Aleppo (mod. Halab, Syria) was the second city of Muslim Syria (after Damascus) at the time of the crusades.
The city owed its importance to its seizure in 944 by Sayf al-Dawla, a prince of the Arab Hamdānid dynasty at Mosul in northern Iraq, who at the time of the breakup of the ‘Abbāsid Empire detached it from the Syrian government of the Ikhshīdids in Egypt, and made it his capital for frontier warfare with Byzantium. From 956, however, he and his successors were on the defensive against the Byzantines, who took Antioch in 969, while from 979 they were threatened by the Fātimids, the successors of the Ikhshīdids in Egypt. Under the Hamdānids to 1016, and the BedouinMirdāsids to 1080, the city then alternated between dependence upon Constantinople and Cairo; but though it was occasionally taken by one or the other, it was never annexed, and remained a city-state under the rule of these successive dynasties down to the Saljūq conquest in 1080-1086.
Aleppo survived partly because of its strategic position between Egypt in the south, Iraq in the east, and Anatolia in the north; partly because of the defensive strength of the citadel on its isolated hill above the center of the city; and partly because of the resistance of its citizens to foreign conquest. As at Damascus, there was a city militia (Arab. ahdāth), which by the time of the Mirdāsids was under the command of a rafs or shaykh al-balad (head of the city). Meanwhile, in this mainly Shi‘ite city, the family of Banu’l- Khashshab held the post of qādi (judge), a position of hereditary authority and influence. Such leadership was all the more important in view of the foreign threats that repeatedly expelled the princes from the city, leaving the townsfolk with the burden of resistance or surrender. Paid as part of the army, the ahdāth were equally decisive in the struggles for power that characterized the Mirdāsids down to the Saljûq conquest. This conquest was negotiated by the ra’is al- Hutayti, a member of the Shi‘ite aristocracy of sharifs (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), who kept Aleppo out of the clutches of Tutush I, the Saljûq ruler of Damascus, by turning first to the ‘Uqaylid ruler of Mosul, and then to Sultan Malik Shāh I for the appointment of the ghulām (“slave soldier”; mamluk in later usage) Aq Sunqûr in 1086.
Entrance to the citadel at Aleppo, built by Saladin’s son al-Zahir, c. 1200. (Courtesy Graham Loud)
Under Aq Sunqûr, a grand new minaret was added to the Great Mosque built by the Umayyads in the garden of the cathedral of St. Helena, itself built on the site of the ancient agora. This renewal of imperial patronage, however, was cut short by the death of Malik Shāh I in 1093, the prompt seizure of Aleppo by his brother Tutush I, and Tutush’s death in battle in 1095, leaving Aleppo to his son Ridwān (d. 1113). Ridwân ruled a territory of some hundred miles from ‘Azāz and Buzā‘a in the north to Hama (mod. Hamāh, Syria) in the south, but like the Mirdāsids was heavily dependent upon the city, where the riyāsa (command of the ahdāth) had passed from al-Hutayti and his successor the militiaman al-Mujann to a Sunni Persian, Sa‘id ibn Badi‘. Sa‘id was responsible for the massacre of members of the Ismā‘ili Assassin sect after Ridwān’s death in 1113, and for the eviction of the regent Lu’lu’ in 1117. Four years after his own eviction and assassination in 1118, Sa‘īd was succeeded by his son al-Fadā‘il, who ruled the city down to the arrival of Zangī from Mosul in 1128. That was the culmination of a quite different strand in the politics of Aleppo, associated with the qādī Ibn al-Khashshāb, the long-standing protagonist of holy war against the Franks. Under Ridwān and Lu’lu’, Ibn al-Khashshāb had been obliged to see Aleppo aligned with Damascus and the Frankish states of Outremer against the atabegs of Mosul, who had been charged by the Saljûq sultan Muhammad Tapar with organizing a coalition against the Franks. But between 1118 and his assassination in 1125, with Aleppo under threat from Frankish Antioch, Ibn al-Khashshāb was instrumental in offering the city, first to the TurcomanArtûqids at Diyar Bakr, then to Bursuqi, the atabeg of Mosul. When Bursuqi in turn was assassinated in 1126, the city welcomed his successor Zangī, the son of Malik Shāh’s governor Aq Sunqûr; and the elements were at last in place for the gradual unification of Syria, both Muslim and Christian.
With Zangī, the riyasa and the importance of the ahdāth came effectively to an end, as the prince took full control of the government, although Aleppo did not become a true capital until its inheritance by his son Nûr al-Dīn (1146). The monumental rebuilding of the city then resumed with work on the walls and the citadel, the rebuilding of the Great Mosque, and the construction of religious colleges, taking advantage of the appropriation of six churches (including the cathedral) by Ibn al-Khashshāb in retaliation for Frankish attacks. After Nûr al-Dīn’s death at Damascus in 1174, Aleppo became the refuge of his son al-Malik al-Sālih Ismā‘īl against the advance of Saladin, who finally took it in 1183. From Saladin’s own death in 1193, it became the capital of his sonal-Zāhir Ghāzī as one among the several Ayyûbid principalities of Syria. Ghāzī (d. 1216) was responsible for the great rebuilding of the citadel with its glacis, and his son Mūsā for the palace within. The city failed, nevertheless, to hold out against the Mongols in 1260. Ghāzī’s grandson, al- Nāsir Yûsuf, who had annexed Damascus in 1250, then fled. After the Mongol retreat, the city was incorporated into the Mamlûk sultanate.
Until the Mongol threat finally disappeared at the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, Aleppo remained an undefended frontier city, the citadel and walls unrepaired until late in the century, and without the state expenditure to restore its prosperity. It recovered from the 1320s onward, when it became the base for the Mamlûk sultanate’s expansion into Anatolia and Armenia, and its Mamlûk amirs sufficiently powerful to profit from the succession struggles at Cairo and Damascus in the second half of the century. As a result, Aleppo prospered at a time when Damascus was in decline, and it continued to grow in the fifteenth century in spite of the invasion of Timur (Tamerlane) in 1400, and the century of disturbance that followed to the north and east. Prosperity then was commercial, derived from the caravan trade in silk, until the final crisis on the eve of the Ottoman conquest, and the urban renascence that followed.