Friday was a quiet day in Aleppo as this is when almost everything is shut and people have their day off. I used the time to visit the fabulous Citadel and get my bearings. Towards the end of the afternoon, I decided to pop into the National Museum of Aleppo. I was advised at the entrance not to pay and go in as they would be closing in 30 minutes and really I needed an hour and a half to do it justice. However, the museum curator was present and decided that I should follow him upstairs so that he could show me a map and advise me where to travel in the local area - I had mentioned that I would have a driver the following day to visit St Simeon.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in Mohamed Almslem's office being shown photos of him on archaeological digs and he was telling me all about the different teams of archaeologists from Oxford, Cambridge and Yale who come to Syria each year to help excavate some of the 1400 sites of interest. To date, only 400 of them have even been touched. Things then took a slightly surreal turn when he decided that I should return the following day at 2pm, view the museum until it closed at four and then he would take me out of Aleppo (about 10km) and we would go out for dinner. As he understood the way these things worked, we would go "Dutch". I left with his card and quite frankly unsure whether I would appear at 2pm the following today!
Back at the hotel, I got chatting to an Australian barrister called John. As we had both booked drivers for the following day to do similar things, we decided to change the booking and use the same driver. I mentioned Mohamed's recommendations: St Simeon, Ain Dara and Cyrrhus (Nebi Huri). Cyrrhus is right up near the border with Turkey and so we needed to renegotiate the price a little when our driver appeared this morning.
We headed all the way up to Cyrrhus first and then worked our way back down. I missed the two o'clock appointment because Mohamed's suggestions for our day out were so absolutely spot on that we didn't return to Aleppo until 5pm! We shared Cyrrhus (city which became part of the Roman Empire following the conquest of Syria by Pompei in 64 BC) only with a French archaeologist who was taking measurements of the stones which would have formed the main amphitheatre wall. What a luxury to be able to explore this amazing site as the only visitors. At Ain Dara (suggested to be a temple dedicated to a semitic fertility goddess dating from the 10th century BC), again, we were practically the only people there and here shared the experience with a local family.
After a wonderful hummous / baba ganoush and salad late lunch washed down with Turkish coffee, we headed to the most famous of all the sites in this area: St Simeon. The previous day, 1000 people had visited the site. During our visit, there can't have been more than 20 people present and so yet again we were hugely privileged to visit in peace and solitude. The sheer enormity of these sites and the incredible time periods in question require the visitor to be able to place themselves back in time and truly imagine how things would have been.
So we'll never know how my dinner date would have turned out. John had predicted that I would have become Mohamed's 4th wife. I can only thank him for taking the time to talk to me, make wonderful suggestions and as he wished (even without dinner), I have become an ambassador for Syria.
Photos from around Aleppo