By Norbert Schiller
My earliest memory of Aleppo goes back to the early 1990s when I was sent to the north of Syria by a German news magazine to illustrate a story on the Euphrates river valley after the completion of the Ataturk dam in Turkey. From the onset, the construction of the dam was controversial because both Syria and Iraq, situated below the dam, had reservations about Turkey being able to control the headwaters of the river, a lifeline to both countries.
After touring the river basin I headed back to Aleppo with my driver. It was quite late when we arrived in the city and, since I had a flight out early the next morning, I asked my driver to stop at the covered bazaar before heading to the hotel. On my previous trips to Aleppo I had never had a chance to visit any of the sites because I was there just in transit. My driver said that the souk would most likely be closed, but when I insisted, he agreed to take me.
We got to the market just as the last of the shops were closing, but that did not deter me from going out for a night time exploration. Actually, it was quite fascinating to walk through the empty domed passageways after hours. The only people out and about were the street cleaners removing the day’s debris.
Towards the end of my tour, I happened to walk by the only shop that was still open. The vendor was taking down a lovely old Turkmen carpet hanging above his storefront. Having been an avid collector of tribal carpets for sometime, I stopped and asked how much for he wanted for the Turkmen. After a tough negotiating session that lasted well into the night, we finally agreed on a price. I was quite excited about my purchase, especially that I had had no intention of buying anything when I entered the bazaar earlier that evening.
When I arrived in Beirut I proudly exhibited my latest acquisition to my mother-in- law who was a connoisseur in her own right due to all the family heirlooms that she had inherited over the years. After inspecting it closely, she asked how much I had paid. When I disclosed the price, she condescendingly declared: “It’s full of holes; you got ripped off.”
Looking back, I feel very fortunate to have visited Syria when I did. I have a multitude of friends in the Middle East who regret never having made the journey when they had the opportunity. Recently, on a visit to Beirut, one of my wife’s childhood friends stopped by to chat and the topic of Syria came up, as it often does these days due to the fighting that occasionally spills over the border.
“Jean-Luc and I were always planning to take the kids on a road trip through Syria,” she declared, “and now I’m kicking myself for not having done so.” She went on to say, “We were stupid; instead of taking our holidays close to home we always made it a point to travel somewhere far.”
I was lucky because for two decades I frequently traveled to Syria for work. Occasionally my wife joined me, but unfortunately we were never able to take our two children with us.
One of my favorite places to visit was Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital. Like the Damascus, Aleppo is considered to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the 6th millennium B.C. Aleppo’s success as a trading center goes back centuries when it acted as a vital link for caravans traveling the Silk Road. Aleppo is one of six UNESCO World Heritage sites within Syria, and all have been damaged by the conflict.
Up until September 2012, the historic old city of Aleppo had been sparred the wanton destruction caused by Syria’s civil war. However, on 28 September 2012, fighting broke out between government forces and the rebels quickly spreading to the old city and the souk, believed to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. Within hours, the market was up in flames and over the course of the next few days more than a hundred shops were torched and portions of the medieval vaulted ceiling collapsed.
I can’t recall how many times I visited Aleppo, but I know that nearly every time I went for work or tourism, I spent part of my time exploring the covered bazaar, the surrounding old city, and the Citadel. To this day, one of my fondest memories of Aleppo was when I visited with my wife for a short holiday in June 2004. We stayed at my favorite hotel, Dar Zamaria, located in the Armenian Christian quarter known as Jdeideh which sits on a hill overlooking the old city. Dar Zamaria was a traditional 19th century Ottoman style house that was home to the Zamaria family. Like many of the old homes in Jdaideh, it was converted into a boutique hotel in the late 1990s when Aleppo went through a tourism revival of sorts.
The cuisine at Dar Zamaria was superb, featuring a variety Middle Eastern dishes including kibbeh halabiyeh, an Aleppine specialties of cracked wheat, minced meat, diced onions and a good dose of spices. Nearly all the rooms at Dar Zamaria overlooked a central covered courtyard which served as a dining area. No two rooms were alike, so it was always a surprise to enter any of them for the first time. Above the hotel was a patio garden which offered a spectacular view of the Citadel as it towered above the old city.
Everyday my wife and I took long walks, down the hill, through the Jdeideh quarter to the covered bazaar. What really set Aleppo’s bazaar apart from all the other souks in the Middle East was that it remained the most authentic during a time when many old markets became dumping grounds for cheap Chinese goods. Sure, you could find the odd shop that sold tacky plastic trinkets, but for the most part the old souk, with its 10 kilometers of covered passageways, was a “living” bazaar that catered to the people of Aleppo. The bazaar was divided into different areas that specialized in spices, perfume, fabric, gold, dried fruits and nuts, brass and Aleppo’s famous soap made from olive oil.
Over the centuries, many invaders took over the city leaving their mark on Aleppo, but no assault left a devastating trail of destruction as the present conflict. The Syrian civil war, still raging after four years, has completely decimated this ancient city. The covered bazaar is in ruins, and the 11th century minaret inside the Umayyad Mosque has been reduced to rubble. The Citadel, which is considered to be the oldest castle in the world dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C., is now caught in a deadly crossfire between government forces and the rebels. Nobody knows the fate of the giant wooden door that once graced the entrance of the fortress. Some reports say it was stolen while others say it was destroyed by artillery. Either way, it is just among a long list of historic troves that have suffered irreversible damage.
From the images that I have seen on the Internet and on television, the old city is beyond recognition, like the charred corpse of someone you once knew. Jdeideh, my old haunt, resembles Dresden after WWII and Dar Zamaria has been reduced to a burnt out shell.
My heart sinks when I recall my many journeys through Syria as there is no turning back the clock. The places that I cherished are now a memory stored in my heart and in the photos that I took. Even when the hostilities stop, there will be a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the country and its political and geographical makeup. The only thing for certain is that after such bloodshed and destruction, the healing process will be slow and arduous.