The Aleppo Citadel is among the world’s oldest extent fortifications of any sort. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site of the citadel has been in use as a fortress for well over four thousand years. However, the Aleppo Citadel has passed through too many hands and has been rebuilt too many times to be considered the world’s oldest intact castle. Nevertheless enough of it dates from antiquity that it certainly deserves a place among the earliest fortresses discussed in this book. In any event, the citadel in its numerous incarnations served as the local center of government and regional administration in Northern Syria from Greek and Seleucid times all the way through the Ottoman period. The Aleppo Citadel is part of the Ancient City of Aleppo UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Aleppo, located where the ancient Canaanite, Hittite and Mesopotamian civilizations came together, is one of the world’s oldest cities. It was one of the first great trade centers of the Middle East, and a major fortress has existed here since earliest times. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first military use of the site dates back as far as the mid-3rd millennium BC, and it was important enough to have been known to the early Israelites. A legend suggests that Abraham visited the site on his journey from Ur to Canaan. Aleppo was, in fact, captured and annexed briefly by the Israelites during the 10th century BC. It is believed that the conqueror, Joab ben Zeruiah, a general who served King David, rebuilt and expanded the city during this period, including the fortress. This would have been the northernmost defensive position of the ancient Kingdom of Israel.
Over the next nine hundred years, Aleppo and its great fortress passed through the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Seleucids, ultimately falling to the Roman Empire in 64 BC. The early citadel was substantially rebuilt during the Seleucid period. The oldest remnants of the castle, including the general layout, date from this time. During the seven hundred years of Roman and Byzantine rule, the citadel of Aleppo was rebuilt and renovated a number of times, but little survives from this period. It is known that the fortress became something of a local holy site during the Roman era, first to pagans and later to Christians. Among the few surviving structures of the Byzantine-era additions are a pair of early Christian churches which have since been converted into mosques.
During the 7th century, the Citadel of Aleppo became a major strategic prize between the Byzantine Empire, Sassanid Empire and Islamic Caliphate. In the early 600s, the city was besieged and captured by the Sassanids, becoming one of the first great cities of the Eastern Roman Empire to fall. It was conquered in turn a few years later by the Caliphate, its citadel becoming an important advance base for further incursions against the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. Despite its already long history, the Citadel of Aleppo did not even reach its true heyday until the crusades. It was here, at this ancient fortress, that that advance of the Christian armies was first halted in 1098 AD.
The Citadel of Aleppo achieved its architectural pinnacle in the 13th century under the Ayyubids, who greatly expanded and renovated it. It then went through a period of destruction and rebuilding that continued on and off for the next six hundred years. It was seriously damaged twice by the Mongols in late Middle Ages. It was rebuilt by the Mamluks on both occasions. By the 16th century Aleppo and the fortress came under the dominion of the Ottomans, who fully restored it and used it as a regional administrative center. At its height, it housed over two thousand soldiers and civilian workers. It was rebuilt once more following an earthquake in 1822. To date, the Aleppo Citadel has probably boasted more different occupants and witnessed more battles and sieges than just about any other military foritifaction in history.
The Citadel of Aleppo sprawls over a tall hill which dominates the southeastern part of the city. It is both imposing and surprisingly intact. However, its currently excellent state is due almost completely to the countless restorations that have continued even into the 21st century. The result is a splendid mishmash of architectural styles that represents a fascinating journey through Middle Eastern military history. Over a dozen civilizations have left their mark on this ancient fortress, though the most prominent surviving elements date from the Seleucid, Byzantine, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.
The outer walls and towers of the fortress are magnificent and largely represent the various Islamic periods. The most stunning portion by far is the tremendous gateway which is as majestic as can be found in any castle in the Middle East. The approach to the main gate is guarded by a narrow stairway and an imposing gatehouse. The fortress interior is like a miniature city in various states of repair. Among the more interesting and impressive elements are the Ayyubid Palace, the Mamluk-era Throne Hall, and several Byzantine-era churches which were converted to use as mosques during the Islamic Caliphate era. Beneath the mighty fortress is a network of underground passageways which are partially open to visitors.
The Alepo Citadel is located about a half-mile southeast of what is now downtown Aleppo. It is open every day except Tuesdays from 9:00am-4:00pm (later hours in the summer). Admission is SL300.00. Web: Not currently available due to ongoing problems in the region.
Northern Syria is home to relatively few old castles and fortresses of major interest. However, not too far south, just outside of the city of Homs, is the crusader-built Krak Des Chevaliers, considered by many to be the finest western-style castle ever constructed outside of Europe.