Name of Monument:

Citadel of Aleppo


Eastern area of the old city of Aleppo, Aleppo, Syria

Date of Monument:

Hegira 6th–7th century / AD 12th–13th century

Architect(s) / master-builder(s):

Many architects, builders and craftsmen took part in the construction, the involvement of master architect Thabit b. Shaqwayq during the reign of Nur al-Din is recorded in the historical literature. He was the supervising engineer who died when the upper entry block collapsed in AH 600 / AD 1203–4.

Period / Dynasty:

Zangid, Ayyubid and Mamluk


Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (d. AH 569 / AD 1174); al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi (d. AH 613 / AD 1216); al-Malik al-‘Aziz Muhammad (d. AH 634 / AD 1236).


The Citadel of Aleppo is a masterpiece of medieval Islamic fortress architecture. Its massive ovoid shape and extensive defences enclose an area of approximately seven hectares. The natural hill upon which the Citadel was built has long been used as a stronghold (including evidence of a Hittite temple from the first millennium BC). During the Hamdanid reign of Aleppo under Sayf al-Dawla in the AH 4th / AD 10th century, early constructions of a citadel took place. The Citadel's strategic importance was reactivated by the time the Crusades began.
When Nur al-Din ruled Aleppo in the early AH 6th / AD 12th century, he rebuilt its fragmented interior and fortified the remnants of the earlier fortress. His expansion included the construction of Maqam Ibrahim, an important shrine with legendary associations to the Prophet Abraham. However, the majority of the citadel's surviving features date to the period of Saladin's son, al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi, who ruled between AH 582–613 / AD 1186–1216. He ordered the deeper, 22-m moat, the magnificent bridge, the glacis of smooth impregnable stone, the enlarged towers (or burgs), and the outstanding gateway designed to ambush any enemy who managed to approach. Unlike Damascus, Aleppo was more exposed to Frankish attacks from nearby Edessa and the western coastlands. There was also the threat of the powerful and stealthy "Assassins", followers of the esoteric Isma'ili sect of Shi'i Islam.
Al-Zahir rebuilt many of the civil and religious constructs initiated by Nur al-Din, including the Citadel's beautifully proportioned Great Mosque and the administrative Dar al-'Adl (House of Justice) facing the Citadel. Some scholars speculate the existence of a tunnel between the two.
Most importantly, al-Zahir Ghazi constructed the royal palace complex and baths within the Citadel walls. This represents a new development in the history of Islamic architecture. Palatial residences were not usually constructed behind military fortresses but due to high- level security during this period, a new model emerged. The palace was renovated by al-Aziz Muhammad in AH 627 / AD 1230, but most of it was destroyed by the Mongols.
Altogether, Al-Malik al-Zahir's project radically changed both the scale and scope of the Citadel and its surrounding area, making it the impressive sight it is today. Decorative elements appear particularly around the gates. Two well-known examples are the Lion Gate and the Serpent Gate, each decorated in high-relief figurative stone carving. Lions had long been used as signs of power and royalty; here symbolising throne guardians. The serpents and dragons on the other hand curl backwards to bite themselves; they mark the limits of a protected and controlled area.
Parts of the Citadel, especially the entrance block and bridge, underwent renovation during the Mamluk period, some time in the AH 7th / AD 14th century. Stylistically this is evidenced by the more flamboyant decorative features.

View Short Description

This masterpiece of medieval fortification is the hallmark of Aleppo since the AH 6th / AD 12th century. Its entrance block alone is an impressive work. Linking the citadel to the city by a stately ramp, it also includes two massively constructed towers which conceal a U-shaped corridor that would force an attacking army to change direction six times, while exposing them to projectiles and burning liquid from gaps in the vaults above. Most of the citadel's construction, both military as well as the palatial and religious buildings within, date to the Ayyubid al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi (d. 613 / 1216).

How Monument was dated:

Various inscriptions and historical records have preserved an accurate account of the various stages of the Citadel's construction and evolution.

Selected bibliography:

Allen, T., “Ayyubid Architecture”, Occidental (electronic publication 7th edition), 2003.
Ettinghausen, R., Grabar, O., and Jenkins-Madina, M., Islamic Art and Architecture 650–1250, New Haven, 2001, p.230.
Herzfeld, E., “Matériaux pour un Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum: Syrie du Nord”, Part 2: Inscriptions et monuments d'Alep, 3 Vols, Cairo, 1954–6, p.12.
Burns, R., Monuments of Syria: An Historical Guide, London-New York, 1999, p.33; fig. 3.
Tabbaa, Y., Constructions of Piety and Power in Medieval Aleppo, Pennsylvania, 1997, pp.17–26, pp.53–6, pp.59–69, pp.71–96; figs 9–37.
Qujjeh, M., "Al-'amara fi 'ahd Sayf al-Daula al-Hamadani [Architecture in the Era of Sayf al-Din al-Hamadani]", al-Ma'rifa 2006, no. 508; pp.280–4.
Ibn Shaddad, Izz al-Din (d. 1285), Al-A'laq al-Khateera fi dhikr Umara al-Sham w al-Jazira [The Crucial Core in the Mention of the Rulers of Greater Syria and the Jazira], Damascus, 1953.

Citation of this web page:

Zena Takieddine, Samer Abd al-Ghafour, Abd al-Razzaq Moaz "Citadel of Aleppo" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. 2021.;ISL;sy;Mon01;1;en

Prepared by: Zena Takieddine, Samer Abd al-Ghafour, Abd Al-Razzaq Moaz
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez

MWNF Working Number: SY 01