Syria Country Guide

Tucked in between the other Arab countries and the Mediterranean Sea, Syria is a little Arab jewel in southwest Asia, bordered by Lebanon to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east and Israel to the southwest. The country is officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic but goes by just Syria in all common parlance. It has European roots and was a French mandate till 1946, when it gained independence. Syria's population is mainly Muslim, with a minority of Christians.

Damascus, the largest city in the country and the Arab capital of culture, is Syria's capital city.

Our Syria Country Travel Guide below will give you all the information you need for your holiday in Syria. If you are more interested in attractions and things to do click on the Syria Destination Guide and our local Syria tour ideas. Let us guide you through our beautiful country with our in-depth local knowledge.

We recommend you read about travel in Syria on GoNOMAD.

Check out the latest Syria Travel features on YouTube.

Syria Country Guide

Useful information on this page includes:

Climate/Weather Top

Click here for the latest weather conditions in Syria and more general weather information including the best time to travel Syria. We also have a six-day Damascus weather forecast.

Communication Top

Phone
Syria’s ISD code is +963.

Internet
Syrians were allowed access to the internet only after 2000, and that too with some restrictions. The arrival of the Internet took Syria by storm and resulted in cyber cafes mushrooming in most of the cities. But in rural areas, cyber cafes are not that easy to come by, and in places like Aleppo, rental rates in these cafes are shockingly high. You will find different types of connections like ISDN, DSL, satellite and even dial up, and prices differ according to the type of connection, ranging from 50 SP to 100 SP per hour. Most adult sites and all Israeli sites have been blocked in keeping with government restrictions.

Culture Top

Extensive archaeological surveys over the last few decades in the ancient Syrian city of Ebla and its surroundings have unearthed enough evidence to suggest a strong cultural presence in Syria that is as rich as those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. History also shows that a lot of contributions to Hellenistic and Roman culture came from a number of Syrian artists and thinkers. Some notable examples are Cicero, a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon and Posidonius of Apamea, who influenced historical heavyweights such as Livy and Plutarch.

Syrian society is very traditional, with a lot of importance placed on family, values, religion, education, self-respect and discipline. The richness of Syrian cultures and traditions is very evident in dance forms like the al-Samah, the Dabkes and its variations and also the sword dance. The arrival of a newborn or weddings are reason to celebrate. Festivals and festive occasions are marked with colour, splendour and spirited displays of folk customs.

If you want to get a look at old traditional houses, be sure to ask around in Syrian cities and you can witness generations-old living arrangements. Most likely, you will see large courtyards sprinkled with citrus trees, flowering shrubs and grape vines around the courtyard, with the living quarters in the middle, and a well-placed fountain through which gushes clear, sweet spring water.

To get an idea of the rural life outside cities like Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, visualise a painting of a vast landscape with minimal earthy colours - huts, old houses that have been passed down from generation to generation, non-urban structures with lots of untouched earth everywhere. If you were to look down on rural Syria from a plane, this is what it would look like. The absence of bright hues is what really adds colour to rural Syria - somehow pristine, and yet completely regal.

Arab literature shows a strong presence of Syrian literary names, with hugely popular contributions to both literature and music. Some of the best Arab poetry comes from Syria. The Nahda, which was the Arab literary and cultural revival movement of the 19th century, has seen a lot of active participation from notable Syrian writers and poets. Some of the most recognised names are Muhammad Maghout, Adonis, Haidar Haidar, Nizar Qabbani, Zakariyya Tamer and Ghada al-Samman. Even though Syria's handicraft industry is on the wane, thousands are still employed in this world-famous small scale industry.

Coming to Syria's cuisine, it is an astonishingly mouth-watering mix of Southern Mediterranean, Southwest Asian and Greek food, with some dishes having French and Turkish roots as well. Some of the most popular Syrian dishes are stuffed zucchini, shish kebab, yabra (stuffed grape leaves), shawarma and falafel. Street restaurants are usually open late into the night, so when in Syria and in need of food in the middle of the night, just walk to the nearest outlet and treat yourself to a fabulous midnight falafel.

Currency/Money Top

Syria’s currency is the Syrian pound or Lira, designated as SP or £S. The sub-division of ‘piastre’ is now not used, as prices are mostly in even numbers. The exchange rates are roughly £S100 to a UK pound and £S45 to an American dollar.

Though there are ATMs scattered all through the country, not many of them access international networks. You will find ATMs in most commercial areas, but if you’re using foreign cards, your best ATM bets are the Real Estate Bank (widest network), the Commercial Bank of Syria and Bank of Syria and Overseas.

Exchange rates using ATMs in Syria is usually lower than the official rate, which in turn is lower than the street rate. Here’s a simple formula to remember this: ATM ER < Official ER < Street ER. Though there are a number of private foreign exchange operators, they usually exchange only cash; travellers’ cheques are usually not accepted. A better bet would be credit cards, if you’re worried to carry too much cash on your person. There have been instances of the Commercial Bank of Syria stepping in to help desperate travellers, but it’s always better to be prepared.

In recent times though, most shops and small hotels have also begun accepting credit cards, but they are still far from being widely accepted. If you’re in a city or town outside of Damascus and Aleppo, for example, it’s almost impossible to get an advance on your credit card, so go prepared.

To view the current exchange rate in Syria, click on this link to OANDA.com - The Currency Site.

Electricity Top

220 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style two-pin plugs.

Embassy Locations Top

To view the list and locations of Syria embassies around the world, including foreign embassies within Syria, click on this link to http://www.embassy-worldwide.com/.

General Information Top

Population: 18.6 million people
Total Area: 185,180 sq km (71,498 sq miles).
Capital: Damascus (3.5 million people)
Time Zone: GMT + 2 (GMT + 3 from 1 April to 1 October).

To view the current time in Damascus, click on this link to TimeAndDate.com.

Geography Top

Syria is a vast land of dry arid terrain, with the northwest region being the only lucky one with vegetation and greenery, as it’s bordered by the Mediterranean Sea. The main agricultural parts of the country are Al Jazira in the northeast and Hawran in the south. The Euphrates River is in the east and this area is considered one of the 15 states that form the “Cradle of Civilisation”. The major cities of Syria are Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.

The climate in Syria is usually dry and hot, with mild winters and extremely harsh summers. But because of the land’s elevation level, Syria witnesses some snowfall during winters. Petroleum was first discovered in 1956 in the northeast and natural gas in Jbessa in 1940. The most abundant oilfields are Rumaiyan, Tayyem, Qaratshui and Suwaydiyah. Because of its availability in commercial quantities, petroleum became the leading natural resource and chief export product after 1974.

Health Top

Though the ruling Ba’ath party has stressed on the importance of health care, finances allotted for health care have failed to either fully satisfy the demands or sustain quality. Syria’s health system is not region specific, and concentrates on providing health care at three levels: village, provincial and district. Despite drastic improvements in recent years, the health system suffers from severe regional disparities in its availability, with marked differences between rural and urban areas. Syria’s private health facilities are concentrated in large urban areas and cities, with little or no quality facilities in the rural regions. Infectious diseases and environmental pollution pose severe problems in Syria; AIDS seems to be pretty controlled.

History Top

Syria’s historical origins include the areas of Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, with what is now Syria being a late entrant into the picture. Even though Syria is actually a modern state of the 20th century, it boasts of having one of the world’s oldest civilisations. Syria flourished in the Ottoman period, except for a while in the 19th century under the Egyptian rule. The army’s Ba’athist section took over in 1954, after numerous military coups.

The late Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s defence minister, served a commendable five terms of seven years, winning 99.99% of the total vote. In 2000, he was succeeded by his son Bashar, who was sworn in after his father’s death. He’s known to be a great reformist with moderate tendencies. But Syria’s relationship with the west still continues to be strained, because of its rigid stance on Israel and supposed support to extremist groups like the Hezbollah. In fact, after being labelled a ‘rogue state’ by George W. Bush, Syria had to pull out its troops from Lebanon. It has also drawn heavy criticism from the US, particularly, for supposedly ignoring Iraqi insurgency.

Language Top

Being an Arabic country, the language you’re most likely to encounter is Arabic, Syria’s official language, with a smattering of Kurdish, Armenian and Turkish in the respective regions of the country. Before the arrival of Islam and Arabic, the dialect of Aramaic was predominant, which has led to an improvised version called the Western Neo-Aramaic being used in Ma’loula and a couple of its neighbouring villages to the northeast of Damascus. Modern Aramaic is what you’ll hear in the vicinities of the Al-Jazira region. There’s more – Turoyo and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic are also spoken here. A lot of Syrians speak English and French. As a matter of plain courtesy, however, it’s a good idea to learn some basic Arabic.

Location Top

Syria is located in the Middle East, and is surrounded by Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. To view a map of Syria, click on this link to WorldAtlas.com.

People Top

Syria’s population is close to 18 million people, of which one third is in the city of Damascus alone. Arabs make up more than 90% of the population, with reasonably big minorities of Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Christians and Jews.

Population is denser in the Euphrates valley and all along the coastal region, with around 250 people for every square mile. The World Refugee Survey 2008 concludes that Syria has roughly 1,800,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Literacy rates in Syria are quite competent, more than 80% on an average. Over the years, a large number of Syrians have migrated to USA, Brazil and Argentina.

Public Holidays Top

Follow the link to view a list of current public holidays in Syria.

Religion Top

Though the Syrian Republic has been declared officially secular, Islam is still the religious driving force – more than 90% of Syria’s population is Muslim, with the majority being Sunni. Christians and Jews, mostly in Damascus, make up the rest of the population.

Visas/Passports Top

Arab country citizens do not need visas to enter Syria, but all others do. The Syrian Embassy grants single or multiple entry visas with a validity of 3 to 6 months, and travellers of most nationalities need a letter of recommendation with a no-objection certificate from their consulates to visit Syria. If you’re from a country that doesn’t have a Syrian embassy, you can obtain entry visas at land borders, but it’s better to do your homework beforehand.

As far as currency goes, your best bets are Syrian Pounds or American dollars – most other forms of currency will not get good exchange rates. Credit/debit cards and traveller’s cheques also will not do much good. Entry to Israeli tourists or those with passports with Israeli stamps will be refused.

US citizens who do not wish to go through the trouble of dealing with the red tape themselves can count on the professional services of Travel Visa Pro to speed things up: Apply for Syria Visa Online (service starts from $39). If you need to renew, add pages, change name, or just get a new US passport, you can Apply for a New US Passport here.