This was the BIG day, were going to Syria despite all the visa issues and setbacks. The tour company picked us up at 5:45am. Man it was EARLY. As everyone knows, I am NOT a morning person but, I get up when I have to……and this was a HAVE TO. Once we had the whole group we were off. There were about 14 of us from Qatar, Canada, Lebanon, Columbia, Switzerland, and France. We were all tired so the ride was pretty quite. We stopped for a bathroom, drinks, and a snack about 30 minutes from the boarder. It was a very minimally stocked place, but served the purpose.
Once we reached the boarder and agent came on board and collected all of the passports. It took about 30 minutes and we were processed out of Lebanon and on to Syria. It took about 10 minutes to drive between the Lebanon exit and the Syrian entry points. Once at the Syrian entry the Syrian guide joined us. We filled out all the necessary forms and handed over our passports again. The large stack left with the guide and border agent. We waited and waited, and waited. Finally our passports came back and Rob and I were set to go.
But we had to wait and wait for the rest. The entry point was packed with people. The cars and people were everywhere in no order at all. It was chaos. Finally, after being there for almost 2 hours the rest of the passports came back. Everyone was thrilled.
We were off to Damascus. The guide made a point of telling everyone he would be personally responsible for escorting the two American guests. He had to repeat this several times, in multiple languages. Everyone just looked at us!!! At some point the Swiss woman was added and finally it was a free-for-all with the two guides (the other joined us in Syria). Along the ride to Damascus the guide referred to several “good friends” such as Pope John Paul II and told stories.
He also stressed how Syria believes in the human race and acceptance for all. It was amusing.
Our first stop in Damascus was the National Museum. We saw many interesting artifacts several millennia old. We saw a Jewish Synagogue and pagan temple as well as many artifacts. The final stop was as exquisite palace room all made from wood and inlaid panels. No pictures could be taken!!! But we did buy the book showcasing the best of the museum.
At this point I really needed a restroom. Unfortunately you had to pay and we had NO Syrian money, just US dollars we got to pay for the visas.
We asked about and ATM and got directions, it was out of order. We were running out of time and my bladder was full. Rob thought about buying something in the gift shop to get change, as they accepted US dollars. We bought a nice book about the museum collection and Rob got stamps for his Dad. I finally got to the restroom. As I came back Rob came up a little anxious because everyone was on the bus and the guide was saying they were going to leave us. We got on the bus and were off to the souq (market). On the way, in the traffic, there was a tractor with a large cart in the middle of all the cars….funny. The bus only went a few blocks and then let us off about a block from the entrance. The streets were packed. Next to the buildings women in the full, black fabric Muslim dress were sitting and talking. Damascus felt very different than Beirut.
It has an older and more eastern feel to it.
The souq has a very long main artery with a curved metal roof. The shops have modern glass storefronts and sell a large variety of items. It is definitely primarily focused on daily shoppers and not tourists. There was a bustling crowd. Men with large coffee pots and cups were walking through selling drinks. The buyer would stand there and drink it and after he was done the guy would wash the glass and use it for another customer. There were stores that sold only hookah and prayer beads. There were stores filled with the latest fashion for the Muslim woman with colorful head scarves and beaded dresses. The group made its way though the souq to the mosque at the other end. After a brief stop to gather everyone we were off to lunch.
The restaurant was an interesting mix of Arabic and eastern design….color and textures so very different. Lunch was done buffet style and I had many options. We shared a table with a family from Qatar. Rob asked a lot of questions about the requirements of women in the Muslim religion. It was a very interesting conversation. The family was very open and gladly answered our questions. They insisted that we must come and see Qatar. The daughter is actually studying to be an interior designer. Rob did make the mistake of trying to shake the daughter’s hand, which is forbidden. She seemed a little embarrassed.
After lunch, we visited the Qmyad Mosque.
It is said to be the richest mosque in the world. From the appearance alone, I am inclined to believe. It was embellished with the most amazing of details. The exterior has many areas where the colorful mosaics telling amazing stories that are original to the building of the mosque It is definitely the most beautiful mosque that I have ever seen. They supposedly have the head of the Prophet John (John the Baptist) entombed there. The crypt for it is very large and ornate with green glass. Pope John Paul II actually visited this mosque. The marble and mosaics are breathtaking. At one time the building, like many religious buildings, had been used as a cathedral. When they do the call to prayer the actually have a group of men who sing it live every time, nor recordings here.While walking around, in and out, of the mosque, I walked into an area of the open mosque that is strictly for women. It is only separated by some posts with string. Someone yelled at me to go to the other side of the line. I was told after, why.
I was embarrassed.
After the mosque we headed to the royal palace. From the exterior it looks very plain and non-descript, but inside it is lovely. The facades that open to the courtyard are made up of designs made with many different colors of marble. We took some time to look at the rooms and get a feel for the place. In the harem they had set-up mannequins to look like the wives, but they had used male heads. They were so funny!
We were enjoying ourselves, but it was so hot and we didn’t have Syrian money yet. This meant no drinks. The guide gathered everyone and released us for free time in the souq. He helped us find and ATM.
It took 3 different banks and winding through lots streets before we got cash. After that we found drinks and took a few minutes to have ice cream. It was very good homemade vanilla with pistachios on top. From there it was power shopping time. I picked up a few things while Rob went for spices. I found a monument for my collection and some trinkets for family and friends. We ended up being a few minutes late getting back. The guide gave us a hard time and then sat down to have a bottle of water. When we got to the bus, no one was on it yet anyway. We passed another OLD and very interesting mosque as we were leaving the city. I’m sure that I could spend much more time really exploring this fascinating city.
We got back to the bus and were off to Beirut, after a stop at a candy store. The process to get through the Syrian boarder wasn’t too bad.
We had to pay an exit fee of 500 SBP plus an extra 50 SBP as a processing fee. When we got to the Lebanese boarder it took over 2 hours to get processed. At one point a kid selling snacks got on the bus. He was precocious and basically a smart ass. At one point he told us we were waiting so long because we hadn’t each given a bribe. He said if we had each given $2 and put it in a passport and handed that in we would be gone. He also said that he would be home and in bed before we were released into Lebanon. We finally made it through and into Lebanon. The women were wanting a restroom because the one at the passport control it was disgusting. We were all also hungry. The driver made a stop at the same place from when we came in.
We grabbed some chips and a candy bar as we still had quite a way to go. We texted our parents on the bus to make sure they know we were safely back. By the time we got to the hotel it was 22:00. We were very tired. We got something to eat and then hit the bed. Tomorrow was going to be anther long day but, what a day, today, had been. We’d made it into Syrian and seen Damascus. My persistence had paid off…..YES!!!