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Since Bashar al-Assad took over in 2001, Syria has become a modern and proud nation with liberal, forward thinking ideals. Visitors are greeted with interest and great hospitality, welcome to experience the country's many treasures. It is a land rich in cultural history, dramatic scenery, stunning monuments and ancient ruins dating back thousands of years. Here, people trade in bazaars fragrant with exotic spices; weave linens and silks in traditional methods; and speak ancient languages (in Maaloula, Jesus' ancient language, Aramaic, is still spoken). A trip to Syria is truly a journey back in time.

It has long been an important caravan stop and trading centre, fought over and conquered by many nations including the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Turks and French. Scores of relics documenting the rise and fall of such civilisations (including Crusader fortresses; Byzantine mosaics; Ottoman mosques; Greek ruins and abandoned towns) scattered across the landscape are still being discovered, explored, documented and preserved. Its ancient cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Bosra are World Heritage listed, as is the stunning ruined city of Palmyra.

As if plucked from an Arabian fable, the Syrian capital of Damascus delivers on all accounts to be the 'Arabia' of childhood dreams. Located on the Barada River in the shadow of Mount Qassioun and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, it is the world's oldest continuously occupied city, with archaeological finds dating the oasis' first human settlement to around 4000BC. It is a city where time seems to have stood still – preserved by a socialist regime that repudiated modernisation until 2001 – with old-world charm, vibrant people and an atmosphere of serenity. The old city is a labyrinth of narrow, paved streets, intricate wooden balconies, and colourful stone walls inscribed with Islamic calligraphy. Afternoons are spent enjoying Damascan pleasures such as a smoke of the nargileh (water pipe); cups of sweet tea at shabby cafés; shopping for traditional silk fabrics in Souk al-Hamidiyeh; and meditation in one of the city's sprawling, historical mosques. Evenings offer the opportunity to sit with a traditional storyteller at an-Nofara, or play a game of backgammon in the warm night air.

On the road from Damascus to Aleppo, is Krak des Chevaliers, one of the best preserved Crusader Castles in the world. Headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers during the Crusades, it is an astonishing defensive structure surrounded by an unclimbable slope of smooth rock, 13 massive towers on the outside wall, and a dry moat separating the inside wall and castle. The 'Tower of the Daughter of the King' top floor café offers great views of the region.

Aleppo dates back to 3rd Century BC and is one of the oldest cities in the world. Located between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, it has been an important trading post since Roman times. Visitors marvel at the medieval Citadel, amphitheatre, and bustling souks in the old city. Nearby Apamea's impressive Roman ruins, with its two kilometre-long colonnade street, once received many distinguished visitors including Cleopatra and the Emperor Caracalla. Some years later, during the Christian era, it became a centre of philosophy and thought.

Bosra is home to the oldest (still standing) Islamic square minarets and an impressive Roman theatre cocooned by an Arab Fortress. Built in the second century A.D. and seating six thousand spectators, it is considered one of the most beautiful and well-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. Every summer, it hosts the Bosra Art Festival for Arab and international performers who entertain audiences against a majestic background of Roman columns and arches.

Palmyra is Syria's oasis in the desert, located in the heart of the Silk Route. The stunning Roman ruins date back to the 2nd century AD and feature the Temple of Bel, Arch of Triumph, the Senate, Theatre, colonnade, arches, porticos, and tombs. The site's vastness is best marvelled at from the nearby hilltop or the Citadel, and its sacredness most deeply felt at sunset as the pink granite surrounds burn with a rose-gold hue; rendering many visitors speechless.

One of the highlights of Syrian food is mezze, the tapas of the Middle East. Typical dishes include shwarma (spit-cooked lamb) and felafel (deep-fried chickpea balls) and most meals are accompanied by Arabic unleavened bread, or khobz. Mensaf is a Bedouin speciality - a whole lamb, including head, on a bed of rice and pine nuts. Sweets filled with nuts, clotted cream called ashta, sugar syrup and rosewater or orange blossom water are just some of the delights not to be missed!

Avoid the extreme heat and humidity of summer. Spring is the best time to visit as temperatures are mild and the winter rains have cleared the haze that obscures views for much of the year. Autumn is the next best choice when it is warm and dry.

Click here for our suggestions on events and places to go at various times of year

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