Aleppo: A City That Refuses to Die
16 April 2016
By Amir Taheri
Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria's Great Merchant City, Philip Mansel, 238
pages, I.B. Tauris, London, 2016
In a bizarre coincidence, this fascinating portrayal of Aleppo, one of the
Middle East's most fascinating cities, came out exactly on the day that
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of his forces from
Syria. One stated objective of the Russian intervention was the ''liberation''
of Aleppo from ''terrorist groups'' and its handover to President Bashar al-Assad's
It is possible that the book's subtitle, which includes the word ''fall was
chosen in anticipation of Aleppo's fall to the combined forces of Russia, Iran
and Assad. If that was indeed the case, I.B. Tauris editors were not alone in
expecting Aleppo to fall after suffering six months of carpet-bombing by the
Russian air force and artillery attacks by Iranian units plus Lebanese, Afghan
and Pakistani mercenaries recruited by Tehran.
In a symbolic gesture earlier this year, the King of Bahrain, Hamad Bin Issa,
even presented President Putin with a Damascene sword, recalling a tradition
that started in 1260 when the Mongol Khan Hulagu entered Aleppo and razed it
to the ground after receiving a Damascene sword as a sign of submission to the
conqueror. (In Islamic tradition the infidel conqueror gets a Damascene sword
while the Islamic warrior or ghazi is presented with an Indian scimitar known
as muhannad.) However, though inflicted with numerous wounds, Aleppo did not
fall to the Russo-Iranian invaders, manifesting, once again, its amazing
Aleppo is one of a dozen or so ancient cities that, in one form or another,
seem to have been there from the very beginning of time. Mansel dates the
city's origins as far back as 2500 years BC, making it one of the oldest urban
settlements anywhere in the world. In its long history, Aleppo has also been a
melting pot of peoples and civilizations. It has been home to Chaldeans,
Assyrians, Hittites, Hebrews, Elamites, Persians and, more recently Kurds,
Ottomans and Arabs. According to Jewish and Arabic legends Abraham the
grandfather of the Monotheistic religions, ''milked his goats there and
dispensed the money from its sale as alms, hence the name of the city Halab,
Arabic for milk.'' Mansel writes.
To outside observers, Aleppo today appears like a battleground for the latest
version of religious wars that have marked the history of the Middle East of
This time the Alawite (Nusayri) minority is trying to regain control of the
city with support from Lebanese Shiite militias recruited by the region's main
Shite power, the Islamic Republic in Iran. The city's Sunni Muslim majority
and Christian and Druze minorities are fighting to frustrate that ambition.
Long before that, however, Aleppo was a prize in constant wars between the
Roman and Persian Empires, changing hands several times. Later, during the
Crusade, Aleppo became a battleground between Catholic mini-kingdoms
established by the Franks and Orthodox, including Armenian, statelets often
allied to Muslim emirs and khans fighting against the invaders from Europe.
Still later, Aleppo became a key base for the Sunni Caliphate under Ottomans
in wars against Shiite Iran under the Safavids.
What is amazing in all this, as Mansel demonstrates, is Aleppo's success in
also acting as a cradle of culture and civilization. It has been home to
several Sufi tariqas (paths) and, in more recent times, a focal point for
modern political ideologies including socialism and nationalism.
While Damascus was the capital of the desert, Aleppo was the heart of the
fertile plain; the two forming what is Syria today.
The first part of Mansel's book, 67 pages to be exact, is written as an
obituary of Aleppo. The tone is somber, not to say funerary. The writer
narrates how the Assad clan, under Hafez and Bashar, tried to crush the city's
creative and, necessarily, rebellious spirit. He even argues that Bashar
purposefully created the so-called Islamic Caliphate or ISIS (Da'esh in
Arabic) in order to persuade the Aleppans that their choice was limited to
tyranny under the Assads or slavery under the self-styled Caliph.
Mansel writes: ''States and religions are killing Aleppo. People and monuments
are dying….In the twenty-first Century, Aleppo has entered in dark ages.'' The
second part of the book, 137 pages, is a sheer delight to read. It consists of
travelogues and/or letters by western visitors spanning several centuries and
portraying the city and its rich and diverse experience from different angles.
Some of the travelogues deal with the seemingly endless miseries that history
has handed out to Aleppo: from earthquakes to droughts and wars among rival
powers, some of which were doomed to disappear in the sand of oblivion that is
However, the cumulative effect of Mansel's masterly selection is one of
optimism about and hope for Aleppo's future. It seems that Aleppo has always
enjoyed the blessing that Nietzsche coveted: ''Whatever doesn't kill me makes
Many tyrants tried to kill Aleppo and failed. Bashar and the boyars and the
mullahs who keep him alive are only the latest.
Aleppo is wounded, deeply wounded, but it is still alive, and fighting back.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.