A turret and wall at Krak des Chevaliers Castle, Syrai seen from below

Syria - The Highlights - In Memoriam

Author: Sue
Date: 29th December 2010

In Memoriam

When I went to Syria (on a group 'adventure' tour) the sandstone was glowing against the brightest of blue skies.

Krak des Chevaliers

The castles were magnificent. Eleventh century Krak des Chevaliers, the epitome of crusader castles, towering above them all, described by Lawrence of Arabia as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world’.

Krak des Chevaliers is one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world. The site was first inhabited in the 11th century by Kurdish troops , but in 1142 it was given to the order of the Knights Hospitaller, by Raymond II, Count of Tripoli, which was the name of the state, formed after the first Crusade.

The Hospitallers began rebuilding the castle in the 1140s and were finished by 1170 ,when an earthquake damaged the castle. It remained in their possession, unconquered, until the Crusaders were tricked into surrendering to Baibars Mamluk, Sultan of Egypt, in 1271.At its peak, Krak des Chevaliers housed a garrison of around 2,000.


  • Homs is the third largest city in Syria, established as a link between the Mediterranean and the interior of Syria
  • The city was choked up with traffic and we were almost too late to see the giant norias (water wheels) churning slowly in the dusky mist. I'm told that most of them are still intact.


  • Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria (it was the largest city when I visited).
  • It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; Aleppo may have been inhabited since the sixth millennium BC. It was the end point of the Silk Road until the Suez Canal was inaugurated in 1869. After that most trade was diverted to the sea and Aleppo began its slow decline.
  • It had possibly the most atmospheric souk I have ever seen, totally authentic and thronging with locals, trundling carts, buying and bartering.
  • Much of the city (and the souk) has now been destroyed in the Syrian Civil War.

Ancient Civilisations of Syria

Civilization in Syria dates back a very long time. Mesopotamia is the only area where civilisation is definitely older.


The most ancient Syrian ruins are at Ebla. It began as a small settlement in the Early Bronze Age (c. 3500 BC), developed into a trading empire and went through two more incarnations until its final destruction by the Hittites in 1600 BC.


North, up the coast to the coastal city of Latakia. Nearby, is the old port city of Ugarit, which dates back to 1450 BC.


Apamea (shrouded in mist) was an ancient Greek and Roman city. It was the capital of Apamene under the Macedonians and became the capital and Metropolitan Archbishopric of the late Roman province Syria Secunda. There's the Great Colonnade which runs for over a mile, making it among the longest in the Roman world and the Roman Theatre, one of the largest surviving theatres of the Roman Empire. It has an estimated seating capacity in excess of 20,000.

On the Euphrates

The River Euphrates flowed calmly on the border, evoking memories of school Bible study.

There are two ancient sites to visit here:

  • Rusafa, began as an Assyrian camp in the ninth century BC and was known in the Byzantine era as Sergiopolis. Justinian built the ramparts, which are are over 1600 feet in length and about 1000 feet wide
  • Dura-Europos was a Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman border city built on an escarpment 90 metres above the eastern bank of the Euphrates. It was captured by the Sasanian Empire after a siege in 256–57 AD. The inhabitants were deported, and after it was abandoned, it was covered by sand and mud. So it's an archeologists dream with its mixed cultures and architecture. One of the star exhibits is the world's oldest known Christian church.

Saint Simeon Stylites

There was more to see at the church of Saint Simeon Stylites. Simeon the Stylite, was the ultimate hermit in the fifth century. He lived and prayed on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years. he started a trend and his imitators became known as Stylites, from the Greek word for pillar. The pillar and this basilica were destroyed during the Civil War.

Palmyra, the Jewel of Syria

The ancient city of Palmyra was glorious from above and below. This is what UNESCO says:

'An oasis in the Syrian Desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the first to the second century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilisations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.'

It was midwinter and a little chilly. Walking around was challenging as I had brought a new pair of walking boots, without trying them on again (foolishly). It turned out that I had left the shop with two left boots. That left my new black UGGS . They didn't stay black very long.

Damascus, Capital of Syria

Historic Damascus was a joy. It was also a UNESCO heritage site. Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Damascus, the capital of Syria is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East and arguably the oldest inhabited city in the world. In the Middle Ages, it was the centre of a flourishing craft industry, specialising in swords and lace. It gets its name from the rich cotton fabric, damask. But it's also known as The Jasmine City.

Damascus has some 125 monuments from different periods of its history - one of the most spectacular is the eighth-century Great Mosque of the Umayyads, built on the site of an Assyrian sanctuary. In the Islamic era, Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt.

Damascus is the beleaguered capital of the modern Syrian state, which was established in the mid-twentieth century, after centuries of Ottoman rule and a brief French mandate. The two stars in the Syrian Flag represent the previous union between Syria and Egypt. Today, Syria struggles with ongoing conflict and corruption. Half the country's pre-war population - more than 11 million people - have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Families are struggling to survive inside Syria, or make a new home in neighbouring countries. Damascus has gone from the oldest inhabited city to the most uninhabitable city in the world.

  • The food in Syria was a delicious mezze style spread of flatbread and herby vegetables, sprinkled with pomegranate. There was Sufi dancing, all whirling skirts, for entertainment.
  • We were 'encouraged' to dress in local style clothing too
  • The people were overwhelmingly welcoming, friendly and helpful.
  • Very little of the above remains - it is unutterably sad.

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