The Budget Babe | Affordable Fashion & Style Blog

TBB's World Traveler Reports: Are You Syr-ious?

Cultural and archaeological treasures abound in a land steeped in history. The Budget Babe's International Shopping Advisor Fifi LaMode takes us on a tour of Syria. —TBB

by Fifi LaMode
One of my favorite Middle Eastern destinations is Syria. Forget what you hear on TV (Fifi doesn't do politics) this is a great country. Damascus is the oldest continuously populated city in the world, over 5,000 years old. The Old Town is a maze of little streets which requires a guide to navigate (we tried and almost lost each other in addition to losing our way when we tried to find a rug shop we visited earlier).

Souk al-Hamidiyeh is the most famous souk (bazaar or market) of old Damascus.
The Ummayad Mosque is one of the most sacred places in Islam; it's where Christ is supposed to appear at the end of the world. It also houses the head of John the Baptist (nope, not for public display). Nearby is the tomb of Saladdin, revered by Muslims as a paragon of chivalry. Did you know he was Kurdish? Neither did I. There's also a statue on the spot where Saul of Tarsus was allegedly struck down and saw the light, and became St. Paul.

Houses look derelict from the outside only to reveal lovely courtyards with mosaics, fountains and flowers. The shops in and around the Old Town sell little tables with inlay which you can take apart and carry on a plane (clever!) and damask cloth (Damascus, damask, get it?), a rich brocade in deep colors.

Our favorite purchases were antique Persian prints on a papyrus-y paper (If you buy one, they can put it in a frame on the spot. Do so, as a decent frame here will cost you many times what you paid for the print.) These prints are delicate and lovely and make wonderful gifts, and they pack easily into a carry-on. Other things to buy are colorful glass vases in all shapes and sizes, and silver mirrors. Fragrant herbs and spices, almonds from Jordan, dates, figs, olives, all can be purchased at a fraction of what you'd pay in other Middle Eastern countries.

Aleppo teems with people, literally. From our hotel room there was a steady din from the market below. In the center of the city is the huge medieval Citadel which you can visit. Very imposing. At the foot of the Citadel is The Souk, or closed market, known throughout the Middle East. Not as huge as Istanbus' Grand Bazaar, but impressive nonetheless. Silver jewelry with lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, malachite or tiger eye, is extremely reasonable and well made.

One of the more quirky things I noticed was all this sexy lingerie for sale, since a lot of women wore long black dresses. We're talking lace, see-through, red, black, purple, hot pink, etc. We were told (listen well, Ladies) that while western women manifest their personalities, etc. by how they dress, middle eastern women prefer to show their true selves only to their family and friends. Do you think we can learn something here?

Aleppo has a large Shia population, so dress is more conservative than in Damascus, where styles are western but eminently more modest than in your average American mall. It's quite refreshing frankly. People are courteous, quiet, friendly. They will tell you that they don't agree with our politics but they like American people. Many have never been outside the country, so much of what they know about us is from heavily censored media. And they like us anyway!

Other must-see places: Palmyra, fabulous ruins in the desert, a city formerly ruled by Queen Xenobia (don't you just love the name?), conquered by the Romans; Krak des Chevaliers, an absolutely amazing Crusader Castle; Maalula, a small town in the hills where they still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and you can actually hear the Our Father in Aramaic in a little church (the priests also make a local wine which you can buy).

By all means visit this lovely country which was thriving when the sands of Arabia only had nomad tents, not oil wells and opulent wealth. See the beauty of the stark desert and the teeming streets of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo where there's not a McDonald's in sight but plenty of cafes and restaurants serving delicious mezas and healthy food. Respect their culture, they have a lot of it. Enjoy the shopping because it's exotic, inexpensive and truly different.

The definitive guide to travel in Syria is the Cadogan guide, Syria & Lebanon by Michael Haag, available at all major bookstores.
thanks for the eye-opening & stereotype-debunking post, fifi. i've always been curious about syria's culture because my best friend is syrian-american. you've peaked my interest even more.
#1 romi on 2007-08-29 14:14 (Reply)
Fifi, your colorful descriptions brought back memories of a trip we once took to Turkey. Syria sounds like an incredible destination.

Also, a friend of ours just got back from a year of study in Dubai, said the exchange rate in Syria is really good these days.
#1.1 The Budget Babe on 2007-08-30 09:11 (Reply)
I love these articles! Nothing gets ants in my pants faster then the thought of traveling to a fabulous and exotic place! I really want to go to Syria, and i agree with Romi, this article has just peeked my interest even more!
#2 Peaches (Homepage) on 2007-08-29 17:56 (Reply)
Even though I was there with my husband, I can say it is a safe place for women to travel. We walked down the streets in the evening and never felt threatened. One of the nicest experiences was in the Ummayad Mosque (women are provided with robes covering everything but the face) and some Muslim women came up to me, and one of them waved her arms, smiled and asked "You like?" I replied, "I like very much." She then gave me a hug. See? We CAN all get along!
Thanks for your comment!
#3 Fifi LaMode on 2007-08-29 18:19 (Reply)
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