19 September 2023

beautiful Aleppo: lost history

Ancient hammams/baths 
renovated during the Ottoman period
Wiki 2010 

Madrasa Halawiye
built in C12th 

The Syrian city of Aleppo/White or Halep/Milk takes its name from a local white limestone with which the city was built. Lots of set­tle­ments located in Aleppo’s western sub­urbs were also built with the local lime­stone. The Archaeol­og­ical Museum shows notable an­c­ient ar­t­e­facts found in northern Syria at major archaeological sites.

The city surrounded a monumental medieval Citadel which looked like a hillside acr­op­olis, the intel­lect­ual centre of traditional Syrian ar­chitecture, science, poetry, cuisine, music and crafts. The relics of ancient civilisat­ions lay in the remains of mad­rasas-religious school, palace and bath­hous­es. The early Graeco-Roman streets showed C6th Chris­tian build­ings, mediev­al walls and gates, Mame­luke mosques, and later Ottoman mosq­ues and pal­aces. The Citadel reflected C12th-14th Arab milit­ary might.

Hammam baths interior
Wiki 2001

In Damascus, 310 ks from Aleppo, each hospital was beau­t­ifully de­signed and built. So much money was spent on the archit­ect­ure and art that hospitals became the crown jewel of each new ruler’s ef­fort to refashion his city. Hos­pit­als also become part of Aleppo’s politico-architectural land­scape that defined urban Islam! But not just hospitals. In Aleppo, Nur Al din’s patronage extended to imp­ort­ant madrasas and Sufi monast­er­ies.

On the crossroads of some trade routes, Aleppo was ruled successively by the Hittites, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyub­ids, Mame­luks and Otto­mans, each leaving their mark. See the C12th Great Mosque found­ed under the Umayyads and rebuilt. See the C12th Madrasa Halawiye, which incorp­or­ated remains of Aleppo's Great Cathedral of St Helena. The mosques, mad­rasas, suqs and khans beaut­ifully reflected the social, cultural and eco­nomic asp­ects of that very rich city.

Before the recent Syrian Civil War, these 13th and C14th relig­ious and commercial buildings gave well preserved examples of medieval Is­l­amic arch­it­­ec­ture which came from its hist­orical heritage, covering varied nationalities and bel­iefs. Chur­ches, mosques and synagogues in different archit­ec­t­ural st­yles enhanced the streets alongside baroque, Norman, Neo-classic, Oriental & Chinese styles.

Aleppo became one of the main stops on the Silk Road, with vendors set­ting up in the cov­ered bazaars. These ex­t­ended for many ks via na­r­row, labyrinth­ine st­reets, grouped by trade so that cus­t­omers could shop for spices, silk or soaps made lo­cally. Souq al-Madina was a very large, covered trading market for imp­orted lux­ury goods eg sp­ices and dyes from India; raw silk from Iran; coff­ee from Dam­as­cus and local products like wool and leath­er.                      

Great Synagogue Aleppo
before it was destroyed
Times of Israel
Alep­po’s Great Synagogue embodied the once-thriving Jewish commun­ity. Built in C5th AD, it lasted until recently when the last Jews were exiled. Empty but intact since 1947, its was guard­ed by the re­gime and by Al­eppo’s Jewish dia­­s­p­ora. The high bimah/prayer platform is 20 steps off the ground, sun-lit th­rough the colonnades, with 7 reposit­or­ies for Torah scrolls.

Aleppo’s Jewish community was lucky when the Ot­t­oman Empire opened up to thousands of Spanish Jews who’d been exp­el­led in 1492. The Jewish community slowly recovered; Jews became inv­ol­ved in trade and crafts, doing business with European traders who came to Syria. The Cave of Elijah hous­ed the Alep­po Codex, best copy of the old, treasured Hebrew Bible where it was venerated as a most sanctified object. In 1947 it was partly dest­roy­ed by a mob but mir­ac­ulously most of it was smug­­­gled from Syria to Jerusalem and was hous­ed in the Shrine of the Book. 

In 1992, Old Al­eppo's Pro­gramme for Sustainable Urban Development was set up in the Municipality in cooperation with internat­ional agencies. In 1999, the Directorate was established to guide the old city’s restoration by covering 1]planning, 2]permits 3]implementation & maintenance. A comprehensive plan for the Old City’s evolution was prepared, pr­omoting sust­ainable urban manage­ment and dev­elopment. Their policies partic­ul­arly protected arch­aeol­ogical remains found during recent excavations.  


Beautiful view from Aleppo's Citadel
before the Civil War
Yahoo News
Since UNESCO’s coverage, conservation efforts in the Old City have focused on the dominant Citadel, pres­erving the stunning hist­or­ic­al val­ue. However the setting was vul­ner­able, due to few control mech­an­isms in the planning administ­ration, includ­ing no buffer zone. The historic handic­raft and comm­ercial activities continued as a vital part of the city’s traditi­onal urban life, prot­ected by the Directorate of Ant­iqu­it­ies and Museums.  

British archaeologist-writer Gertrude Bell travelled from Dam­as­cus to Iraq, returning via Aleppo in 1911. And then another Iraqi trip in 1913-14. Bell wrote books during her trav­els and left 7,000 film negatives from her journeys, which are now with her papers at Newcastle Uni’s Bell Archive. She photo­­gr­aph­ed the prec­ious sites, providing evidence of Aleppo and Raqqa, later destroyed.

Although the Citadel still dominates the city, the 8 storey ho­tel dev­elopment in the Bab al-Faraj area impacted badly on vis­ual int­e­grity, as did the development of tall new buildings and widened roads before UNESCO inscr­ipt­ion on the World Heritage List in 19­86. Aleppo's Old Town, with its cultural and architectural beauty, was protected - the surv­iving ensemble of major buildings, and the urban character of the suqs all contributed to its value. But lack of conservation has made the hist­or­ic­al resources vulner­able.

War destruction in Aleppo, near the citadel.
Francesco Bandarin

Tragically Aleppo was steadily dest­roy­ed between 2012-16 during the Syrian war, when the city was at the centre of major clashes between Syrian government forces and the opposition. This was a massive loss to the locals and to the rest of the world, because of the devast­at­ion produced by the conflict and the limitations of the internation­al system of heritage protection. The gorgeous city, that was for centuries the largest city in Syria, is no longer gorgeous.


jabblog said...

It's sad to see historic beauty destroyed by conflict.

roentare said...

Thank you for the lesson on the city of Aleppo. It is so sad that war has to destroy everything in our history. The synagogue would have been magnificent to view.

Joe said...

There were large Jewish communities in Aleppo and Damascus for a very long time, including some of my in-laws... at least until after Israeli independence in 1948, when the Jews were expelled. Even after most Jews left Syria, pogroms in Damascus and Aleppo continued.

Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain etc welcome tourists, but Syria does not. Now it is probably too late to see beautiful Aleppo.

Hels said...


Terribly sad. And of all the tragic, destructive and murderous wars in history, civil wars seem to have been the most painful and hard to recover from.

Hels said...


thank goodness every single site has been photographed, painted and described in detailed literature. But imagine trying to rebuild 13th and C14th relig­ious and secular buildings. I am not sure it could be done, even if the will is there.

Hels said...


nod. Even if you were to be welcomed into Syria in the next decade, beautiful Aleppo has largely disappeared. IF wars allow, I would plan to visit family history in beautiful Alexandria or beautiful Odessa instead.

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

I enjoyed this post, it is sad when lovely buildings are destroyed by wars and such

mem said...

one of the things that really impressed me about Poland was the incredible efforts made to rebuild after the destruction of the second WW . Its never the same but in another 500 years it will again be history which will include a description of this insane barbarism, and so the history of humanity rolls on :(

diane b said...

What a crying shame. Such beauty and history destroyed by conflict. Why can't people in the 21st Century be more caring of such ancient buildings and places? The rulers and people of those early times would be horrified of what their later generations have done.

hels said...

It is tragic enough when national treasures are destroyed by earthquakes and bushfires, but both sides in a war care only about killing the enemy. They don't give a flying toss about protecting national treasures.

hels said...

Rebuilding history and architecture requires endless money, scientific skills and governmental commitment. I cannot see Aleppo recovering from the civil war barbarism.

hels said...

Imagine the killers' grandparents, watching their own boys destroy the national treasures. Even worse, imagine UNESCO seeing the internationally protected heritage being destroyed without any accountability.

Margaret D said...

Interesting to read Hels.
It's just dreadful when buildings especially beautiful ones are destroyed in war and they never seem to look the same after a rebuild.
Then also the lives lost must have been enormous.

Hels said...


exactly so. It is very difficult to accurately know about dead combatants and civilians in a civil war because neither side can admit to killing their landsmen. The estimates range from 550,000 to 600,000.

The destruction of historical sites and beautiful buildings is much easier to see. But the Aleppo citizens who survived are still wary of ongoing catastrophes.

Gattina said...

Why people have to make wars ??? we are not in a sandbox anymore. There are enough natural catastrophes kill people for those who believe that we are too many on earth ! I was born in Germany in 1943 and have lived all the horrors of after war !

Hels said...


Agreed. Nothing has changed in world history :( I think there are as many wars now as ever before, both inter-national and civil wars, and we haven't learned a thing. As you note, people are killed endlessly, cities destroyed and survivors are left to cope somehow.

Does it matter that the specific crises _causing_ those wars in the first place are not usually resolved at the time a truce is called. Of course it is important.. otherwise the fear and hatred just simmer on.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde de quarta-feira. Excelente aula de história e informações, minha querida amiga.

Hels said...


a very sad historical lesson, yes. Especially if you planned to visit these old beautiful cities one day, but didn't get around to it yet :(