The Ancient City of Aleppo

Aleppo

Compiled by Umm Ibrahim

Aleppo, also known as Halab, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It is said to have been inhabited as early as the 2nd millennium BC. Its location at the end of the Silk Road ensured it to be a strategic trading point, midway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia. Hence, this Syrian city became known for its commercial and military proficiency.

Aleppo was ruled by a variety of rulers, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans. All the rulers left their own marks on the city. Aleppo became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516, when it had a population of around 50,000 inhabitants. Aleppo went on to become the Ottoman Empire’s third largest city after Constantinople and Cairo.

When the economy flourished as a result of trading activities, many European states rushed to open their consulates in the city during the 16th and the 17th centuries. This included the consulate of the Republic of Venice (1548), the consulate of France (1562), the consulate of England (1583) and the consulate of the Netherlands (1613).

However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the declining silk production in Iran directly affected the trading activities in Aleppo. By mid-century, caravans were no longer bringing silk from Iran to Aleppo, and local Syrian production was insufficient for European demand. Hence, the European merchants left Aleppo, and the city went into an economic decline that was reversed in the mid-19th century, when locally produced cotton and tobacco became the chief commodities of interest to the Europeans.

The economy of Aleppo was also hit by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Coupled with political instability, this contributed to Aleppo’s decline and the rise of Damascus as a serious economic and political competitor with Aleppo.

In spite of this, Aleppo can boast some unique architectural features. According to UNESCO’s website: “Aleppo has exceptional universal value because it represents medieval Arab architectural styles that are rare and authentic in traditional human habitats. It constitutes typical 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 largest covered Souq (open air) market in the world is in Aleppo, with an approximate length of 13 km. Souq Al-Madina is an active trade centre for imported luxury goods, such as raw silk from Iran, spices and dyes from India and coffee from Damascus. Souq Al-Madina is also home to such local products as wool, agricultural produce and soap.

Aleppo hosted 177 Hammams (public baths) during the medieval period, until the Mongol invasion, when many vital structures in the city were destroyed. Nowadays, roughly 18 Hammams are operating in the old city. Apart from these, there are many Masajid, Madrassahs and other religious historical buildings, like the National Library of Aleppo, functioning since 1945, and the Citadel, a large fortress atop a huge, partially artificial mound rising 50 m above the city. It dates back to the first millennium BC.

Aleppo is currently the largest city in Syria. It won the “Islamic Capital of Culture 2006” award, and in recent times, has also witnessed a wave of successful restorations of its historic landmarks. The ancient city of Aleppo also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Syria

Vol 4- Issue 2 SyriaModern Syria is situated in Asia along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrian political body is represented by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The president is the head of state and is directly elected every seven years. Syria gained full independence on April 17, 1946 ceding from French Colonialism Rule.

Damascus

Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It has occupied a position of importance in the fields of science, culture, politics, art, commerce and industry from the earliest times.

Early references to the city, such as those in the Ebla tablets, confirm that ‘Dameski’ (i.e., Damascus) during the third millennium B.C. was a city of huge economic influence. Ancient Pharaonic scripts refer to it as ‘Dameska’. It benefited great prominence during the second millennium B.C. as the centre of an Aramic kingdom under the name of Dar-misiq (the irrigated house).

Damascus became the capital of the first Arab state at the time of the Umayyads in 661 A.D. This marked the start of its golden epoch, and for a whole century, it was the centre of the youthful Islamic Empire. The Empire reached its peak of expansion throughout this period and came to stretch from the shores of the Atlantic and the Pyrennese in the west, to the river Indus and China in the east.

Following the decline and fall of the Umayyads, Damascus went through a period of neglect and decline. However, when independence was achieved in 1946, the city began to regain its importance as a significant cultural and political centre of the Arab world.

Lattakia

Lattakia is Syria’s main sea-port on the Mediterranean (186 km southwest of Aleppo). It has kept its importance since ancient times. Lattakia was one of the five cities built by Saluqos Nikator in the 2nd century B.C. He named it after his mother, Laudetia.
Not a lot of ancient remains have survived in Lattakia, but there are four columns and a Roman arch from the time of Septimus Severus (circa 200 A.D.), in addition to a beautiful Ottoman construction called Khan Al-Dukhan, which is now a museum.

Lattakia is the sea-gate to Syria. It is well-provided with accommodation and is well-placed as a base, from which to explore the coastal regions of the country.

Bosra

Bosra was the earliest city in the Syrian Arab Republic to become Muslim and has some of the oldest minarets in the history of Islam. As a stopover on the pilgrimage route to Makkah, Bosra was a prosperous city until the 17th century. By then, the region was becoming insecure and the pilgrims began to take a less dangerous route further west. The Mosque of Umar in the center of the town (called Jami-al Arouss, ‘the bridal mosque’, by the Bosriots) used to be a pagan temple and now stands as the only mosque surviving from the early-Islamic period that has preserved its original facades.

Shopping

Syrian handicrafts symbolize a tradition of skilled workmanship and folk art that dates back many thousands of years. The most common Syrian craft items include hand-woven silk brocades, embroidered table cloth, rugs, carpets, mosaics, brass and copper, leather, gold and silver jewelry made by hand of local designs, inlaid furniture with mother of pearls, all these items can be found in our old souks and bazaars in Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo and almost all over Syria.

Syrian Food

Many traditional Syrian dishes are effortless preparations based on grains, vegetables and fruits. Often, the same ingredients are used over and over, in unusual ways, in each dish. Yogurt, cheese, cucumber, aubergines, chick peas, nuts, tomatoes, burghul and sesame (seeds, paste and oil) are harmoniously blended into numerous assorted medleys. Pita bread is served for dipping with all meals.

A typical Syrian meal starts with Mezze – this can be an elaborate spread of forty or fifty Hors D’oeuvres or just a salad and a bowl of nuts. But it is always a social occasion, when friends and family meet to enjoy appetizers and conversation before lunch and dinner.

After meals, there is usually a hot drink of Arabic coffee or Shai (tea) along with fruits, Booza (ice cream) and a dessert. Syrian pastries are delicious – usually they are honey soaked pastries with nuts, raisins or cheese.

Sports and Recreation

Mixing with people and eating are the main forms of relaxation, especially in rural areas. Syrians adore talking. Men like going out to coffeehouses to talk, drink tea or Turkish coffee and smoke a “hubble-bubble” or water pipe. On Thursday night, the beginning of the weekend in Syria, young men meet on the streets to talk or drive around in their cars.

Throughout the good weather, some Syrians drive to mountain resorts for the day. Others take pleasure in leisurely walks. Syrians usually go for walks in groups, wearing their finest clothes. On mild evenings, parks in the city are full.

Soccer is the main sport in Syria. The country has national soccer and basketball teams. Men attend the games, which are shown also on television for a few hours a week. Recently, women have been allowed to take part in some sports, and today more women are playing sports and taking part in competitions.

Fact File

Once the center of the Islamic Empire, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks. However, such battles and scrambles over territory have translated into a catalogue of staggering cities full of stunning monuments, from the entire city of Damascus to the country’s many mosques. The events have also failed to impair the character of the Syrian people who – surprisingly to some – exude friendliness and warmth and are justly proud of their land. It is a home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alawite Shias and Druze, as well as the Arab Sunnis, who make up a majority of the Muslim population.

(Contributed by Affaf Jamal)