Aleppo (Arabic: ﺣﻠﺐ) is the largest city in Syria and serves as the capital of Aleppo Governorate, the most populous Syrian governorate. It is located in northwestern Syria 310 kilometres (193 miles) from Damascus. With an official population of 2,132,100 (2004 census), it is also one of the largest cities in the Levant. For centuries, Aleppo was the region of Syria's largest city and the Ottoman Empire's third, after İstanbul and Cairo.
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it has been inhabited since perhaps as early as the 6th millennium BC. Excavations at Tell as-Sawda and Tell al-Ansari, just south of the old city of Aleppo, show that the area was occupied since at least the latter part of the 3rd millennium BC; and this is also when Aleppo is first mentioned in cuneiform tablets unearthed in Ebla and Mesopotamia, in which it is noted for its commercial and military proficiency. Such a long history is probably due to its being a strategic trading point midway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia (i.e. modern Iraq).
The city's significance in history has been its location at the end of the Silk Road, which passed through central Asia and Mesopotamia. When the Suez Canal was inaugurated in 1869, trade was diverted to sea and Aleppo began its slow decline. At the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Aleppo ceded its northern hinterland to modern Turkey, as well as the important railway connecting it to Mosul. Then in the 1940s it lost its main access to the sea, Antioch and Alexandretta, also to Turkey. Finally, the isolation of Syria in the past few decades further exacerbated the situation, although perhaps it is this very decline that has helped to preserve the old city of Aleppo, its medieval architecture and traditional heritage. Until recently, Aleppo had been experiencing a noticeable revival and was slowly returning to the spotlight. It recently won the title of the "Islamic Capital of Culture 2006", and has also witnessed a wave of successful restorations of its historic landmarks.
Aleppo is the common modern-day English name for the city. It was known in antiquity as Khalpe, Khalibonand to the Greeks and Romans as Beroea (Βέροια). During the Crusades, and again during the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, the name Alep was used: "Aleppo" is an Italianised version of this.
The ancient name of the city, Halab, is also its Arabic name in the modern day. It is of obscure origin. Some have proposed that Halab means 'iron' or 'copper' in Amorite languages since it was a major source of these metals in antiquity. Halaba in Aramaic means white, referring to the colour of soil and marble abundant in the area. Another proposed etymology is that the name Halab means "gave out milk," coming from the ancient tradition that Abraham gave milk to travelers as they moved throughout the region. The colour of his cows was ashen (Arab. shaheb); therefore the city is also called Halab ash-Shahba ("he milked the ash-coloured").
From the 11th century it was common Rabbinic usage to apply the term "Aram-Zobah" to the area of Aleppo, and this is perpetuated by Syrian Jews to this day. The Bible contains at least 13 references to Zobah.
Northern Syria was the center of gravity of the Hellenistic colonizing activity, and therefore of Hellenistic culture in the Seleucid Empire. As did other Hellenized cities of the Seleucid kingdom, Beroea probably enjoyed a measure of local autonomy, with a local civic assembly or boulē composed of free Hellenes.
Beroea remained under Seleucid rule until 88 BC when Syria was occupied by Tigranes the Great and Beroea became part of the Kingdom of Armenia. After the Roman victory over Tigranes, Syria was handed over to Pompey in 64 BC, at which time they became a Roman province. Rome's presence afforded relative stability in northern Syria for over three centuries. Although the province was administered by a legate from Rome, Rome did not impose its administrative organization on the Greek-speaking ruling class.
The Roman era saw an increase in the population of northern Syria that accelerated under the Byzantines well into the 5th century. In Late Antiquity, Beroea was the second largest Syrian city after Antioch, the capital of Syria and the third largest city in the Roman world. Archaeological evidence indicates a high population density for settlements between Antioch and Beroea right up to the 6th century. This agrarian landscape holds now the remains of large estate houses and churches such as the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites. Saint Maron of the Maronite Church was probably born in this region; his tomb is located at Brad to the west of Aleppo.
The Sassanid Persians invaded and controlled Syria briefly in the early 7th century. Soon after Aleppo fell to Arabs under Abu Ubaidah ibn al Jarrah in 637. In 944, it became the seat of an independent Emirate under the Hamdanid prince Sayf al-Daula, and enjoyed a period of great prosperity, being home to the great poet al-Mutanabbi and the philosopher and polymath al-Farabi. The city was sacked by a resurgent Byzantine Empire in 962, while Byzantine forces occupied it briefly from 974 to 987. The city and its Emirate became an Imperial vassal from 969 until the Byzantine–Seljuk Wars. The city was twice besieged by the Crusaders, in 1098 and in 1124, but was not conquered.
On 9 August 1138, a deadly earthquake ravaged the city and the surrounding area. Although estimates from this time are very unreliable, it is believed that 230,000 people died, making it the seventh deadliest earthquake in recorded history.
On 24 January 1260the city was taken by the Mongols under Hulagu in alliance with their vassals the Frank knights of the ruler of Antioch Bohemond VI and his father-in-law the Armenian ruler Hetoum I. The city was poorly defended by Turanshah, and as a result the walls fell after six days of bombardment, and the citadel fell four weeks later. The Muslim population was massacred and many Jews were also killed. The Christian population was spared. Turanshah was shown unusual respect by the Mongols, and was allowed to live because of his age and bravery. The city was then given to the former Emir of Homs, al-Ashraf, and a Mongol garrison was established in the city. Some of the spoils were also given to Hethoum I for his assistance in the attack. The Mongol Army then continued on to Damascus, which surrendered, and the Mongols entered the city on 1 March 1260.
In September 1260, the Egyptian Mamluks negotiated for a treaty with the Franks of Acre which allowed them to pass through Crusader territory unmolested, and engaged the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut on 3 September 1260. The Mamluks won a decisive victory, killing the Mongols' Nestorian Christian general Kitbuqa, and five days later they had re-taken Damascus. Aleppo was recovered by the Muslims within a month, and a Mamluk governor placed to govern the city. Hulagu sent troops to try to recover Aleppo in December. They were able to massacre a large number of Muslims in retaliation for the death of Kitbuqa, but after a fortnight could make no other progress and had to retreat.
The Mamluk governor of the city became insubordinate to the central Mamluk authority in Cairo, and in Autumn 1261 the Mamluk leader Baibars sent an army to reclaim the city. In October 1271, the Mongols took the city again, attacking with 10,000 horsemen from Anatolia, and defeating the Turcoman troops who were defending Aleppo. The Mamluk garrisons fled to Hama, until Baibars came north again with his main army, and the Mongols retreated.
On 20 October 1280, the Mongols took the city again, pillaging the markets and burning the mosques. The Muslim inhabitants fled for Damascus, where the Mamluk leader Qalawun assembled his forces. When his army advanced, the Mongols again retreated, back across the Euphrates.
In 1400, the Mongol-Turkic leader Tamerlane captured the city again from the Mamluks. He massacred many of the inhabitants, ordering the building of a tower of 20,000 skulls outside the city. After the withdrawal of the Mongols, all the Muslim population returned to Aleppo. On the other hand, Christians who left the city during the Mongol invasion, were unable to resettle back in their own quarter in the old town, a fact that led them to establish a new neighbourhood in 1420, built at the northern suburbs of Aleppo outside the city walls, to become known as al-Jdeydeh quarter (for "new district" in Arabic).
Aleppo became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516, when the city had around 50,000 inhabitants. It was the centre of the Aleppo Eyalet; the rest of what later became Syria was part of either the eyalets of Damascus, Tripoli, Sidon or Raqqa. Following the Ottoman provincial reform of 1864 Aleppo became the centre of the newly constituted Vilayet of Aleppo in 1866.
Thanks to its strategic geographic location on the trade route between Anatolia and the east, Aleppo rose to high prominence in the Ottoman era, at one point being second only to Constantinople in the empire. By the middle of the 16th century, Aleppo had displaced Damascus as the principal market for goods coming to the Mediterranean region from the east. This is reflected by the fact that the Levant Company of London, a joint-trading company founded in 1581 to monopolize England's trade with the Ottoman Empire, never attempted to settle a factor, or agent, in Damascus, despite having had permission to do so. Aleppo served as the company's headquarters until the late 18th century.
As a result of the economic development, many European states had opened consulates in Aleppo during the 16th and the 17th centuries, such as the consulate of the Republic of Venice in 1548, the consulate of France in 1562, the consulate of England in 1583 and the consulate of the Netherlands in 1613.
However, the prosperity Aleppo experienced in the 16th and 17th century started to fade as silk production in Iran went into decline with the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722. By mid-century, caravans were no longer bringing silk from Iran to Aleppo, and local Syrian production was insufficient for Europe's demand. European merchants left Aleppo and the city went into an economic decline that was not reversed until the mid-19th century when locally produced cotton and tobacco became the principal commodities of interest to the Europeans.
The economy of Aleppo was badly hit by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This, in addition to political instability that followed the implementation of significant reforms in 1841 by the central government, contributed to Aleppo's decline and the rise of Damascus as a serious economic and political competitor with Aleppo.
Reference is made to the city in 1606 in William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth.' The witches torment the captain of the ship the Tiger which was headed to Aleppo from England but endured a 567 day voyage before returning unsuccessfully to port. Reference is also made to the city in Shakespeare's 'Othello' when Othello speaks his final words (ACT V, ii, 349f.): "Set you down this/And say besides that in Aleppo once,/Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk/Beat a Venitia and traduced the state,/I took by th' throat the circumcised dog/And smote him—thus!" (Arden Shakespeare Edition, 2004). The English naval chaplain Henry Teonge describes in his diary a visit he paid to the city in 1675, when there was a colony of Western European merchants living there.
The city remained Ottoman until the empire's collapse, but was occasionally riven with internal feuds as well as attacks of cholera from 1823. Aleppo lost some 20–25 percent of its population to plague in 1827. In 1850 a Muslim mob attacked Christian neighbourhoods, tens of Christians were killed and several churches looted. Janissary rebels installed their own government when the Ottoman governor fled. The Ottomans took over the city weeks later killing some 5,000. By 1901, the city's population was around 110,000.
At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Sèvres made most of the Province of Aleppo part of the newly established nation of Syria, while Cilicia was promised by France to become an Armenian state. However, Kemal Atatürk annexed most of the Province of Aleppo as well as Cilicia to Turkey in his War of Independence. The Arab residents in the province (as well as the Kurds) supported the Turks in this war against the French, a notable example being Ibrahim Hanano who directly coordinated with Atatürk and received weaponry from him. The outcome, however, was disastrous for Aleppo, because as per the Treaty of Lausanne, most of the Province of Aleppo was made part of Turkey with the exception of Aleppo and Alexandretta; thus, Aleppo was cut from its northern satellites and from the Anatolian cities beyond on which Aleppo depended heavily in commerce. Moreover, the Sykes-Picot division of the Near East separated Aleppo from most of Mesopotamia, which also harmed the economy of Aleppo. The situation was exacerbated further in 1939 when Alexandretta was annexed to Turkey, thus depriving Aleppo of its main port of Iskenderun and leaving it in total isolation within Syria.
Aleppo is characterized with mixed architectural styles, having been ruled, among others, by Romans, Byzantines, Seljuqs, Mamluks and Ottomans.
Various types of 13th and 14th centuries constructions, such as caravanserais, caeserias, Quranic schools, hammams and religious buildings are found in the old city. The quarters of Jdeydeh district are home to numerous 16th and 17th-century houses of the Aleppine bourgeoisie, featuring stone engravings. Baroque architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries is common in the Azizyeh quarter, including the Villa Rose. The new Shahba quarter is a mixture of several styles, such as Neo-classic, Norman, Oriental and even Chinese architecture.
Since the old city is characterized with its large mansions, narrow alleys and covered souqs, the modern city's architecture has replenished the town with wide roads and large squares such as the Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square, the Liberty Square, the President's Square and Sabaa Bahrat Square. There is a relatively clear division between old and new Aleppo. The older portions of the city, with an approximate area of 160 hectares (400 acres) were contained within a wall, 5 km (3.1 mi) in circuit with nine gates. The huge medieval castle in the city – known as the Citadel of Aleppo – occupies the center of the ancient part, in the shape of an acropolis.
Being subjected to constant invasions and political instability, the inhabitants of the city were forced to build cell-like quarters and districts that were socially and economically independent. Each district was characterized by the religious and ethnic characteristics of its inhabitants.
The mainly white-stoned old town was built within the historical walls of the city, pierced by the nine historical gates, while the newer quarters of the old city were first built by the Christians during the early 15th century in the northern suburbs of the ancient city, after the Mongol withdrawal from Aleppo. The new quarters were called Jdeydeh. Jdeydeh is one of the finest examples of a cell-like quarter in Aleppo. After Tamerlane invaded Aleppo in 1400 and destroyed it, the Christians migrated out of the city walls and established their own cell in 1420, at the northwestern suburbs of the city, thus founding the quarters of Jdeydeh. The inhabitants of Jdeydeh were mainly brokers who facilitated trade between foreign traders and local merchants. As a result of the economic development, many other quarters were established outside the walls of the ancient city during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Thus, the Old City of Aleppo -composed of the ancient city within the walls and the old cell-like quarters outside the walls- has an approximate area of 350 hectares (1.4 sq mi) housing more than 120,000 residents.
The city's strategic trading position attracted settlers of all races and beliefs who wished to take advantage of the commercial roads that met in Aleppo from as far as China and Mesopotamia to the east, Europe to the west, and the Fertile Crescent and Egypt to the south. The largest covered souq-market in the world is in Aleppo, with an approximate length of 13 kilometres (8.1 miles).
Souq al-Madina, as it is locally known, is an active trade centre for imported luxury goods, such as raw silk from Iran, spices and dyes from India, and coffee from Damascus. Souq al-Madina is also home to local products such as wool, agricultural products and soap. Most of the souqs date back to the 14th century and are named after various professions and crafts, hence the wool souq, the copper souq, and so on. Aside from trading, the souq accommodated the traders and their goods in khans (caravanserais) and scattered in the souq. Other types of small market-places were called caeserias (ﻗﻴﺴﺎﺭﻳﺎﺕ). Caeserias are smaller than khans in their sizes and functioned as workshops for craftsmen. Most of the khans took their names after their location in the souq and function, and are characterized with their beautiful façades and entrances with fortified wooden doors.
The old part of the city is surrounded with 5-kilometre (3.1 mi) long, thick walls, pierced by the nine historical gates (many of them are well-preserved) of the old town. These are, clockwise from the north-east of the citadel:
The most significant historic buildings of the ancient city include:
The most significant historic buildings of Jdeydeh Christian quarter include:
Aleppo was home to 177 hammams during the medieval period, until the Mongol invasion when many vital structures in the city were destroyed. Today, roughly 18 hammams are operating in the old city.