Packages focus on Syria's array of ancient sites

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NEW YORK -- Many U.S. travelers interested in ancient cultures and civilizations have begun to explore areas beyond the traditional centers of Egypt, Greece and Italy, and one to choose is Syria, a vast outdoor museum of ancient sites.

For many years, Syria has maintained an open-door policy to travelers, and if you look at the record, the country enjoys a clean bill of health on visitor safety.

Elie Sidawi, president of Sunny Land Tours, concurred, pointing out that "every year we get more and more people booking into Syria, for its historical interest, its exotic attractions and because they have come to understand what a stable tourist destination it is."

Sunny Land features Syria on three different tours: a 13-night Ancient Civilization package, that visits Jordan and Syria; a six-night Middle East Archaeology program, also to Syria and Jordan, and a 16-night Glories of Greece & the Middle East itinerary that visits Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.

The country also offers its visitors a surprising inventory of luxury hotels along the Mediterranean coast and near its Roman ruins of Palmyra, the Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers near Homs, the ancient city of Aleppo and even in the eastern region in the Euphrates town of Deir ez-Zor. These join well-established international hotels such as Sheraton, Meridien and Cham Palace in Damascus. Finally, within the past decade or two, an extraordinary amount of excavation and restoration work has been done on Syria's vast treasury of historic sites.

The rich heritage of this land derives both from its location on key trade routes and its proximity to the holy places of the West's three great religions. Hence, the sites that no tour should omit are the great cities that were nourished by their importance to trade -- Ebla and Ugarit in the third and second millenniums B.C.; Palmyra, Apamea and Bosra in Hellenistic and Roman times, and Aleppo and Damascus through the Islamic epoch.

Most itineraries begin in Damascus, where sightseeing includes Martyrs' Square, the Omayyad Mosque, the National Museum, St. Paul's Chapel and St. Ananias Church.

Shopping in the Souk al-Hamidiyeh is an adventure as visitors follow a labyrinth of covered alleys filled with smells of spices, perfume oils, leather, incense and strong coffee. The best buys here, and in the equally fascinating bazaar in Aleppo, are embroidered tablecloths, handwoven silk brocade, caftans, wooden chests, mosaic boxes, antique brassware, silver jewelry and carpets.

From Damascus, travelers visit the cliff village of Maaloula, where villagers still speak Aramaic, the dialect spoken by Jesus, or begin a country circuit by heading into the desert north of the capital on the caravan route to Palmyra. This vast city, once Queen Zenobia's capital, is distinguished by grand remains that include the Temple of Bel, a richly decorated theater, arches, baths and colonnades.

Beyond Palmyra on the Euphrates River are the remains of Dura Europos, Mari and Rusafa; to the west lie the impressive ruins of Apanmea, a Greco-Roman site of spectacular dimensions whose colonnades stride out across a hilltop, and the massive walls and towers of the Krak des Chevaliers fortifications, sheltering a 12th-century chapel and a 13th-century chapter house.

The big city of the north is Aleppo, with a grand and historic souk (bazaar) that many find more culturally interesting than the one in Damascus.

Of note to agents booking clients to Syria: A visa issued by the Syrian embassy in Washington is required for entrance to the country. Visas will not be granted to passport holders with Israeli visas or entry/exit stamps in their passports; new passports will be required. Following is a sampling of tours available to Syria. Prices quoted are per person, double occupancy.

  • General Tours in Keene, N.H., offers at least monthly departures through March 19 on Ancient Syria, its eight-day escorted tour visiting Damascus, Crak des Chevaliers, Hama, Ebla, Aleppo and Palymra.
  • On the final day in Damascus, tour members are offered an optional full-day excursion to the archaeological site of Baalbeck in Lebanon, with a side trip also to the small Islamic site, Anjar. Americans can now enter Lebanon visa-free, but a double-entry Syrian visa is required for this excursion.

    Tour features include eight nights in deluxe and first class hotels with private bath or shower, staying at the Semiramis in Damascus, the Safir in Homs, the Amir Palace in Aleppo and the Zenobia in Palmyra. The cost per person with air from the U.S. ranges from $2,299 to $2,599; the land-only price is $1,499.

  • Sunnyland Tours in Hackensack, N.J., features Saturday departures through March on its 13-night Ancient Civilization Tour, which spends four nights in Amman, one night in Petra, three nights in Damascus, one night in Palmyra, one night in Mari (on the Euphrates River), two nights in Aleppo and one night in Hama. The cost per person, including air and using first class hotels, is $3,095; in deluxe hotels, the cost is $3,575.
  • Egypt Tours & Travel in Wadsworth, Ill., has scheduled monthly departures on its 15-night Discovering Syria & Jordan program, which visits Damascus, Bosra, Chabba, Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers, Hama and Aleppo in Syria; Jerash Ajlun, the Desert Castles and Crusader castles, Petra and Amman in Jordan.
  • Features include dinners in both a Syrian home and a Jordanian home (about half of the meals are covered during the tour), and deluxe hotels are featured: Le Meridien in Damascus, Cham Palace in Palmyra and in Aleppo, Marriott Hotel in Amman and Movenpick Hotel for two nights in Petra. The cost per person with air from New York is $5,135.

    The company also offers Syria in a 16-night program covering Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

    General Tours, Phone: (800) 221-2216, Fax: (603) 357-4548, E-mail: [email protected], Web: www.generaltours.com

    Sunnyland Tours, Phone: (800) 783-7839 or (201) 487-2150, Fax: (201) 487-1546, E-mail: [email protected], Web: www.sunnylandtours.com

    Egypt Tours & Travel, Phone: (800) TO-EGYPT or (773) 506-9999, Fax: (773) 506-9996, E-mail: [email protected], Web: www.egypttours.com

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