Aleppo before the war: Memories of an ancient city where cultures coexisted

Demise of Syria's once largest city brings heartbreak for those who remember more peaceful times

syria

A Syrian vendor sits outside his shop, at the souk in Aleppo's old city in April 2007 | Photo: RollingNews.ie

Once a vibrant metropolis known for its ancient markets and exquisite mosques, Aleppo has come to be the most important battlegrounds in the intractable civil war that has convulsed Syria in the past five years.

Government efforts to win full control of the divided city have left entire neighbourhoods in ruin, ravaged by bombs dropped from regime aircraft. An estimated 270,000 people remain trapped in the besieged, rebel-held eastern districts, with little access to food, fuel or medical supplies.

Neither schools, hospitals nor aid trucks have been spared from bombardment as the bloody battle for Aleppo rages on. Satellite images and drone footage taken in recent months show deserted streets and apartment blocks reduced to rubble in the city’s east.

For Aleppo-born author Khaled Khalifa, his home city’s demise is a cultural as well as social tragedy. Like every other city in the country, he says, it saw a glimpse of hope during the first few months of the uprising that preceded the civil war.

"The city had been waiting to break free from the rule of dictatorship and rebuild its bygone glories," he tells Newstalk.com.

"Try to imagine a city like Aleppo, with four million inhabitants, having lived through the years of dictatorship without a single newspaper – the city’s paper consisted of four pages, and was directed by government officials who snipped news from the three national newspapers – a city with no theatre, no cinema, no TV station, and no cultural life, isolated from the rest of the world.

"Before the regime took hold of it, Aleppo used to be one of the most significant cities in the east during the 30s, 40s and 50s. There were more than 20 multilingual newspapers edited and printed in Aleppo, there were dozens of cultural and social clubs, and the city's political resolutions could not be ignored.

"In short, the city was spiritually devastated, and it saw a glimpse of hope in the revolution, but it’s been ferociously punished by war."

Hussam, a DCU researcher who left Aleppo in 2006 to study in Ireland, says he has warm memories of growing up there, surrounded by family.

"It’s a busy city. That’s the big difference between Aleppo and Dublin," he tells Newstalk.com. "You would always see people out on the street; hanging around and walking about. Restaurants and coffee shops would be open until midnight."

He remembers busy markets, warm evenings and tea with friends – a time when pickpocketing was the biggest danger you faced while walking home from a night out.

"Because the norm for many people was to have two jobs, to cope with living expenses, the fun usually began from 8pm onwards," he says. "Especially in the summertime, we could go on until 1am or 2am – unless you had work early in the morning. Women and men would both go out, with no worries at all."

Aleppo's Queiq River in April 2011. Scores of executed bodies have been dumped in its waters during the war | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

'Melting pot'

The carnage of recent years has laid waste to many of Aleppo’s most iconic sites, including large swathes of its covered souk, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 14th century. The city is believed to have been inhabited from at least 5000 BC, making it one of the oldest urban centres in the world.

In the millennia since, it has been ruled by a succession of major powers: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and the French, to name but a few. This history, and its long-standing importance as a trading post, has left an indelible mark on the city’s cultural and architectural fabric.

As Khalifa puts it: "Aleppo has been a melting pot for all ancient eastern cultures, where they have coexisted without any problems. Aleppeans have always been proud of their unique cuisine, music, dance and architecture. These cannot be found in any other city around the world."

It is a city, he says, "where one cannot roam the streets without hearing the echoes of history".

That long history now has a new, painful chapter – a war fought with little regard for humanitarian considerations.

Hussam’s parents, siblings and in-laws remain there, doing their best to get on with normal life in spite of the fear caused by near-daily air strikes. While they may be in the opposition-held east, his family by no means live in safety, he says.

"We are on the other side, but every now and then you can have bombing or gunfire. It’s very hard.

"Three bombs have fallen close to where my family live this year – a mile or so away. Three months ago, bullets came through my family’s window and cracked the wall. My father had passed [the window] just a few seconds before."

And several weeks before, he adds, a cousin was injured in a blast on his way home from work.

A view of Aleppo from its historic citadel, in April 2010 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The violence means civilians in even the least disturbed parts of the city only leave their homes when necessary, Hussam says.

"Traditionally, in Aleppo, our weddings normally start late, from 10pm onwards. Nowadays, they're only in the morning or early afternoon," he says, citing the lack of electricity and danger of venturing outside after nightfall.

Khalifa also has relatives and friends living on both sides of Aleppo. "I know someone in every corner of the city, and throughout the years I’ve stayed in touch with my childhood friends who are still living there, working as truck drivers and teachers and athletes and actors," he says.

These relationships inform his most recent book, No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, published in English last month, which traces the devastating impact of the Assad regime on one Aleppo family.

The novel follows three generations of lives as they descend into tragedy, while also recalling  a time before Syrian and Russian warplanes bombarded the city.

On those still left there, Khalifa reflects: "They’ve always been proud of me, but today I am proud of them beyond words.

"Their only concern is to find a way to rebuild their city from the ashes, despite their tears and pain that seep through [during our conversations]. The city of Aleppo will never die, even if not one stone was left upon another."