Situated where the largely featureless plains of northern Syria. Aleppo and Damascus vie for the title of “oldest continuously inhabited city in the world”. Aleppo is a city which, perhaps even more than Damascus, readily leads you back into the past; a sort of time continuum in which flashes of the past, rather than dissipating with time, accumulates in the present.
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Settled since at least eight millennia, its recorded history first comes to light in the archives of Mari and of the Hittites in the early to mid second millennium BC. The Amorite kingdom of Yamkhad, centered on Halab (Aleppo), controlled many of the cities and towns of northern Syria at the beginning of the millennium, but after 1800 BC it was subject to pressures from the east from Mitanni and eventually, the overall supremacy of the Hittites whose homeland lay in central Anatolia.
Aleppo and the Northern Syria were exposed to events to the north (Turkey) and the east (Mesopotamia). By the 15th century BC, however, the two worlds clashed directly with the short-lived Egyptian bid to extend their direct control to the north. After the invasions of the Sea People around 1200, the Hittite power revived fitfully a series of small Neo-Hittite states (Ain Dara – Tel Halaf), one of which was centered on Aleppo.
The Assyrians became the next foreign power to exert their dominance in the area (8th – 4th centuries BC, followed by the Neo-Babylonians then the Persians (539 – 333) whose supremacy lasted until Alexander’s great campaign cleared the way for the Seleucids to establish their claim on the area. Seleucid control brought a new dimension to Aleppo’s role. It grew from a village centered on a mound near a bend in the River Quweiq to a true urban center based on the hill to the east which was a natural site for a citadel.
It was named Beroia by the Macedonians and was laid out according to a Hippodamian grid pattern (Apamea – Cyrrhus).
The Romans took control of Syria in 64 BC bringing to an end a period of internal anarchy which had left northern Syria prey to invasions from several directions including the Armenian kingdom (in present day Eastern Turkey). Roman control lasted almost 600 years (including Byzantine rule from Constantinople) and brought unparalleled prosperity. The area became closely settled and highly developed agriculturally. A network of roads was established, the limestone massif to the west became the center of a major alive oil export industry and Beroia was one of the bases for the defense of the imperial frontier to the east and north east.
Aleppo Museum Syria
Cuneiform tablet from the Third Dynasty of Ur [end of third millennium BC] in the collection of the Aleppo National Museum
Aleppo fell to the Arab armies without resistance in 637. It played a secondary role to Damascus (under the Umayyads) and Baghdad (under the Abbasids). Then it became the center of the Hamdanids (944 – 1003). Then Aleppo was conquered by the Seljuq Turks in 1070.
Following their capture of Antioch in 1098, the Crusaders took much of the environs of Aleppo, strangling the city by cutting off its access to the coast. It was the city’s fiercely orthodox religious leader or qadi (a judge), Ibn Khashab, who rallied the Muslims and invited in Seljuq forces from Mosul (northern Iraq). Their first success was at the battle of Sarmada 1119 (also known as “field of blood” in the Crusaders chronicles in the region). Zengi, a Mosul Turk, possessed a sense of mission and dedication which most of his predecessors in recent decades had lacked. He built up Aleppo as a center of resistance to the Crusaders. This period of Zengid rule (1128 – 70) continued under his son Nūr al Din. In order to restore Sunny orthodoxy, the first madrasas and Sufi monasteries were established as centers of counter-propaganda.
Saladin, initially a Zengid Protégé, after 1160 gradually extended his base from Egypt to realize his ambition of uniting most of the central Muslim lands (Egypt and Iraq) under his rule in 1176. The Ayyūbid period (1176 – 1260) saw the rule in Aleppo of one of its most illustrious governors, al-Zaher Ghazi (a son of Saladin). Chazi’s contribution to the re-fortification of the Citadel is still evident. The work and driving personality of Ghazi made Aleppo one of three premier cities of the Islamic world. Its new international trading role was recognized by a series of treaties with Venice (1207 – 54) which established in Aleppo a factory providing direct access to the Muslim market, leaping the Crusader ports on the coast.
The weakness of Northern Syria, including Aleppo, after the Mongols invasions in 1260 gave the Mamelukes the opportunity to seize control of Syria. Their rule lasted from 1260 to 1516, that’s when the Ottoman forces chased the Mamelukes out of Syria. Consequently, Aleppo became the seat of a Turkish governor (wali). Aleppo became the principle entrepot of the Levant.
The population of Aleppo which had been around 120,000 at the beginning of the 18th century, declined to less than 100,000 at the century’s end – till marginally above Damascus’ 90,000, and probably a doubling of the figure two centuries earlier. This number of population reflected the importance of Aleppo among major cities in the Middle East under Ottoman reign. Ottoman rule lasted until Allied forces occupied Syria at the end of World War I.
Aleppo Citadel SyriaAleppo – Aleppo Citadel:
An enormous expanse of bare stone, rising from its base to a total height of 50 meters, shimmering white in the harsh sun, Aleppo Citadel it is. At mid point on its gleaming flanks, stood out in stylized black the legend of the fortress’ foundation.
The hill which the Citadel stands on is supposed to date back to the 16th century BC, when the Amorites were in control. However, the earliest remains that have been uncovered only go back as far as the 10th century BC when the Neo Hittites raised a temple on this site. Later it was said that Abraham milked his cow there. It became a citadel under the Seleucids, 4th – 1st centuries BC. During the Ayyūbid reign in Syria, Saladin’s son, Ghazi, used it as both residence and fortress and it suffered from the Mongol invasions in 1269 and 1400.
Its strategic importance in the struggle against Byzantium continued into the Crusader period when it became the impregnable base for Muslim power in northern Syria. One can easily notice how it was modified and developed during his reign to function better as a fortress. And the defense strategy was to make the plan of the castle more complicated for the attackers.
The present structure and designs of the Aleppo citadel is Ghazi’s work (12th century AD). The sole entrance to the Citadel is through the outer tower in the south. This defended the stone arched bridge, which covered the 22m moat. The magnificent gateway is almost a castle in itself. The door is placed on a sidewall with a close wall facing it to limit the space needed to ram the door down. As you go in, there is a bent entrance that goes right, left, left, right, right, and then left. This is to slow down attackers. There are three gates with carved figures at each. In the court there is a cistern (Byzantine) and a few brick vaults, probably dungeons. The pitch dark of the inside of the gateway is to strengthen the contrast between light and dark so that it would be impossible for attackers to see.
Great Mosque Syria Several of the structures seen outside at the top of the mound, have been excavated and restored. But there are 2 mosques, one is the Mosque of Abraham (where Abraham was said to have milked his cow). It is attributed to Nūr al Din by an inscription dated 1167. And the other one is the Great Mosque of the Citadel that was rebuilt by Ghazi in 1214. This second mosque is quite beautiful in its appeal, a stone paved court and a fountain with 3 evergreens lie in the center of it. The residence or Ayyūbid palace is also a great feature of the citadel. This palace includes an iwan (a sitting area), and a Hammam (a bathroom). You will also find a modern built Amphitheater used for entertainment and civil occasions.
Great Mosque Syria Aleppo – Great Mosque:
The popular attribution of this building to the Umayyad applies only to its basic plan and not to any of the present fabric. It was founded around 715 AD by the Umayyad Caliph Walid I and was completed in 717 by his brother and successor Caliph Suleiman.
The site of the Great Mosque is the former Agora from the Hellenistic period, which later became the garden for the Cathedral of St. Helena, during the Christian era.
It was built by the Umayyad Caliph al Walid I, who had earlier founded the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Nūr al Din later rebuilt it in 1169 after a great fire; and the Mamelukes made further alterations. This mosque has an enormous 45-meter minaret, which is completely detached from it, built by the Seljuqs in 1070.
Through the main entrance, a large court can be seen with pillared arcades, which are substitutions for the original ones in the Damascus mosque. Another series of arches can be found in the façade of the prayer hall, which were built by the Mamelukes. The façade is well decorated with intricately cut and various colored stones. A composition of white marble and inlaid basalt can be seen on the main door. As for the minbar, which is the pulpit on which the Sheikh stands when preaching, it is very beautifully carved out of wood and probably dates back to the 15th century. Inside the prayer hall, to the left of the mihrab (a niche) is a finely tiled chamber that is said to hold the head of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.
Suqs and Khans SyriaAleppo – Suqs (Bazaars), Khans and Madrasas:
The main area of covered Suqs is behind the Umayyad Mosque.
The Aleppo suq, unlike the Damascus one, is covered by stone archways for about 30km. This makes it the longest covered suq in the Middle East. Once it became the most important trade area in Syria, a complicated maze of narrow cobbled streets forms this magnificent Bazaar.
The Suqs of Aleppo are unsurpassed in the Middle East for sheer interest and atmosphere. Largely unchanged since the 16th century, they preserve superbly the atmosphere of the Arab/Turkish mercantile tradition.
Apart from the Khans, there are many separate Suqs: cloth, yarns, gold, Women’s clothes, and the spice suq (where you can enjoy a wonderful mixture of odors.)
As for the Khans themselves, on the north side of the square that lies in front of the Umayyad Mosque is the Maktab al-Ajami, a Zengid palace (12th century) which formerly housed a small museum of folklore. There are also Khan al-Sabun, a great example of Mameluke architecture in Aleppo.
Aleppo – Syria Khans:
Khan al Gumruk (Khan of customs and excise) was built in 1574. It is definitely the largest of Aleppo’s khans, and it was constituted of banks, and the consulates of French, English and Dutch commerce. This Khan still houses over 250 shops.
Khan al Nahasin (Khan of coppersmiths) is where you will find the oldest continuously inhabited house in Aleppo, the house of the former Belgian consul, Adolph Poche. It has been maintained almost exactly as it was 4 centuries ago. Poche, a descendant of both Venetian and Austrian origin, was born in this house and became the Belgian consul in 1937. The house contains antiques of old Aleppo, and Syrian archaeological treasures. To get admission into this house, you will need permission from the Belgian consulate.
Khan al Sabun (Khan of soap) is sometimes considered one of the greatest examples of Mameluke architecture in Aleppo. Beautiful detailed carvings are abundant, and can be seen on the façade and around the window on top of the main entrance.
Khan al Wazir (Khan of the minister) was built as a caravanserai in the 17th century. It is one of the most famous in Aleppo. It is beautifully decorated; especially the black and white stoned door, and the ornamented outer window frames.
– Madrasas (old schools)
Halawiyeh Madrasa: This Koranic school was founded in 1124. It is found on the site of the Cathedral of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326 AD.
The Great Mosque was built in its gardens, but the actual Cathedral remained a place of Christian worship until 1124. In this year, a besieging crusader army violated Islamic places of worship and in retaliation the Cathedral was changed into a Madrasa for Qor’anic teaching.
The inside comprises a courtyard, surrounded by student cells and a domed prayer hall. This is the only part which remains of the old cathedral. The finely decorated mihrab inside dates to 1245 when Nūr al-Din remodeled the building.
Madrasa Sultaniye Lying across the road from the Aleppo citadel is this 13th century Madrasa, which was built by Sultan al Aziz. The greatest aspect of this Madrasa is the mihrab.
Madrasa Faradis Near the cemetery situated close to Bab al Maqam, is Madrasa Faradis, ‘School of Paradise’. This was built by Sultan al Zaher Ghazi’s widow, Daifa Khatun in 1234. It is of great beauty and elegance, with pillars surrounding a small pool, and an Arabesque mihrab. It is often considered the most beautiful of the Aleppo Madrasas.
Aleppo – Museum:
The Aleppo Museum contains an important collection of items from many periods with a strong emphasis on Iron Age and classical finds. The main entrance contains elements from the gateway to the temple excavated at Tell Halaf by a German expedition in the twenties.
At the museum you will witness, starting at the main entrance, a temple gateway and a female sphinx from the Iron Age Neo Hittite settlement in Tell Hallaf. The first hall exhibits statues and cuneiform slates from Mari in the Bronze Age, including some pieces discovered by Agatha Christie’s husband, Max Mallowan, at the site of Tell Brak (Tell Khouwayra). Further on, you will find a room containing Bronze Age objects from Hama and Ugarit.
Beyond this, you will find a section devoted to Iron Age materials from sites in the Gezira, and Euphrates. Most are Assyrian style statues. The next hall concentrates on objects found in Aleppo, Ain Dara, and Ebla. The museum also includes discoveries from Arslan Tash, Tell Ahmar and Tell Mardikh (Ebla).
On the first floor, there is a part devoted to photographs and various objects from recent foreign expeditions at northern Syrian sites.
There is another hall which is devoted to Modern Art and one devoted to the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods. This includes coins, mosaics and glassware. In the final hall, you will find the Islamic art section. Fine pottery, coins, illuminated Korans, a 12th-century astrolabe, and a scale model of Aleppo can all be seen in this room.
Aleppo – Jdeide Quarter:
It’s one of the most charming areas in the city, with stone flagged streets and vaulted laneways winding between houses which preserve the best traditions of domestic architecture. The quarter developed during the late Mameluke period. The area was redeveloped in 1990s with several “boutique” hotels and restaurants preserving much of the charm of the quarter.
Jdeide Quarter contains many important, beautiful monuments that are old and fancy houses of rich celebrities of old Aleppo, such as Beit Ajiqbash, Beit Ghazale, Beit Wakil, Beit al-Dallal, Beit Basil and Beit Saygeh, and some of the oldest churches /Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic, etc./.
Beit Ajiqbash: built in 1757 by the wealthy Christian trading family of that name. it has a harmonious courtyard, extravagantly decorated in a style that borrows elements from Mameluke to Rococo, blending them in an exuberant synthesis. The reception room opposite the iwan has a superb ceiling in gilded and painted wood.
Beit Ghazale: this large house of the 17th century has been acquired by the state for possible use as a cultural center.