INTELLIGENT TRAVELLER It seemed to me that most of Syria had been visited, inhabited or invaded by Phoenicians and Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks and the Knights Templar. TE Lawrence, Agatha Christie and Roosevelt had all made pilgrimages; even the cheery folk from Mossad took time out to make a day trip and detonate a car bomb in Damascus on the day of my arrival. The pull of the place was undeniable.
And Aleppo’s traction was wholly inescapable. It claims to be the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world – a crown that Damascus or Benares might dispute; but who really cares? Nothing could dent that charismatic magic for me, except for finding the bar at the Hotel Baron was unexpectedly dry. The faded grandeur and ostentatious façade of the place, were glorious.
Nearby was the citadel; a vast 12th century fortress with roots that dug deep into a hill and further into history. It dominated not just the old town, but the entire modern metropolis of three million.
Below the citadel’s fearsome walls lay the souk. Labyrinthine, cavernous, sepulchral, it could almost be a catacomb. Pierced domes dropped dense pillars of light into pitch alleyways; a startling effect that briefly illuminated a trader before he fell into darkness again. The coolness was a welcome relief from the heat outside.
Split carcasses revealed ribbed and fatty innards on the butcher’s stand; testicles the size of pears hung like pendulums beside slathers of liver and spleen; the smell of blood was fresh. Lime green olives had with their own special scent; round men in djellabas left the whiff of tobacco, cinnamon and cloves in their wake. Slabs of honeycomb, sacks of rose petals, walnuts, almonds, cashews and pistachios filled innumerable stalls.
A large man itched his balls as two Armenian women haggled over the price of a sequinned purse; their friend took time to pick over fabrics with more dazzle than a Christmas tree.
Sheepskin and herbs were lazily inspected by a man heaped in scarves; sandalwood and jasmine floated in from another quarter.
My reverie was shattered by a man selling clothing. ’Pleased to meet me,’ he said. Camp and vaguely predatory; a strange mixture of Essex prattle and the Levant. A boy brought us small cups of thick, sweet coffee flavoured with cardamom. ‘Is good, keep you awake all night and make you horny.’ The coffee was good.
Further along I met a man who claimed to be the other’s brother, then another, and then another. Eleven brothers from the same family worked one small section of the souk. One of the siblings showed me a photograph of them all lined up in flares and wide collared shirts; like an inflationary publicity shot for the Four Tops.
One of the men might have been the bogus Cockney written about by Robert Tewdr Moss (in his book Cleopatra’s Wedding Present). When he heard I lived in London he asked: ‘from Soho? I spent three nights in London, two nights in Heaven and one in a hotel in Paddington. The squalor is lovely there, have you been?’
The Great Mosque Al-Jamaa al-Kebir in the heart of the souk was closed for renovations but I knocked at the door in Souk ibn al-Khasbah and was let in regardless. Half-a-dozen elderly men in white hats sat in chairs outside the entrance – every one of them carried a cane. The mosque was beautiful, a great open, silent relief from the bustle outside; its stone walls the colour of sun- bleached bones.
Across the way in the Madrassa Halawiyya were the 6th century remains of Saint Helen’s cathedral; a semi-circle of six columns. A sold-fuel stove sat incongruously in front of them, its long skinny chimney reaching perhaps thirty feet to a vent in the ceiling. An ancient man sat at a low lectern clattering beads and turning the pages of the Koran while quietly murmuring to two women in the echoing prayer hall. The huge floor was covered in dozens of red rugs.
There was something of Havana on the streets of Aleppo’s old town. Numerous cars from the 60’s – and earlier – jostled for space with vehicles of more recent vintage. Two knackered Mercs lumbered by; one yellow and patched with filler, the other white and looking fit to spring apart from the elastic bands holding it together. It was there, hidden down an alleyway in the Al-
Jdeida area of the city, that I found a 17th century house converted into a restaurant. Baronial axes and swords lined the lumpen, theatrical stone walls. I ordered meze and wine, only for a teacup and saucer to be delivered to my table. The sommelier arrived and apologised for the fact that he was unable to serve wine that day before opening a bottle with great ceremony. He poured a drop into the cup and waited with starchy formality for me to taste it. I was instructed to conceal the bottle under the table.
At night the souk is empty except for silent cats and shadows. I walked through the dead streets to find a hammam, entering the building down a long narrow staircase and emerging in a large panelled room surrounding a rectangular pool.
The shouts and joshing of other folk hit me before the steam. In the cloudy, hot room sat six men on a raised dais, peeling oranges and eating roast chicken. Constantly splashing hot water filled the sultry atmosphere. I was scrubbed with olive soap that had been whisked into a thick lather, in a small antechamber randomly filled with Roman cisterns. Someone else took over, pulling at my arms and cracking my back, before mauling my legs, sitting me upright and cricking my neck. A ricochet rattled out from each quick twist. Upstairs, an old man held out a fresh towel for me like a mother might her child on the beach. Hot towels were wrapped around my waist, chest, shoulders and head until I felt heaped like a laundry basket and ready to sleep forever.