Friday, 17 April 2009

Aleppo: Antiquity and the Pistachio

In 1994 we were teaching English in Egypt, and spent our annual holiday travelling overland through Syria and Jordan. Here’s a slice of our experiences in Aleppo...

“Mohamed Ahmed! Mohamed Ahmed!” The passengers in the shed-like arrival area of Aleppo International Airport mill about in robes, jeans and dresses. They take up the cry as a man pushes through the crowd.

A uniformed guard pushes his passport through a glass partition, and it passes from hand to hand until it's finally secured. He sighs with relief and drags his bag through to the outside world.

Everyone else settles back to wait, including Narrelle and myself, the lone Western travellers who’ve just arrived on an EgyptAir flight from Cairo.

Aleppo (Halab to the locals) is claimed to be the oldest settlement in the world, and has been part of every empire in the Middle East. Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and French have all ruled here at one time or other, adding their own layers to its history.

Syria's Cold War friendship with the Soviet Union has also left its mark and added to the city’s mystique. Traders from the former Soviet Union pack out Aleppo's seedier hotels, hoping to barter goods to take back to Baku, Erevan, Tbilisi or farther afield. Some shop signs are in Russian, contrasting exotically with the vendors selling French pastries early in the morning to the smell of Turkish coffee.

European architecture nestles beside classic Arabian styles and discordant Soviet-style concrete structures. Devout Muslim women here wear not the headscarf, but a thin black cloth which encompasses the head and looks eerily like a bag. Add all this to the regular bustle of an Arab city and you have a place with an intriguing atmosphere.

One of Aleppo's gems is the Baron Hotel. It once hosted Agatha Christie, as all grand hotels in the Middle East seem to have done. The front bar still has all the old fittings, and in the lounge is a framed copy of TE Lawrence's bill.

On the more traditional side of town is a magnificent covered souq (market) leading upwards to the Citadel. Cloth is Aleppo's specialty, but a stroll through the meat section reveals more uses for animal parts than we had ever thought possible.

There are also pistachios, fustuq in Arabic. Aleppo is famous for them, and almost every pastry we try includes the green nuts as a vital element among the honey, nuts and wheat.

Aleppo's other attraction is its closeness to a number of ancient ruins in the beautiful countryside near the Turkish border. One of the most impressive is the former Basilica of St Simeon, now known as Qala'at Samaan. We get there by paying a bonus to the minibus driver whose route ends at a village a few kilometres from the site.

St Simeon was an early Christian monk who decided to renounce the world and live atop a series of lone pillars. His final pillar, where he spent the last decades of his life, became a place of pilgrimage and an enormous, graceful basilica was constructed around it. Today the pillar is just a boulder on a pedestal, but much of the ruined basilica's walls remain, along with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Then we realise we haven’t planned how to return to Aleppo. While we’re pondering by the basilica’s gate, a truck full of Syrian army engineers pulls up and offers us a lift. We’re dropped off at the village, just in time to catch the minibus. Sweet as a fustuq.

Further south from Aleppo, a minibus ride from the city of Homs, lies the Crac des Chevaliers. This magnificent Crusader Castle would be a renowned tourist drawcard in Western Europe, but like other Syrian tourist sites it’s not overcrowded and costs a pittance to enter. The sprawling structure, 800 years old, is in excellent condition and sits atop a hill with an impressive view of Lebanon's distant mountains.

The castle has survived earthquakes and invasions over the centuries, so what we see is close to how it must have looked in its heyday. Clambering up to the ramparts, unfenced and open to all, we feel how much more immediate tourism is in this part of the world; it's often possible to get right up close to the things you've come to see. If somewhat precarious.

Back in Aleppo later in the day, after more fustuq-laden pastries, I’m sucking on an apple-flavoured nargile near the souq. The only occasions I’ve ever smoked have involved these water pipes in the Middle East, and entirely for their visual effect. My head spins, I nod to my fellow patrons, and feel myself sinking slowly into the rhythms of this very old place.

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current security situation before travelling to Syria.