I did not want to paint this word-picture, but Aleppo has crept into the news again, pulling a shroud in its wake. My memories; its wake.
A rugged fortress with crusader connections overlooked a vast labyrinth of streets that seemed to wriggle, half-underground, in every direction. Shafts of light lit up gemstones patterning the makeshift trestle tables: blue for amethyst, darker for lapis lazuli with specks of gold, red for ruby, green for jade, translucent yellowy-brown for amber from Russia. Tiny jewels, gemstones carried in small, soft bags hanging from saddles as they travelled along the trade routes with tales from the fabulous East – exotic, crystalline sparks meeting the West in the labyrinthine alleys of Aleppo’s bazaar.
As I remember before the tragedy of war, Joseph, our guide, told us that as long as Assad allowed the Christian minority, like his own Alawi branch of the Muslim faith, to survive, then he was content. He could worship and his children attend a Christian school. In Damascus, his Mennonite community had churches and schools and some sort of work to survive. They should not draw attention to themselves.
It had drizzled all day long. The vast courtyard in front of the largest mosque in Damascus gleamed, its stones polished by long lines of pilgrims, all women who were winding up and down mourning the death of Ali. He had married the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, more than five hundred years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, now more than fourteen hundred years ago, in Jerusalem. Leaving them to their grief, we entered the vast building, an early Christian basilica built, we were told, on the site of a Roman temple to Hercules. Off centre was a shrine where some women were sitting. That, they said, is the tomb of Saint John the Baptist, revered as a holy man by Muslims, as is Jesus.
We drove north through the rose-coloured stone suburbs of Aleppo, built before the First World War in the French colonial period, towards the open countryside of red-brown earth and upright, silver-green olive trees.
On our way, we stopped at the column where Simon the Stylite had perched to pray surrounded by pilgrims. They put food into the basket he pulled up and down on a rope. Pilgrims still gather there. Further on at the top of a hill, lay the ruins of an early Christian sanctuary. We paused at the entrance structure where Christians had gathered before walking to their baptism in the church. The acanthus leaves and scrolls on the Corinthian capitals, some scattered on the ground, some on columns still upright, may have been carved by the grandsons or great grandsons of those who had sculpted the columns in the Graeco-Roman city of Apamea – we had visited the ruins a day earlier. I imagined their stories recounted between the chip, chop reverberations, when Joseph called us to the cliff edge to survey the valley beyond. To the left but out of sight lay Byblos, the ancient port on the Mediterranean that exported cedar from Lebanon to the Pharaohs in Egypt, had a book industry and gave its name to the Bible. Straight ahead, beyond the horizon, lay the Tigris and Euphrates.
‘See those buildings below us on the plain,’ Joseph said. ‘If we had time, we could have visited them. There you can see municipal buildings and ordinary people’s houses from the earliest years of Christianity, the second and third centuries onwards.’ He pointed to the valley. ‘There were vineyards here once, as well as olive groves. Wells were often not dug deep enough and became contaminated. Wine was safer than water in those days.’
I imagined workmen, carvers and those early architects and designers, inspired and schooled by their forefathers from Apamea and beyond, chipping away at the acanthus leaves on the capitals to support the roofs. If only I could have stepped over the wall at the edge and climb – or slide – down the steep hill to explore the abandoned villages in the valley. The sun was setting and we had to move on.