Friday, May 15, 2009

Aleppo and the return journey

I've been back for two days but too lazy to finish writing the final installment of my travel blog. I say final installment, but I suspect more Iran and Syria related pieces will emerge in the future, about issues I wasn't able to cover while on the road.
In Aleppo, we stayed in a hotel within the famed souq, but found ourselves tired of bazaars. Beyond a point, they take on the same sameness that is criticised in malls. The difference is they're dirtier and noisier. We were in the vicinity of a dozen old mosques, the muezzins of which would sound off at dawn. The azaan would start from one minaret and be picked up by a succession of others, reminding me of the way stray dogs in my neighbourhood inaugurate a barking competition, although of course in this case the criers were not responding to each other. The biggest mosque of all, a 7th century Umayyad construction, had a special loudspoken prayer that began at 2.30am and continued, in an unbearable monotone for a full 30 minutes.
After two days of this, we moved to a hotel in the new city and were the happier for it. We took a day trip to the basilica of Saint Simeon, built in honour of a 5th century devotee of Christ who expressed his religious passion by living atop a pillar. Very like some yogis. Also like the said yogis, Simon did not like women around him, even forbidding his mother (herself later canonised) from visiting him. As his fame grew, he kept moving to higher pillars, and, when he died four decades later, he had spent his last years atop a 14 meter high pole. David Blaine eat your heart out. We were particularly keen to make this visit because of a film by Luis Bunuel titled Simon of the Desert, based loosely on the pillarman's story. How loosely? Well, for a start, the place isn't in the desert.
The basilica is a gorgeous ruin, and impressed us though we'd had our fill of gorgeous ruins by that time. It confirmed my sense that the Christian sights of Syria are more interesting than Islamic ones, though no match for pagan Palmyra.
Having moved out of the souq, we were able to discover a trendy new precinct in Aleppo that found no mention in our guidebook. It lies between the quaint renovated Christian quarter and the colonial district. The three together made for a stimulating evening's walking, ending with a nice meal in one of the many restaurants that have opened up recently, which offer the combination of comfortable seating, varied menu and reasonable prices we failed to find in Damascus. In one of these, I had the best chocolate fondant I have ever eaten. It's been a dish that has promised much but rarely delivered in my experience. This one was rich and melty and large and accompanied by a delicious vanilla icecream whose flavour felt natural.
Syria as a whole had come across as a bit dour, particularly because we didn't journey to the swinging beach resort Lattakia, so we were glad to see a fun side of the country in this affluent area of Aleppo.
After the requisite shopping for nuts and dried fruits (two categories frequently collapsed into one in India), spices, soap and local wine, we were ready for home.
The Syrians play a cruel trick at the airport, slapping a 1500 pound 'departure tax' on each passenger. We were considering how we'd spend the remaining Syrian money, and this solved the problem, even necessitating a dip into our dollar reserve. Anybody going to Syria, remember this final expense. If you are caught without cash, you'll be in big trouble, because most ATMs don't work well with international cards.

1 comment:

shivani said...

Enjoyed travelling with u, looking forward to more, esp some more on the pillars, read about this in a work on Byzantium but curious to know more.