Aleppo, Abraham, and the Eid

By Anisa Mehdi

The story goes that Abraham took his knife, ready to kill his son, and “the Lord’s angel shouted from heaven, ‘don’t hurt the boy or harm him in any way!  Now I know that you truly obey God, because you were willing to offer him your only son.” (Genesis 22)

Then Abraham saw a ram nearby and sacrificed it instead.

That is the story of Eid al Adha, the Islamic holiday being celebrated now by Muslims around the world.  “The Feast of the Sacrifice,” one of the two biggest holidays on the Islamic calendar, is all about Abraham — Ibrahim, in Arabic.  This dramatic test of Abraham by the Almighty concludes the Hajj pilgrimage.  Ibrahim is the prophet mentioned second-most in the Qur’an — after Moses.

Muslims join with Jews and Christians in believing the Abraham is the first human being to declare the Oneness of God.  His journeys throughout the region we now call “holy” are legendary.  It seems he wandered everywhere with his family and flocks.  Oral tradition has survived for thousands of years in places as remote as Ahwaz, Iran, Urfa, Turkey, and Egypt’s ancient Memphis, with tales of Abraham, wisdom, munificence, and hospitality.  The stories live today, too, in the now tormented city of Aleppo.

That historic city, built in the days of King David, was once a village where Abraham may have stayed.  Proud residents would ask visitors, “Did you know that Abraham is supposed to have milked his cows up there at the Citadel?”  Indeed, the name of the city comes from haleb, which is the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic word for milked.

Residents used to ask visitors, that is.  Only two years ago tourism to Aleppo was on the rise.  Its souk was a living market, born at the crossroads of the historic spice and silk routes.  In January 2010 the New York Times reported that tourism in Syria was up by more than 30% from the year before. Turkey had loosened visa restrictions, resulting in a wave of trade and tourism from across that border.  Intrepid Europeans and Americans were finding their way to the land of Paul’s epiphany, multi-confessional harmony, plentiful pomegranates, and savories of all kinds.

Current reports are that Aleppo’s souk is in shambles.

Still, it is a city with deep Abrahamic roots — and therein may lie some hope.  In anthropological terms the story of Abraham, says renowned mediation expert William Ury, is one of the world’s most widely shared origin stories.  It is shared by over half of humanity.  On an exploratory visit to Aleppo in 2006 for the newly-launched Abraham Path Initiative, he was delighted to hear regular reminders of flowing milk from the flocks of the Patriarch.

The idea of Abraham’s Path, now an active route with 400 kilometers of cultural walking trails spread through Turkey, Jordan, the Palestinian countryside, and Israel, is to bring a profound sense of connection to tourists and pilgrims who want more from their travel experience.  By retracing Abraham’s journey and inviting tourists to eat and sleepover along the route, the Path provides economic benefits to local communities and place of meeting and connection for people of all faiths and cultures.  It begins in south-central Turkey, where Abraham first heard the call to “go forth.”  The route passes through some of the worlds’ most revered cultural, historical, and holy sites, ending in the city of Hebron/El Khalil at the tomb of Abraham.  People have found that beneath the ancient arches of Harran and on the verdant hillsides of Al Ayoun in Jordan, the simple, personal act of walking can heal the wounds of conflict and refresh souls exhausted by hostility.

Someday Aleppo may take its rightful place on this path.  At this time of Eid al Adha, a celebration of redemption, Aleppo’s people deserve the chance to remember a heritage of generosity and trust.  And in the quiet of the promised cease fire, they may teach their children the stories of a man who epitomized hospitality and compassion, and who left an indelible mark on their culture.