The Ancient City of 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.