A Treasure of Heritage for the Poor of Aleppo: Neighborhoods between the Hammer of Political Insecurity and the Anvil of Warlords
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
By Zoya Masoud
Heritage experts around the globe are continuously highlighting the importance of safeguarding the architecture of Aleppo, as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, particularly in the absence of a holistic plan to rebuild the Old City. Marshall-type funded reconstruction is not an option in Syria considering the current political circumstances and the performance deficiency of local institutions. After the pro-regime troops declared Aleppo to be under their control in late 2016, some families returned to their homes in the Old City. These families faced financial challenges due to the lack of governmental control over prices and the absence of public investment in adequate infrastructure, health care, and other social services. At the same time, new laws and regulations have been issued to serve the interest of a group of warlords, while the pre-war population faces difficulties in re-establishing their socio-economic life under unfair and opaque rules. In 2018, I conducted Interviews with 29 Aleppine families in Aleppo and the diaspora concerning the topic of neighborhoods. This post focuses on only one aspect of my research on neighborhoods, dealing with the narratives of basic human needs and the simultaneous sense of being in a historic city based on interviews with two families in al-’Aqaba conducted in December 2018.
Inhabitants of the Old City in 2011 and the Imagined Community of Halabis
The Old City in 2011 was inhabited by poor Aleppine families and immigrants from the suburbs, while wealthy and middle-class Aleppine families lived in the new neighborhoods outside the Old City. The space in the eastern Old City of Aleppo is divided into public (Great Mosque/suq), semi-public (harras/avenues) and private (houses) areas. Neighborhoods are constituted of many harras, which are not only architecturally but also socially constructed. Many harras historically had entrance doors, as the harra dwellers belonged to the same family, sometimes working in the same craft. However, some harras also had heterogeneous inhabitant-groups. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Old City did not correspond to the representation of modern life that many Aleppines wished for their families. Many wealthy families moved out of it into modernized and newly built neighborhoods in the west of the city. They sold their traditional houses to poorer Aleppine families who couldn’t afford to move out, or to newcomers of peasant and bedouin backgrounds, who migrated between the 1950s and 2011 from Aleppo’s rural areas. Many houses, which were built to host poor families, were later converted into qayisariyyat, workshops, and stores. Thus, for the Aleppines in the western neighborhoods, the Old City became looked down on as a poor and vulgar place. Despite their physical absence from the Old City, wealthy families kept identifying with the Old City’s neighborhood names as their place of origin. They had strong feelings of belonging to this imagined Halabi community and of being the only legitimate group to be considered Aleppines, or Halabis. As part of their self-identification, they differentiated themselves from the newcomers, even when these newcomers had lived in Aleppo for several generations. Consequently, the demographic image of the city prior to 2011 was marked by spatial segregation between the western wealthy Halabis and the newcomers. After 1993, the Aleppines of western neighborhoods searched to revive their relationship with the Old City. The Old City of Aleppo was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1986, followed by a project of renovation and development as a result of a cooperation between the German Technical Cooperation Agency, the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, and the Arab Fund between 1993 and the 2000s. These projects motivated many investors to convert some traditional houses into restaurants and establish cafes around the citadel, the most memorable site in current Aleppines commemoration of the Old City. Though many scholars fairly criticized these profit-oriented changes in the Old City as examples of gentrification, these sites became a space of commemoration and shared common space for Halabis and newcomers alike.
War in al-ʾAqaba
After the Arab spring erupted in Aleppo and peaceful demonstrations turned into an armed conflict, the city was divided into regime-held areas in West Aleppo and rebel-controlled areas in East Aleppo. This spatial segregation predated the time before the war in the form of a socio-economic gap, but it developed into a political and military cleavage after mid-2012. The front lines of east-west boarders were located within the Old City of Aleppo. Al-ʾAqaba neighborhood belonged geographically to the western part of the Old City but politically to the rebel-controlled area. It was known as an historic but poor and neglected neighborhood. Houses with strategic locations on the front lines in al-ʾAqaba neighborhood were forcibly evacuated. After four years, the 12th of December 2016 marked the armed victory of pro-regime forces in Aleppo. Some families in East Aleppo were displaced to other territories within Syria, while many others left Syria either to neighboring countries or to Europe, which meant a last farewell to their home city and a loss of any hope to visit the city again.
A few families, who mainly suffered from bad living conditions in their host cities, decided to return to their neighborhoods within the Old City. The first encounter with the home city was a great shock. Their houses were “ransacked to the bones” as one interviewee put it. Streets and houses were, if not destroyed, full of debris and sand, burned and gutted. These families faced many challenges to restore their destroyed houses, including administrative difficulties, a lack of financial aid, inadequate infrastructure, and an absence of governmental or non-governmental support. The deficiency of the governments’ centralized system gave rise to an unregulated parallel market of warlords who control the prices and the flux of products in the market.
Jamila lives in a two-story traditional stone house in al-ʾAqaba. Her family fled in 2012 and came back in 2017 to restore the house. “I missed Aleppo’s air. I missed walking in the streets while my neighbors greeted me.” While we spoke in 2018, her ill child groans.
Nothing is more beautiful than a ceiling above your head! Though we have here no fuel, no gas, no electricity, no water. Why do my kids have to suffer?
When we spoke about the cultural value of her neighborhood, Jamila suspected that I was a municipality employee, sent to register illegal building in the Old City. I reassured her, that I was only a researcher, so she answered:
Aleppo was the Islamic capital of culture. I wish to build the room out of stones as it was, but cement blocks are cheaper, though everything is very expensive. The building workshops deceivingly raised the prices daily. I accepted their conditions, because I had to close the holes in the rooms.
Jamila remembered the original building materials, but financial pressure forced her to use cement, that she recognized as less valuable.
Saʾeed, 65 years old, had another attitude toward his destroyed house, which he visited daily, as part of the world heritage site in al-ʾAqaba. He left to work in Dubai and came back in 2010 to Syria. He explains in a fierce anger:
Give me two square meters on Mars, and I will leave you my house and all my cultural heritage. We need centralized heating and gas supply in Aleppo. Why don’t we build smart houses here? I don’t accept to live in this trash, please don’t ask about my heritage.
During his residency in Dubai, Saʾeed was introduced to the concepts of smart houses and centralized gas supply. He cannot cope with the winter needs in Aleppo, and he sees heritage as a pretext for warlords to control gas, fuel, and electricity supply, “to keep the poor poorer.” Saʾeed wishes to join his sons in Istanbul and never come back to Aleppo.
Few Aleppines have returned to their neighborhoods. They have experienced their neighborhood as destroyed and internationally valued as cultural heritage, yet also as their personal space and realm of memory where they are currently lacking basic human necessities. As these returned families are not the wealthy western Aleppines, or Halabis, they are left to suffer under the warlords’ control over their lives and their houses’ reconstruction. These humanitarian needs are still overlooked in the global intellectual discussion on Aleppo’s heritage, though the valuation of Aleppo as world heritage plays a minor role compared to the absence of basic necessities. This also raises questions of right to heritage and how to reconstruct traditional neighborhoods, socially as well as architecturally, in the 21st century, when the perception of this heritage is contested.
 Author interviews between 2016 and 2019. Khadour, 2017, concluded similar results.
 Many interviewees who fled to other Syrian cities indicated discrimination against them. For instance, in Latakia, a group of apartment landlords claimed that Aleppines, as migrants from Aleppo living in another Syrian city, must pay an extra fee in addition to the regular rent.
 Interview by the author in 2018.
 Interview conducted by the author, Dec 12, 2018.
References and further reading
Said, Salam and Jihad Yazigi, (2018). “The Reconstruction of Syria: Socially Just Re-integration and Peace Building or Regime Re-consolidation?” Bibliotek der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. [http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/14939.pdf]
Heydemann, Steven, (2015). “Explaining the Arab Uprisings: transformations in Comparative Perspective. Mediterranean Politics. Vol. 21, No. 1: pp. 192-204.
Said, Salam, (2019). “Reconstruction as a foreign policy tool.” Reconstructing Syria: Risks and Side Effects. Leipzig: Adopt a Revolution.
Daher, Joseph, (2019). “Reconstructing Syria: How the al-Assad regime is capitalizing on destruction.” Reconstructing Syria: Risks and Side Effects. Leipzig: Adopt a Revolution.
Rabbat, Nasser, (2000). Thaqafat al-bana`a wa bana`a al-thaqafah: Bahouth wa maqalat fi naqd wa tarikh al-`amarah, 1985-2000 [Culture of Building and Building Culture: Research and articles on the criticism and history of architecture, 1985-2000]. London: Riad al-Rayes.
Olabi, Sacher, (1996). “Stadt und Wertewandel.” Trialog, Vol. 50 pp. 45-55.
Gaube, Heinz and Eugen Wirth, (1984). “Aleppo: Historische und geographische Beiträge zur baulichen Gestaltung, zur sozialen Organisation und zur wirtschaftlichen Dynamik einer vorderasiatischen Fernhandelsmetropole.” Wiesbaden: L. Reichert.
Knost, Stefan, (2009). Die Organisation des religiösen Raums in Aleppo. Beirut: OIB.
Khadour, Kheder, (2017). “Consumed by War: The End of Aleppo and Northern Syria’s Political Order. Bibliotek der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. [http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/13783.pdf]
Zoya Masoud is coordinator of the project “Crossroads Aleppo” at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin and has been working at the “3D model of Aleppo Bazaar” project at the German Archaeological Institute since 2017. She is a PhD Candidate at the Technical University of Berlin, within the research project “Identity and Heritage.” She has worked since 2015 in different projects at the Museum of Islamic Art (Syrian Heritage Archive Project and Multaka) and BTU Cottbus University (Aleppo Archive in Exile). In 2015, she graduated with a Master’s degree from the “Resource Efficiency in Architecture and Planning” program at HafenCity University in Hamburg. Between 2010 and 2012, she worked on restoration projects with the Agha Khan Trust for Culture in Damascus and Aleppo. Furthermore, she worked as a teaching assistant at Damascus University in 2012. She studied Architecture at Damascus University.
Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:
Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.
Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.
Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.
Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.
Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.
Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, 2 October 2019.
Mohammad Hassan Khani, War Emigration and its Impact on Post-War Reconstruction of Neighborhoods: A Case Study of Khorramshahr after the Iran-Iraq War, 17 October 2019.
Namariq Al-Rawi, Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008, 24 October 2019.
Kefah Ahmed M. Najjar, Youth Teams and Reconstruction, 7 November 2019.
Citation: Zoya Masoud, A Treasure of Heritage for the Poor of Aleppo: Neighborhoods between the Hammer of Political Insecurity and the Anvil of Warlords, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.11.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/20135.