Brief History of Aleppo: A Great World City Now in the Grip of War

As Syrian government forces and rebels clash in Aleppo, TIME takes a look at the history of this ancient, cosmopolitan city now locked in a state of war

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RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP / Getty Images

A picture taken March 17, 2006 shows a general view of the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, 350 kms north of Damascus, with its landmark cytadel in the background

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is in the grip of the country’s civil war. Government attack helicopters and fighter jets circle the city’s skies as rebel factions entrench themselves in Aleppo’s old town and sections of the city’s suburbs. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has dispatched armored columns to flush out insurgents, not unlike its recent crackdown on rebel fighters in pockets of the capital Damascus. One rebel commander in Aleppo told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that the fight for Syria’s commercial capital, a city of 2.5 million people, would last months. Rebels are stockpiling medical supplies and munitions, while the U.S. State Department warned of a potential massacre. A pro-government newspaper promised the “mother of all battles.”

(MORE: As Aleppo braces for a bloodbath, Syrian regime digs in.)

Until recently, Aleppo was not one of the major theaters of the Syrian conflict. But it is no stranger to war. With a history as ancient as Damascus — considered to be one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world — Aleppo has been won and lost by a succession of empires, sacked by myriad invaders and reduced to rubble by epic earthquakes. That it still stands, and is, indeed, with its thousands of old limestone houses and winding old streets, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is testament to the richness of its past and the resilience of its people.

From its early origins, Aleppo was a place where people grew wealthy. Cuneiform tablets from roughly four thousand years ago tell of a settlement called ‘Halabu’ — eventually Aleppo — that was even then a center for the manufacture of garments and cloth. Located not far from the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the river valley of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates on the other, the city found itself in the middle of ancient Egyptian and Hittite trade routes. The Seleucids, a Greek dynasty descended from one of the lieutenants of Alexander the Great, developed the area further, while certain colonnaded avenues and courtyard homes in Aleppo today bear the tell-tale signs of Roman craftsmanship and Hellenistic urban planning.

Following the advent of Islam and into the medieval era, Aleppo became a hub of the Silk Road, a giant entrepot pooling in all the riches of China and India for buyers further west, north and south. Aleppo’s many caravanserais and bath houses bubbled with the chatter of different tongues; by the 16th century, numerous European merchant houses had set up shop to try to get a piece of the action. When one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth speaks of a sailor’s wife — “Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger” — the English audience at the time would have been aware of that faraway city’s allure and majesty.

Aleppo’s many-layered past and cosmopolitan identity is chiseled into its very architecture. The city’s Great Mosque and Citadel — a towering edifice on a hilltop at the heart of Aleppo — were statements of medieval Turco-Arab might erected atop earlier Roman and Byzantine structures. Well into the 20th century, the city remained home to a diverse mix of faiths and denominations. It always had a prominent, flourishing Jewish community — which, for some six centuries, zealously guarded one of the most famous and venerated copies of the Hebrew Bible, now known as the Aleppo Codex. In the city’s outskirts, sits the Church of St. Simeon, a 5th century Byzantine ruin built around the supposed site where Simeon, an ascetic Christian saint, perched himself atop a pillar for 37 years, choosing, as the 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon put it, “the celestial life.”

(PHOTOS: Scenes from Syria’s bloody, chaotic civil war.)

But while Aleppo’s history was so indelibly shaped by this intermingling of cultures, it was a hardly a bastion of peace. The city was on the frontlines of the Crusades, ever threatened by Frankish crusader mini-states further to the west. In 1119, an army comprising Aleppans, Kurds and Arab tribesmen annihilated a whole Crusader force in a battle remembered by Latin chroniclers as Ager Sanguinis — “field of blood.” The Aleppans’ Turkic commander, though, didn’t consolidate his gains and died later in alcohol-induced indolence. For centuries thereafter, Aleppo was a prize competed over by various warring Turkic and Arab dynasties. In 1400, the Mongol warlord Timur overran the city. One chronicler described the raid “like a razor over hair” and “locusts over a green crop.” Timur, according to accounts, piled high a mountain of thousands of skulls outside the city gates.

Aleppo endured, and would go on to be ruled for nearly four centuries under the suzerainty of the Ottoman empire and later, in the early 20th century, by French imperial mandate. It remained a busy mercantile center. In his famed guidebook to the Middle East, 19th century European traveler Karl Baedeker frowned on the city’s petit bourgeois character: “The Aleppines do not enjoy a very high reputation and the expression ‘the Aleppine is a coxcomb’ is proverbial.”

French colonial administrators attempted to solidify their control and counter nascent Syrian nationalism by playing the territory’s major centers — Aleppo, Damascus and what was then known as the Alawite state — against each other. That legacy of gerrymandering and divisive rule, while a failure, has had a lasting effect: it can be seen in the contemporary politics of Syria and much of the region — the vicious sectarianism, the delicately forged (and oft-cynical) alliances linking interest groups and whole communities to the regime in power. The Assads, who are Alawite, long trusted in the support of Aleppo’s Sunni business elites. With that consensus unraveling, though, what happens in this historic city, a veritable global crossroads, may be a bellweather for the future of Syria and the Middle East as a whole.

(MORE: Five nightmare scenarios after the fall of Assad.)

42 comments
Deep_State
Deep_State

Anyone else see what this is all about? They are planning on establishing a new Silk Road.. 

NotAnotherHaji
NotAnotherHaji

The Americans have no reason to take offence, they voted in this MAHDI,

and lo

k at them now

Nomadess
Nomadess

I've been to Aleppo many times, and have also written about it for this magazine. The city has an ethnically mixed population including Christian, 

Kurdish, Armenian and Circassian, and all Aleppans, along with their fellow Syrians, are among the friendliest, kindest and most hospitable people I've met in my travels around the globe. And unlike many of us in the West (judging by a few of the comments here), they do not judge people by the actions of their governments. 

julis123
julis123

Why don't you mention what happened to the Jews of Aleppo?  In 1947 a howling Muslim mob burned down the houses of Jews. After that over the course of the next years they fled with literally only the clothes they were wearing. Today there are no Jews left there.

Tony Grethel
Tony Grethel

Such a shame that this is happening to such a beautiful old city. It's easy to fight but when it's all said and done people will look around and wonder why. Is it worth the destruction of your own country and the beauty that you possess?

Ben
Ben

  I am not American but I am an Asian Christian. IF you read

multiple blogs created by the Syrian Christians, their consensus is that

the rebels are Muslim Fanatics/AlQieda whose rule will put Christians

and minorities in slavery by their wish to impose Shariah Law when they

govern. The US media especially CNN is doing a propoganda against Assad

in the interest of Israel. If Syria is weak, then it will be easy for

Israel to launch a war against Iran. I dont support Iran and I would be

happy if Israel destroys the Mullahs in Iran but at the same time I dont

support Muslims Fanatics/AlQeida who are mostly sponsored by the

radical Wahabis in Arab Saudi. The Christians in Syria are praying and

God will answer their prayer. Russia with its Orthodox Christian

population will support the Goverment of Assad. I think the USA is the

Great Babylon ( The Whore/the Great Satan ) mentioned in end times

prophesy in the Christian Bible.  The US goverment sleeps with Muslim

Terrorist and thats why its the Great Whore. Dont beleive propoganda by

CNN and

Western Media who try to potray the rebels as demoracratic individuals

fighting for freedom  as freedom is in the Western world. The moment the

rebels win, they will make Syria an Islamic State with Syariah Laws and

they will provide a base for AlQieda to attack Israel and the West.

AlQeida and Muslim Fanatics hate Christians/Jews and all infidels. Thats

a fact.

Ben
Ben

 I am not American but I am an Asian Christian. IF you read

multiple blogs created by the Syrian Christians, their consensus is that

the rebels are Muslim Fanatics/AlQieda whose rule will put Christians

and minorities in slavery by their wish to impose Shariah Law when they

govern. The US media especially CNN is doing a propoganda against Assad

in the interest of Israel. If Syria is weak, then it will be easy for

Israel to launch a war against Iran. I dont support Iran and I would be

happy if Israel destroys the Mullahs in Iran but at the same time I dont

support Muslims Fanatics/AlQeida who are mostly sponsored by the

radical Wahabis in Arab Saudi. The Christians in Syria are praying and

God will answer their prayer. Russia with its Orthodox Christian

population will support the Goverment of Assad. I think the USA is the

Great Babylon ( The Whore/the Great Satan ) mentioned in end times

prophesy in the Christian Bible.  The US goverment sleeps with Muslim Terrorist and thats why its the Great Whore. Dont beleive propoganda by CNN and

Western Media who try to potray the rebels as demoracratic individuals

fighting for freedom  as freedom is in the Western world. The moment the

rebels win, they will make Syria an Islamic State with Syariah Laws and

they will provide a base for AlQieda to attack Israel and the West.

AlQeida and Muslim Fanatics hate Christians/Jews and all infidels. Thats

a fact.

N1CFH
N1CFH

The problem in the Arabic World have the habit of blaming the West for their failures. Assad had years to implement change but he failed to do so. His father was a criminal dictator who ruled with iron grip. Unless the Arabs have insight into their short falls, they will never move forward with democratisation and true reforms. All through history The Arabs blamed foreign powers, the Romans, the Persians, the Ottomans, the English, the French and now the Americans. The one thing they forget is that they need to blame themselves in the first place; then they will be able to plan for a true Spring!

Harold Luna
Harold Luna

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Jackson
Jackson

my buddy's

mom brought in $16798 the prior week. she is making an income on the

computer and got a $316300 condo. All she did was get lucky and make use

of the instructions uncovered on this website

http://www.LazyCash49.com

John Jacobi
John Jacobi

The West will not allow peace in Syria. The civil war must go on. What the Syrian people is of no relevance to anyone. As a matter of fact, the West would much rather see more bloodshed in order to escalate the violence and keep pointing the finger at Assad rather at itself. 

It would be naive to say "let them sort it out" as that is not a realistic statement in today's world. Each has an agenda, what ever it might be it does not include the safety of the innocent Syrians.

Watch how CNN never covers the protests in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.

Disinformation 101

sbkksb
sbkksb

Good that Assad is showing to the world that he has the balls to fight these terrorists on the streets... It appears the rebels are coward people

Chris Hage
Chris Hage

the west encouraged and financed what's happened in syria, and now has the audacity to shed a light on it to raise sympathy! the blood of the syrian people that have died so far and the many that will eventually no matter the political outcome is on our hands! 

Freedtoo
Freedtoo

How do you know " the west encouraged and financed what's happened in Syria"?

torycane
torycane

 Syrians cheered on 9-11, Leave them to their fate.@protank:disqus  My brother Brian showed me how to make some extra $ for me and for my family... All i did was, follow the steps explained on this webpage   http://samstipsandtricks.blogs...

torycane
torycane

 Syrians cheered on 9-11, Leave them to their fate.@protank:disqus  My brother Brian showed me how to make some extra $ for me and for my family... All i did was, follow the steps explained on this webpage   http://samstipsandtricks.blogs...

DuffBrainard
DuffBrainard

Good article. I hope al-Assad has an out and this world heritage site and her people are spared.

EdwardLee9
EdwardLee9

It is also in the general area of where Jesus delivered his longest sermon - the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. In Matthew 4 Jesus went throughout Syria healing every type of disease. He then went up on a mountain amp; taught how to live in this world...Irony abounds...

AceGirlsHusband
AceGirlsHusband

I'll say!  The current Syrians don't seem to remember a single word of that preacher.

redsoxpagan
redsoxpagan

 Obviously you know nothing about Syria. Syria has a Christian population. And besides,  so what? He's not the only one, nor the definitive one

protank
protank

Syrians cheered on 9-11, Leave them to their fate.

marleyred
marleyred

what a poor comment - the fact that you are pleased to watched people killed for no reason makes you even more stupid

Hasan Fattah
Hasan Fattah

you are just one of the racist  idiot human like machine that wants to listen what others want you to believe

dsh_nva
dsh_nva

>> Damascus — considered to be one of the longest, continuously inhabited cities in the world

So, how long is it? A mile long? Great example of horrible punctuation. Dunce caps all around.

oldesalt
oldesalt

How does it feel to be perfect?

Gabe Bellinger
Gabe Bellinger

you knew what he was writing about, just as I did. Did being a grammar nazi help your penis grow an inch or two? did it accomplish anything at all? Way to add substance to an important discussion

Bones2pick
Bones2pick

And it will remain in conflict until the end-

Fernando Comments
Fernando Comments

I  suppose Assad will destroy Aleppo while the Olympic games are being carry out hoping nobody will noticed the massacre he wants to inflict on his own people.... is it really a massacre if nobody  is paying attention?

carlloeber
carlloeber

I was in Aleppo more than thirty years ago .. I never met a kinder people .. like the man with his family who took me by the arm as we walked up the long ramp to the citadel ..  without words he let me know that he would be paying the entrance fee for me ..

For 435 days I have been trying to lobby the White House and State Dept to man-up to the their mandate of leadship in the free world ..  the cowardice and equivocation is staggering .. despicable .. John McCain and his friends no exactly what to do .. "no boots on the ground" but weapons and air support .. 

AceGirlsHusband
AceGirlsHusband

Carl, we're just a little bit tired, at this point, of defending the "free world."  I think the rest of NATO and/or the UN needs to "man up" and give us a break.

BT
BT

If you think America has some godly responsibility to defend the "free world" then it is doing a pretty bad job. The mediator has as much an agenda as the opponents of war. 

Robert Coates
Robert Coates

We would only make it worse.  Let the Syrians take care of Syria, and let Americans take care of America.  The world will be better off.

Robert
Robert

 We should not now or ever get involved in Syria!  We lost our leadership status when Obama took office.

Keith
Keith

The USA lost all credibility of leadership when George Bush was in office - especially when you voted him in for a second term.. The people of the world want nothing more than for America to keep away from invading their countries.

Syria's war is Syria's war. There will be better days ahead. It's not a quick fix. The dust will settle and the sun will shine as it has for thousands of years on places like Aleppo.

David C. Phillips
David C. Phillips

I am having problemms following your logic.  We are not involved in Syria and Romney wnats us to intervene in the middle east.  So... It would seem to me that Obama is doing what you want and Romney wouldn't.

John Jacobi
John Jacobi

"We are not involved in Syria"

>supplying weapons

>supplying satellite imagery

>smuggling mercenaries 

>air false "news" as to instigate

>praise the "rebels" when they kill, condemn Assad when he does

>report lies after lies

and the list goes on

yea, we are pretty much involved, up to our necks. Stop being so naive, its pathetic