The Citadel of Aleppo
The Citadel of Aleppo is the most prominent historic architectural site in Aleppo. It was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. Its majestic stature forms the center of the city; in fact the city wraps around it extending a spider-like infrastructural web of streets forming the city’s organic urban form.
The Citadel has an elliptical base with a length of 450m and width of 325m, at the top this ellipse measures 285m by 160m with the height of this slanting foundation measuring 50m. The entire mound was covered with large blocks of gleaming limestone that unified the built structure with the hill thus increasing its visual scale. It was also surrounded by a moat filled with water to protect against intruders. The Citadel hovers over the city in a uniqueness that rivals the larger Citadel of Cairo and the more massive Citadel of Damascus.
Although the Citadel is an Islamic landmark, archeological digs have uncovered Roman and Byzantine ruins dating back to the 9th century BC. The Citadel was originally a Neo-Hittite acropolis built on a natural hill; this provided a strategic site for a military fortress to guard and protect the surrounding agricultural areas.
Sayf al-Dawla (944-967), the first Hamdanid ruler of Aleppo, built the fortress and used the citadel as a military center of power over his region. Zangid ruler Nur al-Din (1147-1174) fortified the citadel and added some structures such as the Small Mosque of the Citadel. But it wasn’t until Ayyubid period during the reign of the Sultan al-Zahir al-Ghazi of Aleppo (1186-1216) that the Citadel went through major reconstruction, fortification and addition of new structures that create the complex of the Citadel in its current form. During the first decade of the thirteenth century the citadel evolved into a palatial city that included functions ranging from residential (palaces and baths), religious (mosque and shrines), military installations (arsenal, training ground defense towers and the entrance block) and supporting elements (water cisterns and granaries).
A particularly significant addition during al-Ghazi’s reign is the Great Mosque of the Citadel that was built in 1214. Its situation at the highest point of the Citadel, with its towering minaret that is 21m high, extended both the citadels visibility and its defense to greater distances. Here the minaret begins to play a religious and military role; this duality merges the virtues of power and piety in the icon of the Islamic faith.
The most prominent renovation is the entrance block that al-Ghazi rebuilt in 1213. Eight large arches structure the bridge that leads up to the Citadel over the moat. It is punctuated at the bottom by a defense gate with two towers and at the top of the ramped bridge by the Gate of Serpents and the Gate of the Two Lions. A complex defense mode was developed in the sequence of movement into the Citadel, as perpetrators would have to penetrate 3 iron doors and change direction 6 times through a series of 90 degree abrupt turns while being subjected to hot liquids being poured through the slit openings on the upper floors. These defense strategies made the Citadel of Aleppo one of the hardest forts to conquer in the region.
In 1415 the Mamluk governor of Aleppo, prince Sayf al-Din Jakam, was authorized to rebuild the Citadel after the Mongol invasion of Timur in 1410. His most important addition was the new Mamluk palace that rose higher than the two entrance towers. The Ayyubid palace was almost completely abandoned during this period. The Mamluk period also administered restoration and preservation projects on the Citadel, the last one under the reign of the final Mamluk sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri was replacing the flat ceiling of the palace with 9 domes.
During the Ottoman period, the military role of the Citadel as a defense fortress slowly diminished as the city began to grow outside the city walls and was taking its form as a commercial metropolis. Large restoration projects took place after the Citadel was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 1828. These restoration operations continued throughout the next century until the present. The throne room went through a major restoration and rebuilding in the late 1970s. The amphitheater was completely renovated in the 1980s with new stone seats lining the old and modern sound/light technology was installed to hold summer festivals and concerts.
In 2000 the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme initiated a major restoration project for the Citadel of Aleppo. The work consisted of structural preservation to the tower walls and replacing missing stones to the walls and arches. The project also included excavation of a part of the Citadel crown, which revealed the remains of the Ottoman period occupation.
The Trust will continue work in 2002 on the Citadel primarily in the conservation of the Ayyubid palace restoring the muqarnas portal and the marble floor. Additional work will focus on the relocation of the Citadel museum collection, which is currently located in the Ottoman barracks. The barracks will be reused as a visitors facility it is situated on the highest edge of the site and provides extensive views to the city. Structural work will include dealing with the erosion of the Citadel slope and improvement of the drainage system in the moat. An urban scale project will reexamine the traffic and pedestrian movement around the Citadel, aiming towards the reduction of vehicular traffic on the Citadel ring street, providing public transportation facilities and parking and enhancing the pedestrian zone around the moat of the Citadel. The efforts conducted by the Trust to keep the Citadel as a welcoming monument to visitors and locals, insuring the preservation of this important historic site, is an homage to this symbol of power that bears witness to centuries of time that forms Aleppo’s rich history.
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Tabbaa, Yasser. 1997. Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo. The Pennsylvania State University: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 111.
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“The Citadel of Aleppo”. Aga Khan Development Network Website. http://www.akdn.org/hcsp/Syria/Syriapages10_15.pdf. [Accessed February 14, 2007]