The Battle of Aleppo: The History of the Ongoing Siege at the Center of the Syrian Civil War (2016)

Chapter 1: The History and Geography of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo is without a doubt one of the oldest cities on Earth and, some argue, the longest continually inhabited city in history, as evidenced by various historical structures and artifacts from all over the city that are reminiscent of past kingdoms and empires that once controlled the area.[1] Aleppo’s stone pathways, marble architecture and grand citadel reflect the city’s ancient past and its meshing with modernity. Like many cities in the Middle East, Aleppo boasts pre-Islamic and Islamic styles of architecture literally side by side with more modern buildings.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/db/Ancient_Aleppo_view.JPG/1024px-Ancient_Aleppo_view.JPG

Craig Jenkins’ picture of the ancient section of Aleppo

The meaning of the city’s name, “Halab” in Arabic, is not entirely clear. Various etymologists and inhabitants have taken the word to mean “milk” or “copper” from interpretations of these words in Arabic, but there are historical texts indicating other words used for the city so it not altogether well-known. It is perhaps related to the Semitic origins of the city.[2]

Regardless of the meaning of the word, Aleppo’s significance in history cannot be understated. Aleppo was once a hub of activity on various trade routes in the region, such as the Silk Road. Goods from China and India could once be bought on Aleppo’s narrow alleyways all the while traders from different parts of the world exchanged ideas along with the goods they were peddling. The mixing of cultures led to the development of the city’s cosmopolitan flair which is reflected in the various religions and ethnicities that inhabit Aleppo.

Geographically, Aleppo’s location has been ideal for the various civilizations living within its walls. Indeed, it is part of the Fertile Crescent, or the Cradle of Civilization, where agriculture, writing, trade, city development, and science evolved in the very early days of human history. It is located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which made it easier for trade to pass through the area.[3] The climate is moderate and its soil is considered very ideal for agriculture. Estimates of the population of Aleppo vary (a report from 2005 indicated about 2.3 million inhabitants), but the city is considered Syria’s largest.[4] In modern times, Aleppo is located in northern Syria and less than 100 miles from the Turkish border. What this means for the Syrian Civil War is that Aleppo is a very strategic location for all involved parties.

Throughout Aleppo’s time as a trade hub over the 4000+ years of its history, the city has been invaded and conquered by many empires wishing to control the commerce in the area and the strategic location of this ancient city of activity. Some of Aleppo’s most famous rulers include Alexander the Great, the Roman leader Pompey, the Ayubbid ruler Salahuddin of the Crusades, and the father of modern Turkey--Atatürk. The Hittites, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Ottomans, Turks and the French are just some of the major civilizations to control and pass through Aleppo’s gates, intermixed with more minor Semitic and Phoenician kingdoms over the past several millennia. The world’s monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have very strong ties with the city of Aleppo which is of course reflected in the art and architecture of the city. With this in mind, it is not hard to understand Aleppo’s strategic and symbolic importance throughout history and even now during the Syrian Civil War. Aleppo has stood the test of time, and its inhabitants have been resilient during its many sieges and varying stages of destruction and reconstruction. The conflict now, however, is on a much more different scale with newer, more sophisticated weaponry and guerilla warfare tactics utilized among civilian populations.

Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of the city of Aleppo were quite diverse in background, just like they are today. Journal writings among travelers over the years have indicated a large Christian population thriving among Muslims and Jews at one point. According to an expert on Syrian history, Philip Mansel, “At a time when almost all European cities excluded or penalised religious minorities, Aleppo, like other Ottoman cities, contained Muslims, Christians and Jews.”[5]

Chapter 1: The History and Geography of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo is without a doubt one of the oldest cities on Earth and, some argue, the longest continually inhabited city in history, as evidenced by various historical structures and artifacts from all over the city that are reminiscent of past kingdoms and empires that once controlled the area.[1] Aleppo’s stone pathways, marble architecture and grand citadel reflect the city’s ancient past and its meshing with modernity. Like many cities in the Middle East, Aleppo boasts pre-Islamic and Islamic styles of architecture literally side by side with more modern buildings.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/db/Ancient_Aleppo_view.JPG/1024px-Ancient_Aleppo_view.JPG

Craig Jenkins’ picture of the ancient section of Aleppo

The meaning of the city’s name, “Halab” in Arabic, is not entirely clear. Various etymologists and inhabitants have taken the word to mean “milk” or “copper” from interpretations of these words in Arabic, but there are historical texts indicating other words used for the city so it not altogether well-known. It is perhaps related to the Semitic origins of the city.[2]

Regardless of the meaning of the word, Aleppo’s significance in history cannot be understated. Aleppo was once a hub of activity on various trade routes in the region, such as the Silk Road. Goods from China and India could once be bought on Aleppo’s narrow alleyways all the while traders from different parts of the world exchanged ideas along with the goods they were peddling. The mixing of cultures led to the development of the city’s cosmopolitan flair which is reflected in the various religions and ethnicities that inhabit Aleppo.

Geographically, Aleppo’s location has been ideal for the various civilizations living within its walls. Indeed, it is part of the Fertile Crescent, or the Cradle of Civilization, where agriculture, writing, trade, city development, and science evolved in the very early days of human history. It is located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which made it easier for trade to pass through the area.[3] The climate is moderate and its soil is considered very ideal for agriculture. Estimates of the population of Aleppo vary (a report from 2005 indicated about 2.3 million inhabitants), but the city is considered Syria’s largest.[4] In modern times, Aleppo is located in northern Syria and less than 100 miles from the Turkish border. What this means for the Syrian Civil War is that Aleppo is a very strategic location for all involved parties.

Throughout Aleppo’s time as a trade hub over the 4000+ years of its history, the city has been invaded and conquered by many empires wishing to control the commerce in the area and the strategic location of this ancient city of activity. Some of Aleppo’s most famous rulers include Alexander the Great, the Roman leader Pompey, the Ayubbid ruler Salahuddin of the Crusades, and the father of modern Turkey--Atatürk. The Hittites, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Ottomans, Turks and the French are just some of the major civilizations to control and pass through Aleppo’s gates, intermixed with more minor Semitic and Phoenician kingdoms over the past several millennia. The world’s monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have very strong ties with the city of Aleppo which is of course reflected in the art and architecture of the city. With this in mind, it is not hard to understand Aleppo’s strategic and symbolic importance throughout history and even now during the Syrian Civil War. Aleppo has stood the test of time, and its inhabitants have been resilient during its many sieges and varying stages of destruction and reconstruction. The conflict now, however, is on a much more different scale with newer, more sophisticated weaponry and guerilla warfare tactics utilized among civilian populations.

Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of the city of Aleppo were quite diverse in background, just like they are today. Journal writings among travelers over the years have indicated a large Christian population thriving among Muslims and Jews at one point. According to an expert on Syrian history, Philip Mansel, “At a time when almost all European cities excluded or penalised religious minorities, Aleppo, like other Ottoman cities, contained Muslims, Christians and Jews.”[5]

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c4/Khusruwiyah_Mosque%2C_Aleppo.jpg/1024px-Khusruwiyah_Mosque%2C_Aleppo

Bernard Gagnon’s picture of Khusruwiyah Mosque

Indeed, this large and long-inhabited group of Christians has turned out to be an ally of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, which has put this Syrian Christian population in an unfortunate predicament against the warring parties in opposition to Assad. Christians make up about 10% of Syria’s population, or just fewer than 1 million.[6] The Christians come from various denominations, such as Maronite, Greek Catholic, and Armenian. Syria’s Kurdish population is also quite large, accounting for about 2.5 million people most of whom are Sunni Muslim.[7] The Shi’a of Syria hail from different sects as well, such as Alawi and Ismaili. [8] Finally, Sunni Muslims make up about three-quarters of Syria’s population.[9] Syria’s religious population is very much a mosaic, in which each group makes up a piece of the demographic and political system. Aleppo reflects this diversity, as most of the population is Sunni Muslim and the rest a mixture of Christian, Kurd and Shi’a.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c4/Khusruwiyah_Mosque%2C_Aleppo.jpg/1024px-Khusruwiyah_Mosque%2C_Aleppo

Bernard Gagnon’s picture of Khusruwiyah Mosque

Indeed, this large and long-inhabited group of Christians has turned out to be an ally of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, which has put this Syrian Christian population in an unfortunate predicament against the warring parties in opposition to Assad. Christians make up about 10% of Syria’s population, or just fewer than 1 million.[6] The Christians come from various denominations, such as Maronite, Greek Catholic, and Armenian. Syria’s Kurdish population is also quite large, accounting for about 2.5 million people most of whom are Sunni Muslim.[7] The Shi’a of Syria hail from different sects as well, such as Alawi and Ismaili. [8] Finally, Sunni Muslims make up about three-quarters of Syria’s population.[9] Syria’s religious population is very much a mosaic, in which each group makes up a piece of the demographic and political system. Aleppo reflects this diversity, as most of the population is Sunni Muslim and the rest a mixture of Christian, Kurd and Shi’a.