Aleppo : Fair city of the North
“...they surpassed the rest of Syria. They fought and traded more ; were more fanatical and vicious ; and made the most beautiful things...”
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926
Aleppo, or Halab in Arab, is one of the oldest city in the world.
First built over 5000 years ago, Syria’s second largest city of more than
a million inhabitants claim that theirs is the oldest city in the world,
not Damascus. For thousands of years, although Damascus dominated
the political life of Greater Syria, initiatives taken from Aleppo have
always turned the tables round from time to time. Abraham camped
here and milked his cow, hence Aleppo's name - “Halab al-Shahba”,
or “the white city where the cow was milked”. The ancient Mesopotamian
empires of Akkadia and Assyria launched their raids of Syria from here.
The Hittites passed here on the way to Kaldesh. The Crusaders laid
siege to the Citadel but could not capture it. The great Turkish
amir Nureddin took over the city and his successor, the even more renowned
Salah Ad-Din, began his career here, before founding the Ayyubid Dynasty
of Egypt and Syria. The fortunes of the city had risen and fallen
many times, whether by wars, such as the Mongol conquest, which decimated
its citizens, or natural disasters, such as the great earthquake of 1822
which killed 60% of the inhabitants. But the city have always recovered
from calamities, and bounced back due to the creativity and entrepreneurship
of the people. Some say, “Damascus prays but Aleppo works.”
With the introduction of the deregulation process in recent years, Aleppo
has once again prospered. A new rebirth is now happening to this
We arrived at Aleppo in the late afternoon. This is a city very much like Damascus - buildings built years ago plus a couple of public parks here and there. But there is something else different from Damascus - Aleppo is lively and bustling compared to the slowness and drabness of Damascus. Lots of construction going on. People moving everywhere, getting on with work. Lots of shops with goods stocked up to the shopfront. And unlike Damascus, numerous shoppers from Russia and the CIS. Although I saw a number at Damascus’ International Airport, I hardly see any on the streets. Most of them are probably heading here. This is a much more cosmopolitan city that Damascus - street signs in languages other than Arabic. One sees English, Russian, French, German and even Armenian - there are half a million of more of them here, most of them fled here direct from the Armenian Massacres early this century, and made this the most Christian metropolis of the Middle East.
We decided that we were going to visit the Grand Mosque, the Citadel,
the souq, plus the Armenian Quarter here. We would need the rest
of the day plus one full day tomorrow for these. And so we booked
a night bus to Amman, Jordan for the next day at the bus terminal near
al-Walid Street. We walked around the hotel district and found that
the rooms cost much more than in Damascus. We were tempted to stay
at the Baron, a turn-of-the-century premier hotel, but decided that although
it was cheap at US$50 per night for such a famous hotel, it wasn’t worth
it as the place appeared to be so run-down. Instead we went to Hotel
Ambassador, which cost US$23 though its facilities were not much better,
as we were to find out later (showers and fans not working properly, etc).
Zakariyyeh : Of saintly head and prayers
“Aleppo is thoroughly Oriental in this... that the poets of Islam have made a fantastic mirage of it...”
Hilalre Belloc, Places, 1942
We headed straight towards the Grand Mosque (Jami’a Zakariyyeh), cutting
across the commercial district of Aleppo. Numerous shops round the
corner and we almost got lost after going through one of these shopping
areas. We asked about the “Omayyad Mosque” mentioned in the Syrian
Ministry of Tourism brochure and “Grand Mosque” mentioned in the Lonely
Planet but no one seemed to know it until I spotted the words “Jami’a Zakariyyeh”
in parenthesis in the Lonely Planet. These friendly Syrians pointed
towards a direction and even offered to bring us there, but not before
they introduced us to a burly chap they described as the “karate and kung
fu champion of Syria”. Certainly not the first time I encountered
such things. People I met on my travels in Romania, Turkey and Spain
had somewhat relate me to the Far Eastern martial arts that they have heard
about, although I knew none of these ancient arts.
|they introduced us to a burly chap they described as the “karate and kung fu champion of Syria”.|
With the guidance, it wasn’t difficult to locate the Zakariyyeh Mosque,
one of the chief attractions of Aleppo. Built over a thousand years
ago, the mosque has a smooth marble floored courtyard and amazingly beautiful
wall sculptures and decorations - but these mainly depict symbols and patterns
as the portrayal of living creatures and humans are forbidden by Islam.
An interesting astronomical sundisk also lies in the middle of the courtyard.
We had an interesting time there with the friendly kids. We also
visited the shrine of Zacharias, father of St John the Baptist. After the
saint was martyred, his head was interred within a wooden pulpit in the
mosque. A number of devotees were praying and kissing it when we
It was here that we met Ahmad, a retired tour guide. He’s also a member of some friendship association or something along that line. He enjoys meeting foreigners and after he retired, he has been coming to the Mosque everyday to introduce Aleppo to foreigners. He then went on to brief us on the history of the Mosque and the city, and then offered to guide us around the souq and the ancient Mamluk quarter of the city. We were honoured by his hospitality and certainly not aware of the fact that he would ask for remuneration for that later on.
Getting lost in the souq & a mental asylum
Ahmad then brought to the souqs (markets) of Aleppo. Aleppo has
always been a great trading centre between the Mediterranean and the East
- Mesopotamia, Persia, India and China. And traders from the East
and West came here, so much so that people used to say in the Middle Ages,
that one day’s sales in Aleppo equalled a month’s in Cairo. The caravans
traders built graceful caravanserais, or traders’ inns, while representatives
of chief European states retreated to the safety of their lavishly-built
consulates. However, the discovery of the Sea Routes to the
East destroyed the ancient commerce here, and this city fell into provincial
sleepiness, that is, until recent economic changes.
|Under these roofs, one finds shops selling anything under the sun, cries and shouts of hawkers and labourers pushing carts, goods-delivery vans squeezing through the narrow pathways delivering , etc. The whole atmosphere was exotic, although we had to contend with the dirty and semi-muddy ground, smell of slaughtered creatures for sale, the reckless van-drivers and the lack of ventilation in the souqs.|
The covered souqs of Aleppo are an extensive labyrinth of little lanes and alleys crowded with shops - 10 kilometres of streets in all. Unlike the souqs of Damascus, which are wide and have high ceilings, Aleppo’s are like little tunnels where one can easily get lost. Under these roofs, one finds shops selling anything under the sun, cries and shouts of hawkers and labourers pushing carts, goods-delivery vans squeezing through the narrow pathways delivering , etc. The whole atmosphere was exotic, although we had to contend with the dirty and semi-muddy ground, smell of slaughtered creatures for sale, the reckless van-drivers and the lack of ventilation in the souqs. We bought some dates and apricots there, of course, after a bit of tough bargaining.
We visited some caravanserais, such as Khan al-Jumruk and al-Wazir.
They are now occupied by local families, and some units have been converted
into cottage sweatshops. A few chickens ran freely and children played
hide and seek in what was once exclusive quarters of wealthy merchants.
Imagine the Astorias and Ritz Carlton decaying into urban slums.
The glories of the past had long gone. Perhaps, someone should come
here some day, move the people and shops out, renovate the place, and turn
it into a five star hotel for nostalgic travellers.
|While 14th century Europe locked mental patients in chains, Islamic Aleppo sent its sick here for healing. The patients were first placed in rooms with running water to isolate them from the madness of the outside world, and here, they were “cooled down” through the soothing effects of the rhythm of the running water.|
Ahmad’s favourite was the Adliah Mosque, a small Mamluk mosque with
an unusual black beehive-like decoration above its door - which apart from
that, I think there was nothing special about this building. He then
brought us to a truly unusual attraction, the Al-Bimaristan Al-Argoony,
an asylum for the mentally unstable. Built in the 14th century, it
is a striking example of Islamic architecture. While 14th century
Europe locked mental patients in chains, Islamic Aleppo sent its sick here
for healing. The patients were first placed in rooms with running
water to isolate them from the madness of the outside world, and here,
they were “cooled down” through the soothing effects of the rhythm of the
running water. And from here different stages of treatment were provided
to the patients so that they slowly recover their senses and remember their
faith and family, as well as their obligations. At no time were the
patients chained or treated as non-humans. This was an interesting
visit, the only pity being that there is little water left at Al-Bimaristan.
Ahmad said that the water was adequate 10 years ago, but the damming of
the Euphrates by Turkey (which formed the Lake Ataturk which I visited
the year before) had left to a severe water shortage in northern Syria.
And this was why the shower at Hotel Ambassador couldn’t work as well,
Ahmad claimed. “The Turks are our enemies, they are out to get us,”
And with this, we ended our guided tour. We wanted to thank Ahmad for his hospitality and I gave him a little book about Singapore. However, to our surprise, he said that life was tough in Syria, and he preferred money. Any sum will do, he said. That spoilt the whole atmosphere - we had thought about telling other how hospitable people are in Syria and that we had been guided around the city. We gave him L.S. 500 - about US$10. Not much but all notions of friendship dissipated when the experience was turned into a mere commercial transaction.
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