Ross Burns, author of Aleppo: A History, offers some insight into why he wrote this comprehensive history of Aleppo.
In this forthcoming volume, Ross Burns explores the rich history of this important city, from its earliest history through to the modern era, providing a thorough treatment of this fascinating city history, accessible both to scholarly readers as well as to the general public interested in a factual and comprehensive survey of the city’s past.
1. Why a History of Aleppo ?
This is the first comprehensive history of Aleppo in the English language. It tell the story of the city over five thousand years. Aleppo is one of the great historical centres of the Middle East and one which has preserved more of its past, especially in its role as a great emporium of the Islamic and Ottoman worlds. It has become the most hotly contested city in the current tragic conflict in Syria. Though it was initially reluctant to be drawn into the conflict, the historic centre of the city became a focal battle zone.Aleppo has recently been termed ‘the Stalingrad of the twentieth first century’. Certainly the fighting has been a tragedy of immense proportions, perhaps the greatest threat to the city since the Tamerlane in 1400 unleashed destruction and massacre on a huge scale.
Aleppo has for centuries preserved a treasure trove of monuments, even greater in number than the Syrian capital, Damascus. Scores of its built remains have been damaged or destroyed in recent years. Yet Aleppo was a city that had learned to contain or avoid the conflicts and tensions that had racked many other communities in the Middle East. Its highly mixed population in ethnic and confessional terms reflected the fact that its citizens had long practiced a policy of ‘live and let live’ which had assured a more peaceful and relaxed environment than most Middle Eastern cities.
2. What do we need to know about Aleppo?
Understanding how Aleppo survived in the past as a complex and multi-confessional society gives many insights into the city’s current plight and perhaps helps identify a way forward. Aleppo’s experiences argue against any easy assumptions that violence and confrontation are necessarily the answer to ethnic and religious tensions; or that societies can only be viable if they are based on one creed or ethnic group. More often Aleppo showed that its strength lay in an environment where people could get along together, aware of their different faiths and ethnicities but not choosing to make such issues bones of contention. In an age where such conflicts are increasingly assumed to be inevitable, Aleppo preached the contrary.
3. What has the world lost with Aleppo’s descent into chaos?
Aleppo, A History tells the full story of the city’s long history through constant reference to the great monuments which serve as signposts to its past. Perhaps more innovative and open-minded than other major Middle East centres, Aleppo had sprung back from each of the many challenges it had faced over its 5000 or more years, beginning as a tiny settlement on the banks of the Quweiq stream, a river of only passing local significance.
The city was, and could once again become, a living museum reflecting that history. From its humble beginnings it rose in the Bronze Age to fame as one of the ‘high places’ of the Canaanite religious world. The Bronze Age Temple of the Weather God, recently excavated on top of the impressive Citadel, attracted worshippers from as far away as Mesopotamia. Later the same mound (part natural rocky outcrop, part reshaped from the detritus of history to form a truncated cone) would house the Greek, Roman and Byzantine rulers and their fortresses. In the Arab Middle Ages the Citadel rose renewed in the form of a massive circular bastion in the Arab style, its formidable walls and entrance gateway still towering over the city’s historic centre.
At the feet of the Citadel, the great Zengid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman mosques and madrasas spread like an historical jigsaw. Before 2012, the traveller could walk through an urban landscape in which very little had changed since the sixteenth century, moving between calm mosque courtyards and welcoming twelfth century hammams; via suqs and busy bazar lanes still crowded with shoppers as if the modern world had passed it by; into courtyards of khans that once housed colonies of Venetian, French, English and Russian merchants anxious to tap the wealth of Aleppo Eastern trade. It remained Syria’s most dynamic commercial centre, perpetuating the role it had once played as one of the final halting places on the great trade routes across Asia to the Mediterranean.
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"His substantial book displays true scholarship, examining the whole sweep of Aleppo’s history from 3,600 BC to the present day." - Diana Darke