OCTOBER 2, 2012 8:36AM

Remembering the great market of Aleppo

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 Souk in Aleppo

In the great souk of Aleppo. Sadly, this was the only photo we took inside the now destroyed market complex.

WHEN FOLLOWING THE NEWS in recent months about the slow agony of the Syrian people as they are being sliced to shawarma between the dual onslaughts of President Bashar Assad’s vicious security forces and the Western- and al-Qaeda-backed so-called Free Syrian Army, my thoughts keep wandering back to my own visit to the country two and a half years ago. Syria had been on my list of places to visit for years, and so when my girlfriend and I managed to set aside two weeks in the spring of 2010, we applied for our visas at Syria’s Berlin embassy and boarded a flight to Damascus.

The ancient city of Damascus, the Roman ruins of Palmyra deep in the desert, the town of Dayr az-Zawr with its striking British suspension bridge over the Euphrates, scenic Tartus with tiny Arwad island in the Mediterranean, and the formidable twelfth century Crusader castle, le Krak des Chevaliers, were the main stations on our backpacking tour by bus, train, and chauffeured car. We made the acquaintance of Sunnis, Shiites, Allawites, Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christians, tattered refugees from Fallujah, and busloads of excited Iranian pilgrims, who nearly crushed us to death at the tomb of John the Baptist in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

 Sheep heads

Lambs' heads, anyone? On sale outside the Aleppo souk.

But Aleppo was certainly the high point. The great Near Eastern metropolis still tingled with the Arabian Nights magic that is the chief appeal of any trip to the region, and no part of it more so than the city’s vast medieval souk or bazaar, which has just been burned to the ground in fighting. With miles of covered streets and hundreds, perhaps thousands of closet-sized shops, the souk offered everything a visitor could imagine. We drank fresh-squeezed orange juice and ate sweet Levantine pastries, but of all the exotic wares the friendly merchants rolled out before us, we merely bought brick upon brick of classic Aleppo soap, both as gifts and for our own use. I’ve still got a cupboard full of the stuff, and think of Aleppo every time I wash my hands.

 Mosque in Aleppo

Courtyard of the Great Mosque in Aleppo. My thoroughly modern girlfriend had to don a head-to-toe hijab to get in.


 Great Mosque in Aleppo

This little Aleppo boy positively insisted that I take his photo. At the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, when a delighted Iranian pilgrim discovered I was American, he insisted that he be allowed to photograph me standing together with his entire clan. "We Iranians and Americans," he told me, "are friends. It is our politicians who are the problem." Amen to that, brother. 

The souk is gone now – burned to ashes and collapsed into rubble. It has been burnt and rebuilt before, but when can it be restored again? Under what sort of regime? And who will be left to patronize it?


An ancient caravanserai in Aleppo.

I realize that it sounds inhuman to mourn the loss of a structure of brick and mortar while ignoring the horrific loss of human life a civil war always entails. But how could it be different? Sadly, we weren’t in the country long enough to develop any close relations with the locals. I do indeed wonder what has happened to the gracious hoteliers and taxi drivers who made our visit such a pleasure, but have no way of ever finding out. But I do know the fate of the souk, whose senseless destruction to me symbolizes the final unraveling of that multi-ethnic, Humpty Dumpty-like country, just one of many in the region being put to the sword by the unholy conjunction of dictatorial rule, the aspirations of their populations, and the cynical desire by the so-called West and its regional allies to “weaken Iran” on the backs of ordinary people who deserve better.

 Aleppo Citadel

The vast Aleppo Citadel, containing the tomb of St. George, has seen much violence in the past, and will likely see much more in the future.


 All photos are my own. 

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I remember the souk very well. It's a huge loss, and even if it's rebuilt in some form, there's no way it could ever be the same.
I cc
Read and reread slowly.
I was talking about this.
Tragic. Total Depravity.
I'll share this sad news.

We spoke of another:
markets in third worlds:
dogs are loaded on bikes.
duck quack on 50-cc bike.

chickens hang with pigs.
flies land on goat cheese.

We have GMO & K-mart.
Wall Street CEO's grub.
Microwave killer box.
Life is brief. No kill.
No harbor any Hat.
No be Devil Tools.
Vast Ruins
Aleppo - yet another sacrifice to futility...
Ahhh... the Byzantine machinations of Realpolitik at the crossroads of the worlds. Sigh. R&R
Thank you very much for sharing your impressions and photos, Alan.
I blogged about this too. Thank you for your first hand account. So sad.
Sad and insightful commentary...especially te part about the politicians being the problem...
Photos are wonderful and terribly sad at the same time.
Thank you for this peek into a part of the world I've never had a chance to experience first hand. A cousin of mine did marry an Iranian-American so I do have some acqaintance with how well we are thought of by the people themselves.
Thanks for this glimpse of what is now past. Sad. Very sad.
I've never been there but saw some pics on TV the other night. What a terrible loss. There's nothing wrong is mourning the destruction of a treasured cultural place. It's not mutually exclusive with mourning the loss of life. But having just returned from 8 days in London, I know I'd feel there was a tremor in the Force if Westminster or St. Paul's were destroyed.
Lovely essay. How easy it is to forget that these are real people and we are destroying their lives and everything that's important to them. Due to his own inherent racism, the war in Syria is just a board game to Obama, like Risk or chess.