As we tread through the ancient alleyways of Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, I think I have time travelled back to the medieval world. The labyrinth of stone-roofed souks has not changed for hundreds of years. Consisting of over 12
km (8 mi) of vaulted arches and subterranean passageways that remind travellers of Roman catacombs, they wind in every direction. Combined, they form the largest covered market in the world, approximately 12 hectares. Built by Al-Malik az-Zaher, Saladin's son, whose tomb is located at the entrance of the souk opposite the famed Aleppo Citadel, each of these narrow thoroughfares is considered a living museum.
This largest bazaar in the Middle East, the Great Bazaar, consists of thirty inter-linked markets and it hums with activity, mostly Syrians shoppers, but an ever-increasing number of tourists. Most citizens here and from the surrounding countryside, especially labourers and peasants, perform their daily purchasing in this maze of covered
streets, but for visitors, it's an exotic shopping experience emanating from the past.
This network, fundamentally unchanged since the 12th century, is the most striking of any Islamic city. Artisan goods, brushes, clothing, fabrics, foods, leather and wooden articles, perfumes, ropes, threads, spices and the products of the 20th century are displayed against the thick stone passageways.
From souk to souk, exhibited wares vary. In one section, stalls are piled high with balls of strings and thread, sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow. Next door, handmade brushes and brooms hang from walls like large tree-leaves, and baskets, in all shapes and sizes, are attached to ceilings like colourfully painted lamp shades. Beyond, bales of fabrics displayed in dome-like stalls are an open invitation to attractive Bedouin women and chic city ladies alike. They vie with each other in crumpling the cloth with their hands, testing its texture in the traditional oriental method. After endless haggling, figures are agreed upon and both buyer and vendor feel content. Rarely does a person leave without making a purchase.
Here, leather craftsmen, rope-makers and metal workers ply their trades. Some transform great sheets of brass, copper or iron into pans, pots and endless other products. Here, men convert gold and silver into exquisite jewellery. We marvel at these artisans, then leave to enter the winter-like wonderland of raw cotton and combed wool, piled in bales of dazzling white. Young men beat the wool with long thin whips and produce falls of fluffy snow in the cobbled souks. In sharp contrast, some men carry sheep carcasses on their shoulders through the meat stalls. As we pass, they strip the meat and smile when they catch us watching their agile hands.
We move quickly when wheelbarrows, piled with goods, arrive behind us. At other times, porters carrying heavy loads, force us into the open doorways of the shops and we become confused by the merchants' discordant greeting of "bonjour, hello, ola, ciao" and "gutentag," seemingly missing out on the Arabic "salamu 'alaykum" in attempts to make visitors feel at home.
Turning a corner, enticing perfume fragrances entices us. Allspice, aniseed, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn and dried henna to decorate the palms of women, are attractively piled on the ground, atop tables and trays. The aromas are intoxicating in this world of make-believe. "This must have been how the Arabian Nights were conceived," I whisper to my daughter.
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
1, Convert your money in banks - some located in hotels. New exchange rates eliminate the once thriving black market. Currently $1 U.S. equals about 46 Syrian liras in banks.
2. Syria is safe for travellers - one of the safest countries in the world. Even women travelling alone find few problems. Urban crime is virtually non-existent.
3. City transportation in Aleppo is efficient; taxis are metered and dirt-cheap.
4. Aleppo is the gourmet capital of the Middle East. The food is varied, tasty and reasonably priced. See:
5. Internet cafes are found in all major cities.
Syrian Embassy, 151 Slater Street, Suite 1000, Ottawa Ontario, Canada, K1P 5H3.
Tel: 613-569- 5556. Fax: 613-569- 3800. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or
Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington D.C., 20008 U.S.A.
Tel: 202/232-6313. Fax : 202-234-9548. E-mail: email@example.com or see
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Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
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