► The Al-Madina Souq was the largest covered market in the world with 13 kilometers of shops.
► It burned on September 2012 and it was severely damaged. The fire may have started due to nearby fighting and it destroyed much of the massive complex of shops, warehouses, religious buildings and hammams that dated back to the 14th century. The commercial heart of Aleppo and its complex social networks have been destroyed.
► In 2014, UNESCO assessed the Al-Madina complex and found that 34 of the 45 souqs had severe visible damage and about 1,500 of the 1,600 shops were damaged or destroyed.
"Aleppo is a town of eminent consequence, and in all ages its fame has flown high... It is massively built and wonderfully disposed, and of rare beauty, with large markets arranged in long adjacent rows so that you pass from a row of shops of one craft into that of another... These markets are all roofed with wood, so their occupants enjoy ample shade."
Ibn Jubayr, Travels, 1184
Aleppo is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. It is mentioned in the Eblaite tablets from the third millennium BC, where Aleppo goes by the name of Hal-pa-pa, but fine neo-Hittite reliefs recently found in Aleppo’s towering citadel mound may give a slight edge in the antiquity contest to this more northerly of Syria’s two largest cities. Since those earliest times, the long-distance trade in rare exotics and the face-to-face retailing of everyday essentials have been Aleppo’s sustenance. The clamor and calls emanating today from its suqs (markets) are the echoes of the same sounds that rang there four thousand years ago.
Today, some 15 kilometers of stall-lined streets, alleys and commercial cul-de-sacs wind off the suq’s 1.5-kilometer main thoroughfare, covered in places with stone and brick vaulting. It follows the route of the Decumanus, the city’s main east-west street that was laid out in Hellenic times, in Aleppo as in other cities of the Mediterranean world. Aleppo in those times was the principal commercial entrepôt between East and West, where the riches of India and Mesopotamia met Mediterranean traders and middlemen who shipped the goods onward to the Greek mainland and, in later years, to Rome. Starting up near the citadel, the Decumanus runs downhill through secondary suqs devoted to specific crafts or products, such as the Suq al-Attarine, the Perfumers’ Suq. At the bottom end is the dog-legged Antioch Gate, high enough that camels did not even have to duck as they marched out, bound for the port at Antioch, 80 kilometers (50 mi) to the west.
Today, traders new to Aleppo fly in—from Moscow most often—or they come by bus from Turkey. What were once “exotics” have largely given way to global-brand consumer products: The French Nafnaf clothing brand is today as common in the market as no-logo lamp oil once was. Conversations with Aleppo’s salespeople, recorded here in the old suq and in the city’s urban shopping quarters, capture both what has changed in less than a lifetime and what never seems to vary from one millennium to the next.
A blaze has swept though ancient markets in Aleppo, activists say, as rebels and government forces seek to gain control of Syria’s largest city. Reports say hundreds of shops in the souk, one of the best preserved in the Middle East, have been destroyed. Unesco, which recognises Aleppo’s Old City as a world heritage site, described the damage as a tragedy. On the third day of a rebel offensive, battles broke out in the Old City and the Arkub district, reports said. The fire, believed to have been triggered by shelling and gunfire, began on Friday but was still burning on Saturday, reports said. “It’s a big loss and a tragedy that the old city has now been affected,” Kishore Rao, director of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre, told the Associated Press.
The market stalls lie beneath the city’s towering 13th Century citadel, where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions. Activists quoted by Reuters news agency said that the presence of snipers was making it difficult to approach the Souk al-Madina, once a major tourist attraction. Reports estimate that between 700 and 1,000 shops have been destroyed so far. “It’s a disaster. The fire is threatening to spread to remaining shops,” one activist, Ahmad al-Halabi, told AP. He said the Syrian authorities had cut off the water supply, making attempts to control the fire more difficult. Rebels and civilians were working together to limit the fire with a few fire extinguishers, he added. The fire took hold with speed, fuelled by the many shops’ wooden doors and the clothes, fabrics and leather goods sold inside. Fighting was reported at the Neirab military base as well as Bab Antakya, a stone gateway to the Old City. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said the focal point for fighting was Salaheddin, a rebel stronghold on the south-west side of the city.