Aleppo, Syria

Posted on August 19, 2011


My bowel and oral explosions subsiding after what felt like an eternity of half-slept nights, I popped another Imodium to settle myself for the bus to Aleppo.  Elektra had some much-needed sympathy for me and the journey went without a hitch.  We found a cluster of cheap hotels in the centre near a disgusting Sheraton hotel which had seemingly no regard for its surroundings in anything that would resemble modesty – I guess that comes with the territory of a five-star hotel in a place that dwarfs all else around it.

We trundled around a little and found rooms for about £10 a night with en-suite and western toilets (although you’re still not allowed to put toilet paper down them, it must go in the bin due to the sewage systems in Syria and lots of the Middle East).

That night, Manchester United were playing and I was eager to find somewhere to enjoy the game at.  The hotel we were staying at understood we wanted a room but our complete lack of Arabic meant nothing else was possible.  I walked around, put my head in some local shisha bars and chai cafes and for some reason, all of them were playing German football to my bemusement.  I tried a sports store selling fake football shirts and shoes, but they suggested the cinema.  Presuming something lost in translation I ponder on until I see another bar with the Bundesliga playing and I almost give up.  Almost!  Until I resign myself to not being able to watch it and then see the aforementioned cinema.. one guy comes up to me, I point to the badge on my shirt, he goes “yes, yes!  Manchested United!  £100 (Syrian, about £1.30 UK)”.  He’s clutching a few tickets in his hand, I get my money out on this half-chance, he takes me over to a small wooden desk inside this cinema of posters of scantily clad white women stuck to the walls, hands over two tickets and my money and I’m ushered in.  The screen to the left (the main one) is full of people watching a film, I look quizzically back to them and then hear people shouting up some small stairs to the right.  Up them I go and there’s a long thin room full of Syrian men smoking away with a projector playing the United game.  Summit reached!  I’m made way for, an excited guy ushers me to sit next to him, asks where I’m from, who I support (I point to my shirt), why I’m there, offers me a cigarette and shows me my first glimpse of Syrian hospitality!  During half-time we get drinks downstairs and I find out I was extorted for twice the real cost of the cinema ticket, it should’ve been £50 (Syrian, 65p UK)!  I’m not so outraged although I’ve had arguments over less: lesson learnt.

The next day, the first real walk started, many streets feel similar to those of the Old City in Damascus.

Finding our way out of the maze of cooling street walls, we happen upon a clearing and head up to a view from a dumping ground where kids play amongst the rubbish, another poses with his horse in an embrace expected of friends.  The horse is his companion and presumably responsibility.  How he’s not boiling in thick trousers and a wooly jumper I have no idea.

The Citadel of Aleppo right in the centre wasn’t something I knew about but we came across it and, being one of the oldest and largest castles in the world, of course we had to visit it – but mainly for the views!  Going in, we looked at the prices on the wall and realised that we were paying ten times the prices that Syrians do, simply because we’re foreign – in any other place I’d refuse to go in but it was the sake of about one English pound (and fifty Syrian ones!), nothing worth fretting over and something funny to consider.  The parts that remained of the castle were impressive under another one of those bluest of blue Eastern skies and makes you appreciate it when you look back at the pictures you took after struggling under wet, dark and cloudy European weather to get something closely resembling how good something looks to you.

Going to the citadel walls and looking down to where a moat used to be, then out to the horizon makes you appreciate how good of a fortification this was, the scale is beyond that of anything else I’ve seen.  Everything would’ve been catered for as they had underground passages and cellars for food and prisoners, a theatre on the top, halls and stores and scouting points for anyone daring to try their luck over the moat.

Wandering off separately, I heard something I’d become accustomed to not hearing much of – live music.  Two guys and two girls from Japan were playing their guitars and singing in one of the alcoves as a small crowd of Syrians gathered round to listen to them with eager ears and curious expressions.

Through the souqs (markets) of cloth and housewives we meet Ibrahim, eager to talk, show us part of his life here and be a great ambassador of his city.  He became our friend for a few days as he showed us round his local mosque, took us to some ruins a way out of Aleppo, got us to meet some of his friends and was such a great person to talk to and have around.

We met up the following day and negotiated a taxi to and from the ruins Elektra had mentioned.  These ruins were where Symeon the Stylite had perched himself atop a pillar for almost forty years in order to have more time to himself, away from those people who would bother him for spiritual advice – it’s said that the pillar was increased in size so he would struggle to hear those calling up to him.  Despite steady tourism to the site, it’s surprising that so much is left standing and open to the public some 1500 years later, so much so that you can stand on what remains of the pillar.

My whirlwind through two Syrian cities came to an end as I pondered extending my stay but had to make better time on getting through Turkey, a group taxi across the Syria/Turkey border to Gaziantep was handily negotiated by Ibrahim, my thanks never seeming enough for the help and hospitality he’d given us.

The boy and his proud responsibility

Those helpful blue skies!

On and on and on and..

It's hard to look away from the view, despite coming to see the Citadel

A rare shot of me

Elektra dons the camera and snaps this curious fella


Inside the souq

No matter how hard I try, I can't describe just how ridiculous Elektra's garb was for this visit to Ibrahim's local mosque.

Ibrahim and Elektra on the pillar

Cows milling about in the middle of nowhere - we'd stopped off to look at carvings in the rocks

A truck of waving guys goes past, cows shuffle into the sunset and we start to head back

Ibrahim and our very smiley driver on the way back to the city

Posted in: Syria