Aleppo's souq: witness to the modern Syrian state

Aleppo, once Syria's economic heartbeat, bears testimony to the historic diversity and associated vibrancy a crushing war has flattened.   

Annika Rabo
30 May 2014

Until 2012 Aleppo was the uncontested hub for manufacture and trade in Syria. In the late 1990s there were more than 70,000 registered trading companies in the city and an innumerable number of unregistered traders, sellers and part-time businessmen. They were found everywhere in Aleppo but were more densely concentrated in the city center and in the old historic market. The covered bazaars of Aleppo - now reduced to rubble - were one of the largest in the Middle East and bore witness to the rich commercial history of the city.

Aleppo, before the war. Shilpa Jindia/All rights reserved. 

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously lived-in places on earth and, from the sixteenth to the eighteen century, was the most important Asian city in the Ottoman Empire. Only Istanbul and Cairo had larger populations. After the first world war, when new borders were drawn, Aleppo lost its earlier regional trading position. But the economic importance of Aleppo in the new Syrian republic was significant. The Aleppo chamber of commerce is the oldest in Syria, already founded in 1890. Since Syria’s independence in 1946, relationships between traders, businessmen and industrialists in Aleppo on the one hand, and representatives of the state, the regime and - from the 1960s - the ruling Ba’ath party on the other, can be characterized as simultaneously antagonistic and mutually supportive.

Economic policies and the bazaar

In the years following Syrian independence Aleppan traders benefited from an increased demand for cotton during the war in Korea. Cotton and grain was cultivated along the rivers of the northeast of the country, and investors from Aleppo were heavily involved in the economic development of this region. However, peasants and agricultural workers in many parts of the country protested against their economic conditions. This foreshadowed the shift in political power from the old urban elites to new elites with a rural or small-town background, culminating in the Ba’ath revolution of 1963.

In the early Ba’ath period large and middle-sized industrial and commercial enterprises were nationalized, and many Aleppan industrialists and wealthy traders left the country, mainly for Lebanon. But the private sector was never obliterated in Syria and, in particular, the small traders in the bazaar survived and even thrived following the Ba’ath take-over.

In the early 1970s, with the takeover by Hafez al-Asad, the regime enhanced freedom of movement for the private ‘non-exploitative’ sector, and was able to secure aid and investment from the oil-rich Arab countries in the wake of the October War of 1973. In 1976 the Syrian army entered Lebanon to ‘regulate’ the civil war; this caused massive criticism at home, both from parties and organizations of the left and from Muslim Brotherhood activists.

Popular discontent grew as Syrians suffered both politically and economically from the intervention. In 1980 Muslim Brotherhood militants intensified their attacks on Ba’ath party leaders and military installations. Traders in Aleppo closed down the entire market to vent their anger over the economic situation and market closures spread also to other cities. While traders claimed that their action was a response to the economic situation, the regime insisted that the purpose was to undermine the stability of the country. Special army units were called into the Aleppo market to open it by force.

This period euphemistically came to be called al-ahdaath (the events) and it marks the low ebb in relations between traders and the Syrian regime. The army later entered and bombarded the city of Hama – a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold - and killed perhaps 10 000 people. Up until the 2011 uprising Syrians were still suffering from the effects of that period. Thousands of men and women from all over the country were imprisoned, summarily killed or simply disappeared. In Aleppo, almost every family connected to trade or manufacture had a family member killed or imprisoned without trial.

Once the leftist opponents and the Muslim Brotherhood had been crushed, the regime promoted its own brand of state-controlled Islam by, for example, building a great new mosque in which they, more carefully than ever, controlled the content of the sermons. Furthermore, spurred by the fiscal crisis of the state, the regime instigated new, more liberal “open door” economic policies to promote the private sector. The aim was to reduce the economic responsibility of the state.

A quite spectacular growth in the private sector took place from the mid-1980s, and by the end of the decade it dominated the economy in terms of both gross domestic product and employment. In 1991 a new investment law was passed encouraging the establishment of larger industrial enterprises. However, though the state has withdrawn more and more as the economic motor of the country, it has never let go of its political grip over the economy.

Economic policies since the early 1990s, in sum, made Syria into a more trade- and manufacture-conducive country. Most people working in the Aleppo private sector that I met in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade in the 21st century underlined that the private sector was developing quite rapidly. No one admitted that state policies had caused this; political connections were necessary if a businessman wanted to become rich and successful. Instead they underlined that their own relative prosperity was due to their own skills, hard work and perseverance.

Use of wasta (clout or connection), the prevalence of bribery and the spread of corruption was much discussed and lamented among traders and manufacturers in Aleppo. Their own indulgence of bribes was excused, however, and they seldom admitted that they contributed to the increase of corruption by resorting – and by having the means to resort – to such practices. To become and remain honorable in the Aleppo market a trader or manufacturer should not have too intimate relations with the state, or with representatives of the state or the dominant Ba’th party. But without such relations one could not survive in the market.

Heterogeneous identities but urban ethos

When discussing Aleppan traders and manufacturers in the Syrian revolt it is important to underline that they did not constitute a homogenous social group with a common political vision, except for an ambivalence towards the regime. For some it was based on the nationalization policies of the 1960s, for others it was based on the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. For some it was the rampant corruption and for others still, it was a combination of all these issues. Some traders and manufacturers are part of families with names that have been linked to the economy of the city for generations, while others belong to families that are more recent additions to this loosely knit community. Some returned to Syria with the shift to open door policies, others through unofficial amnesties in the aftermath of the events.

What united traders and manufacturers as a social category before 2011 was their urban, rather than rural, ethos. They lauded city life and talked of rural society as uncivilized and uncouth. They had also become more religiously homogeneous since the 1980s. Sunni Muslims traders described themselves as “traditional and conservative”.

In the Ottoman period Aleppo was a polyglot and multi-religious and multiethnic city. Christians, Jews and Muslims both cooperated in and competed on the market. During the market strike of 1980 Christian traders and shop owners closed as well. After independence and with the birth of Israel, most Aleppan Jews left or were forced to leave. Christians have emigrated from Syria to a higher degree than Muslims, and slowly not only the covered bazaar but the market and the economy as a whole became dominated by Sunni Muslims.

During the market strike of 1980 Christians traders and shop owners closed as well. When representatives of the regime tried to make Christian clergy reason with their co-religionists someone allegedly replied. “In this country Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries. We intend to continue to do so. If the Muslim traders strike in Aleppo so do the Christian.”

Christian-Muslim relations, however, took a new turn in the decades after the events. Public expressions of Muslim (apolitical) religiosity became accepted and even supported by the regime, as mentioned. When Islam in Aleppo became more visibly “traditional and conservative” – manifested in for example increased female veiling - many Christians became more worried about of their shrinking numbers. Many came to regard the regime as a safeguard for their continued survival and prosperity in Aleppo.

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Aleppo in 2012. Cesare Quinto/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

It is impossible to know what the future holds for Aleppo and its people. Wars and other catastrophes give birth to people who profit from the misfortunes of others. Yet disasters may also act as a midwife to a redistribution of economic and political power and to a more equal social development. But an upheaval may also usher a yearning for a return to status quo. In 2000, when Hafez al-Asad died, the constitution was immediately changed to enable his son Bashar to succeed him. Sunni Muslim traders and entrepreneurs I met at the time were very relieved. They said that regime continuity ensured the stability of the country. They had not forgotten their sufferings from the events but simultaneously political stability ensured their own continued prosperity.

The last time I visited Aleppo was in March 2011. My informants followed the news from the region, of course, and also quietly discussed a recent incident in Damascus when a policeman had beaten the son of a trader. Over a thousand persons quickly formed a spontaneous demonstration in the old city and forced the Minister of Interior to talk to them. But during my last visit the Aleppo bazaar was calm and in discussions and speculations no one was even close articulating the horrors that were in store for their city and for their country. 

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