Stretching over 40 kilometres, the Aleppo souk in Syria is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Here's how to find the best buys...
‘Syria is a nation of shopkeepers,’ an astute observer once said, and, with a 2,000 year-old history of trade, Aleppo is like a big bazaar. In a complicated maze of narrow cobbled streets and criss-crossing alleys, women in black burkhas sit behind cakes and cigarettes, bags of fresh thyme and piles of paracetamol. And this is before you reach the entrance to the souk, the pulsing heart of this ancient city.
Stretching between the citadel and the old city walls, the earliest parts of this covered maze, with its stone vaulted ceilings, date from medieval times. Most however, was built in the 16th century, during Ottoman rule, although the street plan is thought to be Hellenistic, from the 3rd or 4th century BC.
An important Silk Road trading post in the Middle Ages, the souk is interrupted only by khans or caravanserais (which once housed European traders), tiny mosques and hammams (Turkish baths). Reflecting the multi-ethnic influence of Turks, Armenians, Kurds and Iranians, it’s a living museum where you can shop for anything from insoles to a Palestinian wedding dress.
Women carry piles of round, flat bread on their heads into the winding, murky gloom, where bare fluorescent bulbs light shops the size of a phone booth. Dodging a man wheeling a cartload of oranges in a single-file cobbled alley, I heard a good-humoured shout of ‘Don’t be Scottish - spend your money!’ from a passer-by. But you only need look at the rows of Elizabethan-style wedding dresses, lumps of meat fat and hideous floral bras on display to see that tourists are incidental here. There is less pressure to buy than in Damascus, although some items, like Aleppo’s olive and laurel oil soap and pistachio nuts, are justifiably famous.
Pans of green-almonds line alleyways awash with mud, and a whole street, filled with the aroma of cardamom-roasted coffee, is dedicated to old men selling scales. The souk is divided by goods, apart from on the main drag, souks Al-Attarin and az-Zarb, which sport a mixture of goods. You can whirl around in an hour, but as part of the souk experience is the banter, and getting lost in cul-de-sacs, half a day is better. In carpet or antique shops negotiations are conducted over small glasses of black tea or chai, some spiced with cinnamon.
Syrian traders may be charming, but haggling is the order of the day. If you try anything on, or ask its price, you’ll be seen as a buyer with intent. Offer half the asking price unless buying fixed price goods (with the current Middle East crisis, tourist prices are at an all-time low). You’ll get the best price first thing in the morning; some shops will expect payment in dollars. Shops open at around 10am and close at 6pm, and the souk is closed on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
A deafening hammering leads to the Kaba, or coppersmiths souk, where young black-faced boys polish brass-plated wastepaper baskets of the sort Grandma used to love. Antique shops here are recognised by a clutter of tangled dusty metal ‘junk’ which on closer inspection is revealed to be old household objects, such as brass coffee pots, copper cooking pots, and nargileh (water pipes used for smoking), still made here today. You can buy antique coffee pots to make the irresistible Bedouin coffee. Old brass bowls lined with silver, traditionally used for drinking or as soap dishes to take to the hammam, also make an attractive buy. The brass attractively shows through the silver plating, and some are engraved with geometrical patterns, with the maker's name inscribed in Arabic.
Try souks al-Haraj and al-Wazir for a selection of antique shops. In Orient House in the old Armenian quarter, old silk pieces are a predictable find, such as striped hammam sarongs – important in the days when mothers visited the hammam to find potential brides for their sons, sneakily offering the young women chickpeas to check out their teeth. The oldest sarongs are silk and often bordered with an ikat weave, and the greater the array of colours, the higher the value. Old damaged sarongs make good cushion covers and more modern ones, attractive shawls or throws.
Although stallholders may claim that their Bedouin jewellery is old when it’s not, or say stones are lapis when they’re clearly beads, these chunky pieces are still attractive. Armenians introduced the pretty silver filigree pill boxes and wooden boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, readily found in the airy handicrafts souk, near the citadel.
Rough hewn, dull, pale green slabs of olive and laurel oil soap, cut open to reveal a bright green centre, are stacked floor to ceiling in narrow shops around the souk’s edges and weighed on old-fashioned scales. The soap is also found at the Al Joubaili Soap Factory, and carved into the shapes of mosques or beehives in az-Zarb souk. Aleppians swear by it as a skin-softener.
Queen Elizabeth 1 ordered silk from Syria for her coronation, and silk off the roll can be found in shops around the Grand Mosque. A more popular buy is the brightly-coloured silk scarves worn by local Muslim women, found hanging at tablecloth stalls in the souk al-Zarb. Two-tone Damask tablecloths are also found here, and on the more touristy stalls around the citadel. Embroidered tablecloths, some embroidered on the loom, are a bit cheaper in Aleppo.
Kaftans, made cool by the likes of Jemima Goldsmith, are the traditional dress of the countryside. The widest selection of wool ones, in black, white or grey, with embroidered collars, some hand finished, are found in the souk az-Zarb. Cotton ones are found in al-Hibal souk, where you’ll notice the 300-year-old brass shutters used to close the stalls.
Every Syrian man knows the price of gold jewellery, important to keep a marriage sweet. Although perhaps a bit gaudy for western tastes, the opulent gold souks, clustered around the Grand Mosque, offer good quality at a cheap, fixed price.
Whole or peeled, the tastiest pistachio nuts come from Aleppo farms and can be bought by the kilo in as-Saqatiyyah souk - but, regrettably, customs regulations don’t allow you to take them out of the country. The bright green slivers sold in spice shops are sprinkled on mensaf, a Syrian specialty made with rice, chicken and lamb and freshly-ground ten-spice mix. With cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, nutmeg, caraway, sumak, aniseed, cloves and more, it will clear your head in one sniff.
Tour operator: Explore Worldwide offers packages to Aleppo.
Hotel: The Baron Hotel
once saw guests like TE Lawrence and Agatha Christie.