Syrian Shopping – Aleppo Souk, The Mother of All Malls

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Aleppo Souk: Part I:

Aleppo Souk, the mother of all malls. I returned to the souk to find the silent, deserted passages of shuttered stalls and padlocked gates completely and dramatically transformed. The cool stone arches were the same, curling their ancient brickwork into vaulted ceilings, but the domes now reverberated with a tumult of noise and smells.

Since the invention of the bin liner, it’s become easier to carry your offal and lingerie home

Yesterday’s pillars of sunlight, which had planted themselves uninhibited through grated skylights, were now being bulldozed by an unremitting throng of people, barrows, donkeys, vans and motorcycles. Behind carts laden with sacks and boxes, sandalled feet scrambled on dusty cobblestones worn smooth over centuries of trade. ‘Yalla, yalla,’ came the cry from burdened porters, sweating beneath red-and-white keffiyeh headscarves worn like turbans.

Come on, come on, keep moving! The crowd snarled at a junction in the narrow pathway, as women in drizzling blackabayas steadied bundled packages on their heads, and men heaved their carts through the teeming jumble of bodies into side-alleys and away. It was late morning in the market and the hustle was building steadily before afternoon prayers.

The relaxed atmosphere of Aleppo’s souk gives men the confidence to wear their white trousers a full six inches above the ankle. 

This souk is like no other. The longest covered bazaar in the world, it winds in a serpentine tangle of stalls for more miles than a sane man can count. Yet unlike many of the great souks, such as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or the Medina in Marrakech, the tourist count is low, the souvenir tat limited, and the hard-sell practically non-existent. You can leave the souk in Cairo, return to your hotel, open up your day pack and find a pushy trader in there still trying to sell you a copper teapot.

Not here. This is a real, working marketplace and possibly the most authentic of all the traditional souks in the Middle East. It’s where the locals come to shop, browse and haggle for everything and anything, from embroidered cushion covers to bridal costumes.

The men pretended not to notice the huge, angry boil on Karam’s ear 

Traders occupy alcoves sliced into the walls, and are organised according to guild – gold and silver over here, textiles over there – yet the main thoroughfares offer a bit of everything. Much of the current construction dates back to the Ottoman era, but parts of it were built in the Middle Ages, when caravans from the Silk Road would unload their goods and park overnight at merchants’ accommodation in the khans or caravanserais.

Some of the khans branching off from the meandering lanes were built in the 15th century, but there has certainly been a marketplace on this site for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before that.  

Aleppo Souk: Part 2:

On the main tributary of Souk al-Attarine, I stumbled through the human tide in search of food. Among the hordes were roaming hawkers selling sesame-studded breads on rickety carts, while others transported their wares on their heads. One cart was piled high with a mountain of pistachio nuts, a speciality of the region. My eyes were drawn to a cluster of butchers’ shops a few moments after my nose had got wind of them.

 

It was the perfect opportunity for Khalid to try out his new offal-proof Kandoura

The strong stench of blood and guts drifted from visceral hanging displays. Bulging livers drooped from ceiling hooks next to flaps of tripe. Large sheets of pallid fat had been hacked and carved so that sculpted lobes curled over like waxy white palm fronds. The hanging carcasses left little to the imagination, their ribs poking through wrinkled folds of skin like the bars on a grisly xylophone.

 

Who said fat isn’t beautiful?

Occasionally, there would be a decorative bunch of parsley or mint hanging up to distract you from the gore, but one stall had blood spattered and smeared on the wall like a statement: ‘We’re butchers, dammit. We kill animals and there’s no getting around it.’

 

Butchers: they chop up animals, you know

Some of the meat shops doubled up as kebab joints, with skewered chicken livers and minced lamb koftas waiting to be thrown on a hissing grill. Shawarmas of sliced chicken and lamb turned slowly on vertical spits, crisping up against the steady heat of the rotisserie, ready to be carved into flatbreads and rolled up with tahini sesame paste and salad leaves. These places did great things to my nasal passages. But the fragrances of the souk changed constantly.

 

“So let me get this straight: you’re looking for a herbal remedy for an itchy friend..?”

I was distracted by a fresh waft from a nearby fruit and vegetable shop, where a basket of barely-ripe cherries caught my eye. Then a zesty blast hit me as I approached the spice traders, whose colourful powdered stock was heaped up in sculpted mounds. Sumac and paprika in crimson and burnt orange; buff dunes of cumin, coriander and turmeric beneath hanging rows of dried limes.

 

“How much for the silly hat?”

Among the stacked jars and bulging sacks was the legacy of the Silk Road, the exotic spices that had transformed the way Aleppians approached food. The spices were new to the Middle East in those early days, so the traders experimented with locally raised meat and seasonal vegetables to lure the punters in. It was this entrepreneurial spirit that created a cuisine that still flourishes today.

 

Only models and beauty queens dare walk past these cream pastries without trying one.

I was getting peckish and came to an abrupt halt outside a sweet shop. The sign said ‘Sweet Mahroseh’ in red and blue neon. Outside, there was a broad platter stacked with glazed pastries dusted with icing sugar. A jug-eared boy appeared, and told me they were warbat filled with ashta or clotted cream made from buffalo’s milk. I couldn’t resist. The wonderfully flakey pastry, which had been dipped in atar sugar syrup, crumbled into the thick ashta with every bite. Admittedly, there weren’t many bites.

I wolfed the whole thing down in seconds as I drifted through the crowd.

James Brennan
James Brennan is a freelance food and travel writer. The former food editor of Time Out Dubai and restaurant critic for The National newspaper, he has contributed to a range of publications in the Middle East and beyond, from CNN Traveller to The Sunday Times.

He is the current Academy chairman of the Middle East region for the World's 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, and he has travelled extensively to discover the food, flavours and people of this fascinating and often misunderstood region.
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