I’ve been late in addressing the horrendous situation in Syria where blood-letting seems to increase daily. Dead count so far: 30,000. But now, as Aleppo’s spectacular medieval heart appears to be in flames or near-destroyed, it’s about time I put some thoughts down.
It was exactly four years ago to the day that I stayed there in a beautiful mansion hotel of the old city, lapping up the autumnal sunshine, the pungent smells of Oriental spices, of freshly sheered wool, of syrupy coffee, of lamb kebabs, the noise, chatter and dynamism of the shadowy souk and above all reveling in the other-worldly citadel to which I returned again and again. Intoxicating stuff.
The citadel is an impossible place to describe, or even to photograph, so I’ll cheat a bit here and quote from a feature I wrote at the time:
Few urban sights anywhere in the world can rival the immense hulk of this ancient Citadel, an elliptical behemoth of dazzling white limestone. Extensive restoration has now transformed it from a rather neglected ugly duckling into a spectacular arena of religious, ceremonial, military, and residential structures. At 50m high it radiates over the urban sprawl down below with an extraordinary magnetism. The steep, limestone-clad slopes are riddled with secret passageways, while 40 towers punctuate the walls, culminating in the monumental entrance of the bridge. The entire structure spells confidence and might as well as an unparalleled span of history.
More than the history, it was the people that struck me. Wily traders in the depths of the souk (that winds a dizzying 12 km in length) invented the most fanciful tales of time spent in Milton Keynes (for example) to perfect their English, or expressed undying support for Arsenal football team – all in the interest of flogging a necklace, an inlaid box, a carpet or even a fresh orange juice. Then they laughed and, transaction completed, would slip something extra into the bag.
Old men with donkeys pushed through the narrow alleyways, not in the abrupt way as in the labyrinthine souk of Fez in Morocco, but more leisurely, more gracefully: time and style were on their side. Ancient, vaulted caravanserai were still used as store-rooms (or car-parks), and outside the covered souk, balconies of carved wood echoed massive doors below. At night, barely lit, it became classic theatre-set stuff.
It was totally magical, sweeping me away on a mental, physical and sensorial trip through centuries of tradition and deeply rooted customs. Those days we were there were also a public holiday which produced floods of people – men, women, children – crossing the towering bridge to enter the elevated citadel through huge wooden gates (now gone apparently) and use it as one fabulous, monumental playground. The semi-ruined complex of interlocking palaces, hammams, domes, mosques and subterranean halls felt like some giant had tossed it all into the air to land topsy turvy, all sense of order lost.
While children played in the ruins, hip young Aleppines snapped each other on mobile phones before, towards dusk, sidling off to the fabulous restaurants of the nearby Armenian quarter (Jdeideh) where plate after plate of rich and refined meze awaited (I’ve just read that one of the best and oldest of these restaurants, Bait Sissi, aka Sissi House, has been reduced to ashes). Aleppo’s culture was indeed tentacular. The more religious ones obeyed the call of the many muezzin, all wailing in unison as the sun set over the vast sweep of the white city below, some to head for the exquisite 13th century Great Mosque on the edge of the souk. It seems that has now been hit by a rocket. The leaning minaret, over 1000 years old, may not have survived.
Today there are tanks in the streets, much of the arcaded souk has been burned to the ground (they say 1500 shops have gone), snipers fire from balconies and dozens of people have been killed. A relentless Civil War is tearing apart this magnificent World Heritage Site, a place that survived successive assaults by Hittites, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols, Mamluks and Ottomans. All left their mark, but I wonder what Assad’s defining mark will be? Total destruction? And the rebels – equally guilty?