Want to go cycling through archaeological ruins and olive groves?
That’s exactly what awaits you on this 3 day bike touring route between the Syrian city of Aleppo and the Turkish border. It’s remote, hard work and exceptionally beautiful.
Duration: 3 days
Terrain: Lots of rolling hills, getting steeper near the end. You may have to push a couple of times. Numerous villages en route. You’ll never be too far from food and water but not many restaurants so be prepared to self-cater.
Accomodation: Wild camping once outside Aleppo or ask to stay with families
Road condition & traffic: Broadly good. Leaving Aleppo may be busy on weekdays. Small section of dirt road after Anadan but it’s hard packed. Only other potentially problematic section comes after Cyrrhus, when paving deteriorates.
Alternative transport: Minibuses ply the backroads but may be too small for you and your bike. Hitch a lift with locals if you need to.
Highlights: The endless string of sites to visit and beautiful countryside.
Lowlights: Busy roads getting out of Aleppo.
Tips: Plan a leisurely trip through this part of Syria so you have plenty of time to linger over history.
Start your journey by experiencing a few days in Aleppo or Haleb as it’s known to locals. Once you’ve explored the souk, climbed up the citadel for a 360 degree view over the city and sampled a glass of Syrian wine in the Christian quarter it’s time to head for the solitude and ruins of the rolling hills northwest of the city.
A wealth of historical treasures are waiting to be discovered. Evidence of former times is quite literally everywhere you look and you’ll pedal past St. Simeon’s Basilica, the Dead City of Khabar Shams, the temple of Ain Dara and the Roman site of Cyrrhus to name but a few of the ruins in the area. Cruise over two Roman bridges for good measure. When you’re not absorbing the region’s immense history, get a taste of village life in this predominantly rural area. You’re as likely to be held up by a herd of sheep crossing the road as by any traffic jams. The quiet roads and endless string of farming fields, forests and olive groves are punctuated only by the proudly Kurdish and bustling market town of Afrin. End your trip by crossing the border into Turkey or continue on your exploration of Syria.
This route is best started on a Friday, not only because of the quieter traffic leaving Aleppo but also because you may then have the good fortune to be invited to share in a picnic with Syrian families at the nearby site of Khabar Shams.
Section 1 — Aleppo to Saint Simeon (40km)
Your day starts with an easy ride out of Aleppo, avoiding the busier roads leading to Bab-al-Hawa and south to Damascus. As you leave the city, watch on the right for a distinctive mosque (2km) with its square ornate minarets.
Continue on the main road, always going straight, until you reach the turnoff for Anadan (12km, pop. 18,000), a chance to stock up on supplies. Up the hill and into the town, keep an eye out on your right for a small shop selling a selection of flatbreads topped with various goodies like cheese, zata’ar spice or spicy tomato sauce (5-10 SP each). They’ll warm them in the oven for you and these make a great lunchtime treat.
Ask a friendly local to guide you to the hard-packed dirt road that leads to Al-Tamoura and Borj Haidar. It’s not far (only about 1km downhill from the town centre) but unsigned and slightly difficult to find. It will lead you through fields and olive groves, running north and parallel to a large ridge. Stop to admire the ruins at the southern end of the top of the ridge.
Soon you’ll be back on pavement again, skirting past several rock quarries and through the small settlement of Zaouk Kabeer (25km, Zuq al Kabir on some maps). The landscape here is stony and you can see the remains of walls painstakingly built from days gone by. You may see local men herding a few cows, sheep and goats over the rocky fields or women drawing water from wells in the village. Just over the next crest is the ruined palace of Khabar Shams (27km, free access, no admission or opening times), one of the famous “Dead Cities” dotted around Aleppo and an ideal spot to have your lunch.
This is a favourite picnic spot for Syrian families and they do lunches in style. Most bring barbeques or build fires to cook feasts of kebabs, fish and other delights. They may even bring along their own carpet to relax on and a nargile or water pipe to pass the hours as the children run off energy in the surrounding countryside.
As a foreign tourist on a bicycle you’re almost certain to be invited to share a meal with them and sharing something from your panniers in turn like a few chocolates or nuts will be appreciated. Depending on your timing, you may even want to set up camp here for the night. There is no water in the immediate vicinity, however, so come prepared.
When you’re ready to leave Khabar Shams, return to the main road and turn right, setting a course for Samaan Citadel, where 1,500 years ago a young shepherd climbed atop a pillar to pray and preach for the next four decades. The rolling hills make it easy to get up a good momentum here as one descent after another propels you up the climbs but you’ll want to break for a few minutes in the tiny settlements of Borj Hadar (31km) and Kafr Nbo (32km), where ruins have been intertwined with homes and shops.
Soon after the village of Bassofan (34km) enjoy a downhill run through a forest but prepare yourself for the hairpin turn (40km) that will take you a short distance uphill to Samaan Citadel (41km, open 9am-6pm Apr-Sep, 9am-4pm Oct-Mar, adult admission 150 SP), better known as the Church of Saint Simeon.
Section 2 — Saint Simeon to Midanki (45km)
Leaving Saint Simeon, return down the road and set a course for Afrin (Ifreen). Coming around the base of the hill you can explore the ruins around the church (free access) before continuing. From here a few choice camping spots appear including some olive groves directly underneath Saint Simeon (slightly rocky but there are flat spots with scenery to die for) and a pine forest a few kilometers further on.
Just after the forest is a small unmarked village (49km) with a shop on the main road selling food and petrol. Continue on through Barj Abdalau (53km) and uphill into the town of Al Basouta (55.5km, pop. 3,300), a small but bustling place. By now you are out of the rocky hills and the terrain turns more to flat farm land, filled with fruit and nut trees. In the middle of these fields is Ain Dara (59.5km) and its unique temple ruins (entrance 75 SP if anyone is there to collect the fee), which sit on a mound just outside the village.
The ancient world is full of temples but none are quite like Ain Dara, which is believed to date back to about 1,000 BC. A huge lion carved out of basalt greets you at the entrance, followed by the temple itself which is surrounded by yet more statues towering over your head and dozens of carvings. As you enter the temple, take care to notice the large footprints. They are believed to be proof that the goddess Ishtar, to whom the temple was devoted, actually visited the site.
Your next stop on the main road is Afrin (67.5km, pop. 45,000), a market town with a large Kurdish population. In the town centre you can restock your panniers at the many stalls selling fresh produce or fill your belly with something from the many fast food stands. Falafels, kebabs and roast chicken are all on offer. For falafels, you can do no better than restaurant Borg Afren, on the left as you enter the town, across from a military complex and recognisable by the Eiffel Tower on its window and sign. Stuffed with mint and filled with two different sauces, this hole-in-the-wall spot with a few stools is a definite contender for the best falafel in Syria.
After a break it’s time to turn around, go back over the bridge and continue on the main road for a short stretch, keeping your eye out for an unmarked road on your left (79km), exactly where a large cemetary stands at the corner of the main road and the one you want to take. This is the road to Midanki and you should keep straight on it for a few kilometers, only turning left at a stop sign (81.5km). Houses are few and far between here and olive trees appear in their thousands, offering plenty of places to hide your tent in the groves.
Section 3 — Midanki to Turkish Border (50km)
Now the signs to al-Nabi Houri (Cyrrhus) are frequent and soon you’ll be on a long descent down to a river, then uphill again to Midanki (93km, pop. 4000). For the size of the town, there are a surprising number of shops in Midanki and even a couple simple restaurants, as well as a cooler dispensing free chilled tap water. The next stretch of road to Cyrrhus is increasingly rural and shepherds herding their sheep and goats may well be your most common companions on the road as you work your way up and down the hills.
After a few steep climbs the descent to Cyrrhus begins in the small village of Saeer (108km). As you fly down the hill, your first view of Cyrrhus (113km, no admission fee or opening times) will be the large and ornate tower that was once a Roman tomb and is still used today as a mourning place for muslims. Just outside the walls surrounding the tower is a modern graveyard with the remains of ancient columns scattered among the gravestones. Be careful climbing the poorly maintained stairs to the top of the tower (a headtorch is a good idea) but do make the trek up as the views are wonderful from the top.
The rest of Cyrrhus is one kilometer away down a marked dirt road just across from the tower tomb, marked by its citadel still sitting proudly atop a hill overlooking the main site. The city was founded in 300 BC by a general of Alexander the Great and its fortunes were helped by its position as a link on the busy trading route between modern-day Hatay (Antioch) and the Euphrates river. Throughout the centuries Cyrrhus was controlled by a host of occupiers including the Armenians, the Persians, the Arabs and the Crusaders. Sadly, earthquakes are responsible for damaging much of the site but the Roman theatre (2nd century AD) is still reasonably intact. As you wander among the ruins, do not be surprised to stumble upon the homes of local shepherds, who graze their sheep and goats in the surrounding fields. The site offers a magnificent viewpoint over the surrounding olive groves, across the rolling hills to Turkey and down to the river valley.
Hitting the road again after Cyrrhus you’ll fly downhill to the first of two Roman bridges, both still in use today. The only dampener is that the road condition starts to deteriorate here and is broadly poor for the rest of the route with many cracked and bumpy surfaces. Some of the steepest climbs also come in this last stretch of the journey, particularly on either side of Deir Sawwan (120km). Take comfort from the fact that your last few kilometers into Izaz will be downhill and the deserted stretch of road after Deir Sawwan makes an ideal spot for wild camping. Before long you’ll have mounted the hills and be flying towards Izaz, where signs quickly direct you to the Turkish border or back to Aleppo.