5 February 2016

Aleppo through the eyes of history


According to an account by Leonard Rauwolff, a German doctor and botanist who visited Aleppo around 1575, the following story was told (by a palace gardener) of Suleiman The Magnificent, the Ottoman emperor. Suleiman was being solicited by his advisors in Aleppo to drive the Jews from the empire. The emperor heard them out. And then ‘he bade them look upon a flower-pot, that held a quantity of fine flowers of divers colours, that was then in the room, and bid them consider whether each of them in their colour, did not set out the other the better and that if any of them should decay, or be taken away, whether it would not somewhat spoil the beauty of the rest.’

In case this metaphor for the spirit of toleration was not clear enough, the emperor added: ‘that nothing may fall off from my greatness, I think it convenient, that all that have been together for so long hitherto, may be kept and tolerated so still for the future; which pleased his council so well, that they all unanimously agreed to it, and so let it remain as it was.’

This story is drawn from the first of the travel accounts dating from the late sixteenth to early twentieth century, collected in Philip Mansel’s Aleppo – The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City and published this month. The publication coincides with the latest and perhaps most violent act yet in the Syrian civil war, as government forces backed by Russian airpower close in on the besieged city. The roughly 400,000 or so people who remain (a decade ago more than two million lived in Aleppo) have already endured four years of fighting that has destroyed much of the city, both modern Aleppo and in the World Heritage Site of Old Aleppo. Satellite imagery collected and analysed by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research shows that by 2014 large parts of Aleppo had been entirely destroyed, including landmark buildings like the Grand Serail (the twentieth century centre of government), the sixteenth century Khusruwiya Mosque, and the ancient Khans or covered markets that were the centre of Aleppo’s commercial life. With the possible exception of Homs, Aleppo appears to have been the greatest urban casualty of the Syrian war.

This book is not directly concerned with the civil war, although everything in it resonates to the thud of present day events. The book celebrates the Aleppo that is now in the process of disappearing, and the diversity that fed this ancient urban civilization.

Diversity is by no means the same as peace and good fellowship on the street. By the sixteenth century Aleppo had been contested by Persians, Byzantines, Egyptians, Mongols and Arabs, who massacred and counter-massacred until it fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1516. The city was then left with a mixed population of Jews, Christians and Muslims who spent the next four centuries in a constant battle for influence and position under the often capricious and frequently neglectful rule of the Ottomans.

But the faiths and cultures of Aleppo were as much interlocked as they were opposed. Here is Francis Vernon, a naval officer who visited Aleppo in 1785, when his main concern appeared to be the pressing and age-old issue of how to meet women. ‘Every woman in the streets is closely veiled, and if a European attempted to speak to a Turkish woman it might be attended with fatal consequences, running a risque of being stabbed, of turning Mahometan, or at least of paying a considerable fine; therefore to procure those agreeable interviews, that in spite of philosophy, are so universally sought after, a stranger has only to form an acquaintance at the Jews houses, where the Turkish women frequently visit, and by the master key of a douceur well applied, the Hebrew lady winks at the innocent recreation of a tete-a-tete.’ And from other parts of Vernon’s account it seems that the word ‘innocent’ might just as well be deleted.

This is an unusual book, and Philip Mansel is an unusual historian, whose earlier books on the region and on France have divided critics. Mansel’s own chapters on the history of Aleppo are idiosyncratic to say the least. You will not find much in the way of chronological guidance here: reading Mansel is like overhearing an erudite and circuitous monologue full of coded references, with gaps and leaps and that you have to fill in yourself. If you don’t already know a lot about the history of the Levant, you are unlikely to come away much better informed. But none of that applies to the historical accounts collected in the second part of the book, diaries and letters home which have been selected for their readability as much as their historical content.

Aleppo was by no means a place of freedom of thought or action under the Ottomans. The Ottoman system was one of ‘perpetually delegated despotism’ according to Francis Newman (brother of Cardinal Newman) in 1831, and Christians, Jews and other minorities suffered discrimination and worse through the Ottoman centuries. Yet Aleppo was a place where people could co-exist. The Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt lived in Aleppo from 1809-11, and wrote: ‘It is necessary to have lived for some time among the Turks, and to have experienced the mildness and peacefulness of their character, and the sobriety and regularity of their habits, to conceive it possible that the inhabitants of a town like Aleppo, should continue to live for years without any legal master, or administration of justice, protected only by a miserable guard of police, and yet that the town should be a safe and quiet residence. No disorders , or nightly tumults occur; and instances of murder and robbery are extremely rare.’

Aleppo had no great libraries or centres of learning like Cairo, and its markets were held to be inferior to those of Baghdad or Damascus. Aleppo had something else, which was a unique sense of itself as a city. Gertrude Bell, who visited Aleppo many times, wrote in 1909 ‘If there be a better gate to Asia than Aleppo I do not know it. A virile population, a splendid architecture, the quickening sense of a fine Arab tradition have combined to give the town an individuality sharply cut, and more than any other Syrian city she seems instinct with an inherent vitality.’

That vitality derived from the tolerance that is the life-spring of the great city. Aleppo is not just another town; one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, it is a living fragment of the first civilization where the idea took root that people of different beliefs and cultures might live both in proximity and peace. At least, Aleppo was living. Here is Leonard Rauwolff again, reporting from the sixteenth century streets of Aleppo, when certain pilgrims who had made the Haj to Mecca would go about ‘with skins full of water, and for charity give to any, nay, even to the Christians that desire it.’ These pilgrims, or Sacquatz as Rauwolff calls them, have ‘a fine gilded cup wherein they power the water out of their skins … [and] when they give you to drink out of it they reach you also a looking-glass with this admonition, That you shall look yourself in it, and remember that you are mortal and must die.’

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.