After four years of war, Aleppo is a city in ruins, bombed by the Syrian air force, threatened by ISIL, its population decimated. Bread queues, electricity and water cuts, rationing and road-blocks are part of daily life. “Rubble and rubbish fill the streets. Looting, hunger and sleepless nights are normal. Medical services have collapsed.” One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, a thousand years of civilization have been reduced to wreckage.
Philip Mansel writes in his introduction, “Aleppo was a city with a rhythm of its own, challenging categories and generalisations. Lying between the desert and the sea, the mountains of Anatolia and the banks of the Euphrates, it was Arab and Turkish; Kurdish and Armenian; Christian, Muslim and Jewish. An Arabic-speaking city with a Muslim majority, under the Ottoman Empire Aleppo also became a centre of French culture and Catholic missions. Like many other cities in the region, it mixed East and West, Islam and Christianity. Until 2012 Aleppo was distinguished by its peaceful character. For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously. The reasons for this harmony, and for the current cataclysm, are the subject of this book.”
Carthage, Troy, Babylon, Persepolis, Leptis Magna, Palmyra, Pompeii, Petra, Angkor, Machu Picchu . . . will Aleppo join these ancient ghost cities? Or will the Great Mosque, 15th-century Yalbougha an-Nasry bath house, medieval souks and elegant courtyard hotels be rebuilt? Only time will tell.
After Constantinople and Cairo, Aleppo was the third largest city in the Ottoman Empire. Trade made it a world city: “The dark, narrow, vaulted souks were the largest in the Middle East. They stretched for twelve kilometres; through the souks of the rope-makers, the saddlers, the tanners or the spice-merchants, it was said that a blind man could make his way by following the smell of the merchandise. There were also at least eight weekly markets outside the city walls, every Friday, where people from the surrounding countryside came to sell their produce. Ten gates in the city walls later gave their names to districts of the city . . .”
Mansel describes the brisk trade in horses, those “from the Arabian Desert were especially prized in Europe, as they were faster than its slow and heavy breeds. Aleppo was the natural place to buy them, since only Aleppo had easy access both to Europe and the Arabian Desert. By the mid seventeenth century it had become the main marketplace for ‘Arabian’ stallions. One Aleppo proverb stated: ‘There are three fine things in life: an obedient wife, a large house, and a fast horse’.”
The first part of Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City covers the little-known but vibrant history of the place. The second part is a rich medley of accounts by British and French consuls and merchants dating from the 17th century. Mansel writes, “Aleppo was a city of coexistence rather than conflict. Deals took precedence over ideals.” Jews, Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims, Catholic and Orthodox, Syriac and Armenian Christians lived side by side, sharing the same language and the same public baths − “conflicts were generally more lethal within religions than between them.”
Aleppo was known as ‘the cradle of Arab music’. Its cuisine was famous and exalted. “Like jewellery, a recipe could be valued as a family heritage, never to be shared with outsiders. A dinner menu might be discussed for a month. There are said to be at least twenty-six versions of kebab halabi or Aleppo kebab, including kebab cooked with cherries; with aubergine; with chili, parsley and pine-nuts; and with truffles from the desert. Aleppo was also famous for being the capital of ‘pistachiomania’: any dish could be decorated with pistachios – meat, chicken, cakes. Kibbe was another speciality: Aleppo was known as the city of 1001 kibbe – fried, boiled, whitened, flavoured with coriander, spinach, truffles, apricots or quince. Poems were written to kibbe as to a beloved.”
Mansel refers to contemporary writers and specific books that have proved to be prophetic. The novel In Praise of Hatred (Damascus, 2008, English edition London, 2012) by Khaled Khalifa, “describes the regime’s repression in Aleppo and Hama in the 1970s and what he calls the ‘one-party culture and its sycophantic ideology’.” After taking over power in 2000, Bashar al-Assad visited the city more often than his father, who had preferred Damascus and Latakia.
Mansel quotes Khaled Khalifa in a recent interview: “Right now in Aleppo, the everyday question is how not to die […] When a place gets wrecked it does not become ruined alone, it ruins its people also […] It’s a sad, soulless city at the moment, and its people have lost all of their dreams. One of the major crimes of the Arab regimes is robbing and destroying this deep memory. You know the city I told about in my novel is another city, a city that does not exist, but it’s defending itself and its memory.”
Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City is a very readable, poignant epitaph to a great world city decimated by the politics of evil.
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Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City by Philip Mansel | I.B.Tauris & Co | February 2016 £17.99 224pp HB | ISBN: 9781784534615
Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City is Philip Mansel’s third book on cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East, after Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire (1995), on Istanbul, and Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (2010), on Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut.