Aleppo - The End of the Silk Road

UPDATE: This post was penned in the Spring of 2011 following our visit to Aleppo in March. We had no idea the direction the conflict would take, when we were there Syria had been undergoing an opening up to tourism. Yes there were protests but it seemed like the beginning of an Arab Spring. We naively hoped it might be a positive transformation rather than a descent into chaos.  

One of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world, Aleppo is a magnificent city with an ancient history. An important stop on the Silk Road, Aleppo conjures exotic images of luxury, spices and specialty goods. Even now their products are prized; traditional Arabic sweets, small flavorful pistachios and laurel soap aged and sold by the kilo in the souk. I had wanted to visit for years  and after seeing Samarkand, Bukhara and Isfahan we were thrilled to be in Syria. It didn't hurt to be staying in a fabulous hotel, which I blogged about here!

The city shows  many cultural influences and the diverse population includes Armenians, Christians, Sunni, Shia, Kurds, and Iraqi refugees. There was a large Jewish population in Aleppo until the 1940s. However, the establishment of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians exacerbated ethnic tensions, culminating in  violent attacks on the Jewish community that left synagogues, schools and homes burned in 1947. Despite walking around the former Jewish quarter we could see little evidence of the prior inhabitants. A  ruinous and abandoned  synagogue was all we could see of what had been a large community. Unfortunately we  recognized it because I had read that local men use its wall as a public urinal, a particularly poignant and distasteful expression of political protest. 

Seeing the synagogue was a reminder of the past but  we enjoyed our visit to Aleppo, and felt a warm welcome from  the Syrians we met. This is certainly a city we'd like to spend more time in because the food, architecture and overall atmosphere was great. There was so much more that we would like to see including; numerous souks, khans or caravansaries, baths and mosques.

View of the city from the Citadel. You can see our hotel roof garden in the center of the shot.
As you can see Aleppo is a very large city. Some of the neighborhoods, including the one where we stayed have wonderfully narrow, romantic alleyways too small for cars. But this is not a pristine walled city like the old city of Fez, where there are no cars at all. In Aleppo, there are modern buildings often in a Soviet influenced style, in both the New City and along the main arterial roads dividing the older Christian and Muslim quarters.
Tower and theatre inside the Citadel
I love the detail on this doorway, and the view of the Citadel tower

The Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, the kids love sliding on the polished stone

The minaret from outside the Umayyad mosque. It reminded me of a Venetian church tower.
Close to the souk,  Khans housed merchants traveling the Silk Road
Another mosque we passed on the street as we walked back to our hotel
Inside one of Aleppo's fabulous souks,it was very similar to those we saw in Iran.
The relaxing calm of Jdeideh Square in the Christian Quarter, Aleppo

Buses waiting for ethnic Armenian schoolchildren, above.

Aleppo is a wonderful place to stroll aimlessly. We walked through a variety of different artisanal quarters and watched coppersmiths working intricate patterns into metal, and ironsmiths hammering over open flames. There seem to be open markets, or covered souks, around each corner - selling anything and everything you could possibly want. 

Street market in a more modern area of Aleppo, above

Typical street scene in the Christian Quarter of Aleppo, above.

As you can see from this picture Syrian women dress in a wide variety of styles, though they are generally modest. The women on the left are clearly Muslim and those on the right are probably from the Christian community. This photo was taken in a predominantly Armenian neighborhood and you can see Arabic, English and Armenia on the signs.


Pay attention when you are inside in the Citadel, while we were there we met an English couple who had a very bad experience. While he was walking in an isolated area, with a steep drop and a very low wall, he was intimidated and threatened by several young boys trying to rob him. The children surrounded him and suggested that they would push him if he didn't give them his wallet. Afterwards, when the couple tried to complain to the superintendent in charge of the Citadel he was very dismissive and said they had never had this problem before. His was more concerned with making them go away (and persuading them and us to go to his shop) than he was in hearing, or doing anything about what had happened. We encountered no problems, but their experience is worth bearing in mind.

Have a look at some of the wonderful silver work in the souk. I was very impressed with some of the rings made by Armenian silversmiths, some of them very modern and beautifully wrought.