Exploring Ancient Damascus in Syria

Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall is on a mission to discover 52 of the most awe-inspiring places to visit across the world. This week he shares his memories of the ancient city of Damascus, Syria.

Ancient Damascus

Come to Damascus in the cool of November and you’ll meet few other tourists. You’ll find a city of unparalleled antiquity revelling in its mix of old and new.

On the one hand, the Syrian capital is a leading light in modern Middle Eastern culture and a growing tourist destination. On the other, even its most ancient quarters are thriving, busy places where life is lived much as it has been for millennia.

History of Damascus

Damascus dates as far back as 6000BC and has a convincing claim to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Centuries of glory and war, boom and bust and occupation by marauding foreign powers have produced a city of architectural and cultural influence. If you have a week, you may be able to do it justice.

Attractions and activities

Most rambles take place in the Old City, largely contained within thirteenth century walls. But to say Damascus has the classic ingredients of a citadel, a labyrinthine souq and a fine mosque makes it sound merely historic. It is in fact almost unique.

The medieval atmosphere in the souq is rivalled only by Aleppo’s great bazaar. The Umayyad Mosque, a monumental remnant from when the city was the greatest in the world may be the world’s most stunning Islamic building. It contains the mausoleum of Saladin, great adversary of the Crusaders. Everywhere street life bustles around you as the city’s noise and life continues its daily routines.

There is a more modern Damascus you should also seek out. The Old City contains Ottoman-era houses, some of which are well preserved. The Salihiyya district’s alleyways have modernist and art-deco leftovers from the French colonial period. The city’s sizable Christian and international population means you can sink a beer at sundown and then party with forward-looking locals.

Travelling costs

Much of the city can be seen on a shoestring but it’s worth splashing out on a room in a boutique hotel for around £75 a night. Not only is this good value, it is worth paying to stay the night in the heart of timeless Damascus.

Planning your trip

Unfortunately Syria is currently too unstable to visit, but this is an astonishing adventure to file away for another day. Visit the Foreign Office site for the latest information.

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