Tuesday, January 9, 2018


Ross Burns, Aleppo: A History. Cities of the ancient world. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xx, 340. ISBN 9780415737210. $140.00.

Reviewed by Louise Blanke, Wolfson College, Oxford (anne-louise.blanke@wolfson.ox.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

The desolation of large parts of Aleppo and the suffering endured by its population has come to epitomize the destructive forces of the Syrian civil war. For many, Aleppo is no longer associated with iconic images of the citadel gates or the Seljuk minaret of the Great Mosque: instead, a concrete wasteland has become synonymous with what remains of one of Syria's longest lived urban settlements.

In Aleppo: A History, Ross Burns explores Aleppo's long occupation, from the earliest textual and archaeological remains in the Bronze Age up to and including the conflict that has damaged and destroyed much of the city's built environment. In the course of eleven chapters and a postscript, Burns constructs a history of Aleppo through its monuments, reminding us that buildings are the fabric of history and that their loss matters to the heritage of Syrians and to the world (xvii).

The book is the third publication in Routledge's series Cities of the Ancient World. The first was Burns' book on Damascus. It is richly illustrated with maps and pictures, most of which were produced by the author. The main text is accompanied by a comprehensive index, bibliography and glossary. The book is organised chronologically, with a useful timeline at the introduction of each chapter.

The first chapter sets the scene by exploring Aleppo and its environs from the Bronze and Iron ages through the reign of Alexander and the civil war that led to the foundation of the Seleucid Kingdom (1-27). Aleppo, identified as Yamhad in textual sources from e.g. Ebla, Mari and Alahan, was a major political power in Bronze-age northern Syria as well as an important cult and pilgrimage centre. Burns examines Aleppo's geographical setting and its economic foundations, of which the city's position on a number of trade routes proved especially important for its development. The long history of the rocky outcrop, later known as the Citadel Hill, is explored through archaeological sources testifying to the presence of a temple to the local storm god.

Both textual and archaeological sources are scarce for most of Aleppo's early history. However, working from the city's topography, Burns outlines some features dating to the Greek and Roman periods (Chapter 2, 28-53). Most important is the street grid with a 25m wide east-west thoroughfare leading to the Citadel Hill. At times, Burns' reconstruction comes across as somewhat speculative as in, for example, his suggestion that a temple dedicated to Atargatis (the consort of the storm god, Baal) was located at the later site of Aleppo's Great Mosque (35).

Chapters 3 and 4 examine Aleppo under Byzantine and Early Islamic rule (54-87). Traces of buildings from this period have mainly survived as recycled blocks in Aleppo's mosques and madrasas. Burns reconstructs the layout of the Cathedral of St. Helena from its later incarnation as the Madrasa Halawiye and also suggests a classical origin of the Bandara Synagogue. For the Persian wars, Burns relies on Procopius, who vividly recounts the destruction of Aleppo's lower city. Burns produces an image of widespread destruction, which he also applies to the seventeen year-long Sasanian occupation in the early seventh century (70). In doing so, he misses the opportunity to review and include the vast corpus of archaeological material that has been unearthed during the past decades. This material has been synthesised by e.g. Clive Foss and Kenneth Holum, who argue for a much more targeted and limited destruction under Persian rule.1

Also problematic is Burns' notion of the urban transformation from wide colonnaded streets to an enclosed market area (suq) in the Early Islamic period, which he regards as a sign of reduced economic circumstances (81-2, see also 192-4). This issue could have benefitted from further nuancing. Of particular relevance is research suggesting that the expansion of commerce (and production) within the city centres (not only in Aleppo but throughout the Bilad al-Sham) was a sign of urban growth and economic prosperity.2 Also, Ine Jacobs' 2009 study on encroachment is relevant here. Jacobs convincingly argues how encroachment onto streets began in cities at very different times and for very different reasons and therefore cannot be tied to a single-factor explanation such as economic decline.3

The following four chapters (chapters 5-8, 88-167), discuss Syria's political reconfiguration into a number of independent kingdoms following the gradual dissolution of Abbasid rule. The focus is not so much on the history of Aleppo itself, but more on outlining Syria's political history in the centuries during which Turkish ruling power became increasingly predominant. The chapters are dominated by warfare and by military movement as Aleppo found itself in the middle of territories contested by Byzantine, Crusader, and Muslim rulers. A few architectural highlights in Aleppo are picked out. One such is the minaret of Aleppo's Great Mosque—built in 1090-4 and the only Seljuk monument in Syria—which was famously toppled by shellfire in 2013 (103).

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss Aleppo during the Crusades and under Zengid rule. A few buildings are described, including the city's first madrasa (Madrasa al-Zajjajiye), built in 1116, and the al-Shuʿaybiye Mosque, which is best known for an architectural style that invokes a classical revival.

Ayyubid rule (chapter 8) saw at least 36 major building projects of which sixteen have survived into modern times. Most significant is the citadel with its walls and glacis along with the establishment of a processional route leading south from the citadel through the shrines of the Maqamat cemetery marking the regional starting point of one of several Hajj routes. The Paradise school (Madrasa al-Fardous), which was built by Dayfa Khatun, wife of Al-Zahir Ghazi (son of Saladin and emir of Aleppo [r. 1186-1216]), is also discussed. It is, according to Burns, significant as an Ayyubid architectural masterpiece, but also as it bears one of the earliest Islamic inscriptions known to honour a woman as its founder (161).

One aspect of Aleppo's Zengid and Ayyubid history that could have been pursued further is the intellectual environment alluded to in the writings of Kamal al-Din Ibn al-ʿAdim, which could have added some local colour to chapters that are mainly dominated by political history.4

Chapter 9's (168-201) focus is on Aleppo under Mamluk rule. This chapter begins with a description of the Mongol invasion in 1258-60 that left Aleppo in ruins. Whole quarters were burned down and the invasion resulted in extensive damage to the city's monuments as well as a drastic reduction of its population. By contrast, the early years of Mamluk rule witnessed a construction boom. Between 1350 and 1400 over twenty buildings that have survived into modern times were constructed. Among these were the largest contemporary bathhouse in Syria, built on the important north-south processional route described above. The evidence for Aleppo's economic history under Mamluk rule is significant and includes the physical remains (or textual references to) at least twenty khans or caravanserais. It was also under Mamluk rule that Venetian trade played a major part in advancing the city's economy. Goods shipped via Latakia or Tripoli provided a boost for the region and from the mid-16th to the 19th century, Aleppo was the main regional entrepot, linking the Fertile Crescent with Europe.

Chapter 10 (202-246) explores the first centuries under Ottoman rule (1516-1750). The trade with Venice led Aleppo to become the third most important city in the Ottoman Empire after Istanbul and Cairo; in time, however, Aleppo lost this position to Iznik. During Ottoman rule, Aleppo grew by about 50% through its expansion into extra-mural areas. Among the more remarkable monuments were a series of khans and mosques that were constructed along the city's east-west axis. Burns offers some insights into local life with some brief comments on Aleppo's many coffee houses, baths and latrines.

Life in Aleppo's European trading communities is illuminated by many accounts from this period. Burns paints a vivid picture of a somewhat insulated and cramped life in the European quarters with a sharp divide between westerners and locals. Further foreign focus on Aleppo came from the bourgeoning interest in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which from the 17th century onwards affected the city indirectly as many Europeans passed through on their way to explore ancient sites, such as Palmyra.

The book's final chapter is entitled 'Modernising Aleppo' (1750-2000) (chapter 11, 247-279). In a sweeping account, it describes the final centuries of Ottoman rule and takes the reader into 20th century Aleppo. The highlights are the long prelude that led to the First World War, the creation of Syria as a nation state and the fate of Aleppo under the French Mandate.

The book's postscript (280-294) provides an overview of Aleppo's recent history from 1950 until today. It includes the rise of the Assad family, Aleppo's designation as a world heritage site and the physical consequences of the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Over the past years, Burns has kept a weekly update on the state of Syria's monuments on his webpage Monuments of Syria. Of the 321 monuments recorded in his Aleppo database, 78 were damaged by the time he finished the book. Burns provides a sobering overview of a city, whose entire historic centre has been exposed to shellfire with a concentration around the Great Mosque, the suq and the citadel. Burns' meticulous chronicling of the demolition of the ancient city reminds us once again of the terrible destruction that war wages not only on human lives, but also on the structures that preserve the memories of the past.

Ross Burns returned to his work as a historian after a life-long career in Australia's diplomatic service with several years spent as ambassador to Syria. Burns knows Syria intimately and is deeply committed to its future. This comes across both in his historical account and in his approach to the monuments, which are, in Burns' words, the 'fabric of history' (xvii). Aleppo is a palimpsest formed by 5000 years of continuous occupation. The history of the city and that of Syria is so rich and complex that in some chapters Burns is carried away by the political drama, where perhaps more could have been said about the city's social history i.e. about the lives of the citizens of Aleppo themselves. With the exception of a two-page description of elite housing (229-31), the book offers close to nothing about living quarters, residential areas or the amenities of daily life. Yet the breadth and complexity of Burns' history must be commended. It covers a huge geographical and chronological span and offers nuanced views into Syria's ethnic and religious complexities. The book will be a great starting point for anyone approaching Aleppo's or indeed Syria's history over the longue durée.


1.   Foss, C. (2003) The Persians in the Roman Near East (602-630 AD), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 13.2, 149-170. Holum, K.G. (1992) Archaeological Evidence for the Fall of Byzantine Caesarea, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 286, 73-85.
2.   See, for example, Kennedy, H. (1985) From Polis to Madina: Urban Change in Late Antique and Early Islamic Syria, Past and Present 106, 3-27.
3.   Jacobs, I. (2009) 'Encroachment' in the Eastern Mediterranean between the fourth and the seventh century AD, Ancient Society 39, 203-44.
4.   Morray, D.W. (1994) An Ayyubid notable and his world: Ibn al-ʿAdim and Aleppo as portrayed in his biographical dictionary of people associated with the city, Leiden: Brill.

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