Castle of the Week 51 – Aleppo Citadel

Aleppo Citadel stands on a 50 metre high hill and habitation on its top is thought to date back to the 16th century BC although the earliest remains found so far are Roman and Byzantine from the 9th century BC when there was known to be a temple on the site. There is a legend that Abraham camped on the hill and milked his cow there.

The Sultan Seif al-Dawla al-Hamadani built the first fortress on the hill and used it as his military headquarters. It was later further fortified but captured in 1117 and 1128. During the Crusades, the Franc prince of Antioch, Renaud de Chatillon, spent sixteen years in the Citadel as a prisoner. Saladin’s son, Ghazi, rebuilt it between 1193 and 1215 and, although rebuilt and restored many times since, what you can see today is based on his rebuilding. He used it as a residence and fortress and it evolved into a palatial city with everything that could be needed from palaces and baths, mosques and shrines to an arsenal, training ground, water cisterns and granaries.

In 1259 the Mongols destroyed the walls and buildings after a false promise to the people inside. They attacked again several times during the early 1300s but did not succeed in capturing it. In 1400 Tamerlaine managed to take it by filling in the moat with his fallen soldiers and he destroyed it. Finally the Mamluk governor of Aleppo, Sayf al-Din Jakam was given permission to rebuild and he built a new palace that was taller than the entrance towers and the Ayyubid palace built by Ghazi was almost abandoned.

In 1516 it was captured by the Ottomans and during the period of their occupation, the Citadel’s defensive role diminished and it declined and fell into neglect. In 1828 it was badly damaged in an earthquake which finished what time had been doing. It was a massive collection of derelict buildings, cracked walls and piles of stones.

The only entrance is through a tower in the south wall built in 1213 which defends the huge stone 8-arched bridge over the 20 metre deep and 30 metre wide moat. The gateway is like a mini-castle in itself with five huge iron-plated doors, each on a corner of the zig-zagged passageway and which was pitch dark to slow down invaders. The doors could be shut to enable arrows fire and boiling oil to descend on their heads.

Despite the formidable defences there is also great beauty to be found. Lintels have carvings on them, nail heads are beautifully worked. There are two mosques (the Mosque of Abraham built in the 1140s and the Great Mosque built in 1214). The latter is built on the highest point of the Citadel and has a 21m high minaret (which played both a religious and military role) and has a stone paved court and fountain. The 13th century Ayyubid palace has a patterned entrance porch inlaid with white marble. The 15th century throne room was restored in the 1970s in a sympathetic manner to the original and the amphitheatre was completely renovated in the 1980s.

It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and in 2000 a major restoration project was started. The tower walls were strengthened and preserved and missing stones in walls and arches were replaced. This year (2002), the Ayyubid palace is being restored, particularly the marble floor. Erosion of the Citadel slope is being dealt with and the moat’s drainage system is being improved. They are also aiming to make the road round the base of the hill traffic-free so that once again the Citadel will appear isolated and impregnable as it was when it was first built.

A modern day traveller had the following impressions when visiting Aleppo Citadel for the first time:

The citadel is our next stop. Imposing in dark ochre, with black and white decorations, all against a grey-blue sky. We cross the bridge and enter a doorway hedged with murderholes and arrowslits. A zig-zag corridor later, we are inside the courtyard.

The place looks like a bomb has gone off inside.

The citadel is little more than an empty shell. Endlessly sad. We wander around, taking photos and wonder about how much fun James Bond could have here.

On the way out Adri and I quickly climb to the parapet. Victor, the guide, pretends to be shooting at us. A slight case of vertigo, (there is no railing), chases us back down. The way out is through a room, richly decorated with woodcuttings and leaded windows, down into the catacombs.

Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures courtesy of Jayhawk.