As Syrian government forces and rebels clash in Aleppo, TIME takes a look at the history of this ancient, cosmopolitan city now locked in a state of war
A picture taken March 17, 2006 shows a general view of the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, 350 kms north of Damascus, with its landmark cytadel in the background
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is in the grip of the country’s civil war. Government attack helicopters and fighter jets circle the city’s skies as rebel factions entrench themselves in Aleppo’s old town and sections of the city’s suburbs. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has dispatched armored columns to flush out insurgents, not unlike its recent crackdown on rebel fighters in pockets of the capital Damascus. One rebel commander in Aleppo told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that the fight for Syria’s commercial capital, a city of 2.5 million people, would last months. Rebels are stockpiling medical supplies and munitions, while the U.S. State Department warned of a potential massacre. A pro-government newspaper promised the “mother of all battles.”
Until recently, Aleppo was not one of the major theaters of the Syrian conflict. But it is no stranger to war. With a history as ancient as Damascus — considered to be one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world — Aleppo has been won and lost by a succession of empires, sacked by myriad invaders and reduced to rubble by epic earthquakes. That it still stands, and is, indeed, with its thousands of old limestone houses and winding old streets, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is testament to the richness of its past and the resilience of its people.
From its early origins, Aleppo was a place where people grew wealthy. Cuneiform tablets from roughly four thousand years ago tell of a settlement called ‘Halabu’ — eventually Aleppo — that was even then a center for the manufacture of garments and cloth. Located not far from the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the river valley of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates on the other, the city found itself in the middle of ancient Egyptian and Hittite trade routes. The Seleucids, a Greek dynasty descended from one of the lieutenants of Alexander the Great, developed the area further, while certain colonnaded avenues and courtyard homes in Aleppo today bear the tell-tale signs of Roman craftsmanship and Hellenistic urban planning.
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