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The Splendors of Ancient Aleppo

The account of Ibn Jubayr, who visited the city in the XIII century: courted by rulers, many battles were waged for her

Ibn Jubayr | 09 February 2017
The old citadel in Aleppo. Photo © Oasis

In 1183, Ibn Jubayr started a long journey. From Ceuta, where he boarded a Genoese ship, after many vicissitudes of fortune, he went to Mecca and, on his way back, to Baghdad, Mosul, Alep, Damascus… He arrived in Aleppo in June 1184, a year after Saladin’s conquest of the city. Fascinated by Aleppo architectural beauty, the traveler describes its citadel, the covered market, the great mosque and the Hanafite madrasa, all of which have been badly damaged by the conflict that has been raging since 2012.
Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) was an Arab traveler from al-Andalus. He is a pioneer of travel literature, a literary genre which would spread during the XIV century, especially through Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta’s writings. After visiting Aleppo, Ibn Jubayr sailed to Acri on his way back to al-Andalus, again on board of a Genoese ship. During a storm in the Strait of Messina, he was shipwrecked and rescued. He travelled through the Northern coast of Sicily and he boarded a vessel in Trapani, heading toward Granada, where he arrived in 1185. Ibn Jubayr wrote an account of his two-year journey,
Rihlat Ibn Jubayr (“Ibn Jubayr’s journey”). It became a classic of Arabic medieval literature. The excerpt we translated from Arabic offers a fascinating insight into the city of Aleppo.

[To read the excerpt devoted to the city of Mosul, click here]

Aleppo is a town of eminent consequence, and in all ages its fame has flown high. The kings who have sought its hand in marriage are many, and its place in our souls is dear. How many battles has it provoked, and how many white blades have been drawn against it? Its fortress is renowned for its impregnability and, from far distance seen for its great height, is without like or match among castles. […] We say that amongst the honours of this castle is that, as we were told, it was in early days a hill whither Abraham the Friend (of God) – may God’s blessings and protection enfold him and our Prophet – was wont to repair with some flocks he had, and there milk them and disperse the milk as alms. The place was therefore called Halab1 [Ar., “milk”. Aleppo is of course, the Western version of Halab]. God best knows concerning this. In the fortress is a venerated shrine, dedicated to him, which men visit to win blessings by praying therein. Amongst its perfect qualities, and a necessity in the defence of fortresses, is that water springs up within it. Two cisterns have been built over the water and they discharge water throughout the year, so never is there fear of thirst. Food also will keep there for all time without impairment. In all the conditions of defence there are no more important and certain than these two attributes. Round the two cisterns, on the side facing the town, is a strong double wall, at the foot of which lies a ditch, whose bottom the eye cannot reach, where water springs. The state of this fortress, both as regards its strength and its beauty, is grander than we can reach in description. Its upper wall is all towers, well-disposed, with dominating high-points and commanding galleries, throughout opened with loopholes. Each tower is garrisoned, and inside the fortress are the suites of the Sultan and apartments for the royal dignitaries.

As for the town, it is massively built and wonderfully disposed, and of rare beauty, with large markets arranged in long adjacent rows so that you pass from a row of shops of one craft into that of another until you have gone through all the urban industries. These markets are all roofed with wood, so that their occupants enjoy an ample shade, and all hold the gaze from their beauty, and halt in wonder those who are hurrying by.
Its qaysāriyyah is as a walled-in garden in its freshness and beauty, flanked, as it is, by the venerated mosque. He who sits in it yearns for no other sight even were it paradisiacal. Most of the shops are in wooden warehouses of excellent workmanship, a row being formed of one warehouse divided by wooden railings richly carved that all open on (separate) shops. The result is most beautiful. Each row is connected with one of the gates of the venerated mosque.



This is one of the finest and most beautiful of mosques. Its great court is surrounded by large and spacious porticoes that are full of doors, beautiful as those of a palace, that open on to the court. Their number is more than fifty, and they hold the gaze from their fine aspect. In the court there are two wells fed by springs. The south portico has no maqsūrah, so that its amplitude is manifest and most pleasing to look upon. The art of ornamental carving had exhausted itself in its endeavours on the pulpit, for never in any city have I seen a pulpit like it or of such wondrous workmanship. The woodwork stretches from it to the mihrab beautifully adorning all its sides in the same marvelous fashion. It rises up, like a great crown, over the mihrab, and then climbs until it reaches the heights of the roof. The upper part of the mosque is in the form of an arch, furnished with wooden merlons, superbly carved and all inlaid with ivory and ebony. This marquetry extends from the pulpit to the mihrab and to that part of the south wall which they adjoin without any interval appearing; and the eyes consider the most beautiful sight in the world. The splendor of this venerated mosque is greater than can be described.

At its west side stands a Hanafite college which resembles the mosque in beauty and perfection of work. Indeed in beauty they are like one mausoleum beside another. This school is one of the most ornamental we have seen, both in construction and in its rare workmanship. One of the most graceful things we saw was the south side, filled with chambers and upper rooms, whose windows touched each other, and having, along its length, a pergola covered with grape-bearing vines. Each window had its moiety of the grapes that hung before if, and each occupant could, by learning forward, stretch forth his arm and pluck the fruit without pain or trouble.

Besides this college the city has four or five others, and a hospital. Its state of splendor is superb, and it is a city fit to be [the seat of] the Caliph. But its magnificence is all within, and it has nought without save a small river [al-Quwayq] that flows from north to south and passes through the suburb that surrounds the city; for it has a large suburb containing numerable khans. On this river there are mills contiguous with the town, and in the middle of the suburb are gardens that stretch along its length. But whatever may be its state, inside or out, Aleppo is one of the cities of the world that have no like, and that would take long to describe. We lodged in its suburb, in a khan called the Khan of Abu ’l-Shukr, where we stayed four days.
We departed on the morning of Thursday the 17th of Rabi‘, the 28th of June [1184].

To learn more about Aleppo’s urban history, see Jean Sauvaget, Alep. Essai sur le développement d’une grande ville syrienne des origines au milieu du XIXe siècle, Geuthner, Paris 1941.

1 Aleppo in Arabic is Halab, a term which is also the infinitive of the verb halaba, “to milk”. The juxtaposition however is only apparent because the name “Halab” has Amorite origins and dates back to 2000 BC.

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