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Story Publication logo September 10, 2009

In Aleppo, Syria, Mohamed Atta Thought He Could Build the Ideal Islamic City


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As an urban planning graduate student at the Hamburg University of Technology, Egyptian architect...

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While the architects of this high-rise thought residents would enjoy the view, many Allepines create privacy by hanging tarps across their balconies.

In 1994, Mohamed Atta traveled to Istanbul with a student group and continued onward to visit Dittmar Machule in northern Syria, where the professor was doing fieldwork on a Bronze Age village under excavation. But Atta found himself more interested in the traditional urbanism of the nearest major city, Aleppo. Atta was hardly the first student of Middle Eastern architecture drawn to Aleppo. Along with Fez in Morocco and Sana'a in Yemen, Aleppo is considered among the best-preserved cities in the Arab world. When he decided to write his thesis on the city, he returned later that year to conduct more extensive research.

For Atta, the architecturally sensitive Cairene, Aleppo must have been a revelation. While Cairo's historic souq is largely a tourist trap and its Islamic Quarter a hodgepodge of historic monuments and recently slapped together high-rises, Aleppo is a largely intact historic city of 15,000 limestone buildings linked by labyrinthine streets and peaked-roof tunnels. Aleppo's enormous traditional souq boasts more than seven miles of passageways topped by vaulted stone ceilings with natural skylights. Selling everything from spices and freshly slaughtered lamb to carpets and hardware, the souq remains the heart of the city's commerce; only a tiny section caters to tourists. As Machule explained, "His impression was that this was a place which kept the culture of former times, which is in an original situation and not overly formed by European influences."

Atta chose to focus on the Bab al-Nasr neighborhood just north of the souq, an ideal test case for a historic preservationist. Unlike the perfectly preserved souq, the Bab al-Nasr neighborhood was partially destroyed by mid-20th-century French modernist urban planners. Today, it is hemmed in on three sides by modern, straight, multilane streets, many of them lined with high-rise apartments and office buildings. But a few steps from the high-rises, the historic fabric remains intact.

The walk from the straight streets, jammed with taxicabs, into the Bab al-Nasr neighborhood is wondrous. It is a journey from a world of automobiles to a world of donkey carts; from a world of inert rectilinear forms to a world of alleyways, curving arches, and latticework windows; from garish, commercially produced signs hawking mobile phones and soft drinks to the simple black-and-green stenciled image of the Ka'ba in Mecca, Islam's holiest site, atop wooden doorways. Even more powerful than the visual impact of the transition is the auditory one. Just a few paces into the labyrinth, the din of vehicular traffic is replaced by the banter of conversation in the marketplace. A brief stroll deeper, and the voices of men are replaced by the voices of boys chasing after a soccer ball in a courtyard as a hijab-clad mother looks on from the window above. As I explored the neighborhood with a map that failed to capture every twisting alleyway, I stopped to ask an old man in a red-and-white checkered headdress for directions to a historic hamam. "Assalamu alaikum," I greeted him. "Wa alaikum salaam," he slowly replied, not with the usual perfunctory politesse but with a sincerity that made me feel he really did wish me peace.

For Atta, already an orthodox believer in the Manichaean division of the planet into Dar-al-Islam (the world of Islam) and Dar-al-Harb (the world of war), the contrast between the historic neighborhood and the highways grafted onto it must have been striking. Indeed, the contrast is illustrated on the cover of Atta's thesis, by a pair of photos and a pair of architectural maps. In the photos, a shot of the taxi-clogged street is juxtaposed with a shot of two little boys smiling in an alleyway in front of a crumbling latticework window. In the maps, an aerial view of the straight streets, traffic circle, and blocky high-rises is contrasted with a sketch of the old city's honeycomb street plan.

To Atta, the French planners' imposition of modernist urbanism on this "Islamic-Oriental city" wasn't just architecturally ugly—it undermined the traditional Islamic culture of the neighborhood. So did globalization, an economic force of impersonal, mechanistic transactions that bestows inordinate power on wealthy, non-Muslim countries. (In his thesis, Atta worries that Syria's pro-market reforms coupled with a possible Middle East peace deal could give Israel, the most developed economy in the region, a dominant role in Syrian commerce.) By rebuilding the physical structures of the neighborhood, Atta felt he could purge the neighborhood of foreign influence, not just foreign architecture. In the tiny market stalls he sketched (to replace the modern structures he planned to raze), business would be inextricably linked to merchant-customer relationships, a bulwark against globalization. To preserve Islamic traditions and revive a sense of social solidarity, Atta calls for the creation of a "culture committee" to organize events such as a night of poetry to recount tales of the neighborhood's illustrious past.

Atta's view of himself as the vanguardist architect who embodied the will of the common people was not entirely without justification. For his thesis research, Atta interviewed neighborhood residents, and his work reflects their views. Comprising almost exclusively poor, conservative Muslims, the people of the Bab al-Nasr neighborhood really do object, on religious grounds, to the high-rise buildings for compromising their privacy. For the conservative, religious locals, the interior courtyards of their homes, which shield women from public view, are the architectural equivalent of an abaya or burqa. As Razan Abdul-Wahab, a hijab-free Aleppine planner who met with Atta when he was conducting his research, told me, many residents of the neighborhood's traditional courtyard houses made "additions that looked very, very ugly, to prevent people in the higher buildings from looking into their courtyard and somehow to their women." Atta seized on this phenomenon, as it neatly supported his notion of the Middle Eastern city as one that is physically—and exclusively—defined by Islam.

What Atta didn't see—or saw but chose to ignore—was how untraditional this parochial way of life is for Aleppo in general and the Bab al-Nasr neighborhood in particular. Historically, Bab al-Nasr was one of the most religiously mixed neighborhoods in Aleppo, with a large population of Christians and Jews. In their 1794 The Natural History of Aleppo, a pair of expatriate British brothers wrote that the neighborhood's eponymous gate (Bab al-Nasr means "Gate of Victory") was formerly called Bab al-Yahud ("the Jews' Gate") and had a third name, St. George's Gate, which was used by the Christian population. In their neighborhood map, the British brothers identify the southwestern portion of the neighborhood as the "Jews Contrada." Contemporary scholar Yasser Tabbaa writes that the city's Jewish Quarter was located in that part of the Bab al-Nasr neighborhood in the medieval period as well, noting that the main synagogue was first built in the sixth century.

It is hard to miss this history when visiting the neighborhood. A decommissioned Jesuit school and an abandoned synagogue (the corner of which is now used as a urinal despite a sign explicitly forbidding such use) bear witness to the area's diverse past. The current population of the neighborhood is largely observant Muslims, but they're recent arrivals from the countryside who have moved in as the more prosperous Christian population has departed for outlying neighborhoods and the Jews have moved abroad.

While it may not be surprising that Atta's interpretation of Aleppo's history is deeply colored by ideology, the way in which he misinterprets the neighborhood's history gives us insight into how Atta saw the world. Islamist ideology is based on restoring a supposed Middle Eastern golden age that existed before Western encroachment and secularization. Atta has written this arcadia into his thesis.

Thanks to its central location, however, the Middle East has never been cut off from outside influence. Over the millenniums, Aleppo was conquered by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and Arabian Muslims, to name just a few. While in the Orientalist conception the Middle Eastern city is shaped exclusively by Islam, in reality, both the pre-Islamic history of Aleppo and the significant non-Muslim communities of its more recent past shape the cityscape to this day. Walking through the souq Atta so loved, it seems a tangle of passageways. But viewed from above, it is revealed as perfectly rectangular. The souq was built into the Hellenistic Via Recta (Straight Street) leading from the city's western gate to its center. Rather than a pure expression of Islamic civilization, the souq is evidence of a larger conversation between cultures. In a secular reading of history, the Arabian Muslims who conquered Syria in the sixth century are no more or less foreign than the Greeks who had conquered it in the third century BC. Even Aleppo's courtyard houses, which Atta sees as a physical expression of Islamic doctrine, have roots in ancient Rome. Rather than being a manifestation of Aleppo's distinctive "Oriental" style, they are evidence of the city's enduring connection to the West.

Atta's attempts to shield Aleppo from the market forces of the West are also more a function of his fears than of the city's history. Even under Muslim rule, the wealth that made Aleppo's impressive souq buildings possible grew out of the city's cosmopolitan trading culture. The city boomed in Ottoman times because of its strategic location on the Silk Road. As a center of East-West trade, Aleppo became home to the world's first consulate, in 1517, when the French diplomats of François I opened an office in a caravansary. The Venetians and Elizabeth I's Britons quickly followed suit. While Atta viewed global trade as a threat to the traditional culture of Aleppo, the city was built trading goods from as far away as England and China. It is only relatively recent phenomena that are responsible for the Middle East's comparative isolation today—in Aleppo's case, the opening of the Suez Canal, which cut the city out of the East-West trade and shifted wealth to the world's coastal rims.

Today, it is the port of Hamburg, not the trading post of Aleppo, that is a leading center of the Oriental carpet business. In its Speicherstadt section, block after block of warehouses are filled with Middle Eastern merchants cutting deals to ship their wares around the world. But just as Atta failed to acknowledge the cosmopolitan culture of Aleppo's golden age, the cosmopolitanism of prosperous, diverse Hamburg alienated him as well, driving him deeper and deeper into the sureties of fundamentalism.

When Fouad Ajami wrote in the New York Times Magazine that "I almost know Mohamed Atta," he meant he knew young Egyptians who, like Atta, embraced fundamentalism abroad. Ajami is right to understand Atta as an Egyptian, but he must also be understood as an architect. With the crumbling legacy of European imperialism and American-backed dictatorship written into its Paris-meets-Houston cityscape, Cairo is one of the world's worst advertisements for East-West relations. With that city as his tragic starting place, Atta refused to comprehend historic Aleppo, a cosmopolitan trading city where Europeans and Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived side-by-side for centuries. He scorned diverse, mercantile Hamburg; he attacked polyglot New York. By allowing a discordant present to blot out a more hopeful past, Atta ensured further discord in the future.


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