“I am the mourning mother, and who comforts her,” a deep rhyme echoes in the sky of Aleppo every year.
It is the heavenly voice of the Levantine singer Fairuz that awakens Christian neighborhoods of the city. Mothers are awake earlier than usual; they open the doors to their balconies and the contest begins on whose Fairuz is loudest. It is Good Friday, one of the most important days in the Aleppian Christian calendar. Shop keepers and hair dressers are packed; working in harmony with the rhymes that mix with the fragrance of the Bakhur incense. In the afternoon, tens of thousands of Christians join a pilgrimage to the nearly forty churches of Aleppo. The old town, however, gets the largest number of pilgrims. Farhat Square in al-Jdaydeh quarter puts on its special attire. The sounds of people, peddlers and boy scout brass bands are a symphony embedded in the memory of Aleppians. The four churches that overlook the square remind Christians of their ancient roots in the city. The medieval limestone holds the memory of surviving the Mongol slaughter when Timur Lank invaded Aleppo six hundred years ago.
The ceremonies start at four in the afternoon and each church—Armenian, Melkite, Maronite and Syriac—waits its turn to stage its Easter funeral procession. Afterwards, friends, families and groups roam the quarter with the aim of visiting at least seven churches. All are crowded, some hand out flowers, but every church has its boy scout members giving everyone cotton with blessed oil. On the periphery of this scene that might continue after midnight, you see a child asking his mom, “what are these people doing?” The mother replies, “it is a Christian celebration like our Eid al-Adha” (Feast of the Sacrifice for Muslims). In fact, it is not only a special day for Christians of the city, but also for some of its Muslim dwellers who have added a special tradition to this day by providing food. The day would not be special without the thyme sandwich food carts peddling around the churches. When you ask Abu Mouhamad for this Aleppian special grilled sandwich, he asks “thyme or white cheese?” Certainly, it would not be as delicious without the red pepper paste he spreads on the fresh pita. For some youngsters, mainly Christians and to a lesser extent Muslims, it is a perfect day to see the pretty girls dressed to impress. You often hear the boys whispering, “Who is she? Where was she hiding all that time?” Of course, this event is almost problem free, since the police officers are on every corner to make sure the boys do not get out of hand. Sadly after five years of war, this scene is almost gone, as are the crowds, exiled to the heavens or to Europe and Canada.
For decades, this scenery was a mark of Aleppo’s cosmopolitanism and a sign of the coexistence among its Christian, Jewish and Muslim dwellers. It was a coexistence that had endured since the seventh century and was based on deep symbiotic relationships. Much of it was shaped by the geopolitics of Aleppo as a capital for trade on the Silk Road.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European consuls and merchants arrived in the city. Still influenced by the crusades, they deemed Muslims “infidels” and preferred to deal with Christian Arabs. Ironically, this brought the city dwellers closer—Sunni merchants invested with their Christian counterparts and the role of Christian agents grew over the centuries. Meanwhile, amidst Sunni-Shi’ite hostilities between the Ottomans and the Iranians, Sunni merchants and investors preferred business over sectarianism, thus relying on Armenians to buy Iranian silk. Not long after, Anatolian and Julfan Iranian Armenians were welcomed to settle in the city. Christians then made up nearly half the town’s inhabitants; exporting with their Sunni countrymen two thirds of the Iranian “Shi’ite” silk to Europe.
The ebbs and flows of the history of this coexistence was not always gentle to Christians. As a result, their numbers fluctuated depending on the political and economic situation. Many fled Ottoman rule in the second half of the nineteenth century to find a better future in the Americas. Their numbers rose again after WWI when Aleppians welcomed thousands of Syriac Christians and Armenians who survived the genocide in Turkey. Urban Aleppians found a promising future in the craftsmanship of the newcomers, and allowed these refugees to become primary contributors to modernity in the city.
Until the 1940s, Christians made nearly forty per cent of the inhabitants of the city. This number dwindled to twenty per cent after Jamal Abdul Nasser brought in his socialist policies in the late 1950s and then to ten percent since the arrival of the Baath party in the 1960s.
Since 2011, Christians and Sunni urbanites have fled the war in a massive exodus. Today, out of nearly 200,000 Christians, church officials publicly estimate there are only 40,000 left in Aleppo. However, if you press them in private, they would tell you that the number might not exceed 25,000.
In 2015, the last Jewish family left Aleppo. Will Aleppo’s Christians and Sunni urbanites be next? We hear the question every day in the voice of desperate Aleppians in Syria and abroad. All of whom share one wish: “Bring our old Aleppo back!” Today, Fairuz is singing her rhymes, but it is the voice of Aleppo that echoes to the heavens saying: “I am the mourning mother, and who comforts her”.
Aleppo is waiting to be resurrected on the third day, and only her daughters and sons can respond to her cry.
Rami Aboud is a Syrian researcher from Aleppo. He holds an M.A.in Politics and International Relations of the Middle East from the University of Exeter, where he also worked as a Research Associate and a Research Assistant to Professor Michael Dumper. Rami’s research focuses on the power of narratives in violent conflicts, conflict management and post conflict violence. His main research analyses the urban conflict in Aleppo, political Islam in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.