All week I’ve been looking for signs of the thaw. The mile-long queue of Turkish and European Union-plated trucks idling at the border was the first, and surely the optimism with which the taxi drivers talked about the future, zigzagging through the streets of Aleppo, was another. But as I wander the tributaries of the city’s 800-year-old souk, carried along by the eddying crowds, I’m beginning to see that Syria’s relationship with the West was never much politicized here.
“Of course, we’re happy that President Obama understands the finer points of Middle East politics. We are not enemies,” says Vartan, an Armenian jeweller whom I’ve befriended. In this corner of the market, goldsmiths, soap makers and tailors ply their merchandise. The air is sharp with laurel and the paving stones glitter with fallen sequins. From his shop, Vartan points out Arab Christians, Circassians and other Armenians among the vendors, reminders of Syria’s unheralded secularism – it is perhaps the most pluralistic country in the Middle East.
“But then,” he says, “leaders come and go. How can there be hard feelings?”
What Syrians have is perspective. Their country has seen it all: the ebb and flow of Persian, Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman dominion; the French Mandate in the first part of the 20th century, socialist dictatorship in the second half, the invasion of neighbouring Iraq in the 21st. Through it all, their outlook has remained essentially cosmopolitan, thanks to an ancient and mostly stable brew of cultures and religions. They take the very long view of things.
But even as relations improve between Western leaders and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the taint of association with Hezbollah and Iran clings not just to the government but to Syria itself. Few travellers visit. I was drawn to Syria by an anecdote from William Dalrymple’s 1997 travelogue From the Holy Mountain. While visiting a convent near Damascus, Dalrymple came upon Muslims praying alongside Christians to the Virgin, whom they believe can bestow fertility on the faithful.
“As the priest circled the altar … the men bobbed up and down on their prayer mats as if in the middle of Friday prayers in a great mosque,” Dalrymple writes, while the women, “some dressed in full black chador, … mouthed prayers from the shadows.”
To me, this seemed unthinkable anywhere in the world – in the Middle East, as I understood it, even in the West, with its vaunted religious freedoms. I needed to see this country where such an easy miscegenation of people, ideas and traditions was possible.
In Aleppo, I stay at a converted mansion in the Christian Quarter, and from there I stage trips into the souks that dominate the heart of the city. The superabundance of handmade clothing and crafts and locally grown food is mesmerizing, from bright sheets of Damascene silk to offal hung in neat coils from hooks. There are carpet ghettos, gold ghettos, soap ghettos, electronics ghettos – each, it seems, dominated by a different group. In its complicated mercantile rhythms, you can feel the energy that made Aleppo a global city 1,500 years before “globalization” was coined.
For three consecutive days, I visit the juice bars that line the souk’s vaulted lanes, munching strawberries and oranges and walnuts for breakfast. I wander the labyrinthine Old City for a few hours and repair to some or other café outside its walls for lunch. I eat mezze as trendily dressed girls smoke hookahs and MTV blares on flat-screen TVs.
One afternoon, I stumble upon Bimaristan Arghun, a 14th-century mental hospital that has been converted into a museum of Arab medicine. At the time, it was the most sophisticated institution of its kind. Treatment was geared toward total rehabilitation – a spa-like approach consisting of music, light and water therapies, and a simple vegetarian diet. Recovery rates are said to have been high. Imagining the pleasant splash of fountains and the thrum of an oud, I’m convinced that the asylum would be a more relaxing place than my hotel.
When I return to my room, exhausted, I’m greeted first by church bells and the call to prayer, then by a brass band. For three consecutive nights, the musicians have passed beneath my window and sleepily I’ve watched the torch-lit phalanx. The concierge, when I finally ask him about it, looks up from his copy of Dickens’s Little Dorrit and explains that it’s an old wedding tradition.
I drive out to the Dead Cities, an hour west of Aleppo, to see the remains of some of Christianity’s oldest churches. We speed through squat desert towns that gleam like teeth against a palate of browns and yellows. Signs of life are few; three men with sun-leathered skin mend car tires out of an oily garage.
In the Basilica of Saint Simeon Stylites, I stand before the perch from which the eponymous ascetic gave his reluctant sermons in the fifth century. It’s a nibbled stump: Only six of its 50 feet remain. The rest of it has been chipped away by pilgrims seeking souvenirs. Saint Simeon is said to have lived atop the pillar for nearly 40 years, providing spiritual counsel to thousands of followers.
The basilica itself, one of the largest in all of Byzantine Christendom, has no roof, but is otherwise well preserved, full of gorgeous ornamental stonework. Light stammers over the pale walls and in the shade of the apse a mutt lies with her pup. Set on a cedar-covered bluff, it overlooks a cambering stretch of highway and miles of rolling scrub. You can feel it here, even as modernity intrudes: the harsh serenity that inspired some of Judaism, Christianity and Islam’s greatest early thinkers.
In Damascus, I fall into a similar routine, savouring the capital’s equally engrossing markets and allowing myself to stumble upon the sights rather than seeking them out. Only the Great Umayyad Mosque do I make a point of visiting. Built by the Umayyads, Islam’s first dynasty, the mosque is a palimpsest of sorts, built where a Christian church and a Roman temple once stood. For a time, here, too, Christians and Muslims worshipped side by side.
That spirit of tolerance permeates the place even today. Muslims and non-Muslims alike wander the massive courtyard. They seem relaxed and a little awed by the elaborate murals and open spaces. The minaret is thought to originate here in this, one of Islam’s most important mosques.
Locals in Western dress mingle with tourists from the Gulf states, ostentatious in their white djellabas and gold watches. Outside the prayer hall, families picnic on the vast marble floor. I find myself smiling at a middle-aged couple. When they beckon me to join their group, I realize that I’m the one who has thawed.
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