13.4.10 - 18.4.10 30 °C
My trip through Syria and Lebanon was a trip into a different world. Truly, I have never been anywhere even slightly similar to any of the places we visited. Each was a contradiction of itself, something that made Aleppo in particular both fascinating and frustrating.
Aleppo's contradiction is its age. You see, Aleppo and Damascus share the title of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, with evidence drawing their first inhabitants to 8000 B.C.! By contrast, London is still an adolescent and Vancouver still kicking about in diapers. Syrians have some serious street cred so you would think that a city like Aleppo would be quite progressive, right? In fact, going there was like going back in time thousands of years to a period where Bedouins lived in tents, hearded sheep, and traded in the souq; and women were commodities (see http://leillac.travellerspoint.com/23/ for my thoughts on that).
The souq was my highlight and is still haunting my memories of the city. Wandering inside truly felt like exploring the souq of the past, with its uneven stone floors, smoky avenues under the high arched ceiling, sea of insistent stares, and shops grouped into themes, creating little villages of spice, scarves, or soap. I loved the charming alleyways around Al Jedeida, the famous (and delicious!) cherry kebab, and of course appreciated how inexpensive it was: first class seats on the 4-hour train between Aleppo and Damascus cost $4! Thankfully even the prices have not yet caught up to the rest of the world. The view from the top of the citadel was fantastic, and we were lucky enough to hear the calls to prayer echoing up from the sprawling city below. Nothing gives this area ambiance like a well-timed call to prayer.
The people were extremely friendly too. We wandered into a scarf shop where I gravitated toward a beautiful scarf made from the hairs of deer chest, valued at close to 100CND. Dammit! The owner took one look at me and stopped his sales pitch because he knew I couldn't afford it, which of course only made me want it more. It turns out the shop caters to the gay Syrian community and the owner is an Australian-Syrian man who is not gay himself - 'yet' - but who fell so in love with the gay scene in Sydney's Kings Cross that he is now catering to those few Syrians who live there with a sexual preference the state has deemed illegal. He did not sell me the deer-chest scarf but did buy me an Arabic coffee, and he and his friend were a breath of fresh air.
Another highlight was going for a drink at the Baron Hotel, a place that epitomizes the spirit of the city because sitting at its bar you really feel time has stood still. The Baron is the oldest hotel in Aleppo and used to cater to the elite crowd traveling on the Orient Express, with notable patrons including Agatha Christie, Lawrence of Arabia, David Rockerfeller, Mr and Mrs Theodore Roosevelt, Kemal Attaturk, Lady Louise Mountbatten, and Charles Lindberg. Most significantly, King Faisal declared Syria's independence from the balcony in room 215. You feel that any one of those past guests could saunter through the lobby in khakis as you sit at the bar, and that feeling can be applied to Aleppo generally. The charm and Middle Eastern antiquity of Aleppo seems to transcend modern day, so that it would not be altogether surprising to see a caravan of camels or hooded Bedouins navigating the hair-raising traffic of the city.