Cradle of Christianity
Words & Photos Phil Sands
With its claim to have more mosques per person than any other city in the world, Aleppo isn’t an obvious destination for tourists interested in Christian culture. But for centuries the city and the surrounding countryside have been a key area for Christianity, something that remains true today.
While Aleppo’s proportion of Christian residents has shrunk as the Muslim population grows, it still hosts 12 different sects, making it the most diverse Christian community in the Middle East. Beirut may have more Christians in absolute terms, but it cannot match the baffling mosaic found in Syria’s second largest city: six Catholic sects, three Orthodox, two Protestant and one Nestorian.
“People may instinctively think of Jerusalem when they talk of Christianity, but Aleppo is one of our most important places,” Boutros Marayati, head of the city’s Armenian Catholic Church, said. “Christianity’s roots are deep here, the city has nurtured the Christians, it has sheltered us when we needed shelter. If you look at the churches, the monasteries, the holy sites, they are not just stones. They are part of Christianity and Aleppo is where Christianity was cradled.”
Layers of history
There are around 45 churches in the city, with at least one for each of the 11 largest sects. Only the Nestorians, present in small numbers, do not have their own place of worship. What remains of Syria’s first church, the Cathedral of Saint Helen, can be found in Aleppo, although it is now an Islamic school, the Madrasa Halawiye, built in 1124.
The city’s Muslim residents had protected the cathedral, but in response to atrocities by invading Crusaders, Aleppo’s chief judge ordered that it, and two other Christian sites, be converted to mosques. Traces of the original sixth-century church construction are still visible, however – one of the attractions drawing in growing numbers of visitors.
Many other historically significant churches have been left untouched and the city’s indigenous population and religious leaders remain fiercely protective of Aleppo’s reputation for peaceful coexistence between different faiths. A vibrant Jewish community also lived in the city for centuries, although most of them left after the 1948 Nekbeh in Palestine, something hundreds of years of plagues, famines, sieges and religious wars had never been able to do.
“Aleppo has been an important centre in the Christian world since the second century,” Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the city’s Orthodox Syriac community, said. “Aleppo’s archbishop was one of the most important figures during the times of the Roman empire. When Islam came to the area there was no clash of cultures, the city is in many ways a model for tolerance and the art of people of different religions living side by side on a daily basis.”
In 2006, Aleppo was named “Capital of Islamic Culture” (CIC) by the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), a decision that stirred up controversy among some of its non-Muslim residents.
“There were Christians who thought this was denying the city’s other cultures,” Ibrahim said. “I disagreed with that. We are Christians, but the Islamic culture is our culture. Islam is not our religion, but our culture comes in many ways from Islam. And there was something here before Islam and before Christianity and that is also our culture.”
Mohammad Qijjeh, an authority on the city and head of its CIC administration, said Aleppo’s Christian community was one of the city’s most unique and important characteristics.
“Of course Aleppo is an important Islamic city, but there is a long, long pre-Islamic history. In a sense the Christians are the original people of Aleppo.”
Qijjeh insists the city is more culturally significant than the Syrian capital, 370km south.
“Culturally speaking Aleppo is more important than Damascus,” he said. “European tourists are interested in cultural sites and that’s why they come to Aleppo. They want to see the areas of archaeological interest, the churches and the mosques. If you were coming on a six-day tour of Syria you would want to spend at least half of your time in Aleppo, then a day in Palmyra, a day on the coast and a day in Damascus.”
Major Christian attractions include the Halawiye School, the Church of the 40 Martyrs which houses a vast painting from 1708 depicting Judgement Day and, 30km from the city, the village of Brad, one of the Maronites’ most sacred sites. President Bashar al-Assad recently pledged land in the area to the Maronites. Plans for a new shrine there are likely to pull in thousands of pilgrims from the eight million-strong Maronite community spread out across the world.
Promoting cultural tourism
With Syria putting increasing emphasis on the economic benefits of tourism, Aleppo’s unique history is being marketed as a major selling point to foreign visitors.
“Tourism is important here and we’re expecting it to grow significantly in the coming years,” Fouad Hilal, president of the Aleppo Travel Agents Association and author of two historical guidebooks to the city, said. “In 1994, for example, there were 1,161 recorded visitors to the citadel of Saint Simeon (60km northwest of Aleppo). In 2004, there were 230,000 visitors. That’s broadly indicative of the changes that have been happening.”
In 2005, Aleppo had 96 hotels with a total of 2,200 rooms. In 2006, with the opening of the Sheraton, another 400 rooms were added. A series of large new tourist developments, including three different four and five-star hotel complexes, are set to almost double hotel capacity.
“The government and Ministry of Tourism are paying attention to the development here,” Hilal said. “Aleppo has excellent tourist sites, especially areas of interest for Christians, and it is still a place where you can stay cheaply if you want. If you have USD 1,000 (SYP 47,000) a night to spend you can, or if you have USD 6 (SYP 280) a night to spend, you can do that too.
“I’d say the level of service and quality given to tourists is acceptable, it’s something I’d like to see improve and it will, the investment is coming.”
A problem for the tourism sector across the Middle East not so easily solved, however, is the lack of peace. “This is still an issue,” Hilal said. “When the Gaza war broke out, about 20 percent of European tourists immediately cancelled their bookings.”
As one of the world’s great historical trading centres, Aleppo has always opened its doors to foreigners and would continue to do so, Qijjeh, the CIC office director, said.
“Tourism of one kind or another has always been very important for Aleppo,” he said. “It’s not just vital for the economy, it’s also important for social and cultural reasons. It keeps the city’s soul alive to have visitors.”