While meeting in the Algerian capital in 2004, the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference decided that it was time to showcase Islamic civilization to the rest of the world. They resolved to pick a set of cities each year and designate them as Capitals of Islamic Culture within the categories of Asia, Africa, and the Arab states. Mecca, being Mecca, was designated as the sole capital for the first year of the program, but for the year 2006, Iran's Isfahan, Mali's Timbuktu, and Syria's Aleppo each carried the grand title of Capital of Islamic Culture.
Of the Arabian heartland of Islam, Aleppo claimed the glory, and that in itself beckons the question, why not Damascus, Baghdad, or Cairo? Why not Jerusalem? Each of these was a seat of empire, or a cause for warfare.
Aleppo, it was assumed, could present the softer side of Islam civilization: a home for philosophical thought, poetry, architecture, and the civilizing habit of intercontinental trade. Aleppo, one of the world's most ancient cities, could claim to be the romanticized setting for that most chivalrous of warrior princes: Seif Al-Dawla al-Hamdani, memorialized in the pageant poetry of one of the most celebrated, and most eccentric, of Arab poets, who is still remembered in a nation priding itself on the richness and color of its language by his epigraph, Al-Mutannabi, or "He who claimed to be a prophet."
Eleven centuries ago, while warding off Byzantine excursions into the domains of Islam, Seif Al-Dawla, a young local prince of the Hamdanid tribe roaming the environs of Mosul to the east, seized Aleppo, a town whose purpose over the millennia was caravanning loaded goods back and forth between the west and the east. Sometimes that extended to the farthest corners of whatever passed for the civilized world, whether in China or Medieval Europe. Here, this young prince held court and patronized the arts, and opened some breathing space for independent thought. In addition to textiles, grain and slaves, caravans began to bring in mystics and charlatans, as well as heresies and luminous words.
Between his military successes and his death at the age of 53, Seif Al-Dawla gave Aleppo that brief shining moment that this year, after many centuries, still resonates to give it right of place over the various seats of the caliphs across the Middle East. And the ethos of his rule can be summed up in one word: tolerance. But here's the catch: he wasn't even a Muslim, if measured by the standards of today's jihadists and some of their Wahhabi patrons. History remembers him as a Shia, but the "heretical" Alawites claim him as one of their own, and they are probably right.
One can be forgiven the pained look of confusion when trying to determine whether a non-descript white-domed mausoleum in the northern reaches of Aleppo was indeed the grave of Al-Hussein Bin Hamdan Al-Khasibi. Al-Khasibi, one of the chief propagators of the Alawite movement that was subsidized and encouraged by Prince Seif Al-Dawla, had died in Aleppo in 968 AD. However, this tomb, with its locked gate, was tucked behind a later disused Ottoman mosque, and carried no inscription save that it was renovated in the 1950s by a benefactor. In fact, most Sunnis know this tomb as that of Sheikh Yabruq, a holy man of the 15th century whose real name, according to their texts, was Shamseddin Al-Ahmadi, and who has nothing to do with Khasibi.
Inside the cramped, incense-soaked dome is a modern white marble sarcophagus with no markings, but to get inside, one needs to get the key from a gruff and very reluctant military officer in charge of the conscription office nearby. His accent is a dead giveaway to his Alawite roots. He will finally confirm that this is indeed Khasibi's tomb, and shall instruct you not to let anyone in on the secret — a secret supposedly held for 1,000 years from the area's Sunnis lest they desecrate the remains in vengeance against the Alawites. Clearly, if one has made it this far, then it wasn't a very well-guarded secret. The tomb lies today within a military barracks, and has a fantastic view of Aleppo's citadel. The Alawites are the masters of Syria and rule through their iron-fisted control of the armed services, yet they are still trepid with fear and fearful of unmasking the final resting place of one of their most important holy men.
Further north from Aleppo, one finds the dusty town of Nubbul tucked away in the nondescript hills. Its inhabitants claim to be the descendants of those who survived a massacre in the wake of the fall of the Hamdanids.They are mainstream Shia, and are still very scared. A schoolteacher, an engineer, and a historian sat me down and gave me a rundown of their sanctuary's timeline: they escaped 1,000 years ago, and 400 years later, Tamerlane, who the Alawites also claim to be one of their own, waltzed down here on his way to Aleppo where he avenged the Hamdanids by laying waste to the Sunni town.A small band of stragglers were left behind from his Tatar horde, and today their descendants inhabit the smaller town to the south that has been alternately called Maghawleh (in reference to the Mongols) or Naghawleh (a derivative of the word "bastards") and now given the nicer name of Al-Zahra—meaning the flowery one, and also a name for the matriarchal figure of Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad's daughter. My hosts in Nubbul claimed to be Shia Arabs, while their neighbors were derisively called Tatars. I could not help but notice that all three had pronounced Central Asian features.
Those guys in Nubbul were pessimistic about their chances of surviving for another 1,000 years. They see darkening clouds approaching, a Sunni storm that will do away with these remaining pockets of heterodoxy. A nearby town is called Bayanoun, the namesake of the current head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a name that brought on shudders to my interlocutors. Their pessimism is echoed by the evident past, for Nubbul, as well as hundreds of villages surrounding it, were at one point Christian, now mostly deserted and ghostly. These were the stomping grounds of Saint Maroun, whose followers number in the millions in the Middle East, and whose broken sarcophagus allegedly lies among the ruins of the village of Barad, according to the tourist brochures and the Yezidi Kurdish farmers who have inherited these empty lands, and who themselves are turning away from their ancient pagan religion to the folds of Sunnism. Clustered nearby on higher ground are the Druze, probably one of the earlier communities of this faith, who like the Maronites, found sanctuary from orthodox persecution in the Lebanon Mountains, and left a dwindling presence in the Aleppine hinterland.
So much for an ethos of Islamic tolerance then. The Alawites and the Shi'a, as well as the Maronites, Druze and Yezidis have some very different memories of whoever held court over the centuries in the palace-citadel of Aleppo. Ditto for the mystics and eccentric poets; most often hanged or enduring worse fates. It is a history of human suffering that goes unacknowledged except by the victims and their survivors, while most choose to selectively remember the brief blip of glamour under Seif Al-Dawla in a timeline of tumult. That is why today Aleppo is adorned with Hezbollah flags and pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, and its people make "sacrifices" to Lebanon that involve doing away with a couple of hours of municipal electricity in the afternoon when the current is rerouted to Beirut. Falafel joints advertise free sandwiches for Lebanese refugees. Young Syrian men are excited when they are called in for military mobilization, seizing the chance to fight in a glorious war.
The past is remembered as the present is considered; selectively and unrealistically. This makes for a fantasy land that is at once dangerous and pathetic. Aleppo, with its musty alleyways, exquisite minarets and Ottoman souks, and its Hezbollah flags, is indeed a showcase of Islamic civilization: too haughty to reflect on the price in human suffering that is proffered in return for momentary grandeur.