When you first ride into Aleppo it doesn’t really stand out- it just seems like any other large middle eastern city. Then it slowly dawns on you- there isn’t just a lot of women in veils here, every woman is wearing some form of head cover and most only show a small slit for their eyes between layers of black cloth. But these aren’t the ones who really draw your attention. It’s the ones with not even their eyes showing- a lighter weight of fabric covers their eyes and allows them to peer out at the world without a trace of their humanity escaping from under the black fabric. When they stand still it becomes difficult to tell which way they are facing, you never know if they have seen you or are going to walk into your bike, and you start not to care. The lack of even a trace of human connection quickly reduces them to black bollards that are simply avoided as any other obstacle in the road- not as people to be connected with, allowed to pass, given right of way, or room to move. This shift in outlook happens quickly and is quite disconcerting to someone who has never experienced it before and until you realize that Aleppo is the center of Syria’s Koran Belt, it certainly makes you concerned about moving further into the Arab middle east.
That being said, Aleppo is a fascinating city filled to bursting with history, culture, and life. The central citadel dominates the old city and not only provides fantastic views, but a great pile of tumbled rocks to explore and rebuild in your mind.
The Grand Mosque is amazing as much for its beauty as for the wailing pilgrims that seem to fill its every corner.
The immense covered markets, with their endless array of goods, draw you around the next corner until any hope of retracing your steps is forever lost.
The markets also reveal another strange side to Aleppo and it’s conservative religious nature. There are no women working in or running shops or stalls- none. You pass black clad women talking with shop owners over various revealing sets of lingerie, feminine hygiene products are counted out by men for their female customers, and men measure sequined ball gowns while the voices of chirping teenage girls surround them. The separation between men and women becomes almost farcical after seeing the strange contortions that are gone through in order to maintain it.
Then comes the movie posters. They all have extra girls in bikinis grafted onto them. Even in the degenerate west this kind of advertising would cause a stir, but here it is ubiquitous.
Trying to make all the contradictory sights and experiences into a cohesive whole is fascinating and keeps drawing you back out into the streets to get another glimpse into this culture that at once plays into your preconceived notions and destroys them. It also makes for tiring days, so the fact that Aleppo (as do most Syrian cities) also has a thriving Christian quarter with wonderful little bars and restaurants makes for a relaxing, if still contradictory, end to the day.