From Levantine glory to dystopian wreck

Aleppo: the Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City
Philip Mansel
I.B. Tauris  250pp  £17.99

Aleppo, Syria’s second city after Damascus, is one of the oldest settlements on earth, where Abraham is supposed to have milked his flocks in the fortified citadel. Today much of the city is in ruins, fought over by Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Kurd and Christian. Successively, it was Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Seleucid, Armenian, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, French, British and Syrian. It is now a wreck of bread queues, various violent militia, artillery duels and aerial bombardment, its citizens fleeing to Turkey, Greece, Germany – anywhere they can. ‘If you do business with a dog you should call him “sir”’, advises a traditional Aleppo proverb, illustrating what the various ethnic and religious factions may have thought of each other, even when tightly leashed in by their Turkish overlords. Today the Turks are over the border and it is a case of dog-eat-dog with a vengeance.

Roughly one fifth of this book comprises the text of Mansel’s history, with the rest prose from travellers’ journals from 1693 to 1920, all but one of whom were men and all but three British. Mansel concentrates on Ottoman Aleppo. We learn about the feud between Janissary and Ashraf (descendants of the Prophet) but nothing about the Sunni-Shia rivalry that is central to the historical division of Islam. President Assad’s Alawites receive but a sentence and the ruling Ba’ath Party is not listed in the index. The souks were once the finest in the Levant, but are now in ruins. The ancient stone buildings are now wrecked. At night, satellite pictures show a city without light. The population, once two million, is now fewer than 500,000. How did it happen?

Mansel sees Aleppo as a Levantine city, similar to Alexandria or Smyrna, located on or near the Mediterranean, with economies dominated by international trade, an Italo-French lingua franca, enforced religious toleration, no one ethnic group large enough to be exclusively on top, the European consuls with their independent courts offering protection and succour. The end of empire did for all of these cities, with rival nationalisms driving out minorities or setting them against each other. Aleppo lasted longest, at peace until 2012. ‘Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut!’ is the war cry of the Western-funded ‘Free Syrian Army’, Mansel informs us, with Syrian Christian bishops supporting President Assad’s Alawite regime against the Sunni rebels. Last year there were calls for the UK to bomb Assad’s forces; this year RAF Tornado jets are assisting in the bombing of the Salafist Sunni forces of ISIS. If you are not careful you can end up attacking both sides and bombing yourself: Aleppo today is what multiculturalism looks like when it goes pear-shaped.

The anthology of travellers’ reports is not just padding. Cardinal Newman’s brother, Francis William Newman, in Aleppo in 1831-32, gets to the heart of the malaise: ‘No poetry, no science, no patriotism, for in fact no country – no theatre, no public amusements. The men are without anything that enriches or elevates life. Moslem and Christian live together, yet this is too dangerous in the villages. To mix them would produce frays, insurrections, massacres.’ Outside was even worse: not 500 yards from the city walls, Bedouin and Kurd attacked and plundered 200-300 camel caravans, the Janissary garrison doing nothing. Not everyone was enamoured of Aleppo: ‘Wit was born in Egypt, pointed at Damascus, and died at Aleppo’ is the Arab proverb quoted, in 1851, by the Hon. Frederick Walpole. Only one traveller, Henry Swainson Cowper, mentions, in 1894, that the roofs of Aleppo are flat and that the inhabitants like to spend a lot of time on them. Apart from Gertrude Bell, none of the travellers speak Turkish or Arabic well enough to engage the locals in revealing conversation: observation is what we get. 

Robert Carver is the author of The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania (Flamingo, 2009), and Paradise with Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay (Harper Collins, 2007).

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