Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Man With Style

Aleppo, Syria's second city with a strong mix of both Christian and Muslim communities, is famed for its bustling souq and citadel in the heart of the old city. During the week after Ramadan, unfortunately, many people are on holiday so the souq was lifeless until today, and even now half the shops are shut. But there is still plenty of activity and one can see that the souq is still the beating heart of the local community. Each trade and type of shop has its own little corner, alleyway or courtyard in which similar stalls huddle together as women in scarves and veils glide around browsing through bolts of fabric; tailors make clothes to measure; traditional olive oil soap is sold by the kilo; butchers' with hanging meat and spice merchants vie for olfactory supremacy; and local men stroll purposefully dressed in bathrobe-like jalabiyyas and keffiyehs wrapped around their heads. The iconic keffiyehs are not just a symbol of Arabness, but also a useful piece of clothing with a myriad ways of being worn and tied. And since I'm a sucker for headgear I've already invested in one for myself along with an agal (the black circlet used to keep it in place) though I baulked at getting myself the jalabiyya. I have already started practising tying it on in front of the bathroom mirror and I think it looks rather stylish, if I do say so myself, so watch this space for future pictures of me striking some poses a-la Laurence of Arabia.

Another local, with a style all his own, was Saint Simeon. This hardcore ascetic was disappointed with his fellow monks' luxurious habits, such as sleeping on stone beds and eating bread and water once a day during Lent. So Simeon found himself a tall rock, and sat on it. For a very long time. Soon pilgrims started flocking to this holy man sitting on his style (Greek for column). As his fame and popularity spread more people came (from as far away as Britain and France) and he used progressively taller columns to get away from his groupies. Allegedly when he died, after having spent some 40-odd years up columns, Simeon's column was 15m tall and devotees would climb a ladder up to him to ask him for advice and his blessing. Due to his antics column living became quite a craze in early Christendom, though European aficionados didn't seem as successful (or as long-lived), most probably due to the chillier climate. After his death a 4-church cathedral, the largest in the world at the time, was built around his column, the remains of which are still imposing to this day. The countryside around is also charming with the remains of Byzantine-era pilgrim resthouses used by local villagers as foundations for their houses or barns, seemingly oblivious to their illustrious past, and olive groves stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see.

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