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

The East treasure-house, Part 2

Author: Hasan Arslanyuregi1 COMMENT

The East treasure-house, Part 2


Tartous - Arwad Island

Somehow one feels in deepest Syria in Tartous, full of old earth houses, a tatty promenade and no luxury hotels or restaurants in sight. Yet the place has a charm of its own, with a dazzlingly blue sea reflecting the dusty yellow buildings and some very fine architecture indeed on the old "cordon". Half way between the grander delights of Lattakia and Damascus, Tartous is worth a day trip - if only for the delightful 15-minute boat trip to Arwad Island, its castle and narrow old alleyways with a plethora of basic family-run pensions so cool in the summer heat. Tartous is really for the more intrepid among travellers - backpackers and


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Maalula is the last place on earth where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken.
The ancient, mainly Christian village of MAALULA is located about 1500 meters up the eastern slopes of the Al-Qalamoun mountains in southern Syria, some 50 km north of Damascus.
The stone houses with flat beam roofs are built on the slopes of a huge cirque of rocks that encloses the village; most have blue plaster on the outside, a Christian custom.
There are two monasteries here: Saint Sergius (Sarkis) and Saint Thecla (Tekla). Most of the inhabitants are Greek-Catholic and have preserved in their spoken language a dialect of Syriac (Aramaic), the language spoken by Christ. Two neighbouring villages, Jabaadin and Najaa also speak the same language. The word Maalula means 'entrance' in Aramaic.
The Catholic monastery of Saint Sarkis (St Sergius) contains a small Byzantine church with an altar reminiscent of those found at the Roman pagan temples; this Byzantine church and Byzantine-period tombs are cut into the rock behind.
The Orthodox monastery, Mar Takla (St Thecla), has a modern church.
Aramaic is an ancient language current in the Middle East during the first millennium before Christ. Two of the Old Testament books, Daniel and Esdras, were written in Western Aramaic. The Lord's Prayer, the prayer of Christians all over the world, was first spoken in Aramaic; the monks of Mar Sarkis have made a recording of it in this ancient language.

Even though the majority of its buildings are modern, Maalula is a beautiful place with curious wind-eroded rocks at the top end of the village and a gentle orchard-filled valley at the other. There's a remarkably sleepy air to the place which is a pleasant break from the frenetic pace and crowds of Damascus
One of the most famous landmarks is the Monastery of St Tekla (Thecla). According to a legend, she was an early convert to Christianity and a follower of St Paul who broke off her engagement to devote herself to God. Her vengeful fiancé tried to kill her by various means, but was thwarted by divine intervention. Eventually she is supposed to have hidden away in a grotto in the cliff around which the modern convent was built.
The monastery of St Tekla is a blessed place. People from different religions go there to gain blessings and to make offerings. Inside lie the remains of St Tekla.
Another landmark in Maalula is Mar Sarkis (Sergius) Monastery. It was built in the fourth century on the remains of a pagan temple. It was named after St Sarkis, a Syrian knight who fell in the reign of king Maximanus in 297.
An excursion to Maalula can be easily combined with a visit to another Christian site, the convent at Seidnaya 30 kilometres to the south-west, towards Damascus.

Ugarit and Lattakia (Ras Shamra)

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The site where the earliest example of human writing was discovered, the ancient port city of Ugarit is still being discovered as archaeologists continue to dig. While the small museum is of limited interest (better examples exist in the main museum in Lattakia and of course in other museums around the world), it is thrilling to wander around knowing that these are some of the oldest examples of civilisation on earth - undiscovered until a farmer accidentally opened an old tomb in 1928. The best way to get there is by taxi or a rented car; there are a number of little cafes and restaurants in the shade of the trees.

Saladin's Castle (Qalaat Salahaddin Eyyubi), Lattaqia City

Situated on a breathtaking ridge between Aleppo and the coast, this is one of Syria's most entrancing and unforgettable sites. It is impossible for the visitor not to be thrown back in history while walking through this place steeped in high drama and natural beauty, awestruck at how the castle was constructed on such a perilous place, and what superhuman effort was involved over centuries. If you have not rented a car, you may arrange a taxi for the trip with a pre-arranged fee (I think you should say from where, and give a rough price indication - tourists can't bargain easily!). Nowadays vehicles park about 10 minutes walk from the castle gates.
Its history is appropriately epic, with Saladin's capture of this huge castle in 1188 from the Crusaders, who first made a major fortress here, one of the most significant moments in the history of the entire region. The upper part of the castle includes the remains of the Byzantine citadel, the Crusader donjon, watch towers, enormous stables and a great barrel-vaulted water cistern. After Saladin's conquest, the Islamic period palace complex and a small mosque were built here and their remains can be seen. The lower part is almost completely overgrown.

Antakya (Antioch City), Hatay, Turkey

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Antakya, like its nearby cousin Aleppo, was partly designed by the French and the Parisian layout can still easily be seen from Antakya castle. This is a quaint and bustling border town known for the warmth and hospitality of its people. The population of Antakya, straddling the Asi River (the ancient world's Orontes River) contains significant Arab Alawite and Christian communities and there is still a small Jewish community. The nearby village of Vakifli remains one of the largest Armenian villages in the Middle East. Antakya is of enormous significance in the history of early Christianity, for here is the world's first church (St Peter's), with an early bust of Mary in the same mountainside. It was in Antakya that we find the first use of the word Christian, and the city is mentioned in both New and Old Testaments.
Few of the old city walls survive, but their traces and columns can be seen from the surrounding hills, accessible by car and worth the drive for the spectacular views.
One of the greatest engineering feats of its age is still visible in the adjoining town of Samandag. The Tunnel of Titus was constructed at the time of Christ to divert water to the second largest city of the ancient world through a massive creek, with a dozen rock tombs and numerous caves in the surrounding area. Samandag is also worth the visit for the 6th century monastery of St Simon, the legendary ascetic who spent 40 years sitting on a column.
The museum in Antakya is stupendous, housing the second largest and most significant collection of mosaics in the world.
The old town contains numerous examples of restored, and a few derelict, old wooden and stone houses.
In front of the old bus station is a taxi rank where you can negotiate a taxi drive to the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Lattakia for about $40, 24 hours a day. The drivers sometimes sleep in their cabs waiting for customers.

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The best boutique hotels in town are the Savon (named after the restored old soap factory in which it is housed), and the Antik Beyazit, also a good example of a restored old Antakya residence.
Hatay airport, opened in 2008, is 45 kms from the city.
Local café society congregates at Kultur Café on the main street (Ataturk Caddesi), and Vivaldi Café on the riverside on Inonu Caddesi.
The covered market is reminiscent of Aleppo, narrow streets with old stone walls and houses keeping the summer heat at bay.
The district of Harbiye is where, according to Greek mythology, the nymph Daphne turned into a laurel tree as she fled from the fevered love of Apollo. The finest natural laurel soaps are produced here, as is handmade silk, and the distinctive black agate bracelets and necklaces found only here, in Syria and Lebanon. Another favourite local souvenir is items crafted from the distinctive local white marble.
There are many cafés and summer restaurants in Harbiye hidden in the shade of the trees, where you can sit and cool weary feet in the flowing water. The local cuisine is distinctive and famed even throughout Turkey. Delicious fusions of local and Turkish flavours with Lebanese mezes, Syrian kebabs and meat dishes, sweet dishes and pastries are available all around town at reasonable prices. Don't leave without trying kunefe, the local warm sweet dish made with cheese, or pumpkin pudding, at the long-established Ferah in the town centre by the bridge.
The old town contains a plethora of old Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches, and a synagogue.


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Gaziantep, a short way from Aleppo with a population of 1.5 million is the economic and industrial powerhouse of the region and thus served by 3 daily flights from Istanbul. But do not be put off by its size - this is a charming city in its own right as well as the place from which to see the ancient site of Zeugma, billed by the Louvre archaeologists as the 8th wonder of the world for its astonishing richness of mosaics and works of art displayed both outdoors and at the city museum.
The local delicacies include the famous kebap, various meat dishes and aubergine kebap. Try the local pistachio dessert that resembles baklava - and don't even think of leaving without a bag or two of pistachio nuts; they taste quite differently when they are as fresh as that.
You will need a car to get to Zeugma which is continuously expanding its discoveries and adding to the treasures on display.

Where to Stay


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Timur Bey, a Turkish American who fell in love with the city some time ago, has restored a group of old houses on the same street, collectively known as the Anadolu Evleri Hotel, including 10 suites furnished with antique furniture.

Koroglu S 6 Sahinbey 27400 Gaziantep
Phone: +90 324 220 95 25


The Belkis Han is a restrained masterpiece by Mizyal Hanim, a flour factory director and artist, furnished beautifully right down to screens in some of the bathrooms, with a library in the attic and a restored wine cellar.

Ms. Mizyal Karabiber Nacaroglu
Kayacık Ara S 16 Sahinbey 27400 Gaziantep
Phone: +90 324 360 08 80


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From Syria, one reaches the ancient city of Mardin from the Qamishli border crossing, and there are daily internal flights to and from Istanbul. In some ways Mardin is a smaller version of Aleppo, with a similar climate, again full of surprises and hidden treasures, and is also very much like an open-air museum of architectural delights and stone buildings. In fine weather, villages in Syria are clearly visible across the plain.
The monastery at Dayrulzafaran, some 25 km from the city, is a definite must-see. Transport in the city is limited so renting a car or taxi are the best ways to get around. You should dress modestly, although the local people are notably friendly and used to greeting foreigners.
The people are themselves a cosmopolitan mixture, and you can hear Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian spoken as well as Turkish.
The provincial town of Midyat is well worth a visit as a strikingly beautiful example of the fine stone domestic architecture of this region, a center of Assyrian culture. It is also home to a very large number of churches, some of them still open for worship.

The best boutique hotels are the Erdoba Hotel, Artuklu Kervanseray, Savur Konagi and, in Midyat, the Midyat Konukevi - all housed in fine restored stone buildings.
You should not leave without trying the local delicacies of the Cercis Murat Konagi restaurant on the main street opposite the museum, with stunning views of the Mesopotamian plain all the way to Syria.
The locals are famed as the finest gold and silversmiths in the land and their handicrafts in general are much admired. The local wine and natural herbal soaps also make good gifts.

Midyat Konukevi, phone: +90 482 462 1354
Savur Konagi, phone: +90 482 571 2127, Mr Selahaddin Öztürk
Erdoba Hotel, 135 Birinci Cadde, Mardin 47100, phone: +90 482 213 77, Mr Selahaddin Öztürk, E-mail:
Artuklu Kervansaray, 70 Birinci Cadde, Mardin 47100, phone: +90 482 213 73 53, Mr Sabahattin Evrensel, E-mail:

Religious Tourism In Syria

Daara City mentioned in the Old Testament as Idraai, and found also in hieroglyphic tablets, this is the site of a Roman amphitheatre 100 km from Damascus.

Suweda City 90 kilometres south-east of Damascus, its museum contains a great mosaic collection.

Yabruod or Yabrud about 80 km north of the capital Damascus, known for its ancient caves and the Cathedral of Constantine and Helen, a Greek Catholic church, built out of many of the blocks that came from an old temple dedicated to Jupiter that the locals call Jupiter Yabroudis. This church contains a fascinating icon collection, and some Roman columns can also be found.

An Nabk or Al Nabk, is a town right between Damascus (81 km) and Homs. Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (the monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian) stands at the eastern fringes of the Al-Qalamoun (Anti-Lebanon) mountains near An-Nabk town

Banyas between Tartus and Latakia, where the locals are mainly Catholics, contains many small churches all around the town. Bans or Banyas is located 55 km to the south of Latakia on the Syrian Mediterranean coast and 35 km north of Tartus. On one of the hills is the imposing al-Marqab Citadel, a huge fortress of black basalt stone.

Safita (between Tartus and Damascus), is rich in new churches, extremely clean and known for the courtesy and hospitality of its locals. The Safita El Sham hotel is notably luxurious. Safita citadel or Burj Safita has a great view of the city and is a great place to sit in one of the cafes watching the world go by.

Zabadani is a summer resort some 45 kilometres north of Damascus close to the border with Lebanon. Zabadani's population today is predominantly Sunni Moslem but with a substantial Christian minority who have their own church and monastery. The surrounding province of Bloudan is delightful, full of forests with many hotels and restaurants and spreading over the mountains overlooking Zabadani at 1500 meters above sea-level. Tourists from the Lebanon, Damascus and the Gulf States are attracted by the welcome relief from the scorching summer heat and the area's stunning scenery, famed for its sunsets. The eastern Ghuta, where the International Airport is located, is also an attractive part of the country around Damascus, a centre of fruit cultivation. Also a little to the north of Damascus there are two interesting villages, al-Tel and Mnein, well-known for their clear springs and pretty cafes.

Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine/Zaynab Bint Ali

One of the most sacred sites in Shiite Islam, the shrine marks the place where Ali's daughter died a violent death after being abducted to the desert. The shrine is generally crowded with pilgrims from Iran and Shiis from throughout the world who come to pray and weep. Visitors must wear clothes that well cover their legs and arms; photography is forbidden. The shrine is astonishing in its decoration, its dome covered entirely in gold leaf while the interior is decorated with stunning turquoise tiles and contains priceless earthenware treasures mainly in the Persian style. The southern suburb where the shrine is situated has become populated largely by refugees, women and children from the violence and upheavals of the Iraqi war.

Homs City (Krak Des Chevaliers, Qalaat Al Hosn or Qal'at Al Hisn)

Located 65 km west of Homs towards Tartus, the castle at Krak des Chevaliers was famously and justly described by Lawrence of Arabia as "perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world", and is the easternmost of a chain of five castles built to secure the Homs Gap, reaching a summit of 750 meters above sea level. You may reach the castle by rented car or taxi. There is a simple but clean restaurant serving excellent local food about 500 meters down the windswept road with fine views looking across to the castle, but few other facilities.


In the 2nd millennium BC, Hama was a centre of the Hittite civilisation. As Hamath it is often mentioned in the Bible as marking the northern boundary of the Israelite tribes. Hama was also the capital of the Aramaic kingdom. It is famous today mainly for its trademark old waterwheel, which graces a thousand postcards and brochures, attached to the still functioning Roman aqueduct. The Azem Palace is a fine example of Ottoman architecture.The Al-Madina quarter of the city is worth exploring: here you will find the Citadel surrounded by parks and river-side gardens, the 7th century Great Mosque (Jami An-Nuri), and nearby, the Orthodox Church. The Roman ruins of Apamea (Afimia) are 60 km northwest of Hama, close to the impressive Roman ruins at Qalaat Mudiq.

Crossing the border from Syria

Crossing the border from Damascus to Amman (176 km) and Beirut (84 km) - see Jordan and Lebanon - generally takes less than 2 hours. You would be well advised to check visa requirements for your country before leaving to avoid any delays or surprises at the border. Remember that on public holidays delays often occur as many families take the opportunity to visit relatives.

The main land crossings between Syria and Turkey are from Aleppo to Antioch (Antakya) (118 km) or Mardin (323) or Gaziantep (178) and from Lattakia to Antioch (Antakya) (140 km). Except on public holidays, the crossing is generally fairly straightforward. There are daily direct flights (Turkish Airlines) between Antakya, Gaziantep and Mardin, and Istanbul.

Posted in 2008.

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Gerard van den Boogaard

Visited: Not yet, but want to go

Wel written Hasan. You did well.

Greetz Gerard

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