Aleppo

Syria's second largest city, Aleppo is also one of the world's oldest, telling stories of other ages.

I keep my eyes fixed on the landscape flowing by outside the bus window. A person expects everything to change suddenly as he approaches another country, and I don't want to miss a single detail. As we get farther away from the city center, houses surrounded by vineyards replace the old Antep houses. A refuge for Gaziantep residents from the scorching heat, these houses are surrounded by thick vegetation and obviously  refreshingly cool.

We head for Kilis and are at the Syrian border in about forty-five minutes. A conversation springs up among the passengers as the visas are being checked. “We have daughters getting married,” says one, “and we're off to buy their trousseaux.” Silks, gaily colored textiles, the Silk Road, and commercial caravans being synonymous with the name Aleppo, I am able to conceal my initial surprise. But traveling to a foreign country to buy a bride's trousseau does strike one as something from another age, especially these days when traditions are dying out all over the place. As the conversation continues, I learn that there is also no small number of people who travel in the other direction from Syria to Kilis, Antep and Mersin to shop and pick up trousseau items. And the many buses that pass ours are further proof. Syrian girls come to purchase wedding dresses; other people to buy electronic gadgets. And because Aleppo is just across the border, it's like a neighbor whose doorbell you can ring any time.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
We reach Aleppo towards midnight. Taxis with red and green lights on top whizz by. There are modern apartment buildings, bell towers, tall minarets - all built of the same color stone; itinerant vendors, people milling about, bicyclists. A vital and busy city engraves itself in my memory as a first impression. What I had pictured however was a stop on the Silk Road. A city where weary caravans from eastern Asia finally reach the Mediterranean and take a rest. One of the world's oldest cities, with capacious old khans, congested markets, historic buildings, lingering traces of ancient empires...

The square in front of the castle is our starting point for exploring Aleppo on foot the next day. We are at the oldest spot in the city, which takes its name from the Arabic 'Halab al Shahba', meaning 'to milk an animal' since the Prophet Abraham milked cows and distributed the milk to the needy on the hill where this fortress stands today.

A LABYRINTHINE CITY
Strolling under the cantilevered balconies in the streets just below the citadel, we proceed to the inner city. Narrow arched passageways to other streets invite us to lose ourselves. If one of them said, “We're still in Gaziantep, we haven't got to Aleppo yet”, I'd believe it. Everywhere I look seems familiar. And this feeling only gets stronger with time.

I sit down for a while and watch the people passing by. Everybody seems to have come from another country to meet in Aleppo. We continue walking towards the inner city and arrive at our first stop: Kerimiye Mosque, a place of special interest to Muslim visitors since the Prophet Muhammed's footprint is preserved here. After paying a visit to the mosque we turn back to the market area and stop at the Bimaristan (Arghun). This building, a counterpart to one at the Beyazıt Complex in Edirne and converted into a museum today, was once a treatment center for mental illness. Music and water were used here therapeutically for centuries and clearly soothed many a troubled soul. Domes with open roofs permit a play of light in the small courtyards. Before entering the famous ‘sug’, Covered Bazaar, you may want to rest here briefly where the burble of the water is the only sound audible. 

A CENTER OF TRADE
Leaving the Bimaristan we plunge into the Covered Bazaar and head for the Zekeriya Mosque. One section of it being a monument of Ottoman architecture, including a Turkish bath and a work built by Mimar Sinan, this bazaar is the Middle East's longest. In it you will find everything you need to buy in Aleppo. Embroidery, bedspreads and tablecloths, thread, shawls, textiles, copper items, gold, clothing, prayer beads, spices - you name it. The crowds and the eye-dazzling wares aside,  you  can hardly avoid a collision with a donkey, a bicycle or a vegetable cart at every turn. And the bargaining, which is done in Arabic, Turkish and French or a mix of all three, is somehow comprehensible to everyone. While Arabs, Armenians and Maronite Christians make up the major part of Aleppo's population, a large number of Turks have also lived here for decades. Having preserved these features since the Middle Ages due to its strategic location on the Silk Road, Aleppo was a popular stopover in those days with both merchants and travelers. Hailing from Venice, France, Holland or England, merchants set up their trading posts here cheek by jowl with the shops of Armenians, Arabs, Kurds and Turks, and a vital commercial life thrived well into the 18th century.  When the trade route changed due to the discovery of new routes, particularly by sea, the stops along Silk Road began to fade in brilliance. But the old atmosphere lives on today, despite the passage of the centuries, in the ancient streets, markets and buildings. Those who wish to shop outside the Covered Bazaar in Aleppo can find other areas to satisfy their desires, one of them being the Aziziye Shopping Mall in the broad avenues of the city's Christian and European section.

BUILDINGS THAT HARBOR THE PAST
Also known as the Umayyad Mosque, the Zekeriya Mosque stands at the intersection of two streets in the market. Its marble courtyard, which bears traces of the Seljuk and Mamluk periods, is thronged with children playing, people sleeping under the eaves, worshipers and those who have just stopped by. In an area that was used as an agora in the Hellenistic period and later as the garden of the
St. Helena Cathedral, the mosque construction was begun by Walid I, the Umayyad caliph who also commissioned the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and completed in 717 in the period of the caliph Suleiman. Restored at several different times over the centuries, its 45-meter-high Seljuk minaret dates to the 11th century.

Leaving the mosque we climb up the citadel which rises on a hill in the city center. Aleppo Citadel seems to conceal within it a city built on top of itself. There are traces left here by all the communities that ever inhabited this city. Byzantine and Mamluk meeting halls, amphitheaters, a couple of mosques, a Hittite temple, a Roman cistern and baths, and an Ayyubid palace - to name just a few. The entire city is visible from atop the defense walls. And all of it,  as required by the municipal government, harmonizes architecturally in buildings constructed of the local Aleppo stone. Many people came here in the 19th century because it was believed to be good for rheumatism and diseases of the eye. Restoration and excavation inside the citadel continue apace. You will need to set aside a minimum of two hours to tour the whole thing and take a break to enjoy the view.

OTHER FLAVORS
Aleppo is a vibrant city with a natural dynamism. While a big old American car from the 1950's may pass you on the one hand laden to overflowing, on the other you may suddenly cross its path by a native sporting a red and white keffiyeh. You may encounter a building from a different state or empire, old Ottoman wooden houses, city walls or verdant green parks at any moment in this city which is dominated by stone. And while the city itself may give you the feeling you're in a museum, the Aleppo Museum directly behind the clock tower built during the reign of Abdulhamid II paints a picture of its diversity over the centuries. In the museum, where a large number of works from the Stone Age right up to modern art are displayed, there is also a collection from Syria's ancient cities as well as artifacts from the Greek, Roman, Arab and Islamic periods from the Euphrates basin and the city of Hama.

Aleppo is famous for its food too. Rich in vegetables, legumes and meat, Syrian cuisine tells the story of the abundance of these lands and of the many peoples who have lived on it. The thin bread known as 'lavash' accompanies all the flavors on the table. And speaking of 'other flavors', here in Aleppo especially, it is impossible to close without mentioning sweets. For Aleppo sweets, made with paper thin filo pastry, plenty of pistachios, and, in contrast with the Turkish variety, not drowning in sugar syrup, are one of the finest traditional presents you can take to your loved ones back home.