While Damascus was always the ‘holy’ city, the seat of rulers and wary of foreigners, Aleppo (or Halab as it is known), Syria’s second city, has been one of commerce since Roman times. While both cities claim the title of ‘oldest continually inhabited city in the world’, it’s in Aleppo that the legacy of history feels more immediate.
Aleppo today retains that air of an Arabian bazaar city, with people going about business as they have done for centuries. The streets speak a rhythm of sounds – from horse-drawn carts over cobblestones to the more frenetic pace of donkey-riding couriers, still the fastest way through the atmospheric, labyrinthine souq that’s fragrant with olive soap, exotic spices, roasting coffee and succulent grilled shwarma.
While Aleppo may not bustle as it did when it was a key stop on the Silk Road, the relative lack of big investment has actually done the city a favour. The World Heritage–listed Old City was saved from irreparable damage by not succumbing to modernisation. Today it is without doubt a fragile treasure, but a new breed of local investors and entrepreneurs have been wisely spending money to immaculately restore some old city treasures. A plan is in place to restore all of the historic buildings in the Old City – still a thriving centre with more than 100, 000 residents. This new wave of preservation has brought boutique hotels and restaurants and has not only saved some classic buildings, but has also given the visitor a real feel for the city as it once was.