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Aleppo Before The Fall

Before Aleppo became a symbol of the horrors of Syria's ongoing war, it was known for its traders and craftspeople -- a city where Muslims, Jews, and Christians rubbed elbows in some of the most elegant bazaars and courtyards in the Middle East. But a current of grievances ran beneath the cobblestones. The Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ​has allowed RFE/RL to reproduce 14 images from their remarkable archive to help tell the story of Syria's devastated former second city and the war that has engulfed it.

Aerial view of Aleppo's Citadel, photographed in 1937. When writer Gertrude Bell visited the famous trading town in 1907, she likened it to "a cup and saucer, the houses lie in the saucer and the [Citadel] sits on the upturned cup."
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Aerial view of Aleppo's Citadel, photographed in 1937. When writer Gertrude Bell visited the famous trading town in 1907, she likened it to "a cup and saucer, the houses lie in the saucer and the [Citadel] sits on the upturned cup."

A souq in Aleppo photographed in the 1980s. With its position on the Silk Road, the great trade route linking Asia and Europe, Aleppo became a famed merchant center where almost anything from East or West could be bought. In the corridors of the souq, it was said, "Deals were more important than ideals."
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A souq in Aleppo photographed in the 1980s. With its position on the Silk Road, the great trade route linking Asia and Europe, Aleppo became a famed merchant center where almost anything from East or West could be bought. In the corridors of the souq, it was said, "Deals were more important than ideals."

Ajikbash house, one of the mansions built by wealthy trading families in the 18th century. Its current status is unknown.
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Ajikbash house, one of the mansions built by wealthy trading families in the 18th century. Its current status is unknown.

Restoration works being carried out on the Citadel in 2004. Much of Aleppo's old town was built under the rule of the Umayyads, a Sunni Muslim dynasty that ruled over the Middle East during what many Sunnis considered a "golden age" until the eighth century.
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Restoration works being carried out on the Citadel in 2004. Much of Aleppo's old town was built under the rule of the Umayyads, a Sunni Muslim dynasty that ruled over the Middle East during what many Sunnis considered a "golden age" until the eighth century.

Detail of the Lion Gate in the Citadel photographed in the 1980s or '90s. The unrest that began in Syria in 2011 accelerated after a crackdown by security forces against protests inspired by the region's so-called Arab Spring. But the resulting war has pitted a predominantly Sunni opposition against President Bashar al-Assad and fellow Alawites, regarded by some as a third branch of Islam.
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Detail of the Lion Gate in the Citadel photographed in the 1980s or '90s. The unrest that began in Syria in 2011 accelerated after a crackdown by security forces against protests inspired by the region's so-called Arab Spring. But the resulting war has pitted a predominantly Sunni opposition against President Bashar al-Assad and fellow Alawites, regarded by some as a third branch of Islam.

An undated street scene in Aleppo. For most of its history, the ancient trading city was a beacon of relative tolerance. T.E. Lawrence wrote that in Aleppo "more fellowship should rule between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Turk, Kurd and Jew than in perhaps any other great city of the Ottoman Empire." When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, that fellowship began to fray.
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An undated street scene in Aleppo. For most of its history, the ancient trading city was a beacon of relative tolerance. T.E. Lawrence wrote that in Aleppo "more fellowship should rule between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Turk, Kurd and Jew than in perhaps any other great city of the Ottoman Empire." When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, that fellowship began to fray.

Aleppo's clock tower, photographed in 1937. In 1923, Syria fell under control of the French. Their unpopular rule was marked by near-constant repression of Arab nationalism. One of the methods for keeping the mostly Sunni nationalists in check was to promote minorities, including Alawites, an impoverished mountain people who made up around 12 percent of the Syrian population.
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Aleppo's clock tower, photographed in 1937. In 1923, Syria fell under control of the French. Their unpopular rule was marked by near-constant repression of Arab nationalism. One of the methods for keeping the mostly Sunni nationalists in check was to promote minorities, including Alawites, an impoverished mountain people who made up around 12 percent of the Syrian population.

A public square in Aleppo in 1937. By the end of French rule, the Alawites had taken advantage of France's divide-and-rule tactics to build themselves a powerful network in the public services, including top positions in Syria's military. Yale University said that 70 percent of Syrian soldiers in 2012 were Alawites.
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A public square in Aleppo in 1937. By the end of French rule, the Alawites had taken advantage of France's divide-and-rule tactics to build themselves a powerful network in the public services, including top positions in Syria's military. Yale University said that 70 percent of Syrian soldiers in 2012 were Alawites.

Men in the courtyard of Chalabi Mosque in 1991. After French rule collapsed, Syria suffered considerable turmoil before a 1970 coup installed the Alawite Hafez al-Assad as prime minister, then president. Assad, an air-force officer who had spent 10 months in the U.S.S.R. training as a fighter pilot, imposed a ruthless, secular-leaning police state on Syria.
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Men in the courtyard of Chalabi Mosque in 1991. After French rule collapsed, Syria suffered considerable turmoil before a 1970 coup installed the Alawite Hafez al-Assad as prime minister, then president. Assad, an air-force officer who had spent 10 months in the U.S.S.R. training as a fighter pilot, imposed a ruthless, secular-leaning police state on Syria.

The entrance to a bathhouse in Aleppo in 1991. A degree of stability returned to Syria under Hafez al-Assad, but the tactics of his security services were ruthless.
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The entrance to a bathhouse in Aleppo in 1991. A degree of stability returned to Syria under Hafez al-Assad, but the tactics of his security services were ruthless.

A courtyard in Aleppo photographed in 1981. Through the 1980s, with repression on the rise, an increasingly militant group, Muslim Brotherhood, carried out a series of attacks targeting the regime, including the massacre of 50 Alawite soldiers, an assassination attempt on Assad, and a bloody attempted uprising.
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A courtyard in Aleppo photographed in 1981. Through the 1980s, with repression on the rise, an increasingly militant group, Muslim Brotherhood, carried out a series of attacks targeting the regime, including the massacre of 50 Alawite soldiers, an assassination attempt on Assad, and a bloody attempted uprising.

A street scene in Aleppo in 1991. Assad's response to the attacks was further repression from his network of security forces. Then, in 2000, Hafez al-Assad died of a heart attack. 
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A street scene in Aleppo in 1991. Assad's response to the attacks was further repression from his network of security forces. Then, in 2000, Hafez al-Assad died of a heart attack. 

A young Syrian working on restoration of an ancient doorway in 2004. When Hafez al-Assad's son Bashar was sworn in as president in 2000, there was hope that tensions building in Syria might ease, especially after the newly sworn-in Alawite head of state married a British-born Sunni woman. But he entered power as a population explosion in Syria was beginning to bite. Under Bashar al-Assad, the repression soon continued apace.
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A young Syrian working on restoration of an ancient doorway in 2004. When Hafez al-Assad's son Bashar was sworn in as president in 2000, there was hope that tensions building in Syria might ease, especially after the newly sworn-in Alawite head of state married a British-born Sunni woman. But he entered power as a population explosion in Syria was beginning to bite. Under Bashar al-Assad, the repression soon continued apace.

Aleppo citadel in 2009. By the time this photo was taken, strains were showing in many of the threads that held Syria together -- exacerbated by Assad's brutality, an extended drought, sectarian chauvinism, the domination of business by Alawite cronies, and a population crisis.
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Aleppo citadel in 2009. By the time this photo was taken, strains were showing in many of the threads that held Syria together -- exacerbated by Assad's brutality, an extended drought, sectarian chauvinism, the domination of business by Alawite cronies, and a population crisis.

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