Syria 10.04.2009 - 24.04.2009


The kick-off to our 12 day tour to Syria is a variety of activities and discussions with various representatives of Syrian and international organisations. Talking to various constituents of Syrian society, we will deal with their different perspectives and viewpoints and sharpen our understanding for the developments in Syrian society.

We plan to spend our first week in Damascus, intensively dealing with modern Syrian history and contemporary social affairs. We address topics such as refugees, urbanisation, the plurality of religions and the role of women in Syrian society. Additional presentations by participants help us putting our impressions in context and in regular meetings we discuss our personal impressions.

In the course of the first week we will leave Damascus for a few short trips to visit historically relevant places and explore the city’s surroundings. In addition to that we will spice up our program by having dinner together with Syrians, meeting with local artists and enjoying the Damascene nightlife.

After the first week we  will leave the capital and head east, spending a day in Palmyra, before we head towards Deir ez-Zor, where we will explore a much more rural side of Syria. We will then move north, heading towards Aleppo, getting an impression of what living in Syrias second biggest city is like, before we make our way back to Damascus. By passing some of Syrias most beautiful sites our path, we will get an insight into Syrias rich historic background while travelling.

The tour will be guided in English.


Although the Western media often portray Syria as a dangerous state ruled by a hostile government, visitors to this travel-safe country will find a diverse society of various religions and worldviews, where followers of different religious confessions live together peacefully. Syria is also home to a wealth of historical sites from the beginning of human history to the middle ages and modern times that are almost untouched by tourism. The IFIL group will explore the most amazing of these sites with the goal of learning about regional history. The main focus of the excursion, however, will be contemporary Syrian society and its recent developments. 

Today, Syrian society is experiencing change in numerous ways. The political situation of the region has resulted in several in pouring of refugees into Syria, mainly Palestinians and more recently, over a million Iraqis. These new groups are changing the composition of Syria’s inhabitants and have caused a housing shortage in Damascus. Increasing food and petrol prices make daily life more difficult, especially among the townspeople whose number is growing continuously with the process of urbanisation. Islamic values and ideas are growing stronger and are challenging to the nearly secular state and Syria’s multi-religious society.

Around 70% of the population is Sunni Muslims; different minorities of the Shia, Alawi, Druze and Christian confessions, as well as even a small Jewish minority, make up the rest. While wearing a headscarf is becoming more and more popular among women and while Syrians increasingly identify themselves with Islam, others seek orientation within the Western world. Feminist ideas sometimes contradict Islamist movements, while other women’s movements refer to Islam in their rhetoric.

The social developments in Syria reflect the developments in the Middle East, while at the same time differing from that of neighbouring countries. Among other reasons, this is due to the nearly secular Syrian regime with its ideology of Arabic socialism and nationalism and the composition of Syrian society. Another important factor that could be named is the isolation by Western countries, which is a vast contrast especially to Syria’s neighbour, Lebanon.

During the trip, the IFIL group will aim to meet Syrians with different social and religious backgrounds as well as the country’s foreign inhabitants. The group will also speak with representatives of different social, religious and cultural institutions as well as with diplomats. Even with such a schedule, the group will have time to partake in several tourist activities.

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We got our first insight into this diverse country strolling through its ancient city centre and learning about its Aramean, Roman, Greek, Arab and other history that culminates in the Umayyad mosque, former church and former temple: it has been the religious center of the city since the very ancient times, be it Semitic, Roman, Hellenistic, Christian or Muslim.

The Swiss Ambassador Martin Aeschbacher gave us an excellent introduction into the more contemporary aspects of the country, impressing us with his wide knowledge not only on diplomacy, but also on Syrian economy, culture, politics and society. Thanks to a short lesson with the Arabic teacher Maha Barakat our group members also learned some basics of the Syrian dialects, which some of them applied happily during their stay.

We also got an idea of Syrias religious diversity. We were honorably received by the Sunni foundation and Quran school Abu Nour by its director Dr. Kuftaro himself. The Islamic foundation attaches great importance to interreligious dialogue and peaceful coexistence. It contributes actively to this case meeting dignitaries from different religions and different countries and engaging in dialogue. We also visited the biggest pilgrimage site for the Shia, Sayda Zeyneb, an Iranian mosque a bit outside the city center, attracted by lots of Iranian pilgrims and Shi’i refugees from Iraq. As an example for Christianity we visited the Aramean-speaking Christian village Maaloula and listened to the Lord’s Prayer in Aramean.

For the cultural part we visited Mustafa Alis gallery in the old town, where he and his son Mehiar told us about the Syrian art scene. In the same gallery we met later on Jussour („Bridges“), a group of Syrian and Iraqi musicians who introduced us into the different styles and theories of traditional Arabic music while we had to sing a traditional Swiss song for them... in the evening they played an unforgettable openair concert in the gallery’s courtyard - which made the athmosphere very authentic, being the courtyard of an old Arabic house.
Less cheerful, but also very informative was the meeting with Carole Laleve from UNHCR, who told us about the difficulties Iraqi refugees are facing in Syria, being a number of roughly estimated about 1 million.

The women’s rights lawyer Daad Mousa didn’t cheer us up either with her explanation on the family law, which is not civil but sectarian, bringing many disadvantages for women. We were deeply impressed by this strong woman who has been fighting for women’s rights for years without getting tired from all the difficulties she faces.

Very entertaining was the meeting with Syrian students. They were pleased to meet European students who are interested in their country, so they took the chance to start a vivid discussion, and later on the students went in small groups with our participants to the city, showing them a place of their choice. Some of the students showed up at the hotel during the rest of the week, meeting participants individually, and exchanged email addresses.

The clubbing night showed us an unusual aspect of the Damascus. With Syrias well-off party people we were celebrating, dancing and drinking all night.

We also enjoyed Syrias great food – in beautifully situated restaurants and at home, having dinner with two Syrian families. A special adventure was the night at the Kurdish family’s village close to the Turkish border, a village that doesn’t exist on the map. We all slept in the living room of their plain but cosy country house, that was surrounded by green hills and sheep herds. Communication was difficult, but music was the key, so it was a cheerful evening with singing and even some dancing. Another aspect of the more rural parts we saw in Deir ez-Zor at the Euphrates river, a place where usually no tourists go where we found people quite different from Damascus.

But we also explored the most important touristical sites such as the ruins of Dura Europos at the Euphrates, the crusader’s castle „Crac des Chevaliers“, the byzantine basilica of St. Simeon and the ancient desert ruins of Palmyra. With Hama and Aleppo we passed two other important cities of Syria, admiring Aleppos ancient Souq and having a delicious dinner in Hama at the Orontes river.

After this intense round trip we came back to Damascus and said goodbye on top of the Qassioun mountain, looking down to the lights of the capital by night, before going to the aiport.

Monika Bolliger, Martin Bader