Updated: Oct 26, 2020
It was not clear if the ancient souq was meant to intimidate or entice. The maze of intertwining little alleys lined with merchant stalls seemed ready to defeat the most determined shopper. After all, this is Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria. The great Citadel of Aleppo, Saladin's castle that withstood the Crusader invasion, towers over the souq. The curved, winding ramps are just one of the brilliant designs that guaranteed the invaders, weighted down by their armor, could never succeed. Standing at the entrance to the souq, armed with only a headscarf and an Arabic phrasebook, I thought about those failed attacks.
The souq, or souk or bazaar of Aleppo, Syria, is often considered the largest in the Middle East. What the experts are counting to determine this is a mystery—the stalls and shops are adjoined like a condominium complex. Young boys balancing heavy brass trays filled with little cups of sweet tea roam from vendor to vendor, sometimes dodging donkeys or wheelbarrows. It's a sort of organized chaos and everyone seems to know the rules except me and my equally bewildered fellow travelers.
But this was no ordinary trip. Our leader, Rita, is very used to simultaneously ordering locals in Arabic, and herding Americans in English. And teaching everyone the rules. An hour later I knew the pattern—textiles and fabrics near the entrance, gold and pretty baubles to the right and then left. Down another aisle (it is hard to call the passage ways streets) were the rug merchants. Pots and pans and other household utensils are in another section. Men's clothing, women's dresses, children's outfits, blankets, toys, underwear, herbs—everything has its own section.
It's hard for a group of 20 Americans not to be noticed in Aleppo, or anywhere in Syria, so three of us—myself, another middle aged woman and my young roommate—decided to tackle the souk the next day. Incognito. Just random tourists. For experienced travelers, we were pretty naïve. Every shopkeeper knew who we were, whose group we belonged to, when we arrived and when we were supposed to depart. They also knew who were the other members in our group and what had been purchased or admired. Hours later, laden with purchases, our last stop was a stall of silk scarves. I almost never leave a country without buying at least one scarf. This time I left with about a dozen—including a few given as gifts for the rest of our group. From the wonderful merchants of Aleppo.
(Postscript--the Aleppo Souk was destroyed during in 2014, a casualty of the civil war. My memories are still bright, as are the colors in my beautiful silk scarves.)