To understand Syrian cuisine as it developed in Aleppo, a little history is necessary. Aleppo is ancient, but its roots are buried beneath a very modern city. Legend has it that the prophet Abraham paused in Aleppo to milk his cows on Citadel Hill, thus came its Arabic name Halab, which means “milk.” It is one of Syria’s principle cities and the second largest after Damascus. Located in northwest Syria, it borders on Turkey and is at the crossroads of great and historic commercial routes, only sixty miles from the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River. Aleppo lies along the Baghdad-Istanbul railway and is linked by rail with Damascus and Beirut, Lebanon. With road connections to Damascus, Latakia, and Antioch, Turkey it is a natural gateway to Asia.
|Common ingredients such as pomegranate, nuts, onions, herbs, and spices are used in this spread.
The old city of Aleppo is centered around and dominated by a twelfth-century citadel where the ancient souks, or bazaars, are found. They run along narrow and winding streets and virtually everything from spices and silks to brass are sold in these precursors to modern shopping malls.
The city was originally laid out in walled districts entered via babs or doors. Different groups, such as Jews and Armenians, lived in these distinct quarters. Though no longer segregated residential entities, these areas are still known by their ethnic names. The overwhelming majority of Aleppians are Muslim, but Christians, Jews, Turks and Armenians have had a say in the life of the city for centuries. While some group rivalries exist, it is not unusual to find churches and mosques abutting one another in Syria’s major cities.
Travelers in Syria quickly realize that the people are multilingual, diverse and very much aware of the diversity around them. In the crossroads that is Aleppo, this is particularly true. Like Damascus, it is filled with many foreigners, tourists, and refugees. The Ottoman occupation of Syria, Lebanon, Greece, and Armenia supplied a context for tolerance and sharing, giving Aleppians a commonality of food, albeit in slightly different forms and presentations. When we hear baklava, for example, we think of Greece, but it is also a Syrian pastry called batlawa. Over time, the string cheese brought to Syria by the Armenians became known as Halabi cheese or the cheese of Aleppo because that is where so many of these refugees settled.
|Armenian string cheese.
Syria has an estimated 300,000 (although numbers vary a lot with some authors put the number at 800,000) ethnic Armenians. This is the largest Armenian community outside Armenia and Russia. Armenians were present within or around the northern borders of Syria since ancient times. The ancient Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia occupied the north western parts of greater Syria. This kingdom was part of the region historical and political landscape. It was involved in all the major events of the area from Mongols, Crusaders, Turks and Ayyobid wars. The Armenians established few towns in Greater Syria like Urfa and Aintab. These towns are in modern day Turkey and with virtually no Armenians left. The kingdom finally fell under the control of Mamluks rule and the Armenian population numbers in Syria dwindled gradually as most of them either immigrated to Cyprus or lived under Ottoman Turkey north of the Syrian border. The only town in modern Syria with an original Armenian population is Kassab in the north west of the country, with an Armenian presence estimated to be 1000 years old.
Most of the current Armenians in Syria today came during the Armenian genocide at the turn of the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of Armenians were forced out of their villages by the Ottomans and taken to the edge of the Syrian desert near Deir Az’Zor were they were killed and buried in mass graves. Armenians who fled the genocide came to Aleppo and other cities in northern Syria where they were given refuge and protected from the slaughter. From there they spread to the rest of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, and with them spread their culture and their cuisine which is incorporated into all walks of life in northern Syria mostly, and then from there into Turkey and Lebanon.