Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Enjoying Medieval Aleppo

We bid farewell to our friends who were heading south to Petra and Wadi Rum, while our next destination was Aleppo, once a thriving commercial hub located on an important crossroad along the Silk Road linking Palmyra to Baghdad and beyond. We made it to Aleppo (known as Halab in Arabic) in time for lunch after a long, but comfortable, 4.5 hour train journey taking us through the flat desert landscape to northern Syria via Homs and Hama.  
Aleppo feels a lot smaller than Damascus (at least the Old City does), but equally chaotic with heavy traffic and smog. If you’re traveling to Syria, I highly recommend learning some basic Arabic phases aside from la (no), shukran (thank you), and afwan (excuse me, or a reply to shukran) as English is quite limited amongst taxi drivers and the locals. In fact, there were no Western television in Syria and the only way we kept up with international news during our time abroad was through Al-Jazeera English. Overall, Aleppo was pleasant to spend a few days shopping and strolling through the Old City, the Citadel, and the Christian Quarter. If we had an additional day, we would have love to see the famous Crusader castle, Krak de Chevalier, enroute to Aleppo.

Recommendations for Aleppo --

Shopping at the souks
: The souk here in Aleppo was an assault on all senses, and by far one of the most authentic souk we’ve visited in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the levels of modernisation encroaching upon the Old City, the souk still retains its distinct medieval feel. There were donkeys carrying fruit and vegetables weaving through hordes of people; dust-clad mini truck collecting garbage; children playing soccer in alleyways; shopkeepers going about their business; and the scent of aromatic spices, roasted nuts, and olive soap. 

After meandering around the shops for a few hours, we ended up buying a box of aged olive soap; two scarves to replace the ones I keep losing at the pub; and a white on black kuffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) for Keenan. Money well spent as we later found out that Aleppo can get quite cold at night. On Friday, the Old City was deathly quiet like a ghost town as 99% of shops were closed for Friday prayers. It was eerie walking through the covered souk; it was dark with only a flicker of light at the end of the 1.5 km stretch to the eastern bab (gate).

Smoking sheesha with a view: Near the impressive Citadel are a number of outdoor cafes. Snag a seat under a heat lamp with a view of the castle and enjoy some mixed-berry sheesha and thick-as-mud Turkish coffee whilst people-watching.

Visiting the Citadel: The Citadel is Aleppo’s iconic landmark and for good reasons. This massive medieval fort built upon a hill dates back to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. It was occupied by many great civilizations including the Greeks, Ayyubids, and Mamluks. We spent a good portion of Friday wandering around this impressive Citadel, taking in the views of Aleppo, and soaking in our winter dosage of vitamin D. By late afternoon, the Citadel was packed with local families and young Syrian couples enjoying their city's medieval treasures.  

The Great Mosque of Aleppo: Founded in 715, this is the oldest mosque in Aleppo and just like its sister mosque, the Ummayad Mosque of Damascus built just 10 year earlier, this site is also deeply layered in Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic history. The oldest part of the mosque is the soaring Seljuk minaret designed with detailed Kufic inscriptions. Unfortunately, we arrived around noon on Friday and they would not let us inside the main prayer hall which holds the shrine of Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist). 

Al-Jdeideh Neighbourhood: We spent Christmas Eve strolling through the charming cobble-stoned neighbourhood of Al-Jdeideh (Christian Quarter). There are several churches clustered in a square block which are worth visiting. It actually quite festive with white lights adorning the street and Nativity scenes set up inside of the churches. Hidden behind the limestone walls are several beautiful beits (traditional houses) located throughout Al-Jdeideh. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the courtyards are beautifully decorated. Keenan and I also had a lovely Christmas Eve meal at Sissi House, one of Syria’s best restaurants and a favourite of President Assad. We ordered different Alleppean specialties (cherry kebab, green beans, and medley of shish kebab), mezzes, and at bottle of Syrian wine which was surprisingly decent.

The Historic Baron Hotel: While is it no longer considered a ‘luxury’ hotel, the historic Baron Hotel still has its faded charm, if somewhat neglected. In its heydays, the Baron Hotel hosted many notable figures including Lawrence of Arabia, King Faisal, Agatha Christie who wrote part of her book Murder on the Orient Express, former Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, among others. We dropped in on our way to Al-Jdeideh for a beer at the lobby bar and thought about our friends who were tracing the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence down south in Wadi Rum.

After Christmas Eve dinner, it was back on the road. This time an overnight train back to Damascus, followed by an onward trip by car to Amman. This was by far our longest overland journey and the most tiring…that is, of course until we got to the Israeli border. More on that later, but next up...our Indiana Jones adventures in amazing Petra, but first a post on Baalbek, Lebanon.

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