Friday, 19 June 2015

The Lost Souk Of Aleppo

I was last in Aleppo in 2006, to attend the wedding of pal Lena to Koko which took place in the C14th Armenian Orthodox Church in the heart of Aleppo's Ottoman Souk.

I wandered the souk happily, going on to set a couple of chapters of my third novel, Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy in the crazy city within a city that was the world's largest covered market.

Working on my website a week or so ago, I came across the photos I took of the souk back then. It's been burned to the ground now, utterly destroyed. So here, for your delectation, is the souk that is no more...

The souk was noisy, a bustling tide of people packing the narrow flagged street, a motor scooter welded to a trailer forging its way through the press. The stalls were brightly lit from inside, neon strips hung crazily from twisted wire stays. Broken fittings, sacks of flour, wheat, herbs and charcoal lined the way. Poor stores sold charcoal, tobacco, spices and sweets butted up against collections of pans and kitchen implements. Every available surface was used to store and display goods; ancient rusty nails driven into door frames held bags of candy floss, great bales of sponges or tied-together bundles of shower pipes.
From Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy

Lynch slipped through the throng feeling lost as he tried to recall his way around the Ottoman labyrinth. He passed a man butchering a lamb, the carcass hanging from its back legs on a great hook, its blue-veined viscera shining as the knife slashed at it. He turned left off the busy street, passing shops stacked high with bolts of cloth, tailors working on ancient-looking sewing machines whirring away, their voices raised in cheerful conversation.
From Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy 

(Eagle eyed types will spot the header of this blog comes from the above image!)

Lynch slipped into the ancient Armenian Church. He stood by the door and scanned the gloomy space, taking in the rich icons; ceiling fans dropped from the vaulted shadows, the complex altar area bathed in the warm light from two massive chandeliers. It was quiet in here, the hubbub of the souk forgotten in an instant. The cool air smelled faintly of frankincense.
From Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy
Lynch gazed around the room. It was barren, stone floors and rough-hewn walls. Ahead of him was a great hewn windowsill, some three feet deep. The windows were shuttered, the wood ornately carved in oriental whorls and intertwined leaves. The General sat in the middle of the room next to a pot-bellied stove, a dull metal table to his side carrying a bottle of whisky and an overflowing ashtray. There were two glasses, one half-empty. The table was scattered in coins as was, Lynch noticed, the windowsill. The General sat in a wheelchair, his twisted legs covered in a beige woolly blanket. He had withered, his great frame shrunken inside clothes that were too big for him.The Sandhurst English voice was still strong. ‘Come in, damn you, you Irish bastard. There’s a chair over there.’ 
From Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy

In the open street beyond them, the corona of orange-tinted damp around the sodium streetlights was tinged with rapid coruscations of blue from the squad cars’ lights. Lynch pushed himself over the rooftop and slid down the wet tiles to the rusty gantry below, glancing at her elfin face taut with fear as she waited for him to catch up. She was away in an instant without giving him a second to catch his breath, sliding down a slate tiled roof, jumping over a long-abandoned revetment and curling herself around a pillar that joined two ancient buildings, the rough curved surface stretching down into the souk below. Lynch scrabbled around the curve, following the girl into the shadows beyond. She stopped him with an upturned hand and a hiss and he doubled up, breathing as deeply and quietly as he could.‘You’re not very fit,’ she scolded him in a whisper.
From Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy 

The madrasa which lies at the heart of the souk

There you are. It's all gone now, washed away in the tide of violence that broke over Syria, displacing millions and flattening whole towns. There's little or nothing left of the souk, I'm assured.

Having finished writing Shemlan before the destruction of the souk, I then had to decide whether to keep the souk I knew, rewrite the scenes to be in the ruins or delete the lot. I decided my souk - the one which had so enchanted, amazed and, perhaps a little bit, scared me - could at least live on in prose - and now it can in pictures, too.

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