Aleppo, my heart weeps for you and yours

Forgotten, cut off, but standing still on the

Banks of the Queiq, ancient and crowned by

The Citadel. And then the bombing came . . .

I might finish writing that poem, but I kind of like it as a fragment. Still, the destruction visited upon Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War is a great catastrophe for the Aleppines and the world. It’s one of the world’s oldest cities — though how old we don’t know, because unlike some ancient cities that moved or shrank over the millenia, leaving archeologists a clear field or a less historically important one to excavate, the oldest part of Aleppo is still inhabited.

Quite a feat for a living city to be referred to in some of the oldest documents — Cuneiform texts from Sumer and Ebla — and the newest documents — blogs published today. It has few competitors in its antiquity, going back at least 6000 years. Its only real competitor is Byblos, since although Jericho might have been settled earlier, it was repeatedly abandonded and reoccupied. Faiyum or Crocodilopolis in Egypt is probably slightly younger.

Although succesful militarily, Aleppo doesn’t seem to have ever been the seat of its own empire. Instead, her prosperity was commercial and it’s easy to see why. She’s in a fertile valley about midway between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean — an excellent crossroads for ancient trade. Linguists speculate that the name Aleppo (a Medieval Italianization of the Arabic/Amorite Halab) meant iron or copper, two metals that the citizens word have traded and used in their manufactures. I don’t know where the iron would have come from, but Aleppo’s ancient port of Antioch (sort of — Antioch is 3,000 years younger than Aleppo, but the Orontes Valley was inhabited from the sixth millenium BC) is very close to Cyprus, which was such an important source of copper that that the metal was named after the island (which could have been named after the metal) and copper was so important to the people of the time that it’s called the Chalcolithic (or Copper) Age. Copper remained important because ancient people discovered it could be mixed with Tin and made into Bronze.

Aleppo began to decline in the late 19th century, beginning with the opening of the Suez Canal, which diverted trade away from it. After World War One and all the revolutions, Aleppo’s ports of Antioch and Iskendrun (Indiana Jones’ Alexandretta) were in another country and Syria has been subject to decades of instability — coups and counter-coups, wars, isolation and now this maddness.

Before the First World War, Aleppo was a cosmopolitan city — home to Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Assyrians of various religions. But the end of the Ottoman Empire coincided with the rise of fundementalist Islam and nationalism. The Jews were driven out, the Turks went to Turkey and the Greeks to Greece. Armenians and Assyrians came, but have now been largely driven out.

Still, Aleppo survived.

Despite the goal of “modernization” by Syria’s various dictators over the past several decades, especially Assad pere and Assad fills, who have ruled since 1970, Aleppo has been spared the destruction of its old city. The new suburbs are automobile-oriented grids on wide roads, but Old Aleppo remained a traditional city — buildings piled on top of each other without regard for use or density, on very narrow streets and courtyards. In fact, before the Civil War began, the regime had been restoring Aleppo’s ancient buildings and monuments and its cuisine — a tradition centuries old — was attracting tourists and trade from all over the Middle East and Europe. 

But the Battle of Aleppo, which has been raging for two years and may be drawing to a close, has devestated the city. 

One of the reasons Napoleon III is said to have had for allowing Baron Haussman to renovate Paris, replacing the dense Medieval city with the much-loved wide boulevards of today is that the crooked, narrow streets, courtyards and dense building coverage helped protesters and revolutionaries fight and evade the government. Cities like Paris and London in the 18th century were notoriously difficult to map accurately, since even when there were regulatory controls on buildings and uses the city governments didn’t neccesarrily have the resources or powers to enforce them and the owners and tenants sometimes made modifications which created paths through the buildings that were known only to residents. Narrow streets were easier to barricade and the courtyards were good places for ambushes.

The Syrian opposition in Aleppo seems to have proved this theory (although there were other reasons for Haussman’s decisions). Assad’s forces and the rebels have fought over the city street by street, adding the destruction of this heritage to the humanitarian crisis. Even if the city falls to Assad, though, it won’t be the end: ISIS is moving in.

Syria, now and then.



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