Aleppo Through the Eyes of Poets, Writers, Historians and Scholars
31 March 2023
At the end of 2022, Hasan Kujjah finished publishing his large scale project on poetry and writing about Aleppo. His monumental 'Aleppo Through Poets' Eyes and in the Writings of Historians, Scholars, Visitors and Literati' collects and indexes 2279 poems and 480 texts, descriptions, and impressions about the city. The first three volumes focus on the poetry (written from the 7th to the 21st century); followed by a fourth volume that includes general indices, while the fifth volume focuses on descriptions and impressions from historians, visitors, and writers, over a time span of fifteen centuries.
We sat down with Hasan Kujjah to talk about his work, about poetry and what it discloses about the Middle East and Aleppo, about what makes Aleppo such a beloved subject for poets and writers, among many other things.
It's a pleasure to meet you Hasan. Can you tell us a bit about your work and background?
Let me introduce myself in short bullets that reveal my key cultural dimensions:
I’m an author and researcher, in the fields of cultural heritage and literature.
I’m a trainer and lecturer, in the field of intercultural communication and self-development.
My education majors are diverse, as I’m currently working on my PhD in the Netherlands in cultural heritage, I’m also a fellow of the British chartered Institute of management, and prior to that, I hold a doctorate in dentistry from Aleppo University in my home city.
I have a diverse personal life, as I hold two nationalities: Dutch and Syrian, I work and write in two languages: English and Arabic, and I’ve lived in five countries and visited dozens of cities in 27 countries.
How did the idea for this large project come about?
The pivotal cause of this collection, which formed the primary motivation to compose it, was an interest in Aleppo’s rich history and culture. Both feature prominently in this work that showcases what has been composed about Aleppo in poetry over several centuries and identifies connections between these texts and the cultural facets of this glorious city.
I’ve dived into books, poetry collections, and research papers by writers, historians, travelers and scholars the world over, this endeavor continues the idea that came into being a quarter of a century ago with my father, scholar and thinker ‘Mohammad Kujjah’ who participated with me as a co-author in the first volume of this anthology. That idea has now turned into a massive work, these pages carrying Aleppo’s illustrious history, shining from the texts of authors, and emanating from the light in the eyes of poets.
In the introduction you cite Camille Callier saying: “In this country, we must seek poetry to understand the spirit of the East. Poetry is the child of the East. Enjoying the majesty of the East makes you capable of understanding the wonderful things you see here.” In your view, what sort of truth or understanding does poetry disclose about the Middle East and more specifically Aleppo?
As a prominent form of intangible culture, poetry plays a notable role in transmitting cultural values of a particular city to others. This work aims to highlight the contribution of Arabic poetry over time in terms of elevating the cultural value of a particular city, in conjunction with other cultural markers. It introduces the history of Arab and Muslim cities; their value in regard to size, architecture, characteristics of their people, political relevance, and patriotic roles; and emotional aspects, such as their reputation, cultural value, and contributions to other places. “Poetry is the domain of the Arabs”, as we say, and it has always reflected Arab societies.
In the selected texts, we observe the connection between the spatial, temporal, and human dimensions of Aleppo. This connection conveys multiple facets of the city in the imagination of poets through their poems, fulfilling numerous functions, whether descriptive, emotional, realistic, or symbolic.
You mention that you analyzed a lot of different styles of poetry in your work. Is there a style that is typical for Aleppo or that is typically used when people write about Aleppo?
The main title of the anthology connotes its material, as exploring “Aleppo through poets’ eyes” differs from discussing “poetry through Aleppo’s eyes”. In other words, the work includes poetry about Aleppo, not poetry from Aleppo! The main purpose of this anthology is to search for these poems; and document, catalogue, and analyze them, regardless the poetic style used in the selected texts. Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic values of the poems were not the main criteria for selection; it was their subject matter; this explains the differences among the selected poems in terms of style and content.
In the Arabic poems we find all types and styles (classical qaṣīdas, blank verse and prose), while World poems were translated into Arabic, some of them were published in their original language alongside Arabic translations, and some were translated by me from English, whether they were originally written in English or they were translated into English from other languages.
The poems are classified and organized according to several factors: consecutive eras in Aleppo, poetic style, and the original languages of the poems. In each chapter, poems are organized chronologically as much as possible, particularly in longer eras.
What makes Aleppo famous in literature, with such a huge number of poets and writers to write about it?
Aleppo’s great standing in human history and the number of texts produced on it, as well as the significance of those texts and their writers, together called for thorough, comprehensive, and precise work to do justice to the city historically and on a literary basis. Aleppo’s standing also encapsulates its cultural wealth, which adds to previous research that dealt with this area from other angles. As poets and authors address a city in their literary and intellectual works, the history and outstanding characteristics of this city will be conjured before them. Together we shall discover what occurs when writers discuss the most ancient, constantly populated city in history. Panegyrics for Aleppo do not fall under the umbrella of hypocrisy or falsehood, unlike panegyrics which are composed for kings, princes, and those who wield influence. People who express their admiration for a city are sincere, not coerced, frightened, or sycophants.
Aleppo’s status as a city venerated and beloved by a wide swath of poets, authors, historians, and visitors, is owed to several interwoven facets. Aleppo has always constituted a model cosmopolitan city due to its location, historical role, and its diverse and harmonious demographic communities, which have co-existed respectfully. Aleppo also represents a model tolerant and open city with diverse religious groups, ethnicities and sects, who live together with no issues, in addition to its uniquely beautiful architecture among Eastern cities.
Events affecting the city over the past two decades have significantly increased the number of works written on Aleppo, both poetry and prose. These include honorable events, such as the selection of Aleppo as the capital of Islamic cultural in 2006; it was the second city to win this honor, following Mecca. Painful events have also prompted literary works, such as the war that started in 2011 and destroyed large areas of Aleppo, which led many intellectuals and scholars to learn more about Aleppo and its culture, having witnessed the unfortunate and significant devastation that befell the city as a result of the long war.
Kujjah's Family Library in Aleppo
You have created a separate chapter in each volume, that studies the topics of the poems and analyze their shared and common themes, purposes and meanings. In brief: what are the main conclusions of these studies?
It was not easy to place thousands of poems under analytical study of their shared and common themes, purposes and meanings, even if most of them shared one basic goal, which is writing about the city of Aleppo. The difficulty lies in a main reason, which is that none of these poems was purely intended for a specific subject, especially the longer poems of course. These studies seek to identify main frameworks for ideas and meanings in the selected texts, and to link them together in broad lines, which in turn include sub-forms, and it was necessary to list hundreds of examples.
The topics included in the book's poems were classified as follows:
About Aleppo history and heritage: (Cherishing the ancient history of Aleppo, Evoking symbols of ancient history and mythology, celebrating occasions in Aleppo, horrors of earthquakes and epidemics).
Impressions about Aleppo: (Praise and glorification of the city, Aleppo and poetry, diversity and brotherhood, patriotic combating, allegorical approaches, difficulties for some visitors).
Description of Aleppo and its virtues: (unique architecture, authentic music, literature, outstanding cuisine, Markets, nature, landmarks and places)
About the Aleppians: (Describing Aleppians, complaint of parting and longing, pride in belonging to Aleppo, lamenting prominent people).
Elements related or analogous to Aleppo: (Evoking prominent people, mentioning other cities and countries, including quotes, humane storytelling).
Description of the war and its aftermath [in Volume 3]: (Describing the destruction of the city, Aleppians during the war, expressing sadness and helplessness, blaming culprits and laggards, praising Aleppo’s patience and steadfastness, optimism and good tidings, praying and conversing with the God).
To what degree did the recent war influence contemporary poetry about Aleppo?
Chronologically speaking, the third volume ‘Aleppo in contemporary elegiac poetry 2011-2020’ converges with the volume that preceded it ‘Aleppo in contemporary poetry: early 20th century - early 21st century’, in the sense that it could be considered as a direct extension of what came before since both books tackle contemporary poetry. This volume, however, contains a completely different selection of poems, written by Arab and World poets who lament the city of Aleppo during the devastating war it suffered from in the second decade of 21st century.
It was not surprising to find so many poems lamenting Aleppo; it goes without saying that poets from across the world interact with major issues that concern humanity as a whole, so what else could be expected when it comes to Aleppo, the oldest inhabited city in the history of human civilization
The book doesn’t rehash Syrian war scenes through poets’ eyes, but rather aims to explore the actual and symbolic value of Aleppo to these poets, as reflected in their poems; it reveals the poets’ impressions about the war and its aftermath, in terms of destruction, sadness, helplessness, blaming culprits and laggards, patience and steadfastness, praying and optimism.
How are female poets represented in poetry about Aleppo?
Female poets were represented variably among the five volumes; their highest presence was in the third volume ‘Aleppo in contemporary elegiac poetry 2011-2020’ where we find 200 poems by female poets who belong to the five continents, while we got 43 poems by female poets in the second volume ‘Aleppo in contemporary poetry’ and only 5 poems in the first volume ‘Aleppo in classical poetry’.
In the separate book ’Aleppo in the writings of historians, travelers and authors’ another large number of female writers arise: 173 names.
The region of north Syria and south Turkey has recently suffered a heavy earthquake. Is there a particular poem on a previous earthquake that struck Aleppo that you think can be of solace in these times?
In the first volume “Aleppo in Classical Poetry” I’ve mentioned nine poems about earthquakes that devastated Aleppo in different eras1. One poem had been written about the earthquake of Aleppo in 1138AD, five poems about 1343AD earthquake, one poem about the earthquake in 1764 and two poems about the earthquake in 1822.
One of those poems was ‘The Earthquake at Aleppo 1822’2 by the English poet Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804-1880) who wrote:
‘A Perchance again in brighter hours
May raise Aleppo's walls and towers;
Again the curious eye may trace
In new abodes her ancient grace;
But who can to the widowed spouse
Restore the partner of her vows?
Or who with comfort can invest
The childless mourner's broken rest?’3
You read and study a lot of poetry. Does that inspire you to write poetry of your own?
In fact, I do write poetry and poetic prose since 1990s; my first poetry collection was published in 20074, followed by two prose books in 20105.
In this poetry anthology about Aleppo, I included two of my poems in the second volume ‘Aleppo in contemporary poetry’. The first is entitled ‘Tears of Shipmaster’6 which was published earlier in my first poetry collection ‘Lost Exhalations’, and the second is ‘Seeking the Answer'7 which will be published in my upcoming poetry collection ‘in the color of the sky’. I also included a poetic prose text at the end of the third volume ‘Aleppo in contemporary elegiac poetry’ under the title ‘Places Cannot Depart’8.
Apart from the four volumes that contain an anthology of the poetry which had been written about the city Aleppo, you added a fifth volume as a separate book entitled ’Aleppo in the Writings of Historians, Travelers and Authors’, would you briefly tell us about that book?
In addition to that large number of poems on Aleppo, it was only natural to find a significant number of writings about it as well, written by Historians, scholars, authors, literati, visitors and travelers. This led to write a book separate from this anthology9, comprising the following chapters:
Aleppo in history, geography, and civilization.
Books on Aleppo throughout history (900 books).
Writings by Arab historians, travelers, and authors (80 texts).
Impressions of World visitors, travelers, and writers (340 works).
World literary texts (60 texts).
Photos of Aleppo (205 photos)
Thank you Hasan!
1: Hasan Kujjah and Mohammad Kujjah, Aleppo in Classical Poetry, HdO.164.1, Chapter.1: ‘The Topics of the Poems: An Analytical Study’, Section 3-11: ‘Horrors of earthquakes and epidemics’, Brill, the Netherlands, 2022, pp.152-156
2: Torre, Nicholas Lee, Translations of the Oxford and Cambridge Latin Prize Poems, Vol.2, Longman, London, 1833, p.153
3: Hasan Kujjah and Mohammad Kujjah, Aleppo in Classical Poetry, HdO.164.1, Brill, the Netherlands, 2022, p.156
4: Hasan Kujjah, Lost Exhalations, Cultural development center, Syria, 2007
5: Hasan Kujjah, Homing Pigeon, Dar Al-Hiwar, Syria, 2010 ; Hasan Kujjah, Sighing Day, Dar Al-Hiwar, Syria, 2010
6: Hasan Kujjah, Aleppo in contemporary Poetry, HdO.164.2, Brill, the Netherlands, 2022, p.672
7: Hasan Kujjah, Aleppo in contemporary Poetry, HdO.164.2, Brill, the Netherlands, 2022, p.676
8: Hasan Kujjah, Aleppo in contemporary elegiac Poetry, HdO.164.3, Brill, the Netherlands, 2022, p.842
9: Hasan Kujjah, Aleppo in the Writings of Historians, Travelers and Authors, HdO.164.5, Brill, the Netherlands, 2022