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Around Aleppo

October 13, 2009: Driving into Aleppo from the airport, the most arresting

Armenian church, Aleppo

sight was all the women in black. Some had nothing showing but their eyes, others covered everything but their faces. Walking the streets of Aleppo, or for that matter, reading the US press, one could be forgiven for seeing Syria as synonymous with Islam. But that would be wrong. Before the Arab conquest in 636 A.D. it was a part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, and therefore Christian. It is still 10% Christian today, at least partly because of the arrival of Armenian Christians escaping the Turkish genocide of 1915-17. Having just come from Armenia, I made a point of visiting the Armenian church in Aleppo. I found the differences surprising – with its pews and bright interior it looked like a Roman Catholic church. And while Syria is predominantly Sunni Muslim, around 11% of the population, including the current president, belong to the Alawite branch of Shia Islam.

Qala'at Samaan

Christianity in the area now called Syria predates the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, of course. After all, St. Paul’s famous revelation occurred on the road to Damascus, where he expected to find Christians. Perhaps the most famous sight near Aleppo is Qala’at Samaan, the formidable ruins of the basilica that grew up around St. Simeon’s pillar, St. Simeon having spent 40 years living on top of the pillar. While I have little respect for someone who indulges in such theatrics, I did want to see the church and the countryside, and arranged for a car and driver for a day’s exploration.

I have to say that St. Simeon’s church came as a big surprise, clearly a lot of people thought more highly of him than I did. Although missing its roof and some of its walls, the building still impresses with both its size and design – arches everywhere. Lonely Planet says that when the church was finished, in 491 C.E., it was the largest church in the Christian world. The pillar hadn’t fared as well as the building, though, and just a boulder remained. When we left for lunch I counted eight tour buses parked outside, but I got lucky, and had the place pretty much to myself. We visited a couple of other churches during the day, including Qalb Lozeh, but they couldn’t come close to comparing with St. Simeons.

Not all the sites around Aleppo are Christian – I also visited Ain Dara, where

Lion at Ain Dara

some basalt statues have been recovered from a Hittite temple where Ishtar was worshiped three thousand years ago.

Qala’at Samaan is north of Aleppo, in what my driver called a Kurdish area, where a pomegranate harvest was in full swing. Qalb Lozeh is east of Aleppo, almost on the Turkish border, clearly just a line on the map here. I enjoyed the day’s drive, although aside from the pomegranates it looked to me that Syria mostly grew rocks. And kids. As in Jordan, large families – 8, 10, 11 children – were the rule. Given the existing shortage of jobs and water, I can’t imagine what will happen here in 10 or 20 years time.

Perhaps tourism will help. My driver told me that business had been good the last five years. He liked the “new” president (it’s been 10 years) because now people were allowed mobile phones, DVDs and the internet. I hadn’t realized that Hafez al-Assad had been so strict, but I can’t help thinking that jobs are more important.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the railway station and my driver helped me buy a ticket for the train to Hama. Although we bought a ticket at one window, we then needed to show the ticket plus my passport at a second window, and my passport, for once, was in a hotel safe. The copy I carried wasn’t enough. I’d have to sort that out the next morning.

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