The dark ages come to Aleppo

In the 21st century, the Syrian city of Aleppo has entered its dark ages. Vulnerable to sudden attack by Islamic State militants, bombed routinely by Russian warplanes and lately encircled by government forces, most inhabitants have fled. Google Earth shows no lights at night.

Until the second year of the Syrian civil war in 2012, however, Aleppo was a world city, challenging categories and generalizations — a symbol of the broadminded diversity that now seems so impossible in the region — where Arabs and Turks, Armenians and French, Muslims, Christians and Jews mixed quite peacefully.

Situated on a crossroads between the Arabian Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, the mountains of Anatolia and the banks of the Euphrates, Aleppo often changed masters. Successively Assyrian, Persian and Greek, Aleppo became Roman in 64 BC. It looked west rather than east. After AD 636, conquered by Arab armies, it looked south to Mecca and Damascus.

This year is the 500th anniversary of its conquest by the Ottoman Empire, ancestor of modern Turkey, after nine centuries of Arab rule. At a junction of trade routes from Istanbul, Isfahan and Mecca, Aleppo grew into a great merchant city, with the largest marketplace in the Middle East.

Ottoman Sultans practiced a policy of toleration. According to one popular story, when he was staying in Aleppo and was asked to expel Jews, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) gestured to a bunch of flowers and inquired whether “each of them in their color did not set out the other the better…. The more sorts of nations I have in my dominions under me … the greater authority they bring to my kingdoms and make them more famous.”

English merchants also came to Aleppo, trading in cloth, silk and horses. Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth: “her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger.” Stallions bought by these English merchants are ancestors of most of today's thoroughbred racehorses. Even Aleppo proverbs reflected the city's merchant spirit: “Excess is obnoxious, even in religious worship.” Or: “If you do business with a dog, please call him sir.”

Unlike Damascus and Jerusalem to the south, Aleppo contained few religious shrines. Deals were more important than ideals. Conflict was unusual. John Barker, who served as British consul in Aleppo from 1803 to 1825, claimed that most of the time “men of different creeds live in perfect peace and not infrequently in relations of the closest friendly intercourse.”

An Arabic-speaking city with a Muslim majority, under the Ottoman Empire Aleppo also became a center of Catholic missions to local Christians. Through its Catholic inhabitants and schools, Aleppo adopted French as a second language long before French troops occupied the city in 1920, at the start of the 25-year French mandate.

In the 20th century Aleppo became famous not only as “the cradle of Arab music,” with the finest performers and most critical audiences in the Arab world, but also for its food. There are at least 26 versions of Aleppo kebab, including kebab cooked with cherries, with pine nuts or with desert truffles. Aleppo was also known as the city of 1001 kibbe (meat mixed with wheat and herbs), flavored with coriander, apricots or quince. Poems were written to kibbe as to a beloved. The food and music of Aleppo now survive outside the city — among the many expatriates settled throughout the world, in Sao Paolo, Los Angeles or Paris — rather than in Aleppo itself.

After Syrian independence in 1946, the city remained diverse. Although most Jews left after the first Arab-Israeli war and the first anti-Jewish riots — both in 1948 — the proportion of Christians in Aleppo actually rose in the 20th century. At one time, filled with refugees from genocide in Anatolia, it was 25% Armenian.

When Hafez Assad, father of the current president Bashar Assad, seized power in 1970, Aleppo declined somewhat in commercial prominence, especially relative to Damascus. (Assad relied on the latter city's business interests for support.) Meanwhile religious tensions increased. Many Sunni Muslims did not consider Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, a true Muslim. A massacre of Alawite military cadets in Aleppo in 1979 was followed by weeks when the city was “cleared” of Islamists, the markets shut and part of the old city razed to the ground.

Still the city maintained its status as a cultural hub. In 1993 the Syrian and German governments signed the Project for the Restoration of the Old City of Aleppo. Merchant houses with paneled rooms were turned into hotels for the growing numbers of tourists. Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father as president in 2000, visited and favored Aleppo more than his father. In 2006, the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization named Aleppo the capital of Islamic culture.

Now it's a capital of nothing but strife. Aleppo has been drawn into the wars between Sunni and Shiite, secularists and clericalists, dictators and liberals, armies and civilians, which are destroying the Muslim world from Mali to Malaysia.

Aleppo's fate confirms that cities depend on force. As Voltaire wrote, “God is always on the side of the big battalions.” Commerce and conviviality are no protection against armies, militias — or, as in Aleppo, barrel bombs from the air.

Political and religious hatreds have triumphed over business spirit, neighborhood solidarity and self-interest.

Aleppo is a warning. If politics or economics go wrong, if the state weakens or turns hostile, even a city as tolerant as Aleppo can implode almost overnight. Cities are vulnerable. Aleppo today. Dubai, Marseille — or other cities — tomorrow.

Philip Mansel is the author of "Aleppo: the Rise and Fall of Syria's Great Merchant City," to be published in the U.S. in June.

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