Aleppo, the disappearing memory of the Silk Roads

Located between the eastern Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates Valley at the crossroads of several trade routes since the 2nd millennium B.C., Aleppo stands out as ­one of the key centers along the legendary Silk Roads. Aleppo is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited urban cities. Its architecture reflects the influences of its successive rulers: Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1986, the ancient city of Aleppo contains the renowned Citadel, the 12th-century Great Mosque and various madrasas, residences and caravanserais (khans). These historic monuments bear witness to the social, cultural and economic exchanges that flourished in Aleppo during the Golden Age of the Silk Roads from 12th to the early 15th centuries.  

Aleppo’s famous Bazar, teeming with over 1,000 stalls extending over 13 km long is one of the world’s largest covered bazars. It has been the core of the city’s economic and social life for hundreds of years. Like similar bazars of Bukhara or Isfahan and other major cities along the Silk Roads, each section of the Aleppo’s Bazar, bears the name of trades or products such as the Cooper Souq or Wool Souq. For centuries, Chinese silk and porcelain, Central Asian cotton, spices from India, Italian crystal and glassworks, metal products from Persia and Iraq, fragrances from Zanzibar and the Far East as well as local products such as soap or fabrics have been imported to Aleppo’s Bazar, and transited to bazars in other regions by caravans arriving in or leaving the distinctive caravanserais (khans). Different caravanserais such as Khan al-Sabun, Khan Court Bek (Khan Cordoba) or Khan Khayr Bek accommodated visiting merchants and their merchandise. Aleppo’s Bazar was extended in the 16th century under Ottoman rulers.  

Aleppo became a major regional cultural center by 8th century under Abbasid rule. The diverse mixture of buildings reflects Aleppo’s pivotal role in the promotion and dissemination of knowledge over the last twelve centuries. For instance, the Great Mosque constructed under the Umayyads and rebuilt in the 12th century -- a unique combination of Byzantine and Islamic architecture and art -- served as a major center for religious education and exchanges for centuries. Other noteworthy centers of learning include the 12th-century Madrasa of Halawiye, which incorporates remains of Aleppo's Christian cathedral, and the Madrasah of al-Firdows, constructed by Daifa Khatoun in 1235 and Saint George Cathedral. The great Iranian philosopher, Shahab ad-Din Sohrawardi known as the Shaykh-e Ishragh, is among the many scholars who were attracted to Aleppo.

The monumental Citadel of Aleppo built on the site of the former Roman acropolis within the old walled city overlooking the Bazar and mosques and madrasas, reminds us of the strategic importance of Aleppo for Arab rulers in the Golden Age of the Silk Roads.

The remains of Aleppo’s Citadel nicely illustrate components of different cultures that have forged the city’s identity. This military fortification complex was constructed after victory of the Muslim ruler Salah El-Din on the Crusaders and reinforced later in the 13th-and 14th centuries with great towers and the stone entry bridge. Together with its surrounding moat as well as defensive wall above a massive sloping stone-faced glacis and the great gateway, the citadel has come down to us as a remarkable example of military architecture at the height of Arab dominance. The famous Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta who traveled along the Silk Roads in the mid-14th century immortalized Aleppo’s Citadel in his diaries.

This living memory of the Silk Roads however, is now under threat due to the ongoing armed conflict. Aleppo’s Great Umayyad Mosque has been seriously damaged due to heavy fire exchanges between the belligerents while its minaret that date back to Mameluk period (late 11th century) has collapsed. The great Bazar of the city once so crowded has been sadly deserted since last year while its marvelous allays and caravanserais have been massively damaged by successive explosions. Hundreds of stalls together with their merchandises burned in fire resulting from the fighting over control of the city in October 2012. The famous citadel of Aleppo has not been spared from the conflicts, its magnificent structure and numerous, artifacts conserved within have also undergone damage.    

Since early 2012, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has repeatedly called upon on all parties involved in the conflict in Syria to safeguard the country’s cultural heritage and take all possible measures to avoid further destruction. Recalling the importance of preserving the exceptional cultural heritage of Syria, the Director-General urged “all parties to take all necessary precautions to stop the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage, which includes some of the most precious in the world.

If you have recent or old photos or videos of the Aleppo’s historical monuments; you can share them with others through the UNESCO Silk Road Online Platform via the following email address:     

Related links:

“Stop the destruction!” urges UNESCO Director-General

UNESCO Director-General deplores the escalation of violence and the damage to World Heritage in Syria

 Director-General of UNESCO reiterates her appeal for the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage

UNESCO Director-General deplores the increasing threats and possible damage on the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria

UNESCO Director-General deplores destruction of ancient Aleppo markets, a World Heritage site

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