Ancient Aleppo shows a modern road ahead

The Australian
October 22, 2004 Friday All-round Country Edition

Ancient Aleppo shows a modern road ahead

by Nicolas Rothwell

Aleppo, Syria

THERE is a thriving city at the heart of the Middle Eastern and Arab
world: it is at once ancient and ultra-modern, traditional and
cosmopolitan, a place of freedoms and Western experiments, and also a
showcase for its nation’s ruling party.

This is Aleppo, the 3 million-strong metropolis in the far north of
Syria, a startling, easygoing melange of styles and cultures, where
street sellers and bazaar traders now compete for business with
freshly opened Western luxury outlets.

The new face of Aleppo is one of the strongest signs of the reformist
spirit sweeping through Syria under the four-year-old reign of Bashar
Al-Assad. The President likes to brand himself the “leader of
development and modernisation” and in Aleppo, more than anywhere, the
claim holds a fair degree of truth.

“The people of Aleppo have always been hard working,” says one bazaar
merchant in the ancient Souk Al-Atarin beside the city’s Great

“For us, being open to Europe and the West is good news. We’re like
Manchester or Manhattan here, not at all like the rest of our

Aleppo has always vied for pre-eminence with the Syrian capital
Damascus, just 350km down the central highway. Both have a good claim
to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.

But these days Aleppo has been designated as the beacon of Syria’s
economic progress. Last week alone, three major trade fairs were
staged here, while the International Photographic Gathering and
exhibition was also unfolding.

Close to the forbidding 12th century citadel of the Ayyubid dynasty,
a large new building, its facade all rose and white marble, is rising
fast. This is the “future Sheraton” — it’s already on the city maps
— viewed by many locals as the final proof of their reintegration
into the outside world.

Internet cafes and jeans outlets crowd the shopfronts, while the
nocturnal scene is equally busy. A soft-porn cinema, specialising in
“films with Syrian and Lebanese girls”, does a roaring trade a few
doors from the state museum.

“Everything’s changing,” explains Ahmed Ghassab, a young

“I chose to come back here from Paris because of the opportunities.
Look around — the clothes, the cars, the supermarkets, even the
minds inside people’s heads.

“Young Syrians used to spend their time studying politics and
history. Now they’re all playing Counterstrike or Generals in the
computer arcades.”

In the modern district, the shifts are equally palpable. This
prosperous quarter is now dominated by the Pullman Hotel, a stylish,
hard-currency establishment where business deals are done, and
bodyguards and glamorous women lurk.

All these shifts lend Aleppo the crossroads atmosphere the town has
had at countless intervals in its long history. Now it is the meeting
point between European investors eyeing a virgin market and an elite
of well-connected local entrepreneurs.

What makes Aleppo so different from the rest of Syria?

One of its most sympathetic admirers, Ross Burns, a former Australian
ambassador in the Middle East, writes of the city as “a sort of time
continuum in which flashes of the past, rather than dissipating with
time, accumulate in the present”.

And it is a continuum of peoples as well. A large Syrian Christian
community thrives here in the Jdeide quarter, as well as a
substantial population of Armenian origin, whose ancestors fled to
Aleppo from Turkey during World War I.

Arabs from other countries have also long been drawn to the city, and
its new capitalists have close ties to Lebanon, the image and
marketing capital of the Mediterranean Arab world.

Ahmed Akkad, a cotton merchant from one of Aleppo’s big bazaar
dynasties, believes the city is poised for a revival of its
traditional role.

“Syria’s opening its relations with Europe, and we have a high degree
of freedom of information today,” he says.

“Everyone’s obsessed with satellite television and the internet.
These days, at school, children are learning French and English, and
becoming much better informed.

“Before, people didn’t know anything, they were just living like
sheep, locked in and not knowing anything about the world.”

This mood of enthusiasm for the changes under way in Syria’s economy
and society is widespread throughout Aleppo; it’s a new direction
that plays in favour of the city’s old strengths.

“A few decades from now,” says one businessman from Al-Kallaseh
Street, “people in the great capitals of Europe will think of Aleppo
in the same way they viewed us 200 years ago, when we were the bridge
between India and the West, and all the world’s big contracts were
signed right here inside these city walls.”