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Damascus versus Beirut

These are two ancient cities with very different personalities. Scarcely two hours apart, both destinations offer travelers immensely different experiences. Which wins out when we put them head to head?

 

Tourists are discovering Damascus for its ancient offerings – after all it is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. A virtual time machine for religious and cultural travel, visitors come to explore the serpentine streets dating to the Roman era, religious landmarks representative of all faiths, and souks famed for textiles, inlaid artwork, and sweets.

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This iconic city has been described as “sizzling, gritty and glam,” and a “cocktail of adventure and excitement.” And while the city still retains elements of an ancient past, most visitors to Beirut – about 2 million last year – come for a different capital city experience. From haute cuisine to haute couture, the “world is Beiruting again!”– declare the bright banners lining the city’s busy thoroughfares. Being a modern sort of website, we’ll opt for modern fun over ancient history.

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Ancient religious and cultural landmarks abound in the Old City of Damascus, such as the “Street called Straight,” recorded in the Book of Acts and mentioned in the story of Paul’s conversion. Salahadin is entombed here, and the churches of St. Ananias and St. Paul draw visitors from around the world. The famed Azem Palace, built in 1750, was the residence for the Ottoman governor of Damascus, and now houses a museum. The Omayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, it is one of the largest and oldest, revered by Muslim pilgrims from around the world.

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Beirut, despite the obvious vestiges of an ancient past, has restyled itself, following the post-war reconstruction boom. Strewn among the 13th century Great Al-Omari mosque and the Roman baths, a well-heeled international clientele frequents glamorous rooftop venues, where DJ’s spin trance music into the wee hours. The Gemmayze district boasts a dizzying array of restaurants, bars, and musical nightlife. History in stasis it is not.

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Far larger than Lebanon, Syria measures roughly 250 miles in length, and an average of 130 miles in width. Visitors to the capital who wish to experience the country’s major attractions will want to see the Aleppo citadel, 350 km north of Damascus. The city of Palmyra, 200 km from the capital in the heart of the Syrian desert, is a must-see for its ancient ruins. And Latakia, mentioned in Revelations and Paul's letter to the Colossians, is today a busy, modern seaport, favored for its remaining ruins and important Ottoman constructions. The city is a 350 km drive from the capital.

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Dynamic Lebanon boasts ruins from Persian, Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Crusader eras in short day trips from Beirut . Twenty-two miles north of the capital on the Mediterranean coast is Byblos, home to Byzantine-era mosaics, Phoenician artifacts, and the ancient ruins from conquests by history’s great empires. Hike the country’s cedar forests in the morning, enjoy lunch at the vineyards of the Bekaa, and head to the beach for sunset. Or spend the morning on Lebanon’s ski slopes, followed by dinner on the Corniche.  It’s compact size - just 135 miles long and about 50 miles wide – makes Lebanon a winner.

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The souks of Damascus, such as the famed Suq el-Hamidiyeh, entice tourists from around the world. Here, craftsmen, artisans, bakers, and merchants ply their wares, complete with a big serving of Arab hospitality, where customers are regarded as visitors, likely to be offered tea, coffee, or a tasty baklawa, as they browse the offerings on display. Kipp loves the chance to hunt a bargain.

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While the street names are evocative of a bygone era, virtually nothing else is. The “Beirut souks” project, centrally located in downtown, is a high-end commercial district catering to shoppers with cash to burn. If you’ve got a nose for bargains, this probably isn’t your gig. Sprawled over 100,000 square meters, this retail and leisure complex is constructed on the site of the former gold souk and the Bab Idris vegetable souk.

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Culture
 

Travelers hoping to improve their Arabic speaking skills, will find Damascenes willing teachers. The city is widely regarded as an Arab cultural capital and a “living museum” – a bastion of traditional Arabic language, culture, and history.

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Visitors to Beirut often report difficulty practicing their Arabic, as so many Beirutis are multi-lingual – French and English are widely spoken. A huge Lebanese diaspora, estimated at 16 million, dwarfs the domestic population of around 4 million. Those Lebanese expats living abroad, often remain very connected to their homeland, and contribute to a very international feel expressed in the capital. So which is best, Arabic or multi-cultural? Being an inclusive site, we have to opt for the latter.

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Does Damascus even have a nightlife scene?

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Whoa baby! What can we say about Beirut’s nightlife that you haven’t already heard? The Lebanese capital has gained a reputation as the party capital of the Middle East, attracting party-goers from across the region – and sometimes even further away – to while away the hours in its plentiful clubs, bars and restaurants. If the town is known or nothing else, it’s known for this - check out the link above for a taste. No contest.

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Kudos
 

Damascus was chosen as the 2008 Arab Capital of Culture, an initiative of UNESCO. And the New York Times ranks the city 7th, among the top 31 places to visit in 2010.

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Beirut was named the top place to visit in 2009 by the New York Times, and Lonely Planet listed the city among the world’s ten liveliest. Travel and Leisure magazine ranked Beirut the 9th best city in the world in 2006. It’s a tough call, so Kipp will go with our Syrian friend, who says he’d rather be in Beirut. So much so he moved there.

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Kipp is feeling Beirut right now. What about you?

 

2 Comments

  1. محمد من دمشق on August 26, 2010 5:01 am

    دمشق بلد العروبة ورفع الرأس

     
  2. Loai on March 9, 2011 2:23 pm

    That’s the silliest comparison i have ever seen!! you guys at kipp need to understand how constructive research could be established… i really dont know what was the writer of this comparison thinking about wehen he or she considered “nightlife” as only partying! the definition of nighlife is far beyond that, and where did the cultural or musical activities go to? or it’s just becuase you’ve heard this from someone… a silly comment like “Does Damascus even have a nightlife scene” cannot be written by a grade 1 jounalist… do your home work, check out what damascus has to offer (opera house may click) and then write something that is fair for everyone’s benefit…

     

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