Day 7 St Simeon & Aleppo
We started the day with an Aleppo version of porridge – buckwheat sweetened and served with cinnamon and pistachios. Yum.
Then, onto St Simeon’s church. I was expecting the usual Byzantine set up but was proved very wrong. We were greeted by friendly dogs who accompanied us to the extensive ruins that slew across the crest of the hills overlooking the Turkish border. Such a peaceful place: birds singing, wild flowers everywhere and extraordinary architecture.
St Simeon was the man who spent 47 years living at the top of a column. I hadn’t realised that it had been a substantial marble affair with an enclosed box at the top. After the Holy Roman Emperor visited him his acolytes built a large church, monastery and baptistery around him and he became a super famous phenomenon. Earthquakes have demolished most of the site and the column is long gone, smashed for souvenirs by devotees.
In Aleppo we visited a tedious National Museum – yet again all of the best pieces have been nicked by foreign archaeologists and collectors. Luckily our mood was improved by a fantastic lunch at “Delta”, consisting of BBQ lamb kebabs in a sour cherry sauce. Definitely one of the best dishes I have ever eaten.
We then walked round the massive Citadel in the centre of the old town. It was heaving with people celebrating the end of Ramadan, some of them had travelled over 150 km to visit the castle today. At the gate we noticed that a group of young boys had been surrounded by men in sunglasses and leather jackets – the plain clothes uniform of Syria’s secret police. The situation quickly got ugly. One boy was slapped across the face and frog marched away by two officers. The rest were chased away and the area cleared so that our group had an uninterrupted passage into the Citadel. What had they said or done? A worryingly brutal example of how repressive this place is under the guise of a liberal country. If they brutally dealt with these lads so openly, what do they do when the tourists aren’t around?
As it was 3.30 and the castle was due to close at 4pm we only expected a quick glimpse of the place but as we got through the gate, a whistle was blown and the officials started ushering the locals out of the site. Ahmed explained that the area takes ages to clear, so locals are made to leave first but this seemed so unfair and maybe untrue. We were allowed to stay for ages and no one attempted to move us on at all. We viewed the palace throne room and extensive underground cisterns, completely emptied of the holidaying locals, and then stood on the parapet to view the medieval city below.
Ahmed then told us about the Ottomans and the “problems they had when they intermarried with foreign servants”. He argued that this was also the problem with Europe, especially England and France, and that races were “diluted” this way. Distasteful.
We shopped in the 14th century (UNESCO) Al-Madina souk for handmade soap, brocade, dried hibiscus and ras el hanout spice mix. It was bustling with people and the stall holders were chatty and friendly, trying to entice everyone to buy their amazing goods. Great fun.