Syria Crisis

Aleppo, A Historic City Of Peace And Commerce Turns To Dust

Before it became the Syrian rebellion stronghold, Aleppo was the heart of ancient civilizations.

Man walking in Aleppo on Dec. 17
Man walking in Aleppo on Dec. 17
Eugenie Bastie


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.

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.

Peaceful coexistence

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.

Rebellion stronghold

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.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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