Smashing the Stigma of Syria
I'm having a blast here in Aleppo. Yesterday was an absolute whirlwind of nonstop activity—nearly 11 hours it lasted outside of the house, most of it on foot.
Alone, I taxied out to a central part of town and met up with a Russian/Syrian CS host (Jameel) who was born in Russia (mother's side) but spent everything but those initial two months living in Aleppo (though speaks fluent Russian). He couldn't host me (I'd contacted him before), but was more than happy to play the tour guide for the day.
Joining us were two spunky Russian women in their mid-forties, also CouchSufers, and two English-speaking Syrian buddies of Jameel's—making us a sizable cluster of six.
I blew out an entire memory card in this day alone—over 300 images and videos. It was like four or five days of information, sights, smells, tastes, conversation, and Arabic introduction in one. Culture up to my eyes and then some.
Jameel has just finished his undergrad in archeology, seems well-connected around town, and was a stunning treasure-trove of knowledge on all things Aleppo. We ate fun, unique new foods; sipped tea in his buddy's shop; hopped around on the rooftops of Aleppo; toured this massive citadel in the center of town (complete with what I'm convinced is the best, most informative guided tour I've ever had, courtesy of Jameel's brain and enthusiasm); ran through myriad bazaars and mosques (including a real huge one that's said to contain the tomb of Saint John the Baptist's father); visited a discrete, historic little soap factory still in use (learning the process of how they create Aleppo's immensely popular soap from boiled olive oil); and visited a historic mental institution that used darkened cells and the sound of running water to treat stress and illnesses.
I listened to stories regarding the anguish of Syria's two-year mandatory stints in the military for young men, and the secret police interviewing one of the Syrian guys with us because some five years ago he had long hair and beard and was reported as a "devil worshiper"— no joke when these guys come knockin', as he could've been imprisoned. But this fellow said things have change for the better considerably in the past five years.
The evening kept going and we were joined by more CouchSurfers and travelers for a huge dinner of many great Syrian foods that I've never tasted anything like before. Damn good eatin'.
I feel jealous by all the languages people are able to speak around me. Most can speak three or four fluently. French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, English… pick and choose from the assortment.
Encountered were lots and lots of friendly men, inquisitive children, and curious culinary oddities to be found everywhere. My threat detector isn't going off in the least, save for my steady paranoia about pickpockets in crowds.
Seeing the level-ten Muslim ninjas in their head-to-toe black garb (gloves and all) is pretty wild; no eye slits—nothing—just fabric. But apparently this city—the second largest in Syria—is over a quarter Christian! There's a huge Christian district with cathedrals, bars, contemporary clothing, liquor stores, etc.
One of the Syrian guys I was running around with us yesterday was all about insisting that I had some photos with me in the frame, so there are few more of those than normal mixed in with those from the experience.
There are loads of photos in the album for Aleppo, but here's a large sampling of some yesterday's memories:
Sweets for Sale and a Light Lunch
In and Around the Souks (Bazaars)
( video: Frying Egg in Oil in Syria )
Six for Tea
Playing on the Rooftops of Aleppo (Directly Above the Souks)
The City's Massive Citadel
Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world; it knew human settlement since the 11th millennium BC.
The Citadel is a large fortress built atop a huge, partially artificial mound rising 50 meters above the city. It is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world.
Usage of the Citadel hill dates back at least to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Subsequently occupied by many civilizations including the Greeks, Byzantines, Ayyubids and Mamluks. The current structure dates from the 13th century and had been extensively damaged by earthquakes.
Aleppo's Ancient Tradition of Making Soap
The composition of traditional Aleppo soap includes olive oil, oil of Bay Laurel berries and soda ash (sodium carbonate). The history of the soap industry in the Middle East dates back over nearly five millennia, and the production of Aleppo soap hasn't changed much since its inception, with the tradition being passed to each generation.
Pictured below you can see large pots used to boil the oil, after which it's pumped up stairs (previously carried) and poured on the inset, wax-papered floor. The soap eventually dries, at which point workers divide the area with a rake into the individual bars of soap.
The soap bars are stacked and left to dry for around nine months, during which time the outside turns a darker shade—sometimes brown, sometimes a muddy emerald.
See also: Nabulsi soap
Healing with Sound
The Great Mosque
The Great Mosque (constructed in the year 717) is built around a vast courtyard that connects to different areas of the mosque, positioned behind the colonnaded arcade. The courtyard is well-known for its black and white stone pavement that forms complex geometric patterns.
The mosque is said to contain the remains of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Pictured below is the rather entertaining partition used to divide the men and women who wish to view the tomb, toss money through the grate.