Being culturally rich, filled with antiquities, and home to some of the world’s oldest cities, pre-war Syria was supposedly a delight to visit. I, however, visited Syria in November 2018, and still found Damascus to be one of the most magical cities I’ve ever been to. The international image of Syria and its people has now been tarnished – that of a war-torn country filled with extremists. But I’m here to show you a different side to Syria – a beautiful side that still remains, despite the war. A side that made me fall in love with the country’s cities and people, and has made me eager to return since the moment I left. I took a shared taxi from Beirut to Damascus, where I spent three days, before traveling to the city of Homs. I then returned to Lebanon by car from Homs. So, I’ve just entered Syria. We crossed the border, which was actually quite an easy process. I thought it would be trickier than it was, but it was fairly easy. I think we are 20 minutes from Damascus now. Something like that. I was initially expecting the border crossing to be fairly rigorous and difficult. However, in the end, the immigration officers didn’t even ask why I was going to Syria. Before being able to enter the country though, I did have to organize a visa. After checking into the Al Majed hotel, which was only 35 USD a night, I went for a walk through the famous Souq Al Hamidiyah. Okay, I’ve just arrived in Damascus, and I’m walking through a souq (a market) called Souq Al Hamidiyah. It’s absolutely stunning in here. I mean, it looks fantastic, but actually being here just feels even more amazing. This is like the complete opposite of what you might expect Syria to look like. We then walked through the rest of the stunning city before relaxing at Maqha Al Rawdah, a traditional Arabic coffee shop, popular with shisha smokers and board game players. The streets of Damascus were bustling, and the city felt safe. The following morning, we wandered back into the old city to visit Qasr Al Azem, an old palace built in the seventeen hundreds for the governor of Damascus, As’as Pasha Al Azem. The traditional Arab architecture here was fascinating to see, and the gardens were beautiful. As it was a Friday, we could hear the call to prayer coming from the famous, nearby Ummayad Mosque. It’s quite quiet on the streets of Damascus this morning. Perhaps that’s because it’s a Friday morning, and Friday prayers are coming up. But, yesterday was so busy. Last night was so busy. So perhaps that’s just when people go out. When I say it was quiet on the streets of Damascus that morning, I mean it. This is Souq Al Hamidiyah on a Thursday night. This is the same place on a Friday morning. In Damascus things are always shut on a Friday morning, almost without exception. It’s a tradition that’s been going on for a long time. We then visited a place called Khan As’ad Pasha, built in the same era as Qasr Al Azem. A “khan” is an old travellers’ inn, which would host foreign caravans regularly. Living quarters would be on the top floor, and the courtyard below was traditionally used as a marketplace for foreign goods. Caravans used to come here from Beirut, Baghdad, Mosul, Aleppo, and elsewhere in the Middle East. We then walked around some of the newer parts of Damascus, While they were still interesting to see, the old city was definitely the highlight. In the distance, we could see Qasioun mountain. Before the war, people used to go up here to admire beautiful views of the city below. However, it is now closed off to the public. We then returned to the old city to visit one of the most spectacular pieces Islamic architecture, the Ummayad Mosque. This ancient building was completed in the year 715 AD, built on top of an old Byzantine Basilica dedicated to John the Baptist. Some Muslims consider it to be the fourth holiest site in Islam. Inside the mosque is a shrine housing the head of John the Baptist or in Islam, prophet Yahya. John the Baptist is revered as a major religious figure in both Christianity and Islam. The head of Imam Hussein was also displayed in this mosque in the past. Muslims also believe that Jesus, or Aisa, will return to Earth towards the end of time, and that he will descend back to Earth on this minaret! As a result, the mosque has great religious significance. We then ate some food at this beautiful restaurant called Beit Jebri, which is located in an old Damascus mansion. Many old mansions and houses in Damascus have been converted into traditional restaurants. We then went to the revolving restaurant on top of Sham Hotel, where we had a drink whilst admiring this beautiful view. This building is the Damascus Four Seasons Hotel, which is popular with visiting UN officials. The most expensive rooms here can cost you more than 1000 USD a night! We then visited the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque which houses the grave Sayyida Ruqayya, the daughter of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, a revered figure in Shia Islam. As a result, this place is a pilgrimage point for Shia Muslims, with people from Iran Iraq Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere being in the mosque at the time of my visit. Interestingly, I noticed a donation box saying “Sandooq lida3m al m2awama al islamiyah fi lubnan”, meaning, a box for supporting the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, with this resistance undoubtedly being Hezbollah. Our final day in Damascus started by visiting the Damascus University campus with a friend. It is the largest and oldest university in Syria, and the campus surely was beautiful! Many foreigners used to study Arabic here. However, since 2011, the numbers have significantly dropped. After that, we visited the Damascus National Museum, which reopened a mere month before our visit. Here, being one of the few foreigners around, I was interviewed on a TV channel about my impressions regarding the museum, and of Damascus. I found the museum very interesting, but unfortunately much of it was still closed off. We then drove to the Bab Sharqi area to visit the underground Chapel of Saint Ananias. It was in this Chapel that St. Ananias baptized Saul, who became Paul the Apostle. This ancient structure supposedly dates to the 5th century BC. We then proceeded to walk through the busy market streets nearby Bab Sharqi. Having completed yet another fascinating day in Damascus, we decided to check out one more thing in the city – its nightlife! Bab Sharqi is filled with pubs and nightlife venues. Being inside some of them, you’d be forgiven to think that you’re somewhere in Western Europe. I mean, not only was this board written in English, but look what was written at the bottom! The next day in Syria was nothing like the first few. We spent the day in Homs, where my friend’s family lives. You begin to see destruction only minutes after leaving Damascus, as the highway passes Eastern Ghouta, an area which suffered a lot from the war. Although the main fighting in Homs ended years ago, the ruins are still ever-present… However, not all of Homs is in ruins. This famous mosque is currently being rebuilt, and so is the old market of Homs. Bustling streets filled with people are, in some cases, only a 5-minute walk from destroyed neighborhoods. Before ending, I’d just like to say thank you to my friends in Syria, who made this trip possible. The hospitality and welcome that I received in this country was remarkable, despite the hardships that the population has lived through. From the family I stayed with in Homs, to the locals I met on the street, Thank you, Syria, and I wish upon you peace and prosperity.