View of Syria

The Highlights Of Northern Syria

Derek Syria 50 Comments

View of Syria

A few days ago, I took a tour.

Actually, it wasn’t really a tour. Four other travelers and I split the cost of a minivan and driver to take us to what we were told were three of the most impressive sights in northern Syria. What the hotel manager who organized the minivan failed to inform us (and what all five of us travelers failed to research) was that each of these three sights was located quite a significant distance not only from our hotel, but from each other as well.

So, what we were told was going to be an easy 9am – 4pm trip turned into a 9am – 10:30pm grand excursion, with 9 or those 13 hours spent traveling inside of a cramped and ludicrously uncomfortable minivan.

Just to give you an idea, it took us almost two hours to get from Aleppo to the first sight we visited, two hours to then reach the next place, two hours and forty-five minutes to travel from there to the final stop of the tour and another three hours and fifteen minutes to drive back to Aleppo.

However, despite the crazy hours spent in that van, despite my terrible headache as a result of not eating the entire day (it was Friday and everything was closed in the small towns we passed through) and despite the facial sunburn and dehydration, I of course managed to enjoy the day.

In fact, if I ignore all of the day’s challenges, this trip was actually quite memorable, as every place we visited left me wishing I had an entire day to explore that one sight alone.

What did we see exactly?

Well, the first stop was…

SARJELLA

Sarjella, Syria

Sarjella is the largest of the ‘Dead Cities’, a vast collection of the ruins of over 700 Byzantine towns, villages and monastic communities. Offering one of the best glimpses into the Byzantine world, these ”cities” were abandoned once the political center of the region moved from nearby Antioch to Damascus, further to the south. The town of Sarjella has been abandoned for over 1500 years but many of its semi-complete buildings remain in relatively good condition.

At first sight, Sarjella seemed to be an uninteresting collection of rubble, but upon further exploration, it contained an intriguing group of structures. The area is much larger than it appears from a distance and I spent a good hour and a half wandering all over the site, walking through the stone remains of a tavern, meeting house, bath house and church. The now isolated location and surrounding moonscape-esque terrain created a mysterious atmosphere that could be felt quite intensely as I stood alone in the middle of this once bustling community.

Entrance Fee: 75 SP ($1.50 USD) – This was the price listed on the sign but nobody asked us to buy a ticket. We just walked in and none of the people sitting around the entrance said anything.

Sarjella, Syria

Sarjella, Syria

And then we moved on to…

APAMEA (AFAMYA)

Afamya, Syria

This Hellenistic city, founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, was one of the three main cities of the Seleucid Empire and once had over 500,000 inhabitants. It eventually became part of the Roman Empire in 64 B.C. (the period of time when much of what is visible today was built) and later a part of the Byzantine Empire. Running 1.85 kilometers long, a significant portion of Afamya’s main street has incredibly withstood repeated conquests and even a massive earthquake.

This place blew me away. To see an ancient Roman avenue, lined with hundreds of columns stretching for such a great distance and set on a plateau overlooking the Ghab valley, was quite a remarkable sight. All I did was walk up and down this avenue a couple of times but I had never been to an ancient Roman city where it was so easy to actually envision what life was like back in those days. Not only were there hundreds of mostly intact columns, but there were archways, facades, temples, bathhouses and other structures that were quite well-preserved. I could almost hear the horse and chariots traveling along this main road as well as the philosophers offering their wisdom to all those who passed them by.

Entrance fee: 150 SP ($3 USD) Amazingly though, nobody asked us to pay the entrance fee here either. We just got out of the minivan and walked right in without anyone approaching us for a ticket.

Afamya, Syria

Afamya, Syria

Once we were finished with Afamya, we made our way to…

KRAK DE CHEVALIERS

Krak de Chevaliers, Syria

This surreal castle was built between 1142 and 1271 as one of the handful of fortifications whose purpose was to guard the main passage route from Turkey to Beirut. It was built by the Order of the Knights of St. John and was generally considered to be impenetrable given its solid construction and impressive location some 750 meters above sea level.

It didn’t take long at all for this place to rise straight to the top of my list of favorite things I’ve seen or done so far in Turkey and Syria. In fact, this mountaintop castle is right up there on my list of favorite sights that I’ve ever seen, anywhere on this planet. Unfortunately, however, I only had a few minutes to explore this place.

After traveling the two hours and forty-five minutes from Afamya to Krak de Chevaliers, we naturally arrived quite late, at 5:35pm to be exact. The problem was that the castle closed at 6:00pm and when we ran up the steps and tried to enter, we were told that we could not buy a ticket because it was too late in the day for us to safely navigate through the now dark passageways.

It took about 5 minutes of begging and pleading before the ticket man agreed to sell us tickets under the condition that we would remain in the castle for no more than 10 minutes. With tickets in hand, all five of us ran up the main corridor and through the main gate where we began what has to be one of the wildest visits to any historical site that I’ve ever been a part of. Everything was in hyper-speed as we bolted from room to room, vaulted hall to vaulted to hall and dungeon to dungeon. We climbed towers, stood on top of outer walls, crossed moats, explored dark tunnels and wandered into mysterious corridors. After ten minutes, we heard one of the castle’s security guards yell out to tell us that it was time to leave. But we didn’t want to leave at all as everywhere we turned there was more and more sections of this incredible castle to explore. And so for the next thirty minutes we played cat and mouse, with the security guard trying to chase us down while the five of us tried to hide/explore as much as possible.

Eventually, after 45 minutes inside the castle, we found ourselves cornered as the security guard caught us off guard by going silent for a few minutes and suddenly popping out of a long, dark hallway that we were about to enter ourselves. Surprisingly, he wasn’t mad at us and he just laughed as we gave up in defeat and began our march towards the exit.

My photos don’t do justice to this place at all and I’m actually thinking about revisiting Krak de Chevaliers once I make my way further south. I would really like to spend an entire day here as this structure appeared far more impressive to me than any fort, castle or other historical structure that I’ve ever come across in any of my travels.

Entrance fee: 150 SP ($3 USD) This time we had to pay for a ticket 🙂

Krak de Chevaliers, Syria

Krak de Chevaliers, Syria

After Krak, we had to endure the final (and longest) leg of the day’s journey, but we finally reached Aleppo once again, only a mere six and a half hours later than scheduled. At this point, I simply walked into the hotel lobby, asked for my key and went straight to my room. I was in quite a daze, not feeling too well and focused only on getting some sleep. And as soon as I entered my room, I plopped down on the bed with all of my clothes on and instantly passed out.

The next thing I knew it was 9:00am the following morning and I was sitting up in bed somewhat confused, struggling to determine whether I had actually visited Sarjella, Afamya and Krak de Chevaliers or whether those fascinating places were simply memories from a most interesting dream.

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Comments 50

  1. Natalie

    I’m taking a course at uni on Mediterranean Archaeology right now and it’s really made me want to see some of these ruins. But for some reason when I think about visiting I always end up stuck with the “established safeties” like Israel and Egypt — I’ve been subconsciously blocking off other places in my mind because of the connotations associated with them! Thank you for this post, it helps me see these that these places aren’t really far-away and unreachable.

    1. Earl

      Hey Natalie – These places are definitely not unreachable. Once you make it to Syria, you’ll instantly discover that traveling in this region is not only rewarding, but much easier than most people think. And for someone interested in Archaeology, Syria would be a playground for you!

  2. Juno

    Earl, this is amazing.I have almost no knowledge about Syria, and I get to see it all now! I didn’t know they have this rich historical ruins. Well, you never know how big and complecated this world is.. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing! I’ve learned a lot.

    1. Earl

      Hey Juno – It seems that everywhere I look over here there is another collection of incredible ruins.

      And I’m glad to hear you’re interested in learning about this part of the world 🙂 Maybe you should add it to your Runaway Juno – RTW tour!!

  3. Maria Staal

    Wow, that must have been a crazy trip! But you saw some amazing things! I hope you can make it back to the castle and explore it a bit better.
    For some reason I always forget that there are Greek and Romans ruins in the Middle East, but of course, there must be many…

    1. Earl

      Hey Maria – There are more than many Greek and Roman ruins sites here in Syria alone. I agree that it’s not usually the first thing we think of when we think of traveling to this region but many of the sites that are here are more preserved than any others I’ve ever seen anywhere. I have a few more that I want to see as well…it’s hard to choose which ones to visit!

  4. Shannon OD

    You have me eager to get over there Earl – I love to sit at some of these spots and just attempt to conceive of the millions of feet that have passed through before me…what they were eating, what life was like to live among such once modern and stunning buildings (perhaps a feeling people might say about our skyscrapers one day?).

    Beautiful shots!

    1. Earl

      Hey Shannon – Even the most basic of buildings here (in the old cities) causes your imagination to run wild. It’s almost harder to comprehend modern life taking place inside the walls than it is to picture life from centuries ago. And hopefully you’re arrival is not too far away????

  5. Akila

    Ahhh . . . so Africa . . . when they tell you that you’ll be there “soon” and it turns out to be 4 hours later. Gorgeous pictures. You make me want to go to Syria.

    1. Earl

      Hey Akila – Haha! Yeah, the good thing is that I wasn’t exactly expecting the trip to go as planned. That would have been a bit unrealistic. My favorite part was when the driver said the castle was only 5km away and then it took us almost another hour to get there!

  6. AdventureRob

    That looks like an awesome trip, I love old decayed buildings, unfortunately I think my imagination can’t touch what they would actually be like in their prime. The skies in the photo’s compliment the structures well to 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Rob – There’s no shortage of old, decayed buildings in Syria. I’m currently in Hama which has a tiny old city but it feels as if it’s barely changed at all in several hundred years. There’s not one sign of modern life in these alleyways. I guess you’ll have to make your way here one day to soak up the atmosphere for yourself!

    1. Earl

      Hey Sandy – A post on Syrian food will be written shortly. The problem is that I’m eating too much and then I’m so stuffed that I can’t sit down and write 🙂

  7. Corinne @ Gourmantic

    Lovely. I’m reminiscing through your post!

    I did a similar trip in the middle of summer and nearly melted from the heat so I can empathise. Apamea blew me away! We passed Krak des chevaliers on the way from Lebanon but didn’t get to visit it. I too found it strange that nobody collected entrance fees. I’ll share my stories soon rather than fill your comment box 🙂

    Not sure if you’re going to Palmyra but that would be worth an overnight visit.

    1. Earl

      Hey Corinne – It will be wonderful to read your stories from this region as well! And if you have any other recommendations (especially food-wise) for Damscus or any other places, please let me know 🙂 I will be headed to Palmyra too, probably within the next couple of weeks…so many great places to see over here!

  8. Jodi (legalnomads)

    I’m sure the missing part of this Trio of Champions will chime in here too but all of these Syria posts just make me that much more excited to head out there soon. In the huge variety of what there is to see and do in the middle east, Syria is far too often overlooked. Glad so many people are reading your posts and planning to go there too. Looking forward to the next one!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jodi – Yes, where is that third part of the Trio??? It is great to hear that more people are considering a visit to Syria, perhaps we should have a travelers meet-up here in Damascus for New Year’s! 🙂

  9. Ozzy

    Regardless of how long of a day that was playing cat and mouse with security in an ancient castle would make up for anything. Sounds like you had a fantastic day. Keep up the great stories.

    Ozzy

    1. Earl

      Hey Ozzy – I agree. The castle chase did help make our short visit much more enjoyable! Just having the place to ourselves was worth spending only a short time inside…

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  11. Moon Hussain

    Earl,

    This pictures are f’in fascinating….. that just blows my mind! To think these were cities/areas full of life and now they’re just part of history… incredible stuff. Incredible, spooky and fascinating.

    Hope that headache is gone!

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon – The headache was gone by the following morning, thank you for asking 🙂 And ‘spooky’ is a good word to use as that’s what it feels like when you are transported into the past as the result of such a well-preserved site. Even though the castle was empty when we were there, it almost felt full of soldiers going about their daily business. So strange….

  12. Lisa E

    I went to Syria this summer and absolutely loved it, especially Krak de Chevaliers. I was there for a half day and wish I’d had more time. It’s definitely at the top of my list! BTW…I got lost with a couple of Japanese tourists when we were there and ended up hanging out with a crazy night watchman. I may blog about that experience–that’s how crazy it was.

    Anyway, cool post…..with great pics. Enjoyed it!

    1. Earl

      Hey Lisa – I appreciate the comment! So you definitely know what I mean about Krak. Even a half a day isn’t enough time to spend there. And I wonder if that night watchman was the same guy who chased me all around the castle!

      1. Lisa E

        OMG…he might have been. When I post my blog re: Syria (and my castle experience), I’ll let you know. You can check the photo of the guy and see if it was him. (He resembled Igor.)

        And yeah, Krak is truly amazing. I think you could do a full day there–7-8 hours. So beautiful and mysterious and slightly scary (in a good way) at the same time.

  13. Natalie - Turkish Travel Blog

    I can not believe the price of those entrance fees. Also on the first two places, nobody bothered to charge you. Here in Turkey, some of the entrance fees can be quite expensive. Lets hope Syria never follow the Turks in that example.

    Ps – Earl. If you like the old roman cities and get chance when you are back in Turkey, then visit Ephesus. Blows you away.

    1. Earl

      Hey Natalie – Amazing isn’t it? 150 Syrian Pounds is more than reasonable as an entrance fee.

      And thanks for the tip about Ephesus. Consider it on the list 🙂

  14. Dan

    Your mind must run wild standing at an avenue like that. It is even more incredible if you read accounts from people who were there hundreds or even over a thousand years ago.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dan – It’s true. As soon as you start to hear real stories of people that were living at those very sites, it’s as if the place instantly comes alive. And especially when it’s such a well-preserved avenue, it makes it much easier to imagine life taking place…

      Thank you for the comment!

    1. Earl

      Hey Alan – I would be quite surprised if Krak wasn’t THE most preserved medieval castle in the world. It’s hard to believe it’s as old as it is.

      And I should be arriving in Damascus in about a week…I’ve just been re-reading your Damascus/Syria posts. Can’t wait to get to Palmyra either!

  15. Nate

    Awesome Earl….sounds like an absolutely wonderful day despite the lack of food and water! Maybe you can become the Rick Steves of this region 🙂

    As surprising as it sounds, I had some similar feelings while in Prague and Salzburg. There were remote parts of both cities where I had this sense and feeling of what it must have been like to live here 1,000 years ago (especially in Prague, which is an insanely well preserved city). I LOVE wandering around cities, exploring little alleyways and getting lost. It makes travel so much fun.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your travels in this region. Glad you’re having fun!

    Peace,
    Nate

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate! Great to hear from you as always!

      I agree that Prague is a great city for trying to capture the vibe of what life must have been like centuries earlier. There is just such an abundance of historical structures and of course, once you step away from the handful of major sights, you’re bound to discover hidden gems tucked away in the most random of places.

      And I’m just glad to know that you’re officially a fellow wanderer 🙂

  16. Lis

    HIlarious description – and not bad photos in the circumstances – Crak or Krak (who knows?) is a real castle – not a pretty made for tourist one like you get in Europe! There are bunch of not quite as famous but equally interesting ones in the area. I hired a car out of a nearby town (the one famous for the water wheels) – well worth staying at anyways – definitly go back!

    1. Earl

      Hey Lis – Haha…actually, I’ve seen it written Krak, Crac, Crak and Krac! I think the town you were referring to is Hama and I’ll be headed there tomorrow with the intention of exploring the area as much as possible. Castles are something that I rarely tire of exploring 🙂

  17. Kan

    Krak De Chevaliers looks stunning! Even the name sounds good – for some reason it has an ‘epic’ feel to it. Shame you couldn’t stay for longer but I had a good laughing reading about you dodging the security guard. Thank goodness he found it comical too.

    1. Earl

      Hey Kan – Krak de Chevaliers is just one of those places in the world that is difficult to even believe exists. And even though it was a short visit, it was still quite fun and the security guard’s attitude towards our behavior was of course a big relief!

    1. Earl

      Hey Cam – Nice!! Two weeks is not long at all…are you actually coming to Syria on this trip??? This would be such a great place to meet up!

  18. Connie

    Wow, how amazing! I missed Syria when I traveled to the Middle East last year but there’s always opportunities to go! Hopefully, I’ll get to save a few bucks on the entrance fees like you did! =)

    1. Earl

      Hey Connie – Exactly! I’m sure you’ll have another chance to visit Syria at some point. And even when you have to pay the entrance fees here, it’s never more than $3…quite reasonable to me 🙂

  19. Forest

    Ha ha ha, I know those days! Well it sounds like you will be back to them if you can and of course you can as you have no schedule as such. That is why traveling is so awesome!

    You have to visit Karnak temple in Luxor if those Roman columns interested you. There is a swamp of papyrus which is actually about 100 (or more) massive Ancient Egyptian columns. Also in Alexandria there is some awesome Roman catacombs and an amphitheater….

    1. Earl

      Hey Forest – Actually, I have visited Karnak a couple of years ago and it was one of my favorite sites in all of Egypt. I spent a long time walking around and soaking up the atmosphere. Haven’t made it to Alexandria yet, so that will definitely be on the list for next time…

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