As this observer meanders through the ruins of war-torn Aleppo these days, he develops a feeling that somehow he ought to be wearing a hospital gown with gloves so as not to contaminate crushed ancient artifacts as he tries to avoid stepping on them. One feels obliged to avoid contaminating a cultural heritage crime scene.
It requires a few hours for a fascinating walking tour and briefing of the most damaged 2nd millennium BC ancient city of Aleppo that has sustained more than four years of intense bombardment and jihadist destruction, in order to acquire a sense of what’s left and how much of the old city might possibly be significantly restored.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Aleppo has long been the urban, commercial and cultural center of northwestern Syria. Its role as a commercial hub and a trade center and Silk Road route reached its peak during the 16th-18th centuries AD. Given the recent cessation of hostilities in this area, one can now climb up to the Aleppo citadel which rises at least 50 yards above the surrounding area and dates at least to the 10th century BC or earlier as my escort explains. The Aleppo Citadel has changed hands during the war with damage to the remains of Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ayyubid period buildings.
Much of the heaviest damage observed in Aleppo is concentrated in the area immediately south of the citadel. This area contains government buildings, such as the Ministry of Justice headquarters, a police headquarters, and the Grand Serail of Aleppo, which was the main government building in the city under the French Mandate. Other historic structures that were damaged and destroyed include the Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry (late 15th century), the Khusruwiye Mosque (mid-16th century), and the Carlton Citadel Hotel (19th century). By 14 July 2014, the Carlton Citadel Hotel and several adjacent structures had been completely destroyed, while the Khusriwiye Mosque, the Ministry of Justice building, and the police headquarters had been heavily damaged. Between 14 July 2014 and 10 August 2014, the Khusriwiye Mosque was almost completely destroyed, leaving a crater 40m in diameter where the building formerly stood. Similarly, a second 40m crater eliminated the east wing of the Grand Serail. The dome of the public bathhouse was also destroyed.
Director of the World Heritage Sites department at the DGAM, Lina Qtaifan has commented that photos provided by the local community document that at least 130 properties around Damascus Citadel have sustained damage ranging from partial to full with the southern area opposite the Citadel’s gate being the most damaged, including the al-Sultaniya Mosque, Carlton Hotel, al-Shouna Inn, and al-Jdaideh area, which is an old antique district located next to the Old City in Aleppo. Ms. Qtaifan reports that the damage caused to the area around the Citadel is due to recurring terrorist attacks, particularly by digging tunnels and detonating explosives inside them around the citadel and that there are great concerns over the entirety of the Old City, which is listed as being endangered among World Heritage sites. Meanwhile DGAM regularly forwards reports to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), among others, documenting the damages to cultural heritage sites in Aleppo.
Between 7/19/2012, until 12/20/2016, Aleppo has been at the frontline of the continuing conflict during which government and opposition forces have continued to clash in and around the city. Today, destruction is visible throughout the site. Debris is blown across the area and blocks of structures have been reduced to rubble. Many are large and built with durable materials, such as stone, brick, and mud brick adobe, suggesting intense bombing caused their obliteration. The destroyed structures include historic mosques and madrassas, government buildings, and civilian structures.
Aleppo’s surviving remains include medieval gates, 6th century Christian structures, Roman period street layouts, Ayyubid and Mamluk mosques and schools, and many Ottoman period homes and palaces. One of the most well-known cultural sites in Aleppo is the Great Mosque, which was founded in the Umayyad period in the 12th century with a mamluk minaret dated to AD 1090. Next to the Umayyad Mosque is a Byzantine cathedral that later became the al Halawyah Madrassa—a Koranic school.
The Umayyad’s were the second of the four major caliphates established after the death of Muhammad and at one point included 30% of the World’s population. Damascus was its capitol and an estimated 80% of Sunni Muslims, claim to be supporters of the Umayyads, known to be largely secular. The Christian and Jewish population had autonomy under the Umayyads and their judicial matters were dealt with in accordance with their own laws and by their own religious heads or their appointees, although they did pay a poll tax for policing to the central state. Muhammad had stated explicitly during his lifetime that Abrahamic religious groups (still a majority in times of the Umayyad Caliphate), should be allowed to practice their own religion. This secularism and religious tolerance has until recently, been a cherished hallmark of Syrian society.
As a result of four years of aerial bombardments and shelling, in addition to countless jihadist iconoclastic orgies of destruction, illegal excavations and lootings of our shared cultural heritage in the Old City of Aleppo has sustained more damage to her archeological sites than just about any area in Syria. And there is an urgent need to start repairs.
More than 150 heritage buildings are seriously damaged just within the ancient souk, where this observer and his son Alistair Xavier were first given a tour by the Syrian army back in 2013. At that time an estimated two hundred and fifty archaeological buildings in the Old City of Aleppo were estimated to need rehabilitation, with 30 percent have been destroyed, 30% severely damaged and 40% sustaining minor damage. Today, the damage is much greater with more than 60 percent of the souks now destroyed. Many of the traditional houses, dating from around the first century AD, are also damaged and in need or urgent repair. Lack of building materials and cash our two major problems.
Much assessment of damage has already been achieved and even some inchoate repairs have been started. According to Dr. Maamoun Abdul-Karim, Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), “We’ve asked the mayor not to move any of the old stones. We have a team there gathering information about the damage, which they will present to us. We will start working in the most at-risk areas. It’s very sad and it’s a very dramatic situation, In Palmyra, if we have to wait years for peace to return, or because we don’t have funds, we can wait. But in Aleppo every new winter will be a further attack on the cultural sites. A lot of the buildings were built using traditional materials – not like the stones in Palmyra, which can wait three or four years, no problem.”
Aleppo is in serious danger and according to DGAM, close to 300 archaeological buildings in the Old City of Aleppo have been documented as needing urgent rehabilitation.
Dr. Maamoun recently commented to this observer among others: “The war will end, the politics will change, but our heritage remains for all of us, for our descendants, and for us to share with the whole world. Syria’s patrimony can never be divided between different camps. It’s a shared heritage that belongs to everyone. If it is saved, it’s a victory for humanity. If it’s lost, it’s a loss for everyone. We have to work together to save it for our children. We need the Syrian people to come back to Syria, the people of Aleppo to come back to their houses. For real restoration we need peace, we need reconciliation.”