War, political instability, and terrorism have left their mark on Syria, which has made travel to this country extremely difficult and even impossible. Though nations like the U.S. have issued travel restrictions to Syria, the hope remains that peace will resume, and travelers can once again visit. Syria is home to ancient monuments and archaeological sites, so many travelers are itching to visit and discover its main attractions, including several World Heritage Sites.
The capital of Syria, Damascus, is the country's largest city and home to Syria's Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Old City is located on the south bank of the Barada River and is enclosed by ancient walls. This part of Damascus is characterized by a labyrinth of corridors and alleyways, courtyards, mosques, and palaces. Other attractions of the capital include the National Museum, the Great Umayyad Mosque, and the Christian Quarter, which is home to some of the world’s oldest churches.
Aleppo’s Old City lies within the city center and is a World Heritage Site. This part of the city features narrow alleyways, picturesque mansions, and covered souqs. It's also home to a 13th-century Sufi monastery, a 12th-century palace, and an ancient citadel that dates back to the first millennium BCE. Recent reports suggest that 30% of Aleppo’s Old City has been destroyed, but some of it remains. When visiting this ancient city, be sure to admire its well-preserved walls, gates, and its more modern structures, such as the National Museum of Aleppo.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palmyra was a Roman city that dates back to roughly 2000 BCE, but there is evidence that people lived here as far back as the neolithic period. Noted as an ‘oasis city,’ Palmyra was an important trade route city in the Syrian Desert. Although large parts of Palmyra have been destroyed during the Syrian Civil War, there are still great monuments from the Greco-Roman and Persian periods to behold. If you can visit, you’ll want to check out the Arch of Triumph and the various ancient temples that are still standing at the site.
Bosra is located in Southern Syria and is the site of an ancient Roman city. A World Heritage Site, the town is famous for its well-preserved Roman theatre, which dates to the second century BCE. The city contains other Roman ruins such as temples and bathhouses. When visiting the city, travelers should check out examples of Roman mosaics still on display here, Islamic architecture like the Umari Mosque, and architecture that dates to the Ottoman period. Of course, you don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy a visit to Bosra. The town’s present-day theatre features cultural performances and annual festivals.
The Dead Cities are in northern Syria and consist of roughly 700 abandoned villages. The majority of the villages date between the 1st and 7th centuries but some date to the 10th. The villages feature examples of period architecture in the form of ancient cisterns, temples, bathhouses, churches, and towers. One of the highlights of the Dead Cities includes the 10th century BCE Syro-Hittite temple. Because many “living” towns are near the ancient cities, excavations are not always possible, and archaeologists believe there’s much more to discover here.
Krak de Chevaliers is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is regarded as one of the best-preserved medieval castles in on the planet. The Crusader fortress dates to the 10th century and was once owned by the Knights Hospitaller. Travelers will be hard-pressed to find a better example of Crusader-era architecture in the world. The fortress is located about 20 miles west of the city of Hom near the Lebanese border. Although partially damaged during the Syrian Civil War, the fortress is currently undergoing repairs.
Not all of Syria’s attractions are ancient. Although this port city on the Mediterranean dates back to the time of the ancient Phoenicians, its modern attractions make it popular with Syrian vacationers and travelers alike. Tartus features a lively harbor filled with boats and rimmed by lively cafes. The region is also famous for its resorts and hotels. Of course, if you are interested in the city’s history, you’ll want to visit some important sites like its crusader-era cathedral, Marqab Castle, and nearby Arwad Island.
Located just to the northeast of Damascus, the town of Maaloula is a popular holiday retreat with its cool mountain breezes and white-washed buildings. Maaloula features the ruins of ancient churches and is, in fact, one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. While the city was scarred during the recent war and targeted by ISIS attacks, many of its important architectural and cultural sites remain intact.
Medieval Masyaf Castle is located in the Orontes Valley and is roughly 2,800 years old. The castle was the notorious base for the skilled “Hashshashin,” more familiarly known today as Assassins. The Assassins were killers led by the warlord Rashid al-Din Sinan. They carried out attacks on the warlord’s enemies, including Saladin. The group was feared throughout the region and was known to launch attacks as far as Jerusalem. The castle is a major tourist destination in Syria and is an important example of citadel architecture dating to the Byzantine era.
Known in antiquity as Philippopolis, the city of Shahba was founded by Roman Emperor Philip the Arab around the year 249 CE. Although the town was never completed, owing to the emperor’s short reign, it contains many well-preserved Roman ruins such as a palace, forum, theater, and baths. The baths are especially worth visiting; they contain mosaic work that many believe rivals the quality found in ancient baths of Rome itself. Also, Shahba is home to a museum that preserves and displays examples of Syro-Roman art and artifacts.