Many Thousands of years ago, Middle Eastern people called the Semites created a string of city states across what is now known as Syria. The ancient fortresses and mosques seen everywhere show that this is a country rich in history. Several of its cities are among the oldest in the world, and the very first alphabet was formed here at around 1500 B.C. A variety of other landscapes can be explored around Syria, from arid deserts to snow-tipped mountains and pine oak forests. It was June of 2010, way before when the skies were still clear when I had the great opportunity of working for a needle company in Aleppo, Syria. They hired my services as an IT Professional for a month from our office in New York. After creating new computer programs, I was given eight days to tour and know the interesting points of this beautiful country. Syria holds an endearing and memorable place in my heart.
Arriving safely via Gulf Air in Damascus International Airport, I was welcomed by Abdullah my workmate and travel guide during the course of my stay. From the line of crowds I easily spotted him and we got easily acquainted. We hailed a cab that took us to the city central bus terminal where an eight hour bus ride took us to Aleppo. I stayed with this very kind family who treated me as one of their own. I got myself immersed in their interesting culture and hospitable ways. After work, we tour the key attractions within the second largest city in Syria. I had the best view of the city when I reached the top of Aleppo Citadel.
The famous castle of Sayf Al Dawlah (founder of the city) has stood the test of time since its construction in the early 13th century. It is a comfortable and graceful complex whose size and impressive design were astonishing. It felt like time travel as I witness the inside of the old walled city and ruins of the oldest civilization of the world. The interior of the castle is connected by a suspension bridge and huge steel gate. The throne room is renowned for its stained glass panels and gem encrusted wooden ceiling. The amphitheater area is where the whirling dervishes usually perform during Eid il Fitr celebrations. At night the castle is brightly illuminated by colored lights and the atmosphere becomes magical.
From the castle, we pass through a busy enclosed market known as the Aleppo Souk. It is the largest indoor market in the Middle East. The stalls stretch for several kilometers between the main street and the small road immersed in the penumbra where a teeming bustle of enterprising people gives a unique to this place. In this market one needs to be good at haggling for bargain price as anyone can find everything at very competitive prices. The market is a maze of streets with aromas of a thousand and one nights. We stopped by for a good falafel shawarma and fresh fruit shakes in front of the castle when we got famished. We found enough time to enjoy an arghila (water pipe) while people watching at the park. I bought my own small shisha set, zaatar spice, Arabic coffee powder, and souk perfumes to take home as a souvenir of a wonderful tour.
Just beside the market I heard the muezzin calls and call to prayer ringing out from the Great Mosque (Jameah Al Khabeer). It was the first time I got inside a mosque and the feeling of calm and serenity ruled me. At the center is the fountain and place for washing before entering the mosque. At the left side of the prayer hall is a room in which is said to have preserved the head of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist.
The next day I was able to admire more of the antiquities of Syria at the Aleppo Museum. It houses the oldest exhibit on the ancient Syrian Khabur – Euphrates region in particular. The front entrance is a reconstruction of the Kapara Dynasty palace dating back to the mid-ninth century. I admire the ivories, physical map of Aleppo, neo- Hittite sculptures, paintings of the pictorial neo-Assyrian, Roman glass/ Byzantine pottery of Islam and sculptural works. Since we keep passing by this tower clock in the middle of the city, Abdullah took pictures of me standing beside the Bab Al Faraj Square.
Just across our office stands the famous Old City where lots of handicrafts, preserved sweets and the famous gar soap is readily available. A good line of modern restaurants and old diners complete this area. While having a burger around here, I had the chance to meet the Yellow Man of Aleppo. He is quite famous around there for constantly wearing an all yellow ensemble. I can’t help but admire the wonderful discoveries I found at the Aleppo Town Centre. It is in fact inhabited by Arabs, Turks, Armenians, and also a blend of different religions making a colorful diversity of customs and traditions that are found on this great city.
The last week of my stay in Syria was spent visiting other key cities with top attractions. We travelled to Homs to see the Site of Palmyra. I enjoyed a camel back ride on this ruins that is located in the middle of the desert. Agoras, Temples, gates, colonnaded streets, amphitheater, and numerous grave towers and pillars comprise this main attraction. We also visited the underground tombs that were accidentally discovered during a pipeline construction. Climbing the nearby Muslim Castle (Qala’at Ibn Maan) and enjoying the beautiful view over Palmyra heightened our visit to Homs. The journey through the desert was absolutely charming. We gained much Arabic historical insight as we visited the Palmyra Museum. Aside from being a museum it is also an antiquarian where they have an old coin with the original effigy of Queen Zenobia. The fabrics on display at the wall were more than 2000 years. A lot of other artifacts were well laid out by their excavation dates and category.
The atmosphere of benevolence and tranquil spirituality is what makes Umayyad Mosque in Damascus unique. It is located within the Old City and all kinds of people can enter whether Muslim or not. The largest and most beautiful mosque has a huge courtyard with many gorgeous mosaics that deserves a detailed inspection. The interior is made even more captivating with its many ornate designs and stained glass windows. In the center is a shrine that contains the head of John the Baptist – a sign of closeness and proximity between the two religions. Taking pictures and videos are allowed but not during prayer times especially on Fridays. Outside the mosque along the north wall lays the Tomb of Saladin (Selahedin Mausoleum). Within the area we found Saladin (Selahedin Statue) a fine bronze statue of the brave Syrian hero that stands near the entrance of The Citadel. Before heading back to America that night I shopped for more souvenirs at the Souq al-Hamidiyeh. The big market is divided into different zones according to the products being sold such as clothes, food, spices, etc. I sampled all the culinary delights here like falafel, fuul, khobez (flat bread), dipped in hummus and the famous pistachio ice cream.
Seeing how badly ruined Syria is today moves me. Scrolling back at all the pictures I took of it leaves me breathless and frustrated that some of those beautiful sights are now gone. I truly sympathize with its people who are the ones mostly aggravated by this two year old conflict. However, I am optimistic that this beautiful country will rise again and fully enjoy their long awaited peace and freedom. Batmana il salam la Suriah! (I pray for peace in Syria!).