Syria a bright star in the Middle East

Syria, in the ancient heart of the Middle East, used to be rough, insular, politically extreme and all but off the map for travelers. Now, with a more forward-looking government, tourism increasing by almost 50% a year and opulent new hotels opening by the score, the luster is back on the magic lamp, making Syria one of the world’s most compelling destinations for 2011.

Recent visitors from the U.S. report that the largely Sunni Muslim population receives non-Islamic Westerners courteously, that tourists are allowed to shop and browse without annoyance from hard-selling touts and merchants, and that culture, cuisine and the arts in the former French colony have developed in strikingly stylish ways.

Other Syrian attractions are of much longer standing, beginning with the 4,000-year-old capital Damascus, once the richest city in the Arab world and paradise on Earth, according to the prophet Mohammed.


Its National Museum displays such treasures from the deep past as a clay tablet with mankind’s first recorded alphabet.

The landmark Umayyad Mosque began as a temple to Jupiter in the Roman era, then served as a Christian cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist before its conversion into an Islamic house of worship, where some of the Arab world’s greatest heroes were buried.

Before trendy cafes, restaurants, bars and galleries came to Strait Street in Old Town, it was noted in the Bible as the place where St. Paul regained his vision after his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Precious metals and essences, damask and silk spill from the El Hamidiyeh souk, and boutique hotels in renovated Byzantine-era mansions offer guests accommodations from a tale told by Scheherazade.

And that’s just Damascus, suitable for a long weekend getaway from major European gateways. For travelers with more time, the rest of Syria beckons: archaeological sites such as Palmyra; Krak des Chevalier, an 11th century crusader fortress near the Lebanese border; and the great mercantile city of Aleppo, western terminus of the Silk Road.


— Susan Spano