Syria & Lebanon

For Amy

February 2016.

A timeless treasure

Dear Amy,

As a student of history such as yourself knows, the roots of modern civilization are not just in the west: many great discoveries, artistic works, architectural acheivements, and religious practices have roots in countries beyond the confines of Europe. I have crafted a journey through Syria and Lebanon that highlights this rich history, offering visits to mosques, temples, gardens, and ancient cities that once were the hub of a thriving and internationally influential culture—many of which are still full of life and power today.

Day 1: Arrival

You will arrive in Damascus and be transferred to the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus. The remainder of your day will be spent in relaxation after your long journey.

Day 2: Damascus

Begin the morning with your guide, Abdul Razak, who will accompany you for the duration of your trip. You will embark on a full day exploring Damascus, the oldest inhabited capital in the world.

Start with a visit to the National Museum, which contains artifacts from the prehistoric to the contemporary age. Highlights include 14th century written cylinders from Ugarit, notable for using the first known alphabet. Roman, Greek and Byzantine marble and terra cotta statues, frescoes, ancient Islamic tools, glassware and jewelry round out the collection.

Damascus is known for its popular markets, and today you will visit four: The famous Al-Hamidieh Souq, containing an amazing display of traditional arts; while Madhat Basha Souq brings to mind the Biblical story of St. Paul, St. Hananya and the Straight Road. At Al-Buzurieh Souq, choose from a vast selection of eastern spices and local confectionaries to take home. Finish your market hop at the bustling Hamedeh Bazaar.

Next, you will visit the Omayyad Mosque and Saladin’s Tomb. The 636 AD Omayyad Mosque was erected when the Muslims took over Damascus. The history of the site goes back about 3,000 years to the 9th century BC, and it changed hands from the Arameans to the Romans and Christians and finally the Muslims. Due to a fire in 1893, only three minarets date back to the original construction. Take special note of the Minaret of Jesus located on the southeastern corner. According to the Quran Jesus will return and appear here on Judgment Day. The mosque also contains the grave of Saladin who served as the first sultan of Egypt and Syria.

Continue onto the Azem Palace. Built in 1749, this charming palace with its lush gardens and intricate interior decoration is a calm oasis in the city. It also displays exhibits of the Museum of the Arts and Popular Traditions of Syria.

Lunch is at your leisure. Your guide will offer suggestions that are based on your preferences. After lunch, you will visit the chapel of St. Ananea, located in the cellar of one of Christianity’s first disciples, as well as St. Paul’s Chapel, where disciples lured St. Paul out of the window to flee from persecuting Jews.

Return to the hotel late afternoon for a few hours at leisure before dinner. This evening, you will visit Mont Kassioun for a panoramic view and overlook over Damascus, followed by an elegant dinner featuring local specialties based on your desire to try Syrian fare, one of the world’s greatest cuisines.

Day 3: Palmyra

This morning you will be met by your guide and will depart for Palmyra. En route, you will make a brief stop at Café Baghdad for refreshments before arriving at Palmyra before noon.

Palmyra (City of Palms), known to the locals by its ancient Semitic name, Tadmor (City of Dates), is mentioned in tablets as early as the 19th century BC. It became an important staging post for caravans traveling from the Mediterranean to the Gulf countries. It was also an important link on the old Silk Route from China to Europe, prospering greatly by levying heavy tolls on the caravans. As the Romans pushed the frontier of their empire further east during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, Palmyra’s importance as a buffer between the Persians and the Romans grew. In spite of Rome’s growing influence, the city retained considerable independence.

The city prospered into a colony but its glory began tumbled in 266 AD. In 634 it fell to the Muslims, and was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1089. In 1678, it was rediscovered by two English merchants living in Aleppo. The tales of Odenathus and Zanobia fascinated Europe—this was the first anyone had ever heard of the city’s existence. Yet Palmyra is not another Roman city. Its layout does not follow classical Roman town planning, despite some obvious Roman and Greek influences. Remarkably, though it had such powerful neighbors Palmyra retained a distinct culture as well as in its own language, a dialect of Aramaic.

Take lunch during your visit, with options based on your preferences. Your day will then conclude in Palmyra with a sunset view from the Arabic Castle. Once night falls, mount a camel and enjoy an elevated ride to the Bedouins Camp, where you will spend the night.

Day 4: Rasafa Ruins and Jaabar Castle

This morning you will travel to Rasafa, a 9th century archeological site in the desert before continuing to the Jaabar Citadel on the Euphrates. Jaabar Castle is an Arab fortress beautifully situated on a small island on the Euphrates River. It is unknown what this site was before the Arabs built the fortress, but it was held by the Arab tribe Banu Numeir when the Seljuks took it. At the time of the first crusade, it was probably annexed to Edessa’s (today the city of Urfa in Turkey) territory. In 1144, Zengi Atabeq of Aleppo took control of it, then it was handed down to his son Nur Al Din in 1168, who constructed most of what you see today. Saladin next inherited the city, but it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1260, and somewhat rebuilt later in the 14th century by the Mamelukes.

Nearby is the plain where the battle of Saffin took place between Caliph Ali (the fourth Caliph of the Rashedeen) and Moawiya Ibn Abi Sufian (the Umayyad Caliph). There is also the tomb of Suleiman Shah in the Euphrates. The tomb has now been moved upstream to the widening of the Euphrates after the building of the Euphrates Dam.

By mid-afternoon you will depart Jaabar Citadel for a 2.5-hour drive to Aleppo.

Day 5: Aleppo

Depart your hotel by 9:00 am this morning for a full day city tour of Aleppo. You will begin your day with a visit to the National Museum of Aleppo, followed by the Gran Omayad Mosque and the Caravanserai.

Lunch at your leisure, with the aid of suggestions from your guide. Afterward, visit the old town’s vast bustling souks built beneath limestone arches, alive with the colors and aromas of the Levant. Tour the Grand Mosque located on the northern edge of the souks. The freestanding minaret was built around 1090, but the origins of the mosque date back to early Islamic times. Much of what remains today is from the Mamiuk period. Inside the mosque, behind the carved wooden pulpit is supposed to be the head of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist.

The Islamic Citadel sits strikingly at the eastern end of the souks. The site where the citadel stands has been in use since the 10th century BC. Most of the citadel was built in the 12th century, including the massive gate and fortified main entrance. You will find the outside to be as finely decorated and inside you will visit the armory, the Byzantine Hall, the small 12th century mosque, the bigger 13th century mosque, and the Royal Palace with its lavishly restored throne room.

After visiting the Citadel, you will have free time for a few hours to enjoy shopping, and you may even wish to visit the public Hammam. Your driver will be at your disposal until you return to your hotel for dinner.

Day 6: Krac des Chevaliers

Depart early for Ebla, one hour away by car. This ancient city, found at Tell Mardikh, is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Syria. In 1964, an Italian excavation team began to dig here and discovered this Bronze Age city. Ebla has been mentioned as one of the cities conquered in 2250 BC by the Akkadians from Mesopotamia under Naram Sin. It has been proven that Ebla was an important and powerful kingdom, in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Ebla has been considered to be a missing link, which providing information on a kingdom that had important trading contacts with the Akkadians and Sumerians in Iraq, and north into Anatolia.

Little is known about the people of this kingdom, although it is thought that the founders are of Amorite descent. Their language is known as Eblaic, and it was recorded on clay tablets in the Akkadian cuneiform. Ebla flourished greatly between 2400 and 2250 BC, as a trading city with a sophisticated economic and social system. It was destroyed by the Akkadians under Naram Sin in 2250 BC, and in 2000 BC was annexed into the Aleppo kingdom of Yamkhad. In 1600 BC it was conquered and heavily damaged by he Hittites. In 1450 BC it is recorded at Karnak by the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III as a city that the Egyptians went through on their way to the Euphrates.

The city was circular and surrounded by a 20-30m thick wall and had a citadel or acropolis in the center of it. At four points round the city, the wall was perforated by the gateways guarded by bastions with towers. One of these gateways is still evident on the southwest side of the city walls. The citadel at the center includes two palaces, the main one is the royal palace on the west side that consists of royal quarters and an administrative area. There are also three caves below this, where some of the royals are buried. The archives are found in the southern part of the palace, and north of the tell are the remains of the Amorite fortress, which was found under a villa dating back to the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Most of the artifacts and archives can be found at the Idlib Museum.

After exploring, continue on your drive to Krac des Chevaliers. Lunch at your leisure near the Krac, suggested by your guide. Then, dive in to Krac des Chevaliers, the most famous medieval citadel in the world. The citadel covers an area of 3000 square meters and had 13 massive towers, in addition to many stores, tanks, corridors, bridges and stables. It was the headquarters of the Hospitaliers, a fighting monastic order. Its history begins in ancient times, through Islamic capture and through the Crusades, today a designated World Heritage Site.

In late afternoon, begin begin your 1.5 hour hike to St. Georges Church. After, you will be transferred back to Damascus, arriving late in the evening.

Day 7: Ksara Caves wine tasting & Beirut

Your driver will meet you this morning for the drive to Lebanon. Arrive in Lebanon, where you will be greeted by your Lebanese guide who will travel with you for the rest of your trip.

From here, you will drive to Baalbeck for a visit, time for lunch, a short drive and visit to Ksara Caves for wine tasting, later continuing to Beirut to arrive by late afternoon. You will stay at the Hotel Le Gabriel in Beirut, which has been chosen to suit your preferences. Enjoy dinner and a night at leisure.

Day 8: Jeita Caverns

Your full day in Beirut will begin with a visit to the National Museum. Later, drive to the downtown district to see the huge reconstruction project to create a new commercial and residential district of the 21st century. This project has actually revealed that the capital is standing on the site of a very ancient settlement dating back at least 5,000 years. Recent excavations have uncovered important archaeological sites from Canaanite, Phoenician, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Omayyad, Abbassid, Crusader, Mamluke, and Ottoman eras. The project includes new buildings constructed in the original style, besides hundreds of old structures that have been restored and renovated to their original shapes, including Beirut’s souks and historical mosques and churches.

Proceed to Corniche Road and stop for a short walk along the favorite promenade of many Beirutis. Further along, the road climbs steeply to a cliff edge, which is the headland of Beirut, with an array of cliff-top restaurants and cafés. The road then leads down, stretching into a beautiful sandy beach.

North of Beirut you will visit the Dog River to admire its commemorative inscriptions left behind by conquering armies between the 2nd millennium BC and 1949 AD.

Continue on to the nearby principal source of the river, Jeita, a beautiful natural wonder and the most extraordinary caverns in the Middle East. Enjoy a fun cable car ride to the caverns, which contain both lower and upper galleries. You will visit the lower galleries by boat and the upper caverns by foot. Pause and enjoy the refreshingly cool temperature with the calm symphony of rushing water. Ponder the columns and sculptures formed by water and time, and note how the lighting system, allows a glimpse at the uppermost roofs. In the evening, return to Beirut, where you will stay the night.

Day 9: Departure

Today, you will wake up and bid goodbye to Beirut, departing for home in the late morning.

Amy, it was lovely to plan this itinerary for you to explore the ancient sites of this region. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch in the future—I’d be delighted to plan another adventure for you.