Aleppo: An ancient city molded by a history of commerce

Arabic News, 2 December 1998

Under the Seleucids, the Syrian city of Aleppo came into prominence and played an important part in the economy of its old kingdom.

The Seleucids used almost exclusively the northern trade route to the East and to the city of Seleucia on the Tigris. The city was thus inevitably a trade stop on one of the main routes between Antioch and the Euphrates.

It seems probable that in Roman times the general shifting of the East—west trade to Palmyra and more southerly routes had an adverse effect on the town's activity. Devastation by the Persians in AD 540 put an end to the importance of Beroea, now known as Aleppo. When the town rose to prominence again in the tenth century the name Beroea had disappeared and it had reverted to its old name Haleb, of which Aleppo is the westernized form.

In the tenth century for a brief period the Hamadanid Dynasty made Aleppo virtually independent of the Abbasid Caliphate and the town, under the first Hamadanid Seif al-Daula, became the seat of a brilliant court. This gifted prince, eminent as a soldier, was also a poet and a judicious patron of the arts.

While the wealth of the East flowed into the town, Seif al-Daula surrounded himself with talent. For the first time since the coming of the Abbasids, Syria held up its head. In the brief fluorescence of this liberal court, which entertained the skeptical poet Mutanabbi, and al-Farabi, the foremost Arab thinker before Avicenna, Aleppo produced its answer to the earlier Umayyad glory of Damascus.

It was unfortunate for Seif al-Daula that at the end of his reign his Byzantine opponent should have been the capable Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. Successive Greek invasions gave the dynasty no chance to get a secure footing and soon after the Emir's death the brilliance passed away.

Two hundred years later under el-Malek ez-Zaher, Saladin's son, the town experienced its last political and artistic renaissance. From this Ayyubid period date nearly all the best buildings that still stand in Aleppo. Its sacking by the Mongols in the middle of the thirteenth century was a severe blow, and the prelude to over six hundred years' existence as a mere provincial administrative post, either in the uncertain dominions of the Egyptian Mamelukes or under the Turkish Empire. It remained, however, a vital economic center.

Aleppo's geographic position, at the point where the route to India via Baghdad was joined by the more northerly route into Persia via Diarbaker and Mossel, rendered political eclipse relatively unimportant. Caravan traffic had for so many centuries wound in and out of Aleppo along these routes that the habit was not easily lost. Whenever the security of the deserts permitted, merchandise from the East continued to arrive; indeed until yesterday Aleppo remained of the first importance as a trade counter.

Nassiro Khosrau, the Persian traveler who visited the town as early as 1047, says that customs were then levied there on merchandise to and from the whole Middle East, and that merchants and traders from the surrounding lands restored there.

A Christian traveler at about the same time says that in the cloth bazaar alone goods to the value of 20,000 dinars changed hands daily. Neither was the discovery of the Cape route to India as fatal as might have been expected. The Levant company and the merchants of Marseilles and Venice, who established the town as the chief depot for European trade at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, maintained a very considerable activity. Even the opening of the Suez Canal was not quite as disastrous for Aleppo as for other caravan cities; the town could still tap the traffic of regions to the north and east which remained comparatively unaffected by the new developments.

It was only with the break-up of the Turkish Empire in 1918 and the erection of fatal trade barriers to the north and north-east that Aleppo changed its character.