Aleppo Through Poets’ Eyes

The historian and geographer Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī demonstrates Aleppo’s significance by its presence in Arabic poetry in his famous book, Muʿjam al-Buldān (“Dictionary of Countries”), in the 7th/13th century. He writes: “In both ancient and current times, poets and authors have populated Aleppo. Poets have discussed it, described it, and longed for it”.

century later, author Ibn Juzayy wrote along the same lines: “Poets have expatiated on Aleppo’s virtues, its interior and exterior”.

Voyager and French writer Camille Callier was accurate in perceiving one of the unique attributes of the Arab East, an attribute he felt as palpable in Aleppo in 1831. He wrote about his visit: “In this country, we must seek poetry to understand the spirit of the East. Poetry is the child of the East. Enjoying the majesty of the East makes you capable of understanding the wonderful things you see here”.

Camille Callier, Mémoire sur la Syrie: ou Promenades d’un ingénieur géographe à Alep: 1831-1832 (Aleppo 2010). 81

The pivotal cause behind this book, which formed the primary motivation to compose it, was an interest in Aleppo’s rich history and culture. Both feature in this work, which showcases what has been composed about Aleppo over several centuries and identifies connections between these texts and the cultural facets of this glorious city. Aleppo is renowned for its longevity and diverse histories, its material and intangible heritage, and its diversity and openness throughout most of its history.

Aleppo’s great standing in human history and the number of texts produced on it, as well as the significance of those text sand their writers, together called for thorough, comprehensive, and precise work to do justice to the city historically and on a literary basis.

Aleppo’s standing also encapsulates its cultural wealth. I aimed to investigate Aleppo’s value to those who visited and wrote about it, observing how Aleppo appears in their texts, investigating its actual and symbolic value for poets reveals how this shows up in their poems. The connotations of this presence appear throughout different poetic genres mentioning Aleppo over time.

In the selected texts, we observe the connection between the spatial, temporal, and human dimensions of Aleppo. This connection conveys multiple facets of the city in the imagination of poets through their poems, fulfilling numerous functions, whether descriptive, emotional, realistic, or symbolic.

This work aims to highlight the contribution of Arabic poetry over time in terms of elevating the cultural value of a particular city, in conjunction with other cultural markers. It introduces the history of Arab and Muslim cities their value in regard to size, architecture, characteristics of their people, political relevance, and patriotic roles §and emotional aspects, such as their reputation, cultural value, and contributions to other places.

“Poetry is the domain of the Arabs”, as we say, and it has always reflected Arab societies.

Events affecting the city over the past two decades have significantly increased the number of works written on Aleppo, both in research and creative texts. These include happy events, such as the selection of Aleppo as the Islamic cultural capital in2006. It was the second city to win this honour, following Mecca.

Painful events have also prompted writing on the city, such as the war a decade ago, which destroyed large areas of Aleppo. This conflict led many scholars to learn more about Aleppo and its culture, having witnessed the unfortunate and significant devastation that befell the city because of the long war.

Criteria for Poetry Selection

The title of the series connotes its material: exploring Aleppo through Poets’ Eyes differs from discussing Poetry through Aleppo's Eyes. In other words, the work includes poetry about Aleppo, not poetry from Aleppo!

The objective of this anthology was not to catalog poems on Aleppo, or poems which have referenced it within the context of other topics through the centuries. That would be a difficult undertaking, regardless of the time and resources available. The objective also was not to assess these texts critically or aesthetically. The main purpose was to search for these texts, and document, catalogue, and analyse them. In the process, we discover the literal and symbolic value of Aleppo for poets and how that value is reflected in their verses.

It should be pointed out that the verses in this collection were excerpted from the complete poems to serve the purpose of this text, without being tied to the order of the original poems. The intellectual and aesthetic values of the texts were not the main criteria for selection; it was their subject matter. This explains the differences among the selected poems in terms of style and content.

Poets mention Aleppo in the following ways:

  • Mentioning Aleppo directly by name, by one of its districts or its characteristics.

  • Mentioning the outskirts of Aleppo, such as its villages, hamlets, businesses, and natural environment.

  •  Mentioning it in general contexts, including historical eras, rulers, human and natural geography, or events that affected Aleppo.

  • Not naming Aleppo directly in the poetry of some of its people who spoke of it, or glimpses of their lives within its boundaries.