As improbable as it seems now, the summer of 2008 was a moment of optimism for Syria’s tourist industry. Tensions with the west had eased, travel agencies were returning, and positive articles appeared in the international press. Tourist numbers were rising too, particularly in Aleppo, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth.
Dating back to around 6,000 BC, the city has long been a meeting point between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, with enduring Ottoman, Armenian, Greek, French and Jewish influences. On a walk through the meandering streets, lemon trees scenting the air, I passed mosques, churches, even a synagogue. Mentioned in Macbeth and Othello, the city’s grand old buildings had been restored, townhouses had been turned into hotels, and rooftop restaurants offered views of the thirteenth-century citadel.
Aleppo’s focal point was the world’s largest covered market, the cacophonous, labyrinthine Souq al-Madina. There were precarious towers of dates, overflowing sacks of coffee beans, bloody carcasses of goats, cows and camels, pungent spices, platters of pistachios, fresh white cheese wrapped in cloth, cases of jewellery, textiles, silk and dyes, and greasy olive oil soaps.
Craftsmen rhythmically hammered out copper plates. Whirling circular saws were used to fashion wooden furnishings. Delivery boys trundled across the cobblestones on heavily-laden bikes, motorized carts and weary donkeys. Over tulip-shaped glasses of fragment tea, I swapped stories with a carpet-seller whose family had owned a shop here for centuries.
That Aleppo no longer exists. Travellers often like to delude themselves that the places they visit somehow remain preserved after their departure; Syria, brutally, allows no such illusions.
The summer of 2008 felt like a beginning, but was actually the end.