Friday, December 29, 2006 Syria Syria

Walking tour of Haleb

Aleppo [Enlarge]

After the finest shower ever, a fresh set of clothes, and a little rest we felt ready for a new day and a new city. We went upstairs to the roof terrace and found our guide for the week, Ali. Over our first glass of Syrian tea, which to our taste was exactly the same as Turkish tea (strong, without milk, and bitter unless you add lots of sugar) he told us a little about himself. He is a student at the university, and has a wife and three young children. He supplements his income by running private tours of Haleb (Aleppo) and Syria. He told us briefly what we would be seeing and doing for the next week, and then our tour began with a walk around the old town of Haleb. The old city, within a still largely intact wall, is a huge, seemingly random pile of buildings: each period (pre-Roman, Roman, Ottoman, Medieval and French) squeezed alongside and on top of the previous ones. Of course the city has now spread far outside the walls and about four million people call Haleb home.

Syria is a country with a long and varied history. A series of invading armies have come, established their rule, bashed the place about a bit and left again. The most recent foreign take over was in 1920 when the French added their name to those of the Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Ottomans. The French Mandate came to an end in 1946 and Syria has been independent ever since. Haleb has been changed architecturally, as well as culturally, as each civilisation has left its mark. And the changes are still going on. In front of the city wall, a row of old shops was demolished last year to reveal the original Roman stonework behind them, and around town new hotels, mosques and apartment blocks are being constructed. A new Sheraton Hotel fills an entire block and dominates the whole area it has been built in. It is due to open any day (as we were there the hotel was running in simulation mode and the staff were being trained).

Ali led us through Bab Antakya, one of five gates into the old city, and the one through which the Ottoman army entered when they took Haleb in 1517, led by the curiously-named Selim the Grim. Bab Antakya leads almost directly into the souk, Haleb's amazing covered market. The souk has been in continuous use as a shopping area since before the Roman times, though the current vaulted stone ceilings are only 700 years old! We got to see the souk at its most authentic as it was thronging with people doing their last minute shopping before the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha.

We did our best to keep up with Ali as he slipped expertly through the crowds of the souk. He stopped from time to time to point something out. One feature he showed us was that the vaulted ceiling occasionally opened into an Ottoman dome. The presence of a dome indicates an important place in the souk, usually a caravanserai (also known as a khan). These are open courtyards with a huge wooden door, large enough for a fully-loaded camel to enter, and strong enough to protect the richest load of silks or spices from night-time thieves. The ground floor of the khan had stabling for the animals, storage for the wares, and a place for the shopkeepers to come and buy wholesale. The balcony above was accommodation for the merchants who had travelled with the caravan along the silk routes that pass through Haleb.

For us the khans were a tranquil haven compared with the bustle of the souk, and we could imagine just how welcome they would have been to the merchants after weeks of trekking across the desert from China or India with their ornate central fountains and beautiful decorations. Many are still in use today by the souk traders. Some have even been used for storing exactly the same wares since they were built, although the old tobacco khan we visited now specialises in cheap shoes.

Outside of the souk Ali showed us some of the other notable buildings in the Old Town and explained the interesting stories behind them. One that demonstrates the Syrian acceptance of different religions concerns the Islamic School, housed in a building which used to be a Christian church. In 1097, Antioch (now Hatay/Antakya, just across the modern Turkish border from Haleb, where we spent the night in a cold, near-deserted bus station) was besieged by Crusaders. A conflict was coming which would engulf Haleb, and the Muslim leaders of Haleb asked the city's Christian population which side they intended to support: Aleppan or Christian. The Christians felt that they were Aleppan first and foremost, and their leaders pledged their full support to their Aleppan brothers; but when the Crusaders reached the city they changed their minds. Eventually the Muslim army triumphed, beating both the Western Christians outside the city and the Syrian Christians inside, and the Christian leaders were called to account for their treachery. The Muslim chief realised he had a dilemma. If he punished the Christian leaders with death, he risked civil war in Haleb, but if he let them go unpunished his authority would be weakened. In the end he devised a punishment that avoided civil unrest, but did not damage his control over the city: he ordered that four Christian churches be surrendered to him, to be converted into three mosques and an Islamic school.

By now it was getting dark so Ali suggested that he take us back to our hostel and we resume the tour the next day. We arranged to meet at 09:30 to give us a chance to catch up on some of our missed sleep from the night before. We hadn't eaten a proper meal since breakfast the previous day, so before we could sleep we needed to find a restaurant of some kind: preferably something easy, both culinarily and culturally. We managed to find a nice safe western-style hotel which did an almost recognisable toasted cheese sandwich and freshly squeezed orange juice—and better still they didn't care that we wanted to eat at an embarrassingly early time of night. By 20:00 we were in bed and asleep.

The alarm on the mobile phone woke us at 07:45 and after another fantastic shower (the shower was the best bit about the Spring Flower Hostel) and a traditional Syrian breakfast of cheese, boiled egg, olives, flatbread and jam prepared in a very dirty kitchen area (the hygiene was the worst bit about the Spring Flower Hostel), we just had time to do the laundry before meeting Ali. The first place he took us to was yet-to-be-opened museum in a former mental hospital. He has lots of contacts in the city and we were privileged to get inside before it actually opens. There is a definite feeling that Syria is really gearing up for tourism now. We truly hope that it will manage to accommodate an influx of tourists without sacrificing its cultural identity and ending up like much of Turkey, with people outside every shop telling you that you are their best friend and trying to sell you the same mass produced rubbish over and over again.

Ali had been telling us about the houses and streets in the old town. Each street is named after the family that lives in it. One extended family shares all the houses in the street, and often they even have a small private mosque too. When sons get married their wives come to live in the family street. When daughters marry they go to live with their husbands' families. Ali's family have their own street in the old town, and our next stop, not on any tourist map, was a definite highlight of our week in Syria: having tea with his family. He took us to meet his mother, wife and children and to have some amazing tea with cinnamon (would never have thought of that).

Ali was 17 and his wife was 15 when they married nine years ago. They now have three children, two boys and a baby girl. When he rang the doorbell, we were surprised that he didn't have a key to his own house. The eldest son, aged 8, answered the door and we realised that he was giving the womenfolk time to go and get veiled up. During tea, Ali's son showed off his English to us, asking us our names and how we were, and reciting the English alphabet. His dad realises how important it will be for him to be able to speak English in the 21st Century, and he has been teaching him well. By contrast, we later discovered that Ali's wife cannot read or write at all—neither English nor her native Arabic—and he is quite OK about this. We wondered whether he will teach his baby daughter English as well as his sons.

After more tea we walked into the Christian Quarter, where we paid a quick visit to the 'Greek Catholic' and 'Greek Orthodox' churches. Not being totally clued up on all the different versions of Christianity practised around the world, we didn't know the difference between Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox, and to our relief Ali didn't know the difference either. Things were further confused when he told us that the Arabic signs on the churches translated as 'Roman Catholic' and 'Roman Orthodox'.

In what would become a major theme for the week, Ali kept repeating how tolerant Muslim society is of the other religions. Well, at least the other Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Judaism). He has no time at all for what he called the “tree worshippers”, by which he presumably meant Hinduism and the other Asian religions. He went to great pain to point out that yes, Muslims really do respect Jews: their problem is with the state of Israel and its policies, not Judaism. Sure enough, we discovered that the mosques in Haleb have Star of David symbols on the minarets and above the doors.

Incidentally, before we entered Syria, we realised that we would have a far easier time to call ourselves Christians rather than admit that, while we respect the beliefs of everyone, we personally think that all organised religion is claptrap. Of course Ali quickly saw through us. But so intertwined is he with his faith that he didn't seem able to grasp the concept of non-belief, so he labelled us 'nonpractising Christians'.

The highlight of the Christian Quarter was two 18th century houses, once private residences but now restored and converted into hotels and restaurants. Like the khans they had a central courtyard with a fountain and elaborately painted walls. Obviously they had been home to some very wealthy families.

We had hoped that the weather would be warm by the time we got this far south, but we have found that winters in the region can be vicious. Glenn's thin fleece wasn't warm enough and as he'd seen plenty of lovely thick jumpers in the souk, we asked Ali if we could stop and buy one. Ali found us a stall and Glenn tried on a couple and settled on a style he liked. The Jumper was available in two different colour options and when Glenn asked Isla's advice on which one he should buy, Ali remarked “Who says European women are repressed?!" (This is very interesting, because the West thinks that Muslim women are repressed, but Muslims think exactly the same of western women, who they see as being 'forced' by society to go out unveiled and wearing make-up, for men to ogle over. Remembering the state of our home town in England on a Friday night, we thought that just maybe Islam has a point).

It was 15:00 and we were all hungry. We stopped at a food stall in the Christian market and Ali wanted us to try a cooked wheat patty served in a wrap, but when he ordered one of these for each of us the stall holder protested that it would be too heavy for our delicate western stomachs and refused to serve it to us. We had a lamb shawerma instead, and it was very tasty. Our fragile digestions coped with it admirably.

By this time we had managed to wear Ali out with all the walking around so he asked us if we would mind calling it a day and he dropped us back at our hostel. We sent a quick email to let Glenn's mum know that we were safely in Haleb, knowing that she would pass the news on to the rest of our families. Then, after a little rest we went to find somewhere to have dinner. Tourath House, one of the lovely converted Ottoman houses we had seen earlier, had given us their card and leaflet which advertised them as a 'Hotel and Restaurant' so we decided to go there. Unfortunately the advertised 'Restaurant' wasn't quite open yet. So we went two doors down to the similar Sisi House. It was a lovely setting and the local cuisine was excellent and very cheap.

It was quite late by the time we headed back to the hostel, but we weren't the last to bed. The staff seemed to be having some kind of party, which went on into the night, long after we'd plugged our ears and dozed off.