Total Pageviews

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Aleppo\'s History Under Threat

Aleppo's old souk in 2009.Bryan Denton for The New York Times Aleppo's old souk in 2009.

As my colleagues Chris Chivers, Tyler Hicks and Ben Solomon report in text, photographs and video, civilians are suffering from shortages of food and medicine, among other hardships, in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which is being torn apart in urban warfare between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

But the city is also one of the Middle East's most culturally and historically significant. Aleppo has been designated a World Heritage site since 1986, recognized for its ancient market, citadel and mosques, and the United Nations in recent months has called several times for its protection while emphasizing the tremendous toll the war has taken on civilians.

Many of Aleppo's historical sites stand damaged by the fighting, perhaps irreparably, including the 17th-century market, or souk, in the Old City, which was engulfed by fire in September.

The contrast between the beauty of the city in more peaceful times and the damage that the fighting has wrought can be seen clearly on YouTube, in video of the souk before and after it became a battlefield.

Video of the Aleppo souk before it was ravaged by fighting.
Video of Aleppo's souk in flames in late September.

By early October, as my colleague Anne Barnard reported, much of Aleppo's historic center was in smoking ruins. Ancient stone walls had collapsed. The 12th-century citadel at the heart of the medieval city appeared to be damaged and government soldiers had taken up positions in the Umayyad Mosque, with snipers on the minaret.

After the fire swept through the ancient souk, Irina Bokova, the Unesco director-general, said in a statement:

The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme. That the fighting is now destroying cultural herit age that bears witness to the country's millenary history - valued and admired the world over - makes it even more tragic. The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria's economic and social life since the city's beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo's importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.

She made her remarks in October, deploring the damage to the Citadel, the Umayyad mosque and the “extreme human suffering” caused by the fighting.

The Umayyad Mosque in 2009.Bryan Denton for The New York Times The Umayyad Mosque in 2009.

Until the peaceful uprising spiraled into violence, Aleppo was a city for tourists, featured in The New York Times's travel section in 2010. Tourism was up then, and the travel writer Lionel Beehner spoke glowingly about the mosques, the souk and the best reason to visit the Citadel: to take in the view of Aleppo's minaret-dotted skyline.

In 2009, a family visited a cafe located atop the 13th century castle in the center of Aleppo. In 2009, a family visited a cafe located atop the 13th century castle in the center of Aleppo.

Many have tried to capture what it means to a people to see their heritage destroyed. In one such attempt this month, Amal Hanano, a Syrian writer from Aleppo, also used the Citadel as an example, bu t this time of a city's lost past, saying it was no longer a stage for impressing visitors but rather it had reclaimed its original purpose as a fortress.

Noting the deaths of more than 40,000 Syrians in less than two years of war, she wrote in a December article in Foreign Policy magazine:

But the death of a city is different. It is slow - each neighborhood's death is documented bomb by bomb, shell by shell, stone by fallen stone. Witnessing the deaths of your cities is unbearable. Unlike the news of dead people - which arrives too late, always after the fact - the death of a city seems as if it can be halted, that the city can be saved from the clutches of destruction. But it is an illusion: The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.

Follo w Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.