Today’s Aleppo is the banquet table after the feast. Its dishevelled streets are dotted with faded monuments to a glorious past, surrounded by the swirl of burgeoning modernity. With a population of over 2.5 million, it’s the largest city in Syria, though Damascus still calls the shots.
Many of Aleppo’s old labyrinthine alleys have been swept aside for broad avenues, which are choked with an incessant gush of traffic. From its belching buses to its chugging trucks, the vehicles here aren’t just environmentally unfriendly, they’re aggressively hostile.
The roads are how I imagine the insides of human veins to look after a fix of heroin. The yellow tide of clattering Iranian-made taxi cabs is the surging drug, coursing through every artery and capillary, rattling pedestrian corpuscles and blood cells in a maddening, quickening burst.
The Syrian highway code appears to consist of a mere two words: “Just drive.”
When I visited Aleppo, just before the Arab Spring, the traffic presented the clearest and most present danger. But events in the Arab world since then have exposed the nub of the problem in Syria. As we all know, Syria is a dictatorship and police state. Stiff-lipped portraits of President Bashar Al-Assad peer from almost every building, and it’s said the secret police and a network of informers keep a watchful eye on everybody, especially western tourists.
Perhaps my friend Ismail was a stool pigeon, highly trained to extract information from foreigners with an act of disarming friendliness spiced with bonkers surrealism? Even if I was being followed or monitored, I wasn’t going to let it stop the splendid history and contemporary verve of Aleppo from sinking into my pores.
History had coloured the story of Aleppian cuisine. According to legend, the prophet Abraham let his cow graze on the hill where the citadel now stands. There he offered its milk to the people. Some say that the city’s ancient name of Halab – which is still widely used in Syria today – is derived from haleeb, the Arabic for milk. Or it might come from the Aramaic word halaba, which means ‘white’, and may refer to the colour of the limestone found in the area, or perhaps the white milk of Abraham’s ashen cow. Either way, food and Aleppo go together like Laurel & Hardy, R2D2 and C3PO, hummus and flatbread.
Aleppo’s position as a stopover for caravans on the Silk Road completely revolutionised its approach to food. It became a vital trading link between China and Europe, and it prospered with the flow of people, goods, wealth and ideas. It became an important hub for Muslims on the pilgrimage to Makkah, and the local hospitality industry flourished.
As the city grew, more of the surrounding fertile land was used to graze sheep and cultivate vegetables, fruit and nuts. Strange herbs and spices came in from the east, which alongside local cherries, olives, peppers and pistachios, inevitably found their way into the beating heart of Aleppo: the souk…