ALEPPO: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City by Philip Mansel
published by IB Taurus
Country Life Magazine
Only five years ago a journey to Aleppo was a form of time-travel, allowing you to walk into the old multi-faith, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Levant. The city was a Noah’s Ark of Eastern Christianity, containing Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Greek Syriac Catholic patriarchs and the older Nestorian and Jacobite faiths. But it also sheltered every shade of Islam: Sunni, Shia, Alawi and Druze and was home to Turks, Kurds and Armenians, as well as political refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Turkey and the Lebanon, all sheltering in Baathist Syria. This diversity was reflected in the dazzling shop-lined alleys of the souk, and in the musical, culinary, textile and craft traditions.
When I first heard about this book it was going to be a work of celebration, crystallized around the conservation of a family mansion and embellished with treasured photographs and archives. But the subsequent civil war has changed all that, and transformed into a tragic lament, the prelude to Aleppo’s dark age. But we may believe, that like the once-flattened cities of London, Warsaw and Dresden, that Aleppo will one day be revived. And will have need of this labour of love and fluent scholarship, a precious store-house of historical description with which to reconstruct some of its old spirit.
Aleppo was always a place apart - the land-port of Syria - safely separated from the battleships of the Christian powers by mountains, but delighting in the presence of their merchants. Each community of foreigners was ruled over by their own consul who organised a year-long round of feasts, concerts and hunting parties as well as presiding over chapel and court-house. A new consul was introduced to the city by parading through the streets, and was greeted with cannon salutes from the citadel. His actual audience with the Pasha was delayed until his presents had been tested, measured and valued.
Mansel explains how this seemingly all-mighty Pasha only sustained himself in office with the support of Aleppo’s two factions, the ‘reds’ and the ‘greens’. The reds were the populists, the city craftsmen arranged in guilds, dwelling beyond the walls. They could field a militia of 15,000 men but claimed tax immunity due to their descent from the janissary guards. They were locked into hereditary rivalry with the ‘greens’, the ashraf, who were the old Arab families who lived in sprawling mansions in the city centre, upheld by estates in the countryside. The Ashraf were passionate about education, and supplied most of the administrative officials, clerics, judges and literate merchants that ran the city.
In the background to this enduring triangular relationship a shifting chain of alliances bound the city of Aleppo to tribes of Bedouin (horse-breeding) Arabs to the east, Kurdish clans in the hills to the north and Alawi highlanders to the west. They could be employed to protect the caravans and provide muscle for an army, but at other times emerged as brigands, smugglers, bandits or heroes of the resistance.
From 1869, the Suez Canal broke the back of Aleppo’s old continental caravan routes to the East, but it also ushered in an Edwardian golden age, epitomised by the Baron Hotel and the Taurus Express, the night train to Istanbul. The city’s powerful 19th-century banks, such as Homsi and Piciotti, grew out of dynasties of multilingual dragoman, working as consuls for the foreign powers as well as spying on behalf of their Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul and intriguing with young Turk officers, and Arab and Kurdish nationalists.
It was a place of mysterious, shifting alliances. A man such as Moise de Picciotto possessed five consular uniforms while Princess Asmahan, the legendary Druze singer and film star, was a renowned triple-agent. We will not see their like again, but their city, named after the place where Abraham gave milk from his flocks as a charity to strangers, must be restored. This book helps keep alive the colour of the souks, the clamour of the Khans, the songs of the cafes, for that day.
Back to Reviews page
by Barnaby Rogerson