Aleppo, a City in Flames
Handcraft market near Aleppo Castle (Photo: A. Asaad)
The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.
— 10th century poet al-Mutanabbi at court of Emirate of Aleppo
“Aleppo located in northwestern Syria 310 kilometres from Damascus, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it has been inhabited since perhaps as early as the 6th millennium BC. Excavations at Tell as-Sawda and Tell al-Ansari, just south of the old city of Aleppo, show that the area was occupied since at least the latter part of the 3rd millennium BC; and this is also when Aleppo is first mentioned in cuneiform tablets unearthed in Ebla and Mesopotamia, in which it is noted for its commercial and military proficiency. Such a long history is probably due to its being a strategic trading point midway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia.
“Located at the crossroads of several trade routes from the 2nd millennium B.C., Aleppo was ruled successively by the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottomans. The 13th-century citadel, 12th-century Great Mosque and various 17th-century madrasas, palaces, caravanserais and hammams all form part of the city’s cohesive, unique urban fabric. (…)
The old city of Aleppo reflects the rich and diverse cultures of its successive occupants. Many periods of history have left their influence in the architectural fabric of the city. Remains of Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ayyubid structures and elements are incorporated in the massive surviving Citadel. The diverse mixture of buildings including the Great Mosque founded under the Umayyads and rebuilt in the 12th century; the 12th century Madrasa Halawiye, which incorporates remains of Aleppo’s Christian cathedral, together with other mosques and madrasas, suqs and khans represents an exceptional reflection of the social, cultural and economic aspects of what was once one of the richest cities of all humanity.” (UNESCO)
Remembering Syria’s historic Silk Road souk in Aleppo
Souk in Aleppo (Photo: A. Skomorowska)
“A few miles from Aleppo are the hills where human beings first domesticated wild grasses. All the wheat we eat originates from those plants and the first farmers. Once those hunter gatherers settled, they set in motion developments that led to towns and then markets. Aleppo was one such place and its souk lay on the first great trade routes, becoming part of an economic engine that made astonishing new products available to more and more people. The warehouses filled up with soaps, silks, spices, precious metals, ceramics and textiles, especially the colourful and diaphanous type favoured by harem-dwellers. Eventually all this mercantile activity focussed into one particular area and a fabulous bazaar was built, mostly in the Ottoman heyday of the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a honeycomb of surprises and flavours, a tribute to the best aspects of human society, but now it has run smack into the opposite tendency: war. (…)
Of course, the human suffering is far more important and pressing, but I also mourn the loss of a place that so effortlessly encapsulated everything that was light, vivacious, sociable and friendly, everything that war is not. (…)
What it had was tradition, heritage and incredible diversity. Five hundred years after Shakespeare made Aleppo souk the epitome of a distant cornucopia, you could still buy almost anything here, eat and drink a vast range of dishes, and even bathe in the traditional Hammam Nahasin. There were eight miles of lanes linking a range of khans or caravanserai – the British Consul held court in one of them well into the 20th century. When I first wandered in via the gate near the citadel, I discovered that there was only one thing I could not find in there: the desire to leave. It was just too diverting and fascinating. Every shopkeeper seemed to want to have a chat over a glass of red tea.
“Let me tell you about scarves. You buy antelope hair for the woman you want and silk for the mistress.’
“What about wives?”
He shrugs. “We have polyester. It comes with divorce papers.”
It was clear that this was not a place that ever stood still. Neither was it a museum, and certainly not a pastiche preserved for tourists. (…)
Architecture during the Ottoman Occupation from 1516 to 1918 (Photo: S. Maraashi)
In great trading cities filled with communal diversity, the inhabitants usually learn to get along and trust each other. It is outsiders who bring danger and suspicion. In fact Aleppo has been sacked, destroyed and left in ruins many times over. When Tamerlane visited in 1400, he left a pile of severed heads outside – reportedly 20,000 of them. The Byzantines had previously done their worst, as had the Mongols, more than once. But it was politics that did for the city’s pre-eminence as a market. Slowly and inexorably it was cut off from its hinterlands. The Silk Road died, the Suez Canal was dug, the northern territories were taken by Turkey as were the ports of the Levant. The machinations of the Great Powers turned a vibrant trading city into a divided backwater.
In some ways that decline helped preserve the medieval nature of the place, but now it is gone. When Syria rises out of the chaos, there can be some idea of restoration. But any future attempt to rebuild will always be a re-creation, probably with the tourist buck in mind. That will be better than nothing, of course, but it cannot hide the fact that one of the world’s greatest treasures has been lost.”
— Kevin Rushby, Remembering Syria’s historic Silk Road souk in Aleppo, The Guardian, Oct 5, 2012.
Aleppo and Arab history
A horseman crossing at Bab Qennesrine at sunset, Aleppo old town (Photo: E. Lafforgue)
“If stones could weep, the ancient foundations of Aleppo would be wet for centuries.
Since the time of Abraham they have been pounded by the hooves of invaders’ horses, stained by the blood of Muslims, Christians and Jews, and torched by conquerors expunging all trace of their enemies.
This week, one of the world’s oldest cities became Ground Zero in Syria’s spiralling civil war. And as rebel forces edge closer to the medieval citadel that is Aleppo’s proudest symbol of survival, the scene is set for a deadly clash between the city’s future and its past.
Aleppo — where Abraham legendarily milked his cows, Alexander the Great pitched his tents, the Crusaders met defeat, King Faisal declared Syria’s independence and a secret vault guarded the oldest text of the Hebrew bible — has become a nearly deserted war zone, its irreplaceable treasures exposed to destruction and theft.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen this before,” says Michael Danti, an archaeology professor from Boston University who has worked in Syria for more than 20 years. “It’s not just the loss of buildings and museum objects, it’s the risk of losing entire sets of data that make up history.”
But relentless war is nothing new for a historic centre that once crowned the known world, and was cast into the dust as many times as there were invaders to conquer it.
The hub of culture and commerce in northern Syria, Aleppo boasts history that goes back to the first inklings of human settlement. As a city, its earliest traces date to around 5000 BC, and it claims, with Damascus, to be one of the longest-inhabited urban sites on earth.
Before the dawn of Christianity, Aleppo was put to the sword by Hittites, Mittannians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire and Rome. And they were only curtain-raisers for another 2,000 years of wreckage and rebuilding to come.
Close to the Middle East’s main waterways, the Mediterranean Sea and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Aleppo was a fertile agricultural region and a stop on the storied Silk Road trade route. But its riches and geography made it a target for invaders. The citadel, a defensive base in pre-Islamic times, was fortified in the late 12th century to become one of the great strongholds of the medieval Islamic world.
That didn’t stop the Mongols from overrunning the city. In the 13th century, Hugalu, son of Genghis Khan, stormed Aleppo and killed 50,000 people. Later, the fearsome emperor Timur would pile a mountain of skulls at the city gates as a warning to would-be rebels.
But throughout battles between Timur and Turkey’s muscular Ottoman Empire, Aleppo flourished. Its mosques and madrassas expanded, and it was again a centre for art and culture. Caravanserais were built to shelter Silk Road travellers shuttling between Italy and Persia. Merchants flocked to buy spices, coffee, pepper, intricate jewelry and Eastern luxuries. The sprawling souks were a smorgasbord of languages and cultures, and visiting businessfolk enjoyed lavish homes with Ottoman, Venetian and European touches.
Aleppo survived not only attacks, but a devastating earthquake, plague and famine. But miraculously, traces of its old empires remain — from the 12th century Great Mosque and citadel to the churches of the Christian quarter and the 15th-century Al-Bandara Central Synagogue, reborn from the ruins of an earlier temple.
Now, as the civil war rages on, UNESCO’s director-general warned in a statement of the danger to Aleppo’s “astounding monumental heritage reflecting the diverse cultures of the peoples that have settled here over millennia.”
What’s at risk is more than ancient buildings. (…) For Aleppo’s other treasures, there is more uncertainty.
“The Citadel is a natural fortress with lots of tunnels and subterranean spaces,” says Danti. “It would be hard to dislodge (fighters) from there without using heavy weapons.” (…)
For centuries Aleppo has been destroyed by outsiders. Now its fate depends on two homegrown foes who must decide whether, in planting their flags on the future, they will destroy their common past.”
— Syria: The death of historic Aleppo, Aug 3, 2012
“Built at the crossroads of important trade routes between East and West, the city has seen more than its share of war and violence.
Architecturally and culturally, Aleppo carries the genetic imprint of a succession of ruling powers and invaders including Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, crusading European Christians, Mamelukes and Ottomans.
But now, a city that over the centuries has survived the attentions of countless besieging armies, appears in danger of being destroyed from within by its own people, with shocking images of the ancient souq consumed by fire as Syria’s civil war pits rebels and government forces for control of one of the world’s oldest cities.
“I do not have the words that can possibly express my dismay and horror at what has happened to Syria,” says Prof Jeremy Johns, director of the Khalili Research Centre and professor of art and archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean at Oxford University.
In addition to the destruction being wrought on priceless archaeological monuments, Prof Johns fears for the future of the nation’s artefactual heritage.
“I know that antiquities looted from archaeological sites are already reaching the international market,” he says. (…) “The monuments are being destroyed but also the whole social fabric around them is being destroyed at the same time.”
Prof Johns also worries about the future of the city’s relatively modern history.
“The Armenian Baron Hotel where T. E. Lawrence and all sorts of other players in that extraordinary early 20th century colonial game stayed, including archaeologists, politicians and spies, is in the centre of Aleppo and I have little doubt that will be damaged.”
Unesco declared Aleppo a World Heritage Site in 1986 and says it has “exceptional universal value because it represents medieval Arab architectural styles that are rare and authentic, in traditional human habitats”.
It is, for example, “an outstanding example of an Ayyubid 12th century city, with its military fortifications constructed as its focal point following the success of Sala El-Din against the crusaders”.
The multilayered history of the city, reflected in its disparate mix of buildings, layout and spaces, constitutes “testimony of the city’s cultural, social and technological development, representing continuous and prosperous commercial activity from the Mameluke period.
“It contains vestiges of Arab resistance against the Crusaders, but there is also the imprint of Byzantine, Roman and Greek occupation in the streets and in the plan of the city.”
The monumental Citadel of Aleppo “rising above the souqs, mosques and madrasas of the old walled city, is testament to Arab military might from the 12th to the 14th centuries”. (…)
Here, in the walls of mosques, palaces and bath buildings, can be found evidence of occupation by civilisations dating back to the 10th century BC. In Aleppo, every ancient brick tells a story - and every shattered brick threatens the loss of that story for future generations.
The extraordinary thing about the Citadel, says Prof Johns, “is that is essentially an artificial mound that has grown up with human detritus over the millennia, and that you can stand in the remains of the Ottoman fortress, looking down to the excavated remains of cultures that go back into the second millennium BC.
Inside the Aleppo Citadel (Photo: S. Maraashi)
“There’s continuity in that whole site that sums up the historical and architectural development of Syria and the whole region, and that is what is under threat.”
According to a report from the city this week, the wooden gates of the Citadel are now destroyed and a medieval stone engraving above them badly damaged.
“A bomb crater now marks the entrance and its walls are pockmarked with bullet holes,” the report said.
“A stump is all that remains of the minaret of the 14th century Al Kiltawiya school. A rocket has crashed into el-Mihmandar Mosque, also built some 700 years ago.”
On Sunday, after news that fire had destroyed hundreds of shops in Aleppo’s ancient souq, Unesco director general Irina Bokova described what was happening to the city as “deeply distressing”.
“The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme,” Ms Bokova said. “That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country’s millenary history, valued and admired the world over, makes it even more tragic.”
Aleppo’s souqs, she added, had been a part of the city’s economic and social life since its beginning: “They stand as testimony to Aleppo’s importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium BC.” (…)
Historians and archaeologists are growing increasingly worried that the true toll on Aleppo’s ancient fabric - both as a result of fighting and of heritage looting of the type that ravaged Iraq’s museums - will prove far greater than is currently known. (…)
Cairo University antiquities professor Mahmoud Al Banna said he could not believe what Syrians were doing to their own heritage in Aleppo.
“No different than what the Tatars or Mongols did,” he said, referring to invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries that devastated the region. “We are talking about the history of all people, of humankind and not just of Islam.”
— Aleppo, and Arab history, is burning, The National, Oct 3, 2012.
‘The most enchanting city in the Middle East’
“Aleppo is arguably the most enchanting city in the Middle East. Awash in mosques and minarets, the city is also stuffed with Armenian churches, Maronite cathedrals, and even a synagogue, a consequence of its unique position at the crossroads of Ottoman, French, and Jewish influences. Its maze-like souk and massive citadel on a hill are remarkable enough. But throw in hospitable people, trendy rooftop restaurants whose waiters sneak alcohol in teacups to Westerners with a wink and a nod, and the welcoming aroma of underground shops lined with tasty sweets and pistachio nuts, and Aleppo would seem to be custom-built for vacationers seeking a relaxing setting to kick back and nibble on mezze (appetizers). (…)
I remember the patio of the city’s famous, if slightly musty, Baron Hotel, where Agatha Christie once resided, was crammed with loud Europeans smoking late into the night. Across town in Al-Aziziah, Syrian students huddled in front of large screens to watch bad soap operas, smoke water pipes, and sing karaoke.
Like Prague in the early 1990s, Aleppo felt like it was on the verge of discovery, an idyllic (and safe) place for Westerners to sample the best of Arab culture and cuisine. Expatriates would revel in Al Jdeida, an Armenian district of quiet squares and quaint restaurants. This part of the Old City holds a kind of mythical draw for outsiders. Its tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and tucked-away courtyards full of jasmine and citrus trees are a pleasure to peruse; the inlaid wooden doors of its storefronts as ornately carved as the back of a backgammon board. (…)
Aleppo is surrounded by sweeping plains dotted with olive groves and “dead cities,” abandoned ruins from the Byzantine age. They serve as vivid reminders of what happens to once-prosperous trading centers left abandoned. The international community owes it to Syrians to defend UNESCO-protected sites like this one. Syria does not need any more dead cities.”
Men walk on a road amid wreckage after blasts ripped through Aleppo’s main Saadallah al-Jabari Square. (Stringer/Reuters)
— Lionel Beehner, ‘It Is Our Soul’: The Destruction of Aleppo, Syria’s Oldest City, The Atlantic, Oct 4, 2012
How cities become invisible
“Syria’s cities became embedded within the lines of the Invisible Cities. I listened, along with Kublai Khan, to Marco Polo’s narrations and tried to understand how cities become invisible.
Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. (…) But the death of a city is different. It is slow — each neighborhood’s death is documented bomb by bomb, shell by shell, stone by fallen stone. Witnessing the deaths of your cities is unbearable. Unlike the news of dead people — which arrives too late, always after the fact — the death of a city seems as if it can be halted, that the city can be saved from the clutches of destruction. But it is an illusion: The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.
Ruins are sold to us as romantic and poetic. As tourists wandering ancient sites, cameras dangling from our necks and guidebooks in hand, we seek beauty in the swirling dust over the remains of a dead civilization. We imagine what is was like then, before empires decayed and living objects became historical artifacts. But that kind of romanticism is only afforded with the distance of time and geography. In war, ruins-in-the-making are not beautiful, not vessels of meaningful lessons, not a fanciful setting for philosophical contemplations on the follies of men. When you witness it live, when it is real, and when it happens to your city, it becomes another story altogether. (…)
Being from Aleppo is unlike being from anywhere else in the world. We walked on history so deep, we did not understand it — we simply learned to call this place, older than all others, home. We grew up knowing that our insignificant existence was the thinnest layer of dust on the thick geological strata of empires, kingdoms, and generations, which lived within our stone walls. We knew without doubt, from an early age, that we were nothing but a blink of our city’s eye.
When you are from Aleppo, you are plagued with a predicament: Nothing here will ever change. For some people, living in the city that never changes becomes too difficult. The city’s permanence and your inability to make a mark on it push you to eventually leave Aleppo, trading comfort for change. After you leave, no matter where you are in the world, you know that Aleppo is there, waiting exactly as you left it. Instead, it is you who returns in a reinvented form each time you come home — a university graduate, a bride, a mother, each time proudly carrying your new ideas and identity to your patiently waiting city.
In Aleppo, you grow up worrying if your legacy will ever be worthy of your city’s. But you never worry about your city’s legacy — which we thoughtlessly leaned on — for how could we, ever, change Aleppo’s legacy?
Aleppo is Calvino’s city of Lalage, a city of minarets on which the moon “rest[s] now on one, now on another.” It is a city of churches, temples, relics, and graves of revered mystics. It is a city where the spices of Armenia meld with the tastes of Turkey. It is a city where Arabic, Kurdish, and Armenian tongues speak parallel to each other, with an occasional French word mixed in here or there. It is a city of trade and industry, where men are constantly bargaining and negotiating in the same souks as their fathers before them. It is a city where girls walking down the streets in tight jeans and high heels pass by women in long black coats and white veils pinned under their chins. And they know they all belong right here, to Aleppo.
A man who is not from Aleppo recently told me, “When you travel to Aleppo, you don’t see it until you arrive.” I had never noticed that. Perhaps, because I was always inside it, I never searched for it when we returned. I never doubted that it would always be there, exactly as I left it, untouched, unchanged. But he was right; Aleppo is an inward-looking city; it sees the world reflected in itself. And because we’ve lived here for generations, we became like that too. (…)
You learn about things when they are broken — friendships, love, people, and even cities. I learned from watching the revolution that when things are broken, they take up more space. (…) When things are destroyed, you realize, too late, how fragile it all once was: bones, stones, walls, buildings, cities. (…)
Comprehension of destruction and the change it brings comes in waves — like grasping that your family is in exile or understanding that places from your childhood have disappeared forever. The dark spaces of the city begin to match the dark places in your mind. (…) Our artifacts leave Syria to live in other homes, where people will tell their children tales about an ancient place that once was, before it was invisible. Before it died. (…)
Aleppo, like Calvino’s cities, is a woman. Her complete name, Halab al-Shahba, refers to the milk of the prophet Ibrahim’s ashen cow. It is no surprise that Aleppo’s name would hold meanings both holy and earthly, of sacredness and sustenance. It is a city of milk and marble — nothing nourishes Aleppo’s spirit more than its stone and cuisine. Now, Aleppo is a city of ash and blood. (…)
Aleppo is Calvino’s Almema, the city of the dead, where “you reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living.” In Syria, we are living aberrations to life itself. We have seen what no one is supposed to see. (…) Tectonic shifts in a city like Aleppo simply do not happen in one’s lifetime. It is no longer a given that my city will outlive me. (…) We were supposed to live and die in an Aleppo unchanged, just as our grandfathers had before us, but instead we broke the laws of nature and pass on what we had inherited intact to the few survivors, in ruins. (…)
At some point, trust breaks between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Storyteller and listener separate into worlds independent of each other. Kublai Khan eventually doubts his narrator and accuses Marco Polo of weaving fantasies out of nothing. Do these cities even exist, he asks, or did you make them up?
Cities are both real and imagined. In peace, they are a backdrop, quietly absorbing your ego, waiting to be noticed when someone visits and sees her anew, while we drag our heels, unappreciative, along the pavements. You dream of leaving this place that never changes, leaving behind the burden of history where you will never amount to even a speck of dust in its never-ending tale. You dream of a place outside this place where the possibility to escape the past and become someone else seems easier. You never imagined that one day, the city will be the one that is exposed, unprotected, and vulnerable — you never imagined that one day, your city, not you, will be the one that needs to be saved. In war, the city becomes precious, each inch mourned, each stone remembered. The city’s sights, smells, and tastes haunt you. You cling to every memory of every place you had ever been to and remember that this is what it was like. Before.
But memories are deceptive. You weave them into images, and the images into a story to tell your child about a city you once knew, named Aleppo. A city of monuments and milk, of sweets and spices, a city so perfect and so beautiful it was named after a prophet’s ashen cow. Its minarets once changed shape from square to round to thin spindles, and every call to prayer was a symphony of voices across the neighborhoods echoing each other, as if in constant dialogue. You continue the tale, skipping certain details: the fleeing people, the smoke, the ashes, the fallen minarets and the silenced athans, the blood in the bread lines, and the relentless stench of death. Unlike Calvino, you gloss over the dark underbellies of society, overlooking the evils of men, the betrayals of people — in fact, you ignore the people altogether because you have become convinced that without the people, a city can remain innocent.
Never mind; those details don’t belong here; what matters is holding on to what once was. And you speak faster, describing the homes of grandparents and great-grandparents, pretending they are not empty. You speak of ancient neighborhoods of great-great-grandfathers, rebuilding them with your words in perfect form and not as they are now — the centuries-old gate a smoldering heap of crushed stone, the jasmine vines broken and dead, the tiled courtyard fountain dried up and covered with dirt. All of this you skip in the narrative, trying to keep the nightmare separate from the dream, for you have not completely learned from Calvino’s wisdom: Cities exist in their dualities.
And the child will ask you, because children always do, Mama, does it really exist? Or are you making it up? And you will not know what to say, for the story is both a falsehood and the truth. At once it is real and in the next moment it is intangible, even as you hold the photograph in your hand and the memories in your mind. Despite all your efforts, or perhaps in spite of them, it changed.
And with my words, both said and unsaid, I had finally rendered my city, invisible.”
— Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian-American writer, The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls, Foreign Policy, December 11, 2012.
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☞ Ronen Bergman, The Aleppo Codex Mystery, NYTimes, Jul 25, 2012