Under a scorching sun, families pose for photos in front of this castle, one of the country’s most important historical monuments, which sits atop a small hill on a peninsula in the artificial Lake Assad, near 50 km from Raqqa.

Although he lives less than an hour from the citadel, Abdallah al-Jaber took his children for a first visit this June.

“Their dream was to see Jabaar Citadel,” the 41-year-old said, adding that he often showed them pictures of the monument hoping they could visit it together one day.

The citadel — which dates from the Seljuk and Mamluk periods — has 35 bridges and a mosque as well as a museum.

Since the beginning of the summer, the castle has been attracting increasing numbers of visitors, as security has been tightened in recent years.

After a meteoric rise in power of the IS in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and the conquest of vast territories, the jihadist group saw its self-proclaimed “caliphate” being overthrown under the blow of successive offensives in these two countries.

In 2017, US-backed Kurdish fighters took over the stronghold of the ultra-radical organization which used its strategic location to launch attacks and to monitor the largest prison it controlled at the time in Syria.

– Popular destination –

IS had dug trenches near the castle which it used “to train child soldiers”, said Mohammad, a 45-year-old Raqa resident who asked to use a pseudonym for security reasons.

“Residents were banned from visiting at the time since this area was a military zone,” he continues. “But the situation has improved today.”

Boat trips and picnics on the sandy shores of Lake Assad — formed by the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates — have made the citadel a popular destination for Syrian families.

Near the imposing walls of the citadel, young men gather to smoke hookahs in the shade to the tunes of Arabic music.

Radwan Kahawati said he came from the coastal city of Latakia (northwest), five hours by car, to visit the citadel with his family.

“We came here for tourism and for a change of scenery,” he told AFP.

“My daughter said to me: Take us to Jaabar”, because she heard about it at school, he adds.