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A Short History of Aleppo - From Pre-History till the Medieval Era

Aleppo has been in the headlines recently, for a lot of reasons. I shall not delve into that but merely would like to remind people about its rich history and culture. To simply forget about one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world would be an insult to its legacy. This post aims to summarize and give the reader a historical knowledge of Aleppo.

Geography and Pre-Islamic History:

A map showing Aleppo (I don't own the map!)
First of all, it is important that we grasp in our mind the exact location of Aleppo so that we may refer to it , later in this post. Aleppo is located in northern Syria, not too far from the Turkish border (about 45 kilomtetres). Aleppo is also an inland city. 

Now that the geography bit is covered, we shall delve into the actual history. As mentioned before, Aleppo is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities. 

This is because archaeologists and historians believe that the site of the present city covers the ancient city of Aleppo which was inhabited since 5000 BC.
Aleppo had a bright early history by being the seat of power (the Capital) of an Akkadian kingdom somewhere around the third Millennium BC. Aleppo's name also first appears in old Babylonian records, where it was called Halab.

And as before, it was the capital of another dynasty (the Yamhad dynasty) during its reign of 1800 to 1600 BC, it was believed to have been one of the powerful states in the Near East at the time. The Yamhad dynasty was destroyed by the invading Hittites in the 16th Century BC. During the later centuries, the Egyptians and Hittites battled in the wars of the Levant and Aleppo found itself at the frontline.

By around the 9th Century BC, Aleppo fell to the Neo-Assyrians, and then to the Neo-Bablyonians and finally laid into the hands of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the 7th Century BC.

As part of his conquest, Alexander II of Macedon (popularly known as Alexander the Great) conquered Aleppo in 333 BC and a new city called Beroea (Βέροια) was built on its site. Aleppo later became a cultural stronghold of Greek Hellenism for centuries to come and was later part of the Seleucid Empire after Alexander's death where it remained so for almost 300 years until Pompeii the Great conquered the city in 66 BC.
The Romans built bridges, like this , in Aleppo

The Roman era saw an increase in the population of northern Syria that accelerated under the Byzantines well into the 5th century. In the Late Antiquity era,  Beroea was the second largest Syrian city after Antioch,  the capital of Syria and the third largest city in the Roman world.

Archaeological evidence indicates a high population density for settlements between Antioch and Beroea right up to the 6th century CE. This agrarian landscape holds now the remains of large estate houses and churches such as the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites.

Saint Maron of the Maronite Church was probably born in this region; his tomb is located at Brad to the west of Aleppo.

Islamic Conquest, The Crusades and the Medieval Era:

The Sassanian Persian Empire briefly took hold of Aleppo from the Byzantines in the early 7th Century AD. At this time however, the Arabs burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and by 637 AD, Aleppo was conquered by the Arabs under the leadership of Khalid Bin Waleed. The city had been relatively prosperous for the following centuries, even being the capital of an independent emirate in the 900s as well as producing fine poets like Al Farabi. 

However, a resurgent Byzantine Empire would later sack Aleppo in 962 AD and occupy it for more than 10 years ( 974-987 AD). During the Crusades, the city was besieged twice by the Crusaders in 1098 and in 1124, but was not conquered.

Perhaps a date infamously known in History was the 9th of August, 1138 : A massive earthquake struck through Aleppo and had completely ravaged the city and the countryside. Records at the time say 230,000 people had died in the earthquake, effectively making it the third deadliest earthquake of all times. Aleppo was never to recover fully from the earthquake.

During the Third Crusade, the city fell under the control of Saladin (Salah-ad Din, the famous Kurdish warrior) and his Ayyubid dynasty. In January of the year 1260 AD, the Mongols struck Aleppo with an alliance of Armenians and Frankish knights. The city fell in under 6 days and the Muslim and Jewish population were massacred. The Christian population was spared. The Mongols handed control of the territory to the Frankish knights.
The mighty Citadel of Aleppo

However, in September 1260 AD, the Egyptian Mamluks negotiated for a treaty with the Franks of Acre which allowed them to pass through Crusader territory freely, and engaged the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut on September 3, 1260.

The Mamluks won a decisive victory, killing the Mongols' Nestorian Christian general Kitbuqa, and five days later they had re-taken Damascus. Aleppo was recovered by the Muslims within a month, and a Mamluk governor placed to govern the city. Hulagu sent troops to try to recover Aleppo in December. They were able to massacre a large number of Muslims in retaliation for the death of Kitbuqa, but after a fortnight could make no other progress and had to retreat.

The Mamluk governor of the city became insubordinate to the central Mamluk authority in Cairo, and in Autumn 1261 the Mamluk leader Baibars sent an army to reclaim the city.

In October 1271, the Mongols took the city again, attacking with 10,000 horsemen from Anatolia, and defeating the Turcoman troops who were defending Aleppo. The Mamluk garrisons fled to Hama, until Baibars came north again with his main army, and the Mongols retreated.

On 20 October 1280, the Mongols took the city again, pillaging the markets and burning the mosques. The Muslim inhabitants fled for Damascus, where the Mamluk leader Qalawun assembled his forces. When his army advanced, the Mongols again retreated, back across the Euphrates.
A portrait of Tamerlane, a cruel and brutal ruler

Aleppo returned to native control only in 1317. In 1400, the Mongol-Turkic leader Tamerlane captured the city again from the Mamluks.

He massacred many of the inhabitants, ordering the building of a tower of 20,000 skulls outside the city. After the withdrawal of the Mongols, all the Muslim population returned to Aleppo.

On the other hand, Christians who left the city during the Mongol invasion were unable to resettle back in their own quarter in the old town, a fact that led them to establish a new neighborhood in 1420, built outside the city walls, at the northern suburbs of Aleppo.

This new quarter was called al-Jdeydeh ("the new district" in Arabic).

 That concludes this post. I hope you enjoyed it :)


1. Battle of Aleppo - War with the Mamluks
2.English Historical Review

For Further Reading:

1.Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo

2.Muslim Fortresses in the Levant: Between Crusaders and Mongols (Culture and Civilization in the Middle East)
3. The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 4, c.1024-c.1198, Part 2


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