One word comes to mind when I think about Syria: misunderstood. Looking at Syria through an American lens, all that seems to manifest is the thought of terrorists and dictators. The reality, however, is that Damascus is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the world.
Damascus (called Dimashq or al-Sham in Arabic) is the capital of Syria, an Arab country with a predominantly Muslim population, but also a large minority of Christians and others, while paradoxically being very secular, but also conservative. Although the current Syrian government is often at political odds with Washington and there is a travel advisory against Syria, it is a very safe place, and as an American as long as you are sensitive to their culture and customs, you will be very warmly welcomed.
Damascus is one of the oldest and longest habitable cities in the entire world, and is an official UNESCO World Heritage site. It dates back to at least 3000 B.C. and has long been a hub of the fertile crescent/Levant region. In the center of the city is the Old City with it’s souk (Arabic for market or bazaar) that stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see where you can find merchants selling everything from lither, fruit, metals, spices, and jewelry, to rugs, carpets, modern household items, toys, and glass—a shoppers paradise! In the middle of the old city is the gorgeous Umayyad Mosque with a minaret honoring Jesus. It is a gigantic space open to all regardless of your religion, and a sight worth seeing.
As old and historical Damascus is, it also happens to be one of the most beautiful. Standing on the hills that overlook Damascus, you can stare at the string of white lights illuminating the highways, and the numerous green dots creating a mosaic of the mosques. It is a surreal image, one I will never forget. The only thing more captivating than that is waking up in the morning to drink tea in one of the many fountain plazas sprinkled around Damascus to see the sun shinning over the mountains through the palm and evergreen trees warming the stones of a church and mosque that sit juxtaposed next to one another in a peaceful harmony of church bells and the call to prayer.
As if the scenery wasn’t good enough, the food is some of the best in the world. No matter whether you are looking for fresh hummos and tabbouli to eat, shai to drink (sweet Arabic tea), and a hookah to smoke (commonly known as Nargile in the Arab World), you can find it all around Damascus in one of the many cafes. And the best part: at a great price. In fact, Damascus is one of the best places to visit when you consider affordability and value. 50 Syrian pounds is about $1, and most common items in cafes are around 100 Syrian pounds. Not to mention of the many hostels you can go to (I suggest Al Haramain: http://www.syrianmall.com/hotels/hotel-detail.php?hotelid=3) usually charge about 100 Syrian pounds a night ($10).
The best thing about Damascus though has to be the people. Some of the most beautiful, kind-hearted, and hospitable people in the world live in Syria. Anytime you meet someone and they ask you where you are from, you always get a very kind and welcoming “ahlan wa sahlan” which means, “you are very welcome here,” and don’t be surprised if they offer you to share a cup of tea or coffee. And if they like you enough, you might even be surprised when they invite you out for a drink or a Syrian beer at one of the Damascus night clubs or pubs. Just remember that many Syrians do not speak English–most people only speak Arabic.
So no matter whether you are a history buff, an art enthusiast, a food lover, a shopper, or just a cosmopolitan, you will undoubtedly love Damascus. If you have a chance, you can also travel to the old Roman ruins at Palmyra or to the ancient city of Aleppo. I highly encourage you to get to Damascus sometime (apply for a visa through the Embassy in D.C. or through the consulates in Michigan and California ahead of time though). Damascus is a very modern city with beautiful scenery, and even more beautiful people. What are you waiting for? Yalla, enjoy Damascus!
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