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Aleppo’s Great Bazaar

Aleppo’s Great Bazaar

A Medieval Shopping Mall


"Aleppo is a town of eminent consequence, and in all ages its fame has flown high... It is massively built and wonderfully disposed, and of rare beauty, with large markets arranged in long adjacent rows so that you pass from a row of shops of one craft into that of another... These markets are all roofed with wood, so their occupants enjoy ample shade." - Ibn Jubayr, Travels, 1184

Aleppo, the second city of Syria and quite possibly the longest continually inhabited settlement in the world, is of venerable age. So old, indeed, that although Ibn Jubayr penned the above panegyric nearly a thousand years ago, its Arabic name, Halab, is first mentioned in Semitic texts of the third millennium BC - almost four thousand years earlier. Situated in the north-west of the country, just a few kilometres from the Turkish frontier, Aleppo is located at the confluence of several great trade routes and, as a city of commerce, has always been rich.

Because of its prosperity and its strategic location, Aleppo has changed hands many times. The history of the city is emblazoned with the names of tribes and peoples who conquered, ruled for a few years or a few centuries, and passed on. Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans all passed this way, as - in later times - did Arab, Mongol and Turk. Most recently, between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 and the achievement of Syrian independence in 1945, the city was part of France's Middle Eastern Mandate. Throughout it all, whoever was in power, the people of Aleppo - mainly Arabs, but including sizeable minorities of Turks and Armenians, as well as a smattering of Druze, Jews and Kurds - continued to do what they have always done best. For this is Aleppo, the archetypal Levantine city of commerce. Business is in the blood of its people - some might say in the very stones of the city itself. And the heart of the city is its Great Bazaar, so aptly described by Ibn Jubayr more than nine centuries ago.

It's an astonishing fact, but if the great Arab traveller were to rematerialise in the heart of the Great Bazaar today, there's a good chance he would recognise the place and be able to find his way about. Certain major changes have taken place, of course - the winding streets of the suq, or covered market, are roofed in carefully-hewn limestone, as they have been for more than five hundred years, rather than wood. Yet this is the world of the old Middle East, and things aren't changed or moved without good reason. Ibn Jubayr might puzzle over the prayer mats imported from Leeds, England, with their directional compasses for finding Mecca, and would certainly scratch his head over the alarm clocks made in Hong Kong which waken believers by emitting an electronic call to prayer. But olive oil is olive oil, walnuts are walnuts, and their place in the bazaar, like that of many other changeless products, has remained inviolate for centuries.

Nobody can be sure quite when the Great Bazaar was first built. No doubt there have been markets at Aleppo since the city was first founded, back in the mists of time. As the city grew and prospered, these markets would have become larger than usual, due to Aleppo's unique position as the premier entrepot between the Mediterranean and the lands farther east. Roofing the markets over would have been a logical next step, though we have no precise records of when it was taken. In fact there are many covered bazaars throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Roofing keeps the stall-holders and their goods dry during the rains, cool during the heat of summer, and - tolerably - warm during the cold, dark winter. What makes Aleppo's Great Bazaar so unique isn't the roof, but its immense size and great age.

It is thought that the market was probably established in its present location, and roofed over with wood or other perishable materials, at the time of the Arab conquest in 637 AD. Certainly, as we know from Ibn Jubayr, it was roofed in wood at the time of his visit just over five centuries later. Then, in 1260, Aleppo - in common with much of the Middle East - suffered a catastrophe with the arrival of Hulagu Khan and his ferocious Mongol hordes. The citadel of Aleppo, on a massive, partially man-made mound overlooking the bazaar, was taken by the invaders and the city - including the suq - looted and burned. The Great Bazaar as we know it today was rebuilt, in the same location, first by the Egyptian Mamelukes who drove out the Mongols, and then, after 1516, by the Turks who incorporated Aleppo in the Ottoman Empire.

The reconstructed suq was a true medieval marvel. More than eight kilometres of winding stone passages linked the various markets with each other and with great khans, or caravanserai where visitors from distant lands could unload and store their goods and stable their pack-animals. Facilities included toilets and drinking fountains, places to eat, stone-lined baths known as hammam where weary travellers and merchants could enjoy steam baths and massage, and access to mosques for prayer, rest and contemplation. Over the entire complex the builders constructed a roof of thick limestone blocks, rising and falling in a sequence of irregular domes and arches. And over this the rulers raised a restored citadel, the most impregnable and massive in the Middle East, rising 60 metres above the city and the surrounding plains.

The formula, which might reasonably be described as the world's first shopping mall, certainly worked. Foreigners flocked to Aleppo to trade, and not just from the Middle East. In 1517 Venice was given the right to appoint a permanent representative to the City of Aleppo, resulting in the opening of the world's first consulate - housed in the Khan al-Nahasin, in the heart of the Great Bazaar. English, French and Dutch representation soon followed, and the city prospered.

During the 19th century Aleppo fell, once again, on hard times. First, in 1822, the city was rocked by a great earthquake which destroyed the citadel and damaged more than sixty per cent of the buildings, killing many of the inhabitants. Then, in 1869, the Suez Canal was opened, sounding the apparent death-knell of the overland trade route between Europe and Asia. Some of the city's prestige was restored in 1880, when the Orient Express Railway reached Aleppo, making the city an important link in the Istanbul-Baghdad line - yet the 20th century, too, has hardly been easy going for the citizens of Aleppo as they struggled, against the odds, to "do business". Two world wars, and the independence struggle against first Turkey and then France, were followed by fifty years of still unresolved conflict with Israel compounded by quarter of a century of damaging socialist economics.

All is now changing, however - and changing fast. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the failure of socialist economics in Syria have had important consequences for Aleppo. Today, under an emerging market economy, the ancient city is flooded with traders from Russia and the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia. Shop signs in Cyrillic jostle for space with hoardings in Arabic, Armenian, Turkish and English. Freed from years of restrictions on free trade, everyone is anxious to do business, and business is taking off. The antique, cobbled passages of the Great Bazaar fairly throb with life, and the Syrian authorities have begun to restore and refurbish what they now realise to be a major regional tourist attraction.

The main entrance to the Great Bazaar is via Jami' al-Ayyubi Street, in the heart of the fortified Old City. Take a right turn by the thousand-year-old Grand Mosque, and you're in Suq al-Jadid, the first of more than thirty interlinked markets and khans which make up the Great Bazaar. Many of the markets are associated with specific goods. Thus Suq Istanbul specialises in Gold and Silver Jewellery, Suq al-Attarin in Perfumes, Suq al-Ibi and Suq az-Zarb in Textiles, Suq al-Bahramiyyeh and Suq as-Sakatiyyeh in Foodstuffs, Suq al-Hibal in Rope and Suq al-Itakiyyeh in Leather.

As might be expected, some suqs are more upmarket than others. Suq Istanbul is lined with dozens of tiny gold shops, few large enough to hold more than two or three customers at a time. Here you will find many of Aleppo's womenfolk, some veiled, others wearing blue jeans or fashionable skirts and high heels. They look serious, because buying gold as a hedge against inflation is an important pursuit in contemporary Syria. The men accompanying them look still more serious; a young Syrian man cannot hope to get married without presenting his bride-to-be with a rich dowry in gold, and many save for years to make this important investment. As if in honour of the sums changing hands and the significance of the occasion, the polished floors of the Suq Istanbul are made of marble and fairly gleam in the shafts of sunlight filtering through the narrow glass windows of the vaulted limestone roof.

Almost as upmarket, and more exclusively female, are the booths of the Suq al-Attarin. Here the universally-moustachioed Syrian men (salesmen and merchants) haggle and plead with Syrian women (customers) over shelves and trays bearing an endless array of perfumes. Everything from Yves Saint-Laurent to locally manufactured Attar of Roses is available, and the scent of perfume-sampling down the ages hangs heavy in the air.

Equally fragrant, though in a more culinary sense, is the spice market at Suq al-Bahramiyyeh. Here all manner of herbs and spices are piled high in overflowing barrels and sacks. Cloves and cummin, fenugreek and coriander gradually give way to walnuts and pistachios, garlic and chilli peppers, then veritable mountains of coffee beans and black or green tea.

The diverse markets which make up the Great Bazaar are indeed different, but for the visitor they share one very important feature - Syrian friendliness and hospitality. The extent of this good-naturedness can scarcely be over-stated. Everywhere the visitor goes he or she will meet with gleaming smiles (as often as not a flash of gold teeth from a face which, elsewhere, might readily be mistaken for that of bandit or mafioso). But there's no need to worry in Aleppo's Great Bazaar. The greatest danger the traveller is likely to meet with is an oversupply of hot, sweet cups of tea, rich Turkish coffee, and portions of succulent Syrian sweets. Tourism has yet to take hold here, and the many smiling welcomes are both genuine and without - well, almost without - thought for profit. Still, Aleppo's Great Bazaar has something for just about everyone, and the visitor who leaves without making a purchase must be rare indeed!


Things to Buy: In the Great Bazaar you can pick up anything from silk and cotton goods through handmade carpets from Iran and Central Asia to antique silver jewellery - all at prices markedly lower than in Europe or East Asia. Souvenirs to watch out for include inlaid mother-of-pearl backgammon sets and jewellery boxes, brass and copper ware, narghile water pipes, embroidered blankets and wall hangings.

Where to Stay: Although Aleppo has a wide range of accommodation, ranging from first class international hotels to hole-in-the-wall funduq, or inns, there's really only one place to stay - The Baron. Back in 1909, when the Orient Express Railway was being pushed through from Aleppo to Baghdad, two farsighted Armenian brothers, realising that the city would become an important stopover for travellers, took the opportunity to establish a European-style hotel on the outskirts of town. The hotel, called The Baron, was the first luxury class hotel in the Middle East, boasting central heating (Aleppo can be really cold in winter), sweeping stairways, elaborate chandeliers and "modern plumbing" in European bathrooms.

As a consequence, the Baron became the place to stay, and its guestbook (now carefully kept in a locked safe, but available for perusal on request) lists the names of such famous guests as the writer Agatha Christie, the aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amy Johnston, the politicians Theodore Roosevelt and Kemal Ataturk, as well as the scions of numerous European royal houses including Lady Louis Mountbatten. The Baron's best-known guest remains T.E. Lawrence "of Arabia", who noted in his monumental Seven Pillars of Wisdom that the distinguished hotel was becoming "almost a second home". Today The Baron is but a shadow of its former self, the curtains and carpets faded, the once state-of-the-art plumbing now sadly antiquated - yet the establishment retains more colour and atmosphere than anywhere else in town.

How to get There: Syrian Arab Airlines fly regularly to Damascus and Aleppo, as well as between the two cities. Aleppo is served by a road and rail network linking it with the rest of Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Perhaps the most interesting way to reach the city is by rail, via the old Orient Express from Istanbul's Hydarpasa Station. Trains leave just once a week, each Thursday at 8.20 AM., and the journey - best undertaken in First Class - takes 40 hours. For the less adventurous, or those in a hurry, international airlines serving Syria include Air France, KLM and Egypt Air.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media