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Published: December 28th 2007
Well, a very Merry Christmas to you all from the ancient town of Aleppo in the north of Syria.
We ended up staying in Istanbul for longer than originally planned, but had such a wonderful time that we really were loathe to leave at all. It was just lovely wandering around, jumping on and off ferries and trams as we criss-crossed the continents and explored the myriad of fascinating palaces, churches, mosques and bazaars. The food was sublime, the very decent coffees (while hideously expensive) were extremely welcome and the general atmosphere gave us a chance to relax, recharge and restock before venturing into Syria. Indeed, Istanbul is one of those cities that never fails to stir something inside, it’s such an amazing mix of old and new, Asian and European…it’s already joined Jane’s list of her favourite cities, alongside Barcelona and Edinburgh (and Melbourne, of course) Although it was bitterly cold and we saw the sun just once in our ten days there, we still enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and will undoubtedly return in the not-so-distant future.
Anyway, when we finally got around to packing our bags, we boarded the Toros Express (a misnomer if ever there was one as the journey took nigh on 34 hours) and headed south towards Syria. The journey itself was wonderful, we had a little cabin all to ourselves and we settled in and watched the Turkish countryside slip by. For some reason, and despite a relatively quick check of visas and passports, we had to hang around on the border for a couple of hours. I reckon that as the train only crosses once a week and there’s nothing else to do, that they just wanted to keep us hanging around a bit longer to provide something of interest. Oh, and the fact that the bloke in charge seemed to fall for an American girl who was on the train might have had something to do with it. There’s something quite bizarre about seeing a big, burly moustachioed colonel in full uniform standing on the platform and blowing kisses to someone as the train eventually pulled out…
Aleppo itself is incredible, vying with Damascus for the title of oldest inhabited city in the world, having been in existence for at least eight thousand years. It has been conquered countless times by almost everyone with a passing interest in the region - the Mari, Hittites, Amorites, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Hamdanids, Bedouin Mirdasids, Seljuq Turks, European Crusaders, Zengids, Ayyubids, Mamelukes and the Ottomans. I reckon that’s about it, but I’ve undoubtedly missed a couple in there somewhere...
When we finally alighted from the train after sundown on Christmas Eve, we ventured into the charming cobbled lanes of the Christian quarter and checked into the Beit Wakil Hotel. Our habit of staying in wonderful places continued as we settled into the room of this stunning 16th century house, wonderfully restored and well beyond our standard budget (many, many thanks for the Christmas present Peter & Ann). The quarter was buzzing in anticipation of the holy day and we aimlessly wandered out through the lanes, listening to the bells tolling from the Armenian, Syrian & Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Latin and Maronite churches. It was a classic moment as the mezzuin’s call to prayer suddenly erupted, and the two rose and fell in tandem.
Christmas was a wonderfully relaxed affair, sleeping in and then lingering in various restaurants for much of the afternoon and evening, drinking and eating too much and feeling generally decadent. We didn’t end up buying presents for each other and for the first of our Christmases away we didn’t manage to rig up a tree substitute but I guess this was compensated by the garish tree in the foyer and the cheesy Christmas pop songs that were piped everywhere, even mysteriously into our room.
Yesterday we decided that we’d actually better get around to doing something and ventured out into the surrounding countryside, exploring the various ruins that are hidden throughout the area. Qala’at Samaan and the church of my honourable namesake St Simeon was first up, a collection of remarkably well preserved arches and ruins up near the border with Turkey. St Simeon seemed an odd fellow, around AD 423 he climbed atop a three metre high pillar and remained there (or on progressively bigger ones, culminating in a mammoth 18 metre column) until his death 36 years later. Whatever turns you on I suppose. The views from the hilltop itself were stunning, looking out over much of northern Syria, the terrain incredibly rock-strewn, olive groves contrasting with vibrant red soil.
From there we checked out various Dead Cities, a collection of Roman and Byzantine towns that were conquered or struck by earthquakes one too many times and now consist of ruins in various states of disrepair, nestled among the aforementioned ubiquitous olive groves that pepper the land. We finished the day as the sun slowly dropped over the horizon, providing a beautiful light show, among the archaeological site of Ebla, a collection of temples and palaces dating back five thousand years. I know that we’ve been to some pretty ancient places recently, but it still continues to boggle the mind, particularly when we reflect that the oldest building in Australia barely nudges 200 years.
Aleppo itself is a vibrant and contrasting city, the labyrinthine souqs wind through the old city, and traders continue flogging the same wares that their ancestors have for millennia. At the heart of the old city is the citadel, a massive fortress surrounded by a huge moat and absolutely impregnable. It’s a magnificent structure and provides stunning views out over the entire city and we wandered through the ruins of the palaces and mosques in the beautiful afternoon light. Jane’s awarded it number one prize for world’s best citadel, but I’m interested to see if it retains that title once we’ve visited furhter south.
An interesting aside, while in Iran it was mandatory for women to cover themselves and wear a headscarf and it was common to see some dressed in the full hijab with only their eyes showing. Here however, while it’s not enshrined in law and many women walk around with no head covering at all, some of the more conservative have taken it a step further and are absolutely shrouded, including gloves and a scarf covering the entire face, including the eyes. On the other hand, the other day I happened past a strip club and a number of movie cinemas, which, along with the latest blockbusters, apparently show some fairly explicit hard-core porn. So work that one out…
We’ve also met some wonderful travellers here, including a Canadian couple who are travelling the world by bicycle, nice idea but not quite for us I reckon, and the last few nights have been spent eating lovely home-cooked meals and imbibing in numerous beers and bottles of the local wine.
Anyway, tomorrow we’re on the road again, heading south to Hama to explore Apamea and the Crac des Chevaliers, one of the most impressive of the Crusader castles. So a very Happy New Year to everyone, know that we’re thinking of you all and we’ll be raising a glass or two at midnight, albeit nine or so hours later, and while you’ll probably be sleeping off your own hangovers…
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