LAST DAY IN THE MIDDLE EAST, Cairo, Egypt
39 days had gone by. My Middle East journey had came to an end. Back in 2006, political situations in the region was relatively calm. No hiccups in transportation, no encounter of theft or any form of danger, no unwanted aggressive behavior from anyone we met, our trip went pretty smoothly from beginning to the end. I spent my last day in the Middle East wandering around Islamic Cairo, indulging myself one last time in the midst of historical streets, laid-back teashops and souvenir stalls. A collage of Islamic Cairo composes the last bits of my memory of the Middle East. After my walk in Cairo, I met up with my two travel buddies just returned from Luxor. We then hopped on a taxi to the airport for our flight to Athens.
KHAN EL-KHALILI SOUQ, Cairo, Egypt
If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.
As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.
AL-HAMIDIYAH SOUQ, Damascus, Syria
Found in the 1st century at the site of an earlier Aramaean Temple, the Temple of Jupiter was the largest temple in Roman Damascus. The Greco-Roman temple was renowned for its beauty and scale. In the 4th century, Theodosius I transformed the temple into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. In 705, the church was converted into the Umayyad Mosque after Damascus was captured by the Muslim Arab forces in 634. Despite being transformed numerous times, remnants of the Roman Temple of Jupiter survived for another millennium until the present day. The ruins have indeed interwoven into the urban fabric of today’s Damascus, serving as a 40 feet monument at the entrance of the central market, Al-Hamidiyah Souq. Indeed, the Roman entry route to the former Temple of Jupiter has become the main configuration of the market.
Shops selling clothes, antiques, handicrafts, souvenir, and jewellery line along the main shopping arcade, while vendors of spices, dried fruits, miscellaneous household items and clothing pack the side streets. Established in the Ottoman Era in around 1780, the 600m covered market has not been physically affected by the civil war, despite international tourists have largely disappeared. Due to the war, the Syrian pound has fallen dramatically in recent years, and the supply chains of many merchandises have also been impacted by foreign sanctions. Business is undoubtedly affected. Back in 2006, the souk was a must-see for all foreign visitors, including us.
After Umayyad Mosque, we wandered over to the city’s main souk. We discovered an unique shop that sells textiles, scarfs, bags, and embroideries made by local Syrian and Palestinian women. After souvenir shopping, we went to a shop called Bakdash, which is Syria’s oldest ice-cream parlour. Bakdash has been around since 1890, selling rosewater and almond ice-cream topped with fresh pistachio. Each of us had a delicious cone to end the day.
The ruined Roman Temple of Jupiter forms a dramatic entrance for Al-Hamidiyah Souq.
The souk is roughly 15m wide and covered with a 10m tall metal vaulted roof.
Political banner in support of the Assad regime was hung in the souk back in 2006.
In the evening, the ruined temple is lit up by flood lights.
In the evening, the Roman ruins give a strong atmospheric touch to the market entrance.
In 2010, Global Heritage Fund named the old city of Damascus as one of the 12 cultural heritage sites most “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction. In 2008, World Monuments Fund put old Damascuson its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world.
Population decline and demolition plans of old buildings are to blamed for the risks that Old Damascus is facing in recent decade.
Outside of the main souk, vendors of all kinds have spread to many side streets.
Vendors selling produces and household items have turned the side streets near the souk into an open market.
AL-MADINA SOUQ, Aleppo, Syria
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.