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