Wandering the souq, dodging carpet salesmen, and trawling dusty copper workshops...
21.02.2010 - 24.02.2010 15 °C
The bus ride to Aleppo from Damascus was both long and filled with sights of massive highway accidents: a huge haulage truck crashed through concrete median barriers; gigantic concrete cylinders strewn across the road in another. Once in Aleppo, we hopped into a taxi to go to our hotel, but not without experiencing the second blatant over-charging taxi ride of the day, despite both cars having meters.
We ditched our packs and, being beer o’clock in the evening, we headed to the nearby Baron Hotel, a famous haunt of Agatha Christie and TE Lawrence. We tried a bottle of delicious Syrian red wine, ‘Chateau de L’Oronte’ and were so enamoured we repeated the experience. We also got to see the aforementioned guest’s rooms. They were a little sparse, but still had an old world charm about them. We were approached by a suited, fatherly “Mr Walid”, who was a manager at Baron Hotel and enquired whether we had planned any tours in Syria. As we’ve mainly being travelling independently, we shook our head, and his eyes lit up as he handed us a folder filled with emails of thanks and recommendations by other travellers who have booked trips with him. We outlined the sights we wanted to see, but unfortunately the price for a six-day tour was out of our budget. We said we’d have a think though, as he was very affable and the testimonies were excellent.
The following morning, after the ubiquitous breakfast of bread, stringy cheese, olives, yoghurty labneh and hummus, we paid a visit to Mr Walid and informed him we were sorry but would not be taking a tour. He remained cheerful and asked us what was our budget for 6 days. We sheepishly disclosed the much lower amount, and after tapping on his calculator he delighted in telling us that he could lower the accommodation options and meet our budget, as we were like a son and daughter to him. We were touched and happy that we could relax in terms of planning and travel the next week.
We thanked Mr Walid and headed to Souq Bab Antakaya, and entered through a walled bab. Just like Damascus’ souqs, it is an atmospheric working market, filled with smells of spices, the bustle of locals buying their daily goods, and bright colours of handicraft stores. The market was closed in and the ceilings were arched with a balck and grey cobbled roof. We stopped to look at all the food and meat on offer - butcher shops had camel necks and carcasses hanging right by trays of pastries on sale - and saw a lot of honeycomb for sale, a sight we don’t often see at home. Many vendors greeted us as we passed their shops, and quite a few would eagerly tell us of relatives or friends they had who married or lived in Australia or New Zealand. One guy made us laugh, saying he lived in NSW, and when we asked him what rugby league team he supported, said of course it was the Bulldogs, as he was Arab…?! Another was quite taken with Jac’s green cotton harem pants and twice offered to buy them from her!
We exited the top of the uphill-sloping souq and hit the Citadel, an imposing structure upon a huge mound of earth. Apparently the mound is a natural feature that once served as place of worship. It was a surprisingly large site, all very preserved (well, from our amateur point of view) and had some striking features (pointed out by trusty Lonely Planet) such as a heavily fortified keep and a wide exposed bridge to ensure attackers were vulnerable. Defence here consisted of showers of arrows and boiling oil poured through the rows of machicolations. Also the first gate was set to the right, rather than right in front of the bridge, to prevent charges with a battering ram.
We had fun wandering the grounds of the Citadel - the huge halls, prison area, and the remains of an Ayyubid palace, characterised by the familiar black and white walls. We also saw a beautiful throne room with a marvellous decorated wooden ceiling. Also visiting the Citadel that day, was a class or two of cute 7 or 8-year olds, who noisily skipped through the site, and happily shouted “hello, hello, hello!” and waved as they passed us.
Afterwards, as we walked back towards the souq, we fielded another cheerful “Hello, where are from?” from a Syrian man. “Australian?” he added, before we even opened our mouths - good spotting! It turns out he was a Syrian-Italian (“No one is perfect!”) and owned a nearby shop, that Jac and coincidentally earmarked in guidebook to visit. For the next two hours looked at jewellery, lamps, mosaic boxes… and carpets. The owner and his assistant were more than happy to show us carpets, despite us telling him we weren‘t really after one, and taught us to say the informal instruction, [i]sheela, if we wanted to put away a kilm or carpet. As mentioned, we weren’t even in the market for carpets, but the skilful ‘no pressure’ pressure selling technique (and ample servings of tea) saw us actually narrow down all that we saw to two preferred options - a richly coloured red antique carpet (in the carpet business, ‘old’ means very expensive) and a muted beige kilim or mat. However the price for both was steep (think multiples of thousands) and we left saying we’d have a think about it, as it would cut almost a month off our travel plans!
After the narrow hit and miss, we re-entered the souq and sought out Khan al-Sabun, and Khan al-Jumuk, two old open courtyard travellers inns that now contained shops. We lunched on delicious street-stall wraps, farooj (chicken) for Jac, and felafel for Chalky. Aleppo is known for its aged olive soaps, so we also sought out the Aleppo soap factory - the door was closed, but upon knocking we were let in to roam the factory ourselves, gaping at the huge vats of chemical ingredients.
After wandering around the whole day we thought we should return to our Syrian-Italian’s shop to euphemistically tell him we weren’t sure about the carpets and needed more time… he was crestfallen to discover we hadn’t returned to buy both let alone one of his rugs. He then asked us about tours - we told him we’d booked one with Mr Walid, and he grimaced at that and told us, when we disclosed a ball-park figure, that we’d paid too much. Also he seemed of the opinion that we were also paying too much for our budget hotel. After that, we spent the next couple of days walking the long way around the area, to avoid bumping into the shop owner.
Another part of Aleppo we explored was the charming, Armenian quarter or Al-Jedidah. The Christianity stood out to us, having been in Islamic countries for near on 3 months, and almost felt like a European town, as we spied local shops selling croissants. There were lots of cute shops selling Oriental jewellery, and we focused on seeking out these small copper and glass lamps we’d seen earlier in an expensive shop, and walked and walked to find the copper quarter. After poking our heads into workshops, lured by the industrious clanking and hammering sounds, we almost gave up until we were approached by a worker to follow him back up the street. After initially declining and thanking him, tired after our fruitless search, we decided to follow him into his tiny workshop, which was dark and very dusty. We spent a while trying to explain with sign language and drawings (square body with glass panels and a small door to put candles through, an angular diamond-shaped bottom) he searched amongst his wares and pulled out various versions of lamps. None were what we were after, and we almost gave up for good when he miraculously pulled the exact one out! We motioned to him that we actually wanted 6, so the next ten minutes was spent playing eye-spy amongst all the piles of copper goods, and one by one we found all 6! Next was the negotiation - both parties sat down to some haggling with lots of headshaking by him and nodding by us at our offers, when finally a deal was struck and everyone was happy. Next task… how to send the darn things home!
Door and canaries near the souq
An old souq door
Exploring the souq
Chalky under the terrific cobbled roof
Inscriptions above the right-angled entrance
Don't think that stone will fit through the arrow slit...
Stone lions flanking an interior door
Jac in the underground prison area
"Hello, hello, hello!"
The view of the moat and Aleppo
The Throne Room
A kilm and carpet we almost bought
Some Syrian girls who wanted their photo taken with Tom, we mean Chalky
Chalky in one of the Khans (Travellers' Inns)
An intricate shoe-shine stand
Standing outside the Soap Factory
Inside the Soap Factory
Syrian school boys near Bab (Gate) Qinnersrin
The Armenian quarter of Al Jdeidah and its surrounds
On the way to Al Jdeidah
Roaming Al Jdeidah
Al Jdeidah - the Saahat al-Hatab area
A stave of avian musical notes
A Maronite Cathedral
High Street - Sharia Al Tilal
Jac with a tamarind juice seller
Spot the specifically sought-after copper lamp
Jac and the copper-lamp vendor, happy after the deal was struck
Jac and Chalky with Mr Walid