Silk Suits You, Sir – Aleppo, Syria

This article arose from my Christmas 2001 trip to Syria. Any ideas or views expressed below are my own – so please don’t write to me and tell me that I should have a different opinion or should have been more or less favourable about certain things. A traveller’s life is always unique and valid.

Introduction | Weather | Things To See & Do | Food | Accommodation | Transport | Syrian Visa Question | A Few Top Tips | Relative Costs | Public Holidays | About the Author

Introduction
Historian archaeologist J. Sauvaget once wrote: “Of all the towns of Syria it is Aleppo that leaves the profoundest impression upon the visitor.” In my own diary I wrote:

Click to view a larger mapI have never seen anything like Aleppo. It is 100% insanity – everyone is continually in motion, the streets are swarming with cars and everyone is driving down the centre of the road with their hand on the horn. The movement is infectious and I am already being sucked into the rhythm of the place…even the women carrying sheep on the streets seem to be moving purposely. It’s a heady combination of all the things I love most about travel and leaves me without a doubt that I am in the East now…

For those on the classic Istanbul to Cairo route, Aleppo is perhaps the first taste of the real East. A place of smoky, winding bazaars, long afternoons drinking sweet tea with cardamom, donkeys laden with bolts of cloth and rugged looking men wrapped in their red and white check head scarves. To some people Aleppo may be a little frantic, but I fell passionately in love with it and it was hard to drag myself away.

Aleppo’s citizens are often described as serious, tight-lipped and sober – especially by the Damascenes (who I found the least friendly of all Syria’s people). This is probably just sour-grapes as both Aleppo and Damascus would like to claim to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Gertrude Bell wrote, “If there be a better gate to Asia than Aleppo, I do not know it” and after the initial shock of being surrounded by a million or so screaming car horns and defecating donkeys I felt that perhaps she had a point.

Each footfall takes you deeper into history: Abraham lived here and distributed milk, Seleucus Nicator (311-280 B.C.) gave it the name of Beroea (Berrhoe) by which it was known in early Christian times, Arabs conquered it in 630, then came the Seljukids, the Ortokids, the Crusaders, the Ayoubites, the Mongols, and the Egyptian Sultans. In 1317 it passed to the Ottoman Turks. Lawrence of Arabia passed through – his bar bill is still unpaid and hangs over the fire place at the legendary Baron hotel. Agatha Christie also passed through (but she remembered to pay her bar bill).

It was once the thriving hub of a great civilisation – a city much greater than a sum of its parts. Today it is largely forgotten by the world, which is a tragedy as beneath its screaming traffic and incessant noise, it remains one of the most authentic Arab cities.

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Weather

Today’s weather can be found here.

Things to See and Do
Aleppo is a seductive city. Come for a few days and you might just end up staying a month. It’s rich in tourist sites and it’s impossible to walk around town without tripping over ancient history. But there is so much more than the sites listed in countless guide books. It’s a vibrant, living city where all of human life is played out each day in the souq and on the streets. The best experiences are often to be found taking tea in a local shop or chewing the fat with the locals in one of the many small falafel shops which dot the city.

The Citadel
The CitadelDating back to the 16th century B.C, the fabulous Citadel of Aleppo dominates the entire city. Legend has it that it was here that Abraham milked his cow. Surrounded by a moat, the citadel has a bridge on the south side, which leads to a large, fortified gate, dating from the 12th century. The interior is currently being restored (though this looks like it will take forever and a day) and there is an excellent view of the city from a vantage point on the walls – or so I am told as it rained every day I was there. The citadel’s throne room has also been well restored. There is a circular road around the foot of the Citadel and to the south are some interesting madrassas and mosques – which are worth a poke around.

From my diary:

Despite the torrential rain which seems to have followed me since I left home (I am beginning to wonder if I am a bad weather god) the citadel is numbingly impressive (a few months later in London I came across an aerial picture of the place which lead me to believe that I had only seen a fraction of the majesty of the citadel and really do spend half my time walking around with my eyes closed). In a way I was glad it was a grey sodden Boxing Day morning as otherwise I would have wasted rolls and rolls of film – and I hardly even consider myself a great fan of castles. Entrance was a horrific 300 lira (without a student card) but I still felt this represented some kind of decent value.

The stunningly impressive outer walls (which seem meters thick) belayed the calm interior which is a mixture of styles and architectural concepts. A lot of the citadel is currently being restored but there are enough crumbling walls, partially crenulated battlements and flying Gothic buttresses to paint a good picture of how the place might have once looked, which can only be described as magnificent.

I crouched against the rain under a partially gilded dome thinking that the dome must represent the most sensuous ambition of architecture whilst pissed off looking workman shuffled around in the rain carrying limestone blocks and rusted sledge hammers. Apart from the workmen I had the site totally to myself. It was quite eerie and I kept expecting to bump into a headless crusader or a grey veiled woman.

The Grand Mosque (Jami’a Zakariyyeh)
One of Islam’s most important shrines. Today, it is, like much of Aleppo, covered in scaffolding.

From my diary:

Old man
Mooching around the empty square of the Grand Mosque in the pouring rain thinking about my family sitting around a groaning Boxing Day table loaded with food and wine. The square is empty except for a rather old man whose wrinkles spread across his face like contour lines on a map of Tibet. He beckons me over and begins a lengthy discourse about the renovation of the mosque, or at least I think he does as my Arabic is still rather sketchy and he doesn’t speak a word of French. He is at great pains to point out the intricate designs which are clearly of cosmic importance and stands over me as I sketch them in my diary.

Rain drips down my neck and onto the pages, making them translucent – the old man looks like the type of person who walks through the raindrops. I am saved from spending the day sketching in the rain by the arrival of a young Muslim cleric who has a big roll of engineering blueprints stuffed under his arm. Like most people I meet he is a student in the UK and is terribly enthusiastic about the UK and the food in Sheffield. The mosque, he tells me, is named after Zakariah, the father of John the Baptist. He then speaks knowledgably about the UK engineering profession, especially those engaged in mosque design and seems terribly upset I don’t personally know them. He takes me to his cousin’s shop where we drink sweet tea and pour over the designs for the new minaret.

Souqs
A souq“In terms of spaciousness and originality, the covered souqs of Aleppo, which extend for more than 10 kilometres, are the most striking in any Islamic city. The souqs are named after the various crafts, such as the souq of gold, the souq of copper and the souq of cotton. Traditionally, there is always a fountain in the centre and sometimes a little garden planted with jasmine and roses. Most of these souqs date back to the 15th century. They are living museum, which depict medieval life,” enthused the tourist information office in London. They also gave me a handy map but I soon became hopelessly lost and drawn deeper into the wonderful souq. For the record:

Khan al Gumruk (Khan of customs and excise) was built in 1574. It is the largest of Aleppo’s khans, and once contained the consulates of France, Holland and England. This Khan still houses over 250 shops.

Khan al Nahasin (Khan of coppersmiths) is where you will find the oldest continuously inhabited house in Aleppo, the house of the former Belgian consul. It has been maintained almost exactly as it was four centuries ago – which is about how long it took them to answer the door to me.

Khan al Sabun (Khan of soap) is sometimes considered one of the greatest examples of Mameluke architecture in Aleppo. There are lots of sensuous and slightly erotic detailed carvings on the façade and around the window on top of the main entrance. Take a small flashlight for optimum viewing.

Khan al Wazir (Khan of the minister) was built as a caravanserai in the 17th century. It is one of the most famous in Aleppo. It is beautifully decorated; especially the black and white stoned door, and the ornamented outer window frames.

(Note – before legions of learned readers write to me complaining about my poor command of terminology : Khan, according to my dictionary is ‘a caravansary or rest house in some Asian countries,’ whereas Souq is defined as, ‘a marketplace in northern Africa or the Middle East; also: a stall in such a marketplace’)

A stroll through the souqs is like walking through the pages of history.

From my diary:

The first narrow alleys I stumble into are darkly lit, terribly muddy, and partially open to the sky and throbbing with early morning commerce – of the kind best carried out with a loaded donkey and a big knobbly stick. I wander through the dark satanic medley of tailors, machine shops, stores selling household bits and pieces – most of which looked like bits of old metal reclaimed from even older machines and shops brimming with silks and cloth. I mooched about for a couple of hours getting even wetter and more fed up. When a donkey stepped onto my toe I thought: Now, this isn’t much fun is it?

I wander along another row of greasy looking machine shops where sparks are flying into the street and think: there must be more to this than machine shops. I take a deep breath, call home (I love you, happy Christmas honey…) and dive back in to the labyrinth once more.

Rounding the next corner I find myself wading through ankle deep mud when a tailor pops his head out of his shop and beckons me over:

“Your clothes, they are soaking,”
“Yes, it’s not the best day to be out and about.”
“Come, sit, let me fetch tea and a fire. It will be OK. Allah be praised that you found me on this wet day. And, happy Christmas, sir.”

I sit and drink gritty, black Arabic coffee whilst a small electric fire is fetched from somewhere and my jeans begin to smoke.

We speak, like travellers the world over, about our families, our hopes, our fears and Michael Owen. September 11th is explored – in a touchy-feely, tentative way which leaves room for everyone’s opinions. Every now and then another cousin pops by with more coffee, or a donkey sticks his head into the shop and brays noisily. By the time I leave, clutching some small presents for my family, my trousers are dry and my spirit is soaring. I feel like I am back on track again.

After more frustrated wanderings I eventually find the part of the souk which I am looking for. It was absolutely magical. I immediately decide that if the citadel had been worth the long slog, then the souk was worth so much more.

The power had just gone off and two thirds of the shops were plunged into darkness – stray rays of light dribbled down from the stone ceiling and splattered irises of light about my feet. An arm, clad in a rather garish silk dressing gown, shot out of the gloom and dragged me into the darkness. A small stub of a candle was thrust into my face:

“Do you have any coins?”
“Er, a few. Why?”
“Cos the damn electricity meter has run out again…”
“Well, how much do you need? I only have a few lira.”
“Well, give us that for a start if you like, we can work out how to get it to the Government later. First, I think we all need a cup of tea.”

And that was how I met Ken and Kenneth.

Tea was served. Ken thrust the candle closer to me, winked at Kenneth, and lead me deeper into the shadows.

“Do you want to try a Syrian man…”
“Eh…”
“…Chester United are a good team, aren’t they?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess so…”
“Would you like to try some black…man,”
“Eh..”
“I mean, man, would you like some black coffee. You know what they say…”
In unison – “Once you have had black, you never go back.”
“Ken?”
“Yes, Kenneth?”
“Do you think he would look good in silk.”
“Oooooh, yes Ken, I do.”

Passing me a silk scarf, “Oh, Sir, silk suits you sir.”
“Oh yes, very Noel Coward.”
“But I don’t want this – I don’t want anything.”
“Imagine waking up with the thrill of a Syrian man…man made silk scarf. What could be better Kenneth?”
loud sigh…

A Japanese girl walked past waving her flashlight about.

Ken (loudly): “Hello honey…want to play with my silk?”
Kenneth (to me): “At least she isn’t Dutch – they never spend a penny.”
Both spit into the street, “Dutch…”
Ken: “And Canadians. What is it about all their flags? They are worse than Americans…”
Kenneth: “The Brits – mostly harmless you know. Mostly redeemable.”

An hour and a half later I finally left, clutching a bag of silk scarves.

The Baron Hotel
The Baron Hotel is at Baron Street, Aleppo (tel: 00 963 21 210 880, fax: 00 963 21 218 164). (Baron Street is Aleppo’s premier thoroughfare, and the hotel is just up from the Aleppo Museum and down from the cinemas.)

O.K, so it’s way past its prime, the plumbing looks like what you would find in the worst kind of student flat, the prices are unrealistic but the place still oozes charm and decadence. Dropping by here for a beer is more or less essential.

Former patrons include: Lawrence of Arabia; Agatha Christy; King Gustave & Queen Louise of Sweden; King Faysal I of Iraq; Yuri Garaging; Queen Ingrid of Denmark; Prince Bertil of Sweden; Prince Peter of Greece; Lady Louis Mountbatten; Mr and Mrs Theodore Roosevelt; David Rockefeller; the Duchess of Bedford; Charles Lindberg; Sheikh Zayed; Kemal Ataturk of Turkey; The Earl of Athlone; the Earl of Iveagh; Cecile Sorel; J. Thibaud; Pierre Benoit; Louis de Guiringaud’ Dame Freya Stark and so on. The beer is even served in proper pint glasses.

I spent a wet afternoon in their luxurious lounge (which I noted in my dairy was, “all fur coat and no knickers”), pint in one hand, guide book in the other whilst the receptionist brokered currency deals. It was like being in a James Bond film.

“You have any currency?”
“Turkish Lira, Swedish crowns or French Francs.”
“That will do, I will give you this dirty pile of Syrian pounds and another beer for the Turkish Lira…”
“Sounds good to me…”
“And a case of Soviet made PRM grenades for the rest…”

Just down the road from the Baron is a travel agent which has, in its window, one of my favourite all time signs, “VISITS TO DEAD CITIES OUR SPECIALITY”.

From my diary:

The imposing hallway leads into a snug, yet faded bar where I am served a pint of medicinal tasting local brew in a proper pint glass. The whole place, despite its tatty walls and damp floors is seeped in decadence. I feel right at home. I flop down into one of the over stuffed leather chairs and watch the BBC – some joker has tried to blow up an Air France plane with his shoe (I remember a friend who calls them Air Chance – there is always a chance he might get home on time). The rain lashes against the window frames. After my beer I wander around – there is even an ancient telex room – (I am too young to remember telexes) where an ancient man sits amongst piles of yellowing paper. I could quite easily imagine myself sitting in the Baron’s lounge, wrapped in an Arab scarf with a pint in my hand brokering a major arms deal. In the end I have to leave before my sense of adventure gets too much for me.

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Food
Syria is a great place for simple street food – it’s the restaurants, however, which tend to let the side down. For the best food in the city head to where the locals go – the numerous street side kiosks – and fill up on hot, tasty, cheap falafel sandwiches for less than the price of a can of Coke back home. I ate every day from such stalls and never got sick – and even after eating falafel for breakfast, lunch and dinner for ten days I still couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

For the uninitiated, falafel (also known as ta’amia in Egypt) is mashed chick peas which have been fried in oil. These crispy balls are then normally stuffed into some pita bread and smothered in salad, sesame and chilli sauce. Two sandwiches make a good breakfast or lunch whilst four make for a complete blow out meal – the largest sandwiches, which are about a foot long, can be found at the stalls around Martyr’s Square in Damascus. A sandwich costs about a quarter of a dollar.

The other Syrian food which appeared on every menu was shorbit Adas (Lentil soup). This ranged from pretty average dish-water looking gruel with the odd lentil swimming in it to, um, stodgy looking dish-water gruel. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, it always appeared at some point during a meal. In all fairness it was hot and filling – just the thing after trudging around monuments and ruins in the blistering cold. Quite honestly, if I see another lentil now I think I will scream.

However, the best part of eating in Syria, and in fact the Middle East, was the wonderful cakes and desserts. Even thinking about these wonderful creations of syrup and flaky pastry has just added a few inches to my waistline. My favourite way to finish off a meal (apart from lentil soup) was always a large slab of sickly rich baklava and a cup of black, gritty Turkish coffee. Believe me, the combined caffeine and sugar rush is enough to squeeze another few hours site seeing out of even most footsore tourist.

Baklava, which can be found pretty much all over the Middle East, consists of 30 or more sheets of filo dough brushed with lots of butter, and layered with finely chopped pistachios, walnuts, and/or almonds. After baking, a syrup of honey, rose water and lemon juice (sometimes spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, etc) is poured over the pastry and allowed to soak in. It may rot your teeth and send your blood pressure sky high, but what a way to go…

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Accommodation
I stayed in the aptly named Tourist Hotel. Being run by a French expat it obviously falls far short of a decent level of customer service but it does have some redeeming features. From my diary:

The Hotel Tourist is cheap at 400 lira a night, and clean. The room is simply furnished and spotless. The daughter of the owner has just helped me with my bags and I can tell she is secretly impressed by my French as she was only mildly rude to me.

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Getting There and Away Again
Syria forms an important stop on the Istanbul to Cairo trail.

From my diary:

The drive down from the Turkish border takes us through a grim landscape. Rolls of razor wire lay rusting by the side of the road – some of it looks as old as me. When the bus arrives at the Syrian border I am ushered into a large marble room – again, it is a men only affair, which is thick with the smoke of two dozen cigarettes.

Our driver’s mate, who has taken a shine to me, drags me to the front of the queue and pushes my passport forward to the sleepy looking guard. After a few contemplative puffs on his cigarette he passes it to the next guy who spends the next ten minutes reading it upside down and covering it with cigarette ash. Satisfied that I am the person in the passport (despite from being upside down and not coated in a thick layer of cigarette ash) he passes the passport to a more senior looking officer who has an impressive Saddam Hussein-style moustache. The questions start: what do I do for a living (housewife), what are my parents names (mum and dad), where do I live (Copenhagen airport), where I had just come from and if I think that Michael Owen is the world’s greatest striker. Not having crammed up on Syrian footballers I concede that he may well be. Above me hangs a huge sign, ‘Welcome Brother Traveller.’

After the briefest of customs checks – a dismissive wave of a hand over my bag – it is back on the bus and into Syria proper. It is a desolate landscape – blasted white boulders, rocky roads and sheer mind-numbing nothingness. The land looks as brutal as anywhere I have ever been or hope to go to. It does little to sooth the eye.

We bounce and roll along the dusty road for about thirty minutes before we pull into a crumbling petrol station for prayers and lunch. A guy in natty white Wellingtons is busily slopping buckets of petrol around and trying to fill our bus with an ancient hand pump. A lit cigarette dangles from his mouth…

By the time our crew has unloaded all the contraband that they have smuggled across the border, lunch is over and we climb aboard the bus and head for Aleppo. Every twenty minutes we are stopped at a police check point where haggard looking officers smile warmly and shake my hand. The other passengers wink encouragingly at me and secrete sacks of onions about their persons.

Air
There are internal flights between Damascus and Aleppo, Qamishle, Lattakia and Deir ez-Zur.

Road
Syria’s road network is excellent, and buses are frequent and cheap – most Syrians use the bus, as very few have their own car. Distances are short and most trips take under four hours. Bus types include the traditional coach, minibuses and Japanese vans known as microbuses. Service taxis operate on the major bus routes but are considerably more expensive than microbuses.

Rail
The Syrian Railway General Organisation (SRGO) runs Syria’s main line. This 1,900 km track links Damascus to Aleppo, via Homs, continuing to Deir ez-Zor and Qusaybah on the Iraq border. A link between Aleppo and Moussel (Iraq) has recently been reintroduced. At Aleppo a secondary line follows Syria’s border with Turkey to Qamishe, before linking to Deir ez-Zor. A line also runs from Aleppo to Lattakia, following the coast to Tartous before linking to Homs. At Homs a rail link carries traffic to Beirut. The General Organisation of the Hedjaz-Syrian Railway operates the 327 km link to Amman in Jordan. Syrian railways carry over four million passengers per year. Cargo freight is restricted to the transport of bulky heavy goods.

Car Rental
There are a few car rental companies in Syria, but rates are around 50% higher than in the West and petrol is expensive and hard to find. Syrians drive on the right – well, in theory they do. Experience tells me otherwise.

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The Great Syrian Visa Question
The question of when and where to get a Syrian visa crops up with frightening regularity on certain travel related web sites. Below is the current state of play. This changes regularly so its best to check with your local Syrian embassy before setting off. However, as a rule of thumb all Syrian visas need to be applied for from your home country.

In General:
On arrival in Syria, you will be required to present a valid passport and an entry visa. Visas can be obtained from the Syrian Embassy; visitors are advised to obtain their visa before travelling. Visa applications should be accompanied by a letter from the visitor’s company outlining the purpose of the trip and two photographs. Prices vary by country and by the passport holder’s origin. For UK residents purchasing a Syrian visa in London, a single-entry visa costs £41.50 (payable in cash only) and a multiple-entry visa £48 (also payable in cash only). If your passport reveals a trip to Israel, you will not be permitted a visa.

Visas are valid for 15 days and expire three months after issue. Visitors planning to stay for more than two weeks should apply to the immigration authorities for an extension to their stay. The time taken and number of photos required varies from city to city, at most re-issue will take 24 hours and you will need five photos (so carry a few spares). Visitors who extend their visas are required to apply for an exit visa. For further information contact:

Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic
8 Belgrave Square
LONDON
SW1X 8PH
Tel: 020 7-245 9012
Fax: 020 7-235 4621

Visitors should keep their passports with them at all times as the Syrian Authorities occasionally carry out impromptu security checks.

Another definitive guide to Syrian Visas can be found here.

Australian citizens travelling to Syria for tourism may obtain a 15 day single-entry visa on arrival at Damascus airport. Travellers wishing to remain in Syria longer than 15 days need to apply for an extension at an Immigration office in Syria. Multiple entry visas are only available from the Syrian Honorary Consuls in Australia or from Syrian Missions in other countries. It is advisable to obtain appropriate visas covering the duration of your intended stay prior to arrival. Australian travellers to Syria should be aware that if their passport contains evidence of entry to Israel, or other country border crossing points with Israel, they will be refused entry.

For Irish travellers who apply for visas to Syria in advance, the only real option is the London embassy which charges £35.

There is a Syrian (Honorary) Consulate (Consulaat Van Syrie) in The Netherlands at Laan Van Meerdervoort 53 d, 2517AE, The Hague; tel: (070) 3469795.

The easiest way to get a Syrian (or any other type of visa) is to use a specialised visa company. I highly recommend TravCour in London, who have provided years of excellent service to me.

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A Few Top Tips

Internet. Syria is still beginning to come to terms with the whole internet phenomena and finding an internet café can be difficult at times. The facts of the matter are:

There are internet cafes in Syria. Officially, Hotmail is allowed, Yahoo mail isn’t. Many internet cafes have a ‘fix’ which allows Yahoo to be accessed, some don’t – try to look about and see what everyone else is using before making polite inquiries. Typically connections cost about two dollars an hour. Some of the new tourist hotels have internet connections (at least the hotel opposite the New Tourist Hotel does).

Don’t take any pictures near military installations. Discussing Syrian politics is not advisable, since the country is under dictatorship. Be careful not to make any remarks at the president’s photos and statutes.

There aren’t many ATMs in Syria so bring enough cash and travellers cheques.

If you are travelling to Lebanon then back to Syria, you do not need a re-entry visa anymore.


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Relative Costs (As of Jan 2002):

Budget meal: US$0.50-2
Moderate restaurant meal: US$2-3
Top-end restaurant meal: $5-10
Budget room: US$3-7
Moderate hotel: US$10-20
Top-end hotel: US$200 and upwards

I got by easily on about $10 a day – this included accommodation, street food, local transport and a bag full of cakes.

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Public Holidays
Aleppo
January 1: New Year’s Day
March 7: Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice)
March 8: Revolution Day
March 21: Mother’s Day
March 27: Islamic New Year
April 15: Easter
April 17: National Day
May 1: Labour Day
May 6: Martyr’s Day
June 6: Milad Al-Nabi (birth of the prophet)
October 6: Liberation War
November 17: Start of Ramadan
December 21: Eid Al-Fitr (End of Ramadan)
December 25: Christmas Day

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About the Author
Philip is a regular contributor to BootsnAll. He has written close to 100 articles, covering places as diverse as Japan, Tibet, Brazil, Africa and the Middle East. Describing himself as a ‘sophisticated man about town type guy’, he divides his time between rural Sweden, Holland and his home in Cambridge, UK. On the rare occasions when he isn’t travelling he can be found listening to Miles Davis or eating spicy food.

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