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.
Day 12 (3 of 3).
On our last evening of the trip, we had a few hours to spare in Colombo before heading to the airport. From online research, we learnt about the widely acclaimed seafood restaurant Ministry of Crab, which is famous for their giant lagoon crabs caught in the mangrove lagoons of Sri Lanka, and prepared in a selection of Asian cooking methods such as Sri Lankan pepper, Indian curry, Japanese garlic chilli, Singaporean chilli, etc. For decades, Sri Lankan lagoon crabs have been prized for their size and tasty meat. Almost all of the decent sized lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) have been exported to Singapore (90%) and other parts of Asia and Europe. Ministry of Crab is one of the few restaurants in the nation that offers giant lagoon crabs, and has been named Asia’s 50 best restaurants for several years in a row. In less than ten years, the restaurant has expanded to Shanghai, Manila, Mumbai, Maldives, and Bangkok. The Ministry of Crab in Colombo is located at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, a retail complex housed in the oldest building compound in Colombo Fort, dated to 1681 in the Dutch Era. The Ministry of Crab is a success story of Dharshan Munidasa, the celebrity owner of the restaurant.
The success of Dharshan Munidasa exemplifies how Sri Lanka may find its footing in today’s world by absorbing techniques and cultures from other countries, promoting themselves on mass media, making use of the local natural resources, and gaining global recognition by competing on the international stage. Born in Tokyo from a Sri Lankan father and a Japanese mother, and graduated in The Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Dharshan Munidasa returned to Sri Lanka in 1994. He came back with his Japanese cooking techniques and American way of thinking, and opened his Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi in 1995 and then Ministry of Crab in 2011, both have subsequently become the first Sri Lankan restaurants made to the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Munidasa appeared on BBC Rick Stein’s program in 2009, then in 2010, Munidasa produced and hosted a culinary travel show called “Culinary Journey’s with Dharshan” on Sri Lanka’s ETV. He has also featured on Nippon Shokudo for TV Tokyo, and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN.
While the fascinating Buddhist moments in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa showcase the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, and the colonial legacies in the Hill Country and South Coast reveal the nation’s difficult first encounter with the West, Munidasa’s Ministry of Crab on the other hand demonstrates how a contemporary Sri Lankan identity is taking shape and how a new culture can be confidently exported to the outside world. From Anuradhapura to the Ministry of Crab in Colombo, we felt that we had gone through a 2000-year chronicle of Sri Lanka in a matter of 12 days.
The old Colombo Lighthouse or Clock Tower was a lighthouse in Colombo and still serves as a clock tower today. It signifies the bygone era of colonial Ceylon.
Now converted into a popular shopping and dining venue in downtown Colombo, the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital is considered to be the oldest building in Colombo Fort.
In the era of commercialism, Christmas is celebrated in Metropolitan Colombo despite the nation’s Buddhist background.
Just two blocks west of the Dutch Hospital lies an enormous construction site: 269 hectares of reclaimed land in the Indian Ocean designated for Port City, an ambitious construction project targeted to establish a new central business district with glassy towers that resemble a small Singapore. The $1.4bn Chinese state-owned investment has been controversial: non transparent contract agreement between investors and the former Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa, environmental impact of the massive land reclamation including potential damage on the fishing industry and burden on the limited natural resources to sustain the new downtown, and the unclear operation plan in the future.
In the midst of bustling commercial activities of downtown Colombo lies the peaceful courtyards of the Dutch Hospital, where the Ministry of Crab is situated. At the restaurant entrance, a display menu shows visitors the size range of local lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) and prawns (150g to 500g+).
We left our luggage at the reception and sat down at our reserved table.
There were foreign visitors and expats as well as local business people in the restaurant.
The restaurant is causal and pleasant, and decorated with the orange theme colour.
From floral arrangement to dining utensil, everything in the restaurant was cheerful.
Prawns of different sizes were on display.
We started the meal with giant prawns.
As well as king prawn bisque.
Then we finished the meal with two giant lagoon crabs, one made with Sri Lankan pepper sauce and the other garlic chilli. They were perhaps the most tasty crabs we had for a long long time.
After dinner at 21:15, we had trouble locating our online pre-booked cab at the Dutch Hospital. A restaurant staff helped us to talk on phone with the driver to resolve the issue. We ended up finding the right car behind the restaurant. At the departure concourse in the airport, we once again passed by the advertisement of Ministry of Crab, the same one that we saw 12 days ago. What a satisfying meal and a fruitful journey! This concludes our December 2019 journey to Sri Lanka.