Diverse communities thrive in an ancient Syrian city
by Spencer Osberg
The Syrian city of Aleppo ranks among the oldest continuously inhabited centers in the world. Deep beneath its protective walls, narrow alleys and clustered structures lay the remains of civilizations stretching back 7,000 years. Since the time of the apostles, Aleppo has been a major Christian center. After Beirut, it is the Middle East’s most diverse Christian community and its second-largest.
Armenians, with deeply entrenched roots, make up the city’s most prominent Christian group. Beginning in the fourth century, Armenian pilgrims to Jerusalem broke their long journeys in Aleppo’s convents, hostels and monasteries. Waves of Armenians later settled there after the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines and conquered Armenian territory in Asia Minor and the Caucasus in the 11th century. Between 1915 and 1923, Aleppo’s Armenian population swelled to 250,000. Since then, many of the city’s Armenians have moved to other parts of Syria or Lebanon or they have emigrated to Europe, North America or Oceania.
The majority of Aleppo’s Armenians (who now number as many as 77,000) belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. About 17,500 people, however, are members of the Armenian Catholic Church, which shares the rites and traditions of the Apostolic Church while in full communion with the church of Rome. Another 1,500 attend services at Armenian Evangelical (Presbyterian) churches.
Within the city’s Armenian community — regardless of church jurisdiction — the preservation of Armenian culture and language remains resolute. The churches sponsor seven schools, where students learn Armenian as well as Arabic, English and French. There are also numerous church-affiliated community centers, cultural clubs and theaters. Within the mostly Christian neighborhood of Al Jedaydeh, Armenian-owned stores display signs in Armenian and locals address one another in that language.
“The church comes with the community. Without the church there is no community,” said Deacon Kivork from the shady courtyard of Forty Martyrs of Sebaste Armenian Apostolic Cathedral, where he serves. “The church is like the skin on the body,” he added, pinching the skin on his own forearm. “Can you remove it?”
Built between 1499 and 1501, the stone edifice stands at the heart of Aleppo’s ancient Christian Quarter, in the neighborhood’s souk, or marketplace. Its modest, arched outer gate interrupts the souk’s long twisting stone wall that is lined with dozens of shops and kiosks.
Today, explained the deacon, the cathedral primarily serves the city’s “Old Armenians.” Old Armenians, he added, are distinct from the refugees who fled to the city during World War I. At that time, the Young Turks, a reform movement under the Ottoman sultan, forcibly displaced the empire’s Armenians for alleged ties to the Allied forces. As many as 1.5 million died in the process.