Aleppo: The Souq At The End Of The Silk Route

Aleppo was once one of the greatest market places in the world, a bazaar at the western end of the great Silk Route through the Levant, Persia, India and China. Get ready to bargain in the largest souq (covered market) in the world...


The Souq at the End of the Silk Route

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 8, 2010

A crossroads. A marketplace. The largest souq in the world. Aleppo was built on commerce. The Silk Route overland from China and central Asia ended here. Goods came up the Euphrates from Arabia and Mesopotamia. Caravans from Egypt and the Levant met with those coming down from Anatolia and Armenia. Europeans came from the Mediterranean through Alexandretta and Antioch. Aleppo was a cosmopolitan hub of commerce and trade. It was the largest and most prestigious city in the Ottoman Empire after Istanbul and Cairo. Its importance can be seen in the way its name has been translated differently into different languages. In Arabic it is known as Halab. To the French this became Alep. The Venetians Italianised it as Aleppo, and this is the name used in English, back as far as Shakespeare, who mentions it in both Macbeth and Othello.

These days commodities are traded virtually on stock exchanges, and the great entrepôts are container ports. The party for Aleppo ended some 150 years ago. The Suez Canal provided a quick way for ships to travel from Europe to the Orient, rendering the caravans obsolete. Industrialised Europe flooded the market with cheaper machine-made textiles and goods. The break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the first world war also reduced the city’s importance. Borders separated it from the markets of Turkey and Mesopotamia / Iraq. In the late 1930s France ceded Antakya and Iskenderun (Antioch and Alexandretta) to Turkey. Following decolonisation fractious relationships with neighbouring Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and of course Israel lessened trade. And now Syria is seen by many in the West as a pariah nation, a ‘rogue state’. Aleppo ain’t a global market place any more.

But a market place it remains, though the goods on sale are now locally-made handicrafts for tourists, and mass imports for locals. The souqs of Aleppo are still thronged, though now the shoppers are Syrians picking up clothing, pastries, perfumes, fruit, homewares, shoes and jewelry. Life in the medina is still as vibrant, chaotic and tempting as it must have been one hundred years ago – or more! And it is this that makes a visit well worthwhile.

The souqs of the Old City running between Bab Antakya and the Citadel are the most atmospheric part of Aleppo. For your everyday needs check out the New City. This is where you will be able to find restaurants and banks. The symbolic heart of the New City is the ornate clock tower on Sharia Bab al-Faraj. The Sheraton Hotel lies just by here, and eateries cluster in close proximity on the streets running west down to the famous Baron Hotel, beloved of Lawrence of Arabia amongst others.

The Largest Souq In The World

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 8, 2010

The medina, or old city, of Aleppo is old. A fierce regional dispute simmers with Damascus about precisely which of Syria’s two main cities is actually "the oldest continually inhabited city on earth", and which is merely runner up (Damascus probably just about has the edge of Aleppo here, but do not tell the Halabis that!). It sprawls to the west of the acropolis where the Citadel now perches and was once ringed with 5km walls, only some of which still remain, pierced with eight great gates. Inside the covered markets, or souqs, form the heart of the complex. These are ringed by the khans, the walled caravanserais where the merchants’ wagons ended up, lockable at night. The other necessities of a civilised urban life sprang up around these – the bath houses and mosques. Finally the reamining space was infilled with housing – grand and ornate for the merchants, more humble for the local craftsmen. Today the houses are still occupied, the hammams are still frequented, the khans are still stuffed with stock, and hawkers still cry out from their cubbyholes along the main thoroughfares. Surrounded by 14th century masonry, the brick vaulting arching above your head and blocking out the sky, your nostrils filled with the scents of olive oil and laurel soap, syrup, fresh meat, cardamom and spices, rose attar perfume and sweat, the souqs of Aleppo make an unforgettable impression. Covering some 12 hectares, they comprise the largest covered market in the world. Save for the medina of Fes in Morocco (and possibly the old city of Damascus itself), the Aleppine souqs are the greatest example of their kind that I have ever seen.

I started my visit at the 13th century western gate – the Bab Antakya. This is one of only two of the original eight gates remaining, and led west towards Antioch. It is a forbidding – but surprisingly narrow – access route into the old city, piercing high blank walls. It dog legs around to the left in a defensive manner. The stalls of handymen are accreted on to the inside of the tunnel, narrowing the passageway still further. You will doubtless see someone trying to make progress in a mini-van piled high with stock, executing a seventeen-point turn as he tries to get his vehicle around the tight corner, yelling at the pedestrian crowds in his way. This seems to be a recurrent scene here; the ways were intended for camels and mules, not Subarus. It is well worth hanging around until the driver finally gets half-way around the corner… only to realise that he is faced with another van negotiating its way out! Keep an eye out for a giant cannonball hanging threateningly from a chain overhead!

From here a main street stretches east some 1.5km to end by the Citadel. This is the main thoroughfare of the souq – stick to it, and you cannot get lost. The most that will happen is that you end up at the Citadel when you were aiming for Bab Antakya and vice versa. This was the decumanus maximus of the old Roman city of Beroia – Bab Antakya itself sits where once a triumphal arch is thought to have once straddled the road. Certainly Roman masonry was reused in the construction of the al-Kamiliyya mosque just up the road. The street does change its name several times along its length however: west to east it is known as Souq Bab Antakya, Souq al-Attarine, and Souq al-Zarb. Here it does not look like particularly promising territory – the roof is made of sheets of rusted corrugated iron, and the goods for sale are bright modern polyester t-shirts and school uniforms. As a side trip, once through the gate take a left up the stepped lane past a hammam. This brings you out on top of the wall ramparts, looking north across the new city. Up here you can also find a tiny mosque, the al-Qaiqan, or ‘crows’’ mosque with sooty-black basalt Byzantine columns flanking the door of what was once a Christian chapel.

Back on the main pathway the iron sheeting overhead is replaced with ogee-arched stone vaulting, and then a rounded brick-and-mortar ceiling. This is the heart of the souq. There are a mishmash of businesses flanking the paved roadway, mostly geared towards a local crowd – how many tourists would want a strip of meat cleavered away from the hanging fly-blown carcass of a camel? Still, certain industries do tend to cluster together. One can find a glut of copperware in one section, storefronts piled high with carpets in another, one alley glowing gold with stall after stall of jewelry, and an interconnecting passageway drowning in a white froth of overly-elaborate ‘80s-style wedding dresses. The historic names of the streets give an indication of what businesses will be found where – Souq al-Attarine still prickles the nose with the scents of perfumes, Souq al-Tabush still sells kefiyyas and other headgear, while Aleppo’s famous soaps made from a traditional recipe of olive oil and laurel can be found on Souq al-Sabun. These goods, which have more of an intrinsic value for tourists (trust me – I bought a kefiyya and a package of soaps - are clustered more at the eastern end of the route, towards the Citadel. And stall holders generally seem to speak English, or have a friend nearby who can translate. Many of them even seem to have learnt their English in various depressed provincial towns in the UK. Once you are in conversation they will tighten the screws and be very full-on in their haggling, though I actually found it difficult to make eye-contact with any likely-looking salesmen to begin with (possibly because it was late afternoon on the first day of Ramadan and they were all dreaming of dinner and a cigarette). Haggling is expected however, so don’t be afraid to counter with what you personally think is a fair price, or even to walk away if you cannot reach agreement. This is a great place to pick up your souvenirs. As a relic of its famous past here you will find just as wide a selection of souvenirs as in Damascus, and probably at a more competitive price. I saved most of my bartering for Aleppo for this reason – as well as the fact that it was my last stop in Syria so I could use up my excess Syrian currency and not have to carry my purchases for quite as long…

Getting lost is easy once you venture off the main street however. All the passages and cross-passages are seemingly identical. But it is worth popping your head into one or two of the khans. These were the warehouses of the trade caravans, great open-roofed courtyards with secure strong rooms on two arcaded levels that could be locked and barred at night. Again, seeing a truck trying to make a 90 degree turn off the main passageway and through one of these great doorways, shouting at the pedestrians is one of my over-riding memories of Aleppo. All the stone doorframes are chipped and scraped, and all the vans are scratched and dented in testament to many years of such awkward manoeuvering. They still hold stores, workshops and lock-ups of merchandise, so be circumspect if you want to wander around. The Khan al-Jumruk on the south side of Souq al-Attarine is the largest. It used to house the English, Dutch and French consulates and trade missions as well as some 344 shops. Now you will find the area around the central building piled high with rolled up carpets, bright coloured drapes separating the stock of individual merchants. On the opposite side of al-Attarine is the way to the Great Mosque. Although only ten years younger than the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, it is not nearly so noteworthy. This is because it has been rebuilt several times (although the square minaret does date from 1090). A shrine there claims to hold the head of Zacharia, the father of John the Baptist.

Aleppo may no longer be the world-famous crossroad of caravans that it made its name as, but the largest souq in the world still hums with life. That so much of the trade there is conducted between locals gives the old city a human scale that would actually probably have been missing in the 17th century when Venetian factors bickered over entire cartloads of spices and Dutch merchantmen bought bolts of silk by the gross. Here today you can see how the inhabitants of this city of 1.7m still walk the same streets as their ancestors, stop at the same stalls, and purchase much the same goods. And pick up some decent souvenirs at the same time obvioiusly…

The Crown of Aleppo

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 8, 2010

Overhead views of Aleppo reveal one distinguishing feature amidst the dun huddle of buildings that comprises the city today. The remarkable Citadel really is a double-take experience. You certainly cannot miss it. At the eastern end of the old city a 30m wide dry moat surrounds a huge oval mount. The 50m tall steeply sloping walls are faced with limestone blocks, making the entire construct look artificial. However, this towering island is a natural outcrop. Remains of a sanctuary to the Semitic sky god Hadad, only recently discovered, date use of the site to the middle of the third millenium BC. It formed the acropolis of the fledgling city under the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids and Romans, by which time the worship of Hadad had become that of Zeus. Following the Islamic conquest Nur ad-Din continued to fortify the citadel, making it a near impregnable fortress and prison in the war against the Crusaders. What the visitor sees today largely dates from the work carried out by the Mamluks during the 13th-15th centuries.

There is only one way in. From the ticket office in the first gatehouse (entrance is 150 SYP) a narrow, graceful bridge stretches over the moat on high arches. Shallow steps lead up over the abyss. You pay for entrance at the gatehouse (150SYP) before you cross the bridge towards the bulky square keep. It looms threateningly above any visitor. The main gate is not directly ahead, but instead on the right-hand side of a recessed porch (thereby preventing any attackers utilising a battering ram). The lintel of the gate is decorated with Arabic calligraphy, and a pair of entwined double-headed dragons pretzeling around each other, seemingly much more Celtic with their swooping curves. Once inside the way switchbacks to and fro around five right-angled turns, presenting more sets of steel-plated doors. The first pair is decorated with horseshoes – unlike in British tradition, in the Islamic world it is considered lucky for the horseshoes to be hanging points down, as this shows the horseman riding forward to war rather than retreating – there is one horseshoe pointing the other way however. The next gates are framed by a pair of cheeky lions with Cheshire Cat grins.

Emerging on to the plateau is a bit of a disappointment really. It is mostly ruins. The Ayyubid Sultan Ghazi built a pleasure palace up here, but it burnt down on his wedding night. Under the French mandate some restoration and archaeological excavation was done here, but really all there is now are some free standing walls and gateways and a couple of 12th / 13th century mosques. You can descend stairs to a a cistern / prison or head off to a reconstructed hammam complex, complete with wax dummies. There is also a reconstructed dish-shallow amphitheatre, still occasionally used. But most of the ruins are out of bounds. There are some great views over Aleppo though, principally from the far north end of the mound by the great mosque and a café sited in Ottoman-era barracks (with toilets).

Leaving the Citadel you backtrack through the keep, through the restored grand hall of the palace, a symphony of Damascene woodwork and delicate stained-glass windows, centered around a fantastic eight-pointed chandelier. The exit is through a secret door in the floor.

Really, the remains of the Citadel on top of the mount are a bit disappointing – mind you they would have been hard-pressed to live up to the sheer theatre of the wide-moated sloping mound with its elegant stepped bridge. But still I find it hard to imagine any tourist visiting Aleppo and not wishing to gain access to the fortress that confounded the Crusaders. It is the most recognisable image of Aleppo for a reason.
Citadel of Aleppo
Center Of The Old City of Aleppo
Aleppo, Northern Syria

Ahmed's Insider Tours of Aleppo

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 8, 2010

You can get a good overview of the souq just by wandering and interacting with the stall-holders. However, if you want to learn more about the old city of Aleppo and gain access to some more out of the way locations, it may be better to hire a guide. One that I can certainly recommend is Ahmed Modallal. Ahmed is a great guy, with a professorial air, a cheeky glint in his eye, a pocketful of sweets to hand out to anyone correctly answering his pop-quiz questions, and a tendency to wax lyrical over the voices of great chanteuses like Edith Piaf and Umm Kalthoum. He has excellent conversational English, and is used to providing orientation tours for the diplomatic community (and even the Italian president). He also seems to know every single person in his city, exchanging friendly greetings with everyone he passes on the street and casually invading other peoples’ stores, workshops and even bathhouses to illustrate his tour. His love for and knowledge of Aleppo is obvious. Quite frankly, you haven’t seen Aleppo until you have had it shown to you by Ahmed Modallal.

To contact him, write to amoudallal@hotmail.com, or phone 00963 21 2671719 or 0944 663334. It is well worth it!

Suites in the Souq

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 8, 2010

Curious what lies behind the high blank walls of Aleppo’s sidestreets? Try staying at Dar Halabia, one of only two hotels in the Old City, and a mere minute away from Souq Bab-Antakya (follow the signposts). A complex of traditional old buildings at the end of an alleyway has been renovated into a lovely little three-star hotel. The ground floor centres on a lovely shaded courtyard with a fountain, off which rooms are situated. The yard is decorated with old framed photographs of historic Aleppo, thick woven rugs, and tarnished brass gewgaws and provides a nice cool communal area in which to congregate, read, or just utilise the Wi-Fi. There is a water cooler just by the reception desk for filling up any drinks bottles you may have. More rooms are located up a steep flight of steps off a verandah. Breakfast (for which you pay extra) is served up here under a sun-dappled pergola – breads, cheese, fruit, eggs, juice, tea and coffee.

For around €45 a night Chris and I shared a twin room up on the first floor. A thick wooden door (with a hefty iron key) led into a smallish room with a chest of drawers, wardrobe, bedside table and two single beds covered with more bright roughly-woven kilims. Carpets hung on the thick stone walls. There was an en suite bathroom with shower and traditional Aleppine olive oil and laurel soaps (make sure they are kept out of the water after use, or they tend to disintegrate into a soapy mush).

Its main plus point would be its enviable location right inside the heart of the souq (though this is not ideal for those with heavy luggage – you will have to tote it all the way from Bab Antakya yourself, whilst casting nervous eyes at the worryingly over-inquisitive local children). A second would be the chance to see inside a traditional 17th century courtyard house, sympathetically and charmingly renovated. And a third would be the friendly and helpful staff. As an example of the welcome I received at Dar Halabia I would like to share the following anecdote. I was leaving my room at dusk on the first day of Ramadan, and two of the guys who ran the placed gestured for me to come over to join them. On the verandah they had set up a table which groaned under a full buffet of food and drink as they broke their Ramadan fast. I was invited to join them. The famous Arabic hospitality was coming into play – it was obvious that they considered it lucky to have a stranger share in breaking fast with them as a guest. It is hard to refuse genuine hospitality like this, even when you have arranged to meet up with other people for dinner. So I stopped for a brief chat, a couple of drinks, and a bit of roast chicken and bread before I made my excuses. Compared to them I would be considered rich, but they wanted to share their food with me.

The only negative I feel I should mention is the fact that my room mate was attacked by bed bugs here. I have stayed in plenty of places much less salubrious than here and never had any problems, but poor Chris’s back was speckled with tracks of bite marks when he awoke in the morning. A quick investigation and we managed to capture a couple of the blood-bloated little blighters and presented them to reception in a glass to rather blank expressions. Thankfully this was our last night there, and I suppose any place can have an off day, but this has injected a certain amount of caution into my thoughts of what – otherwise – was a lovely little nook in the souq.
Dar Halabia
Bab Antakya
Aleppo, Syria
+963 21 332 3344

Breaking Fasts and Records

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 8, 2010

Al Kommeh restaurant is quite a record-breaker. The sign outside states that the restaurant holds no less than three world records – the longest kebab skewer in the world (12m long, weighing 15kg), the largest bowl of fattoosh in the world (6m in diameter, weighing 3.5kg), and the largest kebba sajieh (a type of bread – 2m in diameter, weighing 40kg). And I think they were serving all of that up to us when we visited!

Located up several flights of stairs off Sharia Bab al-Faraj (near the New Town clock tower and the Sheraton Hotel) Al Kommeh is a vast dining hall with semi-garish decoration (multicoloured lighting, a waterfall, plastic vines etc). The noise could be heard half-way up the steps, a vast hubbub of diners. The place was jampacked with local customers. We should have expected it – it was the first night of Ramadan and entire families had come out to break their fast together. Not the best occasion to traipse in and ask whether they had a table for 12. However, the maitre d’ took it all in his stride. He prowled off around the hall and evicted a couple of men lingering over coffee from their table (eek!). We were seated around the outside of a U-shaped table. Arabic music wafted overhead. At first I presumed it was piped in, until I saw the musicians playing live in one corner.

To deal with the sheer number of diners, all of whom would want serving as soon as the sun went down the normal menu was suspended. Instead a huge array of plates and trays were brought over to blanket the table – bowls of lentil soup were followed by hot flatbreads, salad, hummus, tabouleh, fatoosh, baba ghannouj, mashed potato, and so on. Every single inch of the table cloth was covered with grub.

Of course, I had to be difficult. I was determined to have a kebab halabi, an Aleppo kebab, before I left for Turkey. Aleppo’s cuisine is acknowledged as one of, if not the best in the Middle East due to the comingling of influences from east and west. The Halabis regard their hometown as the spiritual home of the kebab, and believe that theirs are the greatest and original. They certainly seemed keener on spices here than in other places I visited. This was served as kofte style minced lamb kebabs, served with toasted flatbread spread with a slightly spiced tomato and parsley mix. Grilled tomatoes and onions accompanied it. It was definitely a new twist on an old favourite, though it didn’t actually shake my world to its very foundations as I had maybe been hoping.

After we had finished eating, defeated by the vast array of food spread out before us, a gent in an ornate costume approached with a steaming pot of coffee, chinking a couple of handle-less cups together to attract attention. A couple of the group motioned that they wouold appreciate a coffee, and so with a flourish he poured a smoking stream of black liquid into each of the cups. Now I don’t care for coffee, never have done, so it was no hardship for me to do without. But he stayed there, staring straight at me, chinking his cups together impatiently, so I decided that I had best have a cup to keep him happy. At which point he picked up one of the cups someone else had just used, gave it a pefunctary wipe with a rag ranging from his belt, and decanted another gout of coffee. Eww! But I had to down it, bitter and black as it was so that he could have the cup back. Not very hygienic!

On the whole though, the amount and variety of food brought out to us, and the theatre of dining in such a popular and packed eatery as the locals (there were no other tourists in there) broke their Ramadan fast more than made up for one unfortunate coffee-related incident.

Al Kommeh Restaurant
Bab Al-faraj, New City
Aleppo, Syria
+963 21 2113550

Ramadan in Aleppo

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 8, 2010

While the month of fasting called Ramadan is treated somewhat casually in some parts of the Muslim world, in Aleppo it is very much observed. This northern city is known as being more conservative in religious matters than Damascus, and you will certainly see more chadors on the streets of Aleppo. So it is interesting to see how Ramadan is marked here.

During Ramadan the faithful are expected to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during daylight hours. Families rise early to fill up on breakfast before dawn (around 4.30AM during my visit); likewise they meet together as families or groups of friends to dine communally once the sun finally dips from the sky 9around 8PM. This means they are spending 15 hours without food, water, or a cigarette during the hottest part of the day (the first day of Ramadan in 2009 was also the hottest day Aleppo had seen so far that year). Tourists are not obviously expected to do likewise, though a certain element of discretion might be advised. Locals I came into contact with were tolerant of the sweating westerner sipping from a plastic bottle. Ahmed, our guide to Aleppo, refused offers of water saying that he was observing Ramadan. It did not stop him buying a box of sweet pastries for our group to try amongst ourselves or giving out toffees however.

What this means to the tourist then is as follows. Firstly, locals are likely to be hungry, thirsty, and gasping for a cig, particularly by the late afternoon. One can possibly expect this to manifest in a distracted air and a shorter temper. Come 4PM everyone’s attention is on the clock. During the hour before dusk it is unwise to go out. The roads are clogged with people endeavouring to get back to their homes, speeding, skipping straight across intersections, ignoring traffic restrictions. If they get caught in a hold up those drivers are likely to be seemingly on the verge of road rage. It might also be wise to book ahead in a restaurant, as they see their busiest nights of the year. Groups of (male) friends or full families fill dining establishments up as they break their fast communally. However, this does create a bit of a party atmosphere amongst the diners.

Ramadan seems to be observed very rigorously by Muslims in Aleppo in particular. Restaurants are closed during the day, and food does not even seem to get sold until the afternoon, to keep it fresh for cooks. However, even if the fast is observed more stringently here than it is amongst Muslims elsewhere, Aleppo is actually a good place for Westerners to find themselves during Ramadan. Due to its position as a cross roads for trade, the ethnic make-up or Aleppo is quite varied. More than 15% of the city’s population is Christian, a larger proportion than that of any other city in the middle east except for Beirut. The main Christian area is called al-Jdeida, and is located north of the Old City (‘jdeida’ means ‘new’, as this area was settled relatively recently in Aleppo’s history, and certainly after 1400). This is a delightful little conglomeration of winding streets and neat squares with a village-y atmosphere. It hosts churches and cathedrals of no less than five different Christian denominations – Armenian, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Syrian Catholic. Here, among the vine-shaded alleyways and shuttered windows you can still find restaurants, cafes and grocers – even a very well-stocked fishmongers! Chris and I visited and had a very enjoyable lunch of Greek salad, cheese borek pastries, and cheese-topped garlic bread. Just what we needed to last us until dusk!


The Kindness of Strangers

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on March 1, 2010

His name, he told me, was Anwar. His name meant ‘light’ – the day of his birth saw his little Syrian village connected up to electricity for the first time and he was born that night beneath the glow of an electric lightbulb. He told me this as we flew over Germany en route to Istanbul. I was travelling on to Cairo. Anwar knew Cairo – he had studied medicine at the university there in the days of Nasser and Sadat, back before he had moved to England to practice as a doctor. Today he was travelling back to Damascus to see his family. When he heard that my journey overland from Cairo to Istanbul would take me through Damascus he all but insisted that I take his mobile phone number so that he could show me around his home town. It was only by saying that I was travelling with a group that I managed to dissuade him. Still, he gave me advice on what to do with my time in Damascus – check out the Takiyya near the National Museum, wander around the old Jewish quarter ("the Jews were the handymen, the artisans; their neighbourhood is very ornate"), queue up for ice cream with the presidents and dignitaries at Bakdash on Souq al-Hamidiyya, take a trip out to Bosra and see how villagers still lived among the Roman ruins.

"I am not a tour guide" the old man said. We had fallen into step together as we walked down the old Biblical ‘Street called Straight’ in Damascus’ old city. He may not have been a tour guide, but Maurice proceded to direct me to some of the local churches and hand out advice on where to get cheap eats in the Christian Quarter he called home. As we parted company he extended one final offer. Every evening at 7pm I would be able to find him worshipping at the old Chapel of Ananias; he would be pleased if I could join him.

Aleppo, the first day of Ramadan. Leaving my hotel room as the sun sank two of the staff called me over. They had set up a table with food and drink. They would be honoured if I would join them for dinner as they broke their fast.

I was to experience this time and time again during my stay in Syria: simple unforced hospitality. It happened too many times to be a coincidence. People were pleased to see tourists. In a night club the DJ ordered shots for our table and joined us to down them. Breaking a journey at a roadside reststop we entered to find it overflowing with about 200 adolescent members of the Syrian army on national service. Their reaction as they saw us enter was like that of over-excited puppies. A chorus of happy "Hello!"s and "You are welcome!"s filled the air.

There were negatives too, particularly for females. At that same rest-stop one girl’s thigh did get ‘accidentally’ groped. At Palmyra a restaurant owner plied a female friend with free drinks before inviting her back to see his ‘Bedouin tent’. Filling up for petrol, a group of lounging men paused from smoking their cigarettes for just long enough to start taking photographs of the girls climbing in and out of our van on their mobile phones. Most shocking of all one girl was goosed in the Shrine of Hussain at the Umayyad Mosque itself. All around was the wailing and crying of fevered religion and one guy thought it appropriate to pinch the backside of a visitor, despite her all-concealing grey robe.

These negatives can be experienced in any Arab country – stereotypes of western women are gained from watching our films and TV shows, and unfortunately the behaviour of some tourists confirms it in their eyes. But on the whole I found the people of Syria the friendliest and most open of probably anywhere I have travelled. Here we experienced Arab hospitality writ large – we were guests of the nation as a whole. Maybe they are aware of the reputation their government has abroad, but their welcome certainly showed that it is wrong to make judgements about a people and a nation just because of the actions of a regime that they did not vote for. Syria deserves to be known for the warmth and hospitality of the Syrian people, the friendliest in the world.


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