Sunday, February 7, 2010

Aleppo

from the Dead Sea, we drove across the border and north through Syria to Aleppo. again, Riyad helped us out by hooking us up with a driver friend of his, Hussam, who expertly ushered us across the border. borders always make me nervous, but in his expert hands, and with Syrian visas already in our passports, we breezed through. we still didn't reach Aleppo until 1am, where the poor guy with the late night shift at the hotel took one look at the one American passport and said, "ah, so this is why you are late!" so not true, but have a joke at my expense, no worries...

next morning at the ATM, stocking up on Syrian pounds, we noticed we were the only women in line. in fact, we were practically the only women on the streets around our hotel. could have been due to the fact that we were staying in the tire district(!), but still, the lack of women out in public was a bit disconcerting...




we made our way to the Citadel, an enormous 13th century fortress (though the site it occupies is documented to have been used since the 3rd millennium BC. Abraham is said to have milked his sheep on Citadel hill) that rises impressively over the city, offering incredible 360 degree views. inside you'll find an amphitheater, hammam (sauna, jacuzzi... all the trappings of a Turkish bath), the Mamluk hall with its elaborately carved wooden ceiling, and a mosque or two. the guy handing out guides, upon finding out where we were from, said (i'm paraphrasing here), "welcome! we like Americans. screw the politicians!" amen.



nestled against one side of Citadel hill is Aleppo's famous souq. some say it's the largest covered market in the world (which is coupled with Aleppo's claim to being one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world). but what really distinguishes it is the fact that it's still used largely as a locals' market for a variety of household goods and foods. each section is devoted to a different type of goods for sale, and you'll find the scarf stalls targeting tourists not far from those selling Aleppan olive and laurel oil soap, just down the way from the butcher shops.

it's a bustling, sensory overload experience by day, filled with warm colors, the smell of soap, coffee and spices, the sound of men yelling that to look is free. and always crowded with people. but i had the opportunity to walk through at night, after the shops had closed their wooden doors. at that point, it transforms into a maze of quiet, arcaded streets, inhabited by just a few stragglers. a cool subterranean labyrinth, and an entirely different experience than souq by day.

but as fascinating as the city is, it was the people who made the experience in Aleppo. our first day wandering through the souk we happened into one store selling textiles, jewelry and such. the man there welcomed us in, and after we'd had a look around, invited us to his brother's cafe. there we found a family of sorts for the next several days, populated by a magnetic Buddhist artist and chef of delectable vegetarian dishes, a loopy British-accented (though 100% Syrian) oud player, a bespectacled intellectual with a head of curls to rival our Meg's, a few couch surfers, and a collection of Aleppo's wayward youth. they were warm and wonderful, and welcomed us in with open arms. THIS is what it's all about.

17 comments:

Dad said...

What amazing travelers you three are! Thanks for the vicarious tours in picture and word. From what you say, it seems that, as the NY Times article said, Aleppo is still largely off the beaten tourist track.

Mom said...

As you write, "This is what it's all about!" Lovely! It doesn't hurt that there are beautiful things to see as well. I thought at first those were stones, maybe a wall, but soap! :)

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