grey marble

May 5, 2004

Aleppo and beyond

Last night I had the best meal of my time thus far in the Middle East. Taking E.W.'s suggestion I went to the Biet al-Wahkil, where I feasted on cherry kebabs, a cold mezze of eggplant made with garlic and tomatos, and a hot mezze of meat wrapped in dough and deep fried. The kebabs arrived in a cherry sauce that was not too sweet and perfectly moistened the tender lamb. Delicious.

Today I had my first spiritual experience, as I sat and almost wept in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Aleppo. Blind men sang psalms in the vast courtyard, as people milled about on their way into and out of the inner sanctum. Along the corridors, women sat and ate; their children played. Beside me a group of women ate falafel, and commented on the number of pictures I was taking. I smiled and we conversed in mime. I told them I thought the place beautiful; they laughed at my picture-taking. I asked if I could take a picture of them, and one mimed that she thought herself too ugly, that I should spend my film on the structure and not on her.

As I left I ran into another group of women, one almost completely covered (I've noticed in Aleppo that there are a much higher number of women who are completely covered; I can't remember any in Lebanon now that I think of it). One pushed her son towards me to get his picture taken. He was shy. She gave him some seeds and he brought them over. I thanked him, and they invited me to sit. They were both teachers in Aleppo; one taught French and the other Arabic. We conversed in a smattering of French and English, as they asked me what I thought of Syria. I told them I thought it was a beautiful and generous place. When they asked if I were still a student, I told them I was 32. The woman less covered said she was 32 as well, and already had two children. The other looked at her watch and indicated the time. They wished me a pleasant trip and gathered their children to go home.

This morning I awoke early and wandered the souks of the old quarter. The stores were just awakening. Beams of light shonethrough small windows in the domed and arched passageways. I walked the length of the souk to the citadel, and climbed the almost 45 degree angled walkway to the door. From there I climbed to the roof, and wandered around above Aleppo, along with a group of schoolchildren. They shyly practiced saying hello and running away. Dropping back within its walls I explored the few open rooms, eventually finding my way to the sumptuously renovated throne room, above the main gate.

As the city had barely awoken, I decided to seek out the church of San Simeon, some 40 kilometers away. At the minibus station a man offered his taxi, but I told him I'd rather take the bus. He told me the bus stopped in Diet'Azarre, leaving me with 6km to go to the church. I told him I would walk; he directed me towards the correct bus.

Getting off at an intersection in the middle of town, I hitched a ride with a passing truck to the base of the church. He accepted 100 Syrian pounds ($1US = 51 pounds) and left me to climb the road to the site. At the top, the cashier offered me a seat. I rested, paid, and then climbed the rest of the way up.

The spectacular ruins rest on a hill above arid plains dotted with rocks. I had thought to skip this particular ruin, but I'm glad I didn't, as it proved one of my favorite thus far on this trip. Arched passages lead into the remains of the interior, as columns supported what remained. Devoted to St. Simon of Stylites, in 423 AD he climbed to the top of a 3m pillar and spent the next 36 years atop this and other pillars. After his death in 459, a chuch was built upon the most famous one. A boulder now commands the center of the main basilica.

As I began the walk back to town, a tour bus passed and waved. Then a man in a truck stopped. I asked him if he were going to Diet'Azarre, and he waved me in, moving a bouquet of flowers he had on the seat to the floor. I offered him payment, but he waved it away and offered me a sip of his (very good) beer. Once at the edge of Diet'Azarre, he indicated he was on his way to Haleb (Aleppo). I nodded and we sped away, passing all other traffic on the way. Soon we surpassed even the tour bus that had passed before.

In Aleppo, he dropped me off at a main mosque, and I asked directions for the way back to the old quarter. "It's very far," I was told, but it proved less than a kilometer from where I stood.

I'm much more relaxed today. Sitting in the mosque did me good. I've finally managed to get into the rhythm of travelling again; instead of rushing around, I'm taking my time and still managing to do more in a day than I had originally thought possible. The people I have met have also been wonderful. And I've learned to try to say things in Arabic before trying French. And a great meal tends to do wonders. Posted by eku at May 5, 2004 5:15 PM

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