With a population of more than two million, the city vies with Damascus as the longest, continually habituated location in the world. For more than 8,000 years, people have lived here, worked here and brought up families.
The culture is secure, comfortable, impenetrable and welcoming. Although my visit was during Ramadan, the city was alive with the shouts of merchants, their customers and the ubiquitous clack of backgammon.
The bazaar in Aleppo is magnificent. Comprised of 37 separate souks (specialist market areas for spices, broomsticks, cloth, soaps or whatever), 21 caravanserai (lodging for merchants from out of town) and 11 mosques, the covered market covers 12km² of central Aleppo, and has done so for hundreds of years.
Merchants selling all manner of goods vie for trade, and their calls punctuate the atmosphere. The calling of the muezzin gives rise to a break as the faithful head to the closest mosque for their devotions, but soon enough the tempo of the bazaar reaches another crescendo, and the merchant life of Aleppo continues unabated.
The centre of town is dominated by an ancient citadel. Built, captured and recaptured over the centuries, this site dominates the landscape. Inside it is a labyrinth of passages, streets, buildings and the accoutrement of a community of 4,000 with a royal palace thrown in for good measure.
The citadel is a marvellous place to allow the imagination to run amok. The restoration work is continuous, and for those with an interest in life in the 12th century, this is a must.
Another "must see" is the hammam, or steam bath. For a modest fee £400 Syrian (C$10) one can be steamed, lathered, massaged and treated to a restorative cup of tea. The hammams are strictly regulated as to accessibility to men and women, and the twain never meet. That, at least is the theory.
During Ramadan the hours are different. I showed up at 6:30pm, eagerly anticipating the men-only session. Two Italian couples were in front of me, and I was advised that they had made "special arrangements" and that probity would be assured, and our passage through steam would be completely separate.
Comforted, I headed for the steam bath and sweated an appropriate amount; once dripping sufficiently, a large man beckoned me to the lathering area, and began to soap my body with a large mitt that appeared to be made of sandpaper.
Lathering nicely, I was turned on to my back only to open an eye and see a coach tour being paraded through this "traditional hammam."
Forty tourists, Italian, I think judging by their accents and their leers, were taking photos. I wearing little but a smile, I could do little but wonder how my now Islamicized temperament would adapt to this outrage.
Fortunately, the soap produced a sufficiency of bubbles, but nevertheless, chastened I retreated to the anonymity of the steam room as soon as I could. Next time, and now knowing the protocol, I would head for a distant steam room, inaccessible to Romans.
Cleaner than I have been for a very long time, it was dinner time, and Aleppo offers a myriad of options. We chose a quiet restaurant near our hotel, and for £250 Syrian ($6 Cdn), we dined on a mezze of hummus, salads and baba ganoush followed by lamb cutlets. The local beer in Aleppo is al-Chark, $3 Cdn for a half-litre bottle, and is delicious.
Of my hotel, The Baron, what more can be said. Built by the Mazloumian family in 1911 to serve the European travellers on the London to Baghdad Express, this venerable property still functions as a centrepiece of Aleppo life.
The hotel is old, and although renovated to some degree, still holds the charms and somewhat spartan comforts afforded to travellers in the early 20th century. It has had a lot of famous guests, but none more so that Agatha Christie, who wrote Murder on the Orient Express here. She would still recognize her favourite room, number 203, where the decorations on the wall have not changed since her last visit.
The décor is a reminder that travellers in bygone days did not experience comforts close to those that contemporary tourists demand, but were satisfied by more secure and uncompromising surroundings. Dark mahogany walls, bakelite phones, night auditors who still keep track of the property's financial comings and goings in a large, green ledger and a staff who are both solicitous and an integral part of the hotel's family.
It is a most comfortable place, and although far from luxurious, has all of the attributes that a traveller seeks.
Aleppo is also close to both St. Simeon's monastery, and to the Dead Cities, both of which are worth a good look. St. Simeon was an eccentric, even by the standard of the 4th and 5th century mystics.
Having spent a couple of years (in the late 4th century) in an isolated monastery, and feeling it to lack in asceticism, he chose to spend the next 39 years of his life perched on top of a 10m pole, preaching from the top to the assembled masses.
Restored variously in the 6th, 9th, 10th and now 21st centuries, this site stands proudly, high above the plains. Guides talk of traders and visitors coming from Antioch, the closest seat of government, as if this political infrastructure still existed. Time has a way of standing still in some archaeological sites, and here, it has simply ground to a halt.
The church walls are clearly visible, as are the cloisters, living quarters and the cathedral. There are so many ghosts wandering its passages, and as our guide, Mustapha said, "this is a house of God; of one God, with three prophets, Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed." This was a mantra that we heard often, a religious creed believed in an area branded by its zealots. The Dead Cities lie between St. Simeon and Aleppo, and stopping in al-Rafadah for an hour, wandering its streets and wondering how the city was abandoned was time well spent. Nothing changes, and trading patterns have changed throughout the ages.
Cities once powerful and wealthy were abandoned for no better reason that the opening of a new trading route; times change and these changes have been relentless and continuous for thousands upon thousands of years. Sitting and cogitating on the stones of the village, looking out over a timeless landscape, it was hard to determine the boundary between peaceful and boring. Imagining that one is a first-century shepherd was beyond me, and soon I headed back to Aleppo for the final overnight.