Aleppo speaks
The making of soap
Aleppo´s history
Diary, Oct. 2007

Aleppo history

Aleppo, old cityHalab or Aleppo is a city - and a province - in Northern Syria. Depending on probably unreliable statistics, it is Syria´s second-biggest city, with about 2,140,000 inhabitants. The province of the same nbme has about four million inhabitants.
Aleppo is located on the long track between the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates river. Two "trunk roads" met here, and goods from what is Iraq today, from Damaskus, and India were on offer in this region. During the middle ages and in modern times alike, trade treaties and trade missions were familiar tools to keep the connections going. Venetians, the British, French, and Dutch, they all had their shares in this international trade.
When trade became more and more sea-based, the economic stagnation of Aleppo began. and the Hedjaz railway project *) couldn´t stop the decline either. The Suez Canal was a too convincing alternative, and WW-1 put an end to any idea of such a railway connnection, anyway.
The coup de grace for the Hedjaz Railway came with the uprising of the Arab tribes, to which T. E. Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia" - gave a lot of input.
*) Hedjaz, also known as Hijaz or Hejaz Railway

Nowadays, farming products - wheat, olives, cotton, pistachios and sheepwool - and Aleppo soap - are main exported goods.

Trade has always been peoples´ best opportunity, and war its worst disruptive factor. To protect themselves, the first inhabitants of Aleppo settled on hills, on both banks of the Quwayq river. Traces of these settlers may reach into the times where the first people of human kind became sedentary at all. Archeological findings like old-Syrian seals from 1800 B.C., or a statue probably made right there by an Aleppo artist, hint to a role of Aleppo as a place for significant chisellers. As the empires of the region came and went, so did the names of the place: Jamchad in Aramaic, Halpha in the ancient world, later Bereua, and then Halab (Arabic for Aleppo).

The ancestor Abraham is said to have milked (present perfect: halab) a cow here on his way to the promised land and to have given it to unpropertied. To this, the poors´ question refers back: "Halab Abraham - has Abraham milked a cow?" This question isn´t necessarily begging. Traditionally, taxes were raised for the poor in the Osmanian empire, and it can be considered a right, rather than a mercy. The full Arabic name of the city is therefore Halaba ash-Shahba.

Aleppo, lampThe town went through the times, and the rule of many empires. 1800 B.C., the Aleppo dominion (Jamchad) stretched from the Euphrates (Karkemisch) to Alalach near Antakya already. Although Aleppo never was a serious rival for the Hittite Empire, the city was still located in the intersection of Hittite and Egyptian speres of interest, and got annexed by the Hititian ruler Murshili around 1600 B.C.. After the disintegration of the Hititian Empire, local rulers were in charge. That wasn´t to last long, before Aleppo became the capital of an aramaic kingdom Bit Agusi. That kingdom, too, was absorbed into a larger conglomerate of states. In the 9th century, the Assyrians integrated Aleppo into their territory, thus expanding to the Mediterranean coast. At those times, Aleppo was the centre of the Hadad Cult, Hadad being a rain god. The Assyrian territory was absorbed by the Persians during the 7th century, and given to Seleucus I Nicator (about 358 - 280), and Aleppo was to remain seleucian until 64 B.C..
In religious terms, Zeus (or zoose) was the God, but with a lot of Hadad (the old weather god´s) attributes.
Aleppo was a Roman city from 64, before it became Byzantine, and Arabic in 637 AD. Once again, with the new rulers, religion changed, too. Power switched back to the Byzantines during the 10th century (and the city was looted by the troops of General Nikephorus Phokas). This time, Byzantine rule was to last for only a quarter of a decade. In 987, the Arabs were back, with Mirdasides and Seldjuks quarelling about control of Aleppo. The Crusaders tried to conquer the city twice, in 1098 and 1124, but without success. Rather, Zengis and his son Nur ed-Din turned Aleppo into a centre of resistance. Saladin took control of Aleppo after Nur ed-Din´s death, and it remained under Arab control until the Mongols took over. From 1260 to 1516, Aleppo was part of the Mameluc Empire.

The Osmanian Empire´s rule started in 1517. With about 50,000 inhabitants, Aleppo was the seat of a provincial governor. Plagues kept its growth limited, as did the cholera epidemic of the 1820s. 120,000 people lived in Aleppo at the beginning of the 20th century, and for a moment, it seemed to be able to rise from its lethargy, when Northern Syria came under French administration by the Sykes-Picot treaty. But in 1939, Turkey regained control of the port of Antiochia (or Antakya). Aleppo was severed from the Mediterranean Sea once again.

Today´s Aleppo can be distinguished by its historically grown quarters, and the areas built after WW-2.

Old Aleppo

Aleppo, citadelAleppo´s partly preserved old city - about 350 hectares - lies within a five km long city wall, with seven gates. Since 1952, many parts of the old city had been sacrificed to progress. This started with broad roads being built through the city centre. In the 1970s, this process had reached its peak. Much of the old substance was demolished, and replaced by modern apartment buildings. What had still survived, was left to decay. The turnaround came in 1986.

Since the old city was declared world cultural heritage by the UNESCO in 1986, several Syrian and international organisations such as the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, or German GTZ agency, work for its conservation. These days, about 120,000 people live in this area. This means that population in the old city hasn´t grown for almost 100 years.
Buildings that feature prominently there are the Citadel, the Madrasa Halwiya, and the city gate Antakya.

The Citadel is located on a partly man-made hill, about 50 metres above the city. This site makes it difficult for archeologists to dig, but it would be surprising if settling traces there didn´t reach back to the neolithic ages. The present citadel was built in the late 13th century and replaced the older one, which was destroyed by the Mongols.
Aleppo, citadelIn spite of the damage done by the 1822 earthquake, the Citadel is still a commanding site.

Among Aleppo´s mosques, the Madrasa Halwiya certainly deserves special mention. In Byzantine times, a temple or fane was extended to a basilica and dedicated to Flavia Helena Augusta - Emperor Constantine´s mother. John the Baptisers gravesite is said to have been here, too. At the Omayades era, Nur ad-Din had the construction of the Al-Jami al-Kabir Mosque started, but by far most of the building stems from times after the Mongolian raids. Further sightseeing spots of Aleppo are the National Museum, the various suqs (souqs) and hane, the bathing houses, and the soap manufacturers, of course.

The remains of the Old City

Aleppo, courtyardIf you consider a both residential and industrial quarter as a social and economic fabric with a traditional, cultural "face", you will probably come to the conclusion that a big cosmopolitan city can cope with the requirements of economic and technological change - at least more so than a relatively small city. Much of Aleppo was demolished decades ago and gave way to modern building styles, and road construction. What remained of Aleppo´s old city can´t count as a metropolis. Traditional Aleppo has lost a lot of its substance until 1986. After that, with much help by the UNESCO decision to name it world cultural heritage, the remains of the old city have received a lot of - also international - recognition.

The character of the suqs, the markets and trading quarters can appear as almost rural, to Western visitors. Conserving the building substance and architecture under cultural heritage aspects is something that happens under the tension between conflicting goals. On the one hand, structures and material are to correspond to tradition. On the other hand, the buildings and streets of houses must be economically viable - i.e. provide practical room for promising, sustainable trades. It is often said that the best way of conservation is an optimal compromise between old tradition and economic use. But with this assumption, it is still the question what, after all, is a fruitful compromise - or, in the worst case, a cultural sell out.

From this perspective, traditional trades in Aleppo make the conservationists´ work easier. That can be rope manufacturing, for example - or the soap boiling trade. The less change production processes have seen in the past centuries, the less need for change there is in terms of construction.

Ble / il professore
Similar contents in German

For more pictures, please click here to visit our pages in German.

Aleppo speaks
The making of soap
Aleppo´s history
Diary, Oct. 2007