Five Times Aleppo Was the Center of the World’s Attention

Will the once-regal city survive this moment in the spotlight?

Aleppo, Syria, in 2010. Since 2012, the city has been home to a fierce battle in Syria's civil war. Martin Gotthard (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Aleppo, the embattled Syrian city, has been in the news seemingly constantly of late. Not only is the city a critical battlefield in Syria’s civil war, but it’s the epicenter of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. But despite confusion about the city’s strategic value (whether it's what the city is or who its key players are), Aleppo is no stranger to being on the international stage; indeed, it's been there for centuries. Here are five key times it has been at the center of the world’s attention:

Enticing Empire-Builder

Aleppo has been around since at least 5000 B.C. Its strategic location between Europe, the Middle East and Asia has long exposed the city to takeovers and incursions. Over its earliest years, the city changed hands between Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Macedonians, Byzantines, Romans, Mamluks, Mongols and all kinds of other kingdoms and empires.

Because it occupied the center of so many trade routes, everyone wanted in on the action. As a result, the city took on a unique, international flavor, characterized by its towering citadel and epic souk, or market.

Ottoman Opulence

In 1516, the Silk Road outpost became part of the Ottoman Empire, garnering the world’s attention as it rose to even more power. The Ottomans invested in their new jewel and the city became an even more important trading center for caravans from East and West. The city’s population surged and Aleppo eventually became second only to Constantinople in terms of wealth, size and stature.

Not that Aleppo’s time under Ottoman rule (and changing hands back and forth between powers) was placid. Plagues, mob uprisings and economic troubles eventually roiled the city, and in the 17th century, the decline of the silk industry threatened Aleppo’s splendor.

Takeover and Turmoil

By the time World War I rolled around, Aleppo had been in economic decline for years. (Thanks, Suez Canal.) But the city’s strategic importance reared its head once more when the world was plunged into war. In 1918, Aleppo was the site of a battle between Ottomans and the Allies. The end of the war didn’t mean peace for Aleppo: Rather, it became a coveted piece in a game of international chess.

In 1920, it was declared French. In a bid to make Syria less powerful, France decided to separate Aleppo from Damascus and other Syrian cities. Then, France changed course and merged Aleppo and Damascus back into a united Syrian state controlled by the French. Syrians revolted and declared their own independent state, but the uprising failed. Syria kept fighting for independence from its colonial overlords, but it took until the end of World War II for France to leave Syria. All the while, Aleppo remained a site of significance for the region.

Capital of Culture 

Despite the drama that played itself out in Aleppo and Syria ever since—coups, coalitions and political instability—Aleppo held on. Damascus eventually became Syria’s most influential city, but Aleppo nonetheless grew, reaching a population of 2.3 million by 2005 and becoming an industrial center.

In 2006, the city’s unique stature was recognized when Unesco declared it “capital of Islamic culture” for its landmarks, cultural legacy and outstanding historic interest. The celebrations included festivals and increased awareness of the declining city, putting it briefly in the international spotlight.

Refugees and Ruin

Of course, that spotlight again shone on Aleppo when the Syrian Civil War began in 2011. The city became a center for anti-government protest and, in 2012, a battle zone when armed rebels and government forces began to clash in the city. Syria’s war has been a disaster for Aleppo, devastating its iconic souk, destroying residential neighborhoods and damaging dozens of cultural sites.

But Aleppo’s citizens have suffered the most, weathering everything from cluster bombs to chlorine attacks. More than one in ten Syrians have died in the civil war, which has wounded at least 11 percent of the population. As a result, Aleppo has become the center of a bona fide refugee crisis, with thousands fleeing the city in a desperate bid for safety. Photos of children like Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whose shell-shocked, dust-covered face generated sympathy and outcry the world over, have put Aleppo in the news again and again.

The city’s omnipresence in the news cycle though has offered little help in the way of ending Syria’s conflict—or jolting the world into action when it comes to its refugee crisis. Despite cries to secure a lasting peace in Syria (and fleeting victories like the one achieved today), Aleppo—a millenia-old city at the heart of it all—may not survive this current moment in the spotlight.