Monday, February 29, 2016

Book review: Aleppo, by Philip Mansel

Once upon a time, it was a city, with a vibrant life, and beautiful buildings and an European flair. Its name was Aleppo and was almost destroyed by the latest civil war, although escaped for centuries big wars, riots or earthquakes. I personally never traveled to this city, but luckier travelers friends of mine told or showed me interesting stories or pictures from here. All these pictures are mostly showing places that are just memories. 
In his latest book, Philip Mansel covers the history of the city as part of the greater Middle East and the main trade routes. It is the story of a city "with a rhythm of its own, challenging categories and generalisations. Lying between the desert and the sea, the mountains of Anatolia and the banks of the Euphrates, it was Arab and Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish". 
Until the latest civil war, the city kept at a great extent a peaceful character and went through the big world conflicts without serious damage. Together with Damascus, to whom it places itself in antithesis, it is one of the oldest continously inhabited cities in the world. Faithful to the Ottoman Empire, it was used often as a basis during the frequent wars with Iran over the control of Iraq or the battles between Sunni and Shi'a. Although its commercial role will diminish by the 17th century, it will remain till the 21st century, an important hub of cultural, trade and diplomatic resources. The impressive number of sayings and proverbs typical for Aleppo that entered the public conscience in the region are an example of the special status of this city. My favourite by far is: "If you do business with a dog, you should call him Sir". It testifies about a special sensibility and a local code of values. 
The book has two big parts: one dedicated to cover various historical and political stages of development of the city, with its main benchmarks, and the other covering fragments from travel accounts about Aleppo. It is an interesting perspective which offers the chance to get a glimpse of the ambiance and profile of the city through direct accounts. 
It is an informative interesting read, of academic consistency and well written. My only regret is that the author commits the big sin of many historians approaching the 'multicultural' Middle Eastern cities of pretending that there was tolerance towards the Jewish inhabitants. Only at the beginning of the 19th century there were couple of infamous "blood libels" that are not mentioned in the book. Anyway, this was not the main topic of the book, but more attention to this detail will help countering the stereotype of the 'tolerance' in the Middle East. 
A lecture recommended to both historians and political scientiest, as well as to journalists covering the Middle East. 
The book will be released the 28th of April.
Disclaimer: I was offered the book for review via, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.

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