SYRIA - ALEPPO
Aleppo is one of the Great Middle Eastern cities, a city where one can still find
the grandeur of Arabic life of a bygone era. Once the major commercial center
of the Orient, it is still vibrant with traders coming from all over the world
to buy, sell, barter and haggle in its traditional covered Souks, the newer shopping
districts and center-city offices.
Settlement in the Aleppo area goes back to the 8th millennium BC. The city's name
Halab (an Aramaic word for milk) comes from the fable that Abraham is supposed
to have milked his flocks on this site. Halab, was the name of the city when it
became the capital of the Amorite Kingdom of Yamhad. This city/state was strong
enough to control trade between the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.
Hittites, Assyrians, Persians and Greeks dominated the city and, after the death
of Alexander the Great, Aleppo -- renamed Beroia -- became an affluent center
in the classic Greek style. It almost reached the prominence of Antioch under
the Romans and retained its importance with but a few interruptions, until almost
the end of the Ottoman Empire. It was considered the third most important city
of the Empire, after Constantinople and Cairo, and was the seat of the Governor.
Liberated from Turkish rule in 1918, Aleppo lost its international commercial
pre-eminence in 1939 when the French ceded Alexandretta -- Aleppo's historic seaport
-- to the Turkish Republic.
Allow at least two full days to visit Aleppo. There is a plethora of historical
buildings and monuments in this city, so take the time to explore.
Bab Antakya, the Antioch gate, is the starting point and the Mosque of al-Tuteh,
Madrasa Mohamadiye -- the oldest Muslim theological school in Aleppo -- and the
Souk al-Atarin are just ahead. Further down the street the great Customs Khan,
Khan al-Gumruk, with its beautifully decorated portal, was the center for foreign
trading and diplomacy in the city. It still is a hub of commerce, with most of
the trade being in textiles. Nearby, is the Khan al-Nahasin -- formerly the Venetian
Consulate and perhaps the first established Consulate building in the world. Adolph
Poche, one of Aleppo's most interesting characters, presided until his death a
number of years ago first as Consul for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Austria,
Holland and finally Belgium.
If you turn North, the Great Mosque is right in front of you. Called the Omayyad
Mosque, it never attained the grandeur of it's Damascus namesake. 100 meters to
the east, at the eastern end of a small square is Khan al-Wazir, a 17th century
Khan and very beautiful example of Ottoman architecture with it's exceptional
black and white stone portal and the ornamental windows above it.
Ahead is the Aleppo Citadel, an immense fortification in the very center of the
Old City. A fortified site as far back as the first millennium BC, it became the
palace of the Hamdanid and Ayyubid rulers. Rebuilt by the Mamelukes after it's
destruction by the first Mongol invasion, it was again devastated by Tamerlane's
hordes. It's imposing entrance was rebuilt in the 13th century after the first
Mongol destruction and reinforced in the 16th century.
Another structure well worth a visit is the elegant Madrasa al-Firdoos (School
of Paradise), built in 1235 by Daifeh Khatun, Saladin's daughter-in-law. If locked,
you can easily arrange to have it opened as the interior of the structure is a
must see. The custodian lives near by and, though his English is very limited,
if you say miftah jahmi (key to mosque) he will be happy to open and show you
around. Another interesting site is the Hammam al-Nasri. It is the most splendid
bath in the whole country. After the recent reconstruction and modernization,
the proprietor will be happy to show you around.
There are many other historical and architecturally interesting buildings, but
your stay would not be complete without visiting the labyrinthine Souks of Aleppo.
There are no "tourist" shops here; these are still the center of everyday
shopping for Aleppo and it's environs where everything, from djalabiyas to gold,
can be had for a price. Lofty vaulted roofs keep the souk cool in the summer heat,
while the age-old ritual of Middle Eastern commerce takes place. Near the Khan
al-Sabon is the gold souk, a place of tiny shops, brightly lit and asparkle with
golden bangles, necklaces and earrings. Also nearby is the carpet and rug souk.
Every Arab home, whether a palace or tent is covered with carpets and/or kilims.
So, of course, are the mosques. Shoes are always removed before treading on them
and the shopkeepers have endless patience as they unroll carpet after carpet for
a customer's inspection. If a merchant offers you a cup of tea, you can accept
without any obligation to purchase. If you like the fragrance of freshly roasted
coffee, cinnamon, cumin, oregano and other spices, the spice and nut souq is where
you should visit. Halab fistook, the world renowned Aleppo pistachios can be purchased
here as well as a vast array of pinolias, almonds, walnuts, chestnuts, filberts
(foondook), pumpkin and sunflower seeds.