History of Arba’een – the world’s LARGEST annual pilgrimage

Many people know that the Arba’een pilgrimage to Iraq, is the world’s largest annual public gathering. In some years, the city of Karbala hosts more than 20 million visitors, such as in 2022, as reported by Al Jazeera. But this was not always the case. In fact, during the rule of deposed President Saddam Hussein, this entire pilgrimage was banned. In this article, I’m going to be going through the history of Arba’een and what it actually is.

Arba’een literally means ‘forty’ in Arabic, marking the end of the forty-day mourning season following the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and an extremely important figure for Muslims, especially those of the Shi’ite sect. To mark the end of the mourning period, pilgrims make their way to the city of Karbala, where Imam Hussein (Husayn) was martyred. Currently, most people start their pilgrimage in the holy city of Najaf, about 75 kilometres away, and walk to Karbala from there. However, some people walk all the way from Basra, in southern Iraq, or Mashhad in Iran, which is thousands of kilometres away. That’s a long way to walk!

The sight of the pilgrims walking to Karbala is truly one to behold. Volunteers set up these little tents and shelters beside to the road in order to provide the pilgrims with free food, water, accommodation, and more. Imagine feeding 20 million pilgrims, for free! That is a lot of food.

But what is the history of Arba’een?

How did the pilgrimage start?

Most people believe that one of the prophet Muhammad’s companions named Jabir Ibn Abdallah was the first person to make the pilgrimage to Imam Hussein’s burial place, 40 days after his martyrdom in the year 680 AD (which is the year 61 in the Islamic Hijri calendar). Jabir Ibn Abdallah’s pilgrimage was all the way from Medina in modern day Saudi Arabia to Karbala, a distance of around 1300 kilometres. However, in the centuries to follow, the tradition of walking to Karbala was not followed by many.

So if people weren’t doing this pilgrimage historically, why are so many people doing it now?

In the year 1901 (1319 Hijri), an Iranian scholar known as Sheikh Mirza Hussein Noori decided to revive the pilgrimage first undertaken by Jabir Ibn Abdallah. He gathered his friends and family to join him, and with a total entourage of about 30 people, he embarked on a journey by foot from Najaf to Karbala. After completion, he decided to do this pilgrimage every year until the day he died, bringing more and more people with him.

Over the years, the numbers of people undertaking the pilgrimage grew, but it wasn’t ever more than the amount of people going to Haj, which is a mandatory pilgrimage for Muslims that can afford it. In recent years, however, going to Haj isn’t easy for everyone. It’s expensive, requires a visa for most, and often you have to be put on a waiting list for years before being accepted. For most of the world’s Shi’ite Muslims, Arba’een is much easier to attend – Iraqi Shi’ites just have to travel within their own country while Iranians and Lebanese don’t have to travel too far either. Visas (if required) are also easier to get than Haj, with many Pakistani and Afghan Shi’ites also attending.

For decades, the Arba’een pilgrimage was banned!

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, Arba’een was completely banned, meaning that during the 1980s and 1990s, very few people took this route by foot. That doesn’t mean that pilgrim flows reached zero, however, with some people still undertaking the pilgrimage in secret, often taking smaller roads where the authorities might not have so much surveillance. My Iraqi friends tell me that during this period of time, those undertaking Arba’een would risk arrest and disappearance, with fears that many of them may have been killed.

Since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, pilgrims started to return to this famous route. Despite low pilgrim numbers during the years of Coronavirus border closures and lockdowns, pilgrim numbers are still rising year on year. During the rest of the year, Karbala has a population of less than 1 million. So you can only imagine how crowded it gets when there are 20 million people in town! The history of Arba’een was quite humble compared to it’s modern day numbers!

Interested in experiencing Arba’een?

Well, we run tours to Iraq during Arba’een, where you’ll be able to walk from Najaf to Karbala with the pilgrims. Non Muslims are welcome, as are people from every nationality. Check out this page for tour dates and information, both to Iraq and Syria.

Is Tourism in Syria Ethical?

In the last year or so, several news agencies have written articles about the recent post-war “tourism boom” in Syria. Many of them claim that tourism in Syria is not ethical, seeing as tourist visits, especially those of influencers, amount to “whitewashing” the Syrian government, as claimed by The Washington Post. But, as someone who has been running tours to Syria, as well as to Iraq, since 2019, I have seen first-hand how tourism has affected these countries in a positive manner. I argue that tourism in Syria gives hope to the Syrians that are resident in the country, it reduces international isolation, and it has positive effects of the economy. Not only do I believe that most news outlets ignore the effects of tourism on Syrian people living inside Syria, but I also believe that they are being pushed by a certain agenda. I will get into this more later in the article.

Tourist group in Aleppo, Syria, 2022
Me and a group of tourists in Aleppo in 2022

Hope and effects on the economy.

While the Syrian government might benefit from the image of foreign tourists travelling through Syria with the government being the guarantor of their safety, the Syrian people benefit as well. The vast majority of Syrians living inside Syria are thrilled by the idea of tourism returning to the country. In my years of experience running tours in Syria, I have not witnessed one single incident of anomosity or contempt directed towards us. Quite the opposite – people welcome us with open arms and are intrigued to see us! In fact, most Syrians I talk to view tourism as a sign that the country is returning to normality after such brutal years, and it is a sign of hope in an otherwise gloomy economic situation.

Tourism is not only about appearances but also real economic impact. Of course, the tourism sector is still a fraction of what it was before the crisis, but if the current trend continues, it’s only going to get bigger. The changes I’ve seen within the last few years are visible. New hotels have sprung up, tourist guides who’ve been idle for years are now working again, and other projects are starting up as well. Syria was an extremely touristic country before the war, with many people earning their livelihoods in this sector. In fact, in 2010, there were 8.5 million foreign visitors in the country. I believe this can happen again.

Palmyra, previously one of Syria’s most visited places before the war, now seems like more of a ghost city. It was heavily damaged and most of the residents fled. However, for the increasing number of returnees, it’s important to note that tourism is, slowly but surely, picking up again. A tourist restaurant in a Bedouin tent has even opened up beside the ruins, and it’s only a matter of time before a hotel starts to resume operations. These things are good for Syria. They employ locals, and make an impact, however small, on the dire state of the Syrian economy today. Thus, from the economic aspect, I would argue that tourism in Syria is ethical.

Palmyra tourist tent 2023
This man has recently opened a Bedioun tent for tourists just outside the ruins of Palmyra, Syria.

Reduced international isolation.

Those that oppose tourism in Syria are vouching for Syria’s continued international isolation. This has been a major factor in the current suffering of Syria’s people, its economy, and it stifles opportunities. Syria’s diplomatic, economic, and to some extent even educational isolation has resulted in extremely difficult international money transfers, large obstacles in foreign trade and the lack of foreign embassies, meaning that Syrians have to travel abroad for visas that they have a high chance of being rejected for anyways. Many notable foreign websites are also banned in Syria, such as Wikipedia, Duolinguo, ChatGBT, almost all Western banking applications, and many educational websites. This is not the doing of the Syrian government, but rather because those businesses/organisations ban users with Syrian IP addresses. The lack of foreign tourists is just another form of international isolation.

Much of this isolation is a direct result of sanctions. Heck, even helping Syria produce electricity is sanctioned by the UK and EU, which aren’t even half as strict as the US sanctions. Tourism to Syria, however, is one of the few activities not sanctioned or restricted by foreign governments, thus providing a window for Syrians to the outside. Even though tourism in Syria is not sanctioned, there is a media campaign against it. Let’s not let that media campaign succeed!

But let’s face it, there are some Syrians, predominantly living outside of the country, who say that tourism in Syria is a bad thing. I believe that their hatred for the Syrian government is so bad that it overlooks the positive affects of tourism for Syrians living in Syria today. For them, anything that benefits the Syrian government is bad, often even if the regular Syrian benefits as well. They advocate for the international isolation of Syria, which does no good for the people living there today, regardless of your views on the government.

We’re changing the image of Syria.

Internationally, Syria is viewed by the majority of people as a war zone filled with extremist Islamist groups. When the word “Syria” is mentioned, it’s common for the words “ISIS” or “war” to come to mind. While the recent history of Syria has been brutal – an unimaginable war of immense suffering – there is so much more to the country than that. Most foreigners find it hard to believe that many Syrian women do not wear headscarves and that booze-filled nightlife is not only available, but world-class. The charm of Syria is hard to match, with the architectural wonders of old Damascus, and ancient soap-making processes of Aleppo being jaw-dropping for even the most well-travelled visitors. Such beauty deserves to be known, and not just domestically. We aim to show our visitors as many different sides to Syria as we can. The war is certainly one side that we wish to show, but it’s one of many. We hope that in the future, when the word “Syria” is uttered, a more diverse set of ideas spring to mind.

So, they’re not propaganda tours?

Many people claim that, seeing as you must have a licensed Syrian tour guide accompany your visit to the country, that means that they’re going to prevent you from seeing the reality, or that they will paint a distorted image of the country with a political narrative. At least on our tours, this certainly isn’t true.

Firstly, independent travel (without a tour guide) is not impossible, though it is difficult. See this article to know more. It’s not as if the government is mandating a “chaperone” to every foreinger, controlling what they see, as some articles have claimed. There are no-go areas, though, of course. The war has not ended in all of Syria, and even in parts of the country that it has ended in, memories and tensions are still fresh, so you shouldn’t expect to have the travel freedom that the country once offered before the war.

The tour guide “rule” is only present if you enter the country with help of a tourism agency, but not if you enter with an individual invite. But even if you do have a tour guide with you, they are in general great people which have decided to study tourism and take a tour guide examination in order to work in this field. This means that the quality of tour guides in Syria is very high. Most of them have studied tourism for years in order to provide you this service. Their knowledge of Syria’s historical and cultural sites is exceptional. I’ve become good friends with many tour guides in Syria that I have worked with over the years and for them, the more tourists, the better.

It’s true that some tour guides will try to tell you their political opinions, but nobody tries to act like “everything in Syria is okay”. It’s not, full stop. I can’t speak about other tours, but on our tours to Syria, we don’t attempt to gloss over the suffering of the Syrian people. You will see suffering, you will see destruction, and you will see locals queing up for hours in the bread lines to feed their families. But as I’ve said, this is one of multiple realities in Syria – there is so much happening in the country at the same time. You will also see historical sites, traditional marketplaces, restaurants full of life and even night clubs. Such vibrant life exists right next to the destruction, and we intend on showing you both.

In nature, our tours are not political. We’re not pushing the agenda of any government or organisation. Our aim is to show you the Syria that we love, whilst not ignoring the harsh realities that the majority of Syrians have lived and continue to live. Whatever conclusions you take away will be yours to make.

But I have a Syrian friend that can’t go back…”

It’s true that many Syrians living abroad are unable to return to their homeland, for multiple reasons. The most common reason, especially for men, is military service, which is compulsory for all males who are not the only son of their parents and have not paid a military expemption fee. Others cannot return for political reasons, while others, if holding refugee status in Europe or elsewhere, would lose that status by doing so, and thus don’t visit. As such, your privilege to be able to visit Syria is something that many Syrians abroad don’t have. I personally feel very priveleged that I can visit/live in Syria without the issues that many Syrians face. This is something that might make you feel guilty, and rightly so, but as I previously explained, there are many positives regarding tourism in Syria as well. In my opinion, these positives outweigh the negatives, thus making tourism in Syria ethical.

“Dark tourism is super unethical, though”.

One’s intentions and sensitivity to the war and suffering is extremely important. Learning about the war and visiting sites of destruction isn’t necessarily wrong, in my opinion. But one must be extremely sensitive. Taking selfies in front of destroyed homes, as if they were a tourist attraction is completely insensitive to the family that lost that home, or the people that died there. If your intention is to disrespect Syria and the suffering of the Syrian people, then you certainly shouldn’t come to Syria! Tourism in Syria is ethical only if your intentions are in the right place. Furthermore, if you’ve got your own political agenda then you should also think twice before coming to the country.

So what is this media agenda you’re talking about?”

As I mentioned in the introduction, many news outlets, predominantly Western, are pushing the narrative that visiting Syria is unethical due to tourism whitewashing the Syrian government. It’s been a common theme for them to interview Syrian activists living abroad talking about how tourism in Syria is benefitting the government, something which they argue is unacceptable. But what about those who support tourism in Syria, which I believe are the majority of Syrians, especially those living inside of Syria, where the direct consequences of tourism are felt. Where are the interviews with them?

I’ve actually been interviewed a few times by Western outlets about my tourism work in Syria, most notably by Kaamil Ahmed for The Guardian and Charles Davis for The Daily Beast. Kaamil Ahmed and I spent around an hour talking about tourism in Syria, where he asked me whether I believe tourism in the country is ethical or not. I responded with much the same arguments that I’ve conveyed in this article. I accept criticism should I be given the right to respond. However, not a single one of my arguments that I conveyed during the interview was explained by Mr. Ahmed in the article. Furthermore, not a single Syrian in favour of tourism was interviewed to give their opinion, which, as I’ve said, I believe to be the majority, especially among those inside Syria. In addition to this, there were factual inaccuracies in the article, such as how Jaabar citadel “is again becoming a top tourist destination”. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as the citadel is located in areas controlled by the SDF, which is completely off-limits to tourists, and extremely difficult for other Syrians to access as well (requiring sponsorship etc.). Maybe these Guardian journalists should do a little more research before publishing!

I believe that far and large, Western media gives platform to those in support of Syria’s international isolation, which includes tourism, disregarding the opinions and lives of people living in areas of Syrian government control today. So it’s hardly surprising that they argue that tourism in Syria is not ethical, despite its potential to be a means of revival for the country.

Beit Al Wali Hotel, Damascus. Tourism in Syria
An old Damascus house converted into a hotel known as Beit Al Wali

All in all, I argue that tourism in Syria is not only ethical, but it is one of the means for the country to improve. It brings hope to Syria for a return to normality, while helping create livelihoods for those working in the tourism sector, which ultimately has a knock-on effect to other sectors of the economy. Furthermore, it helps reduce Syria’s international isolation, while giving the outside world a fuller picture of what Syria really is – more than just the Islamist hellhole that so many believe. While you might feel guilty about visiting a country that so many locals are unable to visit, this is a negative which I believe is outweighed by the positives. With that being said, if you have a political agenda, or you see destroyed homes as a “tourist site”, then perhaps visiting Syria right now isn’t the right thing to do.

Guide to Southern Lebanon 2023

How does visiting one of the most tense international borders sound? Well, to most, it sounds quite frightening. Who knows when a war between Israel and it’s neighbours might set the region on fire. Although such a war could break out at any point, until it does, Southern Lebanon is actually very safe to visit, as longer as you’re aware of the political situation in the area and you don’t do anything “stupid”. In fact, since 2006, very few security incidents have been noted. When I say “Southern Lebanon”, I’m not referring to the touristic cities of Tyre and Sidon (well, touristic by Lebanon’s standards). Rather, I am referring to the areas south of the Litani river that straddle the border with occupied Palestine (known to some as Isr*el). This area is one of the most geographically rich in all of Lebanon, with the famous Mount Hermon towering over its towns and villages. Furthermore, the recent history is also fascinating, albeit brutal, and the complex political realities confuse even the most well-read student of political science.

Welcome to Southern Lebanon, a region patrolled by United Nations peacekeepers, but where the real control lies with Hezbollah and other umbrella organisations. If you’re not Lebanese, you’ll need a special permit to visit this area, and there are army checkpoints on the way that ensure you’ve got it.

A vlog about my trip to Southern Lebanon in 2019. Since then I have also returned to the region.

So, how do I get a permit to visit Southern Lebanon?

Well it’s certainly not hard to get, but the issue is that information about how to do so is lacking online, meaning that many potential visitors are clueless about how it can be done. In essence, it’s a simple process. You must visit an army base in Sidon city with photocopies of your passport information page and entry stamp, wait for an officer to show up, and then undertake a brief interrogation about the purpose of your visit to Southern Lebanon, as well as a background check. For instance, what is your profession, where did you grow up etc. If all goes smoothly (in almost all cases, it will), you’ll be issued the permit within around 15 minutes. There is a chance (unlikely), however, that if you show up on a weekend, you might be turned away. To ensure success, make sure you go on a weekday if you have the chance.

So where is this army base actually located? It’s not labeled on Google Maps, or any other map as far as I’m aware.. Either click the following link or type in the coordinates on Google Maps to know where it’s located.

Link: https://goo.gl/maps/VQGsW24PG6ukqjzCA

Coordinates: 33.551832, 35.383113

Or, if you speak Arabic, and you’re coming from Beirut, just ask the soldiers at the checkpoint upon entering Sidon where the place to get Southern Lebanon permits is located, and they should direct you. (“Tasrih Al Jnoob” = “Permit for the South” in Arabic).

What are the best places to visit?

So now that you’ve got the permit, where should you go? In no specific order of which is “the best”, here are some of my favourite and most interesting places in Southern Lebanon:

  1. Naqoura


This coastal town is located right along the border, and it is home to some of Lebanon’s most gorgeous coastal scenery, as well as the cleanest water for swimming. It’s also home to the main UNIFIL headquarters, who are United Nations Peacekeepers tasks with patrolling the border areas.

2. Maroun Al Ras


Now this place is a very “different” kind of tourist attraction, to say the least. Located overlooking the border, Maroun Al Ras is a village that’s not quite like many others. Politically driven, there’s a park overlooking the border called “Iran Park” which flies the Iranian flag high for the Israelis to see. There are also large areas for families to have picnics in, and for children to play. Two of the most interesting things to see there, though, are the small replica of The Dome of The Rock (part of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) and the figure of Qasem Suleimani pointing towards Jerusalem. For those that don’t know, Qasem Suleimani was a powerful Iranian leader killed by a US airstrike in Baghdad airport in 2020.

3. Fatima Gate


The Fatima Gate was an old border crossing point that was used during the time of the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. Now, they’ve built a wall there, similar to the walls built by Israel in the West Bank. Just like in West Bank, the walls have been covered in graffiti, much of it political. It’s a very interesting and symbolic place to visit. Nearby, there’s a spot where you can have a crazy view accross the border, over the town of Metula. You can literally see people on the other side taking their dogs for a walk.

4. Wazani River


Another interesting place by the border! The Wazani river straddles the border, and on the Lebanese side, there are many restaurants by the water located only a few meters from the other side! But in this case, the land on the other side of the border is not historically Palestine, but is rather historically part of Syria. This land is the occupied Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The road to Wazani River is also beautiful, with views of Mount Hermon in the distance. You can click on the following Google Maps link to see where this place is located:


5. Al Khiyam Detention Camp


The detention camp of Al Khiyam village has a brutal story, but it’s worth visiting this place to learn more about it. It was originally built by the French to hold prisoners, but when Israel occupied the region, they used it, along with Israel’s Lebanese allies, to torture opponents and those suspected of being Hezbollah members. Then, after Israel withdrew in 2000, it became (at least to my understanding) a museum to show Israeli crimes. Then, it was bombed by Israel during the war in 2006, alledgedely to get rid of evidence of their crimes. Anyhow, it remains in a ruined state today, but it’s worth the visit. The nature around the town is also gorgeous!

Anyhow, that’s all for my list, although there are many other interesting places that you should keep in mind. For instance, the Roman ruins at Habbariyeh and the Druze town of Hassbaya, as well as the whole Mount Hermon region. Furthermore, even though it’s not in the area that requires a permit, the nearby Beaufort Castle is also spectacular and is totally worth visiting.

Who are the Mandeans of Iraq?

Among Iraq’s religious minorities, the Mandeans are some of the least known. In fact, many Iraqis haven’t even heard of them, and if they have, they have very little ideas about what they actually believe in. I was fortunate enough to meet the head of the Mandean sect (similar to the Pope in Christianity), where he explained to us many core principles of the religion, as well as answering any questions we might have.

mandean rituals baghdad
Mandeans perform religious rituals in Baghdad, Iraq

Very few Mandeans remain in the world, and a significant amount of those that do have emigrated from their homeland (southern Iraq and the Khuzestan province of Iran), escaping historical persecution. Worldwide, it is claimed that only around 70,000 Mandeans exist, with only a few thousand of them remaining in Iraq. Some people claim that Mandeanism is the oldest religion known to man that is still practiced today. What is clear is that their religion is older than Islam, Christianity and even Judaism, yet it is still monotheistic, and believes in many of the same religious figures as prophets. For instance, Adam, Abel, Noah and John the Baptist, all of which are biblical figures, are seen as prophets of God by the Mandeans. John the Baptist, however, is considered to be the final and most important prophet in their religion, in the same way that Muhammad is seen by Muslims.

The most important religious scripture is known as the Ginza Rabba, and the Mandeans we met were kind enough to give us a copy of it. This book is composed on two parts, the “left part” and the “right part”, with the right part being the most holy scripture. The original language of these reilgious texts is Mandaic, an Eastern Aramaic language spoken by Mandeans. However, most, if not all of them, also speak Arabic fluently.

Ginza Rabba Mandean holy book
The Ginza Rabba, holy book of the Mandeans

Yet despite their different religious beliefs, Mandeans are not easily distinguishable from other southern Iraqis. Not only is their everyday clothing the same, but their dialect is also indistinguishable. This is in constrast to other religious minorities in Iraq, such as the (no longer present) Baghdadi Jews, whose dialect is distinct. Or Assyrian Christians, who can easily be distinguished by their appearance.

Sheikh Sattar of the Mandeans
Me with Sheikh Sattar, the head of the Mandean sect.

The symbol of the Mandean religion is known as the “darfash”, which is a cross made by two branched of olive branches, covered by a white cloth. Many people mistake the darfash for the Christian cross, but it is clearly distinct, as you can see in the image below. Many historians say that the darfash predates Christianity, despite the resemblence.

Mandean darfash or drabsha
The Darfash, symbol of Mandeanism

On our Iraq Tours, visiting the Mandean community of Baghdad is often part of the itinerary. If the tour dates coincide with certain Mandean ceremonies, we can help arrange for you observe their rituals and learn more about their community and religion.

How to get a Syrian tourist visa 2023

Since 2019, it has become fairly difficult for citizens of most countries to get a Syrian tourist visa that allows them to visit the country independently. That does not mean, however, that it is difficult to visit if you book a guided tour. In fact, in that case, it is super easy. This article highlights the different methods of obtaining a Syrian tourist visa, and the conditions that are attached to each type of visa. If you are hell-bent on visiting Syria independently (without a guide) then keep reading on, as I’ve explained how you might go about doing that.

What is “security clearance” and do I need it to enter Syria?

Almost all citizens require something known as “security clearance” to enter Syria. If you apply for the visa through a Syrian embassy abroad, they will apply for security clearance on your behalf. Otherwise, someone will have to apply on your behalf from inside Syria. Once security clearance has been issued, one can receive the Syrian visa either from the embassy (if that’s where you first applied) or upon arrival at the Syrian border..

Even if, officially, no visa is required (as is the case for most Arab nationals), security clearance is. You will be denied entry without it. The only two nationalities that are exempt from this are Lebanese and Jordanian nationals, who can just show up at the border and enter without any prior approvals. Everyone else needs to get security clearance or they will be denied entry and possibly even given a ban simply for trying without approval.

Also, don’t believe Wikipedia when it comes to entry requirements. As someone that runs tours to the country for people from various nationalities, I can simply say that the entry requirements are wrong. For instance, Wikipedia says that Omani nationals can visit Syria visa-free. We’ve had Omani customers before and not only do they require security clearance, but the visa itself is also super expensive (150 USD if I remember correctly!).

Syrian tourist visa stamp, valid for one month in a Polish passport
A picture of a Syrian visa issued for one month.

So how can I apply for security clearance?

Iraqi citizens and Chinese citizens, although requiring security clearance, can get it fairly easily, with many companies offering them this service in their respective countries. They are also not bound by the condition of booking a guided tour, unlike citizens of most other countries. On the streets of Syria, it is a common sight to see Chinese and Iraqi tourists wandering around unaccompanied.

If you’re not Chinese, Iraqi, Lebanese or Jordanian, then there are a few different ways you can go about visiting Syria, and they are as follows:

  1. You apply for security clearance through a registered tour company in Syria: By doing this, the company accepts responsibility for you whilst in Syria, and applies for your security clearance from inside the country. You are able to stay in the country during the days that you have booked a tour with a registered tour guide, and, in most cases, you must leave once the tour is over. This option is super easy – all you have to do is send them your passport copy, your job title and your contact information and, for most nationalities, your security clearance will be approved within a matter of days. Once issued, you will be able to get the visa on arrival at the Syrian border. For independent travellers, however, this doesn’t sound ideal.
  2. You apply through a Syrian embassy abroad: This option is considerably trickier and there’s a good chance you’ll be rejected. When filling in the visa form, you will have to put the details of a sponsor in Syria, as well as other documents such as those listed on the website of the Syrian embassy in Berlin. This sponsor can be a Syrian individual or business. However, it’s likely that your sponsor will be contacted about your visit, and if your reason for visiting isn’t convincing enough, or if you don’t know your sponsor in person, your visa will likely be rejected. Furthermore, the embassy visa usually takes around a month to process. The benefit of this method, however, is that you’ll be able to travel independently in the country. If you have entered the country by getting a visa this way, it is easy to get an extension by going to the “Immigration and Passports Department” in Damascus, and you won’t have to pay much money at all.
  3. Your sponsor can apply for you from inside Syria: This is basically the same as method number 2, but the difference is that the application process starts from inside Syria. Furthermore, the approval/rejection process is usually quicker, and they often give you an idea about the chances of approval upon application, unlike the embassy visa where they won’t tell you much. Bascially, your sponsor will have to go to the “Immigration and Passports Department” in Damascus and apply for your security clearance on your behalf and will be asked details about your visit.

In conculsion, for most nationalities, visiting Syria independently isn’t easy unless you have good friends in the country which are willing to sponsor your visit. However, it is possible to get a Syrian tourist visa with the help of a tourism agency – this method is very simple and easy. If you’d like to visit Syria on a group tour with us, check out our upcoming departures. Otherwise, get in touch with us so that we can arrange a custom tour for you that includes security clearance, allowing you to easily get into the country.

Top 4 Boutique Hotels in Damascus 2023

By Xavier Raychell Blancharde

The old city of Damascus, Syria, is filled with some of the world’s most charming hotels. Many traditional Arabic houses across the old city, some of them dating back to the 1600s, have been converted into hotels in Damascus, giving you the opportunity to live as old aristochratic families did in the past. Almost all of these houses have an Iwan, a closed-off courtyard in the middle of the house, and also a fountain in the middle. Many of the rooms in these hotels have old Islamic calligraphy engraved into the walls, as well as many other fine details which make you feel as though you have been transported back in time. As someone that runs tours to Syria, as well as Iraq, I have had the pleasure of visiting and staying in many Damascus hotels. As such, I have compiled a list of some of my favourite hotels, all of which are located in the the old city and close to the city’s most important tourist attractions.

  1. Beit Al Mamlouka
Beit Al Mamlouka Hotel in Damascus, Syria.

This hotel is probably my favourite in old Damascus, and one of my favourite in the world. Not only is the architecture of the building spectacular, but the service is also above and beyond. Furthermore, the rooms are truly gorgeous – staying in them is akin to sleeping in a real-life museum! The details and history of the place are amazing, and believe it or not, they even have a resident turtoise that wonders around the hotel. My groups have stayed in this hotel on multiple occasions and it’s common for them to tell me that it’s the nicest hotel they’ve ever stayed in. Furthermore, they have recently opened a sister hotel called Dar Al Mamlouka which also also stunning.

2. Beit Al Wali

Beit Al Wali Hotel in Damascus, Syria

This architectural gem is yet another fantastic place to stay. Architecturally, it is very similar to Beit Al Mamlouka, but it is slightly larger, and in my opinion, it has less of a cosy feel about it. Regardless, it remains one of the top hotels in Damascus, with fantastic service and delicious breakfast.

3. Talisman Hotel

Talisman Hotel in Damascus, Syria

This hotel is remarkably different from the others in that it has a gorgeous pool in the centre of their courtyard. In a similar manner to many Damascene houses, the building looks rather plain from the street, but once you walk in, it is as if you have entered some sort of paradise. Originally belonging to a Damascense Jewish citizen, Talisman hotel boasts having hosted many international celebrities in the past, including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, during their visit to Syria before the war.

4. Emar Hotel

Emar Hotel in Damascus, Syria

Famous for their delicious breakfast (honestly, I think the best out of any hotel in Damascus), this hotel is another good choice for visitors in Damascus. It’s located nearby some of the city’s best nightlife, yet it’s tucked away in a side road, preventing the noise from disturbing your sleep. It’s rooms are top-notch, but the hotel doesn’t quite bring you back in time as much as the others on this list.

All in all, if you’re thinking of coming to Syria with us, rest assured that we chose the best quality hotels for our guests, whether they decide to come on a private tour or on one of our group trips. We also help our guests have the most unique local experiences that are not usually on offer on Syria tours, such as homestay experiences and hidden places.

Syrian Railways: History and Current Situation

By Xavier Raychell Blancharde

Although the situation of the Syrian railways is currently quite dire, that hasn’t always been the case. Since 2011, however, Syria has been affeced by a brutal war, with much damage sustained to many of the rail lines, as well as the inoperability of the routes due to them having to cross frontlines. As such, almost all passenger services were halted, and only two passenger routes operate in the country today. I’ll talk about those routes later.

Our Syria Tour Leader, Xavi, in Jibrin, Aleppo, after riding a train to that village.

What is the history of Syrian Railways?

Syria’s first railway line dates back to 1895, during the Ottoman Empire, when a line was opened between Damascus and Beirut. The most famous historic railway in Syria, however, was the Hejaz railway, linking Damascus to Medina in Saudi Arabia in 1908, forming one of the most important pilgrimage routes for Muslims to perform Haj and Umrah. Over the following two decades, rail lines were expanded to Aleppo, Tripoli and Nusaybin. Much of the train lines at this point formed part of the Baghdad Railway, with Aleppo being a major stop on the route. During WWII, where Syria was a French mandate, the Allies used its railway networks to transport goods for military purposes.

Following WWII, railways in Syria ended up becoming nationalised, with further rail lines being developed over the years. Tartus, Latakia, Raqqa, Deir Ezzour and other major cities and towns across Syria were all connected to the Syrian rail network before the end of the 1970s.

Over the years, and following Syrian independence, international railway links remained with Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. However, routes to Lebanon were ceased after the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, routes to Iraq were ceased following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and finally routes to Turkey were ceased following the start of the Syrian war in 2011.

The Current Status of Syrian Railways

Right now (2023), to our knowledge, there are only two passenger train routes that operate in the entirety of Syria. The first route is between Latakia and Tartus cities (this region wasn’t affected by the war). The second route is from Aleppo city to a small town called Jibrin which is located just east of Nairab Refugee Camp in Aleppo countryside. Both trains run on a regular basis, but I can’t speak about the Latakia-Tartus train to fine details as I haven’t actually been on it.

I went on the train from Aleppo to Jibrin, however, last week (March 2023). I can confirm that the train runs twice a day, once at 7:15am and once at 3:15pm. It’s possible to ride both of these train lines as a tourist in Syria, and if that’s something you’d like to do in the country, let us know and we will arrange it on one of our tours! Below, you can watch a video I made about the train trip experience from Aleppo to Jibrin.

The railway line between Aleppo and Damascus is all under government control, and most of the country has now become safe for visitors. Hence, hopefully, once maintenence works are finished, this line will be up and running again. When that might be, however, who knows…

Syria is now open for American tourists.

By Xavier Raychell Blancharde

Since Covid border restrictions were imposed in 2020 by the Syrian government, it has been almost impossible for Americans to enter Syria. Well, at least to enter the areas of Syria controlled by the government. Even when Syria reopened to tourism in 2021, visas for Americans were not being issued.

Well, that’s no longer the case, as the Syrian government is now issuing visas for American citizens to visit Syria for tourism. The process is, however, slightly more complicated than for other citizens, and it takes more time. For this reason, we are charging US citizens a slightly higher amount to join our Syria tours. However, it is now possible! This is great news for the many Americans that have been constantly asking when Syria will reopen for Americans.

Restrictions for foreign tourists in Syria remain, however, with almost all foreign visitors having to book a tour with a licensed tour operator in Syria in order for the visa to come through. Once the pre-approved visa is issued, it will be given to you upon arrival at the Syrian borders.