The Mystery of Aleppo
At the gate of the Souk, a man is trying to sell me some soap. “I already washed” I say. But apparently, this is special soap - good for body and mind. “Look - soap in many shapes, maybe for your wife… ?”. It’s like something out of the “Arabian Nights”. Close your eyes and you expect nothing less. When I open them again and look around, a butcher is hacking a carcass in two. The soap-man offers tea in his shop. It seems like a good time to escape the pushing and shoving.
In 1909 T.E Lawrence reached Aleppo with some relief: it was “European, with a decent hotel: much washing, for I hadn’t had a bath for ten days”. Aleppo has much of that oasis quality about it still and one has the sense that everything is possible and everything may have a price.
Aleppo is Syria’s second largest city after Damascus, and has been a bustling caravan centre for the past 5,000 years.
Aleppo (Haleb in Arabic) is first mentioned in texts at the end of the 3rd millennium BC. In the 18th century BC Halab was the capital of the Amorite kingdom of Yamkhad, and it subsequently came under Hittite, Egyptian and Mitannian, Assyrian and Roman rule. Its golden age was under the Ottoman Turks under whom it underwent a remarkable commercial revival, becoming the principal market in the Levant.
Its Souk is a window on a world that has disappeared from most other places. There is a constant hum of activity. Along its confusing labyrinthine passages, donkeys, carts and hawkers, laden with great sacks, push past you like rush hour commuters.
Shadows disappear into tiny doors, women’s eyes flicker from under chadoor. You wonder where they are all going, so many lives, so much movement.
In the Souk there are around seven kilometres of merchant’s shops and old Caravanserai, all arranged in their own bewildering order - there are the butchers, cloth merchants, dried fruit sellers, gold merchants. All sorts of smells assault you - spices, fresh bread and sweat; all familiar yet exotic. The traveller could be stranded here, lost forever, as the offers of tea and conversation are constant. The Souk is Aleppo. As they say, “Aleppo works while Damascus plays”. It does indeed have a robust, busy edge though friendly and earthy.
As shafts of sunlight break through the lattice covered roof, you are constantly dazzled as you try to keep your feet on the cobbles, working your way through the jostling crowd.
The old section of Aleppo is built around a 12th-century AD citadel that rests on a partly man-made mound dominating the city. Aleppo became a centre of Muslim resistance to the Crusaders, who besieged it unsuccessfully in 1124-25. At one end of the great Souk one staggers into the daylight to be faced by the enormous walls of that giant structure. To enter, you cross the moat by a stepped bridge through several huge steel plated doors, past the restored and elaborate throne room and finally onto the battlements. They are ruins now, but here, where battles were once fought, schoolgirls in hajib sip coca-cola and giggle over the best views of the city.
The West “discovered” Aleppo with the coming of the railway line from Stamboul to Baghdad which, as part of the Orient Express route, stopped here twice a week. Most, like Lawrence, headed for the Baron Hotel. Most, unlike Lawrence, paid their bills.
In the 1930s, the Baron Hotel was situated on the outskirts of town, overlooking marshland. The area was known for its excellent duck shooting. Today, the Baron is marooned amid heavy, angry traffic, but for all that it has an air of, admittedly decayed, colonial grandeur. Agatha Christie, one of its most famous and frequent guests, would recognise it today. A European-style building with a tiled patio it has the inscription “Mazloumian et Frères” over the door. The bar is heavy with tobacco stains and whisky bottles, the beds creak and the curtains are sun bleached and worn. As you study the original bakelite telephones or peer through the lobby at the ’Thirties posters, it is everything that one expects it to be. It is purely romantic.
The hotel is still run by a portly, pipe smoking descendant of the original Armenian brothers. From the cheerful chaos of his office, he recounts stories of his childhood; travelling on horseback with explorer Freya Stark to the Dead Cities and of the old king, Faisel, taking the salute from the balcony in Room 215.
The clientele is no longer the European royalty and empire eccentrics that gave Agatha Christie such rich material for her novels. Yet, as a young waiter, learning his craft, in starched but stained whites, sashays across the lobby, the Baron and Aleppo’s exotic past endures, mysterious still.
© Stuart Freedman