The International Writers Magazine: Middle East Travel
SOUKS - A CAPTIVATING PAGE FROM THE PAST
we treaded the ancient alleyways of Aleppo, Syria's second largest
city, I thought that I had travelled back to the medieval world.
The labyrinth of stone- roofed souks have not changed for hundred
of years. Consisting of over 12 km (8 mi) of vaulted arches and
subterranean passageways that remind travellers of Roman catacombs,
they wind in every direction.
Built by Al-Malik
az-Zaher, Saladin's son, whose tomb is located at the entrance of the
souk opposite the famed Aleppo Citadel, every one of these narrow thoroughfares
is considered to be a living museum of past ages.
As in the past, this largest bazaar in the Middle East, called the Great
Bazaar and made up of thirty interlinked markets and khans, is a medieval
wonder. It hums with activity - mostly Syrians shoppers, but with an
ever-increasing number of tourists. A great number of the people of
Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, especially labourers and peasants
do their daily purchasing in this maze of covered streets. For the inhabitants,
they are a daily market place, but for visitors, an exotic experience
of shopping in the aura of the middle ages.
The epitome of eastern bazaars, this network of covered souks, which
have not fundamentally changed since the 12th century, is the most striking
in any Islamic city. Teeming with activity and dramatically lighted
up by shafts of light arrowing down from the high vaulted roofs, these
medieval market places are genuine.
Artisan goods, brushes, clothing, fabrics, foods, leather and wooden
articles, perfumes, ropes, threads, spices and the products of the 20th
century are displayed against the thick stone passageways. As in medieval
times, every type of merchandise has its place.
From souk to souk, the world of exhibited wares changes. In one section
are stalls piled high with balls of strings and thread, sparkling with
all the colours of the rainbow. Next door, handmade brushes and brooms
hang from walls like large tree-leaves, and baskets, in all shapes and
sizes, are attached to ceilings like colourfully painted lamp shades.
Beyond, bales of fabrics displayed in dome-like stalls are an open invitation
to attractive Bedouin women and chic city ladies alike. They vie with
each other in crumpling the cloth with their hands - testing its texture
in the traditional oriental method. After endless haggling, figures
are agreed upon and both buyer and vendor feel content. Rare is a person
who leaves without making a purchase.
Dotted among the shops and, in places, edging each other, leather craftsmen,
rope-makers and metal workers ply their trades. Some transform great
sheets of brass, copper or iron into pans, pots and endless other products.
Some distance away, men convert gold and silver into exquisite jewellery.
For tourists, the handiwork of these craftsmen, the art of which has
been, for hundreds of years, handed down from father to son, is a world
of oriental splendour.
We watched these artisans for a while, then left to enter the winter-like
wonderland of raw cotton and combed wool, piled in bales of dazzling
white. The young men beating the wool with long thin whips appeared
to produce falls of fluffy snow in the cobbled souks. In sharp contrast
to this activity, were the men carrying sheep carcasses on their shoulders
through the odour of the meat stalls. As we passed, men stripping the
meat from heads of sheep smiled when they saw us watching their agile
hands at work.
Every once and a while we would have to move quickly when wheelbarrows
piled with goods came up behind us. At other times, porters carrying
heavy loads would push us into the open doorways of the shops. As we
moved along we became confused by the merchants greetings of bonjour,
hello, ola, ciao and gutentag, seemingly missing out on the Arabic salamu
alaykum, in their attempts to make the visitors feel at home.
All activity seemed to fit into this medieval scene in this ancient
marketplace that has found the secret of eternal life.
I was thinking of these pedestrian-irritating vehicles when, as we turned
a corner, a multitude of enticing perfume smells assailed us. Allspice,
aniseed, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn and dried henna, used
to decorate the palms of women, were attractively piled on the ground,
atop tables and on trays.
Their aromas intoxicated us and we seemed to move in a world of make-believe.
Passing a merchant who was snoring while he inhaled the aromatic fragrance
of his spices, I remarked to my daughter, "This must have been
how the Arabian Nights were conceived."
When we lost interest in the souks' countless products, we moved on
to examine the old hammams (baths) and two-story khans (caravanserais)
where in the bygone ages merchants with their goods, horses and camels
were lodged. They were entered from the souks through fortified doorways,
leading into grand courtyards where the animals were tethered amid sacks
and bales of merchandise.
The surrounding ground floors were utilized as stables and for warehousing
goods while the top stories were used as living quarters. All these
old inns had huge wooden doors, decorated facades and high-arched entrances
and some were very famous - known by travellers as far-away as China.
Some of these still-standing khans are Khan al-Wazeer, Khan al-Saboon,
Khan al- Gumrok (Custom's Caravanserai) and Khan al-Nahaseen (Coppersmith
Caravanserai ). Khan al-Gumrok, which dates from the 17th century, was
the headquarters of the British Company of the Levant and, at one time
housed the British, Dutch and French consulates. Today, its ground floor
is crammed with shops and the top story is utilized as living quarters.
Khan al-Nahaseen, in the heart of the Great Bazaar, dates from the 15th
century and is the oldest continuously inhabited building in Aleppo.
It once housed the Venetian consulate and later became known as the
house of Monsieur Poche - for many years the Belgium Consul in Aleppo.
Today, the khan, which overshadows Hammam en-Nahaseen - the oldest public
bath in the city - is used for various handicraft activities.
After visiting these khans with their adjoining souks, it became apparent
to us that we were seeing a dream-like picture from a long gone world
- the past ages when Aleppo was the pivot of Middle Eastern commerce
and one of the most important cities on earth. It is an image that one
rarely encounters in this modern world.
© Habeeb Salloum Oct 2005
IF YOU GO
Facts to Know When Travelling in Syria:
1) All foreigners entering Syria require a visa, which is best obtained
from an embassy or consulate outside of Syria. Visas are valid for 15
days, but can be extended once inside the country.
2) Convert money only in banks - some located in hotels. New exchange
rates have eliminated the once thriving black market. Currently $1.
U.S. equals about 54 Syrian liras in banks.
3) Despite being depicted in some of the Western media as a land full
of terrorists, Syria is very safe for travellers - one of the safest
countries in the world. Even women travelling alone find few problems.
Urban crime, which plagues most modern cities, is virtually non-existent
4) City transportation in Aleppo is efficient - taxis are metered and
5) For foreigners, all hotel bills must be paid in U.S. dollars - much
more expensive than that charged for Syrians and Lebanese who can pay
in Syrian liras.
6) Aleppo is the gourmet capital of the Middle East. The city's food
is varied and usually very tasty and reasonably priced. One of the top
places to eat is Beit Wakil Hotel - Restaurant, Jdeidah Plaza, Al Hatab
Square. Tel: 221-7169/2247063. Amid Arabic decor one can dine on the
best of Aleppo food. Al Challal Restaurant, Al Azizieh, Tel: 2243344
cost of meal $5. Hogop Restaurant, a peoples eating-place
offering the finest kabab in Aleppo since 1961 - costs about $3. However,
for the mother of all meals, a buffet in the Chahba Cham Palace on Friday
and Saturday should not be missed. It includes the top foods in the
Middle East - cost about $20.
7) Internet cafes are found in all the major cities in Syria. Many use
DSL and are very up-to-date. In luxury hotels the price is from $6.
to $7.; in regular cafes from $1. to $2.
Good Places to Stay in Aleppo:
The top places to stay in Syria are the Cham Palaces and Hotels - a
deluxe chain covering the whole of the country. In Aleppo, the Chahba
Cham Palace Hotel is the place to stay. For prices and for reserving
rooms in all the Cham Palace Hotels in Syria, check http://www.chamhotels.com
In addition, there are a series of budget hotels in Aleppo like the
run-down but renowned Baron Hotel where a double room, including breakfast,
costs about $40. per day.
Note: All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars.
For Further Information, Contact: Syrian Embassy, Ottawa, 151 Slater
Street, Suite 1000, Ottawa Ontario, Canada, K1P 5H3. Tel: 613-569- 5556.
Fax: 613-569- 3800. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Embassy of
the Syrian Arab Republic, 2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington D.C., 20008
U.S.A. Tel. 202/232-6313. Fax : 202-234-9548. E-mail: email@example.com
or see website:
To contact Habeeb:firstname.lastname@example.org
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