It’s been 10 years since I’ve traveled to Damascus. Syria has since transformed from an unknown Middle Eastern country to a widespread synonym for war and terror. Now that the troubles have allegedly subsided, it was time for me to return my family and roots. In March 2019, I spontaneously booked my flight to Beirut, from where I traveled across the border to Syria.
In those 8 years since the beginning of the civil war, time seemed to have stood still in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Almost untouched by the war, my extended family as well as many others have lived and even thrived in a lively environment.
Driving from Beirut to Damascus
It was not a comfortable drive. My driver – he works “on the line”, which is a daily commute between Beirut and Damascus for pick up or delivery of goods and people – was already in a bad mood after waiting on my late flight. Due to bad weather conditions (rain and snow), we got stuck on the back of a mountain between Beirut and Damascus. Only snow chains saved his cheaply built Chinese car and “safely” carried us downhill again, but not after wasting around 3 hours in traffic. The drive usually takes 2 hours.
I would like to see Syria and Damascus open up again to foreigners and tourists, if only to get the airport going again and spare me the 2 hour drive from Beirut.
Crossing the border, by the way, wasn’t such a problem for me – I have a Syrian passport and needn’t get a visa. The German Ministry of External Affairs still cautions Germans to not enter Syria. It may be unsafe – but Germans aren’t banned. You can get tourist visa from the Syrian embassy in Berlin or even from tourism agencies, although I don’t think you can get visa on arrival (I’m pretty sure you can get anything on arrival if you bribe the right people, but I wouldn’t risk the sport). I would like to see Syria and Damascus open up again to foreigners and tourists, if only to get the airport going again and spare me the 2 hour drive from Beirut.
We arrived in Damascus in the dead of night. All that was left for me to do was to hug the family that I hadn’t seen for ages – as if no time had passed at all.
Not much looks different, anyway. I always jokingly note how Damascus is still exactly as shitty as it was before the war. You still can’t drink tap water, you still can’t get American consumer products, and you still have to get checked by the military. And although you can see faint traces of wealth and growth, it always looks as if it that has been around and stuck since the 70ies. Nothing new in Damascus, a city that was sheltered from the worst parts of a horrifying and brutal war.
Due to a bureaucratic hiccup, I had to spend most of my one week trip going back and forth between police station, registration office, bank and public notary – all to renew my lost ID card. I got to know the medieval bureaucracy of Syria (I swear to God there’s not one computer, nay, not even a goddamn calculator in any state office in Damascus) in detail. I also learned that petrol is only sold on ration cards, and that soldiers are always allowed to jump the queue to run their errands. I saw a Russian Humvee, and the Syrian flag seemed to be everywhere. But apart from that? I felt like a tourist in any developing part of the world: cautious, but safe.
Meanwhile, the old parts of Damascus are still beautiful. Nothing has changed around here, although everything did get properly expensive. If you think you can get anything for cheap in Damascus, you’re out of luck: prices are soaring.
I could go on and on and on about my impressions and my personal stories and connections to Damascus. Everything about this place – the bleak concrete, the harsh humor, the mouth-watering food and the overall lingering smell of the yasmine flower, mixed with rose and orange and heaps of Diesel – is inspiring and welcoming and intriguing. And because I trust that Syria will open up its doors again soon, hopefully to flourish from the influence of economic and cultural growth, I’ve already prepared a little to do list for soon-to-be travelers to Damascus.
One thing is for sure: I’m definitely coming back soon. I did not nearly eat enough great food.
A short guide to Damascus
Many cultures have left their mark in Damascus, founded in the 3rd millennium BC. especially Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic. In 1979, the historical center of the city, surrounded by walls of Roman era, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The wall around the city has seven entrance gates. The gates’ locations and names are helpful to navigate your way through the ancient neighborhoods, especially if you need to call a taxi.
- Bab Al Faradees
- Bab Al Salaam
- Bab Touma
- Bab Sharqi (leads into the Christian quarter, where all the bars are)
- Bab Kisaan
- Bab Al Saghir
- Bab Al Jabiyah
The ancient city of Damascus
Old Damascus is the heart of the city and should be your home base during your trip. Here you will find the old traditional Arabic houses which have been converted into hotels and restaurants. The ancient city is where nightlife, traditions, ancient landmarks and architecture as well as proper Syrian food come together.
Souk al Hamidiyah
The the traditional Souk al Hamidiyah is turbulent and confusing and the most ancient market in the entire history of the world. The Souk is more than half a kilometer in length, and is covered by a 10 meter tall metal arch. Flanked by textile shops and herbal stores and spice racks, it flows into the eminent Umayyad Mosque, while the ancient Roman Temple of Jupiter stands at this side the plazas entrance. If you like to feel like Indiana Jones, this is your place to be. Some things you should definitely do:
- Visit the Umayyad Mosque (dress appropriately)
- Eat Bakdash ice cream, the oldest ice cream in the world – I hate this ice cream but I understand that tourists love it, so I feel obliged to mention it here. If you like Sahlap, the Turkish drink, you’ll love the Booza at Bakdash, which comes topped with pistachio.
- Eat Tamari Kaak (a pancake with date syrup) and drink Tut Shami (refreshing mulberry juice)
- Enjoy a waterpipe at the legendary Nawfara Café
- Visit Al Azem palace (unfortunately closed while I was there)
Medhat Basha Souq
Midhat Pasha Souq is another historical souk / market inside of the walled city. Many smaller souqs branch out of Midhat Pasha. It can be quite a maze and thrilling to get lost inside the labyrinth of markets and shops.
- Visit the Khan Assad Basha – a khan is an inn in eastern countries with a large courtyard that provides accommodation for caravans. The Khan Assad Basha is a spectacular building, nowadays mostly used for private functions and weddings. It allegedly holds the the Natural History Museum of Damascus but we didn’t see anything that would resemble a museum… typically Syrian.
- Visit Maktab Anbar – this house from the Ottoman empire is a cultural site today, hosting a museum and workshops.
- Dine out at Dar Misk – this traditional Arabic restaurant offers Kibbeh and Shish Tawouk and all the classics of Syrian cuisine in a renovated house.
- Alternatively, have the best Shawarma plate of your life at the eminent Al Seddik restaurant just outside of Midhat Basha (outside of the walled city). This place is truly a hidden gem with a fixed menu of Kibbeh, hummus, some other mezzeh and an indulgent plate of shawarma for each guest. Service is known to be super bad because the restaurant is always overcrowded, but that can be easily remedied by enjoying the superb food.
Bab Sharqi is your entrance point into the Christian neighborhood of the old city. It’s full of bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels, so you must absolutely visit at night. Walk down Straight Street and take in the spectacular atmosphere of a Damascene summer evening, mingle with the locals (mostly students) and buy your drinks at the little “kishks” or kiosks. Yes, Damascus has Spätis.
- Enjoy Syrian fine dining at the legendary Narinj restaurant. Prices are never on the menu, but expect them to be in the European mid-range sector. Narinj is absolutely worth a visit – I’ve rarely eaten classic Syrian dishes so well outside of my grandmother’s house. You must absolutely try the Knafeh or Atayef, little Syrian pancakes with sweet cottage cheese topping, for dessert.
- Asr al Narjis or Narjis Palace is another option down on Straight Street. Here, the atmosphere is more eclectic than at Narinj, as dinners are usually accompanied by live music. Live music is nothing to underestimate in Damascus – I guarantee that you’ll get up on the tables with the locals to dance and sing along.
Souk al Shalaan
Outside of the city walls, you should definitely make a trip to the Souk Al Shalaan. It’s a more “modern” (that is, it’s not ancient, although modern is a bit of a stretch) maze of markets and shops for the locals, and nowadays one of the most expensive places to live in Damascus. Here, you should:
- Eat Fatteh, a wonderful concoction of hummus, tahin, lemon, nuts and yogurt at Buz El Jedi.
Syrian Handicrafts Market
Between the old city and Ummayin Square is the Syrian handicrafts market. It’s a lovely little passage next to the Syrian National museum. Here, you can buy overpriced mosaic and mother of pearl caskets, oil paintings and other souvenirs.
Most importantly, you can bask in the sun at the magnificent Tekkiye Suleymaniye. The complex is composed of a large mosque on the southwest side of a courtyard, flanked by a single line of arcaded cells, and a soup kitchen across the courtyard to the northwest, flanked by hospice buildings. The complex was closed to the public, yet even from the outside the finest example of Ottoman architecture in Damascus. The construction of the mosque combines the typical Damascene black and white architecture with Ottoman-style domes and two slender minarets. The complex served as a quarter for pilgrims and travellers and at the same time provided spiritual support.
Good to know before you go
- Every hotel in Syria is a 5 star hotel, which can mean anything and nothing at all.
- The buildings of traditional Arabic guesthouses are super old and tatty – expect cheesy interior, daily electricity shutdowns and never drink the tap water.
- Don’t be fooled by rundown looking restaurants, bars and shops – they are usually packed with the full spectrum of Syrian society.
- Always haggle, and then haggle some more. Bartering is part of the culture. Don’t be offended at all – always smile and take it as a fun sport.
- People love to joke around very sarcastically, without the hint of a smile or a wink in their eyes. They will tease you until you cry. Or maybe that’s just my family.
- There are no websites for anything, but if you’re lucky, you can find Instagram or Whatsapp. Everybody’s on Whatsapp.
Traveling to Damascus
- Lufthansa flies from Berlin to Beirut via Frankfurt or Munich, from where you can book a private taxi across the border. Total costs: around 500 Euro.
- Westerners cannot get a Visa on Arrival on the border and must make an appointment at the Syrian embassy in Berlin; exceptions are Chinese, Iranian and Malaysian passport-holders, among others.
- Double citizens with a European and Syrian passport can cross the border easily by showing their Syrian ID or passport (even if expired).
- Beware that traveling to Syria, even on a Western passport, will not guarantee you any diplomatic help or assistance should you need it, as Syrians will always consider you Syrian.