The Decline of Aleppo
M.A. student

Islam and the West

14, April, 2004-4-14

In the Arabic world, Aleppo was not for all the time considered a metropolis. However, it claims a long and glorious history that traces to the beginning of the recorded history, and has established a regional commercial center for at least more than one thousand years. Located in the midpoint between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean Sea, the town of Aleppo also enjoys an easy access to water and food supply from the surrounding fertile plain and a nearby river, Quwayq, not to mention the Egyptian rice brought through the coastal trade. Therefore, it was naturally selected as a regular stop of the caravan route that linked the East and the West world. Aleppo’s importance for the caravan trade was further strengthened after the destruction of Ayas, the important port city of the Christian Armenian kingdom in 1375. Since the Mamluk’s conquest of Cilicia, the caravan route naturally shifted south to the Northern Syria. But Aleppo’s greatest chance of development appeared after the Ottoman’s conquest of the Mamluk domain. Although Aleppo enjoyed a great development in economy and public construction under the Mamluk Dynasty, contrast to Damasus, it was never given the adequate political status. In the first half of the 16th century, the Ottoman army successively defeated the Mamluk Sultan and other Arabic powers, and eventually annexed the central part of the Arabic world. Among the Arabic cities, Aleppo showed a great loyalty to the Ottoman Porte, especially during the rebellion of Damascus led by Janbirdi al-Ghazali. In return, Aleppo was upgraded as the capital of Northern Syria, no longer subordinate to Damascus but directly report to Istanbul, which offered the city an even greater space to develop into a major terminus of caravan trade, from which Aleppo attracted merchant diasporas from both the Western countries and the neighboring Asian regions. Also, through caravan trade Aleppo accumulated enormous fortune and enjoyed a long period of prosperity. As late as the end of the 18th century, Aleppo was still generally regarded as the third city in importance in the Ottoman dominions, only inferior to Istanbul (Constantinople) and Cairo[1]. At its golden age, that is, from the middle of 16th century to the first half of 18th century, almost all the major European nations established their consular representations in Aleppo. And under the pressure they brought in the Ottoman government, a new port, Iskenderun (Alexandretta), was constructed at the end of the 16th century, solely served as the affiliated port for the transportation of goods in Aleppo to the various European countries. As Bruce Masters concludes, “t(T)he fate of Iskenderun provides an important watershed for Aleppo’s changing fortunes, as it signals the city’s transition from being primarily a caravan entrepôt to one that was linked equally to the sea and the trade of the West.[2]”

However, the decline of Aleppo seemed inevitable in the middle of 18th century, when the trade of Iranian silk was severely damaged, if not terminated, due to the war between the Ottoman Empire and Iran. As is stated above, Aleppo thrived from the caravan trade, which carried the goods from India and Southeast Asia, such as indigo, pepper, and Eastern spices. And in Aleppo, such goods were sold to European countries together with local products such as primary silk cloth, carpet, glass, and steel. Before long, the interest of some major European buyers, England and France, shifted from these to some local raw materials, that is, Iranian raw silk and Syrian cotton, to meet the need of the uprising European textile producers. These raw materials, especially Iranian raw silk, became the staple traded in Aleppo since the early decades of the 17th century. And at the same time, Venice, whose textile industry concentrated on luxury fabrics, gave its leading status in Levant trade to the French, English, and Dutch merchants.

The dependence of Aleppo on the Iranian silk trade turned out a sword with double blades. On one hand, it ensured the city’s prosperity even after the establishment of the direct trade between the East Indies and Europe, mainly conducted by the English East India Company and the Netherlands VOC. The competition of the East Asian trade had commenced since the sailing route around