A DIARY of the Friendship Tour team's experiences in Syria, written by Deirdre Fitzgerald:
We crossed the border from Jordan into Syria in the early afternoon. It was hot and while the border was not busy it did take some time. Our visas were fortunately in good order and after a relatively short wait we were able to proceed. We learned from some other travelers who had been waiting there four hours that it is definitely worth double and triple checking the visas when you receive them to make sure none of the important information has been forgotten. The Syrians also took some time to register and check our vehicle, going so far as to smell the fuel. A car run on diesel fuel requires a much more substantial duty tax.
The Ministry of Tourism in Syria welcomed us with great hospitality, which was echoed many times over by the many people we met there. We were provided rooms at the palatial Safir Al- Sayedah Zeinab Hotel in Damascus. This lovely hotel is far from the Old City and the center but just steps away from the beautifully ornate Al- Sayedah Zeinab Mosque, which brings tens of thousands of pilgrims each year and a lively street market. The rooms are peaceful and luxurious. There is a computer center with Internet access and delicious choices of food including an Iranian restaurant.
Another benefit of being so welcomed by the Ministry of Tourism was the tour guide that opened up the country for us. Ahmed Sadat was an incredible resource to us as we attempted a whirlwind tour of his country. He is well versed in the history of Syria and very knowledgeable about current events in the region and around the world. This perspective combined perfectly with his experience studying English Literature and amazing command of English. We learned so much about the society and cultures of Syria as well as the mind-boggling ancient history.
The first afternoon after our arrival in Damascus, Ahmed accompanied us to a few of the most impressive sights in the Old City. The immense Umayyad Mosque is an illustrative example of the passing of time Damascus, known as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Built on the site of a Roman Temple to Jupiter, the building was converted from a Byzantine cathedral in AD 705 and contains beautiful examples of mosaics in the courtyard. The size of the mosque is breathtaking as is its beautiful adornment. Just a short wander through the winding streets we found the Azem Palace also worth a visit. This is lovely example of Damascene architecture built in 1749 by the governor of Damascus, As'ad Pasha al-Azem.
The amazingly well preserved palace is made up of exquisite rooms surrounding a magical courtyard, which in Ottoman times housed an outdoor area for the Harem. Since the upper-class women were mostly confined to the palace, effort was put forth to provide them with a place of beauty within the walls. The craftsmanship that went into the rooms is indescribable. The walls are inlaid with intricately patterned tiles and the painted ceilings are equally as mesmerizing with the geometric designs in rich colors. The Old City, which also contains the Souk Alhamedia, could have delighted us for weeks with its narrow old stone meandering streets and ottoman architecture draped with bougainvillea and grape vines. In the marketplace we ate ice cream and marveled at the scents of the spices and the weaves of the textiles. But alas our time was short and we had all Syria to explore.
The following morning we got an early start for the drive to Tadmor where the ancient site of Palmyra is located. The site is located in an oasis far from any of Syria's rivers. It was in turn an Assyrian Caravan town, a Greek outpost, and a Roman economic center before falling to the Muslims in AD 634. The city's most famous period was when Zenobia, a half Greek-half Arab queen, became the ruler in AD 267. She claimed to be descended from Cleopatra. One of the more impressive sections of the ruins is her extensive bathhouse.
In the museum you can see an ancient coin with the head of Zenobia. Palmyra's funerary towers and the incredible Temple of Bel are also worthy of note. As we stood in the great temple, Ahmed described to us what historians have pieced together of the huge pilgrimages and religious rites that occurred at the temple. The preservation of the site allowed us to easily visualize 2000 year-old events.
Our third day in Syria was once again dedicated to sightseeing in the capital. Damascus has the very well designed National Museum where the gardens alone make a visit worthwhile. Inside there are beautiful examples of classical and Ottoman art and architecture as well as the interior of an ancient synagogue moved from its original site at Dura Europos in the East. The museum provides a thorough overview of the history of the country. Just across the road from the museum, we visited the Caravansary that has been converted into a beautiful Handicrafts Market. We also went to the top of a nearby mountain where we got a panoramic view of the city. Ahmed clued us into the reputation of that viewpoint as being the "Lover's Lane" of Damascus. In the evenings couples drive up to the viewpoints and "watch" the sunset!
I hope one day to return to Syr?a. It has so much to offer and one could spend months explor?ng there.
Driving in Damascus
It was a little bit like a nightmare. Not a terribly frightening nightmare, but more of a frustrating tedious one. You would think that four reasonably intelligent adults would be able to direct themselves around a city without too much trouble...not so! We would circle around an area for a half an hour looking for place that we had spent forty-five minutes searching for the day before. The traffic while certainly following some sort of code of conduct was completely beyond our comprehension. Of course as soon as we had our wonderful guide, Damascene native, Ahmed Sadat in the car getting around became a piece of cake.
Meeting With the Bahraini Ambassador
Our stay in Syria would not have been the same without the overwhelming hospitality of the Bahraini Ambassador Waheed Sayyar, and his kind staff. Mr. Sayyar is a man who clearly finds passion in his work and he went to great lengths to help us make the most of our visit. We met with him on two occasions. First we visited the embassy and had tea. We described our journey and he spoke to us of his posting.
Then on our last evening in Damascus, the Safir hosted us, the Ambassador from Yemen, as well as various journalists, for a delicious meal at the Al- Khawali Restaurant in the Old City. The restaurant is housed in a magnificently restored Ottoman house. We ate our meal in the open-air courtyard surrounded by the delightful ottoman architectural features found in Damascus. The courtyard, at one time the harem of the house has been restored with incredible attention to detail creating an atmosphere of sumptuous tranquility.
The food and the setting were truly sensational, but even they did not compare to the lovely company present that evening. At any given time five or more conversations of great interest were occurring. By the end of the evening we felt we had just spent three hours with our dearest friends. We were able to speak to many wonderful journalists and tell them about our tour. They were especially interested in our impressions of Syria. Even more exciting for us was being able to hear from these journalists about their country and their lives.
Ambassador Sayyar spoke of the history of Damascus as a true scholar. He described Ottoman society and helped us understand the breadth of history in Syria spanning back to ancient times. He is also well informed about present-day Syrian society. Ambassador Sayyar dedicates one of his weekend days each week to strolling around the Old City or another area of Damascus and sparking up conversations with people on the street. He said that it is part of his job to have an understanding of how Syrians view the world. And this indeed makes him a true ambassador.
The Baghdad Cafe
On the road from Damascus Palmyra, there's a respite from the long road through the desert. The Baghdad CafÈ is a perfect place to stretch your legs and enjoy the Bedouin hospitality. You can buy refreshments, post cards, or souvenirs there. The place is filled with curiosities to marvel at and offers comfortable places to relax on. There are some Bedouin clothes to try on if you want and you may even get to hear some live music.
Gett?ng S?ck on the Road
We were just back ?n Amman after v?s?t?ng the unexpla?nable beauty of Wad? Rum when I began to be uncomfortable. It felt as though some object had lodged ?n my lower esophogus and was barr?ng entry of food or dr?nk ?nto my stomach. I dec?ded to take ?t easy on food but by the next morn?ng felt very d?sturbed that I was not even able to take a s?p of water w?thout (excuse the graph?c nature of th?s descr?pt) sp?tt?ng ?t up w?th?n a couple of m?nutes and then proceed?ng to have great d?scomfort as my throat retall?ated aga?nst my presumpt?on that I should hydrate myself. We crossed the border ?nto Syr?a that afternoon- I embarrassed myself by sp?tt?ng up ?nto a plast?c bag as we gave two border patrols a l?ft. We arr?ved ?n Damascus (oh! Damascus- c?ty of my dreams) and promptly checked ?nto a f?ve-star hotel courtesy of the Syr?an M?n?stry of Tour?sm.
I suffered for a few more hours and then the hotel sent a doctor. He asked me ?f ? was a nervous person and gave me an ?nject?on and some p?lls. They d?d not work (he told me ? would be able to eat w?th?n ten m?nutes-not so!) It had now been th?rty hours s?nce anyth?ng-food or dr?nk had made ?t to my stomach. So f?nally at m?dn?ght Al? took me to the Syr?an hosp?tal. I know..flash?ng l?ghts appear as you wonder what your daughter ?s do?ng head?ng for a syr?an hosp?tal. It was a pr?vate Islam?c hosp?tal ?n fact, called Imam Khomen? after the Iran?an revolut?onary leader. A very devout look?ng Saud? ?n the hotel lobby d?rected us there. I am tell?ng you he was r?ght. It was a great hosp?tal.
W?th?n ten m?nutes an Iraqu?-Lebanese but Syr?an-ra?sed handsome young Engl?sh-speak?ng doctor was g?v?ng me more attent?on than I have ever gotten from an Amer?can doctor. H?s beds?de manner was ?mpeccable, and he l?ke so many others ?n th?s reg?on expressed was qu?ck to recogn?ze the d?fference between the Amer?can people and the unpopular pol?c?es of our government. He was pretty certa?n what was wrong w?th me but sa?d I would have to come back ?n the morn?ng for a procedure where they put a a camera down your throat and exam?ne ?t. He told me that the pres?dent of the department would do the procedure. Then he had the nurse g?ve me a couple of ?nject?ons to stop the d?scmfort. Twenty m?nutes later I was back ?n my hotel room s?pp?ng water. By morn?ng I had drunk a whole l?tre of water I cannot express how m?raculous that seemed at the t?me.
I went ?n for the procedure and they put me under for twenty m?nutes. It was easy and smooth and the other doctor was also terr?bly k?nd and eff?c?ent. He determ?ned that I have severe esophousg?tus wh?ch seems to mean a hern?a-ulcer type th?ng ?n my lower esophogus. He prescr?bed two med?cat?ons that I have to take for s?x weeks and severely restr?cted my d?et. But I feel great now. I was a b?t t?red for two or three days but after that I felt absolutely f?ne.
Diary of a unique journey
Reaching across borders