Syria (الجمهوريّة العربيّة السّوريّة Al-Jumhuriya al-`Arabiya as-Suriya, the Syrian Arab Republic ) is one of the larger states of the Middle East and has its capital in Damascus. Syria is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the east by Iraq, by Jordan and Israel to the south, and by Lebanon to the south-west. In addition, the country has a short coastline on the east Mediterranean Sea.
Syria has a population of 21,906,000 million people (UN, 2009 estimate), of which 6 million are concentrated in the capital Damascus. A moderately large country (185,180 sq km or 72,150 sq miles), Syria is situated centrally within the Middle East region and has land borders with Turkey in the north, with Israel and Lebanon in the south, and with Iraq and Jordan in the east and south-east respectively.
The population of Syria is predominately Arab (90%), with large minorities from other ethnic groups: Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Turks. The official language is Arabic, but other tongues that are occasionally understood include Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish, French and English. The Syrian Republic is officially secular. Nonetheless, it is greatly influenced by the majority religion of Islam (90% of the population, split between 74% Sunni Muslim and 16% other Muslim). There is a large Christian minority that amounts to about 10% of the population.
The President of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father Hafez al-Assad soon after his death on 10 June 2000. Having studied to become an opthalmologist (eye doctor) in Damascus and London, Bashar was groomed for the presidency after the 1994 car accident of his elder brother Basil. As a consequence, he joined the army and became colonel in 1999. Bashar's modernising credentials were somewhat boosted by his role in a domestic anti-corruption drive. More recently, however, after an initial period of increased openness. Bashar's position as head of the Syrian state rests on his presidency of the Baath Party and his command-in-chief of the army.
Assad's regime and the Baath Party own or control the vast majority of Syria's media. Criticism of the president and his family is not permitted and the press (both foreign and domestic) are heavily censored for material deemed threatening or embarrassing to the government. A brief period of relative press freedom arose after Bashar became president in 2000 and saw the licensing of the first private publications in almost 40 years. A later crackdown, however, imposed a range of restrictions regarding licensing and content. In a more relaxed manner (perhaps owing more to the fact that these matters are largely beyond possible government control), many Syrians have gained access to foreign television broadcasts (usually via satellite) as well as the three state-run networks. In 2002 the government set out conditions for licensing private, commercial FM radio stations, ruling at the same time, however, that radio stations could not broadcast news or political content.
Syria has 14 governorates (or muhafazat - singular: muhafazah): Aleppo, Al Hasakah, Ar Raqqah, As Suwayda, Dara, Damascus, Deir-az-Zur, Hama, Homs, Idlib, Latakia, Quneitra, Rif Dimashq, Tartous.
Golan Heights (occupied by Israel) is also claimed by Syria. Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. This annexation is not recognized by the United Nations.
Damascus - The Capital, the oldest city alive.
Aleppo - A large souk and ancient citadel with great views
Deir-az-Zur - a desert town on the Euphrates River bank
Hama - Waterwheels
Homs - An ancient city on Orontes River, Crac des Chevaliers, Amazing Green Mountains in Spring.
Latakia - A major port city, Saladin's Castle, Fronloq Forests and Al Samra Beah near Kasab.
Tartous - a historical port city and historical small island called Arwad.
Crac des Chevaliers - The archetypal Crusader castle, magnificently preserved and not to be missed.
Palmyra - Magnificent ruins of a Roman city, in the middle of the desert. It can be considered the main attraction in Syria.
Apamea – A former Roman city which once housed about half a million people. Apamea was hit by an earthquake in the 12th century and much of it was destroyed but it still boasts a long street lined with columns, some of which have twisted fluting.
Saladin's Castle - A quiet gem in a valley with pine trees about 37 kms inland from Lattakia.
The Dead Cities – A series of towns which once formed part of Antioch. They have long since been abandoned but make an interesting stop for tourists. Al Bara boasts pyramidal tombs and formerly grand archways set on modern farm land. Serjilla is another famous dead city.
Der Mar Musa - not a tourist site, but an active christian monastery actively promoting Islamic/Christian dialog. Welcomes Christians and followers of other religious traditions.
Bosra- A Roman city in southern Syria close to the Jordan frontier noted for the use of black basalt stones and its well preserved theatre
Visas are needed for most individual travelers. These are available in 6-month (single/multiple entry), 3-month (single) and 15 day (land borders only) versions. Citizens of Arab countries do not require visa. Getting visas in advance is expensive and confusing. Americans are required to apply in advance at the Syrian embassy in Washington DC, even if they live elsewhere, and pay US$131. Most other travellers, though, can get them anywhere, a popular choice being Istanbul (Turkey) where they are generally issued within one day for €20 (Canadians) or €30 (EU citizens). A "letter of recommendation" stating that your consulate has "no objection" to your visit to Syria may be required. The visa issued must have two stamps and a signature, otherwise the visa is considered invalid and you will be turned back at the border. It is necessary to keep the blue arrival form as it must be submitted upon departure.
Official policy says that, if your country has a Syrian embassy or consulate, you should apply for your visa in advance. Most nationals must apply for a Syrian visa in the country in which they are a citizen. Alternatively a foreign national may apply for a Syrian visa from a Syrian Consulate in a country other than their own if they hold a residency visa valid for at least 6 months for the country in which they are applying. There are very few exceptions to this rule. It is not possible to obtain a visa on the border for most nationals.
If going by land, and you are planning to get a visa on the border, bring US Dollars or Syrian Pounds. Foreign currency will not get a good exchange rate and at most crossing there are no facilities for credit/debit cards. Travelers checks are also not accepted.
American citizens need to beware of sanctions on Syria. While traveling and spending money in Syria is permitted, you may not fly with Syrian Arab Airlines, and more importantly, many US banks err on the safe side and ban all business with Syria. Some credit or ATM cards may not work, although many Americans today experience little problems in this regard. Be wary, however, as some travelers have had their bank account access frozen, regardless of whether or not they informed their bank of travel to Syria.
Syria has three international airports: Damascus International Airport (DAM), 35km (22miles) SE of the capital, Aleppo International Airport (ALP) just northeast of Aleppo in the north of the country, Lattakia International Airport (LTK), south of Lattakia, main sea port of the country. The first two airports have regular direct flights served by Syrian Arab Airlines and the British airline bmi to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, while the third one for the time being is connected only with the capital city of Egypt, Cairo and with Kuwait (through jazeera Airways, since mid 2009). Flights from Damascus and Aleppo compete with other international carriers serving the same destinations, and Syrian Arab Airlines has code share arrangements with many airlines, including the Turkish Airlines flights to Istanbul.
Damascus international airport is served by many of the larger European carriers to the Middle East including Lufthansa, bmi, Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot. Low-price tickets from Europe can sometimes be found, but until the recent war in Lebanon, cheaper fairs could sometimes be obtained through Czech Airlines, Cyprus Air or Malev. Royal Jordanian can be reasonable through Amman. Some low-cost airlines from the Middle East such as Air Arabia (UAE/Sharjah), flydubai (UAE/Dubai) and jazeera Airways (Kuwait) serve Damascus frequently, and many other Gulf carriers such as Gulf Air, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways have up to several daily flights to Damascus. To cut down on airfare from Europe some people catch a charter flight to Turkey (Antalya) and then take the bus to Aleppo.
The only connection to America is served by Conviasa in a non-stop flight from Damascus to Caracas.
Upon arrival, a free entry visa can be delivered to almost all travelers if they are being received by local Travel Agency. Call the Syrian Embassy in your home country for more information.
Syria levies a departure tax of 550 Syrian Pounds (~US$13) at land and sea borders. Since Summer 2009 airport departure tax is included in the ticket price, and airlines will put a manual stamp on your boarding pass.
Flying to Istanbul followed a train/coach down to Damascus is a very cheap alternative to flying direct to Damascus(£200 return flights from the UK to Istanbul) it takes about 36 hours max to Aleppo (leaves on Sunday morning; see ). Contrary to popular belief it does not continue to Damascus, you have to change trains. Seat61 is very accurate and should be consulted.
All trains from Istanbul (Hydar Pasha train station on the Asian side of the Bosporus) are operated jointly between TTCD (Turkish) and CFS (Syria) and are by far the cheapest way into Syria from Europe, flying to Istanbul and continuing by rail can cost €200 - €300 less than a flight to Damascus.
Buses run from Turkey, with frequent connections from the city of Antakya (Hatay). You can also travel by bus from Jordan & Lebanon.
When arriving into Damascus by bus, make sure to move away from the bus terminal to find a taxi to the centre of town. Otherwise, you run the risk of paying several times the going rate, which should be around SYP150, as cars posing as taxis operate next to the terminal.
This is normally a two-man operation, with one person trying to distract you, while the driver puts your suitcase into the trunk of the "taxi" and locks it.
When traveling from Lebanon, service taxis (taxis that follow a fixed route only, usually from near one bus station to another) are a convenient way to reach Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Aleppo or other Syrian towns. A shared service taxi from Beirut to Damascus will cost about $10 per person ($20 to Aleppo) and $75 for a private taxi. In most cases it is necessary to buy a Syrian visa before leaving home, often costing about $100 or less, depending of the country of residency. It's possible, to obtain free entry visa for tourists if being received by a local Travel Agency. It is also possible to arrive by car from Turkey. A private taxi from Gaziantep Airport (Turkey) will cost about $60.
Service taxis run from Dar'a across the Jordanian border to Ramtha; from there microbuses are available to Irbid and Amman -- the stop in Dar'a permits a side trip to Bosra, with UNESCO-recognised Roman theater and ruins.
Occasional passenger ferries run between Latakia and Limassol, Cyprus. This service has come and gone over the years, and only 4 sailings in each direction are scheduled for 2008. Confirm that the departure will occur with Varianos Travel before making plans that incorporate this route.
Latakia and Tartous serve as ports of call for a number of Mediterranean cruise lines.
The taxis (usually yellow, and always clearly marked) are an easy way to get around Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. Arabic would be helpful: most taxi drivers do not speak English. All licensed taxis carry meters, and it is best to insist that the driver puts the meter on, and watch that it stays on. Most drivers expect to haggle prices with foreign travellers rather than use the meter. A taxi ride across Damascus might come to £S30. Taxis from the airport to the downtown Damascus cost about £600-800, slightly more at night. Private cab services (which advertise prominently at the airport) charge substantially more.
However, there is also a bus from Baramkeh station to the airport for 25S£.
Cars can be rented at various Budget and Europcar locations. Cham Tours (formerly Hertz) has an office next to the Cham Palace Hotel, which offers competitive rates starting at about USD 50 / day incl. tax, insurance and unlimited kilometers.
If you have never driven in Syria before, make sure you take a taxi first in order to get a first-hand idea of what traffic is like. Especially in Damascus and Aleppo, near-constant congestion, a very aggressive driving style, bad roads and highly dubious quality of road signs make driving there an interesting experience. There are basically no rules that are actually enforced or adhered to – so always expect other cars to run red lights, or cut you off, or drive in the wrong direction (providing pleasant little adrenaline highs if this happens on a highway at night and the oncoming car has no lights). It might seem as if the system is working, but Syria has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world, so do be careful.
Note that the only road rule that might come in handy is that, as opposed to most of the rest of the world, in roundabouts, the entering cars have the right of way, and the cars that are already in the roundabout have to wait. Aside from that, it seems that motorists are fairly free to do as they please.
If you have an accident in a rental car, you must obtain a police report, no matter how small the damage or how clear it is who is at fault – otherwise, you will be liable for the damage.
Gas comes at SYP 40 a liter (Sept. 2008).
The microbuses (locally called servees, or meecro) are little white vans that carry ten, or so, passengers around cities on set routes for about £S10. The destinations are written on the front of microbus in Arabic. Usually, the passenger sitting behind the driver deals with the money. You can ask the driver to stop anywhere along his route.
Often, microbuses will do longer routes, for example, to surrounding villages around Damascus and Aleppo, or from Homs to Tadmor or Krak des Chevaliers. They are often more uncomfortable and crowded than the larger buses, but cheaper. Especially for shorter distances they have usually more frequent departures than buses.
Air-conditioned coaches are one of the easy ways to make longer hauls around Syria, for example, the trip from Damascus to Palmyra. Coaches are cheap, fast and reliable way to get around the country, however the schedules, when they exist, are not to be trusted. For the busy routes it's best to simply go to the coach station when you want to leave and catch the next coach, you'll have to wait a bit, but most of the time it's less of a chore than finding out when the best coach will be leaving, and then often finding it's late.
The Syrian railways are reasonably modern. Rail travel is inexpensive and generally punctual, although railway stations are often a reasonable distance out of town centres. The main line connects Damascus, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur, Hassake and Qamishle. A secondary line serves stations along the Mediterranean coast.
In the summer, on Fridays, a little steam train leaves from the Hejaz Railway Station in Damascus (which has a good restaurant) and climbs into the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Many locals enjoy the ride to picnic in the cooler mountains.
While traveling by bicycle may not be for everyone, and Syria is by no means a cycle tourist's paradise, there are definite advantages. Syria is a good size for cycling, accommodation is frequent enough that even a budget traveller can get away with "credit card" touring (though in the case of Syria, it might be better to refer to it as fat-wad-of-cash touring). There are sites that one can not get to with public transportation like the Dead Cities and the people are incredibly friendly often inviting a tired cyclist for a break, cup of tea, meal or night's accommodation. The problem of children throwing stones at cyclists or running behind the bicycle begging for candy and pens (such as in parts of Morocco) does not seem to have appeared in Syria. Locals young and old alike will, however, be very curious about your travels and your bicycle and if you stop in a town you can expect a large crowd to gather for friendly banter about where you are from and your trip.
Wild camping is quite easy in Syria. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not so much finding a place for your tent but picking a spot where locals will not wander by and try to convince you to come back to their home. Olive groves and other orchards can make a good spot for your tent, except on a rainy day when the mud will make life difficult. Another option is to ask to pitch your tent in a private garden or beside an official post like a police station. It is unlikely you will be refused as long as you can get your message across. A letter in Arabic explaining your trip will help with communication.
Unfortunately, the standard of driving skills in Syria is extremely low and other road users tend to drive very aggressively. They do seem used to seeing slow moving traffic and normally give plenty of room as they pass. Motorcycles are perhaps the biggest danger as their drivers like to pull up alongside cyclists to chat or fly by your bike for a look at the strange traveller and then perform a u-turn in the middle of the road to go back home. Perhaps the safest option in this case is to stop, talk for a few minutes and then carry on.
Finding good maps tends to be another problem. You should bring a map with you as good maps are hard to find in Syria. Free ones are available from the tourist bureaus but they are not very good for cycle touring. Even foreign-produced maps can contain errors or roads that don't exist, making excursions away from the main route a challenge. Asking several locals for the right road is a good idea when you come to a crossroads. Without good maps it can be hard to avoid riding on the main highway, which while safe enough (a good wide shoulder exists on almost all the highways) is not very pleasant due to the smokey trucks and uninteresting scenery.
You should think about bringing a water filter or water treatment tablets with you. Bottled water is not always available in the smaller towns. Finding local water is easy. Tall metal water coolers in many town centres dispense free local water and water is always available near mosques. The Syrian word for water is pronounced like the English word “my” (as in “that is my pen”) and if you ask at any shop or home for water they will happily refill your bottles.
Falafel, deep-fried chickpea patties, are available for 15 to 30 SP. Another popular vegetarian meal is Foul. Don't let the name put you off. It's actually pronounced “fool” and this fava bean paste – topped off with cumin, paprika and olive oil and served with bread, fresh mint and onion – is not only tasty but filling.
You may also be able to order a salad of Fatoush with your soup. Chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and herbs are mixed together in a dressing and finished off with a sprinkling of fried bread that resembles croutons. Cheese may also be grated on top.
Meat wraps such as shwarma cost 35 to 50 SP. A half-chicken with bread and mayonnaise dip to take away costs 175 SP.
Lunch or dinner in a fair restaurant costs 450 SP. An expensive restaurant lunch or dinner will run about 1000 SP.
Generally you can drink water from the tap, it is extremely safe, but if you're unsure ask the locals first. This water is free compared to bottled water, which comes at anywhere between 15-25 Syrian Pound for 1.5 litres.
Fresh fruit juices are available from street stalls in most towns. A large glass of mixed juice (usually banana, orange juice and a few exotic fruits like pomegranate) costs 40-50 SP.
Beer is cheap, costing from 35 SP in a shop and anywhere from 50 to 100 SP in most budget accommodation and local bars for a half litre bottle or can. Syrian wine can be found starting at about 150 SP and Lebanese and French wines are also available in a higher price bracket, starting at 350-400 SP.
A budget traveler spends about 250 to 500 SP a night for a rooftop.
A double room you can find for around 800 SP, although this cost may be higher in Damascus. A double room in a three stars hotel costs about $50 USD, $80 USD for four stars, and can reach $250 USD in a five star hotel.
There are several institutions in Damascus that teach Arabic:
Language Institute at Damascus University - The Language Institute fully immerse their students in Arabic; the course materials and all interaction between students and teachers are done in Arabic. Students are placed in beginning, intermediate, or advanced courses based on a placement test.
The British Council - While the classes may be expensive, they are mainly aimed toward diplomats and businessmen.
DSA - Damascus Language School for Standard Arabic - The school provides basic courses for beginners and advanced courses also on certain topics as for journalists, physicians, diplomats, engineers etc. Normal classes have maximum 4 Students. Lessons with private teachers are even possible. Twice a year, there are certain courses for students available at half price. Teachers are well experienced in teaching foreigners. Basic courses start every Saturday.
TikaTrip - Travels and Studies in Syria - Providing private Arabic tutors as well as professional language teachers and all important services: starting with the pickup service at the airport, arranging accommodation and advices on how to tackle the bureaucratic procedures.
The unit of currency in Syria is the Syrian pound or 'lira' (£S). All prices are now in even numbers of pounds, so the subdivision 'piastre' is obsolete.
Exchange rates (current in October 2009):
1 UK£ = £S 73
1 USD$ = £S 46
1 Euro = £S 68
1 AUD$ = £S 42
100 JPN Yen = £S 51
In recent years, a number of ATMs have become available in most major cities: banks, main squares, and 5 star hotels. However, it should be noted that not all ATMs access the international networks. The Real Estate bank has the widest network that will accept foreign cards but cards may also be used in machines run by the Bank of Syria and Overseas and the Commercial Bank of Syria. There have also been instances of foreigners finding ATMs not in working order.
One thing to keep in mind is that exchange rates using the ATM system are lower than the official rate which is still lower than street rate. Many private money changing offices exist, but will change cash only. Note that it is nearly impossible to change traveller's cheques in Syria, so do not rely on them but bring cash or credit cards instead. (If you're feeling lucky or desperate, the Commercial Bank of Syria may be able to exchange them.)
Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted, and are even accepted at many smaller shops and budget hotels. Don't count on acceptance, though, as it is far from universal. It is also virtually impossible to get an advance on your credit card in Syria if you are out of Damascus and Aleppo.
An international student card reduces the entry fees to many tourist sites to 10% of the normal price, if you are younger than 26 years. Depending on who is checking your card it is even possible to get the reduction when you are older than 26 or have only an expired card. It is possible to buy an international student card in Syria (around U$ 15). Ask around discretely.
Arabic is the official language. It is always a good idea to know some words ("hello", "thank you" etc.). Surprisingly many people speak at least rudimentary English.
Male and female visitors should wear modest/conservative clothing. It is best to wear loose-fitting clothes and not to reveal too much skin. For women, long-sleeved (or at least bracelet-length) T-shirts and skirts or pants coming to below the knee are fine. Men should wear long trousers, but (unlike women) can wear short sleeves in hot weather. A headscarf is generally not necessary other than when visiting mosques. Current youthful styles in the West ARE worn in Syria (in the bigger cities), but the girls wear an undergarment with crotch snaps. The jeans are skin-tight and low-slung; the tops are high-cropped, but no midriff is revealed.
In Aleppo, clothing styles are markedly different in different parts of the city. In the Armenian or Christian areas women can be commonly seen in tight-fitting clothes; a contrast to the burkas and head scarves throughout most of the city. Lattakia as well has far less conservative dress than most of Aleppo.
Local pharmacies are well stocked with treatments for most common ailments such as stomach bugs and traveller's diarrhea. Pharmacists often speak a little bit of English. You can ask your hotel to call a doctor if necessary and a visit to your hotel room will cost about 700-1000 SP as of November 2007.
The best treatment of all, of course, is to stay healthy in the first place. When eating, pick restaurants that are busy.
If you have a treatment, take it with you. Don't expect to find all medicine in Syria. If you have to buy something from a pharmacy, ask for a "foreign" EU or US brand. You will have to pay a premium for that, but at least you will increase the chances to have an actual medicine. Some products come from uncertain origin and are ineffective according to certain local pharmacists.
Syria is generally safe for travelers, partly because crime is considered shameful and is heavily punished. However, the renewed conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 prompted large demonstrations throughout the Middle East. Travelers are advised to avoid all large gatherings as they may turn violent. Late in 2006 gunmen attacked the US Embassy in Damascus. Occasionally foreign travelers have been targeted by political groups, especially in the south of the country.
There are no hostile feelings towards Americans or Westerners in general (although Americans tend to be subjected to more scrutiny by the authorities than other nationalities). You could, however, find yourself in trouble if you engage in open criticism of and against the Syrian government or the president. Your best bet is to avoid political conversations all together just to avoid any possible problems. If you do engage in political discussions with Syrians, be aware that they might face intense questioning by the secret police (mukhabarat) if you are overheard. As a general rule, always assume that you are being watched by plainclothes policemen. You will notice that not many uniformed policemen can be seen in the streets, but this is because the police have a wide network of plainclothes officers and informants.
Women traveling alone may find that they draw a little too much attention from Syrian men. However, this is generally limited to stares or feeble attempts at making conversation. If it goes beyond that the best approach is to remain polite but be clear that approaches are unwelcome. Be loud and involve bystanders as they will often be very chivalrous and helpful.
Slightly inconvenient for some is the attention of children begging for money, pens, or snacks around some tourist sites (usually those outside of Damascus). Compared to many third world countries beggars are rare in much of Syria.
Since beggary is common in some parts of Syria, particularly outside of tourist attractions, mosques, and churches, it has been known that beggars occasionally demand money and may follow you around until you give. Some have even been known to "attack" some tourists just for money and food. It is advised to wear appropriate Arab clothing and try to blend yourself in. It also better to keep your money in your front pockets and safe with you. Many scams by beggars have also led many foreign tourists to lose quite a bit of money; be aware of these scams.
If you entered the country on a tourist visa, don't try to work and earn money. Foreign workers should always get official approval to work.
Tourist Information Offices; Damascus: 2323953, Damascus Int'l Airport: 2248473, Aleppo: 2121228, Daraa (Jordanian-Syrian border gate): 239023, Lattakia: 216924, Palmyra (Tadmur): 910636, Deir-az-Zur: 358990
The international calling code for Syria is +963.
Syrians are allowed access to internet although there is heavy filtering of many popular Websites (including YouTube, Facebook and Blogspot, among others). Internet is very common around the cities at internet cafes. There are a few sites blocked such as YouTube and others. The cafes are very friendly but beware that foreigners may be charged more than others. It is usually 50 SP per hour (1$ US). The restrictions on the internet are anything with connections to the Syrian government, terrorism, Israeli sites and any site with political debates and there is one registered pleas for internet services for Foreigners in Damascus (souk saroja).
Prices for high-speed access are quite varied. As of November 2007, Aleppo's Concord internet cafe was charging a hefty 100 SP an hour, while in Hama the going rate seemed to be 75 SP for an hour and in Damascus the price dropped to around 50 SP an hour (less if you pay for several hours in advance).
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|Electricity||220/50 Hz (European plug)|
|Government||Republic under Emergency Law|
|Population||19,747,586 (July 2008 est)|
|Religion||Sunni Muslim 74%, Alawite, Druze, and other Muslim sects 16%, Christian (various denominations) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo)|
|Timezone||UTC +2(Winter) / +3(Summer)|