The English have been described as a nation of shopkeepers, and are famed for their love of tea, but in reality we are a bunch of wet behind the ears amateurs in both those departments.
To see both shopkeeping and tea drinking as practiced by time honed masters, the souqs, markets and bazaars of the Middle East are the place to visit. And whilst amongst the many and varied markets to be found, the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and the Khan al-Khalili in Cairo are rightly famous, the old souq of Aleppo, in northern Syria, is relativity and quite unfairly still unknown.
With a history going back as far as 5000 B.C. and having been inhabited continually for at least the last 4000 years, the city of Aleppo can claim its place amongst some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Add to this its strategic location at the western end of the Silk route, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to find that Aleppo also boasts the largest souq of the Middle East. While not as glamorous as it’s more famous cousins in Istanbul, Cairo or Marrakech, the old souq of Aleppo, with its twelve maze-like kilometres of vaulted passageways, retains an air of authenticity that you may find lacking in its more tourist-trod rivals.
Within Aleppo, there is the Old City, and within the Old City, lies the souq, a community in and of itself, these days spilling out of its traditional boundaries into the surrounding streets. Entire families work here, many sleep here, some even live here, and they most definitely shop here.
Although tourists are welcomed here, the old market of Aleppo is still a place where locals go to shop. Multicoloured fabrics vie for space with kitchen utensils, spices are piled high opposite wedding dresses and loaves of bread and mountains of sunflower seeds are hawked from wooden carts. Some items for sale defy explanation; upon being quizzed as to what it was he sold, one shopkeeper explained that he sold clubs and sticks for beating donkeys and settling the occasional dispute. To this day, i’m not entirely convinced he was joking.
The main artery leading from Souq Bab Antakya in the west through Souq Al-Attarine all the way to Souq Al-Zarb and the city’s ancient Citadel in the east is a mish-mash of different stalls, but once you start to wander down the multitude of smaller veins, an organised segregation of products starts to appear. Jewellers in one, fabrics in another, sheep intestines and camel heads in another.
As well as the camel heads and prayer mats, there is plenty for the visiting tourist to browse and buy; Enamelled backgammon boards and the Aleppen specialty, olive and laurel soap, are common tourist favourites. And who can turn down the delights of the Falafel stand or the sweet honey dripping pastries known as Baklava. Plump olives and sun-dried tomatoes so fresh and at such low prices that you can’t help but buy them by the kilogram.
As a visiter to this almost subterranean world, shopping takes second place to the hospitality and friendly banter of the shopkeepers themselves. Arabs, and Arabic shopkeepers especially, like their tea, and anyone planning to visit the Middle East needs to be prepared to drink a lot of it. People in the souq are, as the people in this region generally tend to be, incredibly hospitable and invites to sit and drink tea are around every corner. Young boys will be sent running, returning with glasses of tea, often pre-sweetened with several spoonfuls of sugar.
Obviously, this being a market and they being the salesmen they are this is also an opportunity for the shopkeepers to wheel out their goods. If having previously travelled in and visited the markets and bazaars of Egypt or Turkey, you’d be expecting the hard sell, the sob story and the puppy dog eyes. But here you will be surprised – sales take a backseat to a genuine desire to make you feel welcome. Usually a simple and friendly ”la shukran” or “no thank you” is enough to get back to drinking tea and making small talk. If you do decide to buy, remember to haggle, not only will you get a better price, but it is expected and almost insulting not to. Keep it friendly, and remember that there is no correct price, just a price that you are happy to pay, and a price that the seller is willing to accept.
For the people who work there, the souq is not just a place, nor is it just a job. The old souq of Aleppo is a way of life, a way of life that starts in childhood and continues in to old age. Children start working at an early age, as young as six years old, running errands or watching the family stall ready to rouse a father or brother if a potential customer comes by. A few years on and they can push a cart or ride a bicycle fetching and carrying their wares from storeroom to stall, sweeping and making tea as they learn the trade of the salesman. Once into adulthood, they help run the stall or maybe open stall of their own if they and their family have enough money put by. Even as the circle repeats itself and a stall owners work load is taken on by his younger protégés, he will often still spend many hours of his day within the souq, drinking tea and playing backgammon with friends taking now taking priority.
For many families here this has been a cycle that has repeated for generations, fundamentally unchanged, much like the stony warrens they work within, since the twelfth century. Profits made from one stall are invested in helping a son or nephew open their own shop, expanding the family business throughout the whole Souq.
The day starts early in the souq, some shops opening before dawn, with others opening at a steady pace in line with the mounting stream of shoppers. By mid-morning the stream has become a torrent and the narrow covered passageways a bustling shoulder to shoulder scrum. Carts, bicycles, motorbikes, donkeys and minivans all vie for space amongst the crowd – adding their whistles, bells and horns to the clamour of everyday life in the souq. The clientele of the souq are as much of a mix as the stalls, a blend of the traditional and the modern, burqas mixed with baseball caps, with the occasional tourist thrown in for good measure. Fathers can be seen shopping with their sons for a first Keffiyeh (traditional Arab headscarf), business men in suits rub shoulders with soldiers, black clad mothers pick out the best produce for their family’s supper.
Throughout the day, huge amounts tea will be drank, prepared with water drawn from the many ancient fountains and water troughs located throughout the souq. These same fountains are also invaluable for preparing food and making the ritual pre-prayer ablutions.
The hustle and bustle continues unabated, bar a slight easing off during times of prayer, until late afternoon. As the sun gets lower in the sky the shoppers start to drift home, and as the sun sets, many of the stalls turn out their lights and roll down their shutters. Even as the halls darken, a few die-hards will still be found manning scattered pockets of light until late into the night before finally drifting home themselves and the souq’s gatekeeper with his bundle of ancient and somewhat over sized keys locks up the great gates until a new day starts afresh early the next morning.