Flames have destroyed the ancient souk of Aleppo, burning medieval storehouses, countless small shops, a hammam, and once elegant courtyards. The troops of the Syrian president-for-life and the desperate rebels determined to end his ruthless dictatorship have battled across the city's boulevards, streets, and suburban neighborhoods.
Historic mosques, traditional schools, and countless homes have been leveled. The clouds of dark smoke that continue to rise from Aleppo's historic center, one of the cultural treasures of the world, signal an irretrievable loss not just for Aleppo and Syria but for all of us.
The horror falling on ancient Aleppo, as well as on other cities in Syria, has brought back to me in a rush how quickly my wife and I yielded to the spell of its narrow streets, centuries-old buildings, and massive souks. It’s not surprising that Aleppo’s historic center was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO back in 1986.
We remember walking along narrow alleys between medieval caravanserais, hammams, mosques, schools, and mansions sometimes leaning so far over the cobblestones that the overhanging wooden windows of their upper floors almost touched. We remember the ancient city walls and massive stone gates, the 12th century Great Mosque, and the astonishing honey-colored medieval Citadel. We also remember the giant photographs of the grim-faced dictator staring down over the squares and streets.
We remember the sprawling, fascinating souks – those elaborate covered networks of bazaars and stores. We became happily lost as we maneuvered past tiny shops, entrances to hammams, displays of every type of merchandise, men pulling wooden carts piled high with bolts of cloth and other wares, even donkeys trudging beneath their great loads. Sometimes, we had to jump out of the way of a darting motorcycle, avoiding colliding with women wearing traditional hijab. Other times, we hesitated to watch elegantly -- although modestly -- clad women and their children perusing stacks of silk cloth or bargaining for fashionable shoes or up-to-date housewares. Of course, we couldn’t resist stopping to sip hot sweet tea with shopkeepers in red-check kaffiyeh head coverings.
Are battles really rage on Aleppo’s boulevards, historic squares, and ancient streets? How can it be possible? Aleppo competes with Damascus for the title of the longest continually inhabited city in the world and in 2006 was designated the Islamic Capital of Culture. Aleppo grew rich because it was at the end of the Silk Road. Its souks were the largest and most splendid in the world – the first malls. Here, precious fabrics came from the Orient, frankincense and myrrh and spices from Yemen, shawls and carpets from Baghdad. More than 100 years ago, the young T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” was as enthralled as we were by the spicy aromas, gorgeous colors, and endless of variety of old Aleppo.
Beyond the city, its historic suburbs are rich with ancient treasures. Several historic sites and ancient villages around Aleppo have been declared collectively by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site – an irreplaceable treasure that must be protected for generations to come. Even these, however, have been damaged by recent battles.
The great souk of Aleppo: more than five acres beneath vaulted stone ceilings that contain the rich smells of cardamom and cloves and strong Turkish coffee – and the cries of hawkers and braying of donkeys. Often, before braving the maze under that ceiling, we sat in one of the open air cafes near the limestone citadel and watched the life of the city and the crowds surging in and out of the arched entrances to the vast souk. A group of boys sometimes played a fierce game of soccer in the citadel moat. As we sat there, young students joined us, eager to practice their English, to ask about our homeland, and to set us straight about their country.
“America!” said one boy. “We love American people. Your government, not always, but you, yes.”
Later, as we followed a long covered alley inside the souk, past textiles, perfume, household goods, and food markets, as well as a whole neighborhood devoted to gold and silver, we passed the Hammam En-Nahassen, one of the oldest Turkish baths in Aleppo and Syria. We glanced down the steps to the ancient tiled changing and resting room, with its carpeted platforms and ornate decorations, and the bare-chested attendants in their sarong-like futa wraps and wooden sandals. Not far from the hammam was a small mosque, where the faithful could take a break from either business or bathing, face Mecca, and pray.
One day, I returned to the hammam after exploring the ancient byways of Aleppo. After a steam and a traditional, bone-crushing Arab massage, I recuperated on one of the carpet-covered sofas in an outer room and sipped a reviving glass of strong Syrian tea. Above me rose marble-clad walls, rays of light falling from the elegant pattern of small round holes in the domed ceiling.
Wandering in a contented daze beneath the dark, patchwork roof of the great souk, I stopped at a small, cramped shop that sold antiques and small objects. My eyes were drawn to an antique brass pen holder with an attached inkwell. The ornate, interlocking design etched into the brass intrigued me. I lifted the little scallop-shaped cap to the inkwell and popped open the lid to the shaft made to hold pens and brushes.
As I left the shop with the newspaper-wrapped treasure in my hand, I saw four tent-like figures in black facing the bright display window opposite, just across the narrow cobblestone lane. Even their gesturing hands were hidden by the black fabric. Behind the smudged glass, three voluptuous mannequins flaunted bright dresses with plunging necklines and short skirts that displayed most of their angular plastic bodies. I was reminded that, although the Syrian women dress modestly in public, in the privacy of their own homes they enjoy pretty, sexy clothes as much as any women in the world – another example of the fascinating, sometimes surprising, complexity of the Middle East.
For years, I’ve delighted in the ancient, yet changing, beauty of the Middle East and have appreciated the generosity and warmth of the people in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and the other countries of the area. This is why a large part of my new book, DELPHINE, is set in the Middle East, and why it’s heartbreaking to see these people endure such painful, violent hardships, now. Aleppo remains one of my favorite cities in the world and Syria one of the countries I've most enjoyed exploring. There are no easy answers, but I hope that the Syrian people will emerge safe and in control of their own destinies.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and by order from your local bookstore.