One of the top contenders for the title of “oldest continually inhabited city in the world”, Aleppo boasts a history rich in culture, diversity, and legend. For at least eight millennia, the city has been inhabited by a marching procession of kingdoms, powers, and dynasties, each of them contributing to Aleppo’s design and flavor. Many of these civilizations were drawn to Aleppo due to its strategic location; a major hub along the Silk Road, the city was conveniently placed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River. As a notable stopping point on this international thoroughfare, Aleppo became a melting pot of goods, ideas, and peoples; and as generation after generation brought new inhabitants to the area, the city took on an increasingly international character.
It was this unique flavor that captivated travelers across the ages. Aleppo’s historic Baron Hotel kept a guest book filled with the names of its notable visitors: Charles Lindbergh, T.E. Lawrence, Theodore Roosevelt, and Agatha Christie all appear. In fact, Agatha Christie is said to have penned the first pages of Murder on the Orient Express while staying in the Baron Hotel. Aleppo’s winding marketplace streets, layers of old-world charm, and renowned cuisine – a blend of Ottoman, Jewish, Armenian, and Kurdish influence – drew explorers in and gained significant recognition around the world: in 1986, Aleppo’s Old City became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While fascinating bits of history lurk in every corner of Aleppo, perhaps the most relevant characteristic of this city is its legendary connection to Abraham. The city’s English name is the result of a series of alterations to its Arabic name, Halab. Popular local legend relates that the name Halab, closely connected to the Arabic word for milk, traces its origins to Abraham’s visit to the city as he passed through the region on his famous journey. According to these legends, Abraham stopped on the hills of Aleppo to milk his herds; after doing so, he exhibited his famous hospitality and generosity by distributing that milk to the poor.
As such, Abraham has played a significant role in the collective heritage and identity of Aleppo’s residents. In the twelfth century CE, famous ruler Nur al-Din constructed the Mosque of Abraham atop the city’s citadel. Tradition claims that the mosque was built over a stone upon which Abraham used to sit during his time in the area. The mosque is also one of many reputed burial places of the head of John the Baptist; other sites along the Abraham Path associated with John the Baptist’s head include Damascus and Sebastia.
On the southern end of the city stands another testament to Abraham’s enduring legacy in Aleppo. Maqam Ibrahim Salihin, the Shrine to Abraham, commemorates the patriarch and his journey from Ur to Hebron; and an inscription from 1106 CE states that the rock honored in the shrine dates to Abraham’s time in Aleppo. Visitors to the shrine leave the old city on the road passing through the southern gate Bab al-Maqam (Arabic for Shrine Gate). Noting that this gate is the only one of Aleppo’s gates not built for defensive purposes, researchers speculate that it was used for ceremonial purposes, connecting the secular and the sacred by allowing travelers to pass back and forth from the bustling tangle of marketplace stalls to the quiet sanctity of the Shrine to Abraham and the other shrines nearby.