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Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Surviving by serving

Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, is the latest casualty in Syria's civil war. While world leaders look to a jihadist-driven rebel agenda, the city's Christian minority is finding purpose in its peril

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

On another summer day the ice cream sellers in Aleppo would be busy, handing out cones from their bicycles stationed in a pedestrian square beside the central Citadel. Inside the Old City's covered walkways, juice sellers would be working feverishly on street corners, pumping fresh pomegranate juice sold in thin paper cups. As the pulp would fall in thick crimson clumps on the stone walkways, the spicy aroma of falafel and meat grilling on a spit would rise from the tiny restaurants tucked inside the old souk.

But Aleppo is shuttered, a city of 2.5 million reduced to a shell of its former bustling self after a siege that began just over a month ago.

Like Damascus, Homs, and other urban centers before it, Syria's largest city has become the fortress for rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. In return, its inhabitants are the target of government retaliation-with some of the heaviest weapons yet used in the civil war that first began with street protests 17 months ago.

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Nationwide the fighting has killed an estimated 20,000, but numbers in Aleppo are hard to come by. One Syrian monitoring group, the Violations Documentation Center, reports that between July 19 and Aug. 9 over 400 civilians were killed in the Aleppo governorate-either by shelling or by gunfire.

As street-by-street combat spreads from Aleppo's outskirts and working-class neighborhoods into the city's ancient center, the fighting is destroying what was once a cultural and commercial hub in the Middle East. Government forces have used tanks, helicopter gunships, and warplanes to fire on rebel strongholds, destroying homes, schools, and businesses in the process. On Aug. 11 eyewitnesses reported that bombing had damaged the city's 13th-century Citadel, listed as the largest castle in the world and part of a World Heritage site located in the heart of the city.

"The situation here is getting very hard and critical," reports one local physician who runs a relief organization. "Bread is a dream. Gasoline is a supernatural finding. ... Many families are in bad need."

On a typical day there would be more taxis than people on Aleppo's streets. But gasoline has shot up from less than $1 to more than $5 per liter-and little is available. Electricity, once commonplace 24 hours a day, is now turned on only two hours a day in the late evenings.

One of the oldest cities in the world, Aleppo survived conquest by the Assyrians and then the Persians before its capture by the Greeks. It became part of the Roman Empire in a.d. 64 but under Byzantine rule became a center for Christianity. Persians pillaged the city before Arab Muslims conquered it in a.d. 637. Then it survived two Crusades and Ottoman rule, and came under the French Mandate before becoming an independent republic in 1930.

The destruction of Aleppo, noted Al-Jazeera reporter Anita McNaught, "would be like the destruction of Rome or Paris."

Despite its serial conquests, Aleppo historically has been a refuge for victims of other conflicts. During the Armenian Genocide of 1915, thousands of Armenians fled there, the closest city across the border from Turkey. During both Gulf wars, Iraqi refugees took shelter in Aleppo. In 2008, as insurgency took its toll on those living in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains of Iraq, especially Christians, Aleppo took in about 25,000 Iraqi refugees a month. City churches with outside aid were feeding hundreds of them each week (see "Stalked," Nov. 29, 2008).

It's not uncommon to find church leaders in Aleppo born in Turkey or Iraq or Lebanon. "We are the sons of martyrs," a Turkish-born Chaldean priest told me. "We understand what others are going through because we have been there. Our parents did not teach us to hate, and so we help other refugees."

It's that melting-pot aspect of Aleppo that makes more tragic the current street battles. Unlike Cairo, where millions poured into the street to protest the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Aleppo-like many parts of Syria-by comparison saw subdued street-level demonstrations before armed conflict erupted.

When the Qatar Foundation this year conducted an extensive poll of Syrians, it found 55 percent still on Assad's side and 68 percent disapproving of Arab League and other sanctions. It makes sense, notes Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin editor Elizabeth Kendal: Most Syrians would prefer an authoritarian but largely secular regime to an Islamist one, given the country's makeup. At least 25 percent of the population are religious minorities (Christians make up about 10 percent of that segment) and at least a third of the country's Sunni Muslims live in urban areas with one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East. Prior to 2011 disturbances that launched the civil war, Syria had a GDP growth rate of 3.4 percent, unemployment stood at 8.3 percent, and under economic reforms the country launched its own stock exchange in 2009.

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