Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Revived Interest in Syria's Ancient Sites

Mary Bayer sat on the ground close to the remains of Kaluta Castle. Bayer, 40, had travelled from Germany with several friends to see the historic ruins in this forgotten city north of Aleppo.

Ancient sites surrounding Aleppo have experienced a revival in interest over the last year, becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign tourists, clergymen, antique-hunters and history buffs.

A total of 5.9 million foreign tourists visited Syria in 2008, an increase of 15 per cent on from the previous year, according to the tourism ministry. More than 900,000 of those visitors came to Aleppo.

“Tourists are flocking to Aleppo thanks to the city’s designation as a world heritage site,” said Mustafa Milhis, director of the Tourist Hotel Aleppo.

Milhis said local residents and merchants were hoping that recent efforts to rebuild roads and infrastructure would draw even more visitors to the area, which has sites dating back to the second millennium BC.

In particular, tourism officials have advertised the area as a pilgrimage destination for the Maronite Christian community, whose spiritual father St Maron came from the area.

These efforts received a boost in December after a well-publicised visit by General Michel Aoun, leader of the Change and Reform Bloc in the Lebanese parliament.

Speaking to reporters after a mass held at the tomb of St Maron, the Christian general called on Lebanese and Syrians alike to help rebuild a monument to the saint. President Bashar al-Assad agreed to set aside land for this purpose.

Although the Syrian government and local merchants are hoping to develop the tourist industry further, hotel and restaurant owners say they have already enjoyed something of a boom.

“Most of my customers this last year were foreign, and most of them visited the lost cities and other historical sites,” said Milhis.

Yet the increased flow of visitors has not been without its problems. Antiquties expert Nadim Faqsh said tourism officials have not set aside enough resources to preserve and protect these sites from the influx of tourists.

“They haven't hired enough guards, erected enough road signs or built enough cafeterias and rest areas,” said Faqsh. “A bigger problem is that the local residents were never aware of the area’s importance until the tourists flooded in.”

Some locals are now looking to cash in on the area’s popularity by selling up.

Bayer said she was taken aback when several village residents approached her group and asked them to buy their land.

“The people here are very kind, but unfortunately they don’t know the richness of the area they live in,” she said.

Kadhim Hassan ibn Hassan, a resident of Burj Haider near the ruined city of Brad, said he intends to sell his property to the highest bidder.

“We hope the Maronites will pay us well to buy our land,” he said. “I’m not going to sell just yet. I’m hoping to get more for it as the area becomes even more popular.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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