Syrian history, Western Colonisation

English merchant adventurers, Aleppo (Halab), a centre of commerce and culture


Why Halab?

This entry describes the rise of the English merchant venturers and their inroads into the Levant. I decided to focus on Halab as a strategic Syrian centre for trade, because it is in the news and of current interest to the reader; because of the contribution it made to English culture; because I had an Armenian friend there whose family own a linen and craft shop that is situated directly opposite the citadel and because I met a man who had lived in Liverpool, renowned for it’s merchant shipping as well as its football team. This was a chance encounter in the old Damascus souk and as he joined me he explained he’d been in the merchant navy and sailed into Liverpool dock where he’d settled for thirty years before returning to Halab.

A backdrop to English colonialism: adventurers, pirates, slaves and seamen

Readers in Britain at least will be familiar with the exploits of maritime ”privateers” Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. Both of whom were granted charter by queen Elizabeth 1st to combat the Spanish fleet militarily, wherever on the high seas they encountered it and to return to England with any riches acquired. Their once romantic image is tarnished by the knowledge that their brutal tactics were those of pirates and that they participated in the slave trade. Their foreign adventures did nevertheless finance the English monarchy, somewhat inhibit Spain’s incursions into what is now Latin America and begin the colonisation of North America by England.

Another kind of adventurer emerged in the 1500s as commercial companies were granted royal charters to trade in various parts of the globe. Currently BBC one is showing ‘Taboo’, which focuses on the East India Company that had an army and virtually owned India. In 1606, king James 1st granted a charter to the joint stock company the Virginia Company of London with the intention of establishing colonial settlements in North America. It was not plain sailing and many battles with the native American population ensued but lines were crossed and the road to globalisation was paved.

the Levant Company and the East India Company, a joint venture

The Levant Company was granted its first royal charter in 1581 and after shaky beginnings it amalgamated with the Turkish and Venice companies and received a second charter in 1592. There was a restriction on the numbers joining the enterprise, which was responsible for setting the terms of entry for new traders. Following many financial wrangles with the monarchy, by 1615 the company held the monopoly on English trade in the Levant but it was not alone.

The East India company was less under the remit of the crown and structured along the lines of a modern corporation, whereby the directors controlled its business dealings. Through the 1630s its directorship was dominated by the Levant Company merchants, whose traders were not as economically successful in the Levant as some other nationalities e.g. the Dutch. This, as Martin Deveck wrote in ‘The Levant Company Between Trade and Politics: or, the Colony That Wasn’t’, might well have been due to the way the company was administered. English commercial enterprise finally came into its own in Syria at the time of the industrial revolution, which spanned the 18th and 19th centuries.

Halab (Aleppo)

Halab has a long cultural and commercial history as it was a cross roads for many of the trade routes. It was part of the silk road, which extended through the Roman empire all the way to China and, as the name suggests, it was where merchants traded in silk, spices and perfumes. As trade routes Halab and Damascus, the modern Syrian capital, were rivals but both survived plagues, earthquakes as well as invasion. Until 637 AD, when it was conquered by Muslim armies, the city was known as Aleppo. As it passed from one Islamic dynasty to another and fended off the Christian crusaders it developed as a cutural centre, which attracted philosophers and poets from all walks of life.

The Mongolian invasion in 1260 curtailed Syria’s trade and this was not properly rejuvenated until it became part of the Ottoman empire in 1516. At that point the black sea ports were incapacitated, which enabled a thriving trade through Persia and Syria of Persian silk and Indian pepper, supplemented by goods produced locally in Halab, these included textiles, woven cloth, cotton, wool as well as soap, vegetables, fruit and nuts. By 1600 the East India Company was granted its charter to trade with the Orient and the company attempted to enter into the Persian markets by way of the Gulf. Needless to say other European traders opposed this, notably the Portugese who used diplomacy and then aggression to prevent it.

Back to the future?, Gulf games

England had set its sights on the Strait of Hormuz part of the Gulf strait, a stretch of ocean where the western powers amassed to attack Yemen at the end of 2015. England fought a battle there with the Portugese and came out on top. As such it acquired access to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen and future sources of oil, though at that time they simply hoped for a through route to India. As Sir Reader Bullard points out England turned its attention to the Levant with India in mind. The route was shorter and guaranteed access when the Russians refused English traders entry through the Caspian sea or the Turkish Ottomans denied them access through Egypt. It wasn’t all plain sailing as you will see if you open the link at the top of the page.

In 1640 the East India Company opened a factory at Basra in southern Iraq and though only open for twenty years England established roots. If readers remember it is Basra where the British troops were stationed after the 2003 invasion. Oil rich Basra borders with the oil well that is Kuwait, the invasion of which was the reason Britain bombed Iraq in 1990. Both countries converge on the Persian Gulf straits as does the lesser known Khuzestan an Iranian territory, which is also oil rich and a possible reason for the Iraq/Iran war that ended in 1980. This conflict too was spurred on by Britain and its allies. Saddam Hussain, the late Iraqi president, laid claim to the Kuwait oil wells and to Khuzestan, which is in Iran but has a large Arabic population.

Halab and its cultural contribution to England/ a very secondary trade

In the early 1600s  the English ambassador in Turkey supervised the commercial and functional duties of the consuls he appointed who were officials of the Levant Company, a situation that continued until 1815. The company employed chaplains and among their number was the reverend Edward Pococke who eventually became the principle professor of Arabic studies at Oxford University. Before this Pococke spent five years in Halab as chaplain to the Turkey merchants, where he learned Arabic and became an accomplished orientalist.

Pococke also collected valuable Arabic manuscripts that are now stored at the Bodleian library of Oxford university. In fact the trade in such oriental treasures was quite a sideline for members of the Levant company and included a biographical work of Taqi al-Ad’din al-Subki who was a critic of Ibn Taymiyyeh, the 13th century theologian who inspires the many Islamic groups operating in Syria at present. For more information see ‘The Republic of Letters and the Levant’ edited by Alistair Hamiltom & others. Haleb also was mentioned in two Shakespeare plays, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’.


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