The Ancient City of Aleppo

Ancient City of Aleppo:

Inscribed on the World Heritage list since 1986, the Ancient City of Aleppo remains an important cultural and historical legacy of a city that was ruled in turn by the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottomans. It vies with Damascus as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Because of its strategic position, it was located at the crossroads of several trade routes since the second millenium B.C. Now threatened by overpopulation, the old city still conserves its cohesive urban fabric, which is composed of limestone houses, churches, and minarets, its 12th-century Great Mosque, its 13th-century citadel, its miles of covered suqs, and numerous 17th-century madrasas, palaces, caravanserais, and hammams. Although the new city is now large with about 2 million inhabitants (Syria’s second largest city), the old city center is fairly small and easy to explore by foot.

Located on an arid plateau in northeast Syria, Aleppo today is a distribution point for neighboring countries’ goods and a market for olives, cotton, grain, produce, sheep, and pistachios. Because of its location in the northeast between the coast and the Euphrates River, and between Turkey to the north and Arab countries to the south, the city has always been a natural center of commerce and traffic.

Legend says that the Prophet Abraham milked his cow on the citadel hill. This spawned the city’s Arabic name, Haleb (“halab” in Arabic means “milk”). A mosque located inside the citadel’s walls enshrines the rock where he rested on his way out of the city, and other monuments in and near Aleppo commemorate his visit.

If you look past the city’s modern suburbs and unending honking, you can still see the ancient city of Aleppo and imagine how it must have looked in the past. A walk through the old suqs (covered markets) and courtyard khans will especially take you back to the past. Compared to other cities in the Middle East, the city’s traditional living quarters are little scarred by recent development, and much of its past – especially since the Muslim conquest in 636 – is inscribed in its architecture. An impressive number of monuments remain, considering how many invasions the city endured.

The City’s Monuments tell a Story…
Although approximately 750 settlements from Byzantine times – Syria’s dead cities – are scattered around the hills near Aleppo, only one notable Byzantine monument remains within the city itself. It is the Halawiya Madrasa, which had started out as a temple, been built into a Byzantine cathedral by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, converted into a mosque during Crusader times, and finally turned into a madrasa (Muslim religious school) in the mid-12th century. Many of Aleppo’s monuments have similarly complicated histories.

Crowning an artificial hill built of ruins from many cultures, each layered upon the last, the citadel is the symbol of Aleppo and is regarded by some travelers as the most spectacular medieval fortress in the Middle East. The existing citadel was constructed in 1209 on top of fortifications from Byzantine, Roman, and perhaps earlier times. During this time period, Aleppo was known as one of the most dynamic and beautiful cities in the Middle East. The citadel is said to have been stormed successfully only once: by the Mongol Timur Leng (Tamerlane).

Today, you can walk around the citadel, which for a large part, lies in ruins. You enter through the massive walls of the citadel by a steep bridge which leads to a tower with enormous doors. There are two mosques inside the citadel’s gates, including the one that is located on the spot where Abraham is said to have milked a cow. The citadel’s main attraction today is the view that it offers of Aleppo and the surrounding plateau.

Among the finest buildings built in the 13th century, during the same epoch as the citadel, are the madrasas. Restored madrasas stand south of the old city walls.

The city fell to the Mamluks (who reigned from Cairo) towards the end of the 13th century and remained in their power until 1516, when the Turkish Ottomans took over. Aleppo became the third largest city of the Ottoman Empire, after only Istanbul and Cairo. The Ottomans left behind an architectural legacy which included mosques and pointed minarets. In the early Ottoman years, a Christian suburb flourished north of the old city wall. It is today one of the liveliest and most intact of the old neighborhoods. Stone walls conceal Aleppo’s finest 17th- and 18th-century homes in this quarter.

Although parts of Aleppo’s suqs date to the 13th century, it was during the Ottoman years that they were expanded. They are widely regarded as the most beautiful in the Middle East. Walking down the narrow cobblestoned streets past donkeys laden with goods, black-veiled women, and men selling their wares in the cool passageways, one can easily imagine that nothing much has changed over the centuries. The arched, vaulted ceilings still cover dark, labyrinthine passages pierced by sunlight only from small skylights.

Covering almost 15 km. of winding streets, Aleppo’s suqs are the oldest and largest in the world. Artisans still engage in the traditional crafts of copper making, carpet weaving, glass blowing, straw-weaving, and jewellery making. A look through the suqs reveals the additional items of clothing, handprinted cloth, local silk, shoes, woodcarvings, furniture, foodstuffs, and olive oil soap (a specialty of Aleppo). Meandering through the streets of the suqs is a highlight of any visit to Aleppo.

Among the souqs are many khans, which date from medieval times and provided for the merchant. Khans have been described as a “motel, warehouse, and shopping center rolled into one.” It is the equivalent of the caravanserai in Turkey, and almost every other building in the old suqs of Aleppo is a khan. Built around a courtyard, merchandise and animals were housed on the groundfloor, while the merchants slept in cells on the second-floor. They still provide warehousing and sales space for today’s merchants. Aleppo’s largest khan, the Great Khan, was built in 1574 and housed western European trading firms.

More than anything else in the city, these khans embody the city’s mercantile character. The prosperity of a given Middle Eastern city during a certain era is proportional to the number of new khans constructed, and many were built in Aleppo during the Ottoman period, when it was a very prosperous trading city.

The madrasas, suqs, khans, and houses of the old city fit into Aleppo’s urban design that evolved over centuries in response to climate and society. Its narrow, crooked streets, for example, kept out the hot sun and dust, while its high walls safeguarded privacy.

Protecting the Ancient City…
Aleppo’s traditional urban character was first compromised on a large scale in the 1950’s when the city commissioned Andre Gutton, a French architect, to modernize the city. His plan called for wide thoroughfares to cut through the ancient pedestrian network. Although not fully implemented, straight streets sliced through parts of the old city and cut off part of Khan al-Wazir, a khan built during the apogee of khan construction in Aleppo.

The new roads meant that traffic poured into neighborhoods that were not designed for it. Neighborhoods were splintered off, and the old Jewish quarter was severed in two. In 1979, most of the old city’s northwest quarter was razed. High-rises that cut off light and air from courtyard homes and robbed them of their privacy were built.

Other roads and construction were planned, until excavations in 1983 for a high-rise development uncovered part of the city’s old Ayyubid walls and tower. Local and foreign conservationists petitioned for a scaled-down complex that would encompass the ruins and mesh visually with the surrounding neighborhoods. It was decided that the old traffic pathways would be conserved and architectural inspiration would be drawn from earlier eras.

Hopefully a project such as this one will help to increase respect for the old city, and to show that it is important to conserve the city’s architectural legacy, which has been eroded more recently by a narrow concept of progress.