About Aleppo

Aleppo (“Halab” or “Chalab” — “the White City”-“Armi” during the Third Millennium, “Beroia” to the Seleucids, “al-Hamdaniyeh” in the tenth century, “Alep” to the French) is probably older than time, older than human habitation in northern Syria, older than the trade routes across the Near East.

Aleppo was old when Fifth Millennium inhabitants abandoned their pottery shards on Tell al-Sawda and Tell al-Ansari, just south of the present-day urban center. Aleppo was already known and envied in the Third Millennium, according to the cuneiform tablets unearthed in the Ebla archives, that describe the commercial and military proficiency of the Syrian “Armi”, homonym of a city, probably contemporary, in the Indus Valley.

Texts in the libraries of Mari and Ugarit, dating from the Second Millennium, extol its dominance of the trade lanes. Aleppo, or Halab, was known then as the capital of Yamkhad or Yamhad, a Canaanite kingdom, whose king received a statue of Ishtar from the king of Mari, as a sign of deference, to be displayed in the temple of Hadad in Kilasou.

Yet Ebla, Ugarit and Mari ultimately perished while Aleppo lived on, their story engraved in its own library of 20,000 cuneiform tablets, that described their destruction and lauded Aleppo’s unimaginable resilience, against time and the earthquakes, against famine, force and fear, against invasion by some to the convenience of others, against the changing appetites and fashions and passions of cultures that came, conquered, and departed, leaving the soft, rounded hills, the copses of cypress, and the clean running streams essentially as they had found them.

According to myth or legend, Aleppo was called “Halab” or “White” because of Abraham, who stopped here on his way back from his journey along the Euphrates. He was accompanied only by his cow. He found, however, instead of the thriving city of repute, a devastated village, victim of the rampage and plundering of a neighboring state. He called out to God, it was said, and the cow gave great quantities of frothy white milk, as white as the cow’s own soft hide, more and more, as the villagers lined up with their goatskins. The cow gave so much milk that Halab was saved, and prospered again. So Abraham left his cow to the citizens, who called their village after its glowing white skin, while the Prophet or Patriarch moved on in his travels.

Aleppo’s relevant history actually begins in the Yamkhad period, when its monarch, Hammurapi I, forged a fierce nation out of the warring city-states that surrounded him. When conflicting interests and petty rivalries wrested a number of these territories from his jurisdiction, his son Abba’el, who ruled during the eighteenth century B.C., was able to recover them.Home

Though a certain discrepancy exists among academics, regarding the successions of monarchs and statesmen, it would appear that Abba’el had a brother, Yarim-Lim I, who ascended the throne of Yamkhad when the region came under Amorite rule. A power struggle was raging over control of the kingdom of Mari. According to the Mari archives, Yarim-Lim I was in fact a key statesman of the time, whose alliances with the kings of Larsa, Eshnunna and Qatna determined the political fortunes of the regional hegemonies, while he benefited from their trade routes, which all crossed his territory. Yet these same alliances, through changing loyalties, would be instrumental in the later destruction of Mari.

Yarim-Lim I granted Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mari, asylum in Aleppo when the Assyrians had taken control of Zimri-Lim’s royal precincts; and Yarim-Lim married him to his own daughter Shibtu. When Zimri-Lim, through a brilliant coup, recovered his throne, Shibtu was allowed considerable political and administrative responsibility, and with her entourage and descendents — all women — was inordinately influential in her Euphrates stronghold, in part because of the high regard of her husband for her royal family in Aleppo.

Yamkhad’s relations with Mari continued indefinitely on a cordial basis. The two rulers, father-in-law and son-in-law, traveled together extensively on visits of state. They were especially well received in Ugarit, whose king was enamored of the glamour and extension of Zimri-Lim’s legendary palace, and promised to expand his own lavish residence, to emulate the insuperable magnificence of the Mari estates.

Both Zimri-Lim and Yarim-Lim I, as it happens, were allies of Hammurabi, son of Sin-Muballit, Amorite ruler and celebrated legislator -synonimous with his timeless code of law — who consolidated the First Babylonian Dynasty, sometime around the late-eighteenth century B.C.

At the time of Hammurabi’s accession to the throne, Mesopotamia was largely dominated by the powerful king Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria, political rival of Zimri-Lim; and the ruthless Rim-Sin of Larsa, according to historical annals “defeated by Hammurabi in his thirtieth year”. A year later Hammurabi also gained control over Eshnunna, which governed the eastern trade routes to Iran and beyond. Yarim-Lim’s associations with the eastern kingdoms were no longer a guarantee of stability in the region and Mari, which had been a long-time ally of Babylon, was now a disturbance. Hammurabi betrayed his treaties with Zimri-Lim, took the city in c. 1750 and thus secured for Babylon the western extensions of the Euphrates. Following his sacking and destroying of Mari, however, Hammurabi was committed to sharing a frontier with Aleppo. The kingdom of Yamkhad, which played a key role in Near Eastern trade of the time, was obliged to reassess its political alliances.

King Parrattarna of the Hurrians gained control of Aleppo. A text inscribed on a statue of Idrimi, Mitannian king of Mukish, was discovered in a temple in Alalakh: “In Halab [Aleppo], in the house of my fathers, a crime had occurred and we fled. I took my horse, my chariot and my squire and went into the desert [for seven years] until I came, at last, to spend the night before the throne of Zakkar [in Ebla]. The next day I set out for Canaan, and I journeyed there to Amiya, where I found also people from Halab. When they saw me they recognized me, as son of [Ilimilimma, king of Aleppo, c. 1500] their murdered lord, and so they gathered around me. And so I became king of Alalakh and made an alliance with Halab, and with Pilliya of Kizzuwatna [in Cilicia], and with my own coastal kingdom of Mukish, and I received as well the help and support of the people of Emar.” And so Idrimi of Mitanni became the vassal king of the Hurrian Parrattarna. Mitanni’s day was yet to come.

Mursili I, Hittite ruler of the Old Kingdom, meanwhile, determined to enlarge his realm, set out to consolidate the achievements of Hattusili, his grandfather, by demolishing Aleppo, “the mighty kingdom”, considered key to the control of the region, “Halab that had dominated northern Syria for centuries and which had supported the neighboring city-states against the military advance of Hattusili, my grandfather.”