My Syrian Experience...
May 14, 2006
Making the decision to spend more time in Lebanon meant I would have to spend less time in Syria. I was okay with this for a
number of reasons: a) this would make people at home happier (because the majority were fearful about me coming out here;
b) I really was just originally coming to Syria because it was the only way to go to Jordan overland; c) I was being told by
people I met in Lebanon that it’s very hard for a solo female traveler over here; and d) Syria is known mostly for ruins and,
for right now, I’m pretty ‘ruins’ed out. For these reasons, I was going to head to Damascus since it was the closest city to
Beirut (about 3-4 hours…depending on border crossing).
I hopped on my minibus from Beirut, paid $5 and was well on my way to Syria. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit
anxious. In addition to a bit of anxiety, I was also a bit sad about having to leave Lebanon. My hotel had come to feel like my
‘home away from home’ because it was so comfortable to me. But this year is not about me being in my comfort zone so I
quickly had to get over that.
On our ride, we stopped off along the way to change some of our currency into Syrian Pounds (this was really helpful so that I
could hop into a taxi when I arrived in Damascus and not worry about finding an ATM). We also stopped to get the last
authentic Lebanese food that I would be eating until the next time I come to Lebanon. We then stopped at the Lebanon
border to get our passports stamped. Then it was time to stop at the Syrian border (in between the two border checkpoints,
there was a huge Dunkin’ Donuts which I found pretty funny). Even though I had gotten my visa before I left, I was still a bit
nervous that there could be an issue…especially when the British guy in front of me wasn’t allowed to enter because of some
problems. But I got my passport stamped with no problems, showed it to the guy at the border crossing (who was the first
government official on this entire trip so far who has smiled—plus he was pretty cute) and was allowed into Syria.
Not too much later, we arrived in Damascus. It was much more orderly than I had imagined it to be. While there are about 3
million people living here, the streets were surprisingly quiet. Well, at least ‘quiet’ compared to Lebanon. The driving was
civilized. There weren’t the deafening sounds of horns honking.
And as for me being a female traveling by myself…
Not only have I felt safe since the moment I arrived, I haven’t noticed one person who has looked at me in a weird way or
who has said anything negative to me. While it’s clear that I’m a minority here, I have also noticed far more tourists here
than when I was in Lebanon. When I was at the National Museum, I saw a big tour bus—something I never saw in Lebanon. I
have seen foreign people (i.e. people like me) all over the place (whereas in Lebanon I think I saw only a handful or two).
Judging from their accents, most are from Europe. In any case, I think it’s these people who look at me in shock that I’m
traveling by myself than the Syrians themselves.
The Syrians that I’ve come across while being here are very nice. Even when asking for directions, they are very pleasant as
they speak to me in Arabic and tell me (I’m assuming) that they can’t understand me because they only speak Arabic. Most
seem to be very traditional and conservative which is apparent by the burkas that they wear (many covering everything but
I am not just in the Middle East in Syria; I am truly in the Arab world (this probably should have been obvious to me by the
full name of the country – Syrian Arab Republic). This was made more obvious when I went to the Ummayad Mosque during
the prayer call. This mosque is probably the third most popular mosque in the world to Muslims (Mecca and Medina being
the first two). People from all over the Middle East (especially the countries near the Arabian Gulf) come here. When coming
up to the tomb of a martyr (I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember the name right now), they—both men and
women--were sobbing as they were standing there. Not only is the mosque extremely holy in the Muslim world, but it’s also
extremely beautiful. There are gold mosaics at the entrance and throughout the entire courtyard. These mosaics aren’t of
people; they are of lush landscapes. It was beautiful visiting this mosque—both aesthetically and spiritually (I’m referring to
the spirituality of others).
Since I wasn’t going to be going out to Palmyra (which is famed for its amazing ruins), I decided to have them brought to me.
How does one do this? They go to the National Museum, of course. This museum houses artifacts from all over Syria. They
have quite a large sampling from Palmyra. It was all quite impressive and made me second-guess my decision not to go (after
exiting the museum, I was reminded of how hot it is out here and that it would only be hotter out there and decided I was
okay with my initial decision).
I have to talk about my proud moment in the museum. It turns out that my many previous museum visits have taught me a
little something. When I saw a sample of a column in the Palmyra section of the museum, I thought to myself “Hmmm… That
looks like it could be Corinthian.” Then I saw the description. Corinthian, indeed! Turns out I’m learning my different styles
of architecture and even retaining the information. Kudos to me.
While much of Damascus is like any other city, Old Damascus is definitely a taste of the past. It’s separated by the rest of the
city with a Roman wall and the most common way to enter it is through the main souk (ancient shopping area). This takes
you to the front of the Umayyad Mosque. Once you get to this area, you can roam around the narrow, cobblestone streets—
you really get a taste for how the city was thousands of years ago (Damascus is said to be the oldest capital in the world).
While it would have been great to see more of Syria, I really want to make sure that I allocate enough time to Egypt and
Jordan (mainly Petra and the Wadi Rum desert). Even though I just got a little taste of it, I have no doubt that the rest of the
country is great. From the people that I came across, I was left with a great impression.
The courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque.