The way forward

The way forward

ground reality

The way forward

World leaders, archaeologists and historians are outraged over the devastation wrought during Syria’s six-year war on Aleppo’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that had largely survived since its construction between the 12th and 16th centuries during Arab and Ottoman rule. In July 2014, east Aleppo was seized by anti-government rebels whose advance through the Old City into west Aleppo was halted by the army. After heavy bombardment and siege, the insurgents left the war-ravaged east in December last year, and the city was reunited under government control.

Good times before

Inhabited for more than 8,000 years, Aleppo vies with Syria’s capital Damascus in claiming to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Aleppo was a key commercial centre on the Silk Road linking China and India to West Asia and Europe. Silk, horses, spices and technologies flowed along this route from the civilisations of Japan, China and India to Mesopotamia, Persia, Africa, Greece and the West. Aleppo was well known even to the 16th-century English dramatist William Shakespeare, who referred to the city in two of his most famous plays, Othello and Macbeth. From the 19th century until unrest erupted in March 2011, foreign visitors flocked to Aleppo, drawn by its historic sites and covered markets.

Before the war, the 8th-century Umayyad Mosque was the spiritual and communal heart of the Old City. Today, the mosque’s distinctive 11th-century square minaret is a pile of broken stones near the entrance. The minaret was either brought down by Syrian army-tank fire or rebel explosives during heavy fighting nearly four years ago. Soldiers camp just inside the door to guard the vast, dusty courtyard and charred cloisters.

On one wall, a sandbagged insurgent firing position remains. The red carpets spread on the mosque floor are torn and covered in grit. The mosque is no longer a place of prayer and peace for Muslim residents of Aleppo, formerly Syria’s most populous city and commercial hub. Before it resumes its religious role, the mosque must be repaired and the minaret reconstructed.

The massive Citadel, located on a 50-metre mound, still looms over the city. Its foundations dating to the 3rd millennium BC, the Citadel was a front line Syrian army position throughout the conflict, its thick walls repelling shells, mortars, bullets and shrapnel. Entered through a high gate across a bridge across the moat, the Citadel is among the world’s largest and most ancient castles.

The current imposing edifice was constructed in the 13th century. Flight after flight of unlit stone stairs take visitors to the broad top where yellow wild flowers bask in the sun and spent bullet casings are interspersed with stones. The city lies far below its wounds, shrouded in dust haze.

Across the wide plaza from the Citadel, a four-star hotel, a favourite of tourists, has been reduced to rubble. The hotel was destroyed in 2014 when Islamic Front fighters detonated explosives in a tunnel dug beneath the 150-year-old building, killing and wounding army soldiers billeted there.

Sixty per cent of the shops in the Old City’s souq were destroyed or seriously damaged. Their carved wooden doors and panelling were smashed and interiors burnt. The market’s streets, littered with debris, were laid out on a grid by 4th-century BC successors of Alexander the Great. Some of the small, shallow shops were built in the 13th century AD; others were added during the Ottoman period from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Aleppo’s famous soaps were made here; merchants sold clothing made with Syria’s fine cotton; perfumes were distilled from rose petals and orange flowers.

A blue gas canister bomb with a rusty tail rested in a patch of grass growing between ruined shops, storehouses and warehouses. The device, dangerous unexploded ordnance, was the insurgent equivalent of government barrel bombs.

Doors are always open

Elegant bijou hotels established in Ottoman mansions, restaurants, sweet shops, small factories and craft workshops have been obliterated. Their owners have been forced to open elsewhere or find other occupations. Marking time until Syria’s war ends and travellers return, Roubina Mazloumian presides over the run-down Baron Hotel, which opened in 1911 and once hosted Lawrence of Arabia; Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey; US president Theodore Roosevelt; trans-Atlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh; Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin; crime author Agatha Christie and actor Julie Christie. During the war, the hotel hosted refugee families; two remain. The roof and two rooms were holed by mortars.

In 2010, the year before the war, Syria received eight million tourists; 11 million were expected in 2011 until unrest erupted.

In an interview with Sunday Herald, Syria’s Director of Antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim said, “The damage in Aleppo is more than in all other sites in the country.” Fortunately, most of the city’s buildings can be recovered. “Thirty per cent of the Old City is destroyed, catastrophic. Forty per cent is good, and 30% has medium damage and can be restored.” The ancient souq is, however, 60% destroyed. “Ten buildings need emergency work before next winter, and this must be done with traditional materials. We must adopt a philosophy for the restoration of Aleppo that will allow the people to come back. We must develop concepts for restoration without the confusion of politics.”

He continued, “For me, Aleppo has been liberated from the war. Aleppo is one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East and needs to be restored not slowly, not quickly. The challenge of Aleppo is the biggest challenge after the war. We need money, expertise and respect for cultural heritage. We need good partners. UNESCO is advising. The Aga Khan Foundation has proposed to renovate the heart of Aleppo, the Citadel, the ancient souq, and the Umayyad Mosque. This amounts to about 20% of the Old City. The foundation has excellent experience. It worked in Aleppo before the war. The work will go quickly if we collect all the local partners, the municipality, the social affairs ministry, and go step by step.”

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