Aleppo, the Death of a City and of Tolerance

Rome–The startling destruction of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and one of its most storied, is shocking and sad to see.

Aleppo's Old City Bazaar: Before and After
Aleppo’s Old City Bazaar: Before and After

The human suffering would be enough to mourn. But there’s also a tragic and probably irreversible social annihilation going on. Aleppo was the last city in the last Middle East where tolerance was a living virtue.

For centuries, Aleppo stood out as a city where Muslims, Christians and Jews could live together, even well into the 20th Century. As an oasis of broadmindedness, Aleppo was a place in the roster of other such urban gems in the Middle East where different ethnicities and religions famously coexisted, where life was urbane and hospitable. Others included Alexandria and Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad. But Nasser Arabized Egypt in the 1950s and early 60s, and the Jews and foreigners fled, as well as Lebanese and Syrians who had flocked to Egypt to escape Ottoman oppression and Europeans, too. Jews were driven out in most other places over time. Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war bloodily entrenched divisions among Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians. Baghdad, comatose under deadening Baathist rule was then battered by the US-led invasion in 2003 and has been cut up into ethnically cleansed neighborhoods of fearful Sunnis, Shiites and shrinking numbers of Christians and Kurds.

It is impossible to imagine that an atmosphere of coexistence can be restored in Aleppo after so much death and destruction. It certainly didn’t happen in Sarajevo, whose easy-going multi-ethnic makeup died in Bosnia’s civil war. Nor in Nicosia, following the 1974 Turkish-Greek conflict when Cyprus was sliced in two. Hope that Arab and Jewish populations of Jerusalem can coexist without barbed wire and fear is a distant illusion.

Neither side in the Syria conflict seems to care much. Bashar al-Assad, whose Russian and Iranian backed army currently has the upper hand in the war, has been indifferent to the destruction of eastern parts of the city. His air force randomly dropped barrel bombs to flatten ancient and modern buildings.

Ironically, he destroyed one of his few development achievements. Before the war, he and his wife patronized Aleppo and worked out a redevelopment plan with a German institution to rehabilitate the historic Old City. The Aga Khan was paying for renovation of the Citadel, the fortress that dominates Aleppo’s heights on a hill that has been fortified since the time of Alexander the Great. Entrepreneurs renovated palaces into hotels. Lemon trees flowered in courtyards. Residents supplied with German loans rehabilitated the houses in labyrinthine alleys and the souk was coming alive with commerce.

The rebels, dominated by Salafi jihadists, also care little about the physical destruction of the city nor the rending of its social fabric. Their narrow interpretation of Islam promotes the persecution of minorities and the regimentation of Sunni Muslims into sheep to follow imagined 7th Century norms. All of this is foreign to Aleppo. They are supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. (Where’s President Obama in all of this? Lamenting a lot.)

Aleppo was long considered a key prize in the conflict and Assad’s retaking of the city suggests he is winning. In 2011 was slow to join the revolt against him. Early demonstrators marched and chanted, “No Bashar…Syria is longing for freedom.” Violence soon overtook the peaceful protests. Bashar, whose co-religionists in the Allawite Islamic sect dominate the security services, shot down opponents, all of whom he labeled terrorists; fundamentalist guerrillas and terrorist groups, the most effective opposition fighting force, shouted not just for Assad’s ouster, but for the herding of “Christians to Beirut, Allawites to the grave.”

I had visited Aleppo nine months before Arab Spring and was charmed, as so many visitors over the centuries had been, by the openness of its people, their pride in the city’s past and their urbane hospitality. At the time, they thought Aleppo would regain its place as a great trading city, as it once was back when it was the western terminus of the Silk Road.

In retrospect, ominous signs of unrest to come were already visible. The pile up of displaced destitute farmers and herders in the city’s outskirts. They had been deprived of livelihood by a five year drought to which the government paid little attention. Textile mills were closing because Syrian cotton fabric could not compete with textiles from China, even though shipped from a great distance. Whispers of corruption and the concentration of wealth among Assad’s inner circle drew sighs of resignation.

Still, revolt seemed far off. Aleppo’s traditional music, centered on the oud, an Arabic lute, echoed through the bazaar. Sumptuous meals were served in merchants’ clubs, and hosts would gently tell a guest that Lebanese food, celebrated worldwide, is really Syrian cuisine and the best of that is in Aleppo.

 Citizens boasted, too, of the tradition of tolerance. One quoted from King Faisal, emir of Iraq after World War I who said, after visiting Aleppo, “The Arabs were Arabs before Moses and Jesus and Muhammed. All religions enjoin brotherhood on earth. Anyone who sows discord between Muslim, Christian and Jew is not an Arab.”

Can such a long history of tolerance be crushed? Back in the 16th Century, when Suleiman the Magnificent ruled the Ottoman Empire, a story circulated that when advised to expel Jews from Aleppo because they were moneylenders, he refused. Suleiman lectured the accusers and suggested his empire was “a pot of flowers of diverse colors” whose different hues glorify the other blossoms.

It was the same for his subjects. “I have in my dominions under me, as Turks, Moors, Greeks, etc.,” he went on. “I think it is convenient that all have been long hitherto. And may be kept and tolerated still for the future.”

Aleppo’s flowers have been pulled out by the roots and burned.

Traditional Aleppo music.

An Aleppo poet mourns his city.






Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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