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Beyond Krak des Chevaliers: Visit Syria’s Valley Of The Christians

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2 months ago

Wadi al-Nasara, which directly translates to Valley of the Christians, is one of the most fascinating areas in Syria. The Valley is comprised of 32 villages, the vast majority of which are Christian and have been so since at least the 6th century. This makes for a very distinctive and fascinating culture in otherwise Muslim-majority Syria.

The olive groves and pomegranate trees dotted around the landscape make for gorgeous natural vistas that stand in contrast to the desert that dominates the majority of Syria. This is the hidden gem of Syria that you’ll be glad we told you about. Add it to your itinerary.

Why should I want to visit Wadi al-Nasara?

As the name of the region suggests, Wadi al-Nasara is the ancestral home of much of Syria’s Christian community, specifically Antiochian Orthodox Christians. This means that the traditions and cultures are palpably different to what you’ll experience in other parts of Syria, and that’s what makes this little pocket of the world so special.

Wadi al-Nasara is famous for its mountain views, unique traditions, centuries-old castle, and, if you’re in the know, an extravagant party scene in the summer. The Valley is home to some of the oldest Christian convents that would rival some of the top sights of Rome.

And the food! After a couple of days in Wadi al-Nasara, you won’t be able to accept anything less than freshly grilled bread with zaatar and cheese made on a roadside hearth and the freshest, locally grown produce for all of your meals.

The best time to go to Wadi al-Nasara

If you’re looking to experience the best of everything the Valley has to offer, you’ll want to go in summer, and specifically in late August and September. The streets of the villages (particularly the Mishtay) are teeming with people, and bars and restaurants are packed at all times of day.

The Valley is also considerably more liberal than other parts of the country, which is the reason why the nightlife experience is unexpectedly grand. World-class DJs descend on the Valley throughout the summer.

The parties are massive, nonstop and in spectacular venues – including the thousand-year-old Krak des Chevaliers. Syria may have endured over 12 years of civil war, but that hasn’t stopped Syrians from enjoying their lives. As the country continues to rehabilitate itself, we suspect it won’t be long before Syria becomes a unique party destination in its own right.

Carnival Marmarita

Since the early 1970s, the Christians of the Valley have got together for their own version of Carnaval which is held in the village of Marmarita. People disguise themselves in strange and elaborate costumes and parade through the streets of the villages.

This is quite a spectacle to experience. It is reminiscent of a Carnaval that you would expect to see in Latin America or the Caribbean, but has very clear a distinct Middle Eastern flavor. There isn’t anything like it in the region.

Where to stay in Wadi al-Nasara

There are a number of hotels in the villages but the best hotel to stay at is Al Wadi Hotel in the Mishtay village. This hotel was built by the Syrian Orthodox Church and boasts an entirely unobstructed view of the famous Krak des Chevaliers.

There is also accommodation in the village of Al-Hawash which is also home to two of the most important universities in the area.

The sights of Wadi al-Nasara

There is quite some distance between sights and villages in Wadi al-Nasara, so we would recommend that you allow at least two full days to experience the best of what the area has to offer.

Krak des Chevaliers

This spectacular castle has been attracting people to the Valley for generations. The almost 900-year-old Krak des Chevaliers is one of the world’s best-preserved Crusader castles and one of Syria’s most beautiful places. It is perched on top of a mountain surrounded by the mostly Christian villages of the Valley.

As a Crusader castle, it is filled with history that is best experienced by walking through each of the extensive sections: the defensive, the sleeping quarters, and the storehouses among others. A walk through the castle takes you back in time, and you’re left inspired by the etchings on the walls left hundreds of years ago.

Once you’re at the top, you’ll be treated to a breath-taking view of the Valley and the villages below which complements the formidable place that is the castle itself.

The castle did sustain some damage during the Syrian civil war, but it is still very much standing. And no trip to Syria would be complete without visiting.

Deir Mar Georges

The Patriarchal Monastery of St. George (known as Deir Mar Georges in Arabic) is a convent which has parts that are 1,400 years old – and you will feel each of the rich tapestries of its history as you descend further down the building.

Greeting you as you enter the Convent is the New Church. But don’t let the name fool you: the New Church is over a hundred years old. It is superbly decorated, with Orthodox iconography covering the walls and unique light fittings.

You should also ask to see the two portraits that were famously stolen by the British and French and then returned. They’re located in the New Church. You’ll very quickly see why these were coveted by the Europeans. It’s not every day that you see thousand-year-old artworks that are so well-preserved.

Beneath the main courtyard is the Old Church that is at least from the 13th century which retains much of its ancient beauty. There is even a warehouse for oil, hay and liquor. You’ll find inscriptions and drawings representing religious figures and events such as the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

Unequivocally the most incredible part of the Convent is the Old Monastery which is truly unmissable for any curious traveler and history buff. The cave that it is built into is stunning in its visual and spiritual beauty with ornate detailing, icons painted over a millennium ago, and a solemn atmosphere that just can’t be recreated.

The Old Monastery predates Islam, so we know that it is at least 1,400 years old. The Old Monastery was once surrounded by simple monks’ huts.

Make sure to look out for the very unassuming door that it is believed St George entered through. As you descend, you’ll notice lots of little doors that lead to small rooms. These were used as hiding places for Christians who were seeking to avoid Islamic conversion and pagan persecution.

In particular, there is an incredibly detailed and well-preserved copper artwork that is believed to be over a thousand years old in the Old Church which will make you naturally take pause.

If you happen to be in Wadi al-Nasara during the summer, the Monastery organizes a market in the middle of September for two weeks to celebrate the feast of the elevation of the Holy Cross. You’ll find local vendors selling handmade goods and crafts with an Orthodox Christian twist. This is the perfect place to find a unique souvenir to remember your time in the Valley.

St George is also a figure in Islamic tradition, so it’s not uncommon to see Muslim tourists visiting the Monastery. There is even a copy of the Treaty of Umar Bin Khattab which granted legal protections to non-Muslim minorities such as Jews and Christians.

Ain Maryam

This is quite a unique site in Syria and is unknown to all except locals. Ain Maryam (or the Eye of Mary) holds the water directly from the mountains. The water is crisp and cold, and it’s completely safe to drink.

Locals will tell you that the urn inside the glass is an artefact of unknown origins. No one dares open the urn glass unit containing the urn, but everyone understands that it is spiritually significant. Ain Maryam has become a mini pilgrimage site for local Christians and is built with the tile and stone typical of the area.

The Lady of the Valley

The Lady of the Valley sits perched on top of a mountain overlooking the whole Valley. If you’ve ever been to Lebanon, you’ll know that Levantine Christians love to erect religious statues on top of mountains.

This one is only 25 years old but has become a beacon of hope for the Christian minority who want to keep their part of Syria free from external influence. The community is considering building a cable car from the floor of the Valley to the top.

The Lady of the Valley is built on top of Mount of the Pilgrim which is dedicated to St George who has a prominent place in the lives of Wadi al-Nasara’s Christians.

And just outside of the Valley…

The beautiful mountain town of Safita is known for the White Tower (or the Chastel Blanc). There was an Orthodox Church inside the tower but it has been closed since the earthquake that devastated Syria and Türkiye in February 2023.

The town of Safita itself is also one of the most beautiful ancient cities of Syria and reminds of an ancient Italian city. It still maintains its distinct architectural style, which is shown mostly keenly in the White Tower.

One day, we hope that the White Tower will reopen so that visitors can experience the amazing view of the surrounding mountains.

A sweet treat to cap off your trip

Syrian Christians are known for making the famous Middle Eastern dessert knafeh a little bit differently to how it’s made in other parts of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan. I don’t want to give too much away, but you must include a stop at Knafeh Al Assi in the village of Kafra. You’ll need to ask a local to take you.

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