It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.
Being from Aleppo is unlike being from anywhere else in the world. We walked on history so deep, we did not understand it -- we simply learned to call this place, older than all others, home. We grew up knowing that our insignificant existence was the thinnest layer of dust on the thick geological strata of empires, kingdoms, and generations, which lived within our stone walls. We knew without doubt, from an early age, that we were nothing but a blink of our city's eye.
When you are from Aleppo, you are plagued with a predicament: Nothing here will ever change. For some people, living in the city that never changes becomes too difficult. The city's permanence and your inability to make a mark on it push you to eventually leave Aleppo, trading comfort for change. After you leave, no matter where you are in the world, you know that Aleppo is there, waiting exactly as you left it. Instead, it is you who returns in a reinvented form each time you come home -- a university graduate, a bride, a mother, each time proudly carrying your new ideas and identity to your patiently waiting city.
In Aleppo, you grow up worrying if your legacy will ever be worthy of your city's. But you never worry about your city's legacy -- which we thoughtlessly leaned on -- for how could we, ever, change Aleppo's legacy?
Aleppo is Calvino's city of Lalage, a city of minarets on which the moon "rest[s] now on one, now on another." It is a city of churches, temples, relics, and graves of revered mystics. It is a city where the spices of Armenia meld with the tastes of Turkey. It is a city where Arabic, Kurdish, and Armenian tongues speak parallel to each other, with an occasional French word mixed in here or there. It is a city of trade and industry, where men are constantly bargaining and negotiating in the same souks as their fathers before them. It is a city where girls walking down the streets in tight jeans and high heels pass by women in long black coats and white veils pinned under their chins. And they know they all belong right here, to Aleppo.
A man who is not from Aleppo recently told me, "When you travel to Aleppo, you don't see it until you arrive." I had never noticed that. Perhaps, because I was always inside it, I never searched for it when we returned. I never doubted that it would always be there, exactly as I left it, untouched, unchanged. But he was right; Aleppo is an inward-looking city; it sees the world reflected in itself. And because we've lived here for generations, we became like that too.
The Citadel sits on an oval hill in the heart of Aleppo. This is where you bring every visitor. You guide them up the steep stone steps in the summer heat, always promising the tourists trailing behind you that inside will be much cooler. And it is. You take them through the fortress's massive gates and winding interior, which once protected it from attack. You lead them out once more into the bright hot sun, wincing as your eyes adjust from the darkness to the harsh Aleppine light. You continue climbing up, pointing out the Citadel's mosque to your left and the amphitheater to your right. You buy a bottle of water at the cafe because by now, the heat has melted you as well. Then you are at the very top, and as always the breeze from the west surprises you all.
You extend your arm toward the majestic view, as the city of stone and minarets unfolds in front of the guests, like magic. It is the moment you've waited for, to turn to them and say with pride and certainty, "This is where I'm from. This is my city." The cameras click in applause. The city, I imagined, was amused at its children's performance.
Today, the Citadel is no longer a stage for impressing visitors. It is no longer a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. It has reclaimed its original purpose -- a fortress in an active battle between Syrian sons, a site to be occupied and captured once more. The ancient nails and iron horseshoes that once adorned the indestructible doors are now twisted and the wooden planks are broken. The castle's narrow slits, once used for archers, now hide sniper nests. The limestone, untouched for centuries, is riddled with fresh bullet holes, and the newly repaved street below is bloodied with fallen victims, corpses that sometimes rot for days before they can be reclaimed. As activist Sami from Aleppo says, "We are watching remains become remains."
Misplaced pride has proved us unworthy of this history that we could not protect. The Old City, the Citadel, and the souks were not just a stage for us to perform upon in front of others -- they were the heart of every Aleppian. Being from Aleppo is in our blood, and this blood now flows down the cobblestone streets. The broken city is no longer amused at the pastimes of its children.