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!