“The city is as old as eternity, but still young, and it has never ceased to exist. Its days and nights have been long; it has survived its rulers and commoners. These are its houses and dwellings, but where are their former residents and the people who visited them? These are its palaces and chambers of court, but where are the Hamdanid princes and their poets? They have all passed away, but the city is still here. City of wonders! It endures. Its kings fall; they disappear, but its destruction has not been ordered”.
Like most introductions to the history of Aleppo, the description of the city by the Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubair, who visited Aleppo in 1184, begins with a reference to its great age. It is said, he writes, that Abraham passed through Aleppo on his way from Ur to the Holy Land, milked his cows on the mound that is now crowned by the Citadel, and distributed the milk as alms. Legend has it that Aleppo’s name goes back to the patriarch’s visit. In Arabic, the city is known as Halab, which is interpreted popularly as being derived from the word halib (milk). Many holy sites in the city are associated with Abraham’s visit, including the small mosque on the Citadel, where the rock on which he supposedly sat was preserved for many years.
Historical and archeological records also point to a long tradition of settlements on this site, and there can be no doubt that Aleppo has profited from its advantageous geographical location. The city lies on a small river, the Quwaik, in a fertile valley on the western edge of the plains of northern Syria, about halfway between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean. The river guaranteed basic water supplies, while the easily defended rocky mound to the east of the river offered protection from hostile incursions. The site’s closeness to the northen plains of Syrian and the fertile hinterland were favorable conditions for a city that has thrived for thousands of years on the interaction between city dwellers, farmers, and nomads. Aleppo’s most prosperous periods coincided with the development of trade routes extending beyond the immediate region to the Mediterranean or Mesopotamia. The city has repeatedly shown itself to be an important commercial center, provided that political conditions were favorable and allowed it to be integrated into long-distance trading networks.
Our knowledge of ancient Aleppo comes mainly from cuneiform texts that prove the existence of the city dates back to 2000 years B.C. Even at this early stage the city bore the name by which it is still known in Arabic: Halab. Aleppo flourished politically and economically during the 18th century B.C. as the capital of the kingdom of Yamkhad, which during its height extended from northern Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. This magnificent period ended with the Hittite invasion. From this time on the city was a center of only local importance. It was, however, prominent as the site of a temple to the Hittite weather god Teshub, which must have played a significant role across the region until the 1st millennium B.C. The remains of this extraordinarily large religious site are currently being excavated on the Citadel mound. This is the first major archaeological investigation carried out in Aleppo itself and findings have suggested that the mound was used as the acropolis of the ancient settlement.
Aleppo was refounded by Seleucus Nicator between 301 and 281 B.C. under the name Beroia. It is still possible to trace the grid system of the ancient city, with its regular blocks of houses, in the modern pattern of streets in the souk. Later, Aleppo came to be ruled by the Romans, and then the Byzantines, under whose rule it was once again known as Halab. In 540, the city was attacked by the Sassanian king Khusrau I, and all its buildings razed to the ground, including the Citadel. Emperor Justinian (518-565) had the city walls rebuilt during a period of peace between the Persians and the Byzantines. He also built a cathedral, the remains of which can still be viewed today in the Madrasa al-Hallawiya.
Aleppo’s capture by Muslim troops in 636, under the command of the Umayyad general Khalid ibn al-Walid, was an event with far-reaching consequences for the city. The first mosque was built in the west of Aleppo, where it was easily accessible to the Arab troops who had set up camp outside the Bab Antakiya, one of the gates to the city. The Great Mosque, which still serves as Aleppo’s main place of worship, was founded about 80 years later, probably by the Umayyad caliph Sulaiman (715-717). If we are to believe the medieval historians, it was built in the former garden of the Byzantine cathedral. Sulaiman evidently wanted this building to rival the Umayyad mosque built by his brother Walid in his new capital Damascus. According to the historian Ibn al-Adim, the mosque was decorated with marble and mosaics, which were probably destroyed when the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus Phocas sacked the city in 962. There is now little about the Great Mosque to suggest comparisons with its precursor in Damascus, except its layout as a rectangular mosque with a three-aisle prayer hall (haram) and a courtyard surrounded by arcades (riwaq). The direction of prayer towards Mecca (qibla) is emphasized by a nave leading to the mihrab.It is wider than the aisles and is given additional prominence by the dome in front of the prayer niche. In 750, Aleppo came under the rule of the Abbasid caliphs, who consciously shifted the region’s political center to the east with the founding of their new capital Baghdad. Aleppo – no longer a medium-sized provincial city – now found itself on the border between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Indeed, it was ruled from Egypt for a while by the Tulinids (877) and the Ikhshids (936-37).
Aleppo enjoyed a cultural revival thanks to the Hamdanid prince Saif al-Daula, who conquered the city in 944 and made it the capital of his empire. Saif al-Daula has been recorded in history as a great patron of literature. It was his magnificent court for which the writer Ibn Jubair mourned in the passage quoted above, and it has been celebrated in verse throughout the Islamic world. The greatest poets of the age, such as al-Mutanabbi and Abu Firas al-Hamdani, met there. The flowering of culture that took place under the Hamdanids ended suddenly in 962 with the conquest and destruction of the city by the Byzantines. The looting was so systematic that nothing has remained of Hamdanid architecture, not even Saif al-Daula’s famous palace by the river. The city suffered further years of unrest as a result of constant attacks by the Byzantines and regular raids by Bedouin tribes. For a time, Aleppo was controlled by the Egyptian Fatimids but then came under the rule of two nomadic Arab dynasties, the Mirdasids and the Uqailids. It is said that the Mirdasids converted the two churches they found on the Citadel mound into mosques.
For the next two centuries the city’s fortunes were dominated completely by the conflict with the Crusaders. As an important staging post on the land route to Jerusalem, Aleppo was attacked by the Franks not long after they took Antioch (in 1100 and 1103). They succeeded in forcing the Seljuk prince, Ridwan ibn Taj al-Daula Tutush, to pay tribute to them, and it was probably only thanks to the committed judge Abu 1-Hasan Ibn al-Khashshab that Aleppo was not taken by the Crusaders. The judge took the administration of the city into his own hands and entreated Atabeg Aksunqur al-Bursuqi to become its new ruler, a step taken with the full support of the population. Bursuqi’s famous descendants, Imad al-Din Zangi and Nur al-Din, were to build the city up into one of the most important military bases in the struggle against the Crusaders. After a heavy attack by the Crusaders, Ibn al-Khashshab ordered four of the Christian churches in the city to be converted into mosques, including the Cathedral, which was situated next to the Great Mosque.
Imad al-Din Zangi (1127-1146) and his son, Nur al-Din (1146-1173), were both feared generals and determined politicians who enthusiastically propagated ideas about Holy War (jihad) and the unification of the Islamic world among the Muslim population. For the first time in many years, Nur al-Din succeeded in bringing Damascus and Aleppo together under one ruler. Like Damascus, Aleppo was also refortified under his reign. He had the city walls, the Citadel, and aqueducts repaired. He also rebuilt the markets and renovated the Great Mosque, which had suffered heavy damage following a fire.
Nur al-Din believed that the Muslim world should be unified under the banner of Sunni Islam, and promoted himself as its zealous champion. Following the example of the Seljuks, he founded a large number of new legal schools (madrasas), which were intended to counter the Shiite influence on the urban population in Syria. The remains of the Madrasa al-Muqaddamiya, the Madrasa al-Shuaibiya, and the Madrasa al-Hallawiya can still be seen in Aleppo. The Madrasa al-Hallawiya is a former cathedral converted into a mosque. This was an example of the care with which Nur al-Din selected sites for the legal schools he built: there can be no doubt that the foundation of a madrasa on this site was intended to demonstrate the triumph of Islam over Christianity. The establishment of the Madrasa al-Shuaibiya, on the site of the first mosque in Aleppo at Bab Antakiya, was also highly symbolic, because this mosque was associated more than any other with the capture of the city by the Muslims.
Nur al-Din also gave orders for several monastic institutions (khanqas) to be founded. These were places where Islamic mystics (Sufis) lived, taught, and held religious ceremonies. This mystical movement had become influential in Syria under the Zangids, and Nur al-Din himself supported work at several popular places of pilgrimage. For example, he built a new mosque over the site where Abraham milked his cows. This mosque was equipped with a beautiful wooden mihrab, which unfortunately, has been lost during the intervening centuries.
In 1183, Aleppo was conquered by the legendary Ayyubid ruler Saladin, who installed first his brother, al-Adil, then his son, al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi, as regents. Ghazi’s descendants ruled the city until 1260 and were to have a lasting influence there. Ghazi had Aleppo refortified, a large project, much of which had to be completed by his successors. The focus of his work on the defenses was the Citadel, which he had strengthened into one of the most powerful fortresses in the medieval Islamic world. He reinforced the ramparts, regraded the sides of the mound, and had them revetted with stone. The moat round the Citadel was deepened, filled with water, and spanned with a multiple-arch bridge. Visitors still have to cross this bridge to reach the Citadel’s entrance, a massive barbican that leads into the center of the fortress through a “bent” passage that turns five times and is protected by three heavy iron gates.
The work executed by Ghazi is fully documented in Arabic sources. Thus we know that in the Citadel he built a large water reservoir, an arsenal, a grain store, and a deep well (satura), which was probably intended to function as a secret escape route to the city. The Citadel, however, was not just a military garrison; it was also the ruler’s residence, with several palaces, bathhouses and gardens. One of the palaces, a complex with several courtyards, has been excavated. Its center was a main courtyard surrounded by four iwans (vaulted halls open on one side) with an octagonal fountain in the middle. The courtyard was paved with marble slabs, and an ornamental pool with water running over a small weir (shadirwan) was built in the niche of the northern iwan. This palace was probably the much-vaunted Palace of Glory (dar al-izz), which burnt down on Ghazi’s wedding night. Ghazi also renovated the small Mosque of Abraham in the Citadel and built a second mosque further up the hill with a square minaret that can supposedly be seen from throughout the whole city.
In many respects, Ghazi was continuing the work started by Nur al-Din. Like his predecessor, he had a new courthouse built to the south of the Citadel, from which it could be reached via a secret covered passage. Not only that, he also invested heavily in the foundation of Sunni legal schools, which he considered an important tool in the campaign against the Shiites. Like Nur al-Din, Ghazi also supported the various sites ol pilgrimage in Aleppo.
The sultan was not the only person to encourage architecture on a grand scale. Other patrons included state officials, such as Ghazi’s closest adviser, Tughril Beg, who completed the Madrasa al-Sultaniya, which had originally been commissioned by the sultan, and patrician families living in Aleppo.
For example, the al-Agami family founded three schools in the city. Parts of their palace have survived, including a courtyard with an octagonal fountain surrounded by four iwans. Ghazi’s wife, Daifa Khatun, was also an important patron. She was responsible for the most famous legal school in Aleppo, the Madrasa al-Firdaus (School of Paradise). This madrasa, which was used simultaneously as a mosque, mausoleum, and Sufi monastery, is laid out around a courtyard with an octagonal fountain flanked on three sides by arcades. On the northern side there is a wide iwan, behind which the living quarters of the students are located. A mosque roofed with three domes is found on the southern side of the courtyard and is flanked by mausoleums to the east and west. In addition to this, Daifa Khatun founded a Sufi monastery that can probably be identified as the Khanqah al-Farafra. This building is also laid out around a courtyard with an octagonal fountain, and houses a mosque, an iwan, and monks’ cells arranged on two floors.
Ayyubid architecture has survived comparatively well in Aleppo, including some wonderful buildings constructed with regular blocks of finely dressed stone. Since they are largely unadorned, the appearance of these buildings is determined by the quality of the stone. Usually, the only decoration is a richly ornamented muqarnas portal marking the entrance. The heart of the building, whatever its function, is always a courtyard with an ornamental fountain. The courtyard may be surrounded by one or more iwans, or by arcades with rooms opening out behind them. In religious complexes, the mosque, with its dome over the mihrab bay, is located on the southern side of the courtyard. The four -iwan layout was evidently preferred for palaces, but there was no set pattern for Aleppo’s legal schools.
One of the most characteristic elements of Ayyubid architectural ornamentation is the stone muqarnas, also known as stalactite or honeycomb decoration. This feature dominates the portals found in Aleppo – most of which have shell-shaped vaults — and was also used on squinches. A muqarnas dome has survived in the Madrasa al-Sharafiya. Another typical feature is the use of different types of stone in the same structure. Attractive horizontal stripes were created by laying courses of stone of contrasting colors (the ablaq technique). The ornamental motifs later applied on a monumental scale under the Mamluks and Ottomans also appeared for the first time during the Ayyubid period, and were used to decorate portals and other features. The most perfect examples are the designs that decorate the mihrabsof Aleppo’s mosques with their artfully curved and intertwined knot patterns.
Aleppo’s cultural life flourished under the rule of the Zangids and the Ayyubids. At the same time, the conflict with the Crusaders had very positive consequences for the city. The lively trading relations established with the Crusader states of the Levantine littoral were a profitable source of income, and the first commercial treaties were concluded with the Venetians in 1207/08. Goods were also exchanged with North Africa and Spain. In addition to this, the city was an important center of artisanal production. Aleppo was famous for its textiles, excellent enameled glass, exquisite ceramics, and, of course, for its metalwork. High-quality woodwork had also been produced in Aleppo since the Zangid period. One of the most brilliant examples of the craft was the minbar ordered by Nur al-Din for the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (now destroyed). It was made in Aleppo by members of the Ibn Maali family, a family of woodcarvers who were also responsible for the mihrab in the Mosque of Abraham on the Citadel, another treasure that has since been lost. The mihrab in the Madrasa al-Hallawiya, which was made in 1245 and is still in place, is a late Ayyubid masterpiece.
The last Ayyubid ruler of Aleppo, al-Nasir Yusuf II (1250—1260), managed to unite Damascus and Aleppo under a single regime, the last time that this happened. However, when the Mongol armies attacked Syria in 1260, Aleppo and Damascus were both captured and sacked. Al-Nasir Yusuf II was taken prisoner by the Mongols, carried off to Tabriz, and subsequently, murdered there.
Aleppo came under the rule of the Mamluks and now lay on the northern edge of their empire, which was governed from Cairo. At first, the reconstruction of the city was neglected. Sultan Baibars (1260—1277) merely financed the restoration of two sites of pilgrimage in the west of the city. Only under Sultan Qalawun (1279-1290) was the city rebuilt again. He entrusted his governor, Qarasunqur, with the repair of the Citadel. This work was completed under his son, Sultan Ashraf Khalil (1290-1293), as is recorded by a monumental band of inscription over the entrance. When the Great Mosque was restored, the original flat roof was replaced with cross-vaults on pillars, a feature that shows the buildings links with the architecture of the Crusaders. The use of cross-vaulted halls supported on pillars is typical of many later religious buildings. The Mosque of Governor Altinbugha al-Salihi (1318-1319) is also modeled on the Great Mosque. It was the second Friday (congregational) mosque in Aleppo and was built outside the city walls in the southeast of the city, an indication of the increasing importance of this district.
It only becomes possible to trace a real revival in the city’s fortunes, however, in the second half of the 14th century. The traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited Aleppo in 1355, was impressed by the city and praised its bazaar, which was covered with wooden roofing. The records show that there was increased building activity in Aleppo during this period. The best-preserved buildings in the city include the Maristan of Governor Arghun al-Kamili, a palace converted into a hospital, which was founded in 1354/55. It had a large main courtyard and several small courtyards with fountains, each one laid out differently. Another building from this period is the Mosque of Governor Mankalibugha al-Shamsi, which commemorates his victory over the Crusaders near Ayas. This mosque also largely follows the pattern set by the Great Mosque.
In general, the buildings of this period show a strong relationship to Ayyubid architecture. The direct predecessor of the main courtyard of the maristan, with its iwan and arcades, was the Ayyubid Madrasa al-Kamiliya, while the mihrab of the Mankalibugha ash-Shamsi Mosque, with its polychrome knot design, is based on the mihrab at the Madrasa al-Firdaus. The rectangular stone reliefs with interlaced patterns that became popular in the late 14th century are also quotations from Ayyubid ornamental masonry. They are features of the Maristan (Hospital) of Argun al-Kamili and the Mosque of Mankalibugha al-Shamsi. By contrast, another building, the Madrasa of Ishiqtimur al-Maridani, dating from 1371/72, shows foreign influences. Its facade is divided by recessed windows, a feature of the new architecture of the imperial capital Cairo.
This brief boom was rudely interrupted by Timur’s troops. The Central Asian army took the city in 1400 and plundered it for three whole days. This was the period of the greatest instability for the Mamluk empire. Additional challenges threatened in the form of natural catastrophes: Aleppo suffered an earthquake in 1403, and there was a severe famine in 1422, followed by an epidemic. However, the city was rebuilt again immediately on account of its strategically important situation on the northern borders of the empire. Its entire defenses were repaired, and the city walls were extended to the east. At the same time, there was a revival of religious building in the shape of a great program of construction, for which additional craftsmen were summoned to Aleppo. One of the first buildings completed was the Utrush Mosque (1410) to the south of the Citadel. This had been begun before Timur’s attack and replaced the Altinbugha al-Salihi Mosque as the governor’s Friday mosque.
In the meantime, the conflict between the Timurids and the increasingly assertive Ottoman Empire was having positive consequences for Aleppo. The trading routes between Europe and Iran, through Asia Minor, were interrupted, and a great deal of traffic moved to the south. Aleppo was now able to attract the profitable silk trade between Persia and the Italian city-states. The importance of this business to the city is shown by the fact that the most significant buildings erected in Aleppo during the 15th century were caravanserais. There were originally at least seven, but only four have survived. Most of these two-story complexes covered greater areas than the city’s religious buildings.
Even if Aleppo profited economically from its proximity to the Ottomans, the expanding empire to the north also represented a threat to the Mamluks, and the large amount of work done on the fortifications shows how seriously this danger was taken. Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbai (1468-1496) had a great deal of renovation work carried out on the Citadel and the city defenses, and part of the eastern wall was repaired under his son, al-Nasir Muhammad (1496-1498). The most extensive fortification measures were ordered by the last sultan, Qansuh al-Ghauri (1501—1516). He had the Citadel completely rebuilt and strengthened with two massive towers in the north and south. Much repair work was done on the city walls, and the city’s northern gate, Bab al-Hadid, was completely rebuilt.
The measures taken by the sultan to fortify the city were not enough to prevent its capture by the Ottomans, who were welcomed warmly by the population. It now became possible for Aleppo to be integrated into the large empire’s trading network, and the city was soon able to exploit its favorable geographical situation between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. In the 16th and 17th centuries Aleppo developed into one of the most prosperous international trading centers in the Middle East. Raw silk from Persia, spices, pepper, indigo, coffee, and other luxury goods were traded there. The range of goods on offer attracted merchants from throughout the world, including the great mercantile nations of Europe, which were allowed to establish trade legations with the permission of the sultan. The magnificence of the city is described in detail in the accounts written by Ottoman and European travelers. There was much admiration for the souks, in which an abundance of goods was to be found, but there are also descriptions of other buildings, such as mosques, madrasas, bathhouses, private residences, and the newly-introduced coffee houses, which were very popular.
In fact, most of the monuments in Aleppo that have survived to the present date from the Ottoman period, including the residential houses built of grayish stone, still dominate the appearance of the Old City. These rich courtyard houses were always built with an iwan and a qa’a, a domed reception room that was usually paneled with wood. Above all, however, the caravanserais testify to the city’s thriving commercial life. One of the most impressive of these complexes is the Khan al-Gumruk, which was built in 1574. During the 17th century it housed the customs authorities, the money changers, the commercial court, and the English, French, and Dutch consulates. Many mosques have also been preserved. The first mosques to be built after the Ottomans took Aleppo, such as the al-Tawashi Mosque and theTakiya al-Maulawiya, were still based on Mamluk models, but by the middle of the 16th century mosques were being built in the classic Ottoman style. The domed, centered buildings with their slim minarets dominate Aleppo’s skyline to this day. The new mosques were mainly founded by provincial governors posted to Aleppo and high-ranking Ottoman dignitaries as a way in which they could erect a memorial to themselves. At the same time they also succeeded in using the foundations (waqfi they established to finance the mosques as a means of gaining ownership over valuable parts of the city center. Aleppo’s last period of prosperity ended with the collapse of the Iranian Safavid dynasty in 1722. The flow of Persian silk came to an end, and the trading routes shifted further to the south.