Archaeologists believe that human beings settled on the hilltop that became Aleppo—some 225 miles north of Damascus—around eight thousand years ago. Cuneiform tablets from the third millennium BC record the construction of a temple to a chariot-riding storm god, usually called Hadad; while mid-second-millennium Hittite archives point to the settlement’s growing political and economic power. Its Arabic name, Haleb, is said to derive from Haleb Ibrahim, Milk of Abraham, for the sheep’s milk the biblical patriarch offered to travelers in Aleppo’s environs. Successive conquerors planted their standards on the ramparts of a fortress that they enlarged and reinforced over centuries to complete the impressive stone Citadel that dominates the city today.
“It is an excellent city without equal for the beauty of its location, the grace of its construction and the size and symmetry of its marketplaces,” wrote the great Arab voyager Ibn Batuta when he visited in 1348. During the Renaissance, Aleppo was Islam’s third most important city after Constantinople and Cairo. The modern Lebanese historian Antoine Abdel Nour praised it in his Introduction à l’histoire urbaine de la Syrie ottomane:
Metropolis of a vast region, situated at the crossroads of the Arab, Turkish, and Iranian worlds, it represents without doubt the most beautiful example of the Arab city.
Its beauty reveals itself in the elegance of its stone architecture, redolent of historic links to Byzantium and Venice; and in the diversity of its peoples—Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, eleven Christian denominations, Sunni Muslims, a smattering of dissident Shiite sects from Druze to Ismailis, ancient families of urban patricians as well as peasant and Bedouin immigrants from the plains—that makes it a microcosm of all Syria.
Documentary records of Ottoman Turkey’s dominion over Aleppo from 1516 to 1918 portray communities of Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in the same neighborhoods. Unlike Tunis, where Jews were obliged to rent living space, Aleppo’s governors imposed no restrictions on house ownership by members of any religious group or by women. It was not unusual for large mansions to be divided into apartments in which Muslim, Jewish, and Christian families dwelled with little more than the usual rancor that afflicts neighbors everywhere. Unlike more xenophobic Damascus, Aleppo encouraged European traders to trade and live within the city walls. The European powers, beginning with Venice in the sixteenth century, established in Aleppo the first consulates in the Ottoman Empire to guard the interests of their expatriate subjects. Reputed descendants of Marco Polo, the Marcopoli family, retained the office of Italian honorary consul well into the twentieth century.
In a neglected corner of the old Bahsita Quarter, behind several old office buildings, stands a monument to Aleppo’s historic mélange. The Bandara Synagogue was built on a site of Jewish worship that predates by two centuries the 637 AD Arab-Muslim conquest of Aleppo. Its courtyard of fine cut-stone arches and domes resembles the arcaded cloister of the nearby al-Qadi Mosque. The Jewish community of Aleppo, like its larger counterpart in Damascus, gradually made its way to New York after the founding of Israel. The last Jews departed en masse in 1992, when then President Hafez al-Assad lifted restrictions on their emigration. Suddenly, Damascus and Aleppo were bereft of an ancient and significant strand of their social fabrics. The synagogue, restored by Syrian Jewish exiles, is the forlorn relic of a community that thrived for ages before vanishing under the weight of war between Syria and Israel. It is also a harbinger of what Aleppo’s Christians see as their fate if the latest uprising in cities such as Homs leads to all-out war or domination by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists.
“Am I worried?” Archbishop Mar Gregorius Ibrahim Yohanna, metropolitan in Aleppo of the Syrian Orthodox Church, asked rhetorically. “Yes. Am I afraid? No.” The archbishop’s concern is widespread among Christians of both Arab and Armenian origin, who claim to make up nearly 10 percent of Aleppo’s two and a half million people. (Their percentage, while half what it was fifty years ago, may have halved again to 5 percent, owing to Christian emigration, low birth rate, and the steady influx of rural Muslims into the city. The Syrian government does not publish statistics by religion.)
The archbishop, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Britain’s Birmingham University on Arab Christianity before Islam, insisted that Christians should not take sides between the government and its opponents. Unlike the Christians of Lebanon, Syrian Christians do not have their own political parties or armed militias. Mar Gregorius told me, “The only weapon we can use is to leave the country. I don’t believe it’s right.” Those who are leaving, even if only for the duration of the conflict, provide a rationale similar to the one Syrian Jews gave me in 1992: they were escaping not the Assad regime, but the Muslim fundamentalists who might overwhelm it.
“Many Christians have left,” Dr. Samir Katerji, a fifty-eight-year-old architect and member of the Syrian Orthodox Church, told me. “Many Armenians have bought houses in Armenia. Even the Muslims are leaving.” Katerji, who designed the amphitheater for outdoor films in the Aleppo Citadel, had “visited my aunt’s house,” a local euphemism for going to prison, several times. The security services arrested him for his outspoken criticism of the Assad regime and the Baath Party. “I feel the majority of the Syrian people is against this government,” he told me over a drink in his office. “It’s a very bad government. Governments and armies everywhere are dirty, even the Vatican.” While lamenting Syria’s lack of basic political freedoms, including free speech and assembly, he acknowledged that “we have social freedom. We are free to declare our thoughts and beliefs and to practice our Christianity.” He condemned murderers within the regime, but had no faith in its armed opponents: “Inside the opposition are also murderers who will not allow stability.”
Instability brought on by armed rebellion, mass demonstrations, regime violence, and economic sanctions has unsettled Syria’s many minorities. The Alawites—whose doctrines are related to those of the Shia branch of Islam, and whose rule is opposed on principle by many Sunnis, who make up some 75 percent of the Syrian population—are concentrated in the west near the Mediterranean. The Kurds live mostly in the east beside the Euphrates and the Druze in the south in Jebel Druze, so each of those minorities has a territorial base from which to negotiate their survival no matter who takes power. (In Beirut, just before I crossed the border to Syria, Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader, told me he had advised his fellow Druze in Syria to join the rebellion. “They swim in a Sunni sea, not an Alawite sea,” he said, mentioning what happened to the Algerians who sided with the French during the war of independence: many were killed and the remainder found refuge in France.)
The Christians, however, are thinly dispersed among Aleppo, Damascus, Wadi Nasara, Qamishli, and other parts of the country. Having witnessed the flight of nearly two million Iraqi Christians to Syria during Shia–Sunni fighting after 2003, they anticipate a similar exodus from Syria if the anti-regime rebellion descends into a tribal and sectarian war between Alawites and Sunnis that will trap them in the middle. Reluctant to leave their ancestral homeland, which they regard as Christianity’s cradle, they are confronted with demands from both the revolutionaries and the regime to declare themselves. They have resisted as communities so far, although individual Christians are fighting for and against the regime. The Armenian Catholic archbishop of Aleppo, Monsignor Boutros Marayati, told me, “We cannot say one side has truth and the other does not, because both sides have faults.” He added that 171 Armenians in Homs have died as members of the security forces or in crossfire, but not as deliberate targets of either side.
Minorities who benefited from the policies of the Alawite minority regime hesitate to turn their backs on it during a time of crisis. Moreover, many Christians view the opposition’s driving force, despite its many secular and liberal adherents, as Sunni fundamentalism battling a powerful Alawite minority. The fundamentalists, they believe, will, in the name of political liberation, deprive them of the social freedoms from which they have benefited. An Armenian high school teacher, whom I have known for many years, became uncharacteristically loquacious when explaining her support for the Assad regime:
I’m free. I am safe…. “You’re a kafir [unbeliever]”: I have not heard that phrase for thirty years. At the school, some of my friends are Muslim Brothers. They respect me, and I respect them. Who is responsible for that?… Look at this terror. Is this what Obama wants? Is this what Sarkozy wants? Let them leave us alone. If we don’t like our president, we won’t elect him. From a woman who is sixty years old, and I’ve been free for thirty years. I should be afraid to go out? I should cover myself? Women should live like donkeys?… We are citizens. We are equal.
She, along with many other Aleppins in the past year, has installed a steel-reinforced front door to her house. This is one sign that the security she and many other Christians felt under Assad père et fils, the regime’s primary justification, is dissipating. Tales of the rape, kidnapping, and murder of Christians in Homs, the city halfway between Aleppo and Damascus that has become the bastion of this revolution, have created unease among their coreligionists throughout Syria. At the same time, cameras have recorded civilian deaths there from attacks by government forces. In Aleppo, bombs that damaged buildings occupied by the security forces took with them nearby Christian apartments, schools, and churches.
After I left Aleppo, regime security forces raided dormitories at Aleppo University. Each side, as with all previous clashes, provided a version of events that bore no relationship to the other’s. Opposition groups said troops attacked students who had taken part in peaceful demonstrations, killed at least four of them, and—according to US officials cited in The Washington Post—arrested hundreds of others. Those sympathetic to the regime blamed rebel students from Homs and Idlib, who had transferred to Aleppo after their colleges closed because of violence.
Aleppo is tranquil most of the time. There are no soldiers on the streets, and the nightlife that was suspended out of caution in the first months of the rebellion has returned to downtown and the outdoor cafés along Azizieh Square. But Aleppins of all faiths wonder, for how much longer?
On April 13, Good Friday for the Orthodox churches, I spent the morning walking through the Aleppo Citadel. Families traversed a stone footbridge, supported by seven Roman arches over a dry moat, from a pedestrian plaza at ground level ascending more than two hundred feet to the Citadel entrance. On the stone walk in front of a row of outdoor cafés, a man in a Nike baseball cap played soccer with his son and daughter, about three and four years old. A few families were having breakfast, others coffee and soft drinks. A man pushing a kiosk on bicycle wheels sold cotton candy. The aroma of apple-scented Persian tobacco, smoked through ornate waterpipes by women and men, was in the air. In the dry moat, a half-dozen preteens played soccer. Since the conflict began in March 2011, no tourists have checked into the ancient hospital that is now the five-star Carlton Citadel Hotel. Its restaurant terrace, however, filled with Syrians at lunch.