Connections: A Story of Aleppo

It is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world

“In Aleppo Once” is a 1969 memoir by Taqui Altounyan, who spent most of her young life in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, where her Armenian father and grandfather were doctors and her grandfather was revered because he established its only hospital after World War I. He had studied medicine in New York, coming to the United States with the help of American missionaries he had met during the Armenian genocide. Altounyan’s mother was an Englishwoman.

Why my husband happens to own a copy of “In Aleppo Once” is another story, but noticing it recently on a bookshelf I could not help but take a look. 

It has been widely reported that Aleppo and some of its World Heritage sites have now been demolished. Many of its surviving residents have scattered as refugees, and Christian Armenians, such as the Altounyans, are prominent among them. 

Aleppo had a population over two million before this latest war. It is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. At one end of the Silk Road, it was occupied by people over the centuries from all over the East and Middle East. By the time Taqui arrived there at the age of 2, it might well have been called a melting pot. Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, French, and English were commonly spoken on the streets.

The Altounyan family came to Aleppo after Germany lost World War I, in the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire. Syria was put under a French mandate at the Treaty of Versailles, at the same time that Palestine was put under British control. Uprisings followed, but the Altounyans lived an upper-class life, with a fine house, servants, a mountain retreat during hot weather, leisurely sailing, riding, and tennis, and trips to the countryside, as well as extended periods in England.

The book vividly describes the life of Aleppo’s elite a hundred years ago. Taqui and her siblings, for instance, went to tea with a neighbor named Dr. R, a French doctor and diplomat whose house was grander than theirs. “There were rare carpets on the floor and on the walls; the furniture was the typical Damascus work, all inlaid with mother-of-pearl, but very delicately done. There were brilliant Aleppo silk cushions on the hard sofas. We had an uncomfortable but delicious tea . . . with eggshell porcelain and filigree silver, and handmade lace mats. After tea we were shown his collection of gold coins. Drawer after drawer was carefully taken out and we were allowed to handle, weigh, and breathe on the gold discs gleaming dully from their black velvet cases.”

Despite this pleasant life, and sorties out of Syria to boarding schools, the troubled history of the country did not escape their notice. The children saw “beggars who sat on our step all day; usually on one side was a mother holding a baby to her withered breast, the child very dirty and its eyes black with flies; on the other side sat a man with one leg.”

In 1959, long after World War II had ended, the Syrian government, by then under civilian rule and after a series of coups, expelled the Altounyan family without warning. The hospital Taqui’s grandfather had founded was turned into a school, their house was razed, and the street, which had been named in their honor, was renamed. At the time, Taqui’s father said Syria had become “a modern fascist Arab state,” which probably was true. 

Today, given the ascendance of Bashir al-Assad and the ongoing brutal war that has destroyed Aleppo, all of this has a very bittersweet, indeed tragic, air. President Trump has attempted to ban all Syrians — including medical students on education visas, families traveling to see relatives on legal visitors’ visas, and refugees escaping immediate physical peril — from coming to America. If this had happened a century ago, the Altounyans would have been banned, too.