the second largest city in Syria, located in the northern part of the country (40°12′ N, 38°68′ 5″ E). It has been occupied since remote antiquity and played a very important role in Near Eastern history during the second millennium BCE.
It is likely that Aleppo has existed since at least the Early Bronze Age, although the evidence is indirect and uncertain. Excavations of a small site in the southwest part of modern Aleppo (al-Ansari) exposed Early Bronze IV levels and show at least that the outskirts of the area were occupied in the latter part of the millennium (see Antoine Suleiman, “Excavations at Ansari-Aleppo for the Seasons 1973–1980: Early and Middle Bronze Ages,” Akkadica 40 : 1–16; and idem., “Fouilles d'Alep (Al-Ansari),” Syria 62 : 135). Aleppo may be mentioned under the name Ḫalam in tablets from Ebla and Early Dynastic Mari (see W. G. Lambert, “Ḫalam, Il-Ḫalam and Aleppo,” Mari: Annales de Recherches Interdisciplinaires 6 : 641–643.).
During the first half of the second millennium, Aleppo was the capital of the important state of Yamḫad, which played a leading role in the political development of northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia. During the eighteenth century BCE, Yamḫad was the most powerful state in Syria and could resist the expansionist attempts of Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria. The Hittites, who rose to power in Anatolia during the seventeenth century BCE, referred to Yamḫad as having a “great kingship.” Aleppo prospered until the opening years of the sixteenth century BCE, when Muršili I of Ḫatti attacked and destroyed the city.
During the Late Bronze Age, Aleppo no longer held its previous, dominant position; instead, it became a strategic pawn in the imperial conflicts between Ḫatti and Mitanni over the control of northern Syria, eventually coming firmly under Hittite rule. During the first millennium BCE, Aleppo appears to have been reduced to political insignificance, but it retained its ancient religious status as a major center of the worship of Hadad, the storm god.
In the early third century BCE, Seleucus I Nicator settled a colony of Macedonians at Aleppo, renamed it Beroea, and rebuilt the town as a Hellenistic city, probably with a squarish city wall and rectilinear streets, some of which can still be discerned in the current layout of the “Old City.” Evidence for the Roman period is extremely slim, but the city is likely to have prospered, as did most of northern Syria, although not as a major city. Aleppo remained a secondary city under the shadow of Antioch until the latter was destroyed In 539/40 CE. It is likely that Aleppo began to develop into a major trade center at this point.
In 636 CE, Aleppo came under Muslim control, and in the early eighth centuy CE, a major mosque was built by either al-Walid I (r. 705–715) or his successor, Sulayman (r. 715–717). Unfortunately, none of this mosque has survived the several destructions and disastrous fires that befell it. Following the demise of the Umayyad dynasty in the mid-eighth century, Aleppo, like most of Syria, slipped into a deep decline, from which it did not recover until the twelfth century.
Because the city has been continuously occupied for millennia, little archaeological work has been done in Aleppo. It is not yet certain where the earliest occupation of the town actually occurred, although most scholars believe that a tell in the western part of the current Old City, called el-῾Aqabe, represents the original settlement. It is assumed that the site expanded eventually to include the high hill now occupied by the great medieval citadel (see figure 1). Limited excavations early in this century by G. Ploix de Rotrou on the citadel showed that this high hill was occupied at least by the first millennium BCE. The excavators found the wall of a major public building, along with ornamented orthostats, two basalt lions, and a relief sculpture dating to the ninth/eighth centuries BCE.
Remains of the Hellenistic and Roman periods are few. As mentioned above, the area east and south of the tell, el-῾Aqabe, preserves the lines of the rectilineal streets of the Hellenistic city. The streets divided the area into rectangular blocks roughly 48 m north–south and 124 m east-west, the typical arrangement in cities founded during the Seleucid period. Nothing of the original city wall has been found, but scholars have generally thought that the preserved medieval wall runs along the ancient line. No building remains of the Hellenistic and Roman periods have been recovered on the citadel hill, although numerous small finds indicate a substantial occupation there during this time.
During the Byzantine period the city expanded outside the old walls, and records mention the construction of several churches. However, remains of only one church survive, the city's sumptuous and beautiful cathedral, located just south of where the great mosque was eventually built and the madrasah Ḥalawiyeh, an Islamic school, now stands. A few vestiges of the Great Synagogue built during this period by Aleppo's then large and prosperous Jewish community have also survived.
No overwhelming changes took place in the city during the Umayyad period. Its most significant building was, of course, the Great Mosque, whose construction began in about 715. It is not certain whether Caliph al-Walid or his successor Sulayman actually inaugurated the project. Although none of the original exists, records show that it was built on the same general plan as the Great Mosque of Damascus, but on a more modest scale.
From the mid-eighth until the mid-twelfth century, Aleppo suffered a significant decline. Repairs were made to the major structures of earlier periods, but little new development took place in the city.
- Gaube, Heinz, and Eugen Wirth. Aleppo: Historische und geographische Beiträge zur baulichen Gestaltung, zur sozialen Organisation und zur wirtschaftlichen Dynamik einer vorderasiatischen Fernhandelsmetropole. Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients, 58. Wiesbaden, 1984. Excellent study of the city; a very different interpretation of its growth from the Hellenistic through Byzantine periods from that of Sauvaget (see below).
- Klengel, Horst. Geschichte Syriens im 2. Jahrtausend v.u.Z. Teil 1—Nord-syrien. Berlin, 1965. By far the best (though now somewhat dated) study of the city during its early period of greatness. Chapters 7–10 deal with Aleppo during the second millennium BCE.
- Klengel, Horst. Syria: 3000 to 300 B.C. A Handbook of Political History. Berlin, 1992. A less detailed, but more current study. See especially chapter 2.
- Sauvaget, Jean. Alep: Essai sur le développement d'une grande ville syrienne, des origines au milieu de XIXe siècle. Paris, 1941. Classic study of the city, which should now be read in conjunction with the volume by Gaube and Wirth. Because of the meager evidence for the early periods, Sauvaget depends heavily on parallels from other Syrian cities.
Wayne T. Pitard