I spent the better part of a week in Aleppo in the year that the 20th century became the 21st century. We stood on the promontory that cradles the castle-like Citadel, while far below spread the white expanse of Syria’s second city, one of those cloak-and-dagger shadow names of the early and mid-20th century that sits on the mind like Lisbon, Macao, Dakar and Danzig. My eyes took in a bustling business center, traffic patterns, the Great Mosque, multiple bazaars and caravanserais.
At the beginning of Ramadan in 2012, war came to Aleppo. Now the residents that haven’t fled warm themselves beside barrel stoves and seek refuge in the ruins. Ash and layers of dust cover everything. The 11th century minaret of the Umayyad mosque has been toppled by artillery and bombing.
In those bygone days of our visit, without our amiable guide, Ahmad, we never would have found the semi-secret passages where the rope-maker, tent-outfitter and sweetmeat seller plied their trades. He took us through the maze leading to the four suqs of gold, where the unique Aleppine chain jewelry is fashioned. He introduced us to Aleppo spice, a combination of black pepper, sweet pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and cardamom. He showed us the display of T.E. Lawrence’s unpaid bill at the Baron Hotel’s bar. He introduced us to a special okra dish unique to Aleppo and urged us to fill our stomachs with eggplant cooked in pomegranate syrup.
Enclosed in the colorful Aleppo bazaar was a public latrine dating from the 12th century, but its survival any further into the 21st century is highly doubtful. Ahmad’s valuable advice included, “Don’t use minarets as landmarks. They’re everywhere, and they all look the same.” I’m sure these landmarks are far fewer today.
We stayed at the Beit Wakil guest house, a true example of a 16th century home hidden in the maze of narrow alleyways that make up the Armenian quarter. Its rooms, some with sunken baths, surrounded a quiet courtyard. A series of escape tunnels running from the Beit Wakil to other Armenian residences nearby testified to prior upheavals. After all, Aleppo has at various times been controlled by Hittites, Assyrians, Mongols, Mamaluks and Ottomans. It bears the marks of many conquerors.
Fortunately, some of the priceless furnishings of the Beit Wakil as well as the magnificent inlaid paneling were moved many years ago to the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. For myself, I am reminded of Aleppo every time my family gathers around our dining room table covered with a colorful brocade tablecloth from a suq that is no more.