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Aleppo Citadel: A Storied Fortress of History and Heritage.

Aleppo Citadel: A panoramic view of Aleppo Citadel.

Aleppo Citadel:

The Aleppo Citadel, situated in Syria and renowned throughout the Middle East, is an extraordinary fortress that showcases the region’s rich history and architectural legacy. Perched atop a naturally formed hill at the center of the ancient city, this site has been in use since at least the 3rd millennium BCE, as evidenced by references in cuneiform tablets from Ebla and Mari. A temple dedicated to Hadad, discovered recently, further confirms its ancient origins, dating back to the 24th century BCE. The hill itself served defensive purposes as far back as the 16th century BCE when the Hittites triumphed over the Amorites and conquered the city.

Over time, various civilizations left their mark on Aleppo citadel. The Seleucids, who held control between 333 and 64 BCE, constructed fortifications at the site. Unfortunately, little remains and scant documentation exist regarding the Roman period, although Emperor Julian is known to have visited the fortress in 363 CE. During the Byzantine era, Aleppo citadel played a crucial role in defending the city against Sasanian Persian attacks, although few Byzantine remnants remain today. Following the Arab conquest, Aleppo’s significance waned significantly, and information about the state of the citadel during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods is largely unknown.

However, Aleppo began to regain importance in the 10th century under the Hamdanid dynasty and the 11th century under the Mirdasid dynasty. During this period, two churches within the fortress were converted into mosques. The city’s defenses were extensively rebuilt during the reign of Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zenki in the 12th century, including reinforcements to Aleppo Citadel. Most of the existing structure today, however, is the result of a major reconstruction project carried out by al-Zahar Ghazi Bin Salah al-Din al-Ayoubi, the Ayyubid ruler of Aleppo and Mosul, between 1186 and 1216.

Apart from defensive enhancements, al-Zahar Ghazi oversaw the construction of a grand palace, baths, and other buildings. Born in 1172, al-Zahar Ghazi was the third son of Salah al-Din Yousef Bin Ayoub. At the young age of fifteen, he was entrusted with the governance of the northern region of the Ayyubid empire, while his two older brothers ruled over the southern territories. In 1216, al-Zahar Ghazi passed away and was laid to rest in the nearby al-Sultaniyeh Mosque.

Aleppo citadel endured substantial damage during the Mongol invasion of Aleppo in 1260 but was restored in 1292. In 1400, the citadel suffered further destruction when the city fell to Timur’s forces. However, Mamluk governor Seif al-Din Jakam oversaw another reconstruction of the citadel in 1415, which included the addition of two external towers on the north and south slopes of the hill and the construction of a new palace above the two main entrance towers. 

In the early 1500s, al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri added nine domes to the enormous throne hall of the Mamluk palace. Throughout the Ottoman period, Aleppo citadel experienced intermittent military occupation but was primarily inhabited by civilians. It underwent restoration efforts under Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in 1521 and again in 1850-1851 to repair damage caused by an earthquake in 1822.

To enter Aleppo citadel, visitors traverse a massive stone bridge spanning the surrounding moat, supported by eight arches. Prior to the bridge, there is a small entrance tower dating to the reign of al-Zahar Ghazi, which was rebuilt under al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri. The bridge leads to an imposing gateway, perhaps the most remarkable of any fortress in the Arab world. Originally consisting of two separate towers, it was transformed into a single monumental gateway during Seif al-Din Jakam’s reconstruction in 1415. 

Inscriptions surrounding the entrance reference earlier restorations carried out by al-Ashraf Salah al-Din Khalil Bin Qalawoun between 1290 and 1293. The entryway to Aleppo citadel features eight ninety-degree turns and is highly exposed to defensive positions above, making any assault on the main gateway exceptionally challenging. At the end of the gateway, stairways descend to a series of cisterns and dungeons, possibly of Byzantine origin, where Crusader leaders captured in battle may have been imprisoned.

Beyond the gateway, a pathway leads into the expansive interior of the citadel. On the right, remnants of the Ayyubid palace can be found, largely dating from a 1230 reconstruction under al-Aziz Mohammed. The entrance facade is particularly noteworthy, featuring alternating black basalt and yellow limestone and exquisite muqarnas work. The palace was built around a sizable central courtyard adorned with four iwans, and an attached private hammam (baths) can be observed.

To the northwest of the palace complex, two mosques stand. The smaller southern mosque, known as Ibrahim Mosque, is attributed by inscription to the rule of Nur al-Din. Local tradition holds that a stone on which Abraham used to sit was preserved on the site, which was previously commemorated by a church. The mosque is also believed to contain the burial place of the head of John the Baptist, among several other sites. 

Further north lies the Great Mosque of the Aleppo Citadel, constructed using remnants of a church from the Mirdasid period. Its square plan encompasses a central courtyard with a prayer hall to the south, while the minaret, dating back to the same era, stands to the north. Adjacent to the mosque is an Ottoman-era barracks constructed in 1834, now serving as a museum and visitor’s center. 

Returning to the main entrance and ascending to the terrace at the rear of the gateway, one arrives at the Mamluk-era palace built during Seif al-Din Jakam’s reign in 1415. The palace’s remarkable throne hall, accessed through a courtyard adorned with black and white stone and muqarnas, boasts impressive dimensions of twenty-four meters by twenty-seven meters and stands as a rare example of a Mamluk reception hall.

The Aleppo Citadel stands as a testament to Syria’s captivating history and architectural heritage. It has withstood the test of time, witnessing the rise and fall of empires, undergoing multiple reconstructions, and proudly standing as a remarkable monument in the heart of the city.

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