Before the civil war produced a huge outflow of refugees, Aleppo's population of over two million made Aleppo the largest city in Syria, larger than the capital, Damascus. In Ottoman times it was the third-largest city in the Empire, after Constantinople and Cairo.
Aleppo is an ancient city, very ancient. The Temple of Hadad inside Aleppo's spectacular citadel shows the site has been occupied since the Third Millennium BC, and perhaps much earlier. Archaeological exploration has been limited by the presence of the modern city, but like several other cities in the region it has a claim to being one of the earliest human settlements. It is mentioned as a key city in the tablets from Ebla and Mari.
The Arabic name for the city, Halab, is also very ancient, and seems to refer to whiteness. Its location at the curve of the Fertile Crescent, between the Euphrates and Orontes valleys, made it a center of trade from ancient times. With Antioch (and later Alexandretta) providing outlets for Mediterranean trade, and the evolution of the Silk Road to the East, on which Aleppo was a major entrepot, Aleppo became and until recently remained, one of the key trading centers of the Middle East. Its archaeological museum, now closed and with damage from artillery, was once a gem.
Like other ancient cities, prewar Aleppo was a palimpsest of ancient cultures: Amorite, Hittite, Seleucid, Roman, and in the Islamic era Hamdanid, Seljuq, Zangid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk. The great Arab poet al-Mutanabbi wrote some of his best work at the Hamdanid court of Saif sal-Dawla in Aleppo. In Ottoman times it was a richly cosmopolitan city populated by Arabs, Armenians, Turks, Turcomans, Kurds, and Jews.
In the early modern era, Aleppo became well known in Europe. The English Levant Company, one of the main Tudor trading companies, founded n 1592, had a headquarters at Aleppo. Shakespeare mentions the city at least twice:
Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus.
Othello, Act 5, Scene 2 (just before stabbing himself)
First witch: A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And munched, and munched, and munched. “Give me,”quoth I.“Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed runnion cries.Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o' th' Tiger;But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,And like a rat without a tail,I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.
Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3Though politically eclipsed by Damascus, Aleppo was a major center under the French Mandate, and in independent Syria. Its most famous European hotel, the Armenian-owned Hotel Baron, boasted a clientele of almost every famous figure in 19th and 20th century Middle Eastern history, including various kings and Presidents from de Gaulle to Nasser, and had a framed unpaid bar bill of T.E. Lawrence's on display. Sadly, though it stayed open through several years of the civil war, I understand the Baron stopped taking guests in 2014, by which time it was almost on the front lines. I never stayed there, but I did once have a drink at the bar. Unlike Lawrence, I paid my tab.
The old city of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has suffered terribly. The famous Suq was burned several years ago; numerous mosques, the Archaeological Museum, and even the awesome Citadel have suffered damage. Perhaps the question should be, not "What is Aleppo?" but rather "What was Aleppo?"