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Syria & Lebanon are welcoming, comfortable, exciting and rewarding destinations – offering a very different experience to the anti-western picture often portrayed in the popular press. The Christian communities enjoy great freedom and tolerance, and Sunday morning is a remarkable sight as devotees flock to attend services in the many Catholic, protestant, Orthodox Armenian, Syrian & Greek churches. Shia and Sunni mosques flourish side by side, attracting the faithful and pilgrims from Moslem lands.
The attractions of Syria are many and varied. The cities of Damascus & Aleppo conjure images of Biblical stories, of alluring oriental bazaars filled with silks or spices: we will spend a total of 6 days in Damascus at the beginning and end of our tour and 3 in Aleppo in the middle. In both cities we plan to stay in charming small hotels in the old quarters. The history of this fascinating country goes back much earlier than Biblical times - to the earliest periods of recorded history: ancient cuneiform tablets found at Ugarit, in the 3rd millennium BC the most important city of the Mediterranean coast, contain evidence of the world’s first alphabet. The Eastern desert is crossed by the Euphrates river, and Syria shares, with its neighbour Iraq, some of the sites of ancient Mesopotamian and Babylonian civilization. Mari, close to the Iraq border, has the remains of palaces, temples and a ziggurat dating from 5000 BC, while the fortified city of Dura Europus nearby was the Roman Empire’s major Eastern defence against the Persians. Both Syria & Lebanon are full of wonderful Roman and pre-Roman cities, which are remarkably well preserved: Bosra, with its dark volcanic stone colonnades and wonderful theatre, Apamea with its beautiful spiral columns, and perhaps best of all, Palmyra, where we spend two nights of the tour. Towards the end of the tour we travel through Lebanon to visit the truly majestic Roman site of Baalbek (earlier the temple of Baal, but in Roman times the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus & perhaps Venus) and also the remains of an Ummayad dynasty early Arab city at Anjar.
After the fall of Rome much of the land was ruled by the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople. The Byzantines adapted some of the Roman and earlier buildings for their churches and fortresses. We will explore some of these, and especially the beautiful and enormous Church of St Simeon, north of Aleppo. The ascetic monk preached from the top of a pillar, attracting hordes of pilgrims long after his death. They all wanted bits of the stone pillar as a relic, so now it is a mere stump surrounded by the magnificent basilica! The Arab Muslims in turn ruled the region, building mosques, forts and palaces and frequently adapting former buildings. Their presence in the Holy Land prompted Pope Urban II in 1095 to declare the first Crusade to recapture Jerusalem, which resulted in the building of the enormous chain of Crusader and Arab castles from Cyprus and Turkey to the Arabian Gulf, and culminated in the famous struggles of Richard of England and Saladin. Krak des Chevaliers, & Saladin Castle (so named as he took the apparently impregnable castle from the Crusaders) both held by the Knights Hospitallers for the Crusaders, and the Arab fortress of Aleppo are among the best examples of castle building. The Turkish Ottomans then held the region from their capital at Constantinople until their defeat in the 1st World War. They added more mosques, luxurious town houses and palaces. The French held Syria between the World Wars and their colonial influence can be found in many parts of the country including the tree lined boulevards of Latakia and other towns.
PROVISIONAL ITINERARY: Saturday 8 October depart Heathrow 16.00, arrive Damascus 23.10.
DAMASCUS can trace its history back over 8,000 years. The old city is as lively as ever and contains the famous </DIV>Omayyad mosque, the Azem Palace, Hamidieh Bazaar, the ‘Street called Straight’, St Anania church, and St Paul’s window. Sightseeing will also include a visit to the National Museum, containing many of the finest pieces of Syria's past (here we must take some time to look at the treasures from Mari, Ugarit etc – sculptures and clay tablets of the earliest cuneiform writing - to appreciate the very ancient civilisations close to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers). There will be ample time to explore the fascinating souks of the city, and a mosque and caravanserai built by the Ottoman architect Sinan now contains a lovely artisan quarter.
Wednesday 12 October. From Damascus we drive via the important Christian enclaves of <DIV>Sednaya and Maalula, where some people still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. We will visit the churches and monasteries here before arriving at Palmyra - a real desert oasis, situated in the middle of the Syrian Desert. This unlikely location is due to its position between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean, at the end of the Silk Road from China. The formidable Queen Zenobia built an empire here that rivalled Rome in the East and acted as the buffer state between the Romans and Parthians. The Romans defeated Zenobia, parading her in chains of gold in Rome, and then extended the city which contains colonnaded streets, temples, baths, & a lovely theatre. Adjoining the site is the impressive Temple of Bel, and mysterious Valley of tombs.
Friday 14 October. From Palmyra we travel east across </DIV>the desert first to Deir Al-Zour, on the Euphrates River and then to Mari, near the Iraq border. Here the ruins of an ancient mud-brick Mesopotamian city contain an enormous Royal Palace, seat of a city state of the 18th century BC. The city was destroyed by the Babylonians, but excavations have revealed two palaces, temples and the vestiges of a ziggurat or pyramid tower. Further north along the Euphrates River is the enormous Greek and Roman fortress city of Dura Europos, defended by a wall of cliffs above the river. There are ruined gateways, temples, barracks, baths and a small amphitheatre. We travel a little further north back along the Euphrates to spend
Saturday 15 October. En route to Aleppo we may first visit the small museum of Der Al-Zour, then drive on to see the fortress town of Halabiyyeh, founded by Queen Zenobia and refortified by the Emperor Justinian. It fell to the Persians in 610AD. Across the river (visible, but inaccessible) is the twin fort of Zalabiyyeh. We also visit the ruins of the fortified town of Rassafa, with impressive walls & gates.
Tuesday 18 October. We drive first to the Byzantine 5th century ‘dead city’ of Serjilla – abandoned at the time of the Arab conquest - and then on to the very beautiful Roman site of Apamea – a huge ruined Roman city, where the colonnaded road stretches for almost 2kms into the rolling fields of wheat. The great colonnade, including alternate spiral flutings of the columns, make this an unforgettable, yet little-known site. We drive on to visit the attractive town of Hama, famous for the very large & extraordinary waterwheels in the town centre and stretching along the Orontes river, used for irrigating the surrounding countryside.
Wednesday 19 October. We travel north-east, climbing through rugged mountains towards the coast. Time permitting we may decide to omit the Bronze Age site of Ugarit where the world's first alphabet dating from the 14th century BC was discovered (which we will see on small clay tablets at the Museums in Damascus & Aleppo – there is little to see at the site of Ugarit). Much more dramatic is the astonishing citadel of Saladin [also known as Saone – from the French Crusader Robert of Saone]. Its current name derives from Saladin’s capture of the castle in 1188, but it was originally built by Byzantines and extended by the Crusaders, Robert and then the Knights Hospitallers, who cut a vast artificial gorge (leaving a pillar to support a drawbridge) as part of the defences. We drive on to the coast and travel south as far as Tartus, spending one night at the comfortable Hotel Shalin.
Thursday 20 October. Tartous is Syria’s second port, but with fascinating rambling old quarters. Parts of the old city were a Crusader town and the fine 13th century Cathedral (now a museum) is a remarkable statement of the optimism and sense of permanence showed by the Crusaders. This was shortlived, and Tartous and the offshore island of Erwad were the last refuges of the Crusaders before they were finally driven from the mainland for Cyprus. We drive on to the castle of Krak des Chevaliers. This is one of the most formidable structures anywhere in the Middle East and is <DIV>the most famous of the crusader castles, much admired by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). Situated high up in the coastal mountains, it was of great strategic value to the Hospitallers who occupied it during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Friday 21 October. Leaving Krak des Chevaliers we cross the border to Lebanon mainly to visit the marvellous World Heritage site of Baalbek. Located in the Bekka Valley (home to many vineyards), Baalbek is a simply wonderful sight: called Heliopolis after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area it was a place of important pilgrimage and trade. The enormous temples – which became the largest in the Roman Empire, and remain the best preserved - were begun in the 1st century BC and dedicated in the reign of Septimus Severus (193-211AD). They were probably never completed and the destruction was helped by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who had some of the enormous columns shipped to Constantinople to build into the great church of Hagia Sophia. There is an excellent museum at the site.
Saturday 22 October. We now have a free full day to enjoy Damascus, exploring museums and sites and the wonderful souks or other temptations of the city! Christmas is not far away and you may find unusual gifts! [Museums and souks are open on Saturday] A farewell dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Sunday 23 October: Transfer to the airport for our flight at 10.15, arriving Heathrow 13.45