For centuries, the souks of Aleppo were the beating heart of this great trading city. The name Aleppo conjures images of the cornucopia of goods to be found in the city’s markets – from spices and traditional sweets to textiles, carpets, and famous Aleppo soap. Intimately integrated in the fabric of the city, the souks grew as the broad streets of the Hellenistic city were subdivided along their length into the long and narrow passages of the marketplace, and covered by tall vaults. Between the wooden storefronts were the entrances to larger buildings, from private storehouses and workshops to public buildings such as baths, and later the consulates of European powers. Greatly expanded in the Ottoman period, starting in the sixteenth century, for the citizens of Aleppo the souk was always a place of social and cultural exchange, as well as commerce.
Today, after more than six years of armed conflict, the social fabric of Syria and the social relations that life in the souk once supported have been violently disrupted. The souk itself was consumed by a fire that burned for days in September 2012, amid fighting between Syrian government forces and insurgents. Throughout the summer of 2012, rebels had tried to wrest control of Aleppo from the Syrian government, following an uprising that erupted in early 2011. Battle lines soon hardened, and more than four years of a stalemate ensued, until the Syrian regime, with support from its international allies, finally defeated the opposition in Aleppo in December 2016. The conflict, in which the norms of warfare were repeatedly violated, resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. The death toll from the conflict has exceeded 400,000, and millions more Syrians have become internally displaced or sought refuge outside the country.
While the conflict is ongoing, the consolidation of government control over Aleppo has brought a respite to those residents who still live in the city, and has allowed many of those who fled to return. The Syrian people will soon face a historic challenge to rebuild their nation, their communities, and their livelihoods.
The first step will be an assessment of the current condition of the extensive marketplace, and of the adjacent Great Mosque of Aleppo, which was another victim of the conflagration. Employing local architects and laborers to rebuild the souk will be an important contribution to the economic revitalization of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.