Aleppo is an ancient city, quite possibly the oldest settled metropolis in the world. According to one theory, Aleppo derives its Arabic name, Halab (from milk – haleeb), from the milky white sheep that the Prophet Ibrahim tended in the region. It has a long history of textile production, thanks to its strategic location at an ancient crossroads of trade and empire. Syria was also blessed with ready supplies of linen, wool and cotton from as early as the Iron Age. Strategic location and an abundance of raw materials combined with the legendary Syrian talent in looming and weaving encouraged a flourishing textile industry.
Aleppo became a key station along the Silk Road from China and Central Asia to the West either overland, via Iraq and Persia, or by sea across the Indian Ocean, and then via Basra and Baghdad. Rome acquired almost all its silk from Syria. Shakespeare often mentions Aleppo in his plays as an alluring and powerful city. His contemporary, the English merchant Ralph Fitch, reported his travels to Aleppo and beyond over the period 1583–91. One classic blend of wool and silk, often cast in a distinctive fabric with stripes running lengthwise, is called alepin after the city of its creation, and is still popular today. During the late eighteenth century the French traveller Comte de Volney described Ottoman Aleppo as the chief entrepôt for trade with Turkey and Armenia. Until the early nineteenth century Aleppine trade with Europe was as important as with the surrounding Middle East. As a result of all this enterprise, Aleppo acquired the largest warren of covered suqs (markets) in the world, running to 13 km in length. The covered markets were home to a number of legendry suqs, such as Suq Khan al-Wazir, for cotton products; the sixteenth century Suq Harir, for silk; and possibly the largest, the Suq Khan al-Gumrok, built in 1574, originally a customs centre, now home to fifty-five textile stores. The medina, or Old City, also contained numerous re-utilised khans (trading inns or caravanserais) and these spawned a centuries-old yet often affectionate rivalry with the khans in the country’s capital, Damascus.