The English have been described as a nation of shopkeepers, and are also 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 head. 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 the north of 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 should not be too 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 Marrakesh, the old souq of Aleppo, with its twelve maze-like kilometers 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 most definitely 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 the beating of donkeys and settling of disputes. Whether he was serious or just making fun, I just couldn’t tell.
The main artery leading from Souq Bab Antakya in the west through Souq Al-Attarine all the way to Souq Al-Zarb and the 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 it’s almost a sin not to buy by the kilo.
As a tourist though, shopping takes second place to the hospitality and friendly banter of the shopkeepers themselves. As mentioned before, Arabs in general, and the shopkeepers especially like their tea. Anyone planning to visit the Middle East need to be prepared to drink a lot of tea. As is common in the region, people in the souq are incredibly hospitable and invites to 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 Egypt or Turkey, you may be expecting the hard sell, the sob story and puppy dog eyes, but here you will be surprised, with sales taking 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, it is in almost all cases expected. 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, it is a way of life, a way of life that starts in childhood and continues in to old age. Children start working here at an early age, as young as six years old, running errands or simply watching the family stall ready with a shout to rouse a father or brother if a potential customer comes by. A few years older 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 may be helping to run the stall or even have a stall of their own. Even as the circle repeats itself and a shopkeeper’s 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.
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 rubbing shoulders with soldiers.
Throughout the day, huge amounts tea will be drank, prepared at several points throughout the souq, the water drawn from the many fountains and water troughs that are also used for preparing food and the pre-prayer ablutions. Naps will be had, meals will be eaten, and many, many games of backgammon will be played.
The hustle and bustle continues unabated, apart from a slight easing off during times of prayer, until the 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 at 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 the day starts afresh early the next morning.
Thankfully there is a respite from the general noise and buzz of the crowd. Heading out into one of the Khans, in the past a mix of inn and warehouse for the travelling traders as well as housing the consulates of foreign powers, they now offer a momentary respite shared with bales of wool and reams of fabric before heading back into the melee.
Hammams, the ancient bathhouses, are another place of quiet, offering the chance to have all the dirt, dust and tension of the souq pummelled and scrubbed from your body.
For those looking for a truly serene escape, the Umayyad Mosque, with it’s wide open courtyard and low murmur of prayer, offers all the peace and quiet a tired Souq wanderer could ask for. Known as the Great Mosque, and the younger sister of the Umayyad Mosque inDamascus, its location adjoining the northern edge of the souq makes it an integral part of the market dwellers’ life. A place of prayer and reflection. Prayers are held five times each day, the faithful heeding the call of the minarets, a familiar sound across theMiddle East. Even as a non-Muslim, I found that after a week of pushing and shoving my way through the souq, and the arrival of a noisy Lebanese tour group to my hotel, the serenity of the mosque was the perfect place to while away an hour or two.
Another option is to visit the souq on a Friday, the day of rest. Devoid of the crowds, the shops closed for the day, it is the best time to admire the maze of buildings itself. Mainly dating from the time of the Ottomans, cobbled streets run beneath your feet and heavy wooden doors, worn by time, hang on massive iron hinges. The real treat though, is when you lift your head, vaulted ceilings arching above you, sunlight streaming through the skylights in sharp edged beams.
Despite the inevitable and unavoidable electric lighting and the ubiquitous mobile phones, as well as other signs of encroaching modernity, the souq and the lives that go one within it is largely the same as it has ever been. One major change that has come about is the lack of handicrafts taking place within the market. The majority of crafts now outsourced to workshops situated in the old city. Nevertheless, there is still a real feel that this is an authentic honest to goodness Middle Eastern market, still largely untouched by tourism.
If you can take a second to stop and withstand the push of the crowd, squint your eyes to blur out the mobile phones, let the sound and smells of the market surround you, it is easy to imagine a time of Crusades, a storybook world of flying carpets, magic lamps, Scheherazade and 1001 nights. Albeit one with shopkeepers and lots and lots of tea.