by May Ghazaleh

I would like to share with you a story from Aleppo, my hometown, and the place where my ancestors are from, Judaydeh.

I was born in Aleppo to a Syrian father and an Italian mother. My family was Christian and descendents of  a prominent banking dynasty of the city. In the 60s, Aleppo was a very cosmopolitan city and people of all religions co-existed peacefully. At my catholic Franciscan school my friends were Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Religion was never an issue. Our families socialised together at the famous Aleppo Club. We all lived in perfect harmony. We would wake up to the sound of the Muezzin and the bells of the churches and go to school.

ʿAjami decoration in the reception room (Qaʿa) of Bayt Ghazala in 1979
(© Jean-Claude David, CC-BY-NC-ND)

At the age of 14 my father took me to Beit Ghazaleh to show me where my great grandparents lived. At that time, my family still owned the house. But it was used as an Armenian school (previously, it was also used as a German school in the early 20th century). I remember the very simple entrance door and when I stepped through the entrance door, I was stunned by contrast with the inside. It was impressive but yet poorly maintained. My father brought me to the courtyard telling me all about the precious memories he had in the house. He talked about the fire place that spread the smell of lemon everytime it was lit. And the great Hamam, one of the first in a private house in Aleppo.

This house was much more than just an example of the Ottoman Architecture of the seventeenth century. It was my heritage, the history of my family. My great grandfather, Fathalla Ghazaleh, and his family were the last ones who lived in this house. And in the end of the 19th century they left the old neighboorhood of Judaydeh and moved to al-ʿAziziyya into a much more modern and comfortable house. They have, however, recovered the Ghazaleh wooden panels of the old private chapel to decorate their new home, in al-ʿAziziyya. These panels are today at the Robert Mouawad Private Museum in Beirut. It´s the Henri Philippe Pharaoun collection. They are the only wooden panels of the house that are left.

Western side of the inner courtyard of Bayt Ghazala in 1995 (© Julia Gonnella, CC-BY-NC-ND)

In 1965, like many other families, we immigrated to Lebanon for economic reasons, but my love for Aleppo was never diminished. I would return every now and then to my precious city to visit my friends and family. In the 80s, I went back to Bayt Ghazaleh. My family had sold the house to the Directorate Generale of Antiquities and Museums of Aleppo (DGAM). Nothing was as I had remembered, the house was empty and abandoned. There was only an old guard who was using the courtyard as a poultry farm. There were chicken everywhere. I felt very sad and thought that the house of my ancestors shouldn´t be in that state. I felt helpless. It is only around 2007 that the DGAM of Aleppo managed to gather funds to rehabilitate and restore the house and to host the Memory Museum of the city of Aleppo.

In 2010, I was introduced to Mark Ghazaleh, the cousin I had never met before but who definitely shared my passion and interest in our ancestor´s house. This encounter marked the beginning of a common  research to gain a deeper understanding of our family tree and the people that had occupied Bayt Ghazaleh. We were both eager to see the results of the renovation and I had already planned to offer my great grandparents portrait to the museum who had marked the walls of the house. I felt particularly proud of my grandmother, Marie Ghazaleh, who had been awarded the order of charity medallion by the Sultan Abdul Hamid II – granted to selected woman only for distinguished humanitarian work. This award granted a poem addressed to Marie 1895 by an Aleppine poet.

Beit Ghazaleh in 1995 © Julia Gonnella (CC-BY-NC-ND)

In 2011, destiny decided otherwise and the war broke out in Syria and Aleppo was deeply affected. The house was robbed from all its decorative wooden panels and unfortunately an explosion heavily destroyed the house, leaving us heartbroken. Although the damage seems insignificant compared to all the pain and suffering that the Aleppine endured, I was deeply hurt by this destruction and all the memories that had been shattered. This unfortunate event increased my desire as well as Mark´s to share Bayt Ghazale´s history in order to keep our heritage alive in the book „Alep, la maison Ghazalé: Histoire et devenirs“, published by Jean-Claude David und François Cristofoli. 

My greatest wish is that someday this prestigious house will be fully restored on peaceful land; all that was stolen will return to its original place and the next generation will be able to see the charming and fascinating architecture of Syrian houses. I dearly hope that our heritage and the history we leave behind us will allow the city to return to what it was in the most authentic way. For Aleppo, for us Syrians, but also for our children and grandchildren and the generations to come. So they could witness and admire our heritage one day the way I did at the age of 14.

Read the book Alep, la maison Ghazalé: Histoire et devenirs and the report about the missing ʿAjami wooden panels from Bayt Ghazala.


Read other articles and interviews from the ‘Ajami series:

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