*To all the innocent people in Syria, may your suffering come to an end. To all the innocents who have died as a result of the fighting there, may you forever be in a better place.”
On January 22, 2010 the New York Times published an article in its travel section entitled “Tourists Return to an Ancient Crossroads in Syria.” No one could have imagined that little more than a year after this article was published, Syria would become embroiled in a horrific conflict, with estimates of the number of dead well over 100,000.
The article specifically focuses on the ancient nothern city of Aleppo whose blend of Ottoman, Armenian, Jewish, and French influences have enchanted international travelers for centuries. (T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Agatha Christie are just two well known figures who at one time resided here.) Mosques, Armenian cathedrals, and even a synagogue dot the landscape of Aleppo, a city that enjoyed such an impressive history due to its strategic location at a crossroads of historical empires from times past. It was the Ottoman Empire’s third largest city (after Istanbul and Cairo) and was located at the end of the Silk Road. It’s thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world dating from the 6th century BC.
If one were to envision a stereotypical “Arabian” setting Aleppo could have been it. Many consider Aleppo’s souk (an Arab-style market) as being the best in the Middle East. Everything from spices to camel meat to carpets can be found there. The article mentions that unlike the famous bazaars in Istanbul and Cairo which are “for the tourists” (i.e. price gouging), the souk in Aleppo serves its residents, with tourists being the secondary demographic.
The center of the city is divided into three sections-New City, Old City, and Al-Jdeida, the Christian Quarter. Unlike other cities where the moniker “new” sometimes denotes a city that is centuries old, new in Aleppo’s case really does mean that, an area developed in more recent times. An attraction that would impress just about anyone is the Citadel, a large medieval fortified palace in the Old City which dates back to at least the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. It was used by the Greeks and Byzantines as well as others.
Unfortunately, the civil war has not left Aleppo unscathed. In 2012, fighting finally reached the city with some devastating bombing and fighting taking place often in residential areas. As a result of the severe warfare, many sections in Al-Madina Souk, including the Great Mosque and other medieval buildings in the ancient city, were burnt and destroyed in 2012 as the armed groups of both armies fought for control of the city, the army of President Assad and the rebels.
In the American Civil War, the Southern city of Savannah, Georgia escaped the wrath of Union General Sherman as he considered it too beautiful to destroy. Numerous other cities in the Carolinas and Georgia were not so lucky. In World War II, the Germans did not blow up the famed Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy for it was deemed too lovely (some say this order even came from Hitler himself). It’s a terrible shame that the same couldn’t have been done for Aleppo, a city whose cultural and historical richness is unparalleled.
I didn’t write this post to inspire you to visit Aleppo. The civil war there continues with more horrific news reports coming out each day. When the fighting ceases, it will be a long time before Syria will be able to entice visitors to return. Its tourist treasures are gone, never to be “returned.” In the case of Aleppo, it’s a perfect reminder on how much change can occur in a short period of time.
At the end of the Times article, a Syrian is quoted as saying, ” “In a few years, this city will be swarming with tourists, and, hopefully, even more American visitors.” How sad indeed that the only thing the city swarmed with was horrific war.