‘After Constantinople and Cairo, Aleppo was the third largest city in the Empire.’
I have read that Aleppo was once a vibrant city, one in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived and traded together in peace. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Aleppo is an ancient, diverse city. In Aleppo’s long period as one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities it has been successively ruled by the Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman and French empires. Because of its location at the end of the Silk Road, Aleppo became the third largest city in the Ottoman Empire. For 400 hundred years, British and French consuls and merchants lived in Aleppo, which was famous throughout the region for its food and music. How recognisable is this Aleppo today?
‘States and religions are killing Aleppo. People and monuments are dying. Satellite imagery shows that there are now almost no lights at night in the city.’
In this book, Dr Philip Mansel describes Aleppo’s decline from power, a city currently shattered by Syria’s ongoing civil war. Many people have been killed and the ancient Old City has been devastated. There are two parts to this book. Part I provides a summary of Aleppo’s history, and Part II provides a view of Aleppo through the eyes of travellers between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries (from the travels of Dr Leonhart Rauwolff in the sixteenth century, to those of both Gertrude Bell and Leonard Woolley in the first two decades of the twentieth century).
In Part I, Dr Mansel focusses on Aleppo’s significance as a junction between the East and the West, its role as a great merchant city. While this is clearly the focus of the book, I’d have also liked to learn more about Aleppo’s pre-Muslim history. In Part II, I enjoyed reading the different accounts of Aleppo at different times over the past four hundred years. There’s a contrast between past and present which is both informative, and sad. What does the future hold for Aleppo? Before the civil war, it was Syria’s largest city. Can it be again? A decade ago, more than two million people lived in Aleppo, now the population is probably closer to 400,000.
I finished this book wanting to know more about Aleppo, and hoping that the city can recover.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and I.B. Tauris for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.