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Idlib authorities begin restoration of historic mosque

The government affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria’s Idlib is restoring the historic Great Mosque, which was severely damaged by Syrian government shelling.
Restoration work at Great Mosque in Idlib

The Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments) affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Syrian Salvation Government has embarked on the restoration of the Great Mosque of Idlib, damaged by Syrian government shelling during the decade-long war. Cracks and holes in the walls have led to their partial collapse.

The work is being done under the supervision of the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (affiliated with the Salvation government) and the Idlib Antiquities Center.

The Great Mosque is one of the more prominent religious monuments in Syria. It dates to the Mamluk era from 658 hijri (1259-1260) to 922 hijri (1516), during which many congregational mosques were built; these were characterized by domes, corridors and ventilation holes.

The mosque, which extends over an area of 1,030 square meters (11,000 square feet), has been renovated several times, including in 1591 under Ottoman Grand Vizier Muhammad Pasha al-Koberli; another renovation took place in 1985.

The initiative to ​​restore the mosque and preserve its cultural heritage was launched in January. It aims to repair the damages and cracks in its ceiling and walls, which are mostly built of stones and mud, amid concerns over a larger collapse that threatens the safety of worshipers amid the spread of moisture in its arches and columns.

Ayman al-Nabo, head of the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The Great Mosque is currently witnessing the largest restoration operations since its construction to restore its historical aspect and highlight its beauty, which was tarnished by previous restoration operations, especially those that took place during the Ottoman era due to the cladding of the sanctuary from the inside with concrete and lime as well as ceramics in some parts.”

Nabo said, “The minaret and domes, however, preserved their shape. The old sanctuary consists of two corridors containing 12 domes. In the 1990s, a third corridor was added while the number of domes rose to 18. The mosque is registered in the records of archaeological buildings at the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums [of the Damascus government] to ensure its preservation. The mosque has an octagonal minaret with a height of 18 meters [59 feet]. The Idlib Department of Antiquities [affiliated with the Salvation Government] is preparing a three-dimensional model of the minaret to be documented by international institutions focusing on history.” 

Nabo added, “We are seeking to restore a historical spirit to the mosque by removing the modifications that tarnished its shape, restoring its historical aspect and highlighting its beauty and heritage stones and decorations to highlight the domes and arches inside it. The umbrella [large pieces of fabric that provide shade] placed in its courtyard might be removed in order to allow some sunlight to restore a spiritual atmosphere at the mosque. We have added several new rooms to the mosque by building walls to take advantage of additional spaces, and we are conducting a nearby study to build new domes, corridors and a funeral hall. The restoration work is carried out through the Ministry of Awqaf, Call and Guidance in the Salvation Government and under the supervision of the Directorate of Museums and Antiquities and the Idlib Antiquities Center. The initiative is not limited to this mosque alone, as the Ministry of Awqaf in Idlib, under the supervision of its engineering department, is seeking to rehabilitate several other damaged mosques.”

ِA source in charge of the restoration project at the Awqaf Directorate of the Ministry of Awqaf in Idlib told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We coordinated with the Awqaf Directorate in Idlib to collect in-kind and cash donations from people wishing to restore their mosque, and we are working on completing the restoration process by Eid al-Adha [which falls on July 20]. What makes our initiative special is that it seeks to restore the first historical shape of the mosque by using a clay-like substance to paint the walls. We are emptying the dust and mud layered in the surroundings of stones to ventilate the mosque and the walls in order to subsequently start a treatment with preservative materials such as white cement and fine sand mixed with a substance used in paint components, which helps close cracks in walls, to give a more ancient appearance and to avoid bugs. A wide coating process with a shiny lacquer will subsequently follow to prevent moisture and to improve the overall appearance.”

It could be said that Idlib's monuments and antiquities have been under siege over the past decade of war. A number of them were damaged or destroyed during clashes that erupted between the Syrian government and the opposition and as a result of the intense bombing of the city. A large number of antiquities were also stolen during the conflict, while several archaeological sites in Idlib were turned into safe havens for displaced Syrians escaping the bombing.

On June 11, Uzbek jihadis affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham destroyed some antiquities, including statues in the Idlib Museum, claiming they were “false idols” that should not be displayed. The Salvation Government had reopened the Idlib Museum under the supervision of a number of archaeologists in August 2018. The museum serves as a destination for students of the history department at Idlib University and students from other departments who like to see antiquities. It also serves as a destination for school field trips.

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