Monday, November 10, 2008

Aleppo citadels and carpets

Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world. There is evidence of continued occupation in this part of Syria dating back to 5000BC. Some of the crumbling streets look that old and are in need of serious attention. It was also a city that looked labyrinthine and I would need assistance to get around. I asked the guy who ran my fleabag hotel where I could get a map. He didn’t understand me so he walked me to the shop next door where the owner translated my question. He pointed down the road to the tourist police office.

There I was helped by a young, tall and smiling man whose slightly oily appearance somehow reminded me of Franz Kafka. His English wasn’t great but he wanted to be friendly. He was also inquisitive. What is your work? He asked. I said computers. He then asked for my email address “in case I have question about computers.” Feeling a bit dodgy about this request, I gave him a fake address. But perhaps I needn’t have been suspicious. He told me the citadel wasn’t very far away. He gave me a map, a thick book about Syria and walked me around the corner to the ATM (It didn’t work for me, but that was hardly his fault). I wanted to be quickly away from the scene of my “crime” in case he quickly emailed and got an “address not known” response.

The map wasn’t easy to interpret and none of the streets had English transliterations of their Arabic names. I walked in the direction of what I assumed to be the citadel only to realise I was completely wrong when I got as far as what was the main football stadium. I knew the 50m high citadel dominated the landscape but I couldn’t see it anywhere. Finally after a half hour of wondering through nondescript streets the mammoth structure came into view.

There have been castles of some sort on the site for 5,000 years. The prophet Abraham is said to have milked his sheep on the citadel hill. But warfare and earthquakes have long since taken care of whatever castle Abraham saw and the present structure dates from around the 13th century. There was just one entrance a 16th century fortified gateway, added by the Egyptian Mamlukes, and accessible only by an arched bridge.

The road to it was a maze through the old city. I went in through the Bab Antakya (Antioch Gate) which protected the city from the west. Once inside I passed through the long and winding covered souk that led to the citadel. Halfway through, I was approached by an eager merchant. "Hello, where you from, what’s your name?" he asked. I made the mistake of telling my details (luckily he did not ask for an email address). "Ah you come visit my shop, and see my rugs. I am mentioned in all the guide books. I am in Lonely Planet". I told him I was on my way to the citadel. “Ah, it is closed today, holiday. Come visit my shop.” I said I might visit his shop after I had checked out for myself whether the citadel was shut. After a few more protestations, I finally got rid of him. A few more sellers came up asking my name and where I was from. This time I steadfastly stayed true to my purpose and refused to communicate with any of them.

But Mr Lonely Planet was right – the citadel was closed. Though it was a Tuesday, it was a “holiday” of some sort. The doors on the arched bridge were firmly shut. But even closed, it looked impressive. It was an elliptical structure with stone walls 50m high and a 100m wide. The base had of almost half a kilometre and a width of 325m. It took a good 15 minutes to walk a loop of the base. The large moat surrounding the citadel was a defacto tip for Aleppo and strewn with rocks, household and street rubbish. Deep inside the moat was a boy, no older than ten, driving a bulldozer (perhaps legitimately, but in Syria you can never tell).

“Hey, my Ireland friend!” My reverie was rudely interrupted. Mr Lonely Planet had found me again. “You must come now and see my shop, I have wonderful carpets, very cheap!” I had to be very firm and tell him I wasn’t interested in carpets, however cheap. I fled the scene and walked rapidly back through the covered souk avoiding all eye contact with anyone who looked like they were about to offer me the deal of the century.

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