March 12, 2009

Smashing the Stigma of Syria
Aleppo, 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.



The United States


April 1st, 2009

Looks like a great time craig…you continue to make me jealous of your lifestyle. How long do you plan to stay in Syria? Maybe Iran next? The Rick Steves episode in Iran was interesting, although some of his interactions were cringe worthy (he was clearly out of his element). But the episode did humanize Iran for western viewers, much as your uncovering of Syria does for your readers…good stuff..looks like a must stop for travellers…


Craig |

April 1st, 2009

I have little doubt that Syria will ultimately become my favoriate country in the Middle East, much like Colombia in South America. Love these stigma countries!

Alas, (the bureaucracy of getting into) Iran will keep me out this year. Hopefully I'll get there later down the road…

I'm posting regular location updates (current and future) to the Twitter page. Hate twitter? That's cool, you can grab that modified RSS feed I put together. Click on the little twitter badge in the new sidebar I added to the travelogue pages to get to it.



April 2nd, 2009

Hey Craig!

Stoked to read that you're back on the move–and in the middle east! I'm currently residing in Cairo [made the move about six months ago] and if you ever decide to roll through the Om, my girlfriend and I would be more than happy to CShost you. Cheers!

The United States


April 3rd, 2009


you have some nice artwork on your site.



January 4th, 2012

Beautiful photos…How about syrian people? Are they nice? Friendly? The architecture seems very amazing, unique..Wow!

The United States

Craig |

January 4th, 2012

@Emily: Never anything short of warm and welcoming towards me.

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.