Cradled in a bowl of dry hills in northern Syria, the city of Aleppo presents an austere facade to those entering her ancient gates. Serious, tight-lipped, sober - the adjectives often applied to her people convey a dignity befitting Aleppo's age, for she vies with Damascus and Sana'a as the oldest existing city in the world. Though eclipsed by the political and economic hegemony of modern Damascus, Aleppo preserves more purely the essence of a traditional Arab city.
She is the northernmost of Syria's great inland towns, including Damascus, Horns and Hamah. Halfway between the Euphrates and the coast, Aleppo's location made her a natural commercial depot and a busy center of traffic. Pilgrims and traders from the north also transited the city, tracing the edge of the mountains rather than the rugged coast, down through Damascus to Makkah.
The dynamism and raw energy of Aleppo have captivated travelers for ages. Gertrude Bell, in Amurath to Amurath, was one.
If there be a better gate to Asia than Aleppo, I do not know it. A virile population, a splendid architecture, the quickening sense of a fine Arab tradition have combined to give the town an individuality sharply cut, and more than any Syrian city she seems instinct with an inherent vitality. The princes who drew the line of massive masonry about her flanks and led her armies against the emperors of the West, the merchants who gathered the wealth of inner Asia into her bazaars and bartered it against the riches of the Levant Company have handed down the spirit of enterprise to the latest of her sons.
Today, Aleppo is a distribution point for neighboring countries' goods, and a market for the hinterland's bounty: cotton, grain, pistachios, olives, produce, and sheep. A local proverb conveys the city's legendary mercantile bent: "An Aleppine can sell even a dried donkey skin." Aleppines hone their age-old rivalry with Damascus, arguing that they are craftier merchants than the lazy Damascenes.
They also claim to be more open and blunt, as even their dialect reflects. "The Aleppines speak more like men, the Damascenes like women," runs a saying that contrasts the northern city's harsh, emphatic Arabic with the softer Damascene drawl. The Aleppo accent is graceless and clipped, says a Damascus merchant in all earnestness, because the city lacks the bountiful flowing water that formed the fluent Damascene people.
Part of Aleppo's flavor is her cuisine, considered Syria's finest. Its variety is enriched by the diverse traditions of the city's ethnic and religious minorities. Local cooks serve particularly tasty versions of kebab, kibbe (ground cracked wheat and lamb), mezze (appetizers), and the usual Levantine stuffed vegetables. More distinctly local are muhammara, a spicy paste eaten like hummus but made of the city's renowned hot pepper, pomegranate juice, and ground walnuts; a seasonal kebab in a sauce of stewed fresh cherries, called kabab bi-karaz; and varieties of kibbe made with sumac and quince.
The traditional dishes draw upon the wealth of the surrounding countryside: flocks of hardy Awassi sheep - the fat-tailed Middle Eastern breed - and orchards of olive, nut and fruit trees. Aleppo's famous pistachios are creatively deployed in many sweets - rolled in doughs and smothered with syrup, or embedded in sweet gelatin.
Along with ephemeral delights such as food, which Aleppines - like all Syrians - take very seriously, the city has more enduring treasures. Her character, from her foundations to her minarets, is formed of sturdy stone. Limestone was chiseled into ribbon patterns for Byzantine churches near Aleppo, into Koranic verses for the city's mosques and building blocks for her houses and khans, the urban caravansaries. Halab ash-shahba, or "Aleppo the Gray," Syrians call her, after the once-golden stone houses, walls, and streets now weathered by age.
But scrape away the city's accretion of modern suburbs, tune out the honking of traffic, and Aleppo turns back into the city of the past: the squs, the spacious courtyard khans, the great bulk of the citadel. The city's traditional urban fabric is remarkably coherent, less scarred by recent development than Cairo or Damascus, and much of its past, particularly since the Muslim conquest in 636, is inscribed in its architecture. For a city that suffered countless invasions, that so often found itself on the frayed edge of empires, many monuments remain.
Traces of the wall embracing the old city, built on Hellenistic foundations, sketch a rudimentary square with the citadel at its approximate center. The western gate, Bab Antakya, still holds ancient pride of place as the gateway to the bazaar. Nearby Bab al-Qinnisrine still looks much as it did when it was the departure point of the old route to Damascus and the pilgrimage to Makkah. To the west of the gate, a fine section of wall with two towers has recently been restored. Bab al-Maqam (Shrine Gate) and Bab al-Hadid (Iron Gate) are also well-preserved, unlike Bab al-Nasr and Bab al-Faraj, of which only traces remain. Other gates have vanished completely.
Although ancient Aleppo's roots lie buried out of reach beneath the modern city, legend connects the site to the prophet Abraham. As he journeyed southward to the land of Canaan, legend has it, he paused in Aleppo. He milked his cow on the citadel hill, spawning the city's Arabic name, Halab, derived from the word for milk (halib). On a hill to the south of Aleppo, a mosque called Al-Salihin or Maqam Ibrahim enshrines the rock where the patriarch rested on his way out of the city, and other sites in or near Aleppo commemorate his visit.
Also scattered about the bleak hills nearby are the remains of approximately 750 settlements from Byzantine times - the famous dead cities of northern Syria. The only notable Byzantine relic within Aleppo, however, is Madrasa Halawiya, an amalgam of eras. A temple that once stood on the site was rebuilt into Aleppo's great Byzantine cathedral, founded, according to tradition, by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great.
Inside the ruins, columns with Corinthian capitals, trimmed with wind-blown acanthus leaves, have been flawlessly preserved from weathering. In Crusader times, when the invaders pillaged the countryside near Aleppo, the city's chief judge converted St. Helena's cathedral into a mosque, and in the middle of the 12th century the famous leader Nur al-Din founded a madrasa or religious school that encompassed the former cathedral.
Many of Aleppo's monuments have similarly complicated pedigrees. Almost a century after the Muslims took the city, the Umayyad dynasty, ruling from Damascus, erected a mosque in the northern city. "The Great Mosque of Aleppo rivaled that of Damascus in its decoration, painting, and mosaic," wrote Aleppo's 15th-century historian, Ibn al-Shihna. He had never actually seen the original mosque which he described, however: It had been looted and burned by his time. The present edifice dates from Nur al-Din's complete reconstruction in 1158, itself then partly rebuilt after the Mongol invasion of 1260.
The oldest part of the mosque complex is the minaret. Completed around 1090, it is an architectural masterpiece whose trim of lacy stone echoes the ribbon-like molding on the Byzantine ruins in the countryside.
One of Aleppo's most brilliant periods - the rule of the Hamdanid Sayf al-Dawla, whose name means "Sword of the Dynasty" - left no lasting architectural legacy. He made Aleppo his capital in 944, and his cosmopolitan court attracted scholars and artists from distant lands. Poets such as the famous al-Mutanabbi celebrated their patron's military prowess in enduring verses, but below the modern suburb bearing Sayf al-Dawla's name nothing remains of his lavish palace. Old accounts relate that the river Quwayq was channeled through the palace to enliven it with flowing water.
The formidable symbol of Aleppo - the citadel - belongs to a later era. Crowning a precipitous hill in the heart of the old city, it is regarded by some travelers as the most spectacular medieval fortress in the Middle East. The hill itself is partly artificial, a prehistoric tell built up of ruins from many cultures each layered atop the last. The citadel is said to have" been stormed successfully only once: by the Mongol Timur Leng (Tamerlane). More often, the fortress, with room for a garrison of 10,000, stood firm even as invaders devastated the city below.
The existing citadel was erected in 1209 atop fortifications from Byzantine, Roman, and probably earlier times. Al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi, the son of Salah al-Din (Saladin), was its architectural patron: He constructed the citadel's entrance bridge, gates, and moat, and paved its glacis with slippery stone slabs. His body is entombed in a mosque at the foot of the gate. Under Ayyubid rule, including that of Ghazi and his line, Aleppo was known as one of the most beautiful and dynamic cities of the Middle East.
An Ayyubid signature in northern Syria was the restrained decoration of building exteriors. Stonecutters focused their attention on the monumental entrances topped by muqarnas, or "stalactite" decoration that accomplished the architecturally difficult transition from concave corners to the surfaces above them. Inside religious buildings, stone of alternating colors was inlaid and plaited in mihrabs or prayer niches.
Among Aleppo's finest Ayyubid assets are the madrasas or religious schools. In the Maqamat area, south of the old city walls, stands a trio of restored Ayyubid madrasas: Firdous, Kamiliya, andZahiriya. Madrasat al-Firdous, built in 1235, is the loveliest. Perhaps the grace of the "School of Paradise" reflects the feminine hand that summoned it forth, for it was commissioned by Dayfa Khatun, the wife of Ghazi. Her name and lineage appear in the calligraphy carved around the walls.
Inside, the original elegant fountain survives in the center of the courtyard. Firdous' mihrab is formed of polychrome inlaid marble interwoven as delicately as silken ribbons. Local legend holds that Timur Leng wanted to carry off the mihrab to his capital, but artisans convinced him that to remove it would be to destroy it.
The Ayyubid dominions eventually fell to the Mamluks. From their seat in Cairo, they ruled Egypt, Syria, and Palestine for more than 250 years.
As the Mamluk era progressed, Aleppo prospered as a strategic frontier city, and was enriched with a number of notable buildings. A Mamluk hospital, Bimaristan Arghun, still stands remarkably intact near the bazaar. Converted from a palace by Arghun al-Kamili, a governor of Aleppo, its courtyard may have served as a waiting room, and the iwans - outdoor living-rooms with one face open to the courtyard - probably doubled as stages, for records show that musicians' salaries were provided as part of health care. Patients' cells had fountains bubbling outside.
Aleppo's last Mamluk governor, Khayer Bey, helped bring the era to a close with his treachery. In 1516, when the Mamluks battled the Ottoman Turks on the plain of Marj Dabiq north of Aleppo, Khayer Bey deserted with his troops, helping to cement an Ottoman victory.
Aleppo became the third city of the far-flung Ottoman lands, exceeded in population only by Istanbul and Cairo. Approaching travelers repeatedly remarked upon the grandeur of Aleppo's skyline - flat roofs and domes starkly punctuated with minarets and dark, straight cypresses.
From above Bab Antakya, three pointed Ottoman minarets dominate the view toward the citadel. One belongs to Jami'a Khusruwiyya, completed around 1544, and the first documented mosque built by Sinan, the great architect of Sultan Süeyman the Magnificent and his successors. Awkward and imperfect compared to Sinan's later achievements, it is still "bold and tough and, in its Syrian setting, very Ottoman," as Godfrey Goodwin judges in A History of Ottoman Architecture.
In early Ottoman years, a new Christian suburb called Jadaydah flourished north of the old city wall. Today it is one of the liveliest and most intact of the old neighborhoods. Impassive stone walls like dikes channel the flow of traffic and conceal the quiet charm of the homes behind them - Aleppo's finest collection of Arab houses from the 17th and 18th centuries. Heavy, half-open doors reveal elegant courtyards and fountains, the most splendid of them in the mansions of the rich, who built prestigiously near the churches.
The limestone houses, generally of one or two stories, nestle back-to-back to minimize the expanse of wall exposed to sun. Privacy is paramount, so many entrance passageways twist to block courtyards from direct public view.
Inside, patios are paved with contrasting flagstones. Citrus trees, jasmine, and roses grow in basins near fountains or pools. In wealthy homes, a musicians' stand in the courtyard was used for concerts. The house called Bayt Achakbash, now the Aleppo Museum of Folk Traditions, is furnished to depict the sumptuous lifestyle of the wealthy - now largely vanished from the gracious old houses.
John Barker, an English consul in Ottoman Aleppo, recorded a wedding celebration in such a house on a summer evening.
...the courtyards are illuminated at night with different coloured lamps, and nightingales in cages are hired and placed among the shrubs and trees, which sing at intervals when the music ceases. The dazzling diamonds of the ladies, and the various colours of their dresses, the lights, the singing of the birds, and the trickling of the water falling on the marble basins, made one fancy it to be Fairyland.
During the prosperous Ottoman years, Aleppo's covered suq - sometimes called the most beautiful in the entire Middle East - was expanded. Since then, whining Suzuki trucks, the only vehicles small enough to negotiate the alleys, have replaced the pad and clatter of camels over the cobblestones, but the ageless din of braying donkeys, bargaining women and shouting boys is much the same. Labyrinthine passages still twist beneath arched stone vaults, their subterranean gloom punctured only by shafts of sun from skylights. Overhead, sheep graze on the grassy roofs, where guard dogs once roamed at night to foil inventive thieves.
People and animals still stream down the many miles of bazaar streets. Donkeys squeeze past, laden with wood, vegetables, or burlap bags stuffed with cotton and wool. Western-suited textile businessmen brush past tall bedouins with heads swathed in red-and-white kaffiyas.
Massive gates open off the streets into the khans, or inns. More than any other monument, these embody the city's mercantile essence: The prosperity of a Middle-Eastern city in any given era is often proportional to the number of new khans constructed. Aleppo's great Mamluk and Ottoman khans were built on a model used throughout the Islamic world. Merchandise, and sometimes animals, were housed in ground-floor rooms around a courtyard, while merchants lodged in cells above. The khans' great doors were locked at night to safeguard goods and owners.
Among Aleppo's most beautiful khans is Khan al-Wazir, the Minister's Khan, built between 1678 and 1682. Its striking black-and-white marble facade furnished the backdrop for a recent fashion layout in Vogue magazine. Khan Alabiya still bears a trace of its former use as an Italian consulate in the Italianate balustrade rimming a courtyard terrace. Khan al-Sabun, the Soap Khan, built early in the 16th century, has an elegant carved-stone entrance.
The largest - Khan al-Gumruk, also known as the Great Khan - was built in 1574, and in Ottoman times housed French, Dutch, and English trading firms. Its name, the Customs Khan, comes from its use by the customs authorities at the end of the 18th century.
The khans, suqs, madrasas, and houses fit into Aleppo's tightly-knit urban texture - one that evolved organically over many centuries in response to climate and society. Narrow meandering streets, for instance, kept out hot sun and dust. Privacy was safeguarded behind high walls.
Old Aleppo's unique character was first violated on a large scale in 1952 by the master plan of Andre Gutton, a French architect commissioned by the city. Wide new thoroughfares were to be cut through the ancient pedestrian network. Although the plan was not fully implemented, straight streets were slashed through parts of the old city and remain today like un-healed wounds. One road carved off part of Khan al-Wazir, the apogee of khan construction in Aleppo.
The new roads permitted modern traffic to pour into neighborhoods that had never been designed for it. Traditional sections were fragmented: The old Jewish quarter was cut in half, and in 1979 most of the old city's northwest quarter, Bab al-Faraj, was razed.
In came incongruous high-rises that cut off light and air from the courtyard houses, while robbing them of the privacy so integral to their character. One tall building blights the view of the citadel from the Great Mosque's minaret; another looms ungraciously over the courtyard of Madrasa Uthmaniya.
Further destruction, including additional roads, was planned. But a turning point came in 1983, when excavations for a high-rise development in Bab al-Faraj uncovered part of the city's old Ayyubid walls, including a tower with a staircase. Local and foreign conservationists joined with a more sympathetic local government to plan a scaled-down complex - encompassing the ruins - that will mesh visually with surrounding neighborhoods. It will include a suq and a cultural center, preserve the old traffic pathways, and draw architectural inspiration from earlier eras.
The visionary Bab al-Faraj project could herald a new respect for the entire old city, whose historical legacy has been eroded by a narrow concept of progress. For a city that wears her ancient heirlooms so unpretentiously, Aleppo has responded to destruction, over the ages, with irrepressible vitality. That quality will be needed in the future to keep the city's heritage intact.
Lynn Simarski, a writer specializing in the Middle East, lived in Aleppo for two years. She has just finished writing a book on the history and architecture of the city.