This YouTube video shows the burning of Souq al-Madina in Aleppo last weekend. For more, see lewaaltawheed.
Among the unspeakable tragedies in Syria’s civil war was the burning last Saturday of the medieval Souq al-Madina in Aleppo. 1,500 stalls up in smoke, livelihoods vanished, the soul of an ancient city destroyed.
“Our hearts and minds have been burned in this fire,” said a doctor, who gave her name as Dima, speaking to The New York Times.
I didn't get to Aleppo in time. The war put an end to my romantic dreams of traveling there, and to Damascus. The city is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and in 1986 the Souq and the ancient neighborhoods around it were designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Like the Bamiyan Buddhas that were destroyed in Afghanistan.
Istanbul had whetted my appetite. On the Bosphorous we tasted tangy ground red pepper and pastries rich with pistachios that were said to come from the region around Aleppo.
“Our best pomegranate molasses, red pepper paste, and spices come from Gazantiep,” said one woman of the Turkish city that lies not far from the Syrian border. It was her dream, now impossible, to go to Aleppo one day.
The Souq al-Madina is said to comprise 13 kilometers of enclosed passages and alleyways. There, under vaulted brick ceilings, are hundreds of individual souqs, caravanserais and workshops dedicated to single products such as olive oil soap, copper, wool, silks, jewelry and spices. Some of this thriving market dated from the 14th and 15th centuries and it seems to have been the old wooden doors that burst into flames last weekend. Many passages are now charred and blackened with smoke.
Here's a YouTube video of the market in happier times:
Produced by Isabelle Carbonnell for Izaca Productions.
According to Clifford Wright in A Mediterranean Feast, Aleppo was a terminus of the caravan routes that carried luxury goods overland from Asia. For centuries it prospered from its trade with Venice which itself became fabulously rich selling pepper and other spices throughout Western Europe. Aleppo was one of the main transit points, where the “Venetians dropped off their cloth, silk manufactures, trinkets and glass and [in turn] packed their ships with raw silk and spices.”
As Wright observes, in the heyday of trade with the Levant, the contents of the ships’ holds tell the story. In 1561, the Crose, a 540 ton-Venetian ship, sailed home from the Eastern Mediterranean laden with “pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, frankincense, gum Arabic, sugar, sandalwood and a host of other exotic goods.” Though spice routes and tastes in food would change, many of the same spices could still be bought in the Souq al-Madina until last weekend.
To read more, go to Tom Philpott’s post, “Historic Food Market Gets Torched in Syria’s Civil War” at Mother Jones. He interviews Clifford Wright, author Gary Paul Naban and cookbook writer Paula Wolfert about the significance of the Souq.