During the Renaissance, Aleppo was Isla’s third-most important city after Constantinople and Cairo. The modern Lebanese historian Antoine AbdelNour praised it in his Introduction a l’histoire urbaine de la Syrie ottoman:
“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.”
A trading entrepot that once stood on the Silk Road, Aleppo was Syria’s workshop and marketplace, and its region generated as much as 65 percent of the national wealth apart from oil. Factories making textiles from Syrian cotton, as well as medicines and furniture, dominated the industrial zones outside the city and provided work to thousands.
Until now it has stood for just about everything al-Qaeda of Iraq and ISIS oppose. No city in Syria is more mixed or more diverse. “Aleppo is the best built city in the Turkish dominions,” reported the English traveller William Eton in his 1879 A Survey of the Turkish Empire, “and the people are reputed the most polite.” Tolerance has been its hallmark since Ottoman times. Documentary records of Ottoman Turkey’s dominion over Aleppo from 1516 to 1918 portray communities of Muslims, Christians and Jews living in the same neighbourhoods. 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 Muslims, Jewish and Christian families dwelled with little more thn the usual rancor that afflicts neighbours everywhere. Unlike more xenophobic Damascus, Aleppo encouraged European merchants to trade and live within the city walls. The European powers, beginning with Venice in the 16th 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 20th century.
Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe, Charles Glass, Verso, 2016