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Syria does steady business catering to modern pilgrims

Shiite sites are especially popular

Syria is a secular country in a region thick with religion. Centuries before Damascus became the capital of Islam's first empire, legend has it that a certain Roman official named Saul converted to Christianity hereabouts.

Though its pilgrimage sites aren't necessarily as important to devout Christians and Muslims as those in Palestine and Iraq, Syria's holy places are plentiful and ancient enough to attract waves of religious tourists each year.

In a recent statement, Syrian Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa said that his country received 3.4 million tourists last year. The ministry doesn't keep track of whether visitors are secular or religious, so the number of pilgrims is hard to discern.

Clearly, though, Syria lures large numbers of observant Muslims and Christians.

Take Sayyida Zaynab. Syria's tourist maps describe it as 10 kilometers south of Damascus, in the midst of Al-Ghouta, the city's historic greenbelt of orchards. Urban sprawl being what it is, however, Sayyida Zaynab is these days a southern suburb of Damascus.

Sayyida Zaynab's raison d'etre is to service the waves of Shiite pilgrims who arrive each year - a million and a half strong, according to Syria's Tourism Ministry. They come to visit the ornate gold-and-marble shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, dedicated to the daughter of the Imam Ali.

It isn't a wealthy area. The dominant architectural style is the single-story breezeblock structure, many of which haven't undergone the formality of plaster.

Many among the overwhelmingly Shiite population are itinerant citizens of the Gulf states - Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Rising out of this concrete-grey agglomeration is the Safir Sayyida Zaynab.

With a facade adorned in blue arabesque tile work to match the shrine, and boasting 157 four-star rooms, this 5-year-old hotel is easily the most luxurious in the area.

Its general manager Najib Saad is bullish about the pilgrimage trade.

"Our occupancy rate here is 70 percent year-round," he says. "It was closer to 19 percent in 2003. The Safir Heliopolitan in Beirut usually sits at 40 percent.

"Of that 70 percent, most of it - 60 percent say - are pilgrims. Most of them are Shiites from Kuwait, then Lebanon, then Saudi [Arabia]. Turkey comes forth. Some come to pray. Many come to trade."

Saad says tourism at Sayyida Zaynab has increased over the last decade but he has no idea what percentage is secular or religious.

The trade is intimately connected to Lebanon. "Of course business shrank immediately after the Hariri assassination," he says.

"I think it was 30 percent in July, 2005."

Safir's parent body is Kuwait Hotels, a holding company formed 44 years ago by a group of Kuwaiti state and private interests. It acquired the Safir brand in 1990 when it bought two Cairo properties - Safir Suites Hotel Zamalek and Safir Hotel Cairo. The same year it bought 50 percent of Abou Nawas Management, which runs 17 Tunisian hotel and resort projects.

Aside from the hotel in Sayyida Zaynab, Safir presently runs the 92-room Safir Homs, which opened in December 1991. Beirut's 145-room Safir Heliopolitan opened in December 2003, while the Safir Bhamdoun was launched in June 2005.

A South Lebanon native, Saad says he started at the chain of furnished residences owned by Nabatiyyeh deputy Yassin Jaber which includes such landmark properties as La Hoya Suites and Plaza Suites One and Two. He moved into the UK bread-and-breakfast trade before returning to open the Safir Bhamdoun. He's been at the Safir Sayyida Zaynab for three years now and briefly ran both hotels at once.

"Safir Bhamdoun and Sayyida Zaynab offer completely different services," Saad smiles. "I'd come from here where people are dressed in black. Sober. Weeping. I'd go to Bhamdoun, where everything is loud, people partying."

Bhamdoun's rates, averaging around $280 per night, are the highest in Lebanon, four times what they are here. The most expensive room here is $120 a night, but the average price is $65 a night. Sayyida Zaynab's cheaper hotels have rooms ranging from $10 to $50 a night.

"We have everything needed for a five-star rating except a swimming pool and a nightclub." He shrugs. "We lose money not selling alcohol, but if we did we'd lose customers. And the pilgrims provide a steady trade that compensates for that loss."

Saad struggles a little to define how expectations differ between Bhamdoun and Say-yida Zaynab. "Here, everything must be clean. Guests don't want to see alcohol. They want to see a prayer mat and a Koran in each room. They want comfort too, of course.

"In Bhamdoun ... there are many Gulf sheikhs among the clientele. You can't make mistakes with them or they'll never forgive you. It's a different culture. A customer might complain 'Why is this ashtray here on the edge of the table instead of in the middle?' They want value for their money. Even if you tell them it's a $100 room they'll try to haggle you down, though money's no object."

Though the vast majority of his clients are devout Shiites, Saad is ecumenical about the strength of Syria's pilgrimage trade. "Some of the shrines here service both religions,"

he smiles. "The grave of John the Baptist - where the Pope visited a few years back - is in the Umayyad Mosque and receives Christian and Muslim pilgrims."

There are more exclusively Christian sites in and near Damascus, of course. Among the most popular are in the villages of Maaloula and Saydnaya (56 kilometers and 30 kilometers from Damascus, respectively).

Saydnaya ("Sayyida Naya" or "Our Lady" in Syriac) is host to the Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya, founded in 547 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It houses a portrait of the Virgin believed to have been painted by St. Luke.

Sitting 1,500 meters above sea level, nearby Maaloula clings to the side of a mountain in the Qalamoun range. "Maaloula" means "Entrance" in Aramaic, and the fact that its Christian residents still speak Aramaic - "The Language of Christ," as local tourist brochures remind you - is the village's main claim to fame.

The village is the site of the Convent of Saint Taqla, at the bottom end of the gorge that bisects the village, and the Monastery of Saints Sergios and Bakhos, at the upper end. The only thing higher than Sergios and Bakhos is the three-star, 38-room Maaloula Hotel. It used to be the Safir Maaloula, but the company picked up stakes a few years ago.

Within the monastery, a friendly woman named Rana does double duty reciting the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic and reminding tourists not to take photos of the gorgeous paintings that adorn the interior.

She says Sergios and Bakhos received 400,000 tourists in 2005, 20,000 of whom were Lebanese. She and her colleagues have completed the tally for the first month of 2006. Of the thousands of tourists who came that month, most came from Italy, Spain and Russia, but there were 26 Lebanese.

"Last week," she smiles, "we had 45 Lebanese visitors."

Amman,07 10 2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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