“I miss the burning sun of Aleppo. Placing my hand on the stoned walls and feeling the heat with the smell of summer. Cars honking. Syrian spirit. Middle eastern probably. I hate silent streets, I probably got that from life there. It's always flaming with people and nothing is more joyful.”
They say some of the days are getting better with time , but this brings pain just as deep as the beauty that comes with more peaceful days or safer times. Our memories are everywhere, some springing back in physical form – as buildings, as homes – others holding onto the photos and corners of our minds that keep them alive. But you can take a tour through it all.
To completely discover the city, you must go where its heart meets, The Citadel of Aleppo in the old city, one of the biggest citadels in the world and immense pride for locals.
Though you may be just visiting, know that we say you are not a real Aleppian if you haven’t visited the site every chance you get. It is magnificent – visit for breakfast and then explore inside. You could do this your entire lifetime and still make new discoveries as you run up the stairs to observe the entire city from up high.
If you needed to boost your energy, the square in front of the citadel offered a vast array of coffee shops and restaurant. Before the war, it was the place to be. But the entire square has been destroyed. Still, The Citadel stands high above. Still, something is missing. The Aleppo we once knew. But it will be back, we will visit it, and it will be rebuilt by all its people hand in hand.
If you keep walking around the citadel, you’ll find Souk Al-Mdineh, one of the oldest and largest souk in the world. A true reflection of the city that built the commercial core of Syria notably through the Silk Road trades.
Perhaps what makes the souk so terrific – and after the war, so tragic – is that it holds deep meaning for every Aleppian, like the mother getting her spices, the grandmother bringing treats home from the sweet shops behind the Great Mosque of Aleppo, or the aunt buying fabric and always trying to get the best prices. What makes it so authentic, so beautiful? The artisans who have been working in it for decades. They were and are a part of it, they were and are it. But there is much work to do to save what was lost. One of the biggest tragedies that happened in Syria during the current war was in September 2012 when a big part of the souk was set on fire, destroying centuries and centuries of history. Now we have memories and a promise in our hearts to build again, honoring traditions while embracing the present .
In Khan Al-Shuneh, a separated part of the souk in front of the citadel, there used to be artisans weaving on the loom. This is precision is to cherish. Relish. Admire. Despite the challenges, we have hope. Before you visit, you must meet our craft heritage. Our hope.
Suddenly, you sense an incredible smell. You start sneezing. Aleppo is famous for its spices and “Souk el ‘eterin” , has a story of its own. Pass by with a local Aleppian and you’ll feel all types of memories reviving…
“Souk El Saboun,” or “the soap souk”, an important part of a city famous for its soap, called “Saboun Halab” or “Saboun Ghar” translating to “Laurel Soap”. It is made out of olive oil, lye and most importantly, laurel oil – the substance that defines its quality…the higher the concentration, the better. Breathe deeply.
It smells like the richest memories and stories of Aleppo because it is always handmade. And, like wine, the older the soap gets, the better it is. Good thing Aleppo Soap is one of the oldest soaps in the world, if not the oldest. Aleppians have a way with being the first, the earliest, the longest enduring, always continuing. In older times, Aleppo soap was the cleaning product used for everything, from body, to hair and laundry washing. It is considered magic to this day – the answer to any stain, to stronger hair, to softer skin. Back in the days, it was the gift everyone dreamed to get when visiting friends and family living abroad.
Beyond souks, other markets, Aleppo’s Khans and old Aleppo hold (immense) great history. Your shopping transforms in a journey every single time you visit…
Aleppo’s ancient city is also very famous for its Hammams, a short walk from the citadel, too. They are places of cleansing but also gathering. Family. Cooking. Togetherness. Yes, in Aleppo, the hammam was like a social club, not just a place to cleanse yourself at…and after the Citadel, explore Hammam Al-Nahhasin, built around the XII century and is located inside Souk Al-Mdineh. Keep in mind – men and women go at different times, and there are also special hours to visit.
Move from cleansing to healing. Down the ancient city, near Bab Qinnisrin in the narrowed streets of Aleppo, lays Bimaristan Argun Al Kamili. Built in the 1354 by Argun Al Kamili, Bimaristan Argun Al Kamili is a very old mental health asylum (“Bimaristan” means “hospital” in Persian). Strong like the city, it is fortified in its entirety. Throughout the property, find fountains at the heart of every area. It was once believed the sound of the water fountain streaming would help calm and heal the patients. Can you feel this power today?
Imagination is an antidote to the destruction this city has experienced. Let the city speak to you through what’s missing, and what is being recovered: Bab Al-Faraj, “The Gate of Deliverance”, was demolished in 1904, but today is evolving with reconstruction and preservation of the remains. Another notable gem of the city is Bab Al-Faraj, a square and a stunning clock tower built around 1898. Take a deep breathe, and you’ll consume a contradiction both complicated and beautiful: old and new.
Curious? Learn where Aleppians learn. Right in front of Bab Al Faraj, The National Library of Aleppo was built in 1930 and opened in 1945. A symbol and sanctuary for the mind.
Jdeideh District, one of the oldest areas of Aleppo, lays outside of the historic walls of the ancient City. Its corners intrigue…old narrowed streets and alleys, old Arab-styled houses and mansions, churches and jewelry shops, especially silver jewelry shops. In this mostly Christian district, you’ll meet many of Aleppo’s most significant churches. In Jdeideh, Al Hatab Square is the heartbeat, the center. Though it’s sprinkled with silver jewelers, hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, the war has deeply damaged the area, Al Hatab Square feeling the devastation most acutely. You’ll see this stretch across Aleppo – a city at once beautiful.
As you continue, meet Sahet Saadaallah Al-Jabri, a square named after Saadallah Al-Jabri, a man who served twice as prime minister of Syria in the 40’s. Relish being at the center of some of Aleppo’s most moving relics. Reach many different streets since this square sits in between the road taking you to Azizieh , the public garden and the ones taking you to the old city and Djamilieh. As it used to be surrounded by many hotels, memories of previous visitors whisper around…
The public garden Al Hadiqa el Aameh vibrates with memories of Aleppo at its best: older people used to walk around, reminiscing about old memories, feeling nostalgic, showing the place to their grandchildren. Indeed, this place was always filled with grandparents and their grandchildren…a garden fertile for every generation.
Every corner of this city teaches you how we learn and live. A perfect example is Omnia, a library that sold books and school materials. It became a ritual: Every end of August, parents and their children used to gather here, buying what they needed for school.
This area is the city’s main Jewish street. Even though their number has highly decreased with time, Syrian Jews often lived in Djamilieh – if you explore today, you can still find a synagogue. A potent reminder…to this day, we hear the stories of coexistence, how Muslims and Christians used to help their Jewish friends and neighbors during Shabbat so they could practice their religion accordingly. This is what you should celebrate when entering, visiting, exploring, a city of coexistence, solidarity and deep respect.
Feeling the travel bug? M7atet Baghdad is the railway station of Aleppo. Locals will tell you about journeying here to reach Lattakia during spring and summer. The journey was always long, but well worth it. In order to pass the time, we used to make up songs out of the names of the cities we passed by on the road. Can you hear the whir of the trains and passengers? Like its history and headlines, the memories of this city are everywhere.
You can feel the layers of this city everywhere. Aleppo is very well known for the coexistence of its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious people. Here you’ll meet Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Kurds, Circassians...and practicing Muslims, Christians to Jews. Together all thrive and respect our city’s rich tapestry, but it is considered rude to ask about someone’s religion here, and even in Syria in general.
Feel this coexistence through its greatest symbol: Jamaa el Tawhid / The Mosque of Tawhid, situated in the center of the city. It has four minarets and around each minaret lays a Church. And when the muezzin calls for prayer 5 times a day, the bells of the churches ring. Listen close as the most beautiful melody of Aleppo covers the city.
If you wander towards the souk, you’ll find the Omayyad Mosque in the old city, the biggest and oldest mosque in Aleppo. Every Aleppian has visited it once whether Muslim or not. Today it is famous for tragedy. Sadly, it has been deeply destroyed during the war and its minaret has fallen. It is hard to explain how hurtful this is to the history of Aleppo and its citizens. But the dust settles. Restoration begins. This mosque is living, breathing, just like us. Its people will bring life and breath back…
If you wander, you will find faith. Aleppo has many renowned churches – one more famous now because of what it has endured during the war and how it still managed to stand high and celebrate Christmas with a destroyed roof but hearts gathered and full of love, praying for peace.
Praying. Practicing. Remembering. Changing. Enduring. The Aleppo Codex, an old manuscript of the Torah remains for Jews in the world a sacred book, kept in town for more than 600 years. After several destructions, the Great Synanogue of Aleppo still exists to this day and is place for remembrance for the Syrian Jewish community who has mainly left the city.
You could continue this journey forever. Aleppo holds many emblematic, historical and beautiful churches along with beautiful mosques and synagogues. No matter your religion, you’re welcome in each of them, always.
Here and there, since decades or just few months, Aleppians have taken a bit of their city on different spots of the world.
Brooklyn- New York
Through times and even before the Syrian Civil war, the once numerous Jewish community of Aleppo has shrunk to find a new home in the busy New York. The "SY" , short for "Syrians" are mainly composed of Damascene and Aleppian Jews who migrated in the early 1900's as in 1990's once Hafiz Assad allowed Syrian jews to leave Syria under the condition of not going to Israel. Affluent businessmen or religious dignitaries, Aleppian Jews (with other Syrian Jews) are more than 75.000 in New York. A community in the community as they were often called " Arabische Yidden" (the Arab Jews in Yiddish) by the majority Ashkenazim New-York Jews. Until now there is still a notable difference between "Halabi SY" (Aleppian jews) and "Shami SY" (Damascene jews) but both communities follow one of the most conservative rule making intermarriage (with non Jewish) impossible. Since 1935, the New-York"Eddict" guarantees that mixed marriages with non-Jews represent only 3% of the total of the unions vs up to 50% in the rest of the American Jewish-population.