Aleppo is one of the world's oldest cities. We can find traces of it as far back as 5000 BC. Legend has it that Abraham himself stayed there. It’s believed that the name Aleppo comes from the Aramaic word "Halaba" which means "white," and its nickname to this day in Arabic is "The White" — a reference to the abundance of marble in the region. But now, it is blackened by bombs. Aleppo is in ruins, bearing little resemblance to its former glorious self as a cradle of civilization and, for long, Syria's largest and richest city. As recently as 2009, 1.6 million people lived there.
If you believe historians, Aleppo is the world's oldest inhabited city. The Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottomans left their marks on the city's architecture. After it was conquered by the Arabs in 637, Aleppo was subjected to the rule of Damascus under the Umayyad caliphs. Except for a brief golden age in the 10th century, when it became the joint capital of the Shia dynasty of the Hamdanid emirs along with Mosul, Aleppo remained subservient to Damascus.
Aleppo's strategic position has afforded it both advantages and disadvantages. In times of peace, the city thrives. In times of trouble, it can be torn apart. It was under siege during the Crusades and the Mongol invasions of 1260 but blossomed from 1516 under the reign of Saladin and Ottoman rule to become one of the empire’s jewels.
An economic center
For many years, Aleppo was a city of riches. Located at the crossroads of trade routes, between desert and sea, the mountains of Anatolia and shores of the Euphrates river, it was an important stop on the Silk Road. Traders would exchange raw materials produced in the Syrian hinterland and imported products. Textiles were important commodities.
The world's oldest soap was made in Aleppo for 3,500 years. This ancient tradition has nearly ended with the current civil war.
The city has an important heritage, most of it from Ottoman times. Aleppo's Old City, with its Great Mosque, its caravanserai, its citadel and its souks, are noted on the UNESCO World Heritage List. From the Ottoman era until the 18th century, Aleppo was one of the region's thriving cities. The collapse of the Ottoman empire and the rise of Syrian nationalism halted the city's development. Little by little, Aleppo declined.
Aleppo from above, in 2010 — Photo: Dani Salv/VW Pics
The city's most recent Renaissance came during the 1990s under Bashar al-Assad. As French professor Fabrice Balanche showed in his study of Aleppo, a bonafide economic revival took place in the first years of the 2000s. The signing of a regional economic agreement with Turkey in 2007 further boosted the city. As Syria's relatively thriving economic capital, Aleppo was not one of the neglected territories where the revolt started in 2011.
British historian Philip Mansel, in his book, Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria's Great Merchant City, notes how the city had long been distinguished by its peaceful character. "For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously," Mansel writes, reminding us that under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), there was a debate in the city on whether to expel Jews. The Council unanimously agreed to protect the city's diversity.
After Syria's independence in 1946, nearly 2,000 Jews were living in Aleppo. There was a pogrom in 1947 during which 75 Jews were killed. The rest were encouraged to leave. Today, there are no Jews left in Aleppo.
According to historian Bernard Heyberger, there was a majority of Christians in the city until the 11th or 12th century. "Many Christians lived in the same parts of the city as Muslims, on the same streets. There was neighborhood solidarity with disputes among neighbors from time to time. The two communities maintained business relations. On the whole, this worked well," Heyberger says. Christians made up a quarter of the population between the 18th and the early 20th century. Today, their estimated numbers range from 16,000 and 20,000.
There's a historic rivalry between Damascus and Aleppo. "Based essentially on geography, the competition between Syria's two main cities pits a coastal city open to foreign trade against an inland city whose name evokes a glorious past but enjoys little dynamism," historian Julie d'Andurain says. Under the French Mandate, authorities had considered the idea of rotating the designation of capital between Damascus and Aleppo. Homs, Syria's third main city that is located halfway between the rivals, was supposed to provide balance. But the Baathist regime of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, never really appreciated the city and accelerated a process of centralizing power.
Before the war in Aleppo, 65% of the city's inhabitants were Sunni Muslims while the Alawites (the Assad clan is Alawite) were only a small minority. Aleppo is divided between its richer western side, where the middle-class and Christians live, and a poorer, newer eastern side that’s filled with people who left the countryside.
As this French video shows, Aleppo was a thriving and multicultural city in the 1980s under Hafez al-Assad's dictatorship. But with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, 83 Alawite cadets from Aleppo's military school were slaughtered in 1979.
A part of the city where the Muslim Brotherhood took cover was then besieged by the regime's special forces between April 1980 and February 1981. Thousands of Islamist opponents were arrested or killed. For 10 years, Aleppo's bourgeoisie was punished by the regime for having supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
This past trauma explains why Aleppo was relatively conflict-free at the beginning of the Arab uprising in 2011. It was only in May 2012 that students began singing the revolutionary song "the people want the regime to collapse" and rebels started to form the Free Syrian Army. In July 2012, these rebels took control of a part of the city. That's when the long battle of Aleppo began. The rest is history — and blood.