Aleppo: The North Star

Aleppo has been named Capital of Islamic Culture for 2006. Preparations are well underway for a secular celebration, writes Andrew Lee Butters

The modern era has not been kind to Aleppo. Once a key stop on the Levantine branch of the Silk Road, its role as a trading capital began collapsing with the development of railroads and the opening of the Suez Canal and finally ended in 1939 when Turkey annexed the port city of Alexandretta, Aleppo’s traditional outlet to the Mediterranean. By day the city is choked with traffic, while by night the old town is haunted by ghosts of grandeurs past.

So it’s more than a little surprising that two international organisations promoting Islamic civilization have named this provincial city as a capital of Islamic culture for 2006, beating out bigger and better known rivals such as Istanbul, Cairo, and Damascus itself. (Somewhat less surprisingly, the first winner was Mecca, which was Capital of Islamic Culture in 2005.) But the organisers of this now annual exercise in civic competition – the Organisation of Islamic Conference (IOC) and the Islamic Organisation for Culture, Education and Science – say that no city better demonstrates the historical richness and diversity of Islamic culture, qualities that are just as relevant today as they were in Aleppo’s golden era. “These two groups wanted to show that Islamic civilisation isn’t about killing and terrorism,” said Dr. Mohammed Kujjah, an Aleppo historian and archaeologist.

Aleppo was thus a perfect choice, according to Dr. Kujjah, who is also the main organiser of the celebrations that will mark Aleppo’s year as Capital of Islamic Culture, which began on March 18 and will run through the summer. The city has a long history of religious tolerance with a significant Christian population, and until the Arab-Israel war of 1948, a sizeable Jewish community. And though the last Jewish family left Aleppo three years ago, many Christians, some 120,000, remain today. “People live here peacefully together without problems,” said Dr. Kujjah.

In fact, the city has gone out of its way to promote the contributions that other religions have made to the Islamic life of Aleppo. Posters celebrating Aleppo as the Capital of Islamic Culture 2006 show photographs of a mosque and church side by side. The festival celebrations included several lectures about the interaction between Christianity and Islam, and the event planning committee includes two Christian priests. In an interview with Syria Today, Aleppo’s governor, Tamer al-Hejje, said that he hoped the events would increase understanding between Muslims and Christians, and act as a curb against religious radicalism of all kinds. Governor Tamer made the distinction between Islam, the religion, and Islamic culture. “Islamic culture is made up of contributions from many religions,” he said.

Aleppo’s Christian community is also embracing the festival of Islamic culture. “The Christian people of Aleppo decided to participate in these celebrations to show how the roots of Islam came from Christianity,” said Metropolitan Paul Yazigi, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo. “For example, the Arabic language, which is the holy language of Islam, was developed in part by Christians. There were many great Arab Christian poets. Islamic culture is in some ways a common culture for all of the people of the Middle East.”

Nor are the contributions of Middle Eastern Christians limited to Aleppo’s golden past, according to Yazigi. “Islam is a rising power in the world. And Syria’s Christians are in daily dialogue with Islam. We can help the world understand Islam, and we can help Islam understand itself,” he said.

But tolerance and religious diversity are just one of Aleppo’s strengths as a representative of Islamic culture. Besides its rich commercial past, for hundreds of years the city was a centre of education, science and music, and the old city is filled with the physical remains of these past achievements. In 1986 UNESCO declared Aleppo’s Old City a World Heritage Site. In the Old City there are hundreds of mosques, churches, caravanserais and houses that have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years, and stone-covered souks, which, if stretched out end to end, would run for some 15 kilometres.

Aleppo is also important not only for the sheer quantity of its Islamic architecture, but also its diversity. “Baghdad was the most famous city of Islamic culture but its architecture is almost all destroyed,” said Dr. Kujjah. “Istanbul has Ottoman architecture. Cairo is mostly Mameluke. But Aleppo has many styles.” This becomes obvious when climbing to the top of the famous citadel that rises from the centre of the Old City. On a recent trip, the head of the citadel museum, Fawzi Sha’abouk, pointed out the minarets that dot the city’s skyline. “The square minarets are from the Umayyad period. The octagonal ones are Mameluke, and the pencil shaped minarets are Ottoman,” he said.

Preparing Aleppo’s architectural patrimony for the celebrations was a daunting task. Though the decision to crown Aleppo as Capital of Islamic Culture 2006 was made in 2004, the festival committee was only formed in March 2005, and work began in earnest just six months ago. “The main problem is that we need more time,” said Dr. Kujjah. “But if we had made excuses, another city would have stepped in.”

Dr. Kujjah said the planning committee decided to focus their renovation efforts on just 20 of the city’s 720-odd historical sites, including the Firdos school, the world’s oldest university, the city’s wall, creating two new museums and building a circular dome for a theatre to house 2,500 people during festival ceremonies. By a happy coincidence, the renovation of the city’s Umayyad-era Great Mosque, which started in 1998, will be finished in time for the celebrations. (Renovation of the Aleppo citadel is also being performed separate to the festival organisation. See article on page 44). The Great Mosque has suffered a series of indignities since it was built in 716 AD, including having its courtyard filled with corpses when Hulagu Khan and his Mongol hordes invaded the city in the 13th century and in the modern era by run-off from a nearby car wash.

While the Great Mosque renovations fixed some structural problems such as the stabilization of the building’s square minaret, the rush to prepare the city for public display means that most of the monuments receiving attention by festival planners will just get a good cleaning. And the rest of the city is doing its best to put on its party face. The city is remarkably clean of garbage, and shop shutters all across the city have been painted a uniform green and stamped with the Aleppo 2006 logo.

None of this work comes cheap. There’s a significant price tag that comes along with being named an Islamic Cultural Capital, and the organisations that chose Aleppo didn’t donate any money. The funding has all been local. The Syrian government has donated some SYP 400 million, roughly USD 7.7m, to the effort, according to Dr. Kujjah, with added contributions from private donors, mostly Aleppine businessmen who have taken over funding for the renovation of particular buildings. For example, Adel Aziz Al-Sokhon gave about USD 1m for the restoration of Mamoon School and Ziad Za’aem is paying SYP 10m, around $200,000, to clean the city walls.

The Aleppo government hopes that it will recoup its expenses thanks to an expected increase in tourism related to the cultural festival. Governor Tamer Al-Hejje said that although he doesn’t have precise economic impact figures, he expects some 1.2 million tourists from both inside and outside Syria to visit Aleppo this year, up from about a half million last year. And the governorate is hoping to use the cultural festival as a platform to boost its economic profile and has prepared a symposium called “Economic Life in Aleppo” which will tout the city’s investment possibilities to outsiders.

The festival comes at a time when the Syrian tourism industry could use a boost. Tourism from Lebanon, Syria’s main economic partner, dropped after the assassination of former Lebanese premiere Rafik Hariri last February, with 26 percent less Lebanese visiting Syria in the first nine months of last year than previously, according to the latest figures from the Syrian Tourism Ministry.

And while an increasing number of Europeans visited Syria last year (unlike American tourists who have generally steered clear of the Middle East since September 11, 2001), their numbers dropped significantly after the burning of the Danish embassy in Damascus in February, according to shopkeepers and guides at tourist sites across the country, who said they had noticed a significant decline in western visitors. Aleppo officials remain optimistic. “Most of the tourists coming to the festival will be from the Arab world,” said Dr. Kujjah. “The hotels are full and we are not afraid.”

But it’s not clear that word about Aleppo’s 2006 festival is getting out to the Arab world. Many people in Syria say they haven’t heard about the festival until recently. And Alla’a Hallak, chief executive of Dawn Creative Tours, a large travel agency in Damascus – who said he believed that foreign tourism including Arab tourism is down 30 percent from last year – said that most foreign tourists who are planning to go to Aleppo are going there because it is Syria’s second largest city after Damascus, not because of the event itself.

Moreover, Aleppo faces competition even for those tourists interested in Islamic culture. When the city was chosen as the Capital of Islamic Culture for 2006, the Iranian members of the Islamic Organisation for Culture, Education and Science protested in favour of their own favourite, the Iranian city of Esfahan. As a compromise, Esfahan was also chosen as a cultural capital for 2006. So in the future, there will be two Capitals of Islamic Culture every year: one from the Arab world, and one from the non-Arab Islamic world. Which begs the question: Since Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion, will there ever be a Capital of Islamic Culture in the West?

With reporting by Dalia Haidar.

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