Syria has bridged the gap between the Mediterranean Sea and the harsh desserts of Arabia since the ancient period.
Syria was ruled by many different kingdoms. Alexander the Great came and went before the Romans arrived, leaving behind them cities such as Palmyra. Syria would go on to be part of the Byzantine Empire, the Caliphate, the Crusader kingdoms, the Ottoman Empire and a short-lived French territory, until gaining independence in 1946.
However, as with many other historical sites in the region, much of Syria’s historic heritage is reported to have been heavily damaged in the ongoing and complex civil war. Prior to the conflict, Syria contained a number of fascinating places to explore, such as Krak des Chevaliers and the Citadel of Salah Ed-Din.
Nevertheless, appreciate the incredible and long history of this war-torn country through our guide to the 10 best historic sites in Syria.
1. Krak des Chevaliers
Krak des Chevaliers, known in Arabic by Hisn al-Akrad, is a castle in Syria built for the Emir of Aleppo in 1031 AD which became the headquarters of the famous Crusader Knights Hospitallier during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Located on a 650 metre-high natural citadel between Tartus and Tripoli, the castle was originally constructed by the Emir of Aleppo in 1031 on the site of an earlier fort.
Perhaps the best preserved example of a Crusader fortress in existence today, Krak des Chevaliers is an awe-inspiring example of medieval military architecture and resultantly was designated a World Heritage site in 2006.
2. Citadel of Salah Ed-Din
The Citadel of Salah Ed-Din, also known as Saladin Castle and Saone, is a partly-preserved fortress in Syria which is an interesting example of Crusader-era fortifications.
The site has been used as a fortification for many centuries, and is thought to have first been occupied by the Phoenicians and later by Alexander the Great. The current site was built by the Byzantines and became a Crusader stronghold until its capture by Saladin in 1188.
Palmyra was a thriving city of the ancient world, whose impressive UNESCO-listed ruins are located in Syria. Originally known by the Semitic name of Tadmor meaning ‘date palm’ – which is now the name of the neighbouring modern town – Palmyra was once a commercial hub along a busy trade route.
References to Palmyra appear in the Bible as well as in other historical writings, some dating as far back as the 2nd millennium BC. However, it was from the 1st century BC that affluent caravan owners stopped there along the old Silk Road, contributing to its wealth.
4. Qatna Archaeological Park
Qatna Archaeological Park in Tell Mishrifeh, Syria, houses the ruins of what was the thriving ancient Mesopotamian city of Qatna. Sat on an important crossroads between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt, Qatna reached its peak during the Bronze Age.
Known to have first been occupied in the 3rd millennium BC, Qatna’s location on an important commercial and political crossroad connecting it to both the Mitanni empire and the ancient Egyptians allowed it to flourish.
Apamea is an ancient site in Syria which boasts a remarkable 1800 metres of dramatic Roman colonnades together with a range of other ruins. Said to have been one of the largest Seleucid cities and built in around the 4th century BC, Apamea flourished and thrived as a commercial hub under the Romans with a population of some 117,000 people.
Today, Apamea is an incredible site. Most of the remains are from the Roman period, yet there are also fascinating finds from the city’s time under the Seleucids including ruins of its defences, much of which have been restored.
6. Dura Europos
Dura Europos was a thriving ancient city in Eastern Syria occupied by a series of civilisations. What remains today are some well-preserved ruins.
It was one of the successor states that emerged after the death of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Greeks, who founded Dura Europos in 300 BC, locating it at the mid-point between their two capitals and overlooking the Euphrates River.
Over the centuries, Dura Europos developed from a caravan settlement into more of a commercial hub. In addition, time would also see this city taken over by a succession of peoples: first the Arsacid Parthians, then the Romans in around 160 AD.
7. Ancient Bosra
The ruins of Ancient Bosra are among the most spectacular historic remains in Syria. Among the sites to see in Bosra is the incredible 2nd century AD Bosra Theatre along with a host of Nabatean, Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim structures.
Today, a small city still remains alongside a huge array of fascinating archaeological sites. Chief among the ruins at Bosra is the 2nd century AD Roman theatre. Built under the Roman emperor Trajan, it would have originally held up to 15,000 people.
8. Aleppo Citadel
Considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world, Aleppo Citadel is a huge medieval fortified palace sat in the centre of the old city of Aleppo, northern Syria. People have utilised the citadel hill since the middle of the 3rd millennium BC.
Occupied by many civilisations over time – including the Armenians, Greeks, Byzantines, Ayyubids and Ottomans – most of what stands today is thought to originate from the Ayyubid period.
9. Temple of Jupiter - Damascus
Begun during the reign of Emperor Augustus, the Temple of Jupiter in Damascus is a pretty impressive ruin that reminds Syria of its ancient past. By the 4th century AD the temple was famous for its size and beauty.
Before the Romans ever arrived in Damascus, the Aramaeans worshipped the cult of Hadad Ramman – god of thunderstorms and rain. The Aramaeans erected a temple to Hadad-Ramman and when the Romans conquered the city in 64 BC, they absorbed both the original temple and the deity into their own religion.
10. Umayyad Mosque
Also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque in Syria is not only one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world, but is the fourth holiest site in Islam. The mosque was built on top of a basilica to St John the Baptist after the Muslims took Damascus in 634 AD.
A 6th century legend says the head of the saint lives somewhere within the mosque. If you can’t find the relic when visiting, you can certainly find the mausoleum of Saladin in a small garden beside the north wall.