“Strange how the name of a city can come to mean an event, rather than a place”: Aleppo before ‘Aleppo’

The Queiq River in downtown Aleppo. Image: Mohamed Zaki/Wikimedia Commons.

I know nothing of Aleppo, beyond the fact it’s a Syrian city currently playing host to a terror it’s too painful even to imagine. I know, in the abstract, that there’s a real place behind those stories – but I don’t instinctively grasp how it was, or what it was like, before the war came.

When terrorism comes to Brussels or Paris or New York, I have a mental image of what that looks like; an idea, however flawed, of what is at stake. In Aleppo, as in too much of the world, I don’t have that. I know nothing of its history or its people, what work they do or how they get to the office in the morning.

And today, I can’t help but feel I should know those things. So here are some of them.

Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world. Some of the archaeological records suggest it’s been inhabited for 7,000 years or more, and by the late 3rd millennium it was already popping up in Mesopotamian records as a city noted for its commercial and military importance. (The late 3rd millennium, to put that date in perspective, is around 1,000 years before the traditional date for the Trojan War.)

The ancient city, in 2011. Image: Preacher Lad/WIkimedia Commons.

The city’s endurance seems to relate to its importance as a trading post. It lies at the western end of the Silk Road, along which goods travelled between Asia and the Mediterranean. For much of history – really, until the arrival of the Suez Canal, in 1869 – all trade between China or Persia and the Levant or Europe would have passed through Aleppo.

At various points in its history, Aleppo was part of the empires of Assyria and Babylonia, the Hittites and Persians and Alexander the Great. It became part of the new Roman province of Syria in 64BCE, thanks to Pompey, and was part of the Byzantine Empire until the Muslim conquest of 637. European crusaders twice besieged the city, but failed to take it. In the last thousand years, it was held by the Mongols, then the Ottomans, then finally the French, before Syria became an independent state in 1945.

The Grand Mosque in 2010. Image: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1986, the city was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. An extract from its inscription noted:

The old city of Aleppo reflects the rich and diverse cultures of its successive occupants. Many periods of history have left their influence in the architectural fabric of the city. Remains of Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ayyubid structures and elements are incorporated in the massive surviving Citadel.

In 2013, UNESCO added the city to a second list: that of world heritage sites in danger.

Aleppo grew rapidly and industrialised in the 20th century. By the beginning of the 21st, it had grown to become the largest city in Syria, with a population of 2.1m, about the size of Manchester. In the entire Levant, only Amman was bigger.


The Shahba Mall in 2012. Image: Francis-Mag/Wikimedia Commons.

The city’s population was largely Sunni Muslim – largely Arab, though Turkish and Kurdish, too – though it was also home to one of the Middle East’s largest Christian communities. In 2006 Aleppo was named the Islamic Capital of Culture, in recognition of both its historic importance and its careful preservation of its various landmarks.

Aleppo was the centre of the Syrian manufacturing industry, which accounted for 50 per cent of the city’s jobs. Many of the city’s businesses were based in the nearby industrial city of Sheikh Najjar, 10km to the north, essentially a planned business park for the city. In 2010 alone, the district received inward investment worth more than $3.4bn; it was still growing, with hotels and exhibition centres planned, when the war came in 2012.

The city has two football teams. Al-Ittihad plays in the Syrian Premier league, and at the eponymous 16,000 capacity stadium. Hurriya plays at the slightly smaller Al-Hamadaniah Stadium. It has a smaller fanbase, and was relegated in 2008.

There’s no metro or light rail in Aleppo. By way of public transport, the city relied on taxies and a fleet of white minibuses. It was a major stop on the Berlin to Baghdad Railway, however. Here’s a picture of its historic station, known as the Gare de Baghdad:

The Gare de Baghdad. Image: Reinhard Dietrich/Wikimedia Commons.

Since 2012, the city has been divided between rebel and government control. This week, that division seems finally to have come to an end. Reports today suggest that government militias are massacring civilians in the previously rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo.

It’s strange how the name of a city can come to mean an event, rather than a place. Sarajevo means an endless siege. Srebrenica means a massacre. Mosul means the war against Isis. And now, Aleppo means the Syrian Civil War.

But as the horrors unfold, and the recriminations follow, and we berate ourselves with the belief we could have prevented this, or comfort ourselves with the belief we could not, we should keep sight of the fact that Aleppo wasn’t always a war zone. It’s a city the size of Manchester with 7,000 years of history behind it.

You can give to the Red Cross’s Syria Appeal here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.



Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.