Syria

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Syria.

krak-des-chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers – Syria

One of the greatest castles in the world, Krak des Chevaliers was built in the middle of the 12th century by the Crusaders. Having captured Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims, they required strong bases from which to defend their newly won territories. The largest of a string of such fortresses, Krak des Chevaliers withstood countless attacks and sieges, but the Crusaders abandoned it after their defeat at the hands of the Arabs in 1271. Villagers settled within the walls and remained there until the 1930s, when the castle was cleared and restored.

INSIDE THE CASTLE

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Krak des Chevaliers (Castle of the Knights) crowns a 2,133-ft (650-m) high hill at Homs Gap, commanding the route from Antioch to Beirut. The crusading Knights Hospitallers undertook a massive expansion program in the mid-12th century, adding a 100-ft (30-m) thick outer wall, seven guard towers, and stables for 500 horses. An inner reservoir, filled with water from an aqueduct, supplied the 4,000-strong garrison. Storerooms were stocked with food produced by local villagers, and the castle had its own olive presses and a bakery. The later Muslim occupants converted the Crusaders’ chapel into a mosque and also added refinements such as baths and pools.

THE FINAL CONQUEST

The Crusaders continued their campaigns in the Middle East throughout the 12th and into the 13th centuries, but Krak remained secure.

In 1163, the Knights successfully fought off Nuradin, the sultan of Damascus. In 1188, the Muslim leader Saladin attempted to lay siege to the castle, but finding it impenetrable, withdrew his forces. Finally, in 1271, the Mameluk sultan Baibars I, devised a scheme. He forged a letter, purportedly from the Crusader commander in Tripoli, instructing the army at Krak to surrender Baibars’ forces succeeded in taking the Crusaders’ bastion without so much as a fight.

TANCRED, PRINCE OF ANTIOCH

In 1096, Tancred of Hauteville (1078-1112) set out with his uncle, Bohemund, and other Norman lords on the First Crusade to the Holy Land. Their objective was to halt the advance of the Seljuk Turks, who were threatening the Byzantine Empire, and to claim Jerusalem for the Christians. Tancred made a name for himself when he captured Tarsus from the Turks. He played a major role in the siege of Antioch and led the march on Jerusalem (1099) and its occupation. A year later, when Bohemund was taken prisoner by the Turks, Tancred took control of the Principality of Antioch. He ruled supreme in northern Syria, mounting attacks on both the Turks and Byzantines. In 1110, he occupied the hilltop fortress that the Crusaders were to transform into Krak des Chevaliers.

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General view of Krak des Chevaliers

Glads

This enormous sloping wall was designed to prevent attackers from undermining the inner wall.

Aqueduct

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Rainwater from the hills traveled along the aqueduct into the castle’s reservoirs.

Warden’s Tower

Containing the guard master’s quarters, this was the castle’s innermost keep.

Tower of the King’s Daughter

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The northern face of this tower has a large projecting gallery from which rocks could be hurled if the outer wall was breached. At ground level, the tower is decorated with three blind arches.

Chapel

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Built by the Crusaders and converted into a mosque after the Muslim conquest, its Islamic minbar(pulpit) can still be seen.

Loggia

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Running along one side of Krak’ s innermost courtyard, the loggia is a graceful Gothic arcade with a vaulted ceiling. It is decorated with carved floral motifs and depictions of animals. Beyond the loggia is the Great Hall, which functioned as a refactory.

Main Entranceway

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A long stepped passage leads from the site of the former drawbridge to the upper. Small ceiling apertures throw light into the corridor, although they were also intended for pouring boiling oil over invanders. The passageways were high and wide enough to allow for mounted riders.

Entrance Passage

The passage doubled back on itself to confuse any invaders who managed to get this far into the castle.

THE PERFECT CASTLE

The British author T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) described Krak des Chevaliers as “the most wholly admirable castle in the world.” Indeed, the castle served as an i nspi ration for Edward I, king of England, who passed by on the Ninth Crusade in 1272 and returned home to build his own castles across England and Wales.

KEY DATES

1031: The emir of Aleppo builds the original fortress on the site.
1110: Crusaders under Tancred, Prince of Antioch, take the bastion.
1142: The Knights Hospitalers occupy the castle and construct the outer wall.
1271: Baibars I, the Mameluk sultan, captures the castle and adds further fortifications.
2006: The castle s added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.

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Palmyra – Syria

Queen of the desert

Even if you have seen enough historical sites to last you a lifetime, Palmyra (“City of Palms”) amazes. “It is lovely and fantastic and unbelievable,” enthused Agatha Christie, who penned Come, Tell Me How You Live while living in Syria.

has been men­tioned in historical records as far back as the 19th century B.C., when it was known as Tadmor. An essential watering hole on the Silk Road and a vital link between the Mediter­ranean and China, Palmyra became fabulously wealthy by levying heavy tolls on caravans transporting precious cargo on their way to and from the Arabian Gulf and beyond. The incomparable ruins that spread across the 100-acre site today date to its zenith as a 2nd-century A.D. city with a population of 200,000 that prospered and mimicked Rome in gran­deur.

Since excavations began in 1924, the Temple of Baal (circa A.D. 32) and the amphi­theater have been partially reconstructed. The Great Colonnade, Palmyra’s main street and backbone, is almost a mile long and is lined with more than 300 standing columns. An on­site museum houses an excellent collection of artifacts, mosaics, and statuary found at the site. The natural beauty of Palmyra is en­hanced by the almost complete absence of modern buildings.

 

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Omayyad Mosque – Damascus, Syria

A Jewel of Islamic Architecture

Getting lost in the backstreets of its Old City is reason enough to spend a few days in Damascus. Anchoring the evocative quarter and its covered streets of stalls is the magnificent Omayyad Mosque, one of Islam’s greatest architectural monuments.

It is an exotic and intriguing Syrian microcosm, a sacred place of worship for women whose veils may conceal smart European fashions, and men in jelabiyyehs or managerial types between meetings.

As one of the claimants to the title “oldest continuously inhabited city,” Damascus can trace its history back to the 3rd millennium B.C. from excavations carried out in the courtyard of the Omayyad Mosque. On a more contemporary note, this cool marble courtyard is the loveliest respite in town from the day’s heat and bustle. It was once the site of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist (the saint’s head is believed to be buried in the mosque’s sanctuary) until the Muslims arrived in A.D. 636. The mosque is ideally situated for a quiet, reflective moment after you’ve meandered about Souq al-Hamadiyyeh, the main market street just to the west: the perfect place for time travel.

krak-des-chevaliers-syria

Krak Des Chevaliers – Syria

A Lonely Crusader Outpost Impervious to the Onslaught of Time

In 1909, before he was Lawrence of Arabia, twenty-year-old T. E. Lawrence toured dozens of the Holy Land’s Crusader castles and described Krak des Chevaliers as “the finest castle in the world. Certainly the most picturesque I have ever seen – quite marvelous.”

Sitting alone like a vast battleship on an impenetrable spur above a vast plain, it remains today the grandest and one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the world. Most of it was superbly constructed and expanded by the Knights of St. John from A.D. 1144 onward. They chose as their site the only significant break in the mountain range between Turkey and Lebanon, on an age-old caravan route between Damascus and inland Syria.

So mighty was this moated bastion, whose fortified walls are studded with thirteen watchtowers, that it was never penetrated. Two of the era’s greatest warriors, including the feared but chivalrous Saladin, were said to have taken one look and retreated without attempting an attack.

In the early 1800s Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who would go on to discover Petra and Abu Simbel, described Krak as “one of the finest buildings of the Middle Ages I ever saw.” It remains in an impressive state of preserva­tion, thanks to some light restoration carried out by the French in 1936.

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The Covered Souks of Aleppo – Syria

The World’s First Shopping Mall

Since Roman times, Aleppo has been a major trading center between Asia and the Mediterranean, with a strong corps of European merchants wheeling and dealing in the local bazaars.

A timeless energy of commerce and a vaguely European spirit linger on in the fabulous labyrinth of the city’s covered souks. This may be one of the best places in the Middle East to experience the exuberant bazaar life of a bygone era. The souks in this ancient crossroad still peddle cinnamon, saf­fron, cumin, coriander, carcasses of goats and lambs, roasted nuts, and the delicious pista­chios for which Aleppo has been renowned for centuries. Beneath a stone vault built by the Ottomans, close to 20 miles of covered pas­sages are abuzz with the hubbub of everyday shopping and the interactions of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turks, and Iranians.

When the Orient Express used to terminate in Aleppo, there was only one place to stay: the Baron Hotel, opened in 1909. The terrace is still a great place to recharge after a morning in the world’s first shopping mall. An illustrious clientele used to do just that – Lawrence of Arabia’s unpaid bill is on display in the lobby.