BEIRUT // A commercial hub and home to 2.5 million people, Syria's second city Aleppo has become a new front in the country's 16-month uprising, after being largely excluded from the violence.
For decades, the city has been known as an industrial manufacturing base, particularly for textiles, thanks to rich cotton resources.
As a stop on the Silk Route, the city sits in a region with a strong artisan tradition, and also once served as the capital of a vast province stretching across south-east Anatolia and the plains of the Syrian north.
The Baathist regime, in power since 1963, supressed an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood between 1979 and 1982 when many of its businessmen backed the rebellion. But it has been able to profit from a free-trade agreement signed with Turkey in 2005, although some small local businesses in the city found themselves unable to compete with their Turkish counterparts.
Residents, known for their business sense, developed the local food and pharmaceutical industries, and focused on producing the local products for which they are reknowned, including soap.
"Aleppo was calm because it is an industrial and commercial town that found favour with the regime after 10 years of punishment for its support for the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1980s," said the geographer Fabrice Balanche, the head of the Mediterranean and Middle East Studies and Research Group in Paris
"The security apparatus has been very powerful since then. The rebels come from the countryside but Aleppo's residents are staying home," added Mr Balanche.
The lure of the big city as well as the search for jobs has pushed large numbers of residents of the rural region around Aleppo to move to the town, which covers about 120 square kilometres.
About 45 per cent of the city is made up of informal neighbourhoods, whose residents are mostly Sunnis and Kurds.
Overall, the majority of its residents are Sunnis, about 65 per cent of them Sunni Arabs, and 20 per cent Kurds, who are also Sunni Muslims.
Christians represent about 10 per cent of the population of the city, around half of them Armenians, with the remainder from the Syrian, Greek Orthodox and Maronite churches.
Members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad and his family belong, make up about five per cent of the population. Unlike in Damascus and the southern city of Homs, the community is not concentrated in any particular districts.
With the exception of Hamdaniyeh, home to numerous government employees, among them large numbers of Alawites, the community is dispersed throughout the city's districts, particularly its Christian quarters.
Mr Balanche said the neighbourhoods under rebel control include the northeastern Tareq Al Bab, south-eastern Salaheddin and unnamed areas where most of the population comes from Aleppo province. The rebels do not yet control the city's central districts or those in the west, which are home to the city's elite, Christian residents, and others originally from Aleppo rather than from its outskirts.
The city's more upscale districts include Shahba, Halab Al Jadida (New Aleppo) and the city centre. Aleppo's historic Old City quarter was added to the Unesco World Heritage Site list in 1986.