Written by William Dobson
Perhaps underwhelmed is the wrong word to describe my feelings on first arriving in Damascus five years ago. But it certainly wasn’t love at first sight. Stepping out of the airport and making my way to a nondescript hotel in centre of the new city, constant traffic gave me ample opportunity to take in the dreary Communist style apartment blocks. This was meant to be the fabled city which the Prophet Mohammed had viewed as too beautiful to enter. Yet, it took time to discover the vibrant, buzzing Old City, the charms of impossibly narrow streets and tiny restaurants and bars, of ornamentally decorated courtyard houses, with bubbling fountains and orange trees, hidden behind their drab exterior. When I did, I fell head over heels, but patience was required.
With Aleppo, however, the opposite was true. I had gone to Syria in search of somewhere that I thought probably didn’t actually exist except in my mind’s eye; a vision created by books, films and cartoons of some exotic Arabian nirvana with cavernous souks redolent of spices and history. And then I found it, in a place of which I had heard little until I entered its city walls, towered by the magnificent citadel, perhaps the largest castle in the world. While Damascus showed her charm only to those prepared to look, Aleppo offered it up on a silver plate, atop with steaming kebabs and kofteh and, of course, the sour sweet St. Lucie cherries.
Stepping off the bus into Aleppo, we were greeted by piercing blue skies, belying the freezing cold temperatures of the desert winter. Instantly, the scent of chargrilled meat, fresh Turkish coffee and flavoured tobacco filled the nostils. Like nowhere I’d ever been before, here was a place which really brought the Arabian Nights to life. Donkey-led carts passed in front of us, harking back to an age, long gone. The famous Hotel Baron, once the pearl of the region – a luxurious stop off for those travelling on the Orient Express – seemed not to have changed since TE Lawrence’s unpaid bar tab (pictured below) was nailed to the wall; a relic of its former glory. In the souks, a veritable labyrinth – the darkness lit by gleaming jewels and multicoloured scarves – we were met by those selling perfumed soaps, made from bay and olive oil, intricately adorned handicrafts and, of course, the most exquisite of carpets. Elsewhere, spices and incense wafted through the passageways, bringing this ‘museum’ to life.
Yet, in a town where foreign visitors were still a rarity, this hustling market place was not geared towards the tourist dollar but, rather, to the local residents as it had always been. Unlike cities such as Marrakech, with their proximity to Europe and budget flights bringing in a swathe of ‘intrepid’ explorers, nothing here seemed like a pretence. Rather, it seemed to be merely the continuation of a practice which had been going on for centuries. Meanwhile, in the open air, squares – akin to Italian piazzas – danced to the throng of chattering individuals, relaxing over a shisha pipe and a game of backgammon. Here life was slow, relaxed and it seemed, almost, as if time stood still. And then there was the food; the city viewed unanimously as the epicurean centre of the region, with kebab bil karaz its crowning glory.
Of course, this view of Aleppo has been lost amidst the reports of bombing, death and destruction and, to an extent, rightly so. But for those lucky enough to have visited, let’s remember her for what she once was – the most ‘authentic’ city in the region. And for those who haven’t yet had the chance, pray for a resolution to the conflict; firstly, to end this brutally unnecessary killing of innocent humans. But, also, so you too can one day, perhaps, experience this once great city.