Aleppo Counts Cultural Cost of Syrian Conflict

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The fighting in Aleppo has caused the destruction of priceless cultural heritage sites, such as the world famous medieval souks, robbing the city of centuries of history, writes Abd al-Hage.

As the Syrian people craft a new history, historical monuments are likely being deliberately obliterated. The dire losses of the revolution have gone beyond the lives of 100,000 martyrs and the deterioration of economic pillars, only to reach the historical and cultural monuments that have borne witness to the history of successive Roman, Byzantine, Greek and other cultures.

The city of Aleppo has had the lion’s share of desolation, much of it inflicted on the souks — a thriving part of the city’s economy. The scenery of daily activity that made the markets so famous throughout the day and night has been replaced with burning and heavy black smoke. The souks of Aleppo are considered among the most picturesque in the Islamic world. They are characterized by their distinct architecture — where lattice windows let in sunshine and fresh air, casting a light atmosphere during the summer and shielding from rain and cold during winter.

The origin of the Aleppo souks dates back to the 19th century B.C., particularly to the era of Yarim Lim I — the King of ancient Aleppo — during which shops were opened on both sides of the road that extends from the Antioch Gate to the Citadel of Aleppo. At the time, pilgrims frequented Aleppo to visit the shrine of Had ad.

The market of Aleppo that still exists today was constructed during the times of Nur al-Din Zangi, and kept on expanding during the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman dynasties. Denoting the importance of the city of Aleppo and its souks prior to the establishment of the Suez Canal, one of the nomads said, “The amount of goods sold in Cairo’s souks in one month are sold in the souks of Aleppo in one day.”

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The commercial, industrial and craftsmen's shops expanded further, until they covered an area of 16 hectares [39.52 acres]. The souks and their surrounding alleys stretch for eight kilometers. The number of ancient shops exceeds 1,550, distributed between 39 souks, which are the longest covered markets in the world. The length of the souks on both sides amounts to 15 kilometers, covering an area of 15 hectares.

Initially, the roofs were made of cane. In 1868, however, when the market was damaged by fire, the wali [custodian] ordered the building of roofs and skylights. The names of the souks corresponded to what they sold — ropes, abayas and perfumes. Other markets were known by the name of its visitors, notably the market of Istanbul, Oman and Sham. Additionally, there were many khans (caravanserai).

Mohammed is one of the 30 tradesmen who lost their shops in the cotton market. His shop burned until it was in ruins, since it was not accessible to fire engines, as his neighbors in the market told him. Abdullah, however, affirms that “the markets, which were burnt 150 years ago, did not catch fire, yet we cannot reach our shops to check on their condition because of the enduring clashes.” Abdullah couldn't enter the market through the entrance controlled by regime troops or the one under control of the opposition fighters.

The shops hold a moral and symbolic value that outweighs their financial worth, especially since “major tradesmen and industrialists have offices in these markets, given the fact that their factories and warehouses are set in far-off areas,” said Abdullah. The most heinous damage is definitely moral.

“While the shops are small in size — rarely exceeding 10 cubic meters — the price for a single shop is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Small tradesmen rely on these shops as a source of livelihood. The city’s residents are emotionally attached to the souks, which hold irreplaceable memories,” he added.

Ahmad, who inherited seven shops from his grandfather, said that what concerns him most is not the financial worth of the goods but the fact that “irreplaceable childhood memories” might have been burned down.

The Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo

The Great Mosque of Aleppo was initially built during the Umayyad era and was then rebuilt by Nur al-Din Zangi, who ruled Aleppo in the 12th century. The mosque is the largest and one of the oldest in the city. It is also called the Zakaria Mosque, given that the shrine of the Prophet Zakaria and his archaeological historical library are located there. About a month ago, as part of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) offensive to win control over the ancient medina in Aleppo, the FSA announced the liberation of the mosque. This announcement came as it launched the liberation battle for the Citadel of Aleppo, which was sheltering Syrian regime troops. The armies clashed and fire erupted within a significant part of the old mosque. A spokesman for the Syrian revolution in Aleppo said that “the regime troops have set the Grand Mosque on fire, after burning the historic souks.”

Safwan Akash, a member of the National Coordination Council in Damascus, pointed out that the clashes, shelling and destruction that took place in the Grand Mosque are “inhuman acts.” He added, “These are crimes and the perpetrators, whomever they are, must be punished,” reiterating that houses of worship must be spared military operations and competitions to take control over.

International concerns

In the same context, UNESCO expressed distress and concern over the heritage sites in Syria. Director-General Irina Bokova commented on the incidents: “The reports from Aleppo, whose ancient markets are listed as a World Heritage Site, are deeply distressing.” Bokova appealed to “all the forces to do their utmost to safeguard Aleppo and Syria’s extraordinary cultural heritage,” and to respect the international undertakings in the field of culture.

“Syria is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. As such, it is bound to do its utmost to safeguard this heritage from the ravages of war,” Bokova added.

In a conference held by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), Abdul Aziz Salem, the organization’s representative, affirmed that “we are striving to set up an interventional program to safeguard the endangered heritage in Aleppo, whether through reconstruction and maintenance or through documentation and inventory of the historical sites that were demolished.”

He added, “Such meetings are aimed at inciting the Arab and Islamic public to immediately intervene to stop the violations on the cultural and Islamic heritage sites, including ancient mosques.”

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Found in: cultural heritage, unesco, syrian, aleppo
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