BEIRUT: Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and once a model of coexistence, is now a mesh of rubble and shattered lives.
Philip Mansel’s book “Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s great Merchant city,” has been updated and is also available in paperback.
An eminent specialist of the Levant, Mansel attempts in the first part of his book to explain how harmony gave way to an implacable cataclysm. In the second part, the author has carefully selected a collection of travel writings on Aleppo from the 16th century to the 21st century.
The ruthless and pitiless destruction of Aleppo shows the vulnerability of cities. Mansel believes that cosmopolitanism, literally meaning cosmos (world) in a city (polis), is an elusive concept. When politics and economics go wrong, rules are broken, and anything can happen even in a city like Aleppo.
The author focuses on Aleppo’s history since the Ottoman Empire. The people of Aleppo, angered by the Mamluk excessive taxation, welcomed their defeat by the Ottoman army. Aleppo remained loyal to the Ottoman rule for 400 years and became one of the most important trading centers in the Levant.
Caravans from India, Iran, the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula passed through the city on their way to Iskenderun, Smyrna, and Constantinople. Already, in 1550, a French diplomat claimed that Aleppo was the most important commercial center of the Levant.
A century later, Aleppo was still trading with the Ottoman Empire and although its external trade with foreign countries was diminishing, its multiracial and multireligious population lived peacefully. Even during the French Mandate (1923-1946), the cosmopolitan population of Aleppo was united against the French.
Syria’s independence granted by France on Jan. 1, 1944, was followed by the proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, triggering the departure of Aleppo’s Jewish population.
The subsequent establishment of the Assad regime caused a political and economic rift in the country, and particularly in Aleppo, with the affluent west and the impoverished east brutally attacked and decimated by Syrian and Russian armed forces with the help of Iranian soldiers, Lebanese and Kurdish militias.
While emigrants are preserving the memory of Aleppo in cities around the world, some inhabitants of East Aleppo are returning.
Destroyed but alive, destitute but armed with faith and hope, they embody the quality of those who have contributed to make Aleppo one of the most beautiful cities in the world. They are determined to rebuild knowing that their shattered lives remain the hardest to repair.