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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Hoofmarks in Aleppo: Will the citadel's ancient inverted horseshoe curse save it again?

horseshoe gates at aleppo citadel in syria
Heels up or heels down in Aleppo, Syria tonight? These might have been the oldest and most historic horseshoes on earth. All but one of these horseshoes is a message of defiance to any who would attempt to conquer the city. But one--and only one--horseshoe is an ancient coded message to invaders should they get past these massive gates. It's a message that is 800 years old, will it be heard again tonight?


Just when you think it can't get any worse, it looks like time may have run out for the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo. There is no cavalry coming to the rescue. There are no white knights on the horizon. For most, there is no more hoping-against-hope that the world will hear their pleas.

It's time for one last footnote from history, one last snapshot from the past. And, one last chance for a horseshoe legend to save its city, as it was designed to do 800 years ago.


Back when tourists and scholars from all over the world traveled to Syria to visit and study historical landmarks, one of the top destinations on their list was the citadel in Aleppo, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1986. It is one of the oldest cities on our planet, dating back to 2400 BC and possibly long before that.

A citadel means, literally, "small city". Or, in the case of Aleppo, a city within a city. In some places, citadels were manmade fortresses built for defense against invaders; silos in the citadel in Aleppo could hold enough grain to feed 3000 people for five years. By then, hopefully, the invaders would give up.

Abraham grazed his sheep on the Aleppo citadel's hillside. Invaders found Aleppo easily, since it was the intersection of two trade routes on the ancient Silk Road that connected the Mediterranean with the Far East.

Aleppo's history could be charted out with a timeline of invaders. From the east, the north, from across the Mediterranean, and from the heart of Arabia, they came century after century. The Greeks were here. Alexander the Great stormed through the citadel. Then came the Romans and the Byzantines. Later, the Mongols from Central Asia did their best to destroy this place.

The next wave, Islamic invaders, converted the Byzantines' churches to mosques.

And then came the Crusades and more Christians: The citadel was attacked 22 times, but it never fell. It even withstood the attack of Nature in the form of a massive earthquake in the early 1800s. A French occupation's mandate in the 1930s was to restore the citadel, or at least preserve it. That mission would be taken over by the Aga Khan and the United Nations in the late 20th century. But in the last decade, even the most ardent historians and archeologists packed their bags and left.

Who'll rebuild it next?

Citadel gate Aleppo Syria
Detail of photo of the gates by photographer Andrew Carter. 

If invaders make it across the 100-foot wide moat, two towering horseshoe gates will stop them in their tracks. No matter which army or tribe tried to conquer it, the citadel carried a stark message in an ancient code. The message was written in dozens of horseshoes, affixed with their heels pointing down. A wall of bad luck symbols is not exactly a warm welcome.

This story is written as if the gates are still there. We really don't know if they are or not. With the loss of human life that has occurred, perhaps it seems trivial or even callous to be writing about mere ancient relics.

But this isn't just another horseshoe story. It is a bit of history that could hold out some hope, if you believe in the power of history. And if you can read horseshoes. And if you still can hope.

The citadel rises above the old city of Aleppo, Syria. 



Someone thought this place out. You reach the citadel via a towering pedestrian bridge across the moat, pass under arches, and navigate a zigzag path designed to slow charging cavalry horses down, and only then do you come upon the impenetrable iron gates. It must feel like you have been through a maze, only to find a dead end.

Don't look up: the entrance is beneath a network of machicolations, or trap doors used to pour boiling liquids or drop stones on invaders from the mezzanine above. Defenders might pop out from any of a number of secret passageways and tunnels. Indiana Jones would be right at home here.

The New York Times reports that, more recently, snipers pointed their high-powered rifles from the narrow machicolation slots in the citadel walls.



The citadel was guarded by the spiritual power of its gates covered with horseshoes, hammered into place during the reign of Sultan Ghazi around 1211.

About those horseshoes: Dozens of almost identical horseshoes are bolted onto the iron doors with the heels pointing down. Inside each shoe is a spear, pointing up. The spear tip resembles a horse's frog. The shoes look rather like serpents; each one is detailed with small chevrons, simulating a snake's skin. They are not cookie-cutter metalwork; each is slightly different. They create a wall of bad news to would-be conquerors.

And then there is the special shoe. One very different shoe is nailed among the others on one of the doors. It speaks a message to conquerors, in the event an invader would succeed in penetrating the citadel's fortification and earning the city's surrender.

horseshoe doors aleppo syria
One of the distinguishing differences among the horseshoes are the radii of the toe bends. Did different ancient farrier-blacksmiths make batches of shoes at a time to be nailed on the doors? How many years did it take to make all the shoes and assemble the doors? The shoes only look identical the first time you see the doors, from afar. Closeup, the chevrons, in particular, are done with varying amounts of precision, the toebends vary, and the spears point in ever-so-slightly different directions. (Photo by Alessandra Kocman)

Tourist photos show that the one lone shoe with its heels pointing up has a different patina from the others on the gates. No doubt tourists and passers-by rubbed it for good luck for centuries.

Photographer Bill Anderson tells us: "The horseshoes are designed to bring bad luck on attackers of the citadel, but the one set the other way up is to allow the defenders good luck if/when they sally forth."

"Be kind," in other words, is the message of the lone shoe with its heels pointing up, if you must come in. The others simply suggest "be gone"-- if you know what is good for you. Some say they represented an ancient curse that needed no translation, much as a wall covered with the skull-and-crossbones symbol of piracy would.

Aleppo Syria citadel horseshoe door
Can you spot the shoe that gives a message to the conqueror? This is one of a pair of horseshoe-covered guardian gates known as the Serpent Gates of the Aleppo Citadel. They dated back to about 1200 AD. Flickr.com Creative Commons image by Olgu Aytac.

Why horseshoes? Along the ancient Silk Road from Europe to the riches of India and China, a horseshoe was a talisman without peer. Temple gates in India are covered with horseshoes, as well.

The catch in this story is that we have come to think of the horseshoe, when removed from the context of horse equipment, as a good luck symbol, a charm, a protector over the doors of our homes. The Aleppo legend puts the horseshoe in an even higher category of superstition, and perhaps even of non-verbal communication in the days of wars and invasions from tribes and armies who had no common language except universal symbols.

iron gate of Aleppo Citadel, Syria
Notice the different in these shoes, which are well-illuminated by sunshine. The branches are different lengths. The spears are different lengths and positioned in different places. The one at bottom right has the heel platforms broken off.  Notice the difference in the distance between the horizontal bolt pairs. And yet, from a distance, it looks perfectly symmetrical.

Gates and doors mattered in ancient times. It was a custom for a conquering army to not just tear down the gates of a city once it was conquered but to ship the gates home to the ruling city. Surely the massive, heavy iron gates of Aleppo, covered as they were with iron horseshoes, would have been difficult to transport, and a challenge to any conqueror. But, oh, what a prize to carry back to your home city.

No one in history ever tore them down. Even when the citadel was conquered, the horseshoe gates were left standing.

These horseshoes stood the test of time. Until time ran out.


Horseshoes have covered the massive doors of the Fatehpur Sikri citadel in north central India since the 1500s. Are these gates paying homage to the gates of Aleppo? Notice that  almost all the heels are  pointing up. Ancient code would say these gates are welcoming. (Sandlings photo via Flickr.com)

The bad news ending for this story--and perhaps for the city of Aleppo-- comes from the World Monuments Fund, which had been more or less defending the citadel until the Syrian civil war forced workers to evacuate in 2012. According to their information, a missile attack on August 11, 2012 "damaged the citadel’s massive gate and destroyed the iron doors", which had stood for 800 years.

Destroyed the doors, perhaps. But there's no mention of destroying the horseshoes. They must be lying in the rubble. And at least one of them must have landed with its heels pointing up...or maybe they all did.

Note: While I was finishing this story today, a cease-fire was announced in Aleppo, giving more people a chance to get out. 

Will Aleppo's citadel ever be rebuilt? Will someone dig through the wreckage and pick up the horseshoes, one by one, and bolt them back onto rehung doors? Will they remember where the one unique shoe goes? Will they nail them all back on with the heels pointing up, sending a "be kind" message to the world?

Or has the luck of these magnificent historic horseshoes finally run out?

Hoofmarks is a new project from Hoofcare Publishing to take readers around the world to historic and artistic landmarks related to horse hooves, horseshoes, and their people.


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2 comments:

Andrea said...

Wonderful work Fran, as always. Depressing though, to be sure. Very, very depressing.

Fran Jurga said...

Thanks, Andrea, you are so kind! I have wanted to write about the gates for years and years and I kept thinking there was going to be some massive humanitarian "invasion" of Aleppo and I could write about the gates opening wide for them/us.

Well, it still hasn't happened, and things were so desperate yesterday, I decided to get it done. I wish there could be a happier ending. Maybe when the gates came down in the bombing, it was a sign...