Aleppo was exotic, a flight of fancy from the witches in Macbeth, Aleppo bound aboard the Tiger, a terrifying taxi ride to Agatha Christie’s Baron Hotel, needing US dollars in hand. The Baron was a bit edgy for me so we decamped to a coolly soulless modern hotel. We explored the second century Citadel on a site used since 3000 BCE in 40 degrees of heat and nearly dehydrated to death without cash to buy water. A friendly shopkeeper took us in, explained that the government didn’t deal with capitalist Visa and told us where the cashpoint was for the odd European traveller. The next day we wandered off to find beautiful 13th century Madrasa Firdows and sat on a wall watching children on what looked like a holiday school at the mosque, supervised by a young man with a limp. Round the corner was the 10th century Maqam Ibrahim Salihin, with a rock ‘honoured by Abraham’s transit from Ur to Hebron’. We ate inflated bread and I was issued an all-in-one gown with a pointy hood to go into the Ummayyad Mosque where the courtyard was too hot to walk on. In the suq I regretted some pretty nifty, pretty pricy earrings in gold with red and green dangly hoops.
A punctual train got us to Damascus and another unnerving taxi to a palace hotel in the old town for days of investigation: the head of John the Baptist, Saladin’s tomb, Straight Street and the National Archaeological Museum, one of the finest on earth. We saw paintings from the third century Douro-Europos synagogue, exhumed from the desert, alone of its kind. And the train back at the end of it all from Damascus to Aleppo where we watched pilgrims hustling an elderly Imam from the station mosque onto a rusty train to Tehran. We crossed the border overnight to Adana with its Hadrian bridge and the best sleeper train I’ve ever been on, to Ankara and the Gilgamesh bas-reliefs, half as old as time.
Aleppo wasn’t perfect. A hotel man stood by to climb on the roof to start the petrol generator when the grid gave up. It chugged along with every household’s, adding nothing to the air quality. We got a dose of the lurgy, but I’ve had that in Copenhagen. The banks were tricky, but the streets were safer than Sofia en route. The tragedy of Syria isn’t that it was a bit rickety or that the jewels of humanity have been blown to bits. The tragedy is that the people are dead and the children orphaned and dying in an ancient place where men and women have lived good and fulfilled and creative lives for thousands of years and no one can stop it.
But this week was Tallis in Wonderland. We had dance, drama and music, from the tiniest to the biggest, stylish and happy. We had comperes and a Mad Hatter and film of Alice in Tallisland. We had dancing boys and an acapella choir, a clapping song, leaping girls, wonderful bands: White Rabbit and A Town Called Malice in A School Called Tallis.
According to the theology rooted in the streets of Damascus, Christmas is about birth and hope. A few train journeys west we take it for granted that the electricity works so the hospitals are safe and the schools won’t be shelled. We expect that there’ll be clean lavatories, mock exams, a Christmas Show and visits to the museums and galleries of the capital. We expect a Drawing Exhibition on the theme of Obsession and a visit to Barclays to talk to the mentors in front of people who make financial weather in the world. We expect Duke of Edinburgh’s Award badges and performance management and governor elections and Christmas lunch with free food for those fallen on hard times. We expect a clear policy for dealing with Harmful and Abusive Behaviour. We expect not to die, every day.
While Samira hurdles over the benches in the yard at the end of lunch and Ellis bounces at his friend, while Jane re-reads a favourite novel as she walks through block 5 and Jebi the Sapeur struts his stuff in SE3, the children of Aleppo are terrified and cruelly murdered. And we in the west, through fear, apathy, pork-barrel politics, obsession with nationality and disregard for humanity, can’t do a thing. The world’s been changed for the worse in Syria, and we must do better.