Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Aleppo, Syria

ALEPPO, Syria Fri Jul 16, 2010 6:03am EDT

People visit the Grand Mosque of the Syrian city of Aleppo June 23, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

People visit the Grand Mosque of the Syrian city of Aleppo June 23, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

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ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters Life!) - Architectural gems spanning a sweep of human history hide behind nondescript doors in Syria's second city. Understated carpets are prized by collectors and the cuisine incorporates ancient influences from as far away as China.

Subtlety is the hallmark of Aleppo, one of the world's richest historical sites whose inhabitants possess a quiet pride and a cosmopolitan culture that has survived Mongol destruction and steady economic decline.

The city, built around a vast medieval citadel, was wrapped in obscurity for decades by Soviet-style policies which undermined its business classes and the city's reputation as a culinary capital of the Middle East.

But the trading hub of Silk Road fame has been witnessing a renaissance lately, driven by economic liberalization and an opening toward Turkey, Aleppo's neighbor to the north.

Tasteful hotels and restaurants are opening up in and around the once-walled city, itself built on layers of much older ruins. Medieval districts have been renovated with the help of the Agha Khan, and other international organizations working to save the United Nations World Heritage Site.

Reuters correspondents help visitors to get the most of out of a 48-hour visit.

FRIDAY

3 p.m. To appreciate the task ahead, take a drink at the rooftop bar and restaurant of Mirage hotel (www.miragepalace.net), which offers unobstructed views, with the citadel smack in the middle, and the expanse of roads and construction that destroyed one fifth of Old Aleppo.

But a lot remains standing, including thousands of courtyard houses, a distinctive design spread by Arab conquerors to Morocco and Spain, and around 300 bathhouses, madrassa schools, palaces, churches, mosques and khans that stud the narrow streets and alleyways of the old districts.

4 p.m. Start with the citadel, preferably by hiring one of its accredited guides. Moving swiftly is key, otherwise a comprehensive tour could consume much of your stay in Aleppo.

Numerous invaders, from Byzantines and Seljuks to Mamluks and Ottomans have left their architectural marks on the edifice, which traces its origins more than 2,000 years.

Contemplate the artistic merits of the steel gate, the calligraphy carved in stone and the Arab military architecture. The citadel also served as seat of government and its rulers lived in style, as evident from the wood inlaid throne room.

The scale is huge, but the two winged lions at the citadel's museum are replicas, originally carved in basalt and excavated by Georges Ploix de Rotrou, a 1920s French archaeologist who ran out of time and money to uncover the 500 sq meter (5,400 sq ft) Hittite Temple of the Storm God hidden under the citadel.

Ploix de Rotrou suspected hidden treasures but he did not live long enough to see a German team 90 years later revealing the full glory of the temple, which is closed to the public.

A guide, however, may be able to get you in, as well as to the rest of the citadel's secrets, such as the Ayyubid cistern.

Ain Dara, another magnificent Hittite temple 60 km (40 miles) north of Aleppo which overlooks Turkey, might be easier to access.

8 p.m. Hunger may have crept in after roaming through the citadel. Qasr al-Wali in the Christian district of Jdiedeh counts green pepper salad and stuffed grape leaves among its specialties.

It also does kebbah, a mixture of minced onion, bulgur, lamb and sun-dried chili paste, but not all 40 varieties Aleppans make are on the menu. The idea for the cherry kebab came from exposure to sweet and sour cuisine, back in the days when Aleppo traded with China.

For accommodation try al-Mansouriya (www.mansouriya.com), a 16th century palace near Bab Qinnisreen, one of the city's best preserved gates. Its nine suites are pricey, but arguably there is no higher luxury this side of Marrakesh. The annex at Dar Zamaria (www.darzamaria.com) is also nice.

Hotel Baron (+963 21 2110880) on Baron street compensates for luxury by character, including the 1914 bill for Monsieur Lawrence (of Arabia) on display, which the Englishman had paid, contrary to rumors.

A drink at the Hotel Baron bar, where the who's who of the Middle East used to gather, is a must. Cilicia (www.newcilicia.com) in the renovated Christian quarter is a no frills hotel.

SATURDAY

9 a.m. A hearty breakfast may be needed for the dense day ahead, and sweets chain Mahrousa sells the traditional Aleppan breakfast of mamounieh, which is made from water, sugar, ghee butter and semolina.

10 a.m. Have a stroll through the Grand Mosque. Hali, the British carpet and Islamic art magazine, recently pointed to the mosque's green and blue Islamic ceramic tiles as a fine example, which rivals the tiles from Iran and Turkey, and incorporates influences from both.

In keeping with Aleppo's character, the tiles are used sparingly. Important examples also survive at al-Khosrowiya Mosque, built by Ottoman architect Sinan, and at Beit (house) Janblat.

11 a.m. The mosque borders the 7 km (5 mile) covered labyrinth souks, and antique dealers there hardly come as experienced as those at Musafi al-Asal (+963 21 3621137).

An Esfahan carpet could set you back tens of thousands of dollars. But check out tribal kilims (rugs) from Ifrin, the Kurdish region to the north of Aleppo, where households used to produce different style kilims to match the occasion, such as gifts for newborn babies.

Bridal kilims and ones that were ordered by notables are more sophisticated. The weaving became extinct in Ifrin decades ago and subtle colors add a premium to the asking price.

Aleppo also used to produce carpets made at professional workshops, and those have become even rarer.

1.00 p.m. Not far from the souks is Maristan Arghun al-Kamili, an asylum from the Mamluk era, where inmates were chained in the their cells until 100 years ago, according to Ross Burns, author of the indispensable "Monuments of Syria."

2.00 p.m. A kebab is what you need and Hagoub (+963 212111949) behind Hotel Baron serves up a mean one. The restaurant has kept its Armenian name, although the ownership has changed and the staff are now Kurdish, reflecting Aleppo's changing demographics.

Another suggestion, but not for the faint-hearted, is Abu Nabhan, an Aleppo institution in the Khan al-Wazeer that does grilled or fried liver, called melak mutajan, the same phrase Aleppans use to describe a "heavy blooded" (overbearing) person.

3 p.m. Aleppo is famous for laurel soap, and several families still manufacture it the same way they did hundreds of years ago, without chemicals.

Visit the workshop of Sons of Ahmad Musbah Zanabili (+963 21 3333118), who export most of their high end output and rarely sell on the local market. Prices vary from $2 to $10 per kg according to purity and how much laurel oil is used versus olive oil. Sultana (+963 944 332299), an upscale shop at Sahet al-Hatab in Jdeideh, adds jasmine oil to the mix.

If you're feeling peckish it's time for another Aleppo specialty. Try Zaatar, a thyme mix eaten by dipping it with bread in olive oil. Qubrusi (+963 21 3336836) near Bab Qinnisreen is a favorite among locals, but ask him not to put in too much sesame.

8 p.m. Time for dinner. Zomorrod in Jdeideh is architecturally distinctive. Wannes in Azizieh has more of a laid-back feel to it and sidewalk tables. Another option is the grand Aleppo Club, which has live song and dance on weekends in keeping with the city's musical traditions.

Leading Arab composers and singers, such as Egypt's late Abdelwahab, needed to perform in Aleppo and receive marks of approval before they could be considered top notch.

SUNDAY

9 a.m. How about a morning scrub at one of Aleppo's traditional baths? Service at the 12th-13th century Hamam al-Nahhasin receives good reviews.

Take a leisurely walk to look at the surrounding buildings, such as the small caravanserai opposite, but leave time for the Aleppo National Museum and a first hand appreciation of Syria as the crossroad of the ancient world.

12 p.m. A day's excursion outside the city is rich in any direction. The columns of St Simeon's Cathedral to the north used to hold up the largest Christian Basilica before Europe's mediaeval cathedrals were built.

The Byzantine saint, Simeon, sat for decades on top of a pillar, making himself and the church one of Christendom's foremost pilgrimage sites.

Scattered among the limestone landscape are the Dead Cities, which housed substantial populations during Hellenistic and Roman times but were mysteriously abandoned. The most impressive, Serjilla is 80 km (50 miles) south of Aleppo.

The Euphrates is also near, and the Arab Najm castle has a magnificent view of the river, without which much of Middle East civilization might not have risen.

(Editing by Paul Casciato and Tamsin Barber)

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