The Decline of Aleppo Essay Example
The Decline of Aleppo Essay Example

The Decline of Aleppo Essay Example

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  • Published: January 24, 2019
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In the Arabic world, Aleppo was not for all the time considered a metropolis. However, it claims a long and glorious history that traces to the beginning of the recorded history, and has established a regional commercial center for at least more than one thousand years. Located in the midpoint between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean Sea, the town of Aleppo also enjoys an easy access to water and food supply from the surrounding fertile plain and a nearby river, Quwayq, not to mention the Egyptian rice brought through the coastal trade. Therefore, it was naturally selected as a regular stop of the caravan route that linked the East and the West world. Aleppos importance for the caravan trade was further strengthened after the destruction of Ayas, the important port city of the Christian Armenian kingdom in 1375. Since the Mamluks conquest of


Cilicia, the caravan route naturally shifted south to the Northern Syria. But Aleppos greatest chance of development appeared after the Ottomans conquest of the Mamluk domain. Although Aleppo enjoyed a great development in economy and public construction under the Mamluk Dynasty, contrast to Damasus, it was never given the adequate political status.

In the first half of the 16th century, the Ottoman army successively defeated the Mamluk Sultan and other Arabic powers, and eventually annexed the central part of the Arabic world. Among the Arabic cities, Aleppo showed a great loyalty to the Ottoman Porte, especially during the rebellion of Damascus led by Janbirdi al-Ghazali. In return, Aleppo was upgraded as the capital of Northern Syria, no longer subordinate to Damascus but directly report to Istanbul, which offered the city an even greate

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space to develop into a major terminus of caravan trade, from which Aleppo attracted merchant diasporas from both the Western countries and the neighboring Asian regions. Also, through caravan trade Aleppo accumulated enormous fortune and enjoyed a long period of prosperity. As late as the end of the 18th century, Aleppo was still generally regarded as the third city in importance in the Ottoman dominions, only inferior to Istanbul (Constantinople) and Cairo1.

At its golden age, that is, from the middle of 16th century to the first half of 18th century, almost all the major European nations established their consular representations in Aleppo. And under the pressure they brought in the Ottoman government, a new port, Iskenderun (Alexandretta), was constructed at the end of the 16th century, solely served as the affiliated port for the transportation of goods in Aleppo to the various European countries. As Bruce Masters concludes, t(T)he fate of Iskenderun provides an important watershed for Aleppos changing fortunes, as it signals the citys transition from being primarily a caravan entrept to one that was linked equally to the sea and the trade of the West.2

However, the decline of Aleppo seemed inevitable in the middle of 18th century, when the trade of Iranian silk was severely damaged, if not terminated, due to the war between the Ottoman Empire and Iran. As is stated above, Aleppo thrived from the caravan trade, which carried the goods from India and Southeast Asia, such as indigo, pepper, and Eastern spices. And in Aleppo, such goods were sold to European countries together with local products such as primary silk cloth, carpet, glass, and steel. Before long, the interest of

some major European buyers, England and France, shifted from these to some local raw materials, that is, Iranian raw silk and Syrian cotton, to meet the need of the uprising European textile producers. These raw materials, especially Iranian raw silk, became the staple traded in Aleppo since the early decades of the 17th century. And at the same time, Venice, whose textile industry concentrated on luxury fabrics, gave its leading status in Levant trade to the French, English, and Dutch merchants.

The dependence of Aleppo on the Iranian silk trade turned out a sword with double blades. On one hand, it ensured the citys prosperity even after the establishment of the direct trade between the East Indies and Europe, mainly conducted by the English East India Company and the Netherlands VOC. The competition of the East Asian trade had commenced since the sailing route around Cape Horn was found. It did form a threat to Aleppos importance in the trade of the Far East goods, but never succeeded in replacing the Levant trade route on the Iranian silk trade. It was partly due to the impotence of the Persian Shah to turn the silk production of Iran into a royal monopoly, partly due to the lower costs of the caravan trade and camel transport compared to those of ships.

On the other hand, Aleppos reliance on the Iranian silk trade constituted a fatal threat to the citys future development. The Ottoman Empire and Persia never found a friendly relationship in history. It was partly because the sunni-shia divarication in Islam religion, partly because the long-lasting hostility between the two courts which was deliberately reinforced by the Western

powers. The survival of the Iranian silk trade in Aleppo to a great extent depended on the Persian governments flabbiness in stopping the Armenian massive smugglers living in both sides of the border. Once a powerful leader assumed the reins of the Persian government, or a conflict between Ottoman and Persia broke out, Aleppos commercial importance would definitely be damaged. Although the alliance between the Persian Shah and the East India Company in monopolizing the export of Iranian silk to Europe ended up in a failure, it was nevertheless a dangerous signal to Aleppos silk trade.

Another threat to Aleppo was the English Levant Companys leading status in the citys market. After the Venetians withdrawal from the Aleppo market, the competition among the remaining European trading powers intensified. In the contest of the leading post in the trade of Aleppo market, Levant Company eventually won by its flexible trading structure and form. Compared to Venetian merchants, English merchants are more willing to pay coins, and the fine quality of their textile products were quite welcome in Aleppo, which enabled them to barter on a larger scale than their rivals. Therefore, the French, whose fabric products were considered inferior to those of England, eventually lost the game, and transferred their Syrian commercial interests to Tripoli and Sidon in late 17th century. And the Dutch concentrated almost all their efforts in Izmir.

Levant Companys dominant figure in Aleppos trade with Europe put the citys fortune in potential jeopardy. The further development of Aleppo related more and more closely to the Levant Companys trading policy and its own fate. Once Levant Company felt it unprofitable to carry on their business

in Aleppo, the citys market would face a disastrous panic. Furthermore, Levant Company also faced its own challenge within its own country, the competition from the ambitious and ever-growing East India Company. Fortunately, Levant Company managed to maintain its lead and effectively resisted the threat in the most part of the 17th century. However, with the appearance of the alternatives to Levant silk represented by Bengali silk and the growth of affinities between East India Company and Persian government, Levant Companys predominance in import-export trade drastically shrunk, hence the weakening of its influence on the countrys policy.

The third threat to Aleppos boom came from inside the Ottoman Empire. The European merchants diversion from Aleppo greatly encouraged the development of other Ottoman port cities such as Izmir and Tripoli. Among these domestic rivals, Izmir seemed possessed the most advantages. Although much further afield from Iran, Izmir was much closer to the capital, Istanbul, than Aleppo, therefore under the more direct control of the sultan and the influence of the European ambassadors, and the routes leading to it were relatively secure.3 According to the business record of Levant Company, Izmir never exceeded Aleppo as the leading silk trade city, but it allowed Western merchants an option to boycott Aleppo if extra taxes were collected by the local officials, which happened at times in this comparatively remote city. As long as Aleppo lost its advantages to the Western merchants as a favorable place to trade, Izmir was always ready to edge it out.

Being an Arabic city on the verge of the influence of Turkish culture and under the effective control of the Istanbul Porte, Aleppo was run under

the binary codes of law: Muslim law dealt with the issues of morality and ethics; while kanun, Ottoman imperial fiat, applied to the management of the city, especially the fiscal affairs of the state. The coexistence of the two codes could only be ensured by a powerful central government. Once the subtle balance was broken, the fight for political power and profit between the two groups would rise to the surface, which had a negative influence over the stability of the market. Besides, the neighboring Kurdish and Bedouin tribes formed another threat to the security of both the caravan route and the city itself. Their aperiodic pillage on the caravans (mostly by Bedouins) and political ambition on the city (only once by the Kurdish leader Ali Canpulatoglu) occurred even in Aleppos golden age. With the eclipse of the Ottoman Empire, the dispute between the elite groups and the increasing nearby menace turned the region into a chaotic place, and hence affected Aleppos reputation as a prosperous trade center.

Despite so many troubles on the horizon, Aleppo kept its constant prosperity for a couple of centuries till the breakout of the war between Ottoman and Persia in 1723, which signed the beginning of the decline of Aleppo. Within the following century, Aleppos influence dwindled as all the threats came into reality one after another. The continual effect of the war, mixed with the intensification of all the implicit contradictions, the citys glory gradually faded. In the second half of the 18th century, it was somewhat abandoned by the Western merchants. With the decrease of its trade amount, Aleppo was soon overtaken by its rival Ottoman port cities

such as Izmir, and eventually exeunt from the stage of world trade. The city never totally recovered from the earthquake in 1822 and the following political and religious conflicts. By mid-19th century, the degenerate Aleppo had deteriorated into a regional entropt and a local producing center.

The first blow came from the warfare between the Ottomans and Iran broke out in 1723. Since then, the Iranian silk almost disappeared in Aleppo market for more than two decades, not because the war interdicted the routes of transportation, but because Irans silk production dropped off dramatically due to the chaos in Iran after the collapse of the Safavid dynasty. For more than a century, caravans and the Armenian agents had accumulated enough experiences to breach the control of the Persian government on silk trade, and Iranian silk was never out of stock in Aleppo against the occasional baffle given by the Persian government. But this time, as the greatly reduced crop of silk in Iran could not even meet the need of domestic production, the caravan trade could not get any supply of goods. Although the vacancy was soon somewhat filled up by the local Syrian silk which was generally considered inferior in quality to that from Iran, the sudden stop of Iranian silk trade formed a permanent damage to the prosperity of Aleppo.

At the beginning of the 18th century, alternative sources of silk were becoming more plentiful outside the Levant, and the demand for Middle Eastern silk was declining.4 And the challenge from its major rival, East India Company, became more and more intensive. For centuries, Levant Company had enjoyed monopoly of Levant silk trade in England,

buying Iranian silk as major import item and selling English broadcloth as export staple. Even before the shrinkage of the Levant silk trade, English Levant merchants had found it more and more difficult to sell broadcloth that had been the staple of their side of the trade in the Levant. The reason for this problem was quite complex. Firstly, the silk bought by Levant Company was for the consumption of the thriving textile industry in England; while the broadcloth was sold for the daily use of the Levant people. After a centurys barter trade, the demand for broadcloth in that area had approached the point of saturation.

The increasing gap between import and export forced the English merchants to pay more frequently by cash, which reduce the profit of the Levant trade. Secondly, Levant Company met powerful competition in broadcloth selling from both East India Company and French merchants. In the late 17th century, with the development of French textile industry, French factories produced a lighter woolen cloth that was cheaper than English cloth and in the brighter hues the Aleppines preferred. Besides, in 1690s, East India Company also made a plan to sell broadcloth directly to Iran, which greatly threatened the business prospect of Levant Company in Aleppo. In this case, from the second half of the 18th century, Levant Company, together with the remaining Western merchants from other countries, began to withdraw from Aleppo, hence the decline of the great trading metropolis.

Had the Porte adopted some effective policies to support Aleppo, the success of the city would have been prolonged or resumed. For example, with the gradual leaving of Levant Company, Aleppo seemed still

attractive to French merchants. Their broadcloth was welcome there, and they did need the silk and cotton of the Northern Syria for the French textile industry. However, The French merchants were not encouraged to take the place of Levant Company. On the contrary, French commercial interests in Syria and Aleppo were further weakened with Napoleons invasion of Egypt in 1798. In revenge, the Ottoman sultan ordered to drive all French merchants out of the empire and confiscate their properties5. Without the patronage of the major European commercial powers, Aleppos decline seemed inevitable.

If the French departure from Aleppo can be attributed to force majeure, Ottomans domestic policy should be responsible for another failure of Aleppo. In the multiracial Ottoman Empire, the class distinction was greatly blurred by the mosaic formation, that is, the society was basically formed by ethnic and religious groups rather than calling and social status. In this case, merchants in Ottoman never constituted a distinct social class that shares a vision of economic and political interests. Therefore, Ottoman merchants could never form a united political power to influence the policy of the government as their English counterpart did. And Aleppo was never given the political rights corresponding to its commercial importance. The opportunity came to Aleppo when Iranian silk began to disappear from the city market. Syrian silk quickly became the first choice of the foreign merchants. The demand for local silk increased greatly, much beyond the local producing ability.

Therefore, large bulks of Anatolian silk rushed into Aleppo market, which formed a great threat to the silk supply of the Istanbul silk industry. In order to preserve tax revenues as they existed, the

Ottoman sultan issued a decree in 1724 that prohibited the Anatolian silks export to Aleppo. As early as mid-17th century, Ottoman Empire had already experienced several severe fiscal crises. In the 18th century, the sultan had to make even more efforts to maintain the tottering state finance, no matter how shortsighted the policy was. As Bruce Masters points out, t(T) be fair to the Ottomans, their policy was not entirely based on greed for immediate gain alone, as it was also tinged with a concern fro justice for the Istanbul silk workers.6 But from another angle of view, the case also reflects the decadency of the empire. The sultan did not have enough power to manage the whole state, and had to concentrate on the stability of the capital and the central part at the cost of the sacrifice of the remote area. It can be concluded from the case that the ultimate reason for Aleppos decline is the overall downfall of the Ottoman Empire.

From the end of the 17th century, the Porte lost the originally unstable control of northern Syria. The province became even more ungovernable than before. In Aleppo, the coexistence of the two prerogative groups turned out an internal conflict. Political control in Aleppo had been vested in the hands of Ottoman officials during the 16th and 17th century, and their authority were guarded by the Janissaries, the empire troops sent from Istanbul and consisted of Turkish. At the same time, the elite of local Arabic residence, Ashraf (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), enjoyed privileges under the Islamic legal system. During the best time of the Empire, the Prote and the Turkish

governors were powerful enough to maintain a peaceful balance between the two groups, so much so that there was even a tendency of amalgamation between them. In 18th century, however, the Empire suffered fiscal and military downturns, and could not afford to send enough Turkish soldiers to Aleppo. And the Janissaries stationed in the province were increasingly of local origin, most of which were tribal and rural migrants. This change for the balance of political power led to the struggle for the local dominion. In the 18th century, the friction between the Janissaries and Ashraf even sometimes developed into bloody conflicts, which greatly damaged the social stability that was vital to commercial trade.

Out of the city of Aleppo, the various tribal groups also formed an increasingly greater threat to the trade in Aleppo. In the first decade of the 17th century, the Kurdish tribal people began to rise up under the leading of Ali Canpulatoglu. Although the revolt was put down, and the Kurdish unrest was confined to banditry, they became a lasting trouble to the safety of trade in Aleppo. Similarly, with the downturn of the Ottomans, the Bedouin tribes also became more and more hazardous to the caravan trade. Throughout most of the 16th and 17th century, the Ottoman sultans followed the earlier Mamluk practice of paying a powerful chief of the Bedouin tribe to protect the caravans. But with the eclipse of the Ottoman power, the Bedouin tribes grew more powerful, to the degree that they refused to sell their service to the Ottomans and preferred to raid the caravans for plunder7. The upgrade of all these harassments severely damaged the investment

safety in Aleppo, and partly led to the European merchants departure from Aleppo for some more secure substitutes.

The decline of Aleppo is not caused by any single factor, but a complex. The halt of the Iranian silk supply and the leaving of Levant Company form the two major direct reasons. But the essential cause lies in the national policy and the regime structure of the Ottoman Empire. History has proved through countless examples that an autarchy built its dominance mainly on military forces and tax revenue can never enjoy a lasting mightiness. No matter how powerful and smashing it once was, such a country would inevitably fall into financial ruin and political fragmentation. In an age of fundamental changes, the declining Ottoman Empire had no chances at all to keep up with the pace of the Western countries. As Masters states, Its response to external stimuli, such as changes in the trade pattern, could, therefore, only be conservative. For it was a conservatism bred out of the necessity of survival, not tradition alone.8


  1. Edhem Eldem, Daniel Goffman, and Bruce Masters, The Ottoman City between East and West, Cambridge University Press: 1999
  2. Masters, Bruce, The Origins of Western Economic Dominance in the Middle East, New York University Press: 1988
  3.  Alexander Russell, The Natural History of Aleppo (London, 1794), vol.1, pp.1-2.
  4.  Bruce Masters, The Origins of Western Economic Dominance in the Middle East (New York Univ. Press), pp.17.
  5. Bruce Masters, The Origins of Western Economic Dominance in the Middle East (New York Univ. Press), pp.28.
  6.  Bruce Masters, The Origins of Western Economic Dominance in the Middle East (New York Univ. Press), pp.30.
  7.  Bruce Masters, Aleppo: the Ottoman

Empires Caravan City, in Eldem, Goffman, and Masters, The Ottoman City between East and West (Cambridge Univ. Press), pp.49.

  •  Bruce Masters, The Origins of Western Economic Dominance in the Middle East (New York Univ. Press), pp.198.
  • Bruce Masters, Aleppo: the Ottoman Empires Caravan City, in Eldem, Goffman, and Masters, The Ottoman City between East and West (Cambridge Univ. Press), pp.45.
  •  Bruce Masters, The Origins of Western Economic Dominance in the Middle East (New York Univ. Press), pp.189.
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