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December 13, 2016updated 15 Jul 2021 4:52pm

“Strange how the name of a city can come to mean an event, rather than a place”: Aleppo before ‘Aleppo’

By Jonn Elledge

I know nothing of Aleppo, beyond the fact it’s a Syrian city currently playing host to a terror it’s too painful even to imagine. I know, in the abstract, that there’s a real place behind those stories – but I don’t instinctively grasp how it was, or what it was like, before the war came.

When terrorism comes to Brussels or Paris or New York, I have a mental image of what that looks like; an idea, however flawed, of what is at stake. In Aleppo, as in too much of the world, I don’t have that. I know nothing of its history or its people, what work they do or how they get to the office in the morning.

And today, I can’t help but feel I should know those things. So here are some of them.

Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world. Some of the archaeological records suggest it’s been inhabited for 7,000 years or more, and by the late 3rd millennium BCE it was already popping up in Mesopotamian records as a city noted for its commercial and military importance. (The late 3rd millennium, to put that date in perspective, is around 1,000 years before the traditional date for the Trojan War.)

The ancient city, in 2011. Image: Preacher Lad/WIkimedia Commons.

The city’s endurance seems to relate to its importance as a trading post. It lies at the western end of the Silk Road, along which goods travelled between Asia and the Mediterranean. For much of history – really, until the arrival of the Suez Canal, in 1869 – all trade between China or Persia and the Levant or Europe would have passed through Aleppo.

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At various points in its history, Aleppo was part of the empires of Assyria and Babylonia, the Hittites and Persians and Alexander the Great. It became part of the new Roman province of Syria in 64BCE, thanks to Pompey, and was part of the Byzantine Empire until the Muslim conquest of 637. European crusaders twice besieged the city, but failed to take it. In the last thousand years, it was held by the Mongols, then the Ottomans, then finally the French, before Syria became an independent state in 1945.

The Grand Mosque in 2010. Image: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1986, the city was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. An extract from its inscription noted:

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.

In 2013, UNESCO added the city to a second list: that of world heritage sites in danger.

Aleppo grew rapidly and industrialised in the 20th century. By the beginning of the 21st, it had grown to become the largest city in Syria, with a population of 2.1m, about the size of Manchester. In the entire Levant, only Amman was bigger.


The Shahba Mall in 2012. Image: Francis-Mag/Wikimedia Commons.

The city’s population was largely Sunni Muslim – largely Arab, though Turkish and Kurdish, too – though it was also home to one of the Middle East’s largest Christian communities. In 2006 Aleppo was named the Islamic Capital of Culture, in recognition of both its historic importance and its careful preservation of its various landmarks.

Aleppo was the centre of the Syrian manufacturing industry, which accounted for 50 per cent of the city’s jobs. Many of the city’s businesses were based in the nearby industrial city of Sheikh Najjar, 10km to the north, essentially a planned business park for the city. In 2010 alone, the district received inward investment worth more than $3.4bn; it was still growing, with hotels and exhibition centres planned, when the war came in 2012.

The city has two football teams. Al-Ittihad plays in the Syrian Premier league, and at the eponymous 16,000 capacity stadium. Hurriya plays at the slightly smaller Al-Hamadaniah Stadium. It has a smaller fanbase, and was relegated in 2008.

There’s no metro or light rail in Aleppo. By way of public transport, the city relied on taxies and a fleet of white minibuses. It was a major stop on the Berlin to Baghdad Railway, however. Here’s a picture of its historic station, known as the Gare de Baghdad:

The Gare de Baghdad. Image: Reinhard Dietrich/Wikimedia Commons.

Since 2012, the city has been divided between rebel and government control. This week, that division seems finally to have come to an end. Reports today suggest that government militias are massacring civilians in the previously rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo.

It’s strange how the name of a city can come to mean an event, rather than a place. Sarajevo means an endless siege. Srebrenica means a massacre. Mosul means the war against Isis. And now, Aleppo means the Syrian Civil War.

But as the horrors unfold, and the recriminations follow, and we berate ourselves with the belief we could have prevented this, or comfort ourselves with the belief we could not, we should keep sight of the fact that Aleppo wasn’t always a war zone. It’s a city the size of Manchester with 7,000 years of history behind it.

You can give to the Red Cross’s Syria Appeal here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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