[Note: This article has been previously published in "Aleppo: Rehabilitation of the Old City" (Joan Busquets, ed.), Harvard University Graduate School of Design: Cambridge, 2005.]
Aleppo, Halab, is an ancient city, inhabited continuously from as early as the 2nd millennium BCE. Its strategic geographic location on a high plateau halfway between the Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates River marked it as the crossroad of several important trading and pilgrimage routes, including the Silk Road. It has been ruled by many, including the Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Mamluks and Ottomans. Each empire built upon the foundations of its predecessor, forming a historically rich and complex layered urban core, the "Old City of Aleppo".
An impressive sight today, the old city occupies 400 hectares packed with courtyard houses, souks, mosques, churches and madrasas, with its tenth-century monumental Citadel rising at its center. The Citadel is the most prominent historic architectural site in Aleppo. It features an elliptical base approximately 325 by 450 meters. With its slanting foundation that rises to a height of fifty meters, the Citadel hovers over the city in a uniqueness that rivals the larger Citadel of Cairo and the massive Citadel of Damascus.
Like many historic cities in the Middle East, the urban fabric is dense, with tight passageways permitting limited access to vehicular traffic. The limestone courtyard house is the prevailing residential typology. Organized adjacent to each other, the courtyard houses share supporting walls creating an organic pattern of form in residential areas. Residents pass through these districts through tight narrow corridors that lead to individual homes. These semi-private areas open up to wider passageways that lead to the commercial and public service areas of the souks.
Islamic Urban History
Aleppo became part of the Islamic world in 637. It gained prominence as a regional cultural center during Abbasid rule in Syria (750-1258) and it is during this period that the city's landmark Citadel was constructed. Built on the site of the former Roman acropolis, its ruins dating to the ninth century BCE, this military fortress was commissioned by the Abbasid Prince Seif al-Din al-Hamdani (944-967) after he established Aleppo as the capital of his jurisdiction in 944. The Prince built his palace two kilometers away on the bank of the Quweiq River, the thriving source of water of the city that has since run dry. He also reconstructed the Great Mosque, first built in 715 by the Umayyad Dynasty and subsequently damaged by fire during a Byzantine raid on the city. The Abbasid period celebrated achievements in literature, science, philosophy and medicine by some of Aleppo's most renowned scholars, including poets al-Mutanabi and Abu Firas al-Hamadani, scientist al-Farabi and philosopher Ibn Khaldun.
Aleppo was attacked twice during the Crusades, in 1098 and 1124. Necessitating stronger city defenses during unstable political times, Prince Nur al-Din al-Zangi (1147-1174) developed the city walls with towers and fortified gates, eight of which remain today. He also fortified the Citadel and constructed its smaller mosque. New public institutions in the city were established as well, including a courthouse, central hospital and numerous public bathhouses, hammams. In this period, Aleppo became a main stop for merchants traveling on the Silk Road trade route that extended from the Far East to Europe. This strategic location influenced the development of Aleppo's mercantile architecture -- its bazaars or souks, and its merchant quarters, khans -- in the city center, creating a commercial hub. Today, the labyrinth of covered souks extends up to seven kilometers and remains the heart of Aleppo's traditional manufacturing and trade.
In 1183, the Ayyubid dynasty gained control of the city. They commissioned the construction of a multitude of mosques, religious schools (madrasa), and shrines (mashhad), reasserting Aleppo as a city of religion and piety. The most prominent examples of the Ayyubid contributions to the historic fabric of the city included al-Firdous Madrasa, al-Sultaniya Madrasa, al-Zaheriya Madrasa, Mashad al-Dikka, and Mashad al-Hussayn. The Citadel also underwent major reconstruction and development. By the first decade of the thirteenth century, under the rule of Ayyubid Sultan al-Zahir al-Ghazi (1186-1216) the Citadel evolved into a palatial city that included residential areas, baths, mosque, shrines, cisterns, granaries, an arsenal, military training grounds, defense towers and a large outer entrance gate. Like much of the built environment in Aleppo, these monuments were constructed in limestone due to the abundance of quarries near the city. This rich resource created a unique city of stone that differed greatly in architectural form from its closest rival, Damascus. The Aleppine masons cut and carved the stone into geometric patterns which covered the buildings' surfaces with ornate cornices, muqarnas and mashrabiya.
The Mongolian army attacked Aleppo in 1260, lighting vast fires and killing a large percentage of the population. This weakened state left Aleppo struggling to regain its status as the regional political and cultural center and during the fifteenth century, under Mamluk rule, the city underwent major restoration and reconstruction efforts. The city re-emerged as a spiritual center and Aleppo's economy simultaneously grew stronger, to become a leading Mediterranean exporter of various goods, including pistachios, silk, cotton and spices. Khans, such as Khan al-Sabun, Khan Court Bek (Khan Cordoba) and Khan Khayr Bek, were built at this time to accommodate visiting merchants and their merchandise. The khan served as a trading base and hostel for merchants and usually provided storage space for commercial goods, stables, and a mosque. In addition, a new Mamluk palace was constructed at the Citadel, rising higher than the two entrance towers.
By 1517, Aleppo became part of the Ottoman Empire and the city settled into its current position as the major metropolis of northern Syria. At this time, the city maintained a population of fifty-thousand people. Aleppo continued its growth as a center for trade, industry and commerce as the Ottoman rulers established larger khans and new souks. The Ottomans also added their signature tall and slender pencil minarets to the magnificent mosques built near the Citadel. Notable Ottoman sites include al-Ahmadiyya Madrasa, al-Adiliyya Mosque, al-Othmaniyya Mosque and Khan al-Gumruk. Towards the end of the Ottoman period, the city began to expand outside its walls and the military role of the Citadel as a defense fortress slowly diminished.
French Mandate and Master Planning
By the onset of the French Mandate (1914-1946) in Syria, Aleppo sustained a population of approximately 125,000 and western-style municipal administrative arrangements emerged, including a city-planning department, the Service D'Urbanisme. The first master plans to control the expansion and growth of the city were created during this period by French architects, one by R. Danger and another by Michel Ecochard. These plans, dated to the 1930s, recalled modernist and urban renewal planning principles that valued the grid as a pattern for organizing urban blocks. The grid prototype was to be used for new developments and for reorganizing the organic pattern of the old city fabric. During this period, the city began to expand more rapidly beyond its walls and into larger neighborhoods to the west, such as the Jamiliyya and Aziziya, with distinct French style both in architectural function and aesthetics. The two major Aleppine parks al-Sabil and the Public Park were planned and developed during this period, in addition to major streets and boulevards connecting the old city with its outskirts. The historic core was becoming a center for a much larger entity.
By 1954 another French architect, Andre Gutton, had created a new master plan for Aleppo. The plan aimed to reassert Aleppo's position as a major local, national and international transportation hub. It called for the creation of two ring roads, one that would run around the outer limits of the metropolitan area and another encircling the intramural historic city. These rings were to be connected by two axes that would run parallel on a west-east axis directly through the old city, one to the north and one to the south of the citadel. As a result of the partial implementation of this plan, approximately one-tenth of the old city's intramural urban fabric was supplanted by transportation infrastructure, including a road through the Farafra neighborhood that connected the Umayyad Mosque to the Citadel. This plan also led to entire neighborhoods being destroyed in the extramural historic quarters.
As a result of this intervention, for the first time in Aleppo's history the fluid organic fabric of the old city became isolated into islands of discontinuous activity divided by four-lane thoroughfares. High-rise apartment buildings were constructed at the edges of these thoroughfares creating buffer zones to the neighborhoods.
After the French Mandate period, Syria began to modernize at a rapid rate. Many middle and upper class old-city residents left their traditional homes to live in residential suburbs that could provide more modern amenities. As more and more people moved from the old city to new residential developments, houses were abandoned, rented out to lower-income families, or subdivided into smaller units and sold. In turn, some homes became occupied by migrants from the city's rural hinterland. Other houses became used for commercial activity such as industrial workshops and warehouses. Many lost their courtyards when more than one family would come to occupy a house and in turn partition the central courtyard to create more indoor living space. Furthermore, some property owners built up their homes an extra story (residential densities can be as high as 900 people per hectare). As a result, many private properties in the old city suffered from cracked foundations and inadequate water and sewerage infrastructure. This contributed to accelerating the decay of the old city courtyard houses as they were not constructed to withstand such demands. In addition, former khans were being transformed into spaces for storage, many becoming hosts for small-scale industrial activity. This commercial activity coupled with increased traffic congestion also led to an increase in noise, air, and water pollution for the residents of these neighborhoods.
Even though only ten percent of the urban fabric in the old city was lost, the old city dramatically changed both formally and functionally as a result of the 1954 master plan. The social coherence of the old city was compromised and the real estate base devalued as a result of the old city's decay and the uncertainty of future interventions. The limited municipal funds designated for development in the city were earmarked to construct new modern districts planned according to contemporary international design standards. With these factors prevailing, the historic fabric remained at great risk.
By 1974, efforts to modernize Syria had become a national agenda under the rule of President Hafez al-Asad. This program was reflected in urban planning policies across the country, most specifically in Damascus, it being the capitol, and in Aleppo, it being the commercial center of northern Syria. In Aleppo, a new master plan was conceived by a French/Japanese architect, Banshoya, in collaboration with the central government. This plan called for additional transportation axes to intersect the old city. It aimed to connect the main highways to the west and east of Aleppo, through the old city, which would in turn destroy additional historic fabric. Again, parts of this plan were implemented, further exacerbating the conditions discussed above.
This ongoing destruction of the old city fabric set a precedent for continued demolition throughout the decade of the seventies, accelerating the already extant physical and socio-economic division between the members of the old city community and the rest of the population. In less than thirty years, this division had marginalized the historic center from the rest of the city. However, while the majority of the population and the local government rejected the value of the old city as a residential destination, it still sustained a population of well over 150,000 people (out of an approximate 1.5 million total population).
By 1977, the Governorate of the city had plans to construct a 14-story tower adjacent to the existing Governor's office directly across from the entrance to the Citadel. At this time, a group of architects, geographers, engineers and historians lobbied the municipality to prevent construction of the high-rise structure. This team of conservationists, including local and national members of the Department of Antiquities, was successful in convincing the Syrian Ministry of Culture to list the intramural and parts of the extramural old city as a registered national monument, theoretically preventing further demolition of any part of the site by the Master Plan. At this time, a group of consultants from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) was also invited to Aleppo to offer its professional opinion about urban planning policies for the old city. The UNESCO team generated a report on the historic district. Published in 1980, it included an assessment of the current situation and outlined alternative planning opportunities to those detailed in the Master Plan. Significantly, the report reasserted the historic significance of the area and by 1986 the "Old City of Aleppo" became inscribed on the World Heritage List.
Today, much of the old city is in a state of disrepair, suffering from the development pressures of overcrowding, disintegrating infrastructure, structurally unstable buildings and poor sanitary and health conditions. The area houses almost 110,000 residents and is the destination for over 35,000 daily workers. There are approximate 14,500 households in the old city. About 60% of the houses are owner occupied and the average household size is 7.3 persons. Average annual household incomes range between 2,700USD and 4,620USD. Although not the poorest in the city, the residents are of the lowest income range in Aleppo with illiteracy rates of close to 35% in some sections. The education levels are low, particularly within the female population. Today, the major challenge for the old city is to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the residents and users of the old city while preserving the historic integrity of the urban fabric. Together with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, or the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the local municipality has initiated a comprehensive rehabilitation project to achieve this goal. In addition, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture's Historic Cities Support Programme has initiated a major restoration project for the Citadel.
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This building was originally intended to serve as a Mamluk palace, but was not completed in that period and later became an Ottoman khan. The khan is made up of a main entrance with large gates, faced with a grand iwan directly on the axes. It is this part of the khan with the large scale iwan and its ornamentation and inscriptions on the windows of the two rooms that flank it, that is dated to the Mamluk period.
The khan today is a commercial space that has deteriorated from its former majestic stature. Its large courtyard now serves for parking for the various shops and storage areas in the building. On the second floor, there is a banquet hall (Qahwat al-Burtuqal which means Orange Cafe) that is used for wedding ceremonies and celebrations.
Rihawi, Abdul Qader. 1979. Arabic Islamic Architecture in Syria. Damascus: Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. 232.