“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.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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