A Khawaga's Tale: From Cairo to Damascus, a traveler's trail

Peter A. Carrigan
7 Min Read

Eid presents an opportunity to cruise through Syrian history

DAMASCUS: Over the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, the Khawaga’s Trail led to Syria, where boys with guns run riot, tourism’s potential is enormous and George Washington’s face is almost as prolific as President Bashar Al-Assad and Sheikh Nasrallah.

Taxis, hotels, restaurants and even the barber happily accept payment in green backs. Even though Syria has very attractive bank notes, so go figure!

On the 200 Syrian pound banknote is a hero of mine, that formidable leader of Egypt and a righteous man of history, Saladin.

History is Syria’s tourism product. It has been crisscrossed by conquerors, played host to emperors, is home to many historic icons and with its temperate climate is the perfect autumnal destination.

But be careful not to get shot at. Maybe it’s just that I am a big target, but along the narrow alley ways of the medieval souks, rounding a corner in a taxi or even in a Mosque, there would be a boy with a toy gun taking a pot shot at me.

Syria suffers from the post 9/11 western stereotypes that wrongly associate a religion with bandits. But once here it is not to be believed. I could have filed a photo of a boy with a toy gun in Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, but that would have been a lie. Because during Eid Al-Fitr the mosque was brimming with loving families, I took the picture because it was cute, but in a newspaper it would be too easily construed as something else. Maybe one day the Khawaga’s Trail will lead to a PR job in Rome?

As for the general picture of tourism, it would seem Syria is heading down a similar road to Morocco. It is encouraging mid-range boutique hotels, such as the Dar Halabia, a converted house in Aleppo’s old town. There are small personalized tours, but without the annoying touts. Restaurants too, from cheap cafes to more exclusive dinning the food is mono-culture, and eating mezze three times a day is a big part of the experience for the French, German and Italians, who make up the majority of western tourists to Syria.

I celebrated my birthday at the 12th Century Crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. It is truly a wonder, with its monstrous walls, defensive towers and easy to use lavatories, built on top a 650m peak. It must have devoured the wealth of generations to build such a formidable structure, which was a poignant reminder of how war squanders resources.

Crac as it is known in the tourist trade, Palmyra, Aleppo’s Citadel and the Damascus Old City are the 4 points of the Syrian tourism compass. Around which you keep seeing the same people again and again. There were the archaeologists from Belgium, assorted young couples, three school teachers from Beirut, the odd AUC student from Cairo and a dozen or so ‘backpackers’ on a 23 day package tour of Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

Part of Syria’s attraction is that it is raw and not over run. At Crac I was told that 150,000 foreigners and Syrians visit each year. Which only translates to a few tourist coaches a day. At Palmyra, possibly due to its remoteness, as few as 40,000 make the trek to the extraordinary Roman ruins located in Syria’s only desert oasis.

Inshalla, Syria’s tourism industry will develop and not make the same mistakes that now scar the South East Asian coast line, overcrowding of Paris museums or the unregulated boom that exploded in the Andean mountain town of Cuzco. But Syria needs to manage its sites. Possibly using the model of National Parks, that puts the environment before the needs of visitors.

It is very cheap to visit Syria’s icons, LE 10-LE 15. Possibly entrance fees need to be addressed and money spent on restoration, maintenance and interpretation. Brochures would add to the visitor’s experience, providing garbage bins for rubbish would help to keep sites clean, police in uniform is always reassuring and the issuing of tourist visas on arrival, as is Egypt’s procedure, is a key to increasing tourist numbers.

It is not only antiquity which needs to be preserved. The Baron Hotel in Aleppo has that faded grandeur that can also be experienced at Cairo’s Windsor Hotel. The Baron, whether one is resident there or not, is where the 4 points of the Syrian compass merge. For afternoon tea, or an aperitif, this is where the tourists finally drift and a big wave and laugh is shared as we all meet again at yet another site on the Syrian tourist trail.

Peter A. Carrigan studied journalism at New York University and has been fortunate enough to have traveled widely and married wisely. Having lived in Egypt for three years, he counts amongst his best experiences hiking in the Sinai Mountains, seeing the total eclipse of the sun on the Libyan border and being harassed by dolphins in Dahab.

Coming this week

BCA MohandiseenHALLOWEEN “Fright Night Quiz, Oct. 31 at 8:00pmHalla’ween Night Nov. 3 at 7:30pm More Information: [email protected]

Service of Remembrance, Sunday, Nov. 5The annual Service of Remembrance at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Nabil El Waked Street, Heliopolis, will be held this year on Sunday, Nov. 12, commencing at 11 am. There will be a buffet reception after the service in the cemetery. Everyone is welcome to attend both the service and the reception.

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