My memories of Aleppo are beginning to fade. It is now eleven years since I was there. I have kept many notes of my travels but somehow those on Aleppo are either lost or perhaps they never existed. It is almost irrelevant now as the city I saw no longer exists save for in old photographs and the fading memories of its former residents scattered across the world. Every time I see an image of this once magnificent City’s crumbling Dresdenesque cityscape I weep. I can remember enjoying Syria; savouring the warmth and hospitality of its people, its magnificent historical sites, its layers upon layers of history from Greeks to Crusaders, Assyrians to the Mamluks. Who could not swoon at the impressive ruins of Palmyra, the awe inspiring Krak-des-Chevaliers, the Orontes Valley or wandering around Bar Touma Neighbourhood in Damascus (birthplace of half a dozen Popes). I cannot forget the hum of Homs, the noisy water wheels (or Noria) of Hama, and the majestic Ummayad Mosque. The Souks of Damascus and Aleppo were places of wonder for me, the trade carried on in their arched cubicles seemed to provide a snapshot of an ancient and unbroken tradition. Throughout all this I can also remember being aware of the regime and it’s all seeing eyes and ears but otherwise (bar this obvious erosion of what we in the West call civil liberties) I remember a place that was hustle, bustle and full of life.
After I made it to the cradle of the North I came to the realisation that if Damascus was where Mandarins reigned then Aleppo was where the merchant was king. The first place I stayed in Aleppo was in an area called Al-Jdeida which I soon found out was a neighbourhood dominated by various groups of Christians. I hadn’t planned to stay here but an Australian couple I had met had chosen a hotel there and I just followed their recommendation. There was a Mosque up the street but there were also at least four or five churches within a stones throw, all were very charming with opulent, beguiling interiors. I visited churches belonging to the Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox, the Maronites and Armenians. Aleppo is home to a large Armenian population many of whom fled the massacre of 1915 and found sanctuary in Aleppo. I also met some Chaldeans who had fled Iraq a few years earlier. At night time the area came alive as people came out to eat in its smart restaurants. The area was atmospheric and aromatic in equal measure. Walking along the high walls of the narrow side streets you couldn’t but admire the ornate Alleppin doorways. If lucky you might catch a glimpse through an open doorway of a beautiful ottoman courtyard, the centrepiece of an old merchant residence. Sadly I didn’t get the chance to explore one of these fabulous residences and perhaps now I never will.
After a few days in Aleppo I moved about half a mile away from Jdeida to a busier and less glamorous part of the New City. I took a room at a small Hotel just off Yarmouk Street. It was a grimy street where almost every second vendor sold car- tyres and fixed punctures or fixed exhausts. The room was upstairs just off a common area where the friendly owner tried to make up for shortcomings in décor and hygiene with a large smile. It was a winning strategy. No problem was too big for Samir as I later found out.
I spent the days just wandering the streets of Aleppo’s old and new city. Once when I got lost I just hailed a taxi driver and found I had only strayed five minutes drive from the Hotel. The Citadel dominates the old city as do the various minarets of the mosques. Yet there are so many church steeples that you realise that Aleppo was a collage of creeds. At night the noise of the traffic was incessant as were the car fumes. Eating out was relatively cheap and I grew to love the mezzes, shwarma, tahini, tabbouleh and eventually the thick coffee laced with cardamom.
I also remember the cinemas near the iconic Baron Hotel with the hand painted advertisements of the latest Bollywood fare. I hadn’t known that the Hindi movies were such a hit with the Aleppo menfolk.
On the night of the 25th May, 2005 I headed back to the Hotel. Earlier in the day I had asked Samir to make sure I could watch the match on Telly. I am a Liverpool FC Supporter all my life and it was over twenty years since they were champions of Europe. I was tired and slept for an hour and when I got up it was close to match time. I had originally planned to make it to Istanbul for the final )ticket or no ticket) but I had spent a month making my way from Cairo through the Sinai and up through Jordan and by the time I got to Damascus I knew the Champions League Final was not to be.
That evening Samir was not in the reception area but a young man was in his stead sitting behind the desk. I asked him if I could watch the football, he nodded and turned on the telly. He switched the various knobs and I guessed he was looking for the right channel. A few minutes passed but still all that was on the telly was snow. The young man was now getting agitated. I asked was there another telly but he shook his head. He telephoned Samir and they talked in that Arabic way that sounds like they are having a serious disagreement. Within minutes Samir was back in the hotel and he began trying to get the TV tuned into a channel. He managed to get some channel but it was an old black and white film not the scenes from the Ataturk Stadium I was hoping for. Samir sensed my anxiety; it was just 15 minutes to kick-off. I asked if there was somewhere nearby where I could watch the game, my question went unanswered.
Eventually Samir just said “Come, this way” and he left by the stairs. I followed him and moments later we were driving headlong and crazy through the busy Aleppin streets in a battered Mercedes to some destination unknown. It looked like Samir was intent on driving me all the way to Istanbul. Soon we pulled up outside a nondescript three storey apartment building, what direction or where we were I didn’t know, the maze of streets and alleys we had just been through were completely dis-orientating. Up the stairs we went and into a room furnished with ornate carpets, soft cushions and sofas. On a table at the far end of the room was a small table and atop it sat an old Grundig Television .
Samir turned on the telly and navigated rapidly through the channels, alas still there was no football. He started tuning the set and eventually the screen lit up with the familiar red shirts of Liverpool. I hadn’t noticed that a number of men had come into the room by then. One was missing a hand and I just presumed he had lost it whilst fighting Jihad. It seemed entirely plausible; I suppose now all these years later I am inclined to think it may have been something more mundane like an industrial accident. My joy at finally getting to see the game was short-lived, already Liverpool were a goal down. It would get worse, by halftime they were losing 3-0. I was dejected and disconsolate.
Samir sensed this and said ‘Have faith my friend, in challah’. I put on a rueful smile; it would be extremely rude to this sociable man to ask to go back to my lodgings. I didn’t want to witness my team annihilated on this big stage but then a tray of warm sugary tea came out and I had to endure the well intentioned hospitality. More men had come in to the room as the first half went on and everyone was chain-smoking a toxic brand of cigarettes. There were at least twelve of us present for the start of the second half. None of the men could speak English but if I made eye contact they gave me a sympathetic nod and cupped their hands in a gesture of hope and solidarity. Samir was a source of endless optimism, ‘There is time, God willing’. I had long given up hope of any comeback. How wrong I was! In just six glorious minutes Liverpool had levelled the game through Smicer, Gerrard and Alonso. But Liverpool having drawn level seemed reluctant to go and try and win the game. Milan came back into it and the finale was simply a dual between goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek and the entire Milan team. They did not score though and Liverpool beat them on penalties, a famous night, a glorious night, more sweet tea, more cigarettes passed around and we twelve men in Aleppo all celebrated as much as if we were from the banks of the Mersey.
A few days later I shared a taxi from the Karnak Bus Station to Gaziantep in Turkey. As I crossed the border I promised myself I would visit this fascinating country soon again. Nobody knows when this war in Syria will end or what the final casualty count will be. What will be left when the guns do fall silent? Who is to know what will be rebuilt and what will be lost forever? Memory will preserve some of it but it is hard to share memories and we cannot live someone else’s life or experiences. Robert Fisk visited Aleppo in the summer of 2016 and recorded the complete and utter destruction of the city. Even he who had witnessed the demolition of Beirut in the Lebanese Civil war was shocked by what he saw. Despite all this Fisk still concluded that this ancient City will arise again from the rubble and ash, for as broken as Aleppo may currently be, the current butchers are not in the same league as the city’s worst ever marauder, a man by the name of Genghis Khan. All that is left is hope and as Samir, the man who kept my flagging hopes alive on that pleasant May evening in 2005 said; ‘You see my friend you must have faith’.