A Castle, a Column, a Kurd: A Visit to Aleppo

Monday, July 18, 2005 | Aleppo, Syria (map)

Sweltering in the mid-day sun beside what remains of St. Simeon's column, in the center of what remains of his basilica
Friday morning, prior to the noon prayer, is a poor time to visit anywhere in Syria. I learned this lesson on Friday in Aleppo (a city known in Arabic as Halab, حلب) after catching a bus north from Damascus the previous evening.

After hearing tales of Aleppo's lavish souqs—the only markets in Syria that could rival those of Damascus—I found the passages deserted, the shopfronts shuttered, and the awnings flapping silently in the warm, pungent breeze. All of Aleppo was resting at home, preparing to go to Friday prayers.

I meandered through the covered alleyways, zigzagging through the markets until the passage opened into a wide boulevard surrounding my prime destination Aleppo—its massive citadel, which towers imposingly over the Old City. Aleppo and its citadel featured prominently in the story of the
Crusades, and consequently, in Amin Maalouf's excellent The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, which I'm reading now.

Most striking about the citadel is its high, sloped ramparts, which prevent any access to the fortress except by a single narrow stone bridge. Though I strolled easily across the bridge and into the citadel's heart, it was easy to see why the Crusaders never managed to breach its formidable defenses. Any attackers who managed to dodge the rain of arrows and boiling oil as they crossed the bridge would have faced a series of reinforced doors barring the entry passage. The citadel's architects set each door at a right angle to the preceding one, elegantly preventing any would-be invaders from clobbering through the doors by battering ram.

The citadel's walls encircled a wide plateau, full of partially toppled stone buildings and walls, with a view of the city's rooftops beyond in all directions. Virtually the only tourist at the site, I stumbled around for an hour or two, dehydrated and exhausted from an excruciating bout of traveler's diarrhea.

After a pit stop, I summoned some inner discipline and decided to make something of the day, and headed for Aleppo's bus station.

* * *

What remains of St. Simeon's cathedral rests atop a grassy hilltop thirty minutes' drive northwest of Aleppo, with a sweeping view over a valley of farms. No roof remains, though a number of walls and ornately capped columns still stand. The most famous column in all of Syria, and once in all the world, still sits upon its pedestal in a wide meadow at the heart of the ruins, though today the elements have worn it into an egg-shaped boulder.

The story of this column is one of legend, set in the fifth century AD, as Christianity swept across Syria—then a newly acquired territory of Byzantium. Early in that century, a young Syrian named Simeon Stylites entered a Christian monastery, but found the demands of the monastic life too lax. Seeking greater challenges to test his faith, the story goes, Simeon resorted to increasingly drastic ascetic practices, denying himself food and water for days on end. Not yet satisfied, Simeon decided to confine himself to a single rocky mountaintop, vowing not to step from the outcrop.

Soon, however, his monastic zeal attracted religious pilgrims who pestered him with questions on all things sacred. Simeon erected a small pillar of rock to separate himself from these unwanted followers, but with each successive attempt to escape his fans, Simeon only encouraged them to flock in greater numbers. He erected ever higher pillars, ultimately settling on one over 15 meters from the ground. He ate little, prayed often, and (as could be expected of a man enduring sweltering summers and bitter winters atop a stone pillar) grew ever more zealous, or maniacal, depending on your view.

By the time Simeon succumbed to the elements after 37 years atop his column, he was eating next to nothing, had forbidden women from approaching his pillar and ceased speaking to all who approached. Despite his professed wish for solitude, he also ranked across the known world as one of the most famous men of his day.

The basilica (كنيسة مار سمعان العمودي) erected around Saint Simeon's pillar in subsequent years ranked at the time as the largest church in the world, and its ruins still hint at faded grandeur.

* * *

Aleppo's souq came to life Saturday, and I spent a few hours scoping out the market's wares.

Around mid-morning, a boy of about 13 attached himself to me. My newly self-appointed tour guide was named Mahmoud. When I introduced myself as an American, he proudly announced that he was Kurdish, and seemed somewhat confused when this fact didn't prompt a response. As he showed me around the market, we continued talking: his fellow Kurds in Iraq, he explained, had been brutally killed by Saddam Hussein's regime, and so he worshipped Bush ("a strong man") and praised the American invasion of Iraq. It was clear he was mirroring his parents' and relatives' opinions, as he wasn't prepared when I inquired whether the casualties and suffering the Kurds experienced every day in the war justified the so-called "coalition"'s invasion.

Our talk soon turned to other subjects, and Mahmoud, unfazed, continued to pull me through the market, offering questionable advice on the quality of various items in his eagerness to prove himself a useful tour guide. After I bought us lunch, Mahmoud showed me the Madrassa as-Sultaniyya, still in use as a school of classical Islamic theology. He managed to talk a few masons into letting us enter Aleppo's Great Mosque, currently closed to the public while under construction, but still a sight to behold (Aleppo's mosque is a mid-scale replica of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus).

I bid farewell to Mahmoud outside the Great Mosque's doors, and offered him some Syrian lira as compensation for his efforts. Backing away, he thrust up his hands in refusal. "No, no, no. For an American, free... My mother would wish it so."

1 comment:

Andrew Farrand said...

Oh good, the stylites' tradition lives on: http://www.rferl.org/media/photogallery/25102766.html
But this Georgian monk has a telephone that connects him to his followers at the base of the pillar, which Simeon certainly didn't have. Fear not though, purists! You will be happy to know that he is continuing the tradition of not allowing women atop his pillar. Just great. (Rolls eyes.)

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