Part VI - Aleppo Governorate
In many ways, Aleppo is Damascus' sister city. The two compete for the position of world's oldest inhabited city, they are Syria's two largest cities (both over 4 million, but estimates vary greatly), both located on the silk road, and both having served as capital of civilizations long gone. Aleppo city itself is cramped with examples of Ottoman or earlier architecture, the country's most imposing city citadel, a fine park, the twin of Damascus' Umayyad Mosque, and famously its extensive and hugely atmospheric 10km covered souq (market).
Aleppo Governorate is also the home to several other noteworthy sights of interest, including the extensive ruined remains of the cathedral built over the column of one of Christianity's most eccentric figures - St. Simeon, the man who spent several decades a top a Roman column to escape having to be around people, a quest in which he failed greatly, as his feat made him renowned throughout all of the Christian world. He was the most famous man in all of the 5th Century and pilgrims came as far as Britain to see him, and he spawned a whole generation of copy-cat pillar-dwellers. Aleppo Governorate also hosts several of the so-called "Dead Cities", which are villages as far back as Roman times that were suddenly mysteriously evacuated and abandoned. In the East of the Governorate lies the Euphrates river, the Northern section of Al-Assad Lake, as well as Qala'at an-Nejm (Star Castle).
Travelling between Aleppo is not difficult. Buses leave extremely frequently, so there is no need to book in advance. They are almost always air-conditioned and free water is included in the already dirt-cheap price of 5 Euros for a 4 to 5 hour journey. There is also a train route going the same way, stopping at Homs and Hama, costing about the same and taking about half an hour to an hour longer than the bus. Here there is also a night-train option.
I took the journey in March 2011, and was surprised that almost the entire stretch was green and farmed (below) (and the mountains on the horizon were even covered with snow!), contrasting greatly to the brown I had experienced traveling in the country before. Indeed at some points the journey reminded me a bit of the Scottish Highlands...though with a slight stretch of the imagination. I cannot, however, promise that this will be the case on your trip, especially if you do it during the scorching hot summer months.
Aleppo immediately made an impression on me - and a good one to boot! Right outside the train station was a large park, second in size only to Damascus' Tishreen Park, as well as a batch of fresh non-polluted air, similarly non-existent in the capital.
The Souq/Market, Soap and its Khans
Though the Citadel wins for Aleppo's most advertised aesthetic attraction, the souq itself is no less famous and no less deservedly so. Firstly it is absolutely enormous, with 10km of covered market. Secondly, it is still almost solely the domain of the locals and villagers. Although I unfortunately missed this on my trip, my friends have told me stories of camels and donkeys still wandering around the area. The souq is full of varieties, with brick covering, stone covering, plaster covering, etc. It is split mostly into sections that specialize on one particular type of good, so to get a good glimpse of the variety one has to wander aimlessly for a good while. Many of these wings are contained within old Khans, or Ottoman traveler's inns, which now house hundreds of shops. But take care to visit the city on more than just a Friday, as almost every shop in town is shut on this Muslim holiday.
Yet some products are sold everywhere...such as Aleppo's equal to none Olive Soap, a tradition of the city for centuries. Like wine, this soap matures, and the older the product, the better. Any one can be used to wash your hands with, but only 2-3 year-old ones can be used on your body, and from 5-7 on your hair. I have used this soap now for about half a year, and despite my initial hesitation, it must be the smoothest soap I have ever tried. : D
The Umayyad Mosque
If you entered the Souq from the traditional entry-point (Bab Antakya), the Great Umayyad Mosque will be on your left some way down the souq. The signage is not spectacular, so I would advice to ask someone for directions about 15 minutes after entry into the souq. You can simply say the name of the mosque with a questioning tone - Jami'a al-Kabiir. If the man still remains puzzled, replace the first word with Masjid (both mean Mosque in Arabic).
The mosque itself could be described as a twin of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and only built five to ten years later. Due to repeated restoration throughout the ages, however, not much remains of the original and only the focal point of the mosque itself - the great courtyard, reminds one of its older and larger sister mosque (though without all of the golden mosaics but nonetheless dazzling). Inside the main prayer hall lies the tomb of the Prophet Zacharia.
As you exit the other side of the souq, the citadel rises before you on an evidently (but not actually) artificial hilltop. The moat is dry these days, but filled instead with patches of playing children. The first thing that caught my eye was the entryway into the fortress, which stands completely erect and facilitates only a few people at a time. Next up is of course the entryway itself, which surely is one of Syria's most famous facade, and shows up on coins, bills and even taxis.
Entering the citadel is one of Aleppo's must-dos. The experience of walking up that narrow path leading into the fortress above, the extensive ruins inside of Khans, mosques, hammams (baths), and various other structures, as well as various lookout points offering great views over the city each justify the buying a ticket.
Al-Jdeida Area, Aleppan House Style, and other places of interest
After having wandered around the remains of the citadel, the souq, and the Umayyad Mosque, one of Aleppo's biggest surprises were still ahead of us - Al-Jdeida area. As it came recommended from my guidebook I decided to make a quick visit to the area (I only had about a day and a half here so was short on time at this point), but it quickly became my favourite part of town. Unlike Damascus' Old City, this mainly Ottoman part of town had narrow car-free streets that provided a peaceful stroll to and from the area's historical houses. There were numerous houses now boutique hotels or restaurants, as well as several churches and cathedrals of Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox variations.
The Aleppan house style seems displayed all around town, and even in the more modern section of town this remains the case, where the old style has been adopted and used anew. The picture below is opposite the Umayyad Mosque, but all around the Old City, Al-Jdeida, and the area west of Al-Jdeida is scattered with this fascinating architectural design.
Apart from the Cathedrals in Al-Jdeida, other Christian sites are scattered around the city. The remains of the early Christian Cathedral of St Helen now lies inside the Madrassa al-Helwiyye, currently undergoing restoration. But don't let that stop you, we pushed the door open, and the workers inside are more than happy to let you stroll the work-site and enter the old cathedral inside.
Much of the new city, which spreads from horizon to horizon, is just as Damascus...decrepit and polluted, with the same gray apartment complexes all around. But there is always the rare delight...
Qala'at Samaan/Cathedral of St. Simeon
Links to other entries
If you are interested in knowing more about other places to visit in Syria, I have several other blog entries covering other regions.
All of Syria: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/
Part I - Damascus and Introduction to the Country: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/3/
Part II - The South (Bosra, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/4/
Part III - Damascus Countryside (Ma'aloula, Seydnayya, Deir Mar Musa, Bloudan, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/5/
Part IV - The Road to Palmyra (Tadmor): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/6/
Part V - Central Syria (Crac des Chevaliers, Homs, Hama, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/7/
Part VI - Aleppo Governorate (Syria's Second Capital): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/8/
Part VII - Euphrates Pt. 1 (Deir Ez-Zor Governorate): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/9/
Part VIII - Meditarranean Coast (Latakia, Tartous,...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/10/