Aleppo Stories and Tips

The Largest Souq In The World

Souq al-Attarine Photo, Aleppo, Syria

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…

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