Plagues, conquests and disasters: Aleppo’s unending troubles

If Syrian armed opposition is defeated in eastern Aleppo that would be its most signifi­cant battlefield loss since 2011.


2016/10/09 Issue: 76 Page: 12


The Arab Weekly
Sami Moubayed



In 1953, Syrian president Adib al-Shishakli faced an uprising against his mili­tary rule in Damascus. He famously said: “My ene­mies are like a snake; its head is in the Druze Mountain, its stomach is in Homs and the tail in Aleppo.”

If the head is smashed, he argued, then the snake would die. The analogy pretty much still applies — only in reverse: The head of the anti-regime Islamic rebels is in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside.

Damascus says that if the head is chopped off, the snake will die, possibly bringing an end to the Syria war, now in its sixth year.

The eastern part of Aleppo is the only major urban centre in the hands of Turkish-backed rebels. Other cities such as Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Al-Buka­mal are in the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), while Idlib in north-western Syria is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria that recently renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

If the Syrian armed opposition is defeated in eastern Aleppo that would be its most signifi­cant battlefield loss since 2011. It would also tremendously weaken the rebels’ negotiating position ahead of a new round of any Syrian peace talks.

Syria’s state-run media called the battle of Aleppo the “Mother of All Battles”. Many argue that it will be the last big battle in Syria. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said that Aleppo was “strategic” for who wins the war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his country’s full weight behind the Syrian Army’s blockade of eastern Aleppo, which was completed in July and broken by the rebels by mid- August. Battles continue to rage at the city’s borders.

Although Russia’s Defence Ministry has announced three humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from east Aleppo, the city has been bombed around the clock for weeks, killing and wounding hundreds of people.

The city is no stranger to prolonged sieges and devasta­tion. Aleppo has been at the crossroads of history for centu­ries. It has been seized, looted, torched, occupied and liberated time and again by various conquerors.

When not battered by war, it suffered from natural disasters and epidemics. In October 1138, Aleppo was hit by one of the worst earthquakes in history — the third deadliest of all time. An estimated 230,000 people were killed in the city and its vicinity.

Another earthquake struck on New Year’s Eve in 1344, ripping Aleppo to pieces and destroying its great citadel. A cholera epidemic killed thousands in 1823, followed by the plague in 1827, which took 20-25% of the city’s population.

When the Muslim general Khaled ibn al-Walid marched on Aleppo, he besieged it from August to October 637, forcing its Byzantine rulers to surrender.

The Mongol leader Hulagu Khan sacked Aleppo in 1260. For six days he hammered the city day and night and then overran it, killed all males and sold women and children into slavery.

The citadel was demolished and Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque was burned. The same mosque was destroyed again in the current war in April 2013.

In 1400, the city was again besieged and destroyed, this time by Tamerlane, the powerful leader from Central Asia. He massacred the inhabitants and built a tower of 20,000 skulls outside the city walls before marching on Damascus.

In 1850, Aleppo collapsed into turmoil yet again, this time when Muslim rioters massacred the city’s Christians, temporarily creating a power vacuum that was filled by local militias. The Ottomans responded and retook the city by force.

Located at one end of the Silk Road, Aleppo was always vital for traders, being a mandatory stop for caravans for millennia until the Suez Canal was opened in the late 19th century, making sea routes more favourable for business.

Under 400 years of Ottoman rule, Aleppo surpassed Damas­cus in importance, as the main market for goods coming to the Mediterranean from the Far East.

The Levant Company of London, a joint-trading company charged with handling England’s trade with the Ottoman Empire, had its headquarters in Aleppo until the late 18th century.

Venice opened a consulate in Aleppo in 1548, as did France in 1562, followed by England in 1583 and the Netherlands in 1613.

So famous was Aleppo that it was mentioned by William Shakespeare in Othello (1604) and Macbeth (1606).

In modern times, Aleppo was separated from the rest of Syria by French colonial authorities and briefly served as capital of a federal Syrian government in 1922. It produced only two of Syria’s presidents, the last democratically elected head of state, Nazem al-Qudsi (1961-63) and Amin al-Hafez, the first Ba’ath ruler (1963-66).

Its support for a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the early 1980s placed it on the blacklist of then-president Hafez Assad, who never visited Aleppo during his 30-year rule.

Aleppo returned to promi­nence prior to 2011 and ten years ago was proclaimed “Capital of Islamic Culture” by UNESCO, becoming a magnet for Arab tourists.


Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.


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