Rethink Aleppo | The city always wins #3

How are Amsterdam and Aleppo related? What lessons from the past can help us understand the future?

During the ‘Rethink Aleppo’ event at Pakhuis de Zwijger, journalist and historian Geert Mak drew a series of parallels between the cities of Amsterdam and Aleppo. Although at a first glance, the two cities appear incomparable at the surface, a closer look at inner fabric provides unexpected similarities.

From Geert Mak’s speech on the connections between Aleppo and Amsterdam, on how the Second World War shaped our present and the lessons learned that can help shape the future of Aleppo.

Geert Mak's speech during 'Rethink Aleppo', at Pakhuis de Zwijger ©Mari Farwy

Apparently the differences between Aleppo and Amsterdam are enormous. In Aleppo we speak about thousands of years; and when Amsterdam is compared with this, it is like a small child- with no more than seven hundred years of age. Through Aleppo, history raged with unprecedented violence, century after century. Amsterdam, in this sense, is a relatively quiet corner of Europe, where things went rather calm through the times, except during the German occupation in World War II and the massacre of our Jewish population, when 65,000 people were killed by the Nazis, accounting for almost 10% of the population of this city. 

However, both cities also have a lot in common. Just like Aleppo, Amsterdam has always been a transit city, a dynamic trading city, a city that was and is  connected with thousands of threads to other cities, all over the world. Like Aleppo, Amsterdam has always been a cosmopolitan centre, where refugees found a safe haven. Amsterdam was built on immigration. When, in the 16th and 17th centuries, all of Western Europe was burned because of wars and religious prosecutions, quiet and tolerant Amsterdam was the city where everyone wanted to be. As an example, from 1600 to 1620, the population grew, (only by immigration) from 50,000 to 120,000. Within one generation, the language of the city changed completely: from a local dialect – (the Waterlands) of Zaandam, to the popular Antwerp – because Antwerp was the city where most immigrants came from. 

The city was, in the 17th century, a kind of New York – a forefront of modernity on the edge of a European continent that still largely lived in the Middle Ages. This was also because Amsterdam, like Aleppo, was a city where minorities lived peace fully next to each other, where all those different cultures flourished and stimulated each other, where tolerance set the tone. That freedom made Amsterdam, like Aleppo, a breeding ground for poets and painters, for new discoveries and ideas. It is no coincidence that Descartes and Spinoza dared develop their revolutionary theories here, including concepts like equality and democracy, at the beginning of the Enlightenment. 

The theme of this conference therefore fits perfectly into the searching and sometimes daring traditions of this city. Amsterdam, in contrast to most cities, was able to afford large-scale neighbourhoods and city-planning. This was also a Dutch tradition: we always had to plan on a large scale, just to pump away the water in the ‘Low Countries’. If you walk around Amsterdam, you can see the results with your own eyes. For example, the canals, the Heren, Keizers and Prinsengracht, are the result of conscious and tight city planning, already in the 17th century. The so-called Plan Zuid, in the South, around the Beethovenstraat and the Olympiaplein –in fact a mirror of the canals planned around 1915 – still forms, a century later, a fantastic functioning city. The newer neighbourhoods, in West and Bos and Lommer, built in haste after the Second World War, are still well planned. Amsterdam has green incisions everywhere, that reach far into the city, leaving every citizen always close to a green area. Or the Bijlmer, the ultimate symbol of the optimism of the 50’s and 60’s, which failed due to its large scale. With severe interventions and a lot of effort, things went well with that district too in the end.  

But we learned our lessons: reach to heaven, but never forget history and the human size. A city is, like a country, a real community, but also an imaginary community, a community of images in our minds, full of common expectations, but also full of shared experiences in the past, bad and good. In a good city, the built environment enhances that imaginary community, forms part of the common history, constitutes the joint experience, connects and, indeed, reconciles. The questions you will talk about now will be therefore extremely complicated. Can a city like Aleppo be built as a completely new city, a ‘tabula rasa’, a foundation for a whole new start? And would that be desirable? Or can and should Aleppo, whenever possible, be brought back to it old state as much as possible? And what other solutions would be possible, if possible? 

Here in Europe, we got some experience after the war. Some inner cities, such as Warsaw, have been restored to, almost, open-air museums. Other cities, for example Nuremberg, are largely recycled according to their old forms, but everywhere it tastes like kitsch. In the Netherlands we have experience with the other extreme, in the case of Rotterdam – a city whose centre was completely bombarded by the Germans in May 1940. A horrible drama, but modern urban builders 

saw their chance: in one big gesture they could build an ultra modern city – at least according to the 50’s standards – of which they had always dreamed. Tabula rasa. Rotterdam is alive again, but the city is left with a hole in the heart: a large part of the history, of the joint experience of all the Rotterdammers, has been cut away. So even if you would get all the resources, it will be difficult to find a good balance. 

The movie can never be reversed. But an old street pattern can remain the same, including all the strange twists and turns of the past. That would be a reminder of the common history. And large and small monuments can be resurrected, like beacons and benchmarks. 

That is a reminder of the common pride of the city. And whatever has happened, even when all the houses, and buildings, and streets, and squares, and pubs, and shops, and theatres are crying and bleeding, the spirit of a city, the old spirit, nobody can break that, never.

Feeling inspired? Watch the livestream of the event below.

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