Syria (الجمهوريّة العربيّة السّوريّة Al-Jumhuriya al-`Arabiya as-Suriya, the Syrian Arab Republic ) is one of the larger states of the Middle East and has its capital in Damascus. Syria is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the east by Iraq, by Jordan and Israel to the south, and by Lebanon to the south-west. In addition, the country possesses a long coastline on the east Mediterranean Sea.
Syria has a population of 17.8 million people (UN, 2003), of which 6 million are concentrated in the capital Damascus. A moderately large country (185,180 sq km or 72,150 sq miles), Syria is situated centrally within the Middle East region and has land borders with Turkey in the north, with Israel and Lebanon in the south, and with Iraq and Jordan in the east and south-east respectively.
The population of Syria is predominately Arab (90%), with large minorities from other ethnic groups: Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Turks. The official language is Arabic, but other tongues are widely spoken and include Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish, French and English. The Syrian Republic is officially secular, but in nonetheless greatly influenced by the majority religion of Islam (90% of the population, split between 74% Sunni Muslim and 16% other Muslim). There is a large Christian minority that amounts to about 10% of the population.
The President of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father Hafez al-Assad soon after his death on 10 June 2000. Having studied to become an opthalmologist (eye doctor) in Damascus and London, Bashar was groomed for the presidency after the 1994 car accident of his elder brother Basil. As a consequence, he joined the army and became colonel in 1999. Bashar's modernising credentials were somewhat boosted by his role in a domestic anti-corruption drive. More recently, however, Bashar's style of leadership has more closely come to resemble that of his father as an non-democratically elected and autocratic ruler (à la Saddam Hussein of Iraq). Bashar's position as dictator of Syria rests on his presidency of the Baath Party (the only legal political party, as previously in Iraq) and his command-in-chief of the army. A "cult of personality" is widely promoted for Bashar Assad and his late father - their images are to be seen everywhere in the streets of Syria.
Assad's regime and the Baath Party own or control the vast majority of Syria's media. Criticism of the president and his family is not permitted and the press (both foreign and domestic) are heavily censored for material deemed threatening or embarrassing to the government. A brief period of relative press freedom arose after Bashar became president in 2000 and saw the licensing of the first private publications in almost 40 years. A later crackdown, however, imposed a range of restrictions regarding licensing and content. In a more relaxed manner (perhaps owing more to the fact that these matters are largely beyond possible government control), many Syrians have gained access to foreign television broadcasts (usually via satellite) as well as the three state-run networks. In 2002 the government set out conditions for licensing private, commercial FM radio stations, ruling at the same time, however, that radio stations could not broadcast news or political content.
Visas are needed for most individual travellers. In Amman Syrian visas are issued within one day when you bring a recommendation letter of your embassy. It is however vitally important that there is no evidence of a visit to Israel in your pasport, ie a stamp or visa from Israel, or Jordanian or Egyptian border crossings with Israel. Likewise you shouldn't say that you have or will travel to Israel to officials in the embassy or at the border.
Syria has two international airports: Damascus International Airport, 35km (22miles) SE of the capital, and another just northeast of Aleppo in the north of the country. Both airports have regular direct flights served by Syrian Arab Airlines to Europe, the Middle East, North Africa. Those flights compete with other international carriers serving the same destinations. Syria levies an airport departure tax of 200 Syrian Pounds. Upon arrival, a free entry visa can be delivered to almost all travellers if they are being received by local Travel Agency. Call the Syrian Embassy in your home country for more information.
There are two international train connections to Syria: Tehran -Damascus and Istanbul - Damascus
Traveling from Lebanon service taxis are a convenient way to reach Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Aleppo or other Syrian towns. A taxi from Beirut to Damascus will cost about $10 per person (collective taxi, otherwise about $75 for a private taxi)and $20 per person to Aleppo. Although in most cases it is necessary to buy a Syrian visa before leaving home, often costing about $100 or less, depending of the country of residency. It's possible, to obtain free entry visa for tourists if being received by a local Travel Agency. It is also possible to arrive by car from Turkey. A private taxi from Gaziantep Airport (Turkey) will cost about $60.
Coaches are cheap, fast and reliable way to get around the country, however the scedules, when they exist, are not to be trusted. For the busy routes it's best to simply go to the coach station when you want to leave and catch the next coach, you'll have to wait a bit, but most of the time it's less of a chore than finding out when the best coach will be leaving, and then often finding it's late.
The taxis (usually yellow, and always clearly marked) are an easy way to get around Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. Arabic would be helpful: most taxi drivers do not speak English. All licensed taxis carry meters, and it is best to insist that the driver puts the meter on, and watch that it stays on. Most drivers expect to haggle prices with foreign travellers rather than use the meter. A taxi ride across Damascus might come to £S30. The flat price to and from Damascus airport to the city centre seems to be £600 (for foreigners). It always better to ask how much you want to charge from this point to the other point you are going to.
The microbuses (locally called servees) are little white vans that carry ten, or so, passengers around cities on set routes for about £S5. The destinations are written on the front of microbus in Arabic. Usually, the passenger sitting behind the driver deals with the money. You can ask the driver to stop anywhere along his route.
Often, microbuses will do longer routes, for example, to surrounding villages around Damascus and Aleppo, or from Homs to Tadmor or Krak-des-Chavaliers. They are often more uncomfortable and crowded than the larger buses, but cheaper.
By bus or coach
Air-conditioned coaches are one of the easy ways to make longer hauls around Syria, for example, the trip from Damascus to Tadmor.
The Syrian railways are reasonably modern and are based on Russian rolling stock. Rail travel is inexpensive and generally punctual, although railway stations are often a reasonable distance out of town centres. The main line connects Damascus, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur, Hassake and Qamishle. A secondary line serves stations along the Mediterranean coast.
In the summer, on Fridays, a little steam train leaves from the Hejaz Railway Station in Damascus (which has a good restaurant) and climbs into the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Many locals enjoy the ride to picnic in the cooler mountains.
While traveling by bicycle may not be for everyone, and Syria is by no means a cycle tourist's paradise, there are definite advantages. Syria is a good size for cycling, accommodation is frequent enough that one can get away with "credit card" touring (though in the case of Syria, it might be better to refer to it as fat-wad-of-cash touring) there are sites that one can not get to with public transportation, and the people are incredibly friendly often inviting a tired cyclist for a break, cup of tea, meal, nights accommodation, whatever.
Unfortunately, the standard of driving skills in Syria is extremely low, and other road users tend to be drive very aggressively. Finding good maps tends to be another problem, without which it's hard to avoid riding on the main highway, which while safe enough (a good wide shoulder exists on almost all the highways) is not very pleasant due to the smokey trucks and uninteresting scenery.
The unit of currency in Syria is the Syrian pound or 'lira' (£S). All prices are now in even numbers of pounds, so the subdivision 'piastre' is obsolete.
Exchange rates (current in March 2006):
In recent years, a number of ATMs have become available in most major cities: banks, main squares, and 5 stars hotels. However, it should be noted that not all ATMs access the international networks. The Real Estate bank has the widest network that will accept foreign cards. The more common Commercial Bank of Syria machines are not connected.
One thing to keep in mind is that exchange rates using the ATM system are lower than the official rate which is still lower than street rate. Many private money changing offices exist, but will change cash only. The Commercial Bank of Syria should be able to change traveller's cheques if needed. The bank is not open on Friday, so be sure to either have cash to change, or to look after you financial needs during the work week.
Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted, and are even accepted at many smaller shops and budget hotels. Don't count on acceptance, though, as it is far from universal. It is also virtually impossible to get an advance on your credit card in Syria if you are out of Damascus and Aleppo.
An international student card reduces the entry fees to many tourist sites to 10% of the normal price, if you are younger than 35 years. Depending on who is checking your card it is even possible to get the reduction when you are older than 35 or have only an expired card. It is possible to buy an international student card in Syria (around U$ 15). Ask around discretely.
You can find the famous falafel for 10 to 25 Syrian Pound.
Shwarma costs 25 to 50 Syrian Pound. Fair restaurant, lunch or dinner costs 300 Syrian Pound. Expensive restaurant, lunch or dinner costs 500 Syrian Pound.
Generally you can drink water from the tap, but if you're unsure ask the locals first. This water is of course for free compared to bottled water, which comes at 25 Syrian Pound for 1.5 litres.
Beer is cheap, costing from 35 SP in a shop and anywhere from 50 to 100 SP in most budget accommodation and local bars for a half litre bottle or can.
A budget traveler spends about 100 to 150 Syrian Pound a night for a rooftop.
A double room you can find for around 500 Syrian Pound. A double room in a three stars hotel costs about $ USD 30, $ USD 50 for four stars, and can reach $ USD 160 in a five stars hotel.
You can learn Arabic Language in the Languge Institute at Damascus University , at a state-run Language Academy (Ma'had) in Mezze in Damascus, at the British Council in Damascus or with expert tutors . The Ma'had is the cheapest option, approximately £150 for three months, yet nowhere near as good as Damascus University (approximately £100 for one month). The British Council is very expensive, and the courses are really aimed at diplomats or businessmen, rather than travellers or students on a budget.
If you entered the country on a tourist visa, don't try to work and earn money. Foreign workers should always get official approval to work.
Syria is a safe country for travellers. Crime is considered shameful and is heavily punished; there is little petty crime. Political comments should be avoided. They may embarass your hosts.
Women travelling alone may find that they draw a little too much attention from Syrian men. However, this is generally limited to stares or feeble attempts at making conversation. If you feel you are getting too much attention from men, the best approach is to be polite but say very clearly that approaches are unwelcome. Be loud and involve bystanders as they will often be very chivalrous and helpful.
In some tourist spots away from Damascus travellers can sometimes be hounded by children begging for money, pens or other things. Although they pose no threat, it is probably best not encourage them or get into conversation with them.
Male and female visitors should wear modest/conservative clothing. It is best to wear loose-fitting clothes and not to reveal too much skin. T-shirts and skirts coming to below the knee are fine. Men should wear long trousers. A headscarf is generally not necessary other than when visiting mosques.
Tourist Information Offices; Damascus: 2323953, Damascus Int'l Airport: 2248473, Aleppo: 2121228, Daraa (Jordanian-Syrian border gate): 239023, Lattakia: 216924, Palmyra (Tadmur): 910636, Deir-az-Zur: 358990
The international calling code for Syria is +963.
Syrians were only allowed access to the Internet after 2000 when the new President relaxed most (if not all) restrictions to its use. The advent of the Internet has created a mini-boom with most cities and towns having at tens of internet cafés. The connection speed may vary according to the connection type; dial-up, ISDN, DSN, Satellite connections are avialable around the country. The authorities have blocked direct access to porno and Israeli sites.
Robert Tewdwr Moss, Cleopatra's Wedding Present: Travels Through Syria, Duckworth, 1997. ISBN 0715630997 (reprinted University of Wisconsin Press ISBN 0299192903) - an excellent and evocative travelogue from a gay author as he journeyed through Syria, sadly murdered in London the day after he completed this book. A must-read...