Note: I wrote this article in 2005 after yet another visit to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. I tried unsuccessfully at first to place it with an US publication. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, US media outlets seemed very reluctant to publish anything about such a “suspect” country as Syria. Later, a well-known newspaper promised to buy it but in the interim the newspaper was downsized and the travel section reduced its content drastically and turned its focus to local and national cites of interest.
Recently, a number of friends have visited Aleppo and returned with words of praise bordering on a love affair with this most enchanting of Middle Eastern cities. Needless to say, I feel vindicated–and happy to share some of the material I have on Aleppo. I have made minor revisions which by no means are meant to be full updates. More to come. TV
Halfway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River, Syria’s second city, which the locals call Halab, is home to some 5 million inhabitants, 15,000 taxis, and a 5000-year history of military invasions and mercantile traffic.
In the last few decades, Aleppo has also become the destination of choice for many European tourists who are lured by its architectural splendors, exceptional cuisine, and atmosphere of urbane sophistication and traditional hospitality. “Aleppo is the next big thing,” says a Aleppine hotel-owner. “Barcelona, then Marseilles. Now it’s Halab!”
The 1.5 -sq. mile Old Aleppo is the city’s historic core and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Old Aleppo has been undergoing a multi-phased, innovative urban rehabilitation, which has brought it western technical support and recognition. Meanwhile, modern Aleppo has continued expanding into newer, primarily residential neighborhoods of honey-colored limestone buildings with intricately carved facades.
In the midst of their city’s current visibility, bustle, and expansion, Aleppines are taking things in with a mixture of hyper pride and urbane nonchalance.
“Aleppo has always been different, “ says a municipal employee of the Department of the Old City. “People go down to Damascus, but they miss Aleppo so much that they come back at the end of the day.” The comparison with the Syrian capital is a key ingredient of Aleppine identity: Damascenes are sissies, their meat is tough, their air is humid, their dialect is soft. “The stone of Damascus buildings is nothing compared to the beauty of ours, “ says an architecture student on the bus we are riding together from Damascus to Aleppo.
Aleppine pride is also intertwined with the city’s past glory and its geographic location. In the seventh century, Aleppo was the home of Islam’s great writers and philosophers; in the eleventh and twelfth centuries some of the bloodiest battles between the invading Christian armies of the Crusaders and the Muslims took place in Aleppo. Once an important stop on the Silk Road, Aleppo’s present position as the commercial center of northern Syria dates back to Ottoman times.
Between 1919-1946, Aleppo was under French mandate which gave it a European architectural aesthetic and modernist city planning schemes that gradually destroyed the Old City. The process was halted in 1986 when UNESCO designated the Old City a World Heritage Site. The rehabilitation began four years later.
The French mandate also reinforced the historic Christian presence in a city that had been part of the Arab Islamic world for many centuries. Recent political upheavals in the Middle East have resulted in the depletion of the urban Christian populations throughout the region. Still, Christians continue to play an important role in today’s Aleppo although the city’s religious and ethnic make-up has changed significantly. What has persisted, though, is the Aleppines’ characteristic industriousness and joie de vivre.
The image of Aleppo as a historically multi-ethnic, open city is the one that the current regime of Bashar al-Asad wants to project. The new policy is in sharp contrast to that of Hafez al-Asad’ s 30-year reign, during whose administration Aleppo witnessed Islamist riots and clashes in the early 1980s. The response from the center was often harsh and quick. For two decades Aleppo lay low under a policy of benign neglect, but the city continued to attract those who knew about its affordable and distinctive pleasures.
“ In Aleppo,” says an engineer in his mid-50s, “nobody bothers anybody else. “We are not like the Taliban who destroyed the statue of Buddha. Our minds are flexible,” he adds, “and we love life.”
Older Aleppines—many of them Christian Armenians– often talk wistfully about the days when things were really good. On Sundays, they would don their best clothes, attend church, and then stroll down the streets of the Azizieh neighborhood for a relaxed lunch or a leisurely walk in one of Aleppo’s beautiful public gardens. In fact, for many Armenians, Aleppo holds a special place in the collective memory—the refuge from the genocidal atrocities for those who were spared death and the marches through the Der Zor desert. And while Lebanese Armenians may claim Beirut as the pre-eminent city of the post-genocide Armenian diaspora, it is Aleppo which was the first station of displacement and new beginnings in educational institutions, churches and businesses.
For the skeptic, the Aleppine self-definition may seem like the reaction of people on the defensive, but Aleppines have a lot to boast about. Old Aleppo is a daunting honeycomb of souks (closed markets), khans (caravan rest houses), traditional homes with a hawsh (courtyard), mosques and churches and their adjoining madrasas (schools), squares, cemeteries and shrines, hammams (Arabic baths), and bimaristans (places of healing and reflection).
This historic core coexists with Aleppo’s more modern sections. The two main public gardens, the government buildings, the homes of the colonial elite and the middle class, the Baghdad Railway Train Station, as well as the neighborhoods to the north and west of the city wall all bear the mark of French architecture.
“We don’t have fancy amusement parks, as you have in America,” says a long-time tourist guide. “We go to our city’s historic places to pass the time. “
The Yalbougha al-Naseri bath, opposite the main entrance of the Citadel, is one such place. The Citadel itself is Aleppo’s most spectacular site. A majestic structure around which the city wraps itself, the Citadel’s origins are pre-Christian. The existing fortress was reconstructed in the eleventh century.
Of the 50 functioning baths in the city, the Yalbougha is the most beautiful. Until the beginning of the twentieth century it too lay in ruins, a casualty of the Mongol invasions , which destroyed much of the city walls and gates. Its 25-year restoration was completed in 1985.
For Aleppines and foreign visitors, going to the hammam can be an all-day affair, its pleasures heightened by the local ghar (laurel) soap, the loufa and kesseh.( coarse, scrubbing cloths), fruit and juices, even music and dance. “Sometimes we have birthday parties here, “says the receptionist. “The cake is delivered to the desk.”
The bath ceremony is a three-phased passage, each with its own area in the Yalbougha: the preparatory front, the middle section with its private cabins where a visitor can also have a good massage and a thorough scrubbing; and the interior which is a large steam room with an octagonal ceiling edged by geometric motifs.
A downhill walk from the Yalbougha, the closed souks have few rivals in the entire region. Here, the Aleppine artisan and mercantile talents converge in a whirlwind of shops and specialized sections for local jewelry, textiles, meat, nuts, soaps, spices, juices, dried fruit and much, much more. Here also the legendary Aleppo pistachio nuts, red pepper, pomegranate paste and grains are in abundance.
The cobblestone alleys are narrow and noisy; sometimes donkeys with huge watermelons on their backs share the pathways with tourists, professionals with gelled hair, and village folk selling chickens in a portable coop or bags of cotton. But in the end what makes the Aleppo souks such an extraordinary place is the commercial energy—everything from the display to the haggling and the agreement on a final price. An Aleppine can sell you a dead horse, goes the saying, and sometimes it is easy to fall for the charm as well as insistence of Aleppo’s sellers.
The longest and oldest of the middle eastern closed markets, the Aleppo souks were originally constructed during the Hellenist period along a straight axis from the Antakia Gate of the city walls toward the Citadel. With each conquest, newer structures went up. The process peaked during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, with the addition of mosques, caravansaries, infirmaries, public baths, and khans for the traveling merchants.
Aleppo’s past and geography have also shaped its remarkable cuisine. In fact, Aleppo cuisine is one of the gourmet world’s longest and best-kept secrets. Aleppines insist that no other place in the region—neither Beirut nor Istanbul— can compare with the food of Aleppo. They are right.
Aleppines attribute the distinctive taste of their cuisine to the ingredients. The city is still fed by small farms which grow seasonal produce and raise animals, particularly mutton, the old-fashioned way. “Our food tastes so good, “says a university professor who is also an excellent cook, “because the ingredients are free of hormonat! “ Hormonat, a borrowing from English, is an all-purpose term for all the evils of commercial farming.
The centerpiece of an Aleppo lunch or dinner is the various kinds of mashawi, which literally means roasted on charcoal. It is invariably preceded by the mezzeh (appetizers) and concludes with a dizzying display of fruits, pastry and ice cream.
Aleppo boasts a mashawi which carries its name—Aleppo kebab, made with ground meat and a thick tomato sauce. This dish notwithstanding, one of the most delectable mashawis is the kabab karaz, which makes a brief yearly appearance. It is made with a sauce of Aleppo karaz (sour cherries) that are available only in June.
Although the pollution wreaks havoc on the skin and the lungs, Aleppo is a splendid, daunting place of cultural density and vernacular beauty. The city has emerged out of the shadows, at least for seasoned travelers. Its return to the world is not without risks — gentrification, exacerbation of class tensions, weakening of the urban integrity and continuity, and ascendancy of tourism. All these factors may end up testing once again the Aleppines’ loyalty to their city as well as their flexibility in the face of changing circumstances. If the past is any indication, the Alleppines will navigate these waters with resourcefulness, skill and studied nonchalance.