the echo of the endless march of civilisations over the past millennia. After that, rest your weary feet at one of the charming water pipe cafes at the base, next to the entrances to the Ottoman Turkish baths and the Covered Bazaar. Entrance is about $10 - take a bottle of water with you as you won't find one inside the fort, even though there are WCs and places to sit.


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Located within a short walk from the citadel, the Great Mosque must not be missed as an example of the myriad layers of history that Aleppo has hosted, with every civilisation leaving a mark since the first mosque was built here one 1,300 years ago. Don't forget to remove your shoes and carry them with you; do wear long trousers or skirts. Ladies should wear a headscarf of sorts. Photos may be taken except at the graves and tombs; the vast courtyard is famed throughout the Moslem world. A stunning view of the adjacent kervansaray and the old souk can be seen from atop the 21-metre minaret (a $5 tip may help gain entrance to the steps).


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St Elias Maronite Cathedral on al-Farhat Square was completed in 1873 and is unmistakable for its pointed towers and high dome under which lies a noted marble altar with yellow columns. The chiming clock on the tower plays Ave Maria every fifteen minutes. Al-Farhat Square was named after Archbishop Jermanos Farhat (1670-1732), the founder of the Maronite Library, and his statue was placed in the square to mark his 200th anniversary in 1934. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic church with services conducted in Syriac, named after a 5th-century hermit, St Maron; a particularly strong community of Maronites is found in Lebanon. The head of the Maronite Church is the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch elected by the bishops. He resides in Bkirki, north of Beirut.

Read Part II

Posted in 2008.

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Visited: Going there.

Great post - thanks Hasan!

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