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FEATURE-Syria's second city Aleppo enjoys renaissance

ALEPPO, Syria, March 20 (Reuters) - Aleppo, Syria's second city and one of the oldest inhabited in the world, is enjoying a renaissance that is restoring the ancient trading hub whose magnificent buildings rivalled Istanbul's in Ottoman times.

Architectural gems -- bathhouses, madrassa schools, palaces, churches and mosques -- stud Aleppo's streets, making it one of the richest historical sites in the Middle East.

Calls to prayer ring out from the recently restored Grand Mosque just as they did in the 8th century.

Labyrinthine covered souks that trace their history back four millennia sell spices, the city's trademark laurel soap and the antique textiles that were coveted in Europe.

But it was not always so.

When architect Adli Qudsi returned to his native Aleppo in the 1970s he was appalled to see bulldozers flatten entire neighbourhoods inside the old city walls to build new roads.

"Amazingly beautiful 700-year-old houses were destroyed. For the sake of cars they brought in streets that destroyed big sections of the old architecture," Qudsi said.

Qudsi's response was to assemble a group of activists to block plans to pull down any more of the ancient city.

"It was disastrous, but we stopped it," Qudsi said.

Three decades later, international funding is pouring into Aleppo and it was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations cultural organisation.

FORMER GLORY

But there is still plenty of work to be done.

Old parts of Aleppo largely lost the cosmopolitan character that once defined them due to economic expansion in the 1970s.

One-fifth of the old city was destroyed to make room for roads. Residents of historic neighbourhoods left when they found their courtyard houses overlooked by new high-rise buildings.

Qudsi displays computer maps of a master plan identifying up to 2,000 of 10,000 Arab courtyard houses needing urgent repair.

Cars will no longer be allowed into parts of the old city, such as the circular road around the Ayyubid castle, where a Hittite temple was recently discovered.

The priority, Qudsi said, is to complete renewal of leaking sewage and water systems, laid by the Ottomans and the French, to prevent them from further damaging old houses and monuments.

The infrastructure is being rebuilt, around 60 percent of the sewage and water system has been overhauled and telephone and electricity services in some areas are now up to date.

German experts are overseeing restoration of the 19th century Shibanie Catholic convent and projects to restore the medieval castle are almost complete.

Foreign funding is coming from Germany, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in London, and the Arab Social and Economic Fund. Syria's government has also taken up the cause of preservation.

"The major achievement of years of fighting and toiling is the fact that the conversion and preservation of old Aleppo has become routine work for the local government. There has been a 180-degree turn," the American-educated engineer said.

TOURISTS AND RESIDENTS

Tourists have traditionally enjoyed the beauty of Aleppo, set among the Northern plains and going back to the early second millennium BC. Taken over by Alexander the Great and legendary warrior Saladin, the city has survived cholera and earthquakes.

The work is also expected to attract residents back to the old city, which used to house 300,000 people in the 1940s and now holds one-third of that number.

Property prices are on the rise. Mohammad Fawzi, an Egyptian engineer, bought a 700- or 800-year-old courtyard house next to the citadel for $50,000 a few years ago and renovated it.

"Once you live in an Arab house you don't want to live anywhere else, although it was a struggle to find craftsmen capable of doing restoration work," Fawzi said. "Prices have almost doubled since then but they are still a bargain."

Renovation work is complex. Some houses used too much concrete, compromising the old flexible limestone roofs that helped Aleppo survive earthquakes.

"There isn't sufficient technical assistance being provided to help restore the old houses, but there is no doubt that improvements are being felt in Aleppo," Fawzi said.

The old Christian quarter outside the city walls has already seen a revival and hotels and restaurants blend in among renovated neighbourhoods.

One house was converted into Qudsi's state of the art office, where Western and Syrian architects who want to specialise in preservation come to train.
 

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FEATURE-Modern threat to Syria's ancient Aleppo soap industry

ALEPPO, Syria, Oct 22 (Reuters) - The deep perfume of olive and laurel oil hangs in the air of old Aleppo, home to an ancient soap industry that has enjoyed a renaissance since the government lifted crippling trade bans in the last five years.

Nestled among the 2,000-year-old labyrinthine streets in courtyard houses and old hotels known as khans, are a handful of workshops that have been making the famed "Savon d'Alep", or Aleppo soap, by hand for hundreds of years.

But the guardians of the old tradition say greedy imitators who have begun marketing cheap industrial soap under the same name are threatening to undermine the brand in lucrative European export markets.

"European consumers are very discerning. They may fork several euros for a bar that has Aleppo written on it but they will not buy Syrian soap again if it doesn't make their skin nice," said Safouh al-Deiri, a Syrian businessman who has been exporting Aleppo soap to France since the 1980s.

Deiri, who lives in Lyon, said Aleppo soap had influenced the development of soap making in Marseilles during the French occupation of Syria and neighbouring Lebanon from 1920 to 1946.

The real soap, nicknamed Aleppo's green gold, is made only from olive and laurel oil, water and sodium palmate, a natural ingredient that hardens the mixture.

The resulting block is cut by hand and left to dry for a period of six months up to three years to make it last longer. The rough look of the soap and the big square bars that weigh almost a quarter of a kilo each are its trademark.

The soap's purity and simplicity -- olive oil is a natural moisturiser and laurel oil a cleanser -- contrast with modern soaps that use everything from pig fat to crushed horse bone, as well as "less noble" oils, such as palm oil or other seeds.

Demand for organic and natural products has also won the product a niche market in Europe where many people favour it over "luxury" Western soaps which have over 20 ingredients, including some chemicals.

RENAISSANCE

Business in Aleppo, which was a cosmopolitan trading hub on the ancient Silk Road, has declined since the Baath Party took over Syria nearly 50 years ago and imposed Soviet style economic policies that drove its leading business families into exile.

Restrictions on private enterprise have eased in the past years, contributing to the city's architectural rejuvenation, a rise in tourism and efforts to market the trademark soap.

But despite the marketing drive, the five established family soap makers -- Zanabili, Najjar, Fansa, Jbeili and Sabouni, which means soap maker in Arabic -- remain understated and do not even have signs at their doors.

They now export most of their production, estimated at 600 tonnes a year, to Europe, South Korea and Japan, especially the high end containing 16 percent laurel oil.

Their success has spawned scores, if not hundreds of imitators, many of whom use chemical colouring to give the soap the green tint of laurel and olive oil.

The industrial soap sells for $2 a kilo compared with the $16 or more for the traditional soap makers charge, depending on the quality of olive oil and proportion of laurel oil.

Deiri said lack of standards could deal the Aleppo soap industry the same fate that befell its textiles, which were coveted in Europe before quality dwindled.

"There is already in France natural laurel and olive oil soap made in China. The Syrian government could help preserve the quality if it sets specifications for the Savon d'Alep name," he said.

At the Zanabili workshop opposite the Osmanya mosque, owner Nabil Zanabili uses a magnifying glass to inspect a bar of soap submitted to him for an expert opinion.

"It's good quality. The olive oil is good and it has a good proportion of laurel," Zanabili said after smelling the soap.

He said Aleppo had been a centre of soap making since before Jesus's time, together with Antioch in modern day Turkey and the Palestinian city of Nablus. The Mediterranean port city of Tripoli, long part of geographical Syria but a Lebanese city since 1920, also boasts at least one old soap house.

But even Zanabili has developed a line that adds almond oil, mint and lemon oil to laurel, catering for some European and Asian tastes, although he insists that the product remains of the highest quality.

Sultana, an upmarket shop that opened in the Jdeideh district three years ago, adds French imported Jasmine essence and has a line of laurel liquid hand soap.

Marhaf Sabouni, who traces his family's soap making heritage back 600 years, said buying one of the established names remained a safe bet as they had not compromised their quality and reputation.

But finding the high end product in the local market may be difficult, and discerning buyers have to find their way to workshops in the old quarters of Aleppo.

Naji Fahed, who has two soap retail shops in the Syrian capital Damascus, stocks Fansa soap at $17 a kilo but every thing else in his shop sells at a fraction of that -- because not everyone appreciates the old fashioned qualities.

"The cheap soap burns on your skin, but it has its customers," said Fahed. "A famous Syrian actress is regular buyer from me. She buys the most awful soap and says it's the best thing for her skin".
 

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great news! Aleppo is such a wonderful city, it deserves more tourism.
 

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Aleppo's scattered business owners have yet to return home
Excerpt

ALEPPO, Syria, June 17 (Reuters) - In the old khan, a stone courtyard off Aleppo's medieval souk, most of the 41 cloth shops are deserted. Many of the owners moved elsewhere or went abroad to escape fighting in the historic Syrian city, a major economic centre before the war.

"Some started new work outside Syria and won't return. Some who stayed opened new shops in other parts of the country," said Mohammed Abu Zeid, one of two cloth merchants still operating.

Syria's economy has been upturned by eight years of war that partitioned the country between rival forces and displaced millions of people. Hundreds of thousands of workers were conscripted into the army or joined rebel groups and Western powers have imposed sweeping sanctions.

Any recovery will largely depend on whether people return home, including local business owners. The empty stores in Khan Khair Bek show that most have stayed away and it may be some time before business resumes.

Although parts of western Aleppo, which was held by the government through the war, still have busy shopping areas, the city's factories and wholesale trading businesses have been devastated by war damage and the departure of traders.

Textiles were a mainstay of Aleppo business until the start of the war in 2011. The khan in the Souk al-Zarb section of the battered Old City was a textile hub. Merchants kept their wares and conducted wholesale business in the shops. When Reuters first visited in early 2017, weeks after the fighting ended, the khan was closed and the domed entranceway was waist-deep in debris including bullet casings and the tail fin of a mortar bomb.

More : https://www.reuters.com/article/us-...-owners-have-yet-to-return-home-idUSKCN1TI16O
 

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Centuries-old bazaar in Syria’s Aleppo making slow recovery
Associated Press Excerpt
Aug 5, 2019

Bit by bit, Aleppo’s centuries-old bazaar is being rebuilt as Syrians try to restore one of their historical crown jewels, devastated during years of brutal fighting for control of the city.

The historic Old City at the center of Aleppo saw some of the worst battles of Syria’s eight-year civil war. Government forces finally wrested it away from rebel control in December 2016 in a devastating siege that left the eastern half of Aleppo and much of the Old City — a UNESCO world heritage site — in ruins.

The bazaar, a network of covered markets, or souks, dating as far back as the 1300s and running through the Old City, was severely damaged, nearly a third of it completely destroyed. Most of it remains that way: blasted domes, mangled metal and shops without walls or roofs.

But planners are hoping that by rebuilding segments of the bazaar and getting some shops back open, eventually they re-inject life into the markets. Before the war, the historic location drew in Syrians and tourists, shopping for food, spices, cloth, soap made from olive oil and other handicrafts.

The latest to be renovated is al-Saqatiyah Market, a cobblestone alley covered with arches and domes dotted with openings to let in shafts of sunlight. Along it are 53 shops, mostly butchers and shops selling nuts and dried goods. This souk had seen relatively less damage, and the $400,000 renovation took around eight months, with funding from the Aga Khan Foundation.

More : https://apnews.com/71578382fb274bc88a7e78f9d1f2f7c0
 
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