Travel | Destinations

48 hours in the Syrian city of Aleppo

Tradition, architecture, food and shopping - come take a trip around Syria's city of culture

  • Reuters
  • Published: 00:00 July 24, 2010
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  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • The ruined basilica of St Simeon's Cathedral. The Byzantine saint spent his life perched on pillars so people could not touch him

Subtlety is the hallmark of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world's richest historical sites. Its inhabitants possess a quiet pride and a culture that has survived Mongol destruction and sluggish economic phases.

The city, built around a vast medieval citadel, was wrapped in obscurity for decades by Soviet-style policies. But the trading hub of the Silk Road fame has been witnessing a renaissance lately, driven by economic liberalisation and an opening up towards Turkey, Aleppo's neighbour to the north.

Hotels and restaurants are opening up in and around the once-walled city, itself built on layers of much older ruins. Medieval districts have been renovated with the help of the Agha Khan and other international organisations working to save the World Heritage Site.

Here's how to spend 48 hours in Aleppo.

FRIDAY

3pm: Start by relaxing at the rooftop bar and restaurant of the Mirage Hotel (www.miragepalace.net), which offers unobstructed views of the city, with the citadel at the centre and the expanse of roads and construction that destroyed one fifth of Old Aleppo.

But a lot remains standing, including thousands of courtyard houses, a distinctive design spread by Arab conquerors to Morocco and Spain and about 300 bathhouses, madrassa schools, palaces, churches, mosques and khans that stud the narrow streets and alleyways of the old districts.

4pm: Start with the citadel, preferably by hiring a guide. Moving swiftly is key, otherwise a comprehensive tour could consume much of your stay in Aleppo. Numerous invaders, from Byzantines and Seljuks to Mamluks and Ottomans, have left their architectural marks on the edifice, which traces its origins to more than 2,000 years ago.

Contemplate the artistic merits of the steel gate, the calligraphy carved in stone and the Arab military architecture. The citadel also served as the seat of government.

The scale is huge but the two winged lions at the citadel's museum are replicas, originally carved in basalt and excavated by Georges Ploix de Rotrou, a 1920s French archaeologist who ran out of time and money to uncover the 500-square-metre Hittite temple of the storm deity hidden under the citadel.

A German team 90 years later revealed the full glory of the temple, which is now closed to the public. A guide, however, may be able to get you in and lead you to the rest of the citadel's secrets, such as the Ayyubid cistern. Ain Dara, another Hittite temple 60 kilometres north of Aleppo which overlooks Turkey, may be easier to access.

8pm: Hunger may have crept in after roaming through the citadel. Qasr Al Wali in the Christian district of Jdiedeh counts green pepper salad and stuffed grape leaves among its specialities.

It also does kebbah, a mixture of minced onion, bulgur, lamb and a paste of sun-dried chillies, but not all 40 varieties Aleppans make are on the menu. The idea for the cherry kebab came from exposure to sweet-and-sour cuisine back in the days when Aleppo traded with China.

For accommodation, try Al Mansouriya (www.mansouriya.com), a 16th-century palace near Bab Qinnisreen, one of the city's best-preserved gates. Its nine suites are pricey but arguably there is no higher luxury this side of Marrakech. The annexe at Dar Zamaria (www.darzamaria.com) is also nice.

Hotel Baron compensates for luxury by character, including the 1914 bill for Monsieur Lawrence (of Arabia) on display, which the Englishman had paid, contrary to rumours. A refreshment at the Hotel Baron bar is a must. Also check out Cilicia (www.newcilicia.com), a no-frills hotel in the renovated Christian quarter.

SATURDAY

9am: A hearty breakfast may be needed for the dense day ahead and the sweets chain Mahrousa sells the traditional Aleppan breakfast of mamounieh, made from water, sugar, ghee and semolina.

10am: Take a stroll through the Grand Mosque. Hali, the British carpet and Islamic art magazine, recently pointed to the mosque's green and blue Islamic ceramic tiles as fine examples that rival the tiles from Iran and Turkey and incorporate influences from both.

In keeping with Aleppo's character, the tiles are used sparingly. Important examples also survive at Al Khosrowiya Mosque, built by Ottoman architect Sinan, and at Beit (house) Janblat.

11am: The mosque borders the seven-kilometre covered labyrinth souqs and antique dealers there hardly come as experienced as those at Musafi Al Asal. An Isfahan carpet could set you back thousands of dollars. But check out tribal kilims (rugs) from Ifrin, the Kurdish region to the north of Aleppo, where households used to produce kilims to match the occasion, such as gifts for newborn babies.

Bridal kilims and ones that were specially ordered are more sophisticated. However, the weaving died out in Ifrin decades ago.

1pm: Not far from the souqs is Maristan Arghun Al Kamili, an asylum from the Mamluk era, where inmates were said to have been chained in the their cells until 100 years ago.

2pm: A kebab is what you need and Hagoub, behind Hotel Baron, serves up a mean one. The restaurant has kept its Armenian name, although the ownership has changed and the staff is now Kurdish, reflecting Aleppo's changing demographics.

Another suggestion — not for the faint-hearted — is Abu Nabhan, an Aleppo institution in the Khan Al Wazeer that serves grilled or fried liver, called melak mutajan.

3pm: Aleppo is famous for laurel soap and families still manufacture it the same way they did hundreds of years ago, without chemicals.

Visit the workshop of Sons of Ahmad Musbah Zanabili, who export most of their high-end output and rarely sell on the local market. Prices vary from $2-$10 (Dh7-Dh37) per kg, depending on purity and how much laurel oil is used in comparison to olive oil. Sultana, an upscale shop at Sahet Al Hatab in Jdeideh, adds jasmine oil to the mix.

If you're feeling peckish, it's time for another Aleppo speciality. Try zaatar, a thyme mix eaten by dipping it with bread in olive oil. Qubrusi near Bab Qinnisreen is a favourite with locals but ask the chef to not put in too much sesame.

8pm: Time for dinner. Zomorrod in Jdeideh is architecturally distinctive. Wannes in Azizieh has more of a laid-back feel to it. Another option is the Aleppo Club, which has live song and dance on weekends, in keeping with the city's musical traditions. Leading Arab composers and singers, such as Egypt's late Abdul Wahab, performed in Aleppo and received marks of approval before being considered top-notch.

 SUNDAY

9am: How about a morning scrub at one of Aleppo's traditional baths? Service at the 12th- and 13th-century Hamam Al Nahhasin is good. Take a walk to look at the surrounding buildings, such as the small caravanserai opposite, but leave time for the Aleppo National Museum.

Noon: A day's excursion outside the city makes for a rich experience. The columns of St Simeon's Cathedral used to hold the largest Christian basilica before Europe's medieval cathedrals were built.

The Byzantine saint, Simeon, sat for decades on top of a pillar, making the church one of Christendom's foremost pilgrimage sites.

Scattered among the limestone landscape are the Dead Cities, which were well populated during Hellenistic and Roman times but were mysteriously abandoned. The most impressive, Serjilla, is 80 kilometres south of Aleppo.

The Euphrates is also near and the Arab Najm Castle has magnificent views of the river, without which much of Middle Eastern civilisation would not have risen.

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