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Aleppo’s ancient fortress: A chronicle of resilience and heritage

The Citadel of Aleppo; Credit: Social media

The Citadel of Aleppo is one of the most significant archaeological landmarks in the world. It is one of the oldest citadels in history, with its construction dating back to the Middle Ages.

A citadel is by definition a stronghold, most often a fortress or a castle, that protects the city in which it is located. The term itself is a diminutive of city, meaning ‘little city’ and the Citadel of Aleppo has a golden history. Many significant civilizations have ruled it throughout its existence, including the Amorites, Arameans, Assyrians, Byzantines, and the Hamdanids who turned it into a center of art, poetry, and literature.

the Citadel is surrounded by a stone wall approximately 12 meters high and 900 meters long that includes 44 defensive towers of various sizes

Situated on a hill in the middle of the Old City of Aleppo, the Citadel has also been occupied by the Hittite, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Ottoman Empires throughout the centuries.

Rising about 33 meters above the city on an oval-shaped hill, the Citadel is surrounded by a stone wall approximately 12 meters high and 900 meters long that includes 44 defensive towers of various sizes.

The citadel’s use dates back to at least the middle of the third millennium BC when it began as a temple for “Hadad,” the god of weather, rain, and thunder in ancient Syria, according to the Citadel’s website.

According to historical sources cited by Discover Syria, the prophet Abraham used to milk his sheep on the citadel’s hill which could explain the origin of Aleppo, or ‘Haleb’ which means milking in Arabic.

After the armies of Alexander the Great entered the city of Aleppo in 333 BC, it was ruled by Seleucus I Nicator, who revived the city under the name “Beroea.”

Medieval historians say that the use of the citadel as a Macedonian Acropolis began during the reign of Seleucus I Nicator, evidenced by the remnants of a “Hellenistic” settlement within the Citadel ruins.

After the Roman Empire was divided in 395, Aleppo was annexed to the Byzantine Empire which immediately recognized the Citadel’s importance as an impregnable fortress against invaders in which residents could seek refuge during times of danger

In 540 CE, the Sassanid King Khosrow I invaded the city of Aleppo, wreaking havoc. If not for the residents seeking refuge in the Citadel, they would have all been killed. Later, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian rebuilt the city and constructed a stone wall around it to provide further protection.

Little is known about the Citadel of Aleppo during that period except that Aleppo was a border city on the edges of the Abbasid and Umayyad states until the Hamdanids entered the city in 944, making it one of the world’s most important cities at that time.

It was Emir Nur al-Din Zengi who rebuilt the walls of Aleppo and its citadel giving it the shape we see today

The Hamdanids, led by their Emir (Prince) Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamdani, made the city their capital. During their rule, the interior of the Citadel was enhanced and the city became a cultural center for artists, poets, and writers.

In 1157, the city of Aleppo was struck by a powerful earthquake, one of the strongest in history in terms of casualties, with over 230,000 lives lost and causing significant damage to the Citadel. It was Emir Nur al-Din Zengi who rebuilt the walls of Aleppo and its citadel giving it the shape we see today.

In the first decade of the 13th century, the Citadel developed into a luxurious city within Aleppo itself, including all sorts of structures from residential palaces and baths to religious mosques and shrines, military training facilities, defensive towers, and grain storages.

In 1260, the Mongols, led by Hulagu Khan, captured the Citadel of Aleppo. In 1400 the Mongols occupied the city and the Citadel again, this time under the rule of Timur, and almost all the buildings inside the Citadel were destroyed. It was reconstructed again in 1415.

During the Ottoman period, the Citadel’s role as a military fortress gradually diminished. In 1521, Sultan Suleiman I restored the Citadel but used it only as barracks for Ottoman soldiers.

In 1822 the Citadel again suffered severe damage due to an earthquake that took the lives of 20 residents of the city before being reconstructed again in 1850 by Sultan Abdul Majid I.

the Citadel of Aleppo was damaged once again when the regime’s army used it as a stronghold for its forces due to the Old City of Aleppo being the main point of contact between it and the Free Syrian Army

During the French mandate in the early part of the 20th Century, extensive archeological excavations and restoration work were carried out at the Citadel. Unfortunately, many of its antiquities were stolen during that time, most notably the prayer niche of the wooden Ibrahim Mosque.

In 1986 the Citadel in the Old City of Aleppo became one of the archaeological sites listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Several years after the onset of the Syrian Revolution, the Citadel of Aleppo was damaged once again when the regime’s army used it as a stronghold for its forces due to the Old City of Aleppo being the main point of contact between it and the Free Syrian Army which was attempting to liberate the city.

Numerous explosions and mutual attacks between the two sides caused extensive damage to the Citadel, especially at its external gates, which became riddled with bullet and shrapnel marks and part of its historic wall collapsed.

Most recently the earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria in 2023 once again caused significant damage to the Citadel, with parts of the Ottoman mill falling, cracks and fissures appearing, parts of the northeastern defensive walls collapsing, and significant parts of the dome of the Ayyubid Mosque’s minaret falling. The entrances to the Citadel were also damaged as stones fell, including from the entrance of the Mamluk defensive tower and the façade of the Ottoman tekke.

Nawar Chattaw
Nawar Chattaw
Nawar Chattaw is a Syrian journalist whose main interest is reporting on human rights and environmental issues. Nawar currently lives in Argentina

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