After our extremely lucky hitchhike back to Aleppo, we had a quick bite at a cafe across the citadel. After lunch, I split with the group and headed back to the souq to get some souvenir, went to the main post office to for stamp collections, spent a bit of time at an internet cafe, wandered around the downtown area, and reunited with the group at the National Museum. Before the Syrian Civil War, Aleppo was the largest city in the country with a population of 4.6 million as of 2010. Wandering in downtown Aleppo offered me a brief moment to see the daily lives of Syrian city dwellers. The National Museum was a delight. One of the most impressive artefacts were the cuneiform tablets from Mari. The cuneiform script is one of the earliest written language of humans. Fortunately, the museum collection largely escaped the impact of the war. Artefacts were either stored in the basement or moved to Damascus. The remaining large statues outside the building were covered by sandbags for protection.
Without the overwhelming tourists of cities like Istanbul, the bustling downtown Aleppo in 2006 was the ideal place to check out the urban living in Syria.
Back in 2006, it was safe and pretty much hassle free to wander around downtown Aleppo alone.
In downtown Aleppo, it wasn’t easy to find a quiet corner to enjoy some lone time.
Except the souq, there were hardly any shops catered for tourists. Everyone in the city was just busy with his or her own business. As an outsider, I just took my time wandering around to take photos.
In 2006, six years after Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria, pictures of Assad could be seen all over Aleppo.
Large government buildings occupied entire street block became obvious targets for the rebels during the civil war.
In 2006, Aleppo won the title as one of the “Islamic Capitals of Culture 2006”. Cultural heritage were being restored and political propaganda from the Assad regime were put up at Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, including this spherical lighting feature.
Two blocks northwest of National Museum was the Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, the main public square in downtown Aleppo. A metal ball claimed to be largest in the Middle East was erected as part of the Islamic Capital of Culture event. Today, a large and colouful installation of “I Love Aleppo” has been put up along with significant restoration of the square after the battles of 2012.
At the National Museum, we got a chance to see the clay tablets from Mari, showcasing a kind of cuneiform script that was one of the earliest writing in the world. On 11 July 2016, heavy mortar shells hit the National Museum of Aleppo, causing extensive damages to the roof and structure. The statues at the entrance were covered in sandbags for protection during the war.
Aleppo City Hall is one of the tallest building in Aleppo.
Built in 1899, Bab al-Faraj Clock tower is a major landmark in Aleppo, with Sheraton Aleppo at the background. Opened in 2007, the former 5-star hotel has been converted into military barracks during the war.
The 15 storey Amir Palace Hotel at the background in the photo was another prominent hotel in prewar Aleppo. It was damaged during the war.
With significant damages from the Battles of Aleppo, it would take years to rebuild the downtown area.
In the next morning, we left the hotel early in the morning for our ongoing journey to Hama.
Simeon Stylites, a famous ascetic saint seeking for a spiritual life of extreme austerity, spent 37 years living on a small platform atop a pillar. Probably born in 390 AD, Simeon was devoted to Christianity since about 13 years old. His practice of extreme austerity led him to a pursuit of an ascetic life in seclusion. In order to avoid the crowd of pilgrims seeking for his prayers, Simeon found a pillar from an ancient ruins and built a platform of about one square metre on top and started his 37 year living on a pillar. He moved to different columns throughout his life. The last was recorded to be more than 15m from ground. Instead of isolated from the society, his fame grew even greater after living on a pillar. He would talk to visitors from a ladder, wrote letters, instructed disciplines, hosted lectures for an assembly down below. Even the Roman emperors greatly respected Simeon and his counsels. He died in 459 AD after 37 years spent on a pillar. After his death, stylites or pillar dwellers had become a kind of popular Christian ascetics in early Byzantine era. Qalaat Samaan, or the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, is a 5th century church built on the site of Simeon’s pillar. Before the construction of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Saint Simeon had the most famous dome in the world of Christendom. Over the last 1600 years, the basilica survived earthquakes and wars, but had met its fate of destruction being at the wrong place at the wrong time: at the crossroad among forces of the Syrian, ISIS, Kurdish, Turkish, Russians and other rebels. Since taken by the ISIS in 2013, the complex had gone through several years of absolute chaos and madness, missile bombing and stone removal, all causing significant damages to the world heritage complex. What believed to be the remains of Simeon’s pillar was damaged by Russian air strikes in support of Assad’s regime. Along with the destruction of old Aleppo, Qalaat Samaan’s ill fate is another great loss to human civilization that no reconstruction work can ever restore.
A 1664 depiction of Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.
From the bus station of Aleppo we hired a car to Qalaat Samaan, the famous ruins of the four basilicas built in the 5th century dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites. The ruins was rather remote, at approximately 2 hour of drive north of Aleppo. We were amazed by the grand scale of the complex, and found the ruined archways very photogenic. We finished our visit at around 11:00 and didn’t have a clue of how to return to Aleppo, as our hired car only offered an one way trip. No public transportation was available, and we were up on a hill far from the highway. At the parking lot, I decided to try hitchhiking. Since there were six of us it wasn’t easy. I headed towards a tour bus in which the driver was reading newspaper. I tried to communicate with him in English and luckily he understood my request. He led me to the tour guide and the group of Spanish tourists. They agreed to take us along all at once as they were leaving for Aleppo as well. They were not a big group, around 15 of them, mainly in their 50s. The bus was the most luxurious tour bus we had ever seen, with large comfortable chairs and a banquette seating area at the back where we settled ourselves comfortably. Their bus even dropped by one of the 700 sites of the Dead Cities along the way. We were invited to go along with them. On the bus, the Spanish group kindly offered us biscuits and snacks. The bus was so comfortable that at the end we all fell asleep. When we woke up we had already back at the Citadel of Aleppo. This remained as our only hitchhiking experience in the Middle East.
Saint Simeon was an influential figure 1500 years ago, prompting people to construct a large church complex shortly after his death at the site of his pillar. The ruined complex is consisted of the main Church of Saint Simeon, Baptistry, and Monastery.
The Church of Saint Simeon had about 5000 sq.m of floor space, almost comparable to that of the Hagia Sophia. It was designed in a cruciform with four basilica centered at the octagonal courtyard where the remains of the pillar of Saint Simeon stood.
Built in 490 AD, the church was one of the earliest churches in this part of the world.
The massive archways are the most well preserved elements of the complex.
The fine details of the arches and column capitals are valuable artefact from the early Byzantine era.
We could have spend a long time to study the fine details of the ruins.
Much of the walls of the four basilicas remained intact in 2006 when we visited.
Along with the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, the church was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. However taken by ISIS in 2013, the church had entered a few years of absolute madness and destruction.
Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, strongly condemned the severe damage caused by an air-strike to the Church of Saint Simeon.
The most important spot of the complex is the octagonal courtyard where the remains of Simeon’s pillar stood before the war.
What remained from the 15m pillar where Saint Simeon once lived atop had become less than 3m tall before the Syrian Civil War. After the Russian air strike, the spot has become nothing but a pile of rubble.
There were hardly any explanations or signage at the ruins, but we were free to walk around the complex.
The Eastern Basilica was beautifully preserved. It was larger than the others, and used to held all major ceremonies.
Since 2003, the complex had been regularly surveyed and scanned by the French. Their 3D documentation prior to the building’s partial destruction in 2016 may prove to be crucial for its future restoration.
The octagonal Baptistery was a crucial part of the pilgrimage complex.
The Baptistery is one of the best preserved Christian architecture in Syria.
Baptistry Baptistry was constructed shortly after the construction of the main church. The wooden roof, either a cone or dome, didn’t survive to this day.
Since the complex was erected on the hill, there were spots where we could enjoy the surrounding scenery down below.
As of 2020, Idlib, the city near the Church of Saint Simeon Stylite, was the latest battle ground between the Jihadist forces, Turkish backed rebels, Russian backed Syrian government and Kurdish forces.
Not far from the citadel is the main souq of Aleppo, the Al-Madina Souq. It is consisted of a series of interconnected covered markets. Like other Middle Eastern souqs, the Al-Madina Souq is vast and labyrinth like. Unlike the touristy Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, Al-Madina Souq was catered almost entirely for the locals. We stopped often to talk to vendors and tried out the local snacks, including a tasty hot omelet from an old vendor. While picking up a few metal necklaces from a curious young vendor in the jewelery section, the curious vendor kept on asking us questions about Hong Kong and Canada. There were a number of vendors selling colouful spices, as well as the famous Aleppo soap.
Since the trip to the Middle East, Aleppo soap has been on my occasional shopping list of personal care items. No matter in Toronto, London, Kyoto or Hong Kong, we could always find some local stores that got some of these Syria soap bars on the shelves. Although the exact origin of Aleppo soap is unknown, these handmade soap made from olive oil and lye has been around since ancient times. The first Crusades brought this soap to Europe and greatly influenced the industry of soap making in Europe. In Aleppo, the best place to shop for Aleppo soap used to be Al-Madina Souq. With 13km of shops, about 4000 shops distributed in 37 specific souqs, Al-Madina Souq was one of the largest and oldest covered market in the world, and served as the commercial heart of Aleppo for many centuries. Back in the days of the ancient Silk Road, Aleppo was a major hub in the area. People from the region would come to shop for soap, silk, spices, jewelry, gold, ceramics, textiles, clothing, pure cotton, etc. No one knows exactly how old the souq is, but some of the white stones in the market were cut and placed around 2500 years ago. The souq remained as the city’s iconic shopping venue until the Syrian Civil War. In September 2012, a fire caused by the fighting between the rebels and government army lasted for days and destroyed the majority of Al-Madina Souq.
Before the war, the Al-Madina Souq was the best place to shop for spices and soap.
Despite some visiting tourists, the Al-Madina Souq was largely serving the local poppulation.
Vendors were friendly to us despite many couldn’t speak English.
We watched an old vendor demonstrating the making of egg omelets.
In some occasions the vaulted ceiling of the souq made way to an opened rotunda.
Apart from the mosque, the Al-Madina Souq was the biggest loss to Aleppo from the war.
The souq lies in the middle of the old city of Aleppo.
Before the destruction of 2012, the souq pretty much stayed the same since the Medieval Ages.
Today, 60% of the old city was damaged in the world.
It was interesting to find our way through these narrow alleys surrounding the souq.
Before the Civil War, most of the old city dated back to the 12th century.
The unique old city of Aleppo was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1986.
Both the souq and the old city were being restored bits by bits in recent years.
Let’s hope the prosperous scenes of the Old Aleppo would return to the war-torn ancient city soon.
From the Great Mosque, we headed east and arrived shortly at the gate of Aleppo Citadel. Perched on top of a limestone hill at the centre of the old city, Aleppo Citadel is the most dominating structure in the old city. We crossed the moat via the imposing stone bridge and entered the citadel complex, which contained restored stone buildings from the Medieval Ages. The citadel was once a powerful stronghold of the Muslims to defend their homeland against the crusaders, and is today considered to be one of the largest citadels in the world. Apart from its size and dominance of Aleppo’s skyline, it is the citadel’s complex layer of history and cycles of destruction and restoration that captivate people’s imagination.
Most of the remaining structures in the citadel were erected by the Ayyubids in the 12th and 13th century. A 2009 excavation showed the citadel hill has a much longer history, as remains of a Bronze Age Neo-Hittite temple dated to the 3rd millennia BC was unearthed. The hill was first used as a fortress and acropolis in the 4th century BC during the reign of Seleucus I Nicator. Since then, the citadel had changed hands many occasions, and had been destroyed and restored many times due to warfare and earthquakes. In the Medieval era, the citadel served as a Muslim stronghold, and a number of crusaders were imprisoned here. Then the citadel was sacked by the Mongols two times before taken by the Ottomans in the 16th century. After a mid 19th century earthquake that destroyed much of the complex, the citadel was first extensively restored by Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I, and then later by the French Mandate after the First World War. The latest ordeal came from the Battle of Aleppo (2012 – 2016) in the Syrian Civil War, when 60% of the old city was destroyed. The mighty citadel suffered significant damages from bomb and missile attacks. The cycle of destruction and restoration has once again came to a full circle. Let’s hope one day a long lasting peace would arrive and break the cycle of destruction once and for all.
Sultan Ghazi reinforced the Citadel in early 13th century. His works included deepening the moat and constructing a tall entrance bridge / viaduct.
As a famous defensive structure, the Citadel was guarded by a bent entrance complex where intruders would need to go through six turns up a vaulted ramp via a killing zone where hot liquids or stones would be dropped.
While the Outer Gate was damaged in the Battle of Aleppo, the imposing Inner Gate seems to be intact.
Sometimes considered as a city within a city, Aleppo Citadel contained dwellings, palaces, bathhouses, temples, mosques, as well as military barracks.
Originally built as a Byzantine church, the Mosque of Abraham has a tranquil little courtyard to welcome worshipers.
The amphitheatre in the Citadel is actually a modern addition from 1980s to hold concerts.
The stone wall of the former palace is decorated with exquisite carvings of Islamic patterns.
Destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century, the Throne Hall built by the Mamluks is one of the splendid structures restored in the Citadel.
Before the civil war, lookouts from the Citadel offered some fine views of the bustling Hawl al-Qalaa Street below.
The prewar Aleppo was long gone. Photographs from 2016 and beyond show significant destruction of buildings surrounding the Citadel.
The Grand Serail served as the former governor house from 1933 to 2008. The building was completely destroyed in August 2014 by an underground explosion.
Inside the Citadel, the main street connects the Entrance Gate to Ayyubid Palace, Mosque of Abraham and the Big Mosque with its prominent minaret.
Most buildings in the Citadel survived the war but significant damages were made at various parts of the complex.
Walking in the Citadel before the war was a peaceful experience to learn about the history of the great city.
Decorative stone details at a doorway in the Citadel.
During the Battle of Aleppo, the Syrian army used the Citadel as a military base, shelling the surrounding areas through arrow slits on the ancient walls. A part of the wall was destroyed in the battles.
In prewar Aleppo, the area around the Citadel was the most peaceful and atmospheric in the evening.
It might still be years away before Aleppo can regain its peaceful atmosphere, rise up from the ruins and proudly showcase its cultural heritage to the world once again.
A looming sense of loss comes to my heart when writing about a Syria that no longer exists. Revisiting the brief travel experience in Syria consolidates my feelings and fragmented memories of places that we visited and faces that we encountered. It was sad to revisit the photos of Syria, knowing that much of the cultural heritage we visited have been destroyed and people we met have gone through a painful decade. Nonetheless, we thought it would be a valuable thing to share on our blog a little account of the prewar Syria, when the Middle Eastern nation was a fascinating country to visit as a backpacker, despite it was labelled by George W. Bush as part of the so called “Axis of Evil”. It was the least touristy country among the nations we visited in the region, and had a great wealth of cultural heritage and friendly people. Our Syrian story began in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria before the war and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
We arrived at Antakya of Hatay near the Turkish and Syrian border at 08:00. Immediately we hopped onto another bus for Aleppo in Syria. Going through the customs and passport control was easier than I thought. Once crossed the border into Syria, I felt that I had finally arrived in the authentic Middle East, a desert nation still out of reach from global commercialism. Aleppo is about 100km east of Antakya. The city was noisy, dusty, crowded, and unique. A few minutes of rest at Spring Flower Hostel was enough for us to revive our energy. We walked to the Old City towards the famous Great Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, the 8th century World Heritage Site that is the largest and oldest mosque in Aleppo. Before visiting the mosque, we picked up some kebabs on the way. At the gate of the mosque, we took off our shoes and entered the marble courtyard, where pilgrims and tourist agents mingled. The beautiful courtyard had two roofed ablution fountains. Beyond one side of the surrounding colonnade stood the famous minaret. Built in 1090, the minaret had been the icon of the mosque for more than 900 years. In April 2013, the news of the minaret being reduced to rubble shocked the world. Apart from the minaret, much of the mosque was also badly damaged. The most iconic religious monument of Aleppo was turned into a bloody battlefield, and now a large restoration site closed to visitors.
The 923 year old minaret was one of the most notable cultural heritage casualties from the Syrian Civil War.
The 45m minaret was cladded with pinkish beige stone and Arabic inscriptions. Now it only exists in old photographs and collective memories of Syrians.
With two ablution fountains and marble stone flooring, the beautiful courtyard was badly damaged during the war. Both the rebels and government blamed each other for the destruction.
Despite the heat, the courtyard was a lovely place to hang around for people watching. According to online news, restoration work has begun in 2017 to repair the World Heritage Site.
Inside the mosque, we found the coffin of Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist.
Outside the mosque, local shoppers were busy chatting with vendors. Such bygone vibrant scenes may take a long time to recover.
The street right outside the mosque was lined up with a series of well-preserved traditional houses.
In the evening, the main street was a great place to take in the lively atmosphere.
The timber mashrabiya of houses around the mosque were quite spectacular.
The busy shops around the famous mosque may not exist anymore.
We had a brief encounter with a young cheerful vendor outside the mosque. It is sad to imagine the fate of all the Aleppo citizens we met.
According to World Vision, 5.6 million Syrians have become refugees, another 6.2 million have been displaced, and nearly 12 million need humanitarian assistance, and more than half are children.
A peaceful evening outside the Great Mosque of Aleppo has become a memorable image in my heart. A battlefield for almost ten years, Aleppo would take a long time to return to the former liveliness.
The majestic minaret of Great Umayyad Mosque fell amid heavy fighting between rebels in the mosque and the Syrian army 200m away. The destruction of the minaret was a tragedy for all.
After 1300 years as the religious centre of Aleppo, the Great Umayyad Mosque is currently closed for restoration. Whether it could return to its former glory remains to be seen.
Originally a Greek agora during Hellenistic period, and then the garden of the Christian Cathedral of Saint Helena in Roman era, the Great Umayyad Mosque was erected in the 8th century during first Islamic Dynasty. 1300 years on, no one can be certain how its story will continue to unfold.
Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians who are still going through the civil war, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman during the trip have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.