Scared Off

Prolonged unrest is keeping tourists away.

Only last year, Damascus ranked seventh on the New York Times list of top destinations. Since political unrest began in mid-March, however, the alleys of Old Damascus – one of the main tourist attractions in Syria – have emptied. Tourism and small businesses are suffering. Shop owners who used to be busy all day selling goods are now sitting in front of their shops, drinking tea and hoping for customers to pass by.

Syria was previously known as a country with beautiful ruins, a green coast and rich cultural traditions. News of tanks entering major cities and thousands of refugees crossing into Turkey has now fostered the perception of Syria as a country of violence and war.

Warned away
The US and EU countries have issued travel warnings against visiting Syria and international insurance firms have cancelled coverage for travellers. Together, this has caused a significant dip in tourism, Rami Martini, chairman of the Syria Federation of Tourism Chambers said in an interview with Al-Khabar, a local Arabic-language business weekly.

Most airlines flying to Europe have reduced their flights due to lowered demand. In June BMI rolled back its daily service from Damascus to London Heathrow to just four flights a week. Other airlines to have reduced their services include Austrian, Germania, Malév and Turkish; while Cyprus and Lot have cancelled all flights.

As a result, the businesses of hoteliers like Somar Hazim, owner of Beit Rose Hotel in Old Damascus, have been badly hit. According to Hazim, occupancy at his hotel decreased from 90 percent last year to 5 to 10 percent this year, forcing him and other hotel owners to reduce staff. According to Al-Khabar, occupancy rates in Aleppo are close to zero.

“As demand is decreasing, competition is growing and prices are going down. A room that I used to rent out for SYP 5,700 (USD 120) is rented now for about SYP 3,100 (USD 65),” Hazim said. “Our only guests are foreigners who study or work here and their relatives who come to visit.”

The absence of tourists has also affected small businesses, such as the antique shop owned by Nasser Ideen al-Shahrour in Sarouja near Old Damascus. Shahrour said he sometimes goes 15 days without a sale.

“I cannot guarantee anything now. I buy a gram of silver today with SYP 50 (USD 1) and tomorrow the price might be SYP 55 (USD 1.1),” he said. “This means I can’t have fixed prices and this is affecting demand which is already badly decreasing.”

The downswing
Syria’s reputation for safety and its improving marketing strategies boosted the country’s tourism industry during the last two years. Annual tourist revenues totalled SYP 389bn (USD 8.2bn) last year, or about 13 percent of GDP. With dwindling oil revenues, tourism was a crucial foreign currency earner for Syria. While the expected total revenue from tourism in March, April and May was predicted by the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Tourism to be SYP 23.8bn (USD 500m), the chamber said that income was 30 percent lower than expected in March and has decreased significantly more in recent months.

In its 11th Five-Year Plan, the Syrian government set the goal of attracting 5.1m more tourists a year by 2015; the current annual total is 9m tourists – including travellers transiting through the country.

Lamia Aasi, Minister of Tourism, said during a recent meeting of tourism professionals in Aleppo that there has been a “very sharp” decline in the number of tourists entering Syria. She said that, in May, tourism numbers were 32 percent compared to this time last year, because virtually no European tourists are visiting the country now. Aasi argued it was a “strategic error” to depend so heavily on business from European tourists, with the European market too subject to the changes of global politics. In contrast, she claimed, Asian markets are “only affected by natural circumstances or economic crises”.

She added: “Our long-term strategy is to target Asian markets such as China, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia and Iran which did not suffer a decrease in the number of religious tourists coming to Syria.”

According to Bassam Barsique, director of marketing and development at the ministry, domestic tourism, which makes up 22 percent of total revenue, was unaffected by the crisis. Some major tourism investment deals were unaffected, too. In an interview with Arabian Business, Jumeirah Group, a UAE hotel management firm, said that despite the political uncertainty in Syria, it is continuing with a project it started in November last year to manage the 350-room, five-star Jumeirah Syria Towers hotel built by Souria Holding in central Damascus.

The ministry has also completed a study aimed and finding ways to reduce prices to attract more tourists. It is also rescheduling loans for tourism facility owners and is granting them exemptions on payment of interest and fines.

Even if things calm down, Hazim, the hotel owner, is not optimistic about the future. He said he believes that the harm done to the country’s image cannot be easily undone.

“It will be difficult for the tourism sector to recover quickly,” he said. “Tourism is the first sector to be hit, and the last to recover. It is because it is a profession that depends on a place’s reputation.”

I published together with Muhammad Atef Fares in Syria Today magazine.

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The Places in Between

Syria’s coastal region has long been a major draw for domestic and Arab tourists. Increasing numbers of foreign holidaymakers are also winding their way up the coast. But while Tartous and Lattakia are well known, there is a wealth of attractions hidden away in coastal and mountain villages, as well as some of the country’s greenest scenery. Hiring a car for a couple of days is the best way to see these tucked-away places.

Grotto of lights

Dawayat Grotto, or the Grotto of Lights, takes its name from the five openings in the top of the cave which illuminate the space. The grotto is located 2km from Mashta Al-Helou, a summer resort village set on Helou Mountain about 45km from Tartous.

Filled with stalactites and stalagmites, the limestone cave also serves as a cool refuge from a hot summer’s day. According to locals, the cave was also used as a hiding place by Syrian independence fighters in their battles against the Ottoman and French armies.

“This is not an ordinary grotto, it is 20m years old,” a young man from Mashta al-Helou who offered to serve as my guide, said. “It is part of the beautiful Jeita Grotto in Lebanon.”

To prove his point, he led me to a dark hole at the end of the grotto which he said marks the beginning of a long tunnel leading to Jeita Grotto. He explained that the lack of oxygen in the tunnel prevents anyone from taking the shortcut, or testing the veracity of his claims.

Part of Jeita or not, kids will love to name what shapes the unique limestone rock formations resemble. Watch out for your heads and feet, however, as the grotto can be both narrow and slippery in places.

Dawayat Grotto is open daily from 6am to 11pm. Tickets, sold in a small souvenir shop next to the grotto, cost foreigners SYP 150 (USD 3.20) and Syrians SYP 50 (USD 1.06).

On top of the world

Reaching the shrine of Moula Hassan, located outside the mountain village of Qadmous, some 65km north-east of Tartous, is no easy task. A narrow and bumpy road dotted with green signs that read ‘God is Great: Hurry to Prayer and Good Deeds’ leads to the shrine which is surrounded by pine forest. The site also provides unparalleled views of one of the greenest areas in the country.

While the shrine generally attracts the faithful from surrounding villages, fresh mountain breeze, creaking of the surrounding trees and great view make it a popular picnic destination for locals – as evidenced by the barbeque grills stored behind the small stone building.

The shrine is housed in a stone building decorated with flowers, green carpets and perfumed with incense. Depending on the day, visitors might be lucky enough to run into the shrine’s keeper who seems to be the only one who can tell you about its namesake. The best way to reach Moula Hassan shrine is by motorcycle or small car. Ask for directions in Qadmous.

A true rural experience

There is no better way to get to know Syria’s coastal countryside than by hiking from village to village. A great walk is the 22km stretch leading from the ruins of Hosn Suleiman, located in the village of the same name some 60km from Tartous, back to Safita, a bustling mountain town dominated by the world’s tallest surviving Crusader-era tower. For those who consider trekking 22km a little torturous, minibuses regularly drive up and down this road.

Leaving at sunrise from the ruins of Hosn Suleiman, a site of worship for a succession of cultures and religions since 2000 BC, is a great way to start the day. Before taking off, be sure to admire the huge stones, some as large as 3 by 5 metres and featuring Greek and Latin inscriptions.

Follow the main road and head for the village of Kafa Jawaya and stop to have breakfast at the local bakery. An elderly couple, Abbas Hellwe and Rajaa Ibrahim, serve a delicious homemade breakfast of Arabic breads including zaatar (crushed thyme with oil and sesame seeds spread on dough), muhammara (spicy pepper dip spread on dough) and endive leaves, washed down with sweet tea flavoured with cinnamon.

Join Hellwe as he bakes fresh Arabic bread in his little mud oven. Eating breakfast in the courtyard of the couple’s home while being updated on all the village gossip is a genuine rural experience.

Farther along the main road, rural villages give way to concrete buildings the closer you get to Safita. That said, green scenery, fresh air, wild flowers and local hospitality make the walk highly enjoyable.

Upon reaching Safita, head for The White Horse restaurant and bar, located near the city’s famed tower which was built by the Knights Templar. The restaurant is housed in a 500-year-old building with beautiful arches and a summer terrace. A meal costs around SYP 600 (USD 12.75) per person. After that, the energetic should head to the top of Safita Tower which is open from 9am to 2pm and from 3pm to 6pm. Entrance is free but donations are welcome.

Syria’s other island

Hiring a boat and heading for Jazirat Al-Namel, or Ants Island, is a real adventure. Located off the coast of the small village of Bsireh some 10km north of Tartous, locals call the tiny island Ants Island because ants are its only inhabitants.

Locals, however, usually skip the short boat journey and swim the distance. While the island seems small and bare from the Syrian mainland, an unexpected surprise awaits those who make the journey. Large holes dot the dark surface of the island, giving it the appearance of a giant sponge. Colourful shells and fish can be spotted in the surrounding water.

A 30-metre sand bar provides the perfect place to get a tan during low tide. Take note, however, that it is best to bring shoes as sharp volcanic rocks cover the island. A return boat trip with several hours on the island should cost about SYP 1,000 (USD 21.30).

Fruits of the sea

Cheap does not always mean low quality. The Green Beach Resort hotel and restaurant in Bsireh serves up some of the best-value – and just plain best – seafood on the Syrian coast. While the restaurant’s decor is nothing special, the spread laid out before hungry diners certainly is exceptional. There are few better places to spend a hot summer night than on the restaurant’s terrace which overlooks the Mediterranean.

For appetizers, try the bizret gobbos (little fried fish), yalanji (grape leaves stuffed with rice) and mixed green salad. For main dishes there are the usual chicken and kebab platters, but one of the main reasons to come to this part of Syria is to eat fresh fish. It comes grilled or fried in batter and is served with a delicious sauce of tahini, garlic, lemon and parsley. A meal of fish, washed down with a cold beer or chilled glass of white wine, costs around SYP 800 (USD 17).

A taste of Tartous

Shanklish, balls of dried yoghurt mixed with salt and thyme or hot pepper, are eaten throughout Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Those who know their shanklish, however, will tell you that the best are to be found in and around Tartous.

Once upon a time the women of this region would dry the yoghurt by burying it in the sand on the beach. Today, however, they dry it through cloth. Whatever the method, few people have the time these days to make shanklish, which is why a queue often forms outside the Tartous home of Zeinab al-Sha’er.

Sha’er, 85, has been rolling the yoghurt balls for most of her life. She says the best way to eat the dish is by mixing equal quantities of shanklish with diced tomatoes and onion before drizzling the lot with high-quality Syrian olive oil. A kilo of shanklish costs SYP 300 (USD 6.40). Arabic speakers can phone her at 043-220 580.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

The Last of the Unknowns (Profile of Hungarian archaeologist Balazs Major)

As his quest for historical sites around the country continues, Hungarian archaeologist Balázs Major reflects on what makes Syria a unique archaeological treasure trove.

The Last of the Unknown

Though still at the beginning of his career, Hungarian archaeologist Balázs Major has already made quite a name for himself. With diplomas in Arabic studies, archaeology and history from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, and numerous courses and missions in his name, Major, 32, seems to never rest. He is always busy excavating new sites, making reports, giving lectures or writing scripts for documentary films on archaeology, all while preparing for his PhD.

Major’s unwavering energy is no surprise to those who know him; both his parents are doctors fully dedicated to their profession, who taught their son the importance of hard work from an early age. “Work was their life and hobby,” Major says. “They spent most of their time curing people, even beyond the call of duty.” In addition to medicine, Major’s parents had a deep interest in history and archaeology. Together with his father, Major made several long trips to different countries, sometimes visiting more than 10 archaeological monuments a day.

Major’s first close contact with the Arab world was at the age of 11 when his parents moved to Libya for work. In spite of the political difficulties and the American embargo on Libya, Major remembers the period between 1986 and 1990 as one of the happiest times in his childhood. “My interest and love for the Arab world and civilisation stems partially from that experience,” Major says. “Besides the exotic environment and the ancient monuments, the kindness and open-heartedness of people there were a great inspiration to me.”

As a child, Major was especially attracted to the Middle Ages and the castles from that period. As he grew up, his interest focused on the 12th and 13th century, when European chivalric culture was flourishing, and a brilliant Islamic civilisation reached its apogee in the Near East. “The meeting of the two worlds, mainly in the time of the Crusades, always fascinated me,” Major says. “I was never interested in the wars themselves, but rather in how the Easterners and the European population lived together for almost two centuries.”

In order to conduct proper research on the subject, Major realised the importance of understanding both sides. “As a researcher from the 21st century, you can never hope to understand these past cultures if you are not able to read the sources they both produced.” Driven by this belief, Major not only studied modern languages such as English, colloquial Arabic, French, and German, but also Latin, classical Arabic and Syrian Aramaic.

Historical sources gave him little satisfaction though. Rather they made him long for objective archaeological confirmation. “I never really wanted to sit in a library and write a ninth book based on information in eight others,” Major says. “I was always trying to discover something tangible as well. For this, you have to be an archaeologist.” From then on, Major knew exactly where to go. “It is common knowledge that if somebody is interested in archaeology or history in general, the best place to visit is Syria.”

Although there is a high concentration of monuments from a given period in countries such as Egypt, he feels that very few countries can pride themselves on having first-class monuments from most periods of human history. Amongst these, Syria is evidently the leader, while it also possesses treasures from the Crusader, Ayyubid and Mameluke period. The many undiscovered and undocumented sites in Syria are just the cherry on the cake.

The las of the unknown

With the permission of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Major directed a Hungarian archaeological mission in 2000. The mission’s main activity was conducting archaeological field surveys to document already known monuments and also to detect and save as many new archaeological sites as possible. “We discovered dozens of hitherto unknown archaeological sites,” Major says. “We found medieval towers, fortified caves, chapels, mills and settlements from the Late Antiquity period (+/- 200-700 AD), among others.”

Concentrating its efforts on the interior of mountains, the mission discovered well-preserved settlements from Late Antiquity. This proved that Dead Cities existed in coastal areas as well, and that there were almost as many as in the region around Aleppo which is known for them. At the same time, ceramic evidence suggests that most of them were still inhabited in the 13th century, which means that there must have been some kind of continuity from the 3rd century to the Middle Ages.

In 2003, Major gave himself entirely to finding and documenting the medieval cave castles that are mentioned in Arabic sources as the strongholds that guarded the Orontes Valley in the north of Syria. Major’s mission identified three castles in the caves and hundreds of rock-cut chambers and graves, most of which Christian hermits constructed during the Early Middle Ages.

After seven years of joint work, the DGAM asked Major to form a Syrian-Hungarian mission for the excavation and research of Qal’at al-Marqab. “This was an honour,” Major says. “Besides being one of the largest castles in the Near East, Marqab is practically untouched and offers unique opportunities for research.” Moreover, Major sees Marqab citadel as a possible school providing training opportunities for Syrian archaeology students in the most recent research methods and modern technologies. As the rectors of the Catholic University in Hungary and Tishreen Syrian University have just concluded an agreement of cooperation during the mission, Major’s ambition can easily be attained. “There are many young, talented and devoted Syrian archaeology students who are ready to work under all circumstances,” Major says. “They are just waiting for the opportunity.”

The Last of the Unknown

Yet working in Syria is a mixed blessing as the extreme richness of the sites forms a great challenge. “I could say, with only slight exaggeration, that there is not a single square metre in Syria without archaeological remains either above or below the ground,” Major says. Meanwhile, there is an unprecedented amount of development, especially in the coastland, both in the expansion of agricultural fields and in civilian infrastructure. This threatens countless archaeological sites, most of which have not been discovered yet.

Though Major admits that preserving every single archaeological site would practically mean bringing life in Syria to a halt, he insists on the importance of finding and registering all the sites in order to choose the most important ones that should be protected at all cost. “Most of our efforts have been devoted to this cause,” Major says. “In most cases, we have been in a very tight race with the developers.”

Local people’s fear of registering archaeological sites with the government forms another problem. According to Major, many people are still uninformed about the aims of the DGAM. “They have the misconception that if there is an archaeological site on their land, it automatically means some kind of disturbance in their lives,” he says. But when it comes to foreigners, it’s a different story. Locals are more prepared to give them information on archaeological sites. “The hospitality towards a person from abroad usually makes locals overcome their fears,” Major says.

In fact, Major attributes 80 percent of the mission’s success to local populations in the countryside. “No matter how many diplomas we possess,” Major says, “the locals are the real experts in knowing the archaeological sites of a given area.” This may also be the key to Major’s personal success. His down-to-earth attitude and involvement with local families adds a lot to his work. “When after a hard day’s work we’re invited to dinner with an old man from the village who tells us ancient legends,” Major smiles, “that’s when I’m sure that I have found my real home.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Sacred Journeys (Religious Tourism in Syria)

Besides the tourists who visit Syria for its historical sites, beautiful cities and seaside resorts, thousands of Shia pilgrims also come to worship at shrines around the country.

Photos by Manaf Hassan

Worshipers at the Shia mosque of Sit Zeinab

When entering the Shia mosque of Sit Zeinab in the southern suburbs of Damascus, you can almost hear the horn of doomsday. Crowds of women, dressed in black and white cloaks, wail and slap their faces. In the centre, rows of men hit their chests and moan with solemn movements. The worshippers jostle to touch the shrine of Zeinab, daughter of Ali bin Abi Taleb, cousin of Prophet Mohammed, rubbing pieces of cloth on the sacred shrine and crying for forgiveness. The contrast between the prosperous shrine, surrounded by gold, exquisite Iranian ceramics and a dazzling ceiling, and the humble crowd, drowned in black, pleading for mercy, presents a scene of heaven and hell.

Zeinab’s shrine is one of the most important Shia sites in Syria, followed by four other sites in Raqqa, Aleppo, Hama and Homs and numerous sacred shrines. Though Iraq boasts more eminent sites in Shiism, the American invasion of Iraq means few people visit them any longer and Syria has become a key destination for Shia pilgrims.

“The trip to Iraq is too risky,” Abu Kasem Rafi’i, who organises trips to Syria for Iranian pilgrims, says. “In Syria, we are safe and welcomed.”

Shrine of Sit Zeinab

In addition, the head of al-Hossein, the son of Ali bin Abi Taleb, whose death formed a turning point in the history of Shiism, is buried in the Omayyad mosque in Damascus.

Al-Hossein was killed in the battle of Karbala in Iraq on 10 Moharram 61, according to the lunar calendar. Shias believe that Yazid bin Mauwia, who wanted to become the caliph instead of al-Hossain, ordered his soldiers to bring him Al-Hossain’s head on a lance. They also captured the members of al-Hossain’s family and took them from Karbala to Mauwia’s castle in Damascus. On their way, they passed four Syrian cities: Al Raqqa, Aleppo, Hama and Homs, where several shrines were built for al-Hossein’s companions and relatives.

Hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims from around the world come to Syria every year to visit these shrines. Between 400,000 and 500,000 of them come from Iran, according to the Iranian Organisation of Pilgrimage in Damascus.

“Coming to Syria is easier and less expensive than a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia,” Ibrahim Horan, a Syrian guide for Shia pilgrims and an investor in the Rasul Al Atham pilgrim hotel says. “This is why many Iranian pilgrims come here.”

Worshipers at the Shia mosque of Sit Zeinab

Hassan Muradi, an Iranian cook who accompanies pilgrims to Syria, says he comes twice a year. “I feel lucky because I’m serving the visitors of Zeinab,” Muradi says. “My job gives me a chance to visit the sacred shrines twice a year.”

Though there are no specific statistics recording the number of non-Iranian Shia pilgrims, Horan says that thousands of Shias come from Europe, the USA as well as the Arab and Islamic world.

Hafez al-Kari, a middle-aged pilgrim from Pakistan, has visited Syria 10 times with his family. “I came to Syria for the first time in 1992,” Kari says. “I feel safe here and I want to come over and over again.”

Other wealthy pilgrims like Abu Maher, a Shia from Saudi Arabia, are so keen on visiting the shrines that they have bought houses in Syria, where they stay during their annual pilgrimage.

With many Shia religious schools, pilgrim hotels and a huge Shia population, the area of Sit Zeinab has become the meeting point for Shia pilgrims from around the world. An Iranian pilgrimage organiser, who preferred to stay anonymous, moved with his family to Sit Zeinab in 2000 to work in the religious tourism industry. “I want to live my life and die next to my beloved Zeinab.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 31