Citadel of Aleppo
Eastern area of the old city of Aleppo, Aleppo, Syria
Hegira 6th–7th century / AD 12th–13th century
Many architects, builders and craftsmen took part in the construction, the involvement of master architect Thabit b. Shaqwayq during the reign of Nur al-Din is recorded in the historical literature. He was the supervising engineer who died when the upper entry block collapsed in AH 600 / AD 1203–4.
Zangid, Ayyubid and Mamluk
Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (d. AH 569 / AD 1174); al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi (d. AH 613 / AD 1216); al-Malik al-‘Aziz Muhammad (d. AH 634 / AD 1236).
The Citadel of Aleppo is a masterpiece of medieval Islamic fortress architecture. Its massive ovoid shape and extensive defences enclose an area of approximately seven hectares. The natural hill upon which the Citadel was built has long been used as a stronghold (including evidence of a Hittite temple from the first millennium BC). During the Hamdanid reign of Aleppo under Sayf al-Dawla in the AH 4th / AD 10th century, early constructions of a citadel took place. The Citadel's strategic importance was reactivated by the time the Crusades began.
When Nur al-Din ruled Aleppo in the early AH 6th / AD 12th century, he rebuilt its fragmented interior and fortified the remnants of the earlier fortress. His expansion included the construction of Maqam Ibrahim, an important shrine with legendary associations to the Prophet Abraham. However, the majority of the citadel's surviving features date to the period of Saladin's son, al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi, who ruled between AH 582–613 / AD 1186–1216. He ordered the deeper, 22-m moat, the magnificent bridge, the glacis of smooth impregnable stone, the enlarged towers (or burgs), and the outstanding gateway designed to ambush any enemy who managed to approach. Unlike Damascus, Aleppo was more exposed to Frankish attacks from nearby Edessa and the western coastlands. There was also the threat of the powerful and stealthy "Assassins", followers of the esoteric Isma'ili sect of Shi'i Islam.
Al-Zahir rebuilt many of the civil and religious constructs initiated by Nur al-Din, including the Citadel's beautifully proportioned Great Mosque and the administrative Dar al-'Adl (House of Justice) facing the Citadel. Some scholars speculate the existence of a tunnel between the two.
Most importantly, al-Zahir Ghazi constructed the royal palace complex and baths within the Citadel walls. This represents a new development in the history of Islamic architecture. Palatial residences were not usually constructed behind military fortresses but due to high- level security during this period, a new model emerged. The palace was renovated by al-Aziz Muhammad in AH 627 / AD 1230, but most of it was destroyed by the Mongols.
Altogether, Al-Malik al-Zahir's project radically changed both the scale and scope of the Citadel and its surrounding area, making it the impressive sight it is today. Decorative elements appear particularly around the gates. Two well-known examples are the Lion Gate and the Serpent Gate, each decorated in high-relief figurative stone carving. Lions had long been used as signs of power and royalty; here symbolising throne guardians. The serpents and dragons on the other hand curl backwards to bite themselves; they mark the limits of a protected and controlled area.
Parts of the Citadel, especially the entrance block and bridge, underwent renovation during the Mamluk period, some time in the AH 7th / AD 14th century. Stylistically this is evidenced by the more flamboyant decorative features.
This masterpiece of medieval fortification is the hallmark of Aleppo since the AH 6th / AD 12th century. Its entrance block alone is an impressive work. Linking the citadel to the city by a stately ramp, it also includes two massively constructed towers which conceal a U-shaped corridor that would force an attacking army to change direction six times, while exposing them to projectiles and burning liquid from gaps in the vaults above. Most of the citadel's construction, both military as well as the palatial and religious buildings within, date to the Ayyubid al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi (d. 613 / 1216).
Various inscriptions and historical records have preserved an accurate account of the various stages of the Citadel's construction and evolution.
Allen, T., “Ayyubid Architecture”, Occidental (electronic publication 7th edition), 2003.
Ettinghausen, R., Grabar, O., and Jenkins-Madina, M., Islamic Art and Architecture 650–1250, New Haven, 2001, p.230.
Herzfeld, E., “Matériaux pour un Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum: Syrie du Nord”, Part 2: Inscriptions et monuments d'Alep, 3 Vols, Cairo, 1954–6, p.12.
Burns, R., Monuments of Syria: An Historical Guide, London-New York, 1999, p.33; fig. 3.
Tabbaa, Y., Constructions of Piety and Power in Medieval Aleppo, Pennsylvania, 1997, pp.17–26, pp.53–6, pp.59–69, pp.71–96; figs 9–37.
Qujjeh, M., "Al-'amara fi 'ahd Sayf al-Daula al-Hamadani [Architecture in the Era of Sayf al-Din al-Hamadani]", al-Ma'rifa 2006, no. 508; pp.280–4.
Ibn Shaddad, Izz al-Din (d. 1285), Al-A'laq al-Khateera fi dhikr Umara al-Sham w al-Jazira [The Crucial Core in the Mention of the Rulers of Greater Syria and the Jazira], Damascus, 1953.
Zena Takieddine, Samer Abd al-Ghafour, Abd al-Razzaq Moaz "Citadel of Aleppo" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2017. 2017. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;sy;Mon01;1;en
Prepared by: Zena TakieddineZena Takieddine
Zena Takieddine is a researcher of Arab history and Islamic art. She received her BA in history (with distinction) from the American University of Beirut, and her MA in art and archaeology (with distinction) from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She has a diploma in art and antique connoisseurship from Sotheby's, London. Her fields of interest include pre-Islamic Arabian epigraphy and the development of the Arabic script, early Islamic art and architecture, Arab miniature painting, the study of intercultural influences between Islamic civilisation and the Christian West during the medieval period, and post-colonial methodology in the study of history and identity., Samer Abd al-Ghafour, Abd Al-Razzaq MoazAbd al-Razzaq Moaz
Abd al-Razzaq Moaz is Deputy Minister of Culture, in charge of Cultural Heritage and Head of EU projects, at the Ministry of Culture, Syria. He was born in Damascus in 1962. He received his BA in History at the University of Damascus in 1985, a DEA in Archaeology from the University of Provence, Aix-en-Provence in 1987, and his Doctorate in Archaeology from the same university in 1991. He was a Scholar at the Institut Francais d'Etudes Arabes de Damas, Damascus, 1991–3 and was a Visiting Scholar at the Aga Khan Progam for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University and MIT, USA in 1993/4, at Granada University, Spain in 1994, at Harvard University (Fulbright Scholar) in 1995 and at Harvard University Urban Planning Department in 1996. He was a lecturer at Damascus University, 1997–9 and Visiting Professor, Harvard University in spring 1999. He was Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Syria, from 2000 to 2002. He speaks Arabic, French and English.
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 01
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)Al-Franj: the Crusaders in the Levant | Two Mamluk Sultans against the Franks The Atabegs and Ayyubids | Travelling and Trading The Atabegs and Ayyubids | War and Horsemanship The Atabegs and Ayyubids | Court Life
DownloadAs PDF (including images) As Word (text only)