Security update: The FCO currently advises against all travel to Syria due to the unpredictable nature of the security situation. If you do decide to visit, you should exercise extreme vigilance with your safety and heed FCO advice to stay away from large gatherings, especially on Fridays which have seen the largest outbreaks of violence. All visitors should carry their passport with them at all times and be extra cautious when pointing their camera at anything that isn’t an obvious tourist attraction. All foreign journalists have been expelled from the country and the security forces are suspicious of anyone wielding a camera.
The Syrian uprising began on March 18 2011 when the arrest of several local children, detained for spray-painting anti-government slogans along the wall of their school, sparked a demonstration for their release in the southern border town of Deraa about a 1½ hour’s drive from the capital. When security forces stepped in and responded violently to quell the protest, unrest swept across Syria with many other towns also becoming hotspots of dissent. Although so far central Damascus has seen relatively few demonstrations, and has overall remained a pocket of calm, outlying suburbs such as Harasta have seen some localised protests and violent clashes between civilians and the military. There is a large police presence in the city and road blocks and police checkpoints are now common on all roads into the capital and within certain areas.
Syria has always been a crossroads. Kings, caliphs, crusaders and conquerors have all carved their way through here leaving crumbling reminders of past glories scattered across the countryside. Vast ruins spread out over desert sands, fairytale castles perch on hill tops; Syria groans under a weight of monuments that few other countries can match.
In the cities, thread your way deep enough into the belly of the souqs and it’s as if the clocks had stopped a few centuries back. Spice scents the air as donkeys, laden with produce, plod their way down narrow alleys beneath buildings that slope precariously inwards, reducing the sky to a sliver of blue in between.
But this nation is so much more than a living museum. Syrians, quick to smile and welcome strangers, are the real star attraction. Invitations to talk and drink tea, to come home for dinner, are daily occurrences for travellers, who discover the legendary Syrian hospitality is the real highlight of a journey here.
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