Wednesday, January 05, 2011

On the Road to Damascus

On the road to Damascus comes from the biblical story of St. Paul who converted from Judaism to Christianity while traveling on the road to Damascus. Saul, then a zealous Pharisee, was on his way to prosecute early followers of Jesus Christ. As he approached Damascus around noon, a light from heaven flashed around him, blinding Saul for three days. He fell to the ground and heard from above: "Saul, Saul, why do you prosecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. The voice replied, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. The voice continues, "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." Blinded, Saul's men guided him to Damascus.

Inside the House of Saint Ananias:
 Ananias of Damascus, receiving divine revelation from Jesus, was instructed to visit Saul at the house of Judas on the Street Called Straight. Ananias objected that Saul had been persecuting Christians, but God told him that Saul was "a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites." It was there that Ananias placed his hands on Saul and said:  "Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Vision restored, Saul was then baptized, becoming Paul the Apostle.
Street Called Straight:
Our own journey to Damascus wasn't dramatic like Paul the Apostle, but it wasn't exactly easy either. All foreign visitors traveling to Syria must obtain a visa prior to arrival and must not have any Israeli stamps on their passports. The same applies to Lebanon -- no Israeli stamps. U.S. passport holders are entitled to a free one-month tourist visa at any Lebanese border, but remember no Israeli stamps. In fact, any suspicion (or evidence such as guidebooks, plane tickets out of Tel Aviv airport, hotel confirmations at your Jerusalem hotel) that you are planning on going to Israel, you will be refused entry to Lebanon and Syria. Be certain to check with the State Department before traveling to the region as the situation can change quickly. In theory, you can get a Syrian visa at the border, however, this is not guaranteed; therefore it is strongly recommended that you apply for your Syrian visas at your local Consulate prior to travel.
Street scenes around Damascus:
For us Americans living in London, the process is complicated by the fact that you need to submit your visa application at least two months before departure as it can take up to 5 weeks for approval. This involves three separate trips to the Syrian Embassy: 1) Bring your completed visa application and passport (they will make a photocopy); 2) Once approved, you'll need to turn in your passport and pay the visa fee to get the actual visa affixed to your passport; and 3) 5 days later, come back to Syrian Embassy to pick up your passport.  The cost for Americans -- $131 (!) valid for three months from the date issued.

Alternatively, if you urgently need a Syrian visa, you can FedEx/UPS your completed visa application, passport, and US money order to the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. They can issue your visa in two days, plus the transit time to/from London and Washington D.C.

I also thought I shared some practical information for those planning a trip to the region --

The journey from Beirut to Damascus is fairly straightforward as long as you have your Syrian visas in hand. There are several options in terms of transportation. Service taxis to Damascus pick up at Charles Helou bus station near downtown Beirut. It will cost $10-$20 per seat and leaves when the car (old Benz) is full, usually with 4 passengers. If you want space and comfort, then you'll need to pay for the extra seats.

Keenan and I, along with another couple friend, booked a private taxi ($120) through the Lebanon Taxi Company for our journey to Damascus. It was well worth the extra cost for convenience and comfort since we left the morning after the wedding celebration that went well into the night. Border formalities thankfully only took 20 minutes and we were happy to see President Assad's picture greeting us on the other side of Lebanese-Syrian border. From there, it was an easy drive to our next destination: Damascus. In total, including border formalities, it took us 3.5 hours door-to-door from Hamra, Beirut to Bab Touma, Old City Damascus with no traffic or delays on the road. Welcome to Damascus!
The road from Damascus to Amman is very easy. For service taxis to Amman, head to the Samariya bus station on the western edge of Damascus. Operating in the usual policy "leaving when full," expect to pay 500-600 SYP (£1 = 72 SYP) per seat. Most likely taxi drivers will come find you and several other foreigners to share the ride to Amman. Our fellow passenger was a French men who has been walking Syria and Lebanon for the past 3 months. His next mission? Walk from the border of Jordan to Aqaba (yes, walk). He only wanted to pay 300 SYP to get dropped off at the Der'aa (Syria-Jordan) border crossing and we wanted extra leg room in the back for the three hour ride to Abadali bus station in Amman so we negotiated our portion for 1400 SYP (or £19.22). Pretty soon, we were on our way to the capital of Jordan, Amman. 
After dropping our fellow passenger off at Der'aa, we entered from the Jaber (Syria-Jordan) border crossing where we switched drivers for the rest of our journey to Amman. It was a a bit odd at first, but not to worry, I think this is very normal. Border formalities on the Syrian side was easy -- complete your exit card and pay your exit tax in Syrian Pounds (500 SYP). There is even duty free shopping where our driver clearly took advantage of stocking up on his cigarettes (albeit breaking the two carton limit) stashing two cartons  in his trunk and hiding 12 individual packs either in the glove compartment and his jacket. He cheekily turned to us and said "No smoking in this car..." Right. 
 Once on the Jordanian side, foreigners can obtain Jordanian visas at the border for 10 JOD (£1 = 1.10 JOD), payable in Jordanian Dinars only (there are money changing facilities at the border). The process is easy and straightforward. Unlike entering Syria where the driver takes your passport and entry card to the border control while you wait in the car, at the Jordanian immigration office, you take care of border formalities yourself while your driver and his car gets thoroughly searched by security. After that, it's smooth sailing. Welcome to Jordan!

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