Aleppo is the ancient name of a place in the Middle East. How was such a name chosen for a community here in Allegheny County? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Aleppo is the ancient name of a place in the Middle East. How was such a name chosen for a community here in Allegheny County?

Question submitted by: Norman Beesley, Coraopolis

Well, can you think of one more fitting? After all, Aleppo, Syria is one of the oldest of human cities: It was a nexus for numerous trade routes, and at various points in its history it has been governed by Hittites, Assyrians, Mongols and Mamelukes.

Similarly, our Aleppo forms a critical bridge between Kilbuck Township and Sewickley Heights. And it reflects all the cultural ferment you'd expect from a place bordering such diverse civilizations as Haysville and Glenfield.

Truth to tell, the story behind Aleppo's name is simple, if somewhat sparse in the telling. The most useful account I could find was in History of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which was published by L.H. Everts & Company in 1876 -- the very year Aleppo was created. According to the text, "Aleppo was the name given on the patent of a tract of land now owned by" several of the new township's leading citizens. And when the new municipality was carved from Kilbuck, the name stuck.

"It is a historic name," the book primly concludes, and no doubt it summed up the aspirations of its founders to create a prosperous, long-lasting community. In fact, in describing the area, the History engages in some rather ambitious name-dropping itself: "The whole distance from Haysville, Aleppo Township, to Leetsdale is settled by wealthy families of taste and refinement, who have assisted nature in making it a modern Elysium," it reports. "[F]abled nymphs might deign to dwell there."

Why "Aleppo" was chosen from the roster of historic cities remains obscure. But we can make a fairly educated guess, because Aleppo isn't the only local municipality to import its name from overseas.

Tarentum, for example, is named for an ancient Roman city in southern Italy; Etna for the massive volcano in Sicily. North Versailles is named after the playground of French kings, improbable as that may seen. (To be fair, I believe North Versailles does have a Wal-Mart.) And let's not forget Verona, the Allegheny River town whose gentry was celebrated, I believe, in a Shakespeare play about two guys waiting for the 75D to take them into town.

In fact, according to A. Howry Espenshade's book Pennsylvania Place Names, "More than a score of large towns [in the state] have appropriate place names from Palestine, England, Ireland, Wales, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Sicily." Others borrow their names from such exotic locales as New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Why were these places chosen? In some cases, because they were the hometowns of founders or other prominent figures. As Espenshade notes, even the humble South Hills neighborhood of Carrick boasts an Old World pedigree: When the area got its post office, a leading citizen suggested it be named after his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary, Ireland.

But given the relative absence of Hittites or Mamelukes in the Ohio valley, it seems unlikely that Aleppo's founders chose the name because they were homesick for someplace they'd once been. It seems more likely they had great hopes for what their home could someday be: a thriving place of culture and commerce, like the original except less susceptible to invading hordes.

Choosing pretentious names from antiquity was also a common practice. Tarentum, for example, was named by H.M. Brackenridge, who laid out the town and owned the land where it was built. Espenshade points out that Brackenridge was a classics scholar; he was also an early believer that western Pennsylvania would someday be a pivotal player on the world stage. Borrowing a name from Roman antiquity sums up that ambition nicely.

Biblical locales also featured prominently in early place names: Consider the Pennsylvania locales of Bethlehem or Mt. Carmel. No doubt those scriptural references reflect the often-messianic outlook of early pioneers. Many of them hoped to create a New Jerusalem in the Promised Land, far from the sinful wastes of Europe.

Even so, when you're making a new world, it's natural to want some of the comforts of the old. An old-fashioned name gives your fresh-out-of-the-box community a whiff of history and a touch of class. Even if the "fabled nymphs" choose to live in Sewickley Heights instead.

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